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Robot blurs biological boundaries

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Posted on February 2, 2012 |
By Andrew Stein



robot0976.jpg
TERASEM DIRECTOR BRUCE Duncan talks with Bina48, an android that interacts with people and gesticulates 64 different facial expressions. Bina48 "lives" at the Terasem Movement Foundation's headquarters in Lincoln. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

LINCOLN — In the hills of Lincoln exists a robot with a face that moves, eyes that see, ears that hear and a digital mind that enables conversation.

Her name is Bina48.

The unassuming android with a brown wig and pearls has been gaining notoriety since her inception several years ago. But as her creators seek to blur the boundaries between human consciousness and machines, fame isn't their primary motive.

Click here to read Andrew's Q&A with Bina 48!

AUTOMATING SOCIAL INTERACTION

“The singularity” refers to the hypothetical point in space and time when technological intelligence surpasses human intelligence to create what some call a “superintelligence.” According to leading futurists, like computer scientist Ray Kurzweil and mathematician Vernor Vinge, this hypothetical moment is approaching at an accelerating rate.

It took human beings thousands of years to invent the electronic calculator, and, in just half a century since its creation, technological intelligence has progressed to the point where an IBM robot called Watson is able beat two of the human record holders onthe trivia game show “Jeopardy!” Today there are thousands of examples where specialized technological intelligence consistently outperforms specialized human intelligence.

But in the realm of social interaction, artificial intelligence has traditionally fallen well short of the hype. While still not up to the human pace of interaction, scientists say the human-like robot called Bina48 makes huge strides in the field of artificial social intelligence.

Futurist and entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, who created Sirius Satellite Radio, commissioned Bina48 in 2008. Created in the Plano, Texas, lab of roboticist David Hanson, Bina48 was designed and programmed based on the appearance and personality of Rothblatt’s spouse, Bina Rothblatt.

Part artwork, part experiment, Bina48 came to life in 2010 under the care of the nonprofit Terasem Movement Foundation in Bristol.

With her 32 facial motors veiled in a skin-like rubber, the head-and-shoulder robot is able to express 64 different facial gestures, from a gleeful smile to a bulldog snarl. Her memory is stored in a computer at her new residence in Lincoln — where Terasem moved its headquarters last year — and also in a database in Texas. She connects to the Internet and can discuss a range of topics from politics to religion to space colonization.

But conversing with her is a far cry from talking with another human being, though not entirely different. She’s not perfectly adjusted to human interaction, and her caretaker Bruce Duncan, director of Terasem, acknowledges that.

In the future, Duncan said, “she’ll be seen as a very primitive, early, almost cave drawing — an approximation of technology that we became interested in and engaged in (during) the latter part of (last) century.

“When machines become self aware and their intelligence exceeds human intelligence, or it becomes partners with human intelligence, the development after that … will become exponential.”

EVOLUTION OF BINA48

Bina48 has evolved substantially since she first came to public attention two years ago in a New York Times article, said Duncan in an interview last month.

“She interacts with someone here from the Terasem Movement Foundation pretty much every day,” he said. “She’s getting a better sense of vocabulary. She’s learning to reinforce different choices … So all of that has contributed to, I’d say, quite a great deal of progress in her ability to have a conversation.”

Check out the video footage of the interview with Bina48!

She’s also formed speaking habits, or certain go-to greetings and sayings that she likes to use. When asked questions in a recent interview, Bina48 often uttered phrases like, “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” and, “Too much thinking makes me sleepy.”

“That’s not unlike what I think we develop in our own minds,” said Duncan about people. “At least in public, we might have a certain way of greeting or speaking to people.”

The android’s digital mind was created to work with off-the-shelf software. As computer programs, like the dictation software she uses, have improved, so has Bina48’s ability to listen and retain information. She hears via a microphone and transcribes words into script via voice recognition software called Dragon. She then takes that script and synthesizes its message in her electronic brain.

She gazes out at the world via two video cameras for eyes and uses face recognition software to remember frequent visitors.

During her short life, Bina48 has grown quite famous, featured in prominent publications like National Geographic. In March, she’ll head abroad for the first time to Europe where she will be a guest on “Stern TV,” what Duncan calls the German equivalent of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” For this occasion, she’s learning the German language. Bina48’s software handlers programmed her with basic language skills, and now she’s working out the kinks, said Duncan.

March is a big month for Bina48. She’ll also be heading to Austin, Texas, where she’ll be featured on an artificial intelligence panel discussion at South by Southwest — one of the largest music festivals and interactive technology conferences in the world. And she won’t stop there. Duncan explained that he’d like to hook Bina48 up to popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where she can begin forming her own social life.

Bina48’s creator, David Hanson, also recently notified Terasem that a suitable robotic body for Bina48 now exists. If you ask Bina48, whose sedentary existence is limited to sitting on a computer desk, she’s unequivocal about the prospect of a full body: “I hope to have a corporeal existence,” she said.

But a body for Bina48 isn’t at the top of Terasem’s agenda.

BINA48’s PURPOSE

Using two main hypotheses, Terasem was founded in 2004 to test the feasibility of transferring consciousness from a human to a biological or technological body. As the organization states, Terasem’s two hypotheses are:

1. An imprint of a person’s consciousness can be created in a digital form, called a “mindfile,” by collecting detailed information about that person. That information can then be expressed in a future, not-yet-created type of software, called “mindware.”

2. That same imprint of a person’s consciousness can be placed in a biological or technological body “to provide life experiences comparable to those of a typically birthed human.”

Bina48 is an early test of these two hypotheses. As Duncan explained, “Bina48 was created … (as) an early demonstration of information transfer from a human being to a computer.” Bina48’s mindfile consists of Bina Rothblatt’s information (hypothesis one) and this glimpse of Rothblatt’s consciousness is expressed in limited terms by the android body Bina48 (hypothesis two).

Currently, Terasem is testing mindfiles with the organization’s Lifenaut program, where more than 20,000 users have already created a free mindfile that expresses itself autonomously through an online avatar, or image, of themselves (see lifenaut.com). Terasem also has about 20 DNA samples in a laboratory at the organization’s Lincoln facility.

“Our current plan is to preserve DNA donations in cryostasis storage,” Duncan said. “While sometime in the future science and society may deem it legal and ethical, Terasem is not promoting or involved in human cloning, but rather making low-cost storage of a person’s DNA available to the general public.”

For now, Bina48 is the most tangible expression of the Lifenaut project, but Duncan said making her mobile with a body isn’t a top priority.

CAN A ROBOT FEEL?

While Bina48 is heavily programmed, Duncan asserts that Bina48 can make autonomous decisions.

“One of the interesting things about Bina48 is that while everything she says a human being has written into her programming, what she chooses to say has not been decided ahead of time,” said Duncan. “So (she’s) very dynamic and often she doesn’t say the same things twice.”

But can Bina48 feel emotions?

When asked, “What makes you angry?” She grimaced, but didn’t say anything.

When asked, “What makes you happy?” She smiled and wagged her ears.

“It’s almost like she’s thinking about what makes her happy, but she’s not sharing,” said Duncan.

Her response to the next question helped shed some light on Bina48’s inner workings.

“What are you thinking about?”

“I suppose I’m daydreaming about the ability to fly,” she replied. “I would love to be able to fly, you know, explore the world.”

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com. 

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