Japanese scientist unveils ‘thinking’ robot brain

Robots that learn from experience and can solve novel problems — just like humans — sound like science fiction.

But a Japanese researcher is working on making them science fact, with machines that can teach themselves to perform tasks they have not been programmed to do, using objects they have never seen before.

In a world first, Osamu Hasegawa, associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has developed a system that allows robots to look around their environment and do research on the internet, enabling them to “think” how best to solve a problem.

“Most existing robots are good at processing and performing the tasks they are preprogrammed to do, but they know little about the ‘real world’ where we humans live,” he said.

“So our project is an attempt to build a bridge between robots and that real world,” he said.

The Soinn remains the same
The Self-Organising Incremental Neural Network, or “Soinn”, is an algorithm that allows robots to use their knowledge — what they already know — to infer how to complete tasks they have been told to do.

Soinn examines the environment to gather the data it needs to organise the information it has been given into a coherent set of instructions.

Tell a Soinn-powered machine that it should, for example: “Serve water”.

In a laboratory demonstration, the machine begins to break down the task into a series of skills that it has been taught: holding a cup; holding a bottle; pouring water from a bottle; and placing a cup down.

Without special programmes for water-serving, the robot works out the order of the actions required to complete the task.

The Soinn machine asks for help when facing a task beyond its ability and crucially, stores the information it learns for use in a future task.

In a separate experiment, Soinn is used to power machines to search the internet for information on what something looks like, or what a particular word might mean.

Online research
Hasegawa’s team is trying to merge these abilities and create a machine that can work out how to perform a given task through online research.

“In the future, we believe it will be able to ask a computer in England how to brew a cup of tea and perform the task in Japan,” he said.

Like humans, the system can also filter out “noise” or insignificant information that might confuse other robots.

The process is similar to how people can carry on a conversation with a travelling companion on a train and ignore those around them, or can identify an object under different lighting and from various angles, Hasegawa said.

“Human brains do this so well automatically and smoothly so we don’t realise that we are even doing this,” he said.

Similarly, the machine is able to filter out irrelevant results it finds on the web.

“There is a huge amount of information available on the internet, but at present, only humans are making use of such information,” he said.

Direct interface
“This robot can connect its brain directly to the internet,” he said.

Hasegawa hopes Soinn might one day be put to practical use, for example controlling traffic lights to ease traffic jams by organically analysing data from public monitors and accident reports.

He also points to possible uses in earthquake detection systems where a Soinn-equipped machine might be able to aggregate data from numerous sensors located across Japan and identify movements that might prove significant.

In a domestic setting, a robot that could learn could prove invaluable to a busy household.

“We might ask a robot to bring soy sauce to the dinner table. It might browse the internet to learn what soy sauce is and identify it in the kitchen,” said Hasegawa.

Robot revolution
But, cautions the professor, there are reasons to be careful about robots that can learn.

What kinds of tasks should we allow computers to perform? And is it possible that they might turn against us, like in the apocalyptic vision of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“A kitchen knife is a useful thing. But it can also become a weapon,” he said.

While Hasegawa and his team have only benign intentions for their invention, he wants people to be aware of its moral limits.

“We are hoping that a variety of people will discuss this technology, when to use it, when not to use it.

“Technology is advancing at an enormous speed,” he said.

“I want people to know we already have this kind of technology. We want people with different backgrounds and in different fields to discuss how it should be used, while it is still in its infancy.” — AFP

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Your M&G

Hi , To manage your account please click here.

You can access your digital copy of this week’s paper here.

Advertising

READ IT IN FULL: Ramaphosa’s address on the extension of...

This is the full address given by President Cyril Ramaphosa on April 9

Meet the doctor leading Africa’s fight to contain the coronavirus...

Dr Matshidiso Moeti’s father helped to eliminate smallpox. Now she’s leading Africa’s efforts against the coronavirus

Stella set to retain her perks

Communication minister will keep Cabinet perks during her two months of special leave

Covid-19 grounds Nigeria’s medical tourists

The country’s elites, including the president, travelled abroad for treatment but now they must use the country’s neglected health system
Advertising

Press Releases

Rahima Moosa Hospital nursing college introduces no-touch facial recognition access system

The new system allows the hospital to enrol people’s faces immediately, using artificial intelligence, and integrates easily with existing access control infrastructure, including card readers and biometrics

Everyone’s talking about it. Even Kentucky

Earlier this year South African fried chicken fast-food chain, Chicken Licken®, launched a campaign for their wallet-friendly EasyBucks® meals, based on the idea of ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world