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Sentient machines: the next step in human evolution
Dick Pelletier   Jan 8, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Building machines that process information the same way a brain does has been a dream for over 50 years. Artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, and neural networks have all experienced some degrees of success, but machines still cannot recognize pictures or understand language as well as humans can.

Despite the many false starts though, George Mason University's Dr. James Albus believes sentient research is at a point similar to where nuclear physics was in 1905. Many experts believe Albus is correct. Talking smart phones, driverless cars, and intelligent robots are already here or on the way. And the following research projects represent proof that the quest to build sentient machines is alive and well:

DARPA SyNAPSE Program – SyNAPSE, Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, is a DARPA-funded effort to build neuromorphic microprocessor systems that match the intelligence, physical size, and low power consumption of animal brains; and one day, human neurons.

In October 2011, a SyNAPSE team led by Dharmendra Modha at IBM's Almaden Research Center demonstrated a prototype chip containing 256 neurons, 262,144 synapses and 256 axons. Current work includes building a system that emulates 1 million spiking neurons and 1 billion synapses.

Blue Brain Project EPFL – International researchers using an IBM 'Blue Gene' supercomputer (thus the name Blue Brain), are reconstructing brains of different species; including the human brain, in silicon. Chief scientist Henry Markram predicts that with Moore's Lawfast-forwarding computer technologies, a full-scale human brain simulation of 86 billion neurons will be achieved by 2023.

This venture could lead to curing brain diseases, such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons; and one day, it may even give robots and other 'smart' machines simulated human-like emotions and consciousness.

'Smart' Cars – Carmakers are building vehicles with more computer safety features. Department of Transportation officials believe that 2020s driverless cars, armed with human-like sensitivity and computer logic and speed, will maneuver traffic more accurately; reduce accidents, and slash highway death tolls.

Invisible Combat VehiclesDepartment of Defense planners predict that by late 2020s, invisibility-cloaked combat equipment, combined with auto-fly drones will remove most soldiers from the dangers of war. Though these systems are capable of wielding horrific damages, experts believe they may actually lead to less destruction, becoming a deterrent force in wars, while assisting in the fight against terrorism.

Brain-Implantable Biomimetic ElectronicsUniversity of Southern California scientists recently developed implantable electronics that they believe might one day replace aging neurons. Foresight Institute consultant John Burch sees more and more technology like this working its way into our bodies.

By 2040, positive futurists believe we could be replacing all of our brain cells with materials that process thoughts faster than biological brains can. This faster brain would allow us to run multiple simulations in our mind before making decisions, which would reduce mistakes and raise human intelligence levels.

Burch describes how we would switch to the new brain: a pill would supply materials with instructions for nanobots (projected development – 2030s) to form new neurons and place them near existing cells to be replaced. These changes would be unnoticeable, but in six months, we will be enjoying our new brain.

Brain-Machine Interface – Cybernetics expert Christof Koch predicts BMIs, designed to work with nonbiological neurons, will connect our brain with machines for direct transfer of data into our minds.

Imagine a hard drive linked directly to your mind enabling you to 'download' memory implants for skill enhancements. This would allow actions to be performed that have not been learned directly. You could master any subject, or learn a foreign language – without studying.

Conclusion – As we trek through the coming decades, we see machines becoming more sentient; more like us; and by absorbing their speed, computing power and increased knowledge into our brains, we become more like them. Today, at least eighteen organizations are aggressively pursuing the quest to build sentient machines (Link). Where will all this technology take us? Stay tuned! Comments welcome.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


I think you are abusing the term “sentient”. How about taking a stab at a definition. I read a paper once (I can’t find it now) that said we can create a self-conscious machine easily, just give it a symbol that represents itself, and allow it to reason using that symbols. Done.

We can’t even agree whether other animals are sentient.

We don’t even agree on what “intelligence” means, which should be a much easier term to figure out.


You are correct. Perhaps ‘cognitive’ would be more appropriate in describing tomorrow’s smart machines.

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