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A "Cambrian Explosion" in Robotics?


Here's a fascinating and revealing analogy. IEEE Spectrum, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, republishes an article from the current issue of another scholarly publication, the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The title almost says it all: "Is a Cambrian Explosion Coming for Robotics?"

We've expressed skepticism before about what the future of AI really holds (see, for example, "Group Delusions Aside, Sentient Robots Aren't on the Way"). But grant them their premises. Robotics, specifically Artificial Intelligence, is held up by certain problems facing researchers in the field:

The key problems in robot capability yet to be solved are those of generalizable knowledge representation and of cognition based on that representation. How can computer memories represent knowledge to be retrieved by memory-based methods so that similar but not identical situations will call up the appropriate memories and thoughts?

Significant cues are coming from the expanding understanding of the human brain, with the rate of understanding accelerating because of new brain imaging tools.

Fine. Once those challenges are overcome, what will result is a Cambrian-style explosion of rapid advancement:

About half a billion years ago, life on earth experienced a short period of very rapid diversification called the "Cambrian Explosion." Many theories have been proposed for the cause of the Cambrian Explosion, with one of the most provocative being the evolution of vision, which allowed animals to dramatically increase their ability to hunt and find mates (for discussion, see Parker 2003). Today, technological developments on several fronts are fomenting a similar explosion in the diversification and applicability of robotics. Many of the base hardware technologies on which robots depend -- particularly computing, data storage, and communications -- have been improving at exponential growth rates. Two newly blossoming technologies -- "Cloud Robotics" and "Deep Learning" -- could leverage these base technologies in a virtuous cycle of explosive growth. In Cloud Robotics -- a term coined by James Kuffner (2010) -- every robot learns from the experiences of all robots, which leads to rapid growth of robot competence, particularly as the number of robots grows. Deep Learning algorithms are a method for robots to learn and generalize their associations based on very large (and often cloud-based) "training sets" that typically include millions of examples. Interestingly, Li (2014) noted that one of the robotic capabilities recently enabled by these combined technologies is vision -- the same capability that may have played a leading role in the Cambrian Explosion.

Fine, fine, fine. The author is Gill A. Pratt, identified as "program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 2010 to 2015, where he oversaw the DARPA Robotics Challenge and several other programs in robotics." So I suppose he ought to know. Let's say that's all true. All that is holding up the coming AI revolution is some specific leap forward in human technology, in solving "key problems" -- that is, in intelligent design. It's not robots that will solve the problems, much less mindless, material, unguided natural forces -- but, obviously, scientists like Dr. Pratt.

If that's true, and if the analogy is meaningful at all, then it should follow that what produced the sudden advancement in biological complexity 530 million years ago, the explosion of novel life forms in the Cambrian event, should also be some specific effusion of creativity, intelligence, understanding, wisdom -- in other words, intelligent design. That is exactly the view taken, of course, by Stephen Meyer in Darwin's Doubt.

Image credit: Scott Lynch [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.