THE BLOG

What Separates Humans From Robots?

04/05/2017 16:24 BST | Updated 04/05/2017 16:24 BST

A question that is becoming increasingly difficult to answer is, what separates humans from the robots? Advances in mathematics and computing power over the last decade have enabled robots to perform many jobs that have long been the remit of humans, from shelf-stacking to book-keeping to personal shoppers. As AI enables autonomous vehicles in the not-too-distant future, even lorry and taxi drivers will find themselves in a precarious labour situation. A recent PWC report predicted that three out of 10 jobs in the UK would be lost to AI. You might assume that the creative industries would be immune to these AI job thieves, however, this AI technology does not discriminate over the sectors it infiltrates.

AI has introduced some useful innovation to the creative industries by making personalised recommendations, based on your behaviour. Amazon will recommend books, Spotify will curate playlists and Netflix will suggest new weekend-stealing boxsets. There are even bots to help you with interior design and recommend art pieces inspired by photos you provide. While AI certainly helps consumers to find more of what they like, can AI do more than recommend books and music? Can robots create stories, compose melodies and even produce works of art?

Sci-fi novels have helped shape the idea that robots will take over, now it could be robots that take over the authoring of sci-fi novels. Last year a Japanese AI-assisted short story came close to winning a literary prize. Also an AI, which christened itself 'Benjamin', out of New York university, helped to write a short screenplay that was later shown to an audience at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival. While the story and the screenplay both entertained, reviews suggested that the characters lacked depth and the plot of the film was incomprehensible. The general consensus was that robots have a lot of catching up to do before they take work away from fiction writers.

In the case of music, Google's machine learning project, 'Project Magenta', created a 90-second piano piece after being fed just four piano notes. This may not compare to Mozart's oeuvre, and whether it would make a regular appearance on anyone's playlist is another story. However, a Cambridge-based company, Jukedeck, has been making custom, royalty-free, AI-powered soundtracks for online videos with some success.

As with music, Google's DeepDream has attempted to create original and compelling art. If you've seen the artwork created by the DeepDream algorithms, you will be aware of the trippy-psychedelic pictures it generates. If you are a fan of Pink Floyd album covers, then Google DeepDream may be your new favourite gallery.

If creative AI is possible, albeit in its infancy, another question to determine how similar robots are to humans might be whether or not AI can be emotional. Can robots empathise?

In humans, empathy is felt due to the action of mirror neurons. In the empathetic observer these are the same neurons that fire whether witnessing the action of another or performing the action themselves, thereby 'mirroring' the same behaviour in the observer. This system of imitation learning is believed to underpin how humans feel empathy and understand emotions. This discovery suggests that eventually AI too could learn to read the emotions of humans and react appropriately. Currently, the closest we have to empathetic robots are chatbots like Koko, that give users advice in response to emotional events that are bothering them.

Despite being trained on data derived from peer-to-peer advice on emotional problems, these chatbots still require a large amount of human moderation, so we are still a little way off robots being completely and independently emotionally intelligent.

Although AI has made some in-roads into the creative industries and may eventually be able to interpret human emotions, it may always struggle to understand and infer the one-off events that it has been trained to ignore and treat as anomalous.

If you see a lorry with smoke coming out of the back while driving along the motorway, as a human you know to drive alongside the lorry and mime to the driver in order to communicate the potential crisis. This might be a rare event but it is important and currently AI has no way to interpret these unique and unpredictable events.

So how do robots compare to humans? At the moment robots may be the equivalent of a toddler when it comes to artistic and musical output, they may be able to recognise and mimic some emotional intelligence and be clueless in a crisis, but they do surpass humans when it comes to the speed, quantity and accuracy of analysing data and making predictions.

So AI might be the equivalent of a psychopathic toddler that is great at recommending books and predicting cyber security threats, but that has no idea what to do when a lorry is on fire.