Oh the humanity: Hebrew U conference ponders our brains and robots who can learn
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Oh the humanity: Hebrew U conference ponders our brains and robots who can learn

In the midst of ‘the biggest revolution’ and in light of self-driving cars and machines that perform our chores, professors take a look at ‘What makes us human’

Hanson Robotics' robot Sophia, a lifelike robot powered by artificial intelligence, is displayed in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)
Hanson Robotics' robot Sophia, a lifelike robot powered by artificial intelligence, is displayed in Kathmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Avatars that look look like us, talk like us and can go to meetings instead of us; robots that help the elderly at home by cooking for them and bathing them; fully autonomous cars that whiz through our cities — all of these are not science fiction anymore, said Prof. Idan Segev, the head of the neurobiology department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The university is to host a three-day conference starting Monday, attended by some 35 brain researchers from Europe and the United States, to tackle the subject “What makes us human, from genes to machines.” The focus of the conference is what distinguishes humanity from other living beings.

“What makes us different,” Segev said in a phone interview with The Times of Israel, ahead of the conference, is that “we know how to create things. We have the ability to speak and we know to study ourselves.” Humans have been studying their brains, their bodies and their genome, he noted. “We also know how to build machines that copy our abilities, to a certain extent,” he said.

Segev said that humanity today is in the “middle of its biggest revolution,” bigger than the industrial revolution or the information revolution. “We are in the machine learning revolution,” he said.

A thinking robot (PhonlamaiPhoto; iStock by Getty Images)

Since machines can be taught to learn — to change their behavior based on their experiences — they could eventually be taught other human abilities, he said, like empathy for example.

But even with all the recent advances, said Segev, humanity is still far from understanding consciousness and free will.

The conference will address the evolution of human genes and those of other species; how our brain works, the properties of human neurons and their mental ability; and language, artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness.

Key speakers include Prof. Amnon Shashua, the co-founder of Mobileye, a developer of technologies for autonomous vehicles, who will speak about the coexistence of humans with machine intelligence using autonomous driving as a case in point; Yuval Noah Harari, the author of international bestsellers “Sapiens: a brief History of Humankind’ and “Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow,” who will discuss artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness; and Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna, who will talk about the unique and shared properties of the human language.

The conference will be held at the new building of the multidisciplinary Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, designed by Lord Norman Foster.

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