Humanoids to Replace
Body Parts, Not Maids
Mankind’s ancient dream of creating automatons that can stand in for us, when our bodies no longer function properly, got a bit closer to reality this week. Thanks to research developed at Brown University, two stroke victims, long unable to move or speak, managed to control a robotic arm solely with their minds.
The good news couldn’t come anytime sooner: just a few days earlier, a Tokyo-based robotics developer team had announced the creation of a highly interactive, and disturbingly human-like, pair of buttocks, that responds to touch and stimuli. To be honest, the robotic butt got us thinking where on earth was this kind of research going.
In a way, it all comes full circle, you see. The development of humanoids, capable of simulate emotions and be responsive to sound, sight and touch, has been making great strides, specially by Japanese engineers. Sometimes, their extreme similitude to humans is quite frightening and one is led to think of Blade Runner-type of nightmarish visions of the future.
At the same time, albeit running in a parallel track, research on artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is also well advanced. The combination of these two fields, so far only partial, does suggest that reality is tracking closely the visions that science-fiction authors had conceived long ago.
To be sure, what’s been studied at Brown diverge fundamentally from research on androids, even though they both follow the same principle: to emulate the human ability of combining thought-processing with physical acts.
GOOD ROBOT, BAD ROBOT
But whereas at Brown, the practical applications are already evident, the objectives of research into the development of humanoid robots lack clarity, for except in the case of slave labor, is hard to imagine why would anyone need a robot around the house.
Thousands of stroke victims, on the other hand, specially Locked-In Syndrome sufferers, when the body is unresponsive while the brain is still fully functional, could benefit from implants that would allow them to control objects with their minds.
Then again, scientific exploration should not be conditioned to predetermined goals. Much of the technology we benefit from in our daily routines was not necessarily developed, at least not initially, to accomplish the function it eventually wound up serving.
So, this post should be brief and fun, since we’re talking about machines that some day, if will not be doing our housework for us at first we thought they should, may give us an edge towards a future on this or other planets. Right? Yes, except if there’s a Robopocalypse in the works no one told us about. Then, no, the future is not nearly as bright.
All that one of the stroke victims at Brown had to do was to think about reaching for the thermal filled with coffee. Since her own flesh and bone arms can’t move, the 4mm chip implanted in her brain made contact with an artificial limb. That one grabbed the bottle and brought it over to her mouth for her first self-served sip in 15 years.
Quite an accomplishment, really, thanks to neurologist and engineer Leigh Hochberg, who directs the BrainGate2 clinical trial at the university. Once the technology becomes compact and mobile, it has the potential of bringing self-reliance and independence both to the patients themselves and the social circles supporting them.
Another volunteer, who’s been paralyzed from the neck down for years, had a 100-electrode sensor implanted in his motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls physical motion. With that, he was able to move a computer cursor just by thinking, and has now mastered, as many paralyzed people have, the ability of opening and closing a robotic hand.
In an earlier set of experiments, both had made progress by operating the cursor on a computer screen, for example. And the chip was implanted in monkeys first, with similar results. But this was the first time the potential of the computer interface was successfully tested in a 3D environment.
SLAP THE SENSITIVE BUTT
To express ‘various emotions through organic movements of artificial muscles.’ That’s how Japanese artist Nobuhiro Takahashi defines the touch-sensitive, silicone-skinned, human-like buttocks he’s created. He called it Shiri, and it’s able to twitch, protrude, and be tense in reaction to a touch, stroke or slap.
Notice that the approach here is radically different from what’s been tested at Brown, and it’s probably because Nobuhiro is a designer, primarily interested in provoking a certain reaction from the part of those who come in contact with his creation. He succeeds in so many levels, including one that’s downright creepy.
The body part choice is, in itself, part of the proposal, as even before the robotic butt goes into er action, it’s already causing an impression on those around it. It’d be terribly distracting, had the purpose of the enterprise been purely scientific, or at least, with a practical goal to achieve.
Since it’s not, one’s perception towards it becomes part of the experiment. Far out, you may say, even if its implications are not completely explored. As there’s no psychoanalytical study being conducted in parallel about Shiri that we know of, we’re left with the sheer technological precision of the piece and not much else.
Still, it’s an impressive example of how our brains can be easily swayed into reacting to an inanimate object as if it were a living being, even knowing in advance that it’s made of artificial elements. It’s enough for such object to convey a minimal set of lifelike characteristics and we may as well apply the same sense of innate empathy some of us have with another human being.
THE FAMILIAR AND THE OTHER
Much has been made and talked about what do we want robots to do for us, and whether do we really need them to do it. We’re not talking about assembly line mindless machines, that multiply our ability to produce consumer goods and eventually will be also involved, perhaps even in some sort of independent capacity, in making their own kind.
We’re talking about those likelike, extreme replicas of human beings, that can perform a set of limited functions with astonishing precision and a certain level of creepiness too. Yes, the Blade Runner kind, the Replicants are already almost walking among us, and we wonder whether we’re indeed heading to a time when they’ll be indistinguishable from us.
We genuinely tend to believe that we’ll always be able to tell a robot from a human, though, despite all evidence to the contrary. But even if the future will make these androids part of our daily lives, we also wonder how we will react when we will be facing them and realizing that they are looking back at us.
Perhaps the fear is that we’ll be frightened by their power of emulating our own existence, or that they may steal our identity and ‘uniqueness’ as sentient and talking beings, to the point that they may, indeed, develop emotions and the ability to express them even better that us.
That, of course, assuming that the highly developed science-oriented brain is already to their advantage. We’re tempted to invoke examples of humanity that we believe are our own proprietary forms of expression. Such