How close are robots to becoming human?

Humanlike robots continue to transform society. But is there a limit to how ‘human’ we can make machines? And what are the ramifications of creating robots in our image?

It’s often said certain qualities, such as morality, emotion and culture, are uniquely human. They’re what separate us from non-human animals and other living organisms. In fact, the philosopher Aristotle characterised the human race as ‘rational animals’ who live by art and reasoning. In essence, we pursue knowledge for the sake of it.

But what if we were to transfer these qualities on to a robot? If a robot could be made to feel empathy or express creativity, would that make it ‘human’? It might seem like a far-flung question, but the reality is closer than you think.

AI is evolving at a rapid pace thanks to better computer hardware and software. So it might not be too long before jobs traditionally considered ‘safe’ are automated as well.

According to a study between Oxford and Yale University researchers, AI is expected to automate all human tasks in the next 45 years and all human jobs in the next 120 years. Jobs that involve predictable and repetitive tasks will go first, and jobs that require high levels of creativity and emotional intelligence will follow. Despite the complexity, creativity or skill a job entails, robots are coming for it.

So what does this mean for society today, and what can we expect from humanlike robots in the coming years?

The ‘humanness’ of robots today

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably well adjusted to being human. You can navigate your way around this website, digest the information at your own pace, and make up your mind about the issues at hand. You’re probably sitting on a chair. Maybe you’re even eating a snack. For you, all these activities are nothing extraordinary.

But for robots and their researchers, replicating these simple behaviours has proved highly difficult. It turns out, humans are complex beings. Everything from how we view a scene in front of us, to how we navigate a terrain, is hard for a robot to achieve. Whereas we humans are skilled at adapting our abilities to new or dynamic environments, robots need to know what’s coming in order to function.

In short, today’s robots tend to find difficult tasks easy and easy tasks difficult. They may be skilled in playing world-class chess but still struggle with loading the dishwasher. And, despite much of today’s computing terminology taking inspiration from human traits (computers can catch a ‘virus’, ‘read’ discs and ‘write’ files), the robots currently in development are still far from human.

However, researchers are trying to bridge this gap. They’re not only trying to improve the technical abilities of robots so they’re better at processing environments – they’re improving the social potential of robots as well.

But even if we could create robots capable of mimicking our physical movements and interaction, could they truly think and behave like us? Creativity and emotional intelligence are two things often considered innately human… but are they?

Can we teach robots creativity?

Robots are helping people become more creative every day. New tools in image making and music composition are helping push the frontiers of what’s humanly possible. With robots doing the time-consuming and non-creative tasks, artists can focus their energy on their art instead of spending time on their tax returns.

But whether or not robots can create art themselves is a difficult question. Firstly, a definition of creativity is needed.

Margaret Boden, a cognitive science expert at Sussex University, defines creativity as “the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising and valuable.” Ideas can include things such as poems, songs, jokes or scientific theories, while artefacts can be anything from sculptures, paintings to vacuum cleaners.

‘New’ and ‘surprising’ are highly difficult to automate. Automation relies on explicit instructions and boundaries, going against the very notion of creativity. What’s more, creativity in art, writing and music requires drawing on personal experience. These works are creative because their creators understand the core principles of their craft and lean on different inspirations to create something ‘new’.

What’s more, some argue that, even if a computer is capable of creating ‘creative’ works, it can never be genuinely creative. This is because it’s the programmer’s creativity at work. Just as a paintbrush was the tool of Monet, or a camera was the tool of May Ray, the AI is the tool of whoever is using it.

Despite that, various examples of robots expressing themselves (or their creators) already exist.

Expressive robots today


Aiva stands for ‘Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist’ – and is an AI that can compose classical music. Recently it became the first AI to officially acquire the status of composer, which gives it authorship rights under France and Luxembourg’s copyright laws.

It uses deep learning to compose symphonies, based on the compositions of famous composers such as Beethoven and Mozart (whose work is copyright-free). From this analysis, it creates its own work, based on whatever series of notes it considers to sound ‘right’. The sheet music is then played by professional artists using real instruments and recorded in a recording studio.


Credit: Scailyna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

RoboThespian is an acting humanoid. Created by UK-based Engineered Arts, it’s capable of talking and displaying facial expressions. Currently, it’s being used for corporate events and in museums to entertain and communicate with visitors. It has also had time on stage, playing a key character in a play called Spillkin.


Botnik is an AI-assisted tool that uses different types of human-created content, including anything from Seinfeld scripts to Harry Potter novels, to creative predictive keyboards. These can be used to write new versions of existing works. It’s already written new versions of the Harry Potter books, as well as new episodes of ScrubsX-Files and Seinfeld. “The idea of Botnik is that humans and machines working together can come up with things that neither would be able to on their own,” Botnik CEO and co-founder Jamie Brew has said.

So can AI be creative? Today’s AI can write poetry, but it can’t write a novel. It can act, but it can’t make a movie. Technical ability can be mimicked, but creativity and intention are far from perfect. While robots can create what looks like art, it’s still debatable whether it actually is.

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