"Consciousness is perhaps the last remaining mystery in understanding what it is to be human. By attempting to build physical systems which can produce a form of artificial consciousness, we hope to learn more about the nature of consciousness", explained Owen Holland, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Essex and leader of the project.
The robot will be designed and built in a new state-of-the-art robotics laboratory at the University of Essex, scheduled for completion in 2004. Meanwhile, a team at the University of Bristol's psychology department, led by Professor Tom Troscianko, will develop those parts of the robot's "brain" that deal with vision.
Professor Troscianko is an expert in the neuro-psychology of primate vision. Much of what is known about consciousness comes from the study of visual experience and visual imagination, and the team will attempt to make the artificial systems match the systems of humans and apes as closely as possible.
They will then place the robot in complex environments where it must imagine itself trying out various actions before choosing the best one. Powerful computers will analyse and display what is going on in the robot's brain, and the team will use the data to look for signs of consciousness.
Mr. Holland is cautious about the team's chances of success, but believes that the project's results will be of value whatever the outcome. "Like all projects in the adventure fund, there is quite a high risk of failure. However, whether we succeed in detecting consciousness or not, this project will certainly allow us to learn more about the operation of complex human-like visual systems, and will enable ourselves and others to build robots with better developed artificial intelligence in the future."