Pages Navigation Menu

For today's engineer

Robots and Animals

Robots and Animals

Robots are often designed using inspiration from animals: how an octopus can move into small spaces, how a kangaroo gathers force for a jump, and how a bird maneuvers with small tucks of its wings have all inspired robots that can perform specialized tasks needed in manufacturing, medicine, or the military.

People sometimes treat robots like animals, too, responding to their behaviors as we do to the behaviors of pets or of predators.

But robots differ from organic life forms in some extremely important ways. They may be getting closer to something that looks like learning or something that sounds like language, but they’re not able to create anything. They have to be designed and programmed by humans for some specific task, they have to be set into motion by humans in order to do the task, and they can be discarded or destroyed when their task is complete.

Animals aren’t like that. They can reproduce, they make decisions on their own about what actions to take, and they fulfill purposes without direction or even awareness. Insects, for example, have the very important job of keeping the planet clean. Without insects to tidy up after the rest of the world, we’d be knee-deep in detritus and dung in no time. But there’s no reason to think that the insects who do this important job ave any particular sense of purpose. In fact, most humans probably aren’t consciously aware that this is one of the things insects do. It may not even be accurate to describe this as their “task,” even though we would notice almost immediately if they quit doing it, and would be hard-pressed to come up with another way to get it done. Chances are good that no insect ever woke up and thought, “Well, I’d better get back to keeping the world tidy,” even in an imaginary insect language.

Artificial intelligence can do some things that look pretty amazing — much smarter than anything that an insect can do. The simplest calculator is better at math than any dog. Complex machinery can be better at putting things together than any giraffe, and certainly faster than any human. There are now computers that can play chess… but none can decide that it wants to play chess and ask someone for a game.

Some thinkers are hoping that robots can become more like animals. They want robots to be able to show some initiative and decision making. Robots have been created which can put themselves together, build new robots with improvements, and even mimic evolution by making many fast random changes that (with human intervention) allow faster movement toward an eventual goal.

But progress in this direction is slow. Hans Moravec predicted in 2000 that by 2010 there would be an automatic vacuum cleaner that could learn the layout of a house, schedule and map its vacuuming routines, keep itself charged, and empty its own dust collection bag. The very poshest Roomba can’t do that.

We may appreciate both machines and animals for the things they are able to do, but never the twain will meet.