In the Terminator films, it was the moment when a computer became ‘self aware’ that sparked a nightmarish war between man and machine.
So it’s slightly worrying to learn that robots are already talking behind our backs – using a language they’ve invented themselves.
‘When they need a new word, they invent one,’ said Hazel Wiles, who heads the ongoing Lingodroid project at the University of Queensland, speaking to Discover magazine this month.
Wiles hopes that the robot ‘language’ could eventually lead to robot care givers for the elderly – or even robot butlers.
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Learning all the time: The Lingodroids project at the University of Queensland has developed robots that can create and speak their own language
The robot language has now evolved to a point where they can arrange to meet each other in different places, and even hold polite conversations.
Previous efforts to encourage robots to ‘communicate’ have included ROILA – Robot Interaction Language – a simple spoken language allowing humans to speak to robots.The Lingodroid project is the first attempt to allow robots to ‘teach themselves’ to speak.
Their ‘words’ are electronic noises, created using a random number of syllables, which are then assigned to locations.
Thankfully, rather than turn on their human masters, the robots seem to be teaching us that language is very difficult to master.
Place names created so far have included ‘kuzo’, ‘jaro’ and ‘fexo’. Each location was around a few metres in size.
To test and develop their language skills the Lingodroids play ‘word’ games in which they arrange to meet in other places, and it has worked successfully in simulations and in a real office.
The robots are creating their own ‘words’ because human languages are so complex and nuanced that the robots found it hard to decipher.
We don’t realize how sophisticated our use of language to describe the world around us is,’ says Wiles.
The Lingodroids themselves are two-wheeled robots, looking not too dissimilar to some vacuum cleaners, which use an onboard camera, sonar and a laser range-finder to map the space around them.
The language, which sounds similar to the keytones on a phone, is actually spoken aloud by the robots using a microphone and speaker.
Games played among them include the go-to, the where-are-we and the how-far game.
In the where-are-we game, the robots map their environment independently by driving around, and then whenever they meet another robot, one gives the area in which they meet a name and both update their vocabulary with the new word.
In the go-to game, one robot chooses a location, both robots find the place in their own map, and then the navigate to that place independently.
The vocabulary this creates, called a toponymic lexicon, allows the robots to go on to develop ‘words’ for distances and directions.
With their expanded lexicon, the robots were even able to meet each other in places they had talked about but never been together, and to describe places they ‘imagined’ exist outside their own maps.
As the games continue it is expected the vocabulary will become more expansive and make the robots knowledge more subtle.