Who will be responsible for autonomous machines?

20/08/2009

Within a decade, we could be routinely interacting with machines that are truly autonomous – systems that can adapt, learn from their experience and make decisions for themselves. Free from fatigue and emotion, they would perform better than humans in tasks that are dull, dangerous or stressful.

Already, the systems we rely on in our daily lives are being given the capacity to operate autonomously. On the London Underground, Victoria line trains drive themselves between stations, with the human “driver” responsible only for spotting obstacles and closing the doors. Trains on the Copenhagen Metro run without any driver at all.

While our cars can’t yet drive themselves, more and more functions are being given over to the vehicle, from anti-lock brakes to cruise control. Automatic lighting and temperature control are commonplace in homes and offices.

The areas of human existence in which fully autonomous machines might be useful – and the potential benefits – are almost limitless. Within a decade, robotic surgeons may be able to perform operations much more reliably than any human.

Smart homes could keep an eye on elderly people and allow them to be more independent. Self-driving cars could reduce congestion, improve fuel efficiency and minimise the number of road accidents.

But automation can create hazards as well as removing them. How reliable does a robot have to be before we trust it to do a human’s job? What happens when something goes wrong? Can a machine be held responsible for its actions?

Read the full story on the Guardian website.


Computer agents take to the web

08/08/2009

Artificial intelligence technology could soon make the internet an even bigger haven for bargain-hunters. Software “agents” that automatically negotiate on behalf of shoppers and sellers are about to be set free on the web for the first time.

The “Negotiation Ninjas”, as they are known, will be trialled on a shopping website called Aroxo in the autumn. The intelligent traders are the culmination of 20 years’ work by scientists at Southampton University.

“Computer agents don’t get bored, they have a lot of time, and they don’t get embarrassed,” Professor Nick Jennings, one of the researchers behind the work, told BBC News. “I have always thought that in an internet environment, negotiation is the way to go.”

The agents use a series of simple rules – known as heuristics – to find the optimal price for both buyer and seller based on information provided by both parties. Heuristics are commonly used in computer science to find an optimal solution to a problem when there is not a single “right answer”.

To use one of the intelligent agents, sellers must answer a series of questions about how much of a discount they are prepared to offer and whether they are prepared to go lower after a certain number of sales, or at a certain time of day.

At the other end, the buyer types in the item they wish to purchase and the price they are willing to pay for it. The agents then act as an intermediary, scouring the lists of sellers who are programmed to accept a price in the region of the one offered.

Read the full story on the BBC News website.


Call for debate on killer robots

04/08/2009

An international debate is needed on the use of autonomous military robots, a leading academic has said. Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield said that a push toward more robotic technology used in warfare would put civilian life at grave risk.

Technology capable of distinguishing friend from foe reliably was at least 50 years away, he added. However, he said that for the first time, US forces mentioned resolving such ethical concerns in their plans.

“Robots that can decide where to kill, who to kill and when to kill is high on all the military agendas,” Professor Sharkey said at a meeting in London. “The problem is that this is all based on artificial intelligence, and the military have a strange view of artificial intelligence based on science fiction.”

Professor Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics, has long drawn attention to the psychological distance from the horrors of war that is maintained by operators who pilot unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often from thousands of miles away.

“These guys who are driving them sit there all day… they go home and eat dinner with their families at night,” he said. “It’s kind of a very odd way of fighting a war – it’s changing the character of war dramatically.”

Read the full story on the BBC News website.


Simulated brain closer to thought

24/04/2009

A detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains.

The “Blue Brain” has been put in a virtual body, and observing it gives the first indications of the molecular and neural basis of thought and memory.

Scaling the simulation to the human brain is only a matter of money, says the project’s head. The work was presented at the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague. The Blue Brain project launched in 2005 as the most ambitious brain simulation effort ever undertaken.

While many computer simulations have attempted to code in “brain-like” computation or to mimic parts of the nervous systems and brains of a variety of animals, the Blue Brain project was conceived to reverse-engineer mammal brains from real laboratory data and to build up a computer model down to the level of the molecules that make them up.

The first phase of the project is now complete; researchers have modeled the neocortical column – a unit of the mammalian brain known as the neocortex which is responsible for higher brain functions and thought.

Read the full story on the BBC News website.