Can Intelligence Be Separated From the Body?

What is the relationship between mind and body?

Maybe the mind is like a video game controller, moving the body around the world, taking it on joy rides. Or maybe the body manipulates the mind with hunger, sleepiness and anxiety, something like a river steering a canoe. Is the mind like electromagnetic waves, flickering in and out of our light-bulb bodies? Or is the mind a car on the road? A ghost in the machine?

Maybe no metaphor will ever quite fit because there is no distinction between mind and body: There is just experience, or some kind of physical process, a gestalt.

These questions, agonized over by philosophers for centuries, are gaining new urgency as sophisticated machines with artificial intelligence begin to infiltrate society. Chatbots like OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Google’s Bard have minds, in some sense: Trained on vast troves of human language, they have learned how to generate novel combinations of text, images and even videos. When primed in the right way, they can express desires, beliefs, hopes, intentions, love. They can speak of introspection and doubt, self-confidence and regret.

But some A.I. researchers say that the technology won’t reach true intelligence, or true understanding of the world, until it is paired with a body that can perceive, react to and feel around its environment. For them, talk of disembodied intelligent minds is misguided — even dangerous. A.I. that is unable to explore the world and learn its limits, in the ways that children figure out what they can and can’t do, could make life-threatening mistakes and pursue its goals at the risk of human welfare.

“The body, in a very simple way, is the foundation for intelligent and cautious action,” said Joshua Bongard, a roboticist at the University of Vermont. “As far as I can see, this is the only path to safe A.I.”

At a lab in Pasadena, Calif., a small team of engineers has spent the past few years developing one of the first pairings of a large language model with a body: a turquoise robot named Moxie. About the size of a toddler, Moxie has a teardrop-shaped head, soft hands and alacritous green eyes. Inside its hard plastic body is a computer processor that runs the same kind of software as ChatGPT and GPT-4. Moxie’s makers, part of a start-up called Embodied, describe the device as “the world’s first A.I. robot friend.”

From left, Moxie, which has sensors that can take in visual cues and respond to your body language; cords on Embodied's walls; and Robin Johnson, a robot technician at Embodied, with a Moxie unit.Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times