3.3 million years ago, humans created something that marked a milestone for humanity: the first tools. They had sharp edges, which looked simple, but they were excellent for cutting objects and digging holes. Although exactly how or when this occurred is not known, the transition from knowing how to use tools to learning how to build them is seen as a very large cognitive leap, probably requiring advanced imagination and reasoning. It is what differentiated, most significantly, humans from animals. And it is what, today, separates humans from robots. At least for now.
Unveiling some of the mysteries of human consciousness to improve the abilities of robots is the objective of Metatool, a project that unites archaeology, neuroscience and robotics, led by the Spanish Pablo Lanillos from the Donders Institute for Cognition (Netherlands) and Ricardo Sanz from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. The objective is to investigate the human brain monitoring capacity, metacognition, to improve the abilities of robots. In the future, the ultimate goal is for them to be able to invent new tools like our ancestors did. In total, seven scientific institutions and European companies are part of the project, which has a contribution of four million euros financed by the European Innovation Council, for a period of four years.
Lanillos, scientific coordinator of the project, explains that metacognition is the function that humans have to measure whether or not a task can be carried out, evaluate if what is produced is successful and if it has any effect on the world. The classic example is hunting: unable to hunt animals with their hands, humans tried stones. “We can also understand it with food. If I want to keep them and they don’t fit in my hands, what I can do is create a basket”, explains the specialist, who invented Tiago, the first robot that was able to recognize itself in the mirror. In general, it is about understanding an external problem and imagining an object to solve it.
An effect similar to the one pursued with Metatool is the creation of images and videos from texts with artificial intelligence. “They create new faces, what we call generative models. You can also have a generative model that invents a tool”, exemplifies Lanillos. However, in robotics, it is a much more complex phenomenon because it requires an “intelligence of the body”, in which the capacities always depend on a physical matter that interacts with the external environment.
Today’s robots are made to follow rules, to do so precisely and usually on a large scale, according to what their code says. However, they cannot adapt on the fly and create what does not exist. With a better understanding of brain function, that could change. The scientific coordinator clarifies that the term consciousness used to describe this new ability that robots may have does not deal with the deepest meaning, but rather is something simple. “You realize that you can’t perform a task and that with an object you can do it in a better way,” he says. Consciousness, in this context, is the translation of the word awareness and not of its phenomenological aspect, which in English would be consciousness (In Spanish, both words translate to consciencia).
“We don’t replicate consciousness because we don’t understand it and we don’t know how to do it. Also because we don’t need it. We want safe robots, capable of being at home”
Therefore, the research does not pursue the development of artificial consciousness, but is inspired by brain processes to improve what is currently on the robotics market. “We don’t replicate consciousness (in the broadest sense) because we don’t understand it and we don’t know how to do it. Also because we don’t need it. What we do want are safe robots, capable of being at home”, explains the expert, adding that it will never be possible to have human consciousness in a robot until there is a complete understanding of it, which is still far from being. discovered by the scientific community. At Metatool, they explain, they are aware of the ethical dimensions that the project may entail and Llaneros assures that they have an expert in ethics, so that the development of technologies such as this can be adequately transmitted to society.
As Lanillos explains, this is initial research for laboratory applications: “At the end of the four years, the purpose is to have a demo for technology companies and for the general public, in which we show how a robot can invent a tool”. In addition, another goal is to help archaeologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists understand the development and changes in the human brain over time.
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