Discovery News reported last month on a Japanese robot that's been designed to recognize itself in a mirror and to imitate other robots. I had to blink a couple times when the reporter threw in this WTF comment from the researcher (emphasis mine):
"Imitation, said Takeno, is an act that requires both seeing a behavior in another and instantly transferring it to oneself and is the best evidence of consciousness."
Well, um, apparently not.
Okay, presumably Junichi Takeno doesn't believe his aping Aibo is conscious. But one of the aims of his group's research is to model and understand human consciousness by developing self-aware robots. The article says the Roomba reproduction has "artificial nerve cell groups built into the robot's computer brain." Whatever that means.
A bit vague on the details, but it brings to mind the mirror neurons in the brains of humans and higher primates. These "monkey see, monkey do" cells were discovered by accident. Italian scientists in the lab of Giacomo Rizzolatti were measuring neurons in a monkey's brain that became active when it reached for food. One day, the monkey watched a researcher pick up a banana and the same neurons fired up.
It's been theorized that these mirror neurons are meant not just to help us learn movements by imitating others, but to help us relate to each other. They may be responsible for our "theory of mind" skillz. (No note on whether watching lowly lab techs slipping on banana peels tickled the monkey cells' fancies.) In fact, it's been shown that damaged mirror neuron systems exist in autistics, who are notably devoid of theory of mind skillz (but occasionally blessed with mad card counting skillz.) Apparently these cells also endow us with empathy. They explain why I flinch watching Raging Bull and why I cry watching that episode of South Park when Kenny really dies.
In 2000, the inimitable neurologist Ramachandran called mirror neurons the most important unpublicized story of the decade. "They will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments." No, the real mental ability that has hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments is how anyone can watch a full episode of America's Funniest Home Videos. Thirty minutes of that nut-crunching terror and my own sperm count begins to drop.
You may be wondering if mirror neurons explain yawn contagion. Contagious yawns have been linked to empathy and theory of mind. Indeed, one of my favorite factoids comes from a 2003 study by Steven Platek showing that people more susceptible to the contagious yawn (like me) have more empathy skillz. But, alas, a neuroimaging study in 2005 showed that catching yawns relies on different brain circuitry. (By the way, I asked Lindsay Oberman, first author on that autism paper, if there was yawn contagion in autistics. She doesn't know but is looking into it. My guess is no. [Update: My guess was correct.])
Okay, back to robots. Judging from animal studies, Takeno's tinmen will have to do a lot more than pass the mirror test to demonstrate consciousness. And judging from hipster studies, imitation is no sign of intelligence either. Invent a yawning Hal, however, and we might be getting somewhere.