Qbo-meets-Qbo thecorpora

Those who have been following this project for a while know that it started 6 years ago. If something surprised and pleased me in equal measure, it was the controversy brought by our latest video in which Qbo recognizes itself in the mirror. It was not due to the publicity generated around the project, but because, somehow, we’ve updated this debate that was lost long time ago: can a machine become intelligent or self-conscious? We went from being interested in creating artificial brains to just develop mechatronic systems sophisticated but less intelligent or already programmed.

After our latest video, you had consistently sent us a very interesting series of questions which can be summarized in two: what would happen if a Qbo has another of the same “species” identical to him in front of him? And, is Qbo conscious of its aspects and of what he sees? Here you’ll have some answers in which we have tried to simplify the debate without entering in philosophical or ethical issues, and of course always presenting our own point of view.

From an early age, humans learn to recognize themselves before a mirror using two mechanisms: we have learned how we look like since we are 8 months old, and we verify if our actions or movements are “replicated” in the image of the mirror. Because we are aware of the actions we take and  we can recognize those actions in the mirror’s reflection, we have the ability to distinguish ourselves from another “identical” being if we were placed in front of he/she. This is the problem that a robot like Qbo must face in the case of being in front of a mirror or find another robot identical to him.

Inspired by this process of self-recognition in humans, we developed a new ROS node that is executed when the node “Object Recognizer”, previously trained, has identified a Qbo in the image. Using nose signals to see if the image seen by the robot matches its action, a Qbo can tell in real time whether he sees his image reflected in a mirror or he is watching another Qbo robot in front of him. The sequence of flashes of the nose is randomly generated in each process of recognition, so the probability that two robots generate the same sequence is very low, and even lower that they start to transmit it at the same time.

After the green Qbo recognizes another member of his “kind”, both hold a short conversation. For this brief chat we have used the Julius software (speech recognizer) and Festival (speech synthesis), so that each robot recognizes what the other says and responds according to the question or the comment heard, using a small base pre-programmed knowledge base for this purpose. Thanks to the speakers, the microphone and the software systems mentioned, the Qbo robots are able to hold a conversation using synthetic speech.


Some think that “consciousness” is an intellectual capability that enables to store knowledge about the world and exploit that knowledge to constantly make decisions and predictions, as suggested in his book “On Intelligence” Jeff Hawkins, co-founder of PALM & HandSpring companies. Jeff suggests that human beings can be seen as complex forms of statistics machines which constantly attempt to predict in real-time immediate responses of the actions that are generated in our environment.

However, might Qbo be aware of what he learns and sees around him? To find it out, we should first answer the question of whether it is possible to algorithmically program consciousness or not. There are several theories about it, some advocated by Roger Penrose, whose work is the most critical with the development of a true artificial brain?, claiming that self-consciousness may be artificially reproduced but not algorithmically simulated. Others, however, affirm that the self-consciousness is a process that emerges as a result of algorithms and an appropriate learning. Today, thanks to neuroscience and neurobiology, we know that what we do is the result of learned and unconscious mechanisms.

To accept that a machine can have some sort of consciousness could be a deep wound to human narcissism. However, the question I’m willing to ask you is: Is it necessary to have a complex corporeal system (for example, that senses pain or cold) for a machine to be truly self-aware? Personally, I think not.

If we take the theory and the words of Roger Penrose, Qbo is NOT self-conscious, since it just “simulates” a behavior algorithmically learned. If we adopt the other theory, Qbo can be seen as a conscious being because it exploits knowledge of its appearance and the actions it takes.

In 2007, Hod Lipson, a robotic engineer at the Cornell University, gave a brilliant talk about the mother of all designs “evolution” and claimed that the self-consciousness might emerge from the evolution of a robot’s intellectual capabilities, including a demonstration of his postulate. On one hand, Hod Lipson argues that we should stop creating robots manually so that they can evolve themselves, and on the other hand he states and shows that we have to let the machines learn through reinforcement and learning.

According to Hod Lipson’s point of view, at the moment Qbo is not more than a bunch of motors, electronic boards, cameras, etc., forming a mechanical being that, through software, can be submitted to natural evolution. By manipulating the rewards of a series of games, challenges, or just learning, we can mold Qbo behavior to, for example, recognize a face of the same person in different situations (which is already done by J).

Does all this mean that Qbo may be aware of his actions or surroundings? The answer is that, for the moment, as Hod Lipson would say, Qbo is just a programmable electro-mechanical set that can see, hear, speak and move. The ecosystem and the community around Qbo, that can program him and teach him, will tell in the future if we could witness the birth of  “some spontaneous intelligence”. One thing is for sure: it will be a terribly difficult task, impossible to achieve by only a few engineers. Only through the work of a true community of programmers, designers and professors, we can solve this challenge.




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