Category Archives: Robotics

Summary of Hans Moravec’s, Robot: Mere Machine To Transcendent Mind

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 15, 2016.)

Hans Moravec (1948 – ) is a faculty member at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University and the chief scientist at Seegrid Corporation. He received his PhD in computer science from Stanford in 1980, and is known for his work on robotics, artificial intelligence, and writings on the impact of technology, as well as his many of publications and predictions focusing on transhumanism.

Moravec set forth his futuristic ideas most clearly in his 1998 book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. He notes that by almost any measure society is changing faster than ever before, primarily because the products of technology keep speeding up the process. The radical future that awaits us can be understood by thinking of technology as soon reaching an escape velocity. In the same way that rubbing sticks together in the proper manner will produce ignition, or powering a rocket correctly will allow it to escape the earth’s gravity, our machines will soon escape their previous boundaries. At that time the old rules will no longer apply; robots will have achieved their own escape velocity.

For many of us this is hard to imagine because we are like riders in an elevator who forget how high we are until we get an occasional glimpse of the ground—as when we meet cultures frozen in time. Then we see how different the world we live in today is compared to the one we adapted to biologically. For all of human history culture was secondary to biology, but about five thousand years ago things changed, as cultural evolution became the most important means of human evolution. It is the technology created by culture that is exponentially speeding up the process of change. Today we are reaching the escape velocity from our biology.

Not that building intelligent machines will be easy—Moravec constantly reminds us how difficult robotics is. He outlines the history of cybernetics, from its beginnings with Alan Turing and John von Neumann, to the first working artificial intelligence programs which proved many mathematical theorems. He admits that most of these programs were not very good and proved theorems no better or faster than a college freshman. So reaching escape velocity will require hard work.

One of the most difficult issues in robotics/artificial intelligence is the disparity between programs that calculate and reason, versus programs that interact with the world. Robots still don’t perform as well behaviorally as infants or non-human animals but play chess superbly. So the order of difficulty for machines from easier to harder is: calculating; reasoning; perceiving; and acting. For humans the order is exactly the reverse. The explanation for this probably lays in the fact that perceiving and acting were beneficial for survival in a way that calculation and abstract reasoning was not. Machines are way behind in many areas yet catching up, and Moravec predicts that in less than fifty years inexpensive computers will exceed the processing power of a human brain. Can we then program them to intuit and perceive like humans? Moravec thinks there is reason to answer in the affirmative, and much of his book cites the evolution of robotics as evidence for this claim.

He also supports his case with a clever analogy to topography. The human landscape of consciousness has high mountains like hand-eye coordination, locomotion and social interaction; foothills like theorem proving and chess playing; and lowlands like arithmetic and memorization. Computers/robots are analogous to a flood which has drowned the lowlands; has just reached the foothills, and well eventually submerge the peaks.

Robots will advance through generational change as technology advances: from lizard-like robots, to mouse-like, primate-like, and human-like ones. Eventually they will be smart enough to design their own successors —without help from us! So a few generations of robots will mimic the four hundred million year evolution marked by the brain stem, cerebellum, mid-brain, and neo-cortex. Will our machines be conscious? Moravec says yes. Just as the terrestrial and celestial was once a sacred distinction, so today is the animate/inanimate distinction. Of course if the animating principle is a supernatural soul, then the distinction remains, but our current knowledge suggests that complex organization provides animation. This means that our technology is doing what it took evolution billions of years to do—animating dead matter.

Moravec argues that robots will slowly come to have a conscious, internal life as they advance. Fear, shame, and joy may be emotions valuable to robots to help them retreat from danger, reduce the probability of bad decisions, or reinforce good ones. He even thinks there would be good reasons for robots to care about their owners or get angry, but surmises that generally they will be nicer than humans, since robots don’t have to be selfish to guarantee their survival. He recognizes that many reject the view that dead matter can give rise to consciousness. The philosopher Herbert Dreyfus has argued that computers cannot experience subjective consciousness, his colleague John Searle says, as we have already seen, that computers will never think, and the mathematician Roger Penrose argues that consciousness is achieved through certain quantum phenomena in the brain, something unavailable to robots. But Moravec points to the accumulating evidence from neuroscience to disagree. Mind is something that runs of a physical substrate and we will eventually accept sufficiently complex robots as conscious.

