How Robots Could Help Uncover What It Means To Be Human

Sep 23, 2015

Intelligence, compassion, consciousness. These are some of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. Yet, biologists struggle to settle on common definitions for these complex traits, let alone explain how they arise from the electrical signals fired by the million of neurons that make up our brain.

Major American and European initiatives are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into mapping and modeling the electrical circuitry of the human brain. But not everyone in the neuroscience community thinks these projects are on the right track.

"The BRAIN Initiative supports attempts to develop new methods that will add to our knowledge," explains John Lisman, Zalman Abraham Kekst Chair in Neuroscience and Professor of Biology at Brandeis University, "The particular feeling we have is that even more rapid progress can be made largely on existing knowledge."

Paul Verschure, head of the Synthetic, Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems research group at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, agrees, saying that what brain science needs at this point is not more data, but more ideas, and more experiments to test those ideas.

Just what would such an approach look like? For one, Lisman says, biologists who have traditionally studied one little part of the brain in minute detail need to step back and think about how that piece functions as part of the whole. And then, say both Lisman and Verschure, they need to test those ideas. And that's where robots come in.

But it requires a different attitude toward robotics than is currently the norm. To date, many robots have been built to perform a specific task - pick up an object, walk, play chess - using any means to accomplish that end. Vershure and Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Centre for Robotics, advocate building robots based on our best understanding of how the human nervous system works, and then seeing whether such robots behave in expected ways. Basically, robots become experiments to test biological hypotheses.

That's significantly harder than it might sound because, as Prescott points out, our brains are not disembodied computers. Our brains are constantly taking in information from all of our senses, and then sending signals back out to our bodies. To accurately test theories about how the brain works, robots need bodies and senses, as well.

If the idea of intelligent, embodied robots evokes post-apocalyptic images of humanity enslaved by our own creations, relax (or don't). Verschure and Prescott say we've already happily made ourselves slaves to much less sophisticated technologies. But they are both hopeful that a human-centered approach to robotics can not only help us understand ourselves more deeply, but also produce technologies that improve the human condition and actually enhance - rather than detract from - our humanity.