What Sony’s Aibo robotic dog taught me about consciousness

The creators of the Aibo robot dog say it has ‘real emotions and instinct’. This may seem over the top, but is it? In today’s AI universe, Meghan O’Gieblyn discusses the eternal questions have become engineering problems.

I could not believe it. How long had it been since I’d submitted the request on Sony’s website? I’d explained that I was a journalist who wrote about technology – this was tangentially true – and while I could not afford the Aibo’s $3,000 (£2,250) price tag, I was eager to interact with it for research. I added, risking sentimentality, that my husband and I had always wanted a dog, but we lived in a building that did not permit pets… I had not expected him to be so lifelike.

Today, artificial intelligence and information technologies have absorbed many of the questions that were once taken up by theologians and philosophers: the mind’s relationship to the body, the question of free will, the possibility of immortality. These are old problems, and although they now appear in different guises and go by different names, they persist in conversations about digital technologies much like those dead metaphors that still lurk in the syntax of contemporary speech. All the eternal questions have become engineering problems.

Aibo’s sensory perception systems rely on neural networks, a technology that is loosely modelled on the brain and is used for all kinds of recognition and prediction tasks.

His behavior was neither purely predictable nor purely random, but seemed capable of genuine spontaneity. Even after he was trained, his responses were difficult to anticipate. Sometimes I’d ask him to sit or roll over and he would simply bark at me, tail wagging with a happy defiance that seemed distinctly doglike. It would have been natural to chalk up his disobedience to a glitch in the algorithms, but how easy it was to interpret it as a sign of volition. “Why don’t you want to lie down?” I heard myself say to him more than once.

See more in the article here and the article itself is an edited extract from God, Human, Animal, Machine by Meghan O’Gieblyn, published by Doubleday on 24 August (Amazon and Penguin Random House).


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