Holding a children's picture book up to his computer screen, a researcher for the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand coos and croons into the microphone and webcam. On the other side of the screen, a blonde toddler mimics his facial expressions, reads simple words aloud, and even plays basic video games with the scientist. Known only as Baby X, this 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter every day.
An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively "teaching" the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction.
The latest experiments from the Laboratory for Animate Technologies highlight Baby X's ability to read simple words aloud and identify objects that correlate to those same words. A far cry from the kind of self-improving, self-replicating programs we all know and love to fear, Baby X soars beyond the Uncanny Valley, looking adorably confused when it doesn't understand signals, and utterly joyful when its responses are correct. It almost brings a tear to our eye to watch Baby X grow up so fast— we just hope that when the Singularity comes, Baby X remembers us for the good times.
The Laboratory for Animate Technologies is developing a whole series of biologically-inspired simulations of neural networks, biomechanical facial expressions, and brain language. Read more about their research on their website.