The Technium

The Need For a Body

Artificial intelligence, in the classical image, will probably require a body. To make an intelligence congruent with ours — so that we can partner with it — it needs an intangible mind in some kind of physical form able to interact with the real world. Otherwise the AI won’t understand such fundamental concepts as cause/effect, which we gain from everyday reality. What most AIs so far today lack the common sense of a two-year-old human. The toddler understands gravity, continuity, near/far, and cause and effect, which no AI today knows.

A body provides a constant stream of sensory data that gives context to the current moment. These sensations are needed to operate in real time. Real time behavior forces such traits as anticipation and prediction, key aspects of intelligence. It is not necessary that the body be a stand alone humanoid robot. Its body could be spread over many machines, with thousands of sensors,

This is a minority view. Many AI researchers believe that with enough data to draw upon, like the petabytes of real world scanning done by automobiles driving around, and robots working in factories, that unembodied minds will be able to master the logic of a physical world.

There is another argument that an AI needs a body once, but once it figures out the world, it can migrate that learning into all kinds of intangible minds. It can learn cause and effect, and near/far, as it would learn other things. In this way it has a memory of a body, in the same way we could imagine some mutant of a human living entirely in their severed heads. Here a body may only be a scaffolding for intelligence. Needed to create it, but not needed to operate it.

I am skeptical that a disembodied human mind would remain sane for long, so I side with the minority who believes that embodied AI will do more of what we want than disembodied ones. They will be more useful to us (why we maintain them) if they operated with ongoing common sense about how the world goes.

The body forms of AIs will be diverse. There will certainly be humanoid-shaped robots because they are the easiest for us to relate to and interface with. The more they mirror our form, the easier it will be to work with them. But embodiment can resemble a vehicle (Transformers!), a building, or a vast network of small things.

Not all intelligences will need a body for what they do. But the ones we engineer to be close to us, to partner in our daily work, to engage with us, to be comfortable with, will probably have a sensor-rich active body that is able to navigate and interact with the world on its own. As we do.


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