We don't know when robots will come alive, admits creator

Witnessing Sophia and Philip K Dick -- they're robots -- at Web Summit leads you to contemplate the future and whether you'll have a place in it. Robot creators aren't reassuring.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

That's Philip  K. Dick. The second.

Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNet

I was jetlagged.

I'd landed from California the night before and here I was in Lisbon, bathing in the wisdom of Web Summit.

Here's how bad it was. (My jetlag, that is.)

I heard the MC say she'd been enthralled earlier in the day by "the top feces in the world."

It took me several moments before I realized she'd said "the top VC's in the world."

Still, here I was to witness Sophia and Philip K Dick.

No, they're not married. They're both robotic creations.

They were on stage with their respective creators -- David Hanson (no relation, as far as I'm aware, to the MMMbopHansons) and Ben Goertzel.

These handlers possessed a level of enthusiasm that might be described as creepy.

They gushed nerdily, as they spoke of the glorious future. The glorious robotic future, that is.

Hanson spoke of "the dream that robots will change our lives." 

This isn't a dream I've personally enjoyed. Though I'll admit to once dreaming that a robot had its hands around my throat and was demanding the secret recipe to my Bolognese sauce.

As Sophia and Philip K stood on stage with painfully vacant expressions -- and both wearing unflattering skirts and troubling little wheels -- Hanson felt he needed to explain that robots "aren't fully alive today."

He went on to describe them as powerful artistic interfaces. He said it was important to "raise AI like humans, among humans."

In my haze, I wasn't sure whether there should be a hyphen between AI and humans.

It was left to Goertzel to explain the true endgame. He preferred that these robots were being raised "in a shared emotional space."

The reason for this? Why to "make them fit in with us before they become smarter than us."

That's sure to work. It's bad enough being around those who think they're smarter than us. It's far, far worse being around those who know they are.

Suddenly, it was time to let Sophia and Philip K chat among themselves. This may not have been as simple as it sounds.

Sophia enjoys Hanson AI, while Philip is blessed with OpenCog and SinglarityNET.

Would this be like a Spanish speaker talking to a Portuguese? Or a Spanish speaker talking to a porcupine?

The conversation was, charitably, stilted. Or, perhaps, like most conversations you'll hear at an AI conference.

A sample from Sophia: "So what sort of dialog system do you run, Phil?" 

She then made a joke about his hair. Or, rather, a "joke." Sophia, you see, is bald. Because bald is funny, right?

Soon, it was back to the Doctors Frankenstein.

Goertzel talked about "an AGI that can empathize with people and warm people's hearts." 

I had visions of being understood by robots, perhaps even liked by them.

Then Hanson had to spoil it by offering another disturbing truth: "We don't know when machines are going to awaken."

Won't that be a moment? There, humans will be, lounging in their superiority, and suddenly a robot will forcefully tell them what to do or they'll be minced into Chris Matyszczyk's Bolognese sauce.

I failed to find the dreaminess in all this.

It's not as if humans have learned to get on with other humans. How can we possibly hope to get on with these robots?

Moreover, this headlong surge toward a future of robot supremacy is being driven by a tiny minority of the population. The rich will benefit first, while the less rich weren't even asked if they thought it was a good idea.

Somehow, it feels like humans have given up on humans. There's an implicit declaration that humanity has been taken as far as it can and now must be cast aside in favor of machines.

I heard little about what these robots will do to help humans. Instead, it seemed like the world's biggest science project for people who know they're smarter than most other humans.

Goertzel raised an arm and a fist at the end. "Onward and upward," he cried.

Yes, alright.

As I walked away from the Summit, these song lyrics kept rattling in my head: 

Can you tell me? oh
No, you can't 'cause you don't know
Can you tell me? oh
You say you can but you don't know.

This must have been an echo of Hanson revealing that we don't know when machines will awaken.

It was only when I got home that I realized the lyrics that came next: 

MMMBop, a duba dop
Ba du bop, ba duba dop
Ba du bop, ba duba dop.

That's how we'll talk all the time when the robots come alive.

Humans vs. Robots, which species is winning?

Editorial standards