Saturday, August 26, 2006

Nanotech and robots, is Japan the ideal place?

I have recently been reading a bit about future robot technologies, in particular the work of Ray Kurzweil such as "The Age of Spiritual Machines" and his most recent book "The Singularity is Near". There is a lot of interesting stuff in these books about the way future technological innovations and progress will change our lives. Now, you can argue with some of Kurzweil`s predictions and I am sure many of them will be dismissed as fanciful by a lot of readers. However, his prediction about the future development of robotics and AI are interesting. Kurzweil envisages a future where robots will become our physical and intellectual superiors and the only way we will be able to stop from becoming just another evolutionary dead end will not be by trying to compete with the robots (our biological evolution is far to slow to stand a chance of competing with the exponential increase in the information processing capabilities) but rather, we will merge with the robots, initially as human-machine hybrids and, possibly, in the long term, migrating to full machine based life forms. All this will be possible only with advances in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology will be required if robots are to be able to better animals physically (just look at the clunky walking of even the most advanced of the current generation of bipedal robots and compare it to human movement generated by the action of billions of molecular motors to see the benefits of nanoscale technology). Nanotechnology will also be required if robots are ever to reach human levels of intelligence. Now, the question of whether conscious machines can be made and whether artificial intelligence at human or greater than human level is even possible is a huge, contentious debate which cuts across all areas of science and philosophy and is one that I can`t even begin to touch upon here. For those of you who want to get into this argument, one interesting place to start is the "Chinese Room" argument put forward by philosopher John Searle as a way of showing that machines could not posses "strong AI" (a form of artificial intelligence that is conscious and able to reason rather than blindly follow instructions). Reading this argument and counter arguments should provide some basic background to the AI debate. The argument in favour of the eventual emergence of truly intelligent robots goes something like this: Most scientists believe that there is no non-physical component to the brain, i.e. there is no spirit or magical substance that resides in your head, rather everything that makes you you comes from the physical properties of the neurons, chemicals, etc that constitute your brain and that consciousness, thinking etc is simply the "emergent property" of a lot of electrical and chemical signals running through the complex circuitry of your brain. Given that this is the case it should be possible to copy one information processing device (your brain) using a different information processing device (a computer chip). The materials may be different, but so long as they both process information in the same way, the results should be the same. Of course the brain is a pretty complicated organ and so it would require a complicated computer chip to equal it. This is essentially a question of miniaturization. The fundamental component of the computer processor is the transistor. Transistors are continuously shrinking as manufacturers try to fit more and more into their chips and current chip design is already well into the realm of nanotechnology consisting of feature sizes below 100 nanometres. Continuing miniaturization will require new manufacturing technologies but is likely to proceed apace meaning that our computer chips will continue to get faster and faster (for the same price). Finally, in order to interface non biological and biological systems together, we will also need nanotechnology. Trying to interface the miniscule circuitry of a computer chip seamlessly to the tiny features on single neurons is going to require devices on the nanoscale.

So where does Japan fit into all of this? As we all know, Japan is pretty much the world leader in robotics and the physical capabilities its robots show are second to none. It is continuing to make use of its traditional strength in miniaturization to make the robots physically more capable and robust. In addition, Japan has a long history in just the kind of nanotechnology that will be required to produce intelligent robots: The country has long been a leading producer of computer chips and companies such as Toshiba, Panasonic, and NTT continue to carry out cutting-edge research, this is helped by the extremely strong academic research in the appropriate areas of the physical sciences that Japan enjoys. I can see that it is only a matter of time before some bright researchers begin to combine these fields and start producing a newer generation of smarter, faster robots. What does that mean for us bog-standard humans? I`m not sure...