As computers continue to become faster, smaller and cheaper, some cognitive scientists wonder if tomorrow’s computers will ever match human intelligence and become self-aware. Breaking away from traditional hard science, the UCSB cognitive science program staged a theatrical production, entitled “Judy,” which posed the question: If you build a robot smart enough to do the dishes, would it also be smart enough to find them boring?

Dan Montello of the UCSB cognitive science program put on the show, which starred Tom Sgouros as a robotics researcher who creates a machine that can think for itself. Named Judy, the charming and witty robot demonstrates what could happen if computers obtain self-awareness.

The production drew the attention of local Santa Barbara residents and faculty alike on Friday. Robert Bernstein, a local Santa Barbara resident and robotics enthusiast, thought Judy’s character presented a plausible vision of artificial intelligence.

“It is very exciting to think that such a thing as Judy could exist, but it is not just the idea of artificial intelligence that is important,” Bernstein said. “It’s also this idea of artificial consciousness. The thing that was amazing about Judy was that there seemed to be both.”

Psychology Dept. Associate Professor Mary Hegarty was dubious about the idea of a machine that could think for itself in the near future.

“I guess I am kind of skeptical because I think it is unpredictable,” Hegarty said. “A better way of thinking about it is: How can we use computers to augment our own abilities rather than to supplant them?”

Sgouros’ interest in cognitive science is not rooted in any academic study on the subject. Instead, incoherent arguments motivate Sgouros to educate himself on the subject.

“You read a stupid argument and you think, damn, this is out to lunch. But then nobody believes you unless you can back up [your claim],” Sgouros said. “That motivates me to go read and defend my gut sense. … So the motivation for reading cognitive science stuff has been impatience and ire.”

Rather than attempting to demonstrate what machines are capable of now, Sgouros used his film background to stage the entire performance. Sgouros’ robot was merely a scripted, moving device coordinated with an actress’ voice – a sleight-of-hand trick that he revealed after the show.

“The reason that magicians never tell their tricks is not because there is a code of magic,” Sgouros said. “It is because when you tell, you always want to hear somebody to say, ‘Gosh, how clever.’ But instead what they always say is, ‘Is that all?'”

While the debate about futuristic robotic intelligence continues, conscious machines remain in the realm of magicians’ tricks and science fiction.