Opinion Brief

The robot that can think on its own

Japanese scientists have created a robot that can complete tasks beyond the scope of its programming. How long before such machines outwit us?

The video: Robots can be programmed to do an impressive range of things — from walking dogs to defusing bombs — but making decisions for themselves has never been their strong suit. Now, however, scientists from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, however, have devised an unusually deductive robot that can survey its environment, figure out what tools are available, and perform tasks that it's never been programmed to understand. The robot uses what's called a Self-Organizing Incremental Neural Network, or SOINN, to fill in the gaps in its knowledge. SOINN is a type of artificial-intelligence algorithm that allows a robot to make educated guesses when faced with a new situation, based on what it already knows. When asked for a glass of water, for example, the robot knows that it needs to pick up a bottle of water in one hand and pour it into a glass. (Watch the video below.) But when asked to make the water cold, the robot pauses to think, then concludes that it needs to put down the empty water bottle, pick up a cube of ice, and place the ice in the water glass — all tasks that it has never before performed. 

The reaction: "It is not quite Skynet," says Daniel Bates in Britain's Daily Mail, referring to villainously self-aware computer network that tries to wipe out the human race in the Terminator films. "But robots that can learn have finally arrived." Not only does the SOINN robot think and make decisions for itself, it can also access the Internet to glean information from around the world, allowing it to ask another SOINN robot how, for example, to make a cup of tea even if it's never heard of tea before. "When it learns to make the perfect gin and tonic," says Katie Scott at Wired, "I want one." See for yourself:

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