How is evolution changing? From pacemakers to artificial limbs, humans are becoming increasingly “robotic”… meanwhile robots are becoming more advanced, more sentient and more living. Are man and machine truly merging? What are the possibilities, the ethics and the emotional implications of robot evolution?
As robots become more advanced, more intelligent, more sentient and more living, what does it mean to be human?
“We are machines,” says Matt Gray, an acting coach at Northeastern University who also has worked on training robots to act. “We are beautiful, biological machines.”
World-renowned futurist and author Ray Kurzweil believes that the increasing integration of robotics into human life is part of a familiar, natural process. “Evolution is not just biological evolution,” he says. “It started with biology; right now we have technological evolution.”
So if evolution really changing, then in 20 years, will there even be a difference between humans and robots?
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but if you go out a hundred years, two hundred years, I think we will be largely non-biological,” says Kurzweil.
“[The robot revolution] is going to mean the end of a bunch of old paradigms of how we think about human beings,” says Gray. “But there’s a lot of things about human beings, about myself, that I am happy to say goodbye to, and maybe robots are able to help me with.”
With the evolution of robots, we start to see computers not so much as tools but as part of our social and psychological lives.
“[The term] ‘artificial intelligence’ implies that it’s not real intelligence,” says Kurzweil. “Well, it is real intelligence, and ultimately will fully match and exceed human intelligence. And we’ll put it inside ourselves to make ourselves smarter. We’re going to merge with these machines. We have already. Even though we carry them on our belts, they’re part of who we are.”
Self-described “Eyeborg” Rob Spence lost an eye when he was young, and had a digital camera installed in its prosthetic replacement. He sees robotics and augmentation already working their way into our lives. “We’re taller, we’re stronger, we’ve got contact lenses, people are getting laser surgery, they’re getting boob jobs… This is all normal to us because we’re used to it, and it’s happened sort of gradually.”
Biomedical engineer Thiago Caires, founder of the startup Bionik Labs, points out that robotic technology is everywhere, it’s merely that people don’t necessarily recognize certain things as such. “The transition is so smooth that you don’t really realize, ‘Oh Jesus, I have something in my hand that’s a robot,’ right? So I think we won’t realize that people are actually becoming more like robots. It is happening already.”
We’re going to have to answer some intriguing question in the distant and not-so-distant future. Would you replace your legs to be able to run faster? Replace your eyes to be able to see beyond human capacity? What happens when we reach a stage when the alternative is better than the real thing?
Our whole health and biology and medicine is now being reprogrammed, as if this was software,” says Kurzweil. “And that’s not a metaphor, there is software running in our bodies. It’s out-of-date, and we have the means now of updating it.”
Caires worries that it might reach a point where artificial technology will be so superior to organic technology, that traditional humanity might not be the ideal way to live. “The biggest danger of that is how far people will go in terms of changing organs and changing limbs to get better limbs. When people start cutting their arms to get a prosthetic arm that works better for them… I think that’s a little problematic, because you’re going to be more robot than human.”
MIT professor and author Sherry Turkle views it as a philosophical question. “It’s going to be hard for us to know when to stop, and what the limits of that are, and when we want to say that we don’t want to be superhuman humans,” she says. “ Those are moral and ethical decisions that are coming up on us fast.”
According to futurists, the Singularity is the moment when artifiical intelligence will surpass human intelligence. When humans will become robots, and robots will become humanized. But is possessing artificial intelligence enough for robots to be considered human? What about emotions and empathy? The way we act, react, and interact? How much of the human experience can be hard-coded or hardwired, and how much of it is based on actually being human?
Turkle believes that emotional gap will always differentiate artificial beings from real humans. “Robots will never know the arc of the human life,” she says. “Will never know death, will never fear death, will never know life, will never know what it’s like to have a child, will never know what it is to fear the loss of a child.”
MIT computer engineer Rosalind Picard works on developing “affective computing,” which is meant to measure and convey emotion. She says that “emotional intelligence is essential for any technology that is interacting with a human in a way that purports to be intelligent. A machine needs to be able to express empathy, it needs to be able to look sorry if it’s done something wrong. It needs to maybe share your joy and share some of your sorrow in terms of outward appearance.”
We’ve created smart machines, but to truly be human is to feel. So how do we create robots that do feel, that have empathy?
And are we ready to have those more human robots in our midst?