While the topic is exciting for many and could be the most significant discovery made by humans, some researchers are wary of what this could mean for humanity.
“This topic was taboo,” Lipson said. “We were almost forbidden from talking about it — ‘Don’t talk about the c-word; you won’t get tenure’ — so in the beginning I had to disguise it, like it was something else.”
Early in his career, Lipson was working on machines that could learn to adapt to change, something that animals and humans are adept at doing.
Since robots are becoming more and more important, having a place in our households to being used for surgical procedures, Lipson was interested in designing the best possible companions.
“We’re literally going to surrender our life to a robot,” he said.
“You want these machines to be resilient.”
While he’s now able to talk about consciousness in robots without facing as many hurdles, the topic remains complex and thorny.
“This is not just another research question that we’re working on — this is the question,” he said.
“This is bigger than curing cancer.
“If we can create a machine that will have consciousness on par with a human, this will eclipse everything else we’ve done.
“That machine itself can cure cancer.”
While consciousness is the next big step, it’s a tough one, with many not having a concrete way to define and measure such a complex and lofty idea.
Lipson’s definition of consciousness is the capacity to “imagine yourself in the future.”
His machines are designed with the goal to evolve and learn, not only reacting to the world around it but imagining how they can improve their performance in the future.
Of his plans, he says he’s building the cockroach version of his ideal machines.
“So eventually these machines will be able to understand what they are, and what they think,” he said.
“That leads to emotions and other things.”
Lipson’s newest self-aware machine is a two-jointed arm fixed to a table.
Researchers surrounded the robot with cameras and watched as it moved and learned from watching itself.
Over the course of a couple of hours, thanks to a deep learning algorithm, the robot was able to recognize itself from its surroundings.
“It has this notion of self, a cloud,” Lipson said.
While whether or not consciousness was achieved is up for debate, the plans have been set in motion.