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Can a Robot Acquire Consciousness?

Researchers hope that Hector's new software, reaCog, will lead to consciousness. (Photo credit: CITEC/Bielefeld University)
Researchers hope that Hector’s new software, reaCog, will lead to consciousness. (Photo credit: CITEC/Bielefeld University)

Researchers at Bielefeld University hope to give a stick-bug robot named Hector a simple form of consciousness. Hector, they claim, might learn to see himself as others see him, without ever being explicitly programmed to do so.

“With this, he would have reflexive consciousness,” Holk Cruse, a biologist and professor at the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) at Bielefeld University, said in a press release.

Hector’s old software simply allowed him to walk and plot a course to a target destination. His new code, called reaCog, will help him problem solve by running through various simulations. This kind of imagining of scenarios, Cruse claims, could help him attain consciousness.

Hector’s expanded software will soon be tested using a computer simulation. “What works in the computer simulation must then, in a second phase, be transferred over to the robot and tested on it,” explains Cruse. The researchers hope that higher level mental states will emerge in Hector, without explicitly programming the behaviors.

“With the new software, Hector could observe its inner mental state — to a certain extent, its moods — and direct its actions using this information,” says co-author Malte Schilling. “What makes this unique, however, is that with our software expansion, the basic faculties are prepared so that Hector may also be able to assess the mental state of others. It may be able to sense other people’s intentions or expectations and act accordingly.” Cruse believes the robot may then be able to ponder bigger questions, such as “What does this subject expect from me?”

This “bottom-up approach” in which “higher-level mental states, such as emotions, attention, intention, volition, or consciousness” emerge, is detailed in a new study about Hector.