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Sony Corp. has succeeded in giving selected Aibo pet robots curiosity, researchers at Sony Computer Science Laboratory (SCSL) in Paris said last month. Their research won’t lead to conscious robots soon, if ever, but it could help other fields such as child developmental psychology, they said.

More than 50 years ago Alan Turing, considered by many to be the father of computer science, speculated about the possibility of creating synthetic consciousness. Progress has been made with artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which have typically used task-defined learning algorithms that enable programs to define what is good or bad about particular sets of information, according to SCSL researcher Frederic Kaplan.

Increases in computing power are leading to systems that have the ability to react appropriately within given parameters to complex stimuli. Such systems appear intelligent, Kaplan said.

But such approaches are limited so while systems may become efficient in coping with goals, they remain, essentially, programmed. And once the program’s parameters are fulfilled, the learning stops. But what if a robot could be made “curious?” And what if its curiosity were backed by awareness of the value of its learning?

Such qualities are precisely what Kaplan and his fellow SCSL researcher Pierre-Yves Oudeyer believe they have achieved with Aibo ERS-7 robot dogs.

They repeated the experiments hundreds of times with about a dozen Aibos, putting them in playpens with balls. In four or five hours, the mechanical dogs typically progressed from swivelling their legs and heads to wiggling and crawling,Then, each in their own way, they began to follow the ball before them.

Since the Aibos were not programmed to do any of these activities, results suggest they developed learning ability.

To achieve this, the researchers equipped the Aibos with what they call an adaptive curiosity system or a “metabrain,” an algorithm that is able to assess the robots’ more conventional learning algorithms, they said.

In the experiments, the metabrain algorithm continually forced the learning algorithm to look for new and more challenging tasks and to give up on tasks that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. The metabrains, in effect, gave the Aibos a sense of boredom as well as curiosity, helping them make choices to keep on learning, they said.

”What we have done is give Aibo an ability to have its learning defined by the quality of learning. It can learn the consequence of one thing, but if this seems to lead nowhere, it becomes bored and looks for something else to learn. So it’s learning to classify its sensory space and progressively structure that space. It doesn’t like the thing that’s easy so much as wants to learn the thing that’s hard,” Oudeyer said.

The idea behind this approach to AI was to recreate the world of a human infant; in other words, an entity with a sense of being, with a notion for exploring its environment, and the ability to wiggle its body, arms and legs, Kaplan said.

The Aibos were given a basic sense of embodiment in that they were made aware of stimuli coming from sensors in their legs, and they were preprogrammed to fix on the ball in front of them when the experiments began, as a reference point for motion and balance, the researchers said. So, as with human toddlers, the Aibos didn’t quite start out at zero.

The idea of child’s play returns to Turing’s original ideas.

“Alan Turing said that if intelligent machines were to become a reality, they would have to learn and grow…like children. For 50 years people have been trying to make ‘adult’ systems. But we think it’s a…brutal shortcut, to try to make…robots to speak intelligently. First we need to reproduce cognitive intelligence,” Oudeyer said.

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