Moravec sees these developments as the natural consequence of humans using one of their two channels of heredity. Not the slower biological means utilizing DNA, but the faster culture channel utilizing  books, language, databases, and machines. For most of human history there was more info in our genes than in our culture, but now libraries alone hold thousands of times more information than genes. “Given fully intelligent robots, culture becomes completely independent of biology. Intelligent machines, which will grow from us, learn our skills, and initially share our goals and values, will be the children of our minds.”[i]

To get a better understanding of the coming age of robots consider our history as it relates to technology. A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were supported by, what Moravec calls, a fully automated nature. With agriculture we increased production but added work and, until recently, production of food was the chief occupation of humankind. Farmers lost their jobs to machines and moved to manufacturing, but more advanced machines displaced farmers out of factories and into offices—where machines have put them out of work again. Soon machines will do all the work. Tractors and combines amplify farmers; computer workstations amplify engineers; layers of management and clerical help slowly disappear; and the scribe, priest, seer and chief are no longer repositories of wisdom—printing and mass communication ended that. Automation and robots will displace gradually replace labor as never before; just consider how much physical and mental labor has already been replaced by machines. In the short run this will cause panic and the scramble to earn a living in new ways. In the medium run it will provide the opportunity to have a more leisurely lifestyle. In the long run, “it marks the end of the dominance of biological humans and the beginning of the age of robots.”[ii]

Moravec is optimistic that robotic labor will make life more pleasant for humanity, but inevitably evolution will lead beyond humans to a world of “ex-humans” or “exes.” These post-biological beings will populate a galaxy which is as benign for them as it is hostile for biological beings. “We marvel at the Earth’s biodiversity … but the diversity and range of the post-biological world will be astronomically greater. Imagination balks at the challenge of guessing what it could be like.”[iii] Still, he is willing to hazard a guess: “…Exes trapped in neutron stars may become the most powerful minds in the galaxy … But, in the fast-evolving world of superminds, nothing lasts forever …. Exes, [will] become obsolete.”[iv]

In that far future, Moravec speculates that exes will “be transformed into intelligence-boosting computing elements … physical activity will gradually transform itself into a web of increasingly pure thought, here every smallest interaction represents a meaningful computation.”[v] Exes may learn to arrange space-time and energy into forms of computation, with the result that “the inhabited portions of the universe will be rapidly transformed into a cyberspace, where overt physical activity is imperceptible, but the world inside the computation is astronomically rich.”[vi] Beings won’t be defined by physical location but will be patterns of information in cyberspace. Minds, pure software, will interact with other minds. The wave of physical migration into space will have long given way to “a bubble of Mind expanding at near lightspeed.”[vii] Eventually, the expanding bubble of cyberspace will recreate all it encounters “memorizing the old universe as it consumes it.”[viii]

For the moment our small minds cannot give meaning to the universe, but a future universal mind might be able to do so, when that cosmic mind is infinitely subjective, self-conscious, and powerful. At that point our descendents will be capable of traversing in and through other possible worlds. Unfortunately, those of us alive today are governed by the laws of the universe, at least until we die when our ties to physical reality will be cut. It is possible we will then be reconstituted in the minds of our super intelligent successors or in simulated realities. But for the moment this is still fantasy, all we have for now is Shakespeare’s lament:

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil …

Summary – Our robotic descendents will be our mind children and they will live in realities now unimaginable to us. For now though, we die.


[i] Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 126.
[ii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 131.
[iii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 145.
[iv] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 162.
[v] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 164.
[vi] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 164.
[vii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 165.
[viii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 167

Daniel Dennett: In Defense of Robotic Consciousness

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 11, 2016.)

Daniel Dennett (1942 – ) is an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist whose research is in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University. He received his PhD from Oxford University in 1965 where he studied under the eminent philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

In his book, DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE, Dennett present a thought experiment that defends strong artificial intelligence (SAI)—one that matches or exceeds human intelligence.[i] Dennett asks you to suppose that you want to live in the 25th century and the only available technology for that purpose involves putting your body in a cryonic chamber where you will be frozen in a deep coma and later awakened. In addition you must design some supersystem to protect and supply energy to your capsule. You would now face a choice. You could find an ideal fixed location that will supply whatever your capsule will need, but the drawback would be that you would die if some harm came to that site. Better then to have a mobile facility to house your capsule that could move in the event harm came your way—better to place yourself inside a giant robot. Dennett claims that these two strategies correspond roughly to nature’s distinction between stationary plants and moving animals.

If you put your capsule inside a robot, then you would want the robot to choose strategies that further your interests. This does not mean the robot has free will, but that it executes branching instructions so that when options confront the program, it chooses those that best serve your interests. Given these circumstances you would design the hardware and software to preserve yourself, and equip it with the appropriate sensory systems and self-monitory capabilities for that purpose. The supersystem must also be designed to formulate plans to respond to changing conditions and seek out new energy sources.

What complicated the issue further is that, while you are in cold storage, other robots and who knows what else are running around in the external world. So you would need to design your robot to determine when to cooperative, form alliances, or fight with other creatures. A simple strategy like always cooperating would likely get you killed, but never cooperating may not serve your self-interests either, and the situation may be so precarious that your robot would have to make many quick decisions. The result will be a robot capable of self-control, an autonomous agent which derives its own goals based on your original goal of survival; the preferences with which it was originally endowed. But you cannot be sure it will act in your self-interest. It will be out of your control, acting partly on its own desires.

