I once got a phone call from a professor of engineering at a famous school who said he was assigning a problem to his students–they were to build a robotic guide dog. “What?” he wanted to know, “does a guide dog do?”
“Well,” I said, “the dogs are trained to guide blind people along the sidewalk and then stop at the curb–both the down curb and the up curb.”
“Check,” he said.
“They’re also trained to stop for stairs.”
“In addition,” I said, “they must account for the combined width of their dog-human team–they won’t try to squeeze through a narrow passage just because they might navigate it if they were on their own. They stop and search for another way.”
“Check,” he said. I could tell he was feeling pretty good about his chances. He probably had some experience with the Mars rover program.
“But here’s the kicker,” I said. “Guide dogs are trained in a thing called ‘intelligent disobedience’. When a blind person thinks its safe to cross the street he or she issues the ‘forward’ command. And if the dog thinks its unsafe it won’t move. It may even back up.”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh.” He was silent for a moment then he said: “I guess we’ll have to come up with something else.”
How do you hardwire a dog’s imagination? Or her remarkable intuition and judgment?