How Close Are The Robots?

Steven Spielberg and Haley Joel Osment on the set of "A.I."
Steven Spielberg's new film, "A.I." (Artificial Intelligence), hits the theaters this weekend. The movie, set in the distant future, centers on a robotic boy – the first robot programmed to love.

So you might wonder: How far are we from having fully functioning robots walking among us? Renay San Miguel of CBS MarketWatch visits The Saturday Early Show with some answers.

Computing power doubles about every 18 months, he says, so we're roughly 20 years away from having the raw computational speed needed to duplicate the function of the human brain. But plenty of research still will be needed to build a human-like robot. Spielberg's film gives us a glimpse of what robotics researchers think will "some day" be possible.

Of course, that's "A.I." the movie. A.I. the reality is we're still decades away from the kind of robots seen in "A.I." the movie. But the folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working hard to get us to that point one circuit at a time.

"A.I. has two parts: the engineering part, and the scientific part," explains Rodney Brooks, director of the A.I. lab at MIT. "The engineering part builds machines and programs which do things which we used to think took intelligence. For instance, playing chess used to be thought to be the epitome of intelligence. We can now buy a $20 machine at Radio Shack that can beat just about any human being on the planet… On the scientific side, we try to understand how it is that humans operate, understanding the human brain and making copies at a functional level of some of the modules."

MIT has a number of projects in development - from a walking dinosaur to a robotic prosthetic leg. Currently, the machine that most closely resembles an emotional being like Haley Joel Osment's character in the movie is a robot known as Kismet. It is the creation of MIT's Cynthia Breazeal, a postdoctoral fellow.

Says she, "Kismet is a very different kind of robot. Today, you usually think of robots as being very sophisticated appliances - robots that perform a task. But with Kismet, I'm really trying to build a robotic creature, something that really has a lifelike presence to people."

Kathleen Kennedy, a producer of "A.I.," says, "It's fascinating what Cynthia's research is doing. It's very much emulated in the movie because we're exploring the idea of robots that express emotion."

Other projects around the world include IBM's face-like device called "pong." It uses a "gaze-tracking" vision system to interact with others. Honda is developing a humanoid robot it hopes will someday be able to perform household chores to help care for Japan's elderly population.

But what happens when robots become more and more like humans? Do we need to consider new sets of laws for how humans deal with robots?

Says MIT's Brooks, "Well, certainly, we have them for automobiles right now... We will insist in the same way for robots. Then the question abot how we treat a robot is going to come down to when we have empathy for the robots."

The fact is, nobody knows for sure where the technology will take us.

Brooks explains, "We're getting more and more technical developments, faster and faster and that will probably continue for a while. This round of tech development, we may start to change ourselves more by implanting more inside our body... I think we're going to see humans and machines merge in the next 20 to 30 years. We're going to start seeing it in significant ways. Once you get beyond 50 years, all bets are off on where it's going to go."

Human beings are really not much from robots. We are machines, too. Instead of microcircuits, we have biological cells. Instead of silicon, we're made of carbon.

There's still a lot more work to do, but it's feasible that our great-grandchildren will see robots that look an awful lot like us.

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