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Owen Holland Owen Holland [photo]
Could We Build a Conscious Robot? 
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Building 3 Auditorium - 3:30 PM

(Refreshments at 3:00 PM)


Owen Holland, will talk about Could We Build a Conscious Robot. In the last few years a new discipline has begun to emerge: machine consciousness. This talk will describe the background to this movement, and will present a line of thought showing how the problem of constructing a truly autonomous robot may also constitute an approach to building a conscious machine. The basis of the theory is that an intelligent robot will need to simulate both itself and its environment in order to make good decisions about actions, and that the nature and operation of the internal self-model may well support some consciousness-related phenomena.

As part of an investigation into machine consciousness, we are currently developing a robot that we hope will acquire and use a self-model similar to our own. We believe that this requires a robot that does not merely fit within a human envelope, but one that is anthropomimetic - with a skeleton, muscles, tendons, eyeballs, a foveated retina, etc. - a robot that will have to control itself using motor programs qualitatively similar to those of humans. The early indications are that such robots are very different from conventional humanoids; the many degrees of freedom and the presence of active and passive elasticity do provide strikingly lifelike movement, but the control problems may not be tractable using conventional robotic methods.

The project is limited to the construction and study of a single robot, and there are no plans for the robot to have any encounters with others of its kind, or with humans. Without any social dimension to its existence, and without language, could such a robot ever achieve a consciousness intelligible to us? And would a conscious autonomous robot offer any real functional benefits over a robot that was merely autonomous?

After initially training as a production engineer, Owen Holland became interested in psychology, graduating from Nottingham University in 1969 (B.Sc. Hons in Psychology) and going on to teach experimental methods at Edinburgh University Psychology Department. He later returned to production engineering, working first in telecoms, and later in precision metrology.

In 1988 he began to take an interest in behaviour based robotics; in 1990, this work won him a Small Firms Merit Award for Research and Technology from the UK Department of Trade and Industry, and he set up a consultancy company, Artificial Life Technologies. He worked on a variety of projects, notably the MARCUS advanced prosthetic hand, before moving to the University of the West of England, Bristol, to help set up the Intelligent Autonomous Systems Engineering Laboratory.

For 1993-94 he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Zentrum fur interdisziplinare Forschung at the University of Bielefeld, Germany and in 1997 was Visiting Associate in Electrical Engineering at Caltech, working in the Microsystems Laboratory as co-PI on two DARPA robot projects. In 1999 he spent a year as Principal Research Scientist at the CyberLife Institute (now CyberLife Research) before returning to Caltech in 2000.

He joined the University of Essex in October 2001, and is now Professor of Computer Science, Deputy Head of Department, and Director of Research. His current projects are in the areas of machine consciousness, particle swarm optimisation, and swarms of small helicopters. He is also interested in the history of cybernetics (he found and restored one of Grey Walter's original tortoises) and is writing a book on the Ratio Club, a cybernetic dining club that included Alan Turing, Ross Ashby, and Grey Walter among its members.

IS&T Colloquium Committee Host: Walt Truszkowski