30/09/2015 13:30 BST | Updated 30/09/2016 06:12 BST

The Human Animal vs the Human Machine

AI, is having a moment in the public consciousness. Films, art, literature, 'human robots' are everywhere. Against backdrop of recent technological developments, it is an exciting narrative. But all too often the story ends with the robots rising up against us. I believe this ending is based on misconceptions and creates unnecessary fear. This fear will limit important AI and robotic research. True, humans face an uncertain future. But in facing it we focus on our weaknesses and not our strengths. We are all guilty of not just overestimating the ability of the robotics but seriously underestimating that of humans. Robots may be able to do amazing things. But humans, well we are truly incredible.


A modern panic has arisen. Perhaps stemming from the recognition of not just our own mortality but the ticking shelf life of our earth: organic life is in danger. Solutions divide us. The biophilia camp call for a return to nature; the biohackers and grinders announce the rise of cyborgs. Maybe both solutions will occur. Certainly the line between organic and inorganic is blurring. Synthetic biology reminds us we too can play god, it is as easy now to build with DNA as it is with metal.

But the resulting mistrust of machines is misplaced. Most people wrongly believe that robots can currently supersede humans physically. The DARPA Challenge, however, clearly shows, that the world's greatest robots still totter and collapse faced with simple tasks such as opening a door or climbing up stairs. To me this is an important reminder of the complexity of design and evolution within the human body. Yes we are organic, but we are not fragile or clumsy, we are hardy, skilful and highly adaptable. As the physical world before us changes, we rise beautifully to meet each challenge.

The second misconception is of the capacity of Artificial Intelligence to encompass a type of consciousness, thought by most to be a long way off. The bench mark for this, the Truin test, is not actually a test of whether the computer is conscious, but if it can be thought to be so by a human. In a way we are already there. Watch iCub for example, play a game against a human. On loosing he childishly becomes angry. He does seem conscious. But this is a deception and we must be careful.

We fear human intelligence, emotion, consciousness, in robots. But is this even possible? We cannot, should not, compare two types of 'brains' that process in such different ways. In comparing a robot to a human, we are simply not comparing like with like. A robot is not a human. It can aid us but not be us. What we should be wary of is assuming that it can and so seeing it as competition. This it what leads to fear. And fear will halt the development of incredibly useful technology.

For this very reason the proposed revision of the Azimov Laws states that we should not give robots human faces as it misleads our relationship with them. In the same vein there are proposals to make all robots gender neutral. It's a good point, why does a robot need gender and what, if it is given, defines that choice?

What is more interesting is what our presumptions about AI and robotics actually tell us about ourselves. Many of the assumptions we lay on the 'heads' of robots reflect not our fear of AI, but the fears we have of our own species.

We assume robots, like the human species, will want to expand, compete and conquer. It is a human projection, a human fear. We must remember they are not, will not be and cannot be human. In the same way we fear being bettered and replaced as we are inherently insecure about our own shortcomings, about being inadequate. But we have not survived this long and this successfully as an inadequate or weak species.

What I believe we should focus on as we face this uncertain future is the incredible strengths of the human species. We are a species of unique adaptability, flexibility and resourcefulness. We are a species with phenomenal intelligence, compassion, imagination and creativity. It is this creativity that has led to the creation of the robots in the first place. And keeping this thought in mind, robots or not, the future seems a much more hopeful and far less fearful place.