Artificial Intelligence Limits, Robot Failures

(Last updated on: March 20, 2019)

A Summary of the Durable Roadblocks to Super-Intelligent AI…

artificial intelligence limits – confused robot

Artificial intelligence limits are most visible when coupled with failures of robotics. Consider:

  • Instances of serious or fatal vehicle crashes in which a driver relied too much on his self-driving car.
  • Customer frustration with household products like the Roomba vacuum cleaner by iRobot. Ignore the numerous customer service complaints. BBB and ConsumerAffairs reviews also abound with failures of this AI-driven robot to perform as intended.

However, it’s not hard to find artificial intelligence limits even when there’s no recognizable robot in the loop. When we telephone a large business we often have to comb through an interactive voice response (IVR) structure. Many are poorly designed – by humans or by subhuman AIs – and cause extreme customer dissatisfaction.

Moravec’s Paradox and the Limits of Artificial Intelligence

The heading above is the title of an outstanding article by Dr Richard Smith. My friend Charles South alerted me to this valuable article, which Smith has posted on his website.

Who is Smith, and what does he know? Smith has a PhD in Math and Systems Science. However, he isn’t a cloistered academic. He founded and leads TradeStops, a firm that provides math-based tools to support individual investors in their own investment decisions. His article is written from the perspective of an investor, but one with solid math credentials.

Artificial Intelligence Limits: My Reactions to Smith’s Article

Charles and I agree that Smith’s article is thoughtful and well-written. So I wanted to share with you my take-aways from it:

  1. Smith quotes the views of long-term robotics researchers, especially Rodney Brooks. Brooks was professor of Robotics at MIT and head of its Computer Science and AI Laboratory, and later founded iRobot. During his MIT years, he collaborated with the Computer Science department of HRL. We had great respect for his brilliance, knowledge and personal character.
  2. Concerning artificial intelligence limits: Our AIs are not nearly as capable as an insect. Humans, with all their computer help, are not likely to develop AI superintelligence anytime soon.
  3. Smith’s article title references Moravec’s Paradox. It’s not so much a paradox as a deep insight into artificial intelligence limits: Computers can easily play games and ace intelligence tests. However, the most advanced computer does not have the perception and mobility skills of a one-year-old human.
  4. The article introduced me to Steve Wozniak’s Coffee Test as a replacement for the Turing Test (measuring whether an AI can successfully pose as a human). The coffee test is brilliant: a robot enters a home it has never seen before and successfully prepares a cup of coffee. Smith’s analysis of what’s involved makes great reading!

Artificial Intelligence Limits: Bottom Line and Speculation

Smith’s discussion makes evident something that, to me, is the bottom line: Machines will not replace humans. They will continue to get better and better at helping humans do the things that computers can. However, they will never (well, “hardly ever”) master the things that humans are instinctively good at.

If your interest in the future of AI and robotics is piqued, I encourage you to read Smith’s entire article, which is not much longer than this blog. It’s a fine piece of work and compactly written.

We may wonder: is there an in-between world in which robots and humans can effectively partner? Brooks’ other company, Rethink Robotics, was not able to pull off that trick. However, perhaps that company was merely ahead of its time. We may yet see new ideas in human-robot collaborations that shift the ground beneath this entire field.

Have you encountered frustrating – or rewarding! – robots or AI services? Do you have additional thoughts to add? I encourage your comments below.

Sources: I thank Dr Richard Smith for having made his excellent article on artificial intelligence limits publicly available on his website. I thank Charles South for making me aware of it and for contributing his own comments.

Image Credit: Retro robot, from VexStrips on


Artificial Intelligence Limits, Robot Failures — 3 Comments

  1. More about A.I.: For readers with a continuing interest in how artificial intelligence is succeeding, and sometimes failing, to transform business – You may wish to sign up for a free weekly e-newsletter newly started by Fortune Magazine, titled “Eye on A.I.” This and other Fortune newsletters are available at

    I have found Fortune’s CEO Daily and Brainstorm Health Daily valuable; I am adding subscriptions to their A.I. and Data Sheet letters as well.

  2. Comment from James Brennan via Art, both your and Dr. Smith’s articles highlight a key issue with AI adoption: the hype is often too far ahead of reality for end users. Expectations are set too high and limitations are not well-defined.
    Robots, autonomous vehicles, machine learning analytics and other AI technologies are all making great progress thanks to the great minds working in these fields and the strong capital investment, but commercial products need to clearly define the edge cases.
    Machines can undoubtedly process orders of magnitude more raw data than humans, but a little information can go a long way in the human mind. We clearly hold the upper hand in the battle of Man vs Machine. The ideal system is when we are collaborators not adversaries because together we can make each other better.

    • Well expressed, James. Perhaps we need a programming framework that explicitly includes human-AI cooperation rather than tasking the AI to “do it all.”

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