Now opponents of SAI claim that this robot does not have its own desires or intentions, those are simply derivative of its designer’s desires. Dennett calls this “client centrism.” I am the original source of the meaning within my robot, it is just a machine preserving me, even though it acts in ways that I could not have imagined and which may be antithetical to my interests. Of course it follows, according to the client centrists, that the robot is not conscious. Dennett rejects this centrism, primarily because if you follow this argument to its logical conclusion you have to conclude the same thing about yourself! You would have to conclude that you are a survival machine built to preserve your genes and your goals and your intentions derive from them. You are not really conscious. To avoid these unpalatable conclusions, why not acknowledge that sufficiently complex robots have motives, intentions, goals, and consciousness? They are like you; owing their existence to being a survival machine that has evolved into something autonomous by its encounter with the world.

Critics like Searle admit that such a robot is possible, but deny that it is conscious. Dennett responds that such robots would experience meaning as real as your meaning; they would have transcended their programming just as you have gone beyond the programming of your selfish genes. He concludes that this view reconciles thinking of yourself as a locus of meaning, while at the same time being a member of a species with a long evolutionary history. We are artifacts of evolution, but our consciousness is no less real because of that. The same would hold true of our robots.

Summary – Sufficiently complex robots would be conscious


[i] Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution And The Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 422-26.

Robots and the Economy

A recent post briefly mentioned the computer scientist Marshall Brain’s thoughts on robotics and the future of the economy. Brain penned these prescient thoughts more than ten years ago in three essays and a FAQ section on his website. Because of their importance and insight, I wanted to summarize them for my readers, staying as close to the original texts with little commentary.(As you read, remember all these predictions were made more than ten years ago.)

Robotic Nation

Overall Summary

The Tip of the Iceberg – We now see technology’s impact on employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

The tip of the Iceberg – Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated within a few years, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

A feasible scenario suggests that in the next fifteen years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear–Honda’s Asimo is an early example. By 2025 we may have machines that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. These machines will be equipped with AI systems, making them seem humanlike. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to easily facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, mop, sweep, mow grass, etc. These robots would last for years, need no vacation or sick time, and eliminate human jobs. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, construction, airports, hospitals, malls, amusement parks, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will yield catastrophic changes, just as the Wright brothers breakthrough brought about aviation. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks? “These activities represent a massive waste of human potential.”

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes. Then many thought heavier than air flight was impossible,  and one who predicted it was often ridiculed. Such considerations lead to the conclusion that the employment world will change dramatically over the next fifty years. Why? The fundamental answer is Moore’s Law, that CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the power of the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: a cheap computer with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

While the employment landscape is not so different from the one of 100 years ago, it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, restaurants, airports, factories, construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed. And the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work people wont’ be able to earn money. What then? Brain thinks we might erect housing for the unemployed since you can’t live without a job, and we need to have a guaranteed income.  But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015 

Overall Summary

We Will Replace all the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which means there will be
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of the robotic nation and half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. We’ll feel sorry for the pilots at first, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Next will be the retail jobs and then others will follow.  What about new job creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Our economy does not create many high paying jobs. (And for those there is intense competition.) Instead there is a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. We need to answer a fundamental question: How do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating the Goals – increase human freedom by weaning away from unfulfilling labor by
Capitalism Supersized – economic system that provides for all people which has
The Advantages of Economic Security – better for everyone because
You, Personally, and the Robots – because even your job is vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lanes; the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few–the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all the income of corporations will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative than ever. Can we design the economy to do this? Why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work. Consider that Linux, one of the world’s best operating systems, was created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity? Why not create an economic model where we don’t have to hope the aged die before they collect too much social security, where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain says “we are entering an historic era that has the potential to completely change the human condition.

Brain argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states the goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What is needed is a complete re-thinking of economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose the products; start the businesses, creative projects; and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers specific suggestions (supersize capitalism, guaranteed economic security) of how we would fund a society in which persons actualize their potential to create art, literature, science, music, etc. without the burden of wage slavery. The advantages of such a system would be significant. (If all this seems fanciful, consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that most humans have been throughout history.) Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation.Let us then rethink our world, and welcome the robotic workers who will give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030 and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the auto or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As this new species gets better, it will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work but today worker wages are stagnant.  Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – I am a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books. “I am all for free markets, innovation and investment.” Socialism is the view that producing and distributing goods is done collectively by centralized governmental planning. He argues that individuals should own the means of producing and be free “to earn whatever they can with their products, services, and innovations.” By giving consumers a share of the wealth–which they won’t be able to earn with work–we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending. It is also a way of providing economic security to every citizen…”  Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas he wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer –  Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that re-distribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003,  is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. It isn’t that much in our economy. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so “it is very easy to imagine a system that pays US citizens $25,000 per year.”

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are lower. To let every citizen benefit from the robotic nation distribute the wealth to all.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to due hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. He says he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from political, philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many are given free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! (Perhaps its the reverse, with no possible source of income people give up.)

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that–a  cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics “if we give them enough money to live decent, dignified lives…”

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – “…because of the power of economic coercion.” This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. “We, The People, should enact the stipend to give ourselves true economic independence.”

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals–why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.

Thanks you Marshall Brain for such an uplifting vision.

1. The articles in their entirety can be found here.