Self-aware robots with nefarious intentions of taking over the world have been a staple plot in science fiction novels and movies. A team of scientists from the Rensselaer AI and Reasoning Lab in New York have now announced what might be a significant breakthrough toward developing viable Artificial Intelligence (AI) -- albeit not one that’s hell-bent on wiping out mankind.

An experiment conducted on a Nao robot, developed by French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics, elicited behavior that researchers believe shows that the robot possesses the faintest glimmer of self-awareness. However, given that the definition of what construes self-awareness is itself murky, the findings are likely to trigger debate over what the experiment really proved.

In the study, three Nao robots were subjected to an updated version of the classic puzzle known as “the king’s wise men.

The original version of the puzzle goes like this: A king calls the three wisest men in the country and puts either a white or a black hat on their heads. They can all see each other’s hats, but not their own, and they’re not allowed to talk to each other. At least one of them is wearing a blue hat. Whoever is smart enough to work out the color of the hat they’re wearing becomes the king’s new advisor.

In the updated version of the puzzle, the researchers programmed the robots to think that two of them had been given a “dumbing pill” -- one that would prevent them from speaking. In reality, those robots were muted by pressing a button on top of their heads, while the third one had a placebo button.

When the researchers asked the robots which pill they had received, only one of them -- the one that had not been muted -- stood up and said “I don’t know.”

However, a moment later, when its program realized that it had heard its own voice, the robot waved its hand and said: “I know now. I was able to prove that I was not given a dumbing pill.”

According to the researchers, the ability to recognize the sound of its own voice and logically conclude that it had not received a dumbing pill -- because it could speak -- showed that it had the ability to link this realization back to the original question and come up with the right answer, pointing toward a mathematically verifiable awareness of the self.