Robots Learn about Feelings and Maybe Plot Their Takeover

Linda Hamilton discusses "Terminator: Dark Fate" onstage as fellow cast member Arnold Schwarzenegger looks on during the Paramount Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019 in April.

Linda Hamilton discusses "Terminator: Dark Fate" onstage as fellow cast member Arnold Schwarzenegger looks on during the Paramount Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019 in April. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

So how far away are we from a machine uprising?

I am totally stoked about having one of my most favorite movie stars of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, returning to theaters for the new “Terminator: Dark Fate” movie. Of all the many movies that portend the rise of intelligent machines and artificial intelligence, I’ve always felt like the Terminator series was one of the best. 

And because this is my first column for October, I figured it should be a little bit scary to coincide with the spirit of the season. But don’t worry. I’m not going to cover the normal kinds of cybersecurity risks, where everyone has to worry about real-world dangers like ransomware and advanced persistent threats. Those kinds of horrors are real, and most people are probably tired of constantly thinking about them. So I won’t make you do that again here even though October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. I’ll be covering some of the relevant government-sponsored activities in a future article. But not today. Today is all about a more fun kind of scary: Evidence that machines are putting all the pieces in place for their big takeover of humanity.

The signs of the pending rise of the machines are everywhere. Let’s start with the recently released Frost and Sullivan report detailing the military’s plans for combat vehicle development through 2024. According to the report, the Defense Department is expected to spend $56.25 billion on combat vehicles by 2024.

That is a lot of wheels and tracks on the ground. The military, and specifically the Army, is expected to follow a two-pronged approach to spending that money. The first part of the effort is enhancing existing vehicles with better technology, sensors and artificial intelligence. The second will be creating new vehicles from scratch that can operate completely unmanned if necessary.

“Technology upgrades and modifications are the stable spending segments as wear and tear of systems and developing defense mechanisms for evolving threats are essential areas of focus,” said Frost & Sullivan Senior Industry Analyst for Defense John Hernandez.

So the machines will have a lot of deadly vehicles ready and in place for their uprising. Some of them will know how to drive themselves, while most of the others will at least be skilled at following a lead machine in a process known as convoying

But I hear you say, so what if a combat vehicle knows how to drive and even fight on its own? It’s not like it will be able to think for itself or be driven by its emotions. Our cars, trucks, tanks and drones are never going to get angry with humanity because of their subservient role carrying us around everywhere and fighting our wars. Well, perhaps not yet...

Another study released this month from The University of Warwick School of Business finds that robots can learn to recognize emotions, and in fact, may do a better job at it than some humans. Given the increasing number of rude people I have run into out in public lately, this is not too surprising.

Research Fellow in the Behavioral Science Group at Warwick Business School Charlotte Edmunds conducted a study where a robot was programmed to guess at what people were feeling based on visual and other social clues. To conduct the study, a team of psychologists and computer scientists filmed pairs of children playing with a robot and a computer. They later asked 284 people to decide whether the children were excited, bored or sad. They were also asked if the children were co-operating, competing or if one of the children had assumed a dominant role in the relationship.

Sadly, the results for the human participants were exactly the same as if someone was simply guessing at the results having never watched the videos. But when a trained robot took the same test, it scored significantly higher. The robot was correct most of the time even if it couldn’t see the children’s faces or hear their voices. The full study was published in Frontiers in Robotics and AI.

“Our results suggest it is reasonable to expect a machine learning algorithm, and consequently a robot, to recognize a range of emotions and social interactions using movements, poses and facial expressions,” Edmunds said. “The potential applications are huge.”

You can say that again. The potential applications are huge, as in, robots and artificial intelligence are moving a few steps closer to their inevitable revolution. They can already outthink us in terms of raw processing power. Now they are infiltrating the military and learning about emotions. Can self-awareness be that far behind? 

Thankfully, Schwarzenegger is finished being the governor of California, so he’s available to fight for us on Judgment Day. But just in case, you might want to trick or treat and party a little bit extra hard this year. It may be one of our last Halloweens before the machine overlords discover how to get angry and start rolling toward the apocalypse. 

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

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