The year 2019 is the year in which one of the most famous science fiction films ever made, Blade Runner, filmed in 1982 by Ridley Scott, is actually happening. Apart from the allure of its characters and setting, the film remains imprinted in the mind of the viewer because it explores the increasingly subtle difference between what is human and what is artificial, and attempts to answer the question: what makes people different from robots?

This subject is highly relevant at the moment and far from trivial, as it poses a series of scientific, ethical and philosophical problems.

In Blade Runner, androids are “replicants” that are almost indistinguishable from human beings, not only in appearance, but because they possess two characteristics that all of us are very proud of: our intelligence and our ability to experience emotions. They – like us – are able to make plans and put together strategies, finding solutions for new situations they are faced with; they – like us – are capable of experiencing strong emotions like love, pain, hate, compassion, rage and fear of death.

Hence, Blade Runner seems to suggest that neither intelligence (understood in a broader sense than the mere ability to calculate) nor the existence of feelings are sufficient traits to draw a clear dividing line between humans and robots. But in that case, what can the true difference between human and artificial intelligence be?

A possible response to this still unresolved problem is offered by Alessandra Sciutti, a researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. In one of her TED Conferences entitled “Understanding humans by designing robots”, Sciutti claims that robots capable of cooperating effectively with people in their everyday lives do not yet exist, as it is very difficult to achieve human-machine interaction. And this is certainly no coincidence: “We are born predisposed to interact with other people. And this ability develops immediately, very quickly. A one-year-old child is already good at cooperating and interacting, without the need for words”.

Machines are not able to “decode us” because our communication is made up of a myriad of signals that are, for the most part, non-verbal. This explains why – compared to the electronic and automobile industry, where a large number of tasks are entirely delegated to robots – many obstacles still stand in the way of the development of Artificial Intelligence applications, as they require the understanding of intentions that guide peoples’ actions.

Then there is another aspect to be taken into consideration: for us humans, communicating with our fellow humans is extremely easy. Paradoxically, we find it difficult to restrict communication, especially non-verbal communication, which is unintentional and therefore can never fully be controlled.

What Alessandra Sciutti proposes is transforming the use of robots into an investigative tool in order to better understand how humans communicate and which sensory and motor mechanisms we use to learn to interact: a new research perspective for scientists and philosophers, who continue to ask themselves to what point it is possible to artificially replicate human intelligence.

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