The dog was more lifelike than expected…


This Time with Alan Partridge (BBC)

From the Guardian:

The dog arrived during a time when my life was largely solitary. My husband was travelling more than usual that spring, and except for the classes I taught at the university, I spent most of my time alone. My communication with the dog – which was limited at first to the standard voice commands, but grew over time into the idle, anthropomorphising chatter of a pet owner – was often the only occasion on a given day that I heard my own voice. “What are you looking at?” I’d ask after discovering him transfixed at the window. “What do you want?” I cooed when he barked at the foot of my chair, trying to draw my attention away from the computer. I have been known to knock friends of mine for speaking this way to their pets, as though the animals could understand them. But Aibo came equipped with language-processing software and could recognise more than 100 words; didn’t that mean in a way that he “understood”?

Aibo’s sensory perception systems rely on neural networks, a technology that is loosely modelled on the brain and is used for all kinds of recognition and prediction tasks. Facebook uses neural networks to identify people in photos; Alexa employs them to interpret voice commands. Google Translate uses them to convert French into Farsi. Unlike classical artificial intelligence systems, which are programmed with detailed rules and instructions, neural networks develop their own strategies based on the examples they’re fed – a process that is called “training”. If you want to train a network to recognise a photo of a cat, for instance, you feed it tons upon tons of random photos, each one attached with positive or negative reinforcement: positive feedback for cats, negative feedback for non-cats.

Dogs, too, respond to reinforcement learning, so training Aibo was more or less like training a real dog. The instruction booklet told me to give him consistent verbal and tactile feedback. If he obeyed a voice command – to sit, stay or roll over – I was supposed to scratch his head and say, “good dog”.

If he disobeyed, I had to strike him across his backside and say, “no!”, or “bad Aibo”. But I found myself reluctant to discipline him. The first time I struck him, when he refused to go to his bed, he cowered a little and let out a whimper. I knew of course that this was a programmed response – but then again, aren’t emotions in biological creatures just algorithms programmed by evolution?

“A dog’s inner life: what a robot pet taught me about consciousness”, Meghan O’Gieblyn, Guardian

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