Wednesday, April 08, 2009

We are the Robots: not just German techno pop anymore


Last week we saw that robots are taking over the blogosphere. Not only will robots take the roll of writing blogs but it looks as though they will also read and comment on them too. This takes the burden off of us humans to read and write them... so why am I bothering to write this?

Even computer scientists are being replaced by computers that can write publishable research papers on computers. This almost sounds paradoxical. Just don't ask who shaves the computer.

A similar trend is growing in education. Computers are invading classrooms and will most likely replace students in the near future. Many schools now use computer simulations to replace actual physics labs because actual eqipment is costly and dangerous. They generate "empirical" data and perform calculations, leaving students with the only burden of making conclusions. Making conclusions and formulating a theory that encompasses fundamental laws is generally considered a profound human achievement. Certainly, this is the significant part that requires ingenuity and creativity. These are qualities unique to the human brain... until now.


According to a recent article in the Science Times, Researchers at Cornell University in New York and Aberystwyth University in Britain have created computer programs that analyze data and formulate conclusions about an experiment. The robot in Britain formulated a hypothesis about a particular problem in biology and chemistry and then designed its own experiment. The computer then performed the experiment, making necessary revisions and modifications along the way. In a similar experiment, the computer discovered a general principle but without any explanation. It's as if the computer said "the answer is 42" and left it at that. Although it is also like finding a yummy piece of cake on the sidewalk but having no idea where it came from. Would you eat it?

Now I know what you are saying: "Big deal. Those are chemistry experiments." However, this brings us to the Cornell robotic computer. This computer sifted through data from a swinging pendulum. Without any prior knowledge of Newtonian, Hamiltonian or Lagrangian physics, it discovered the laws of conservation of momentum and energy. Of course it didn't call it that. It just labeled its conclusion as Law 42.0. The computer also yielded similar results when analyzing data from more complex systems such as the double pendulum problem and the Hannah Montana/Miley duality.

According to current theories of consciousness proposed by Daniel Dennett and others, the human brain consists of little robotic cells. These tiny robots independently make mundane computations but natural selection allows for the appearance of a collective decision making apparatus that we call consciousness. This is a crude summary of the theory (and possibly inaccurate) , however the basic idea is that the human brain consists of many small robots sifting through mundane data. Eventually an idea emerges out of all the sifting an computing. Thus when a light bulb goes on above your head and you shout, "Eureka!", your ingenious idea was just the culmination of many random guesses and revisions. From this point of view, the latest research from Cornell doesn't come as a surprise. So don't be alarmed, robots have already taken over the world... or rather our brains.

Finally, the researchers tested the program by having it analyze random data. They were delighted to find that the computer could not formulate conclusions from nothing. That is something that only humans can do.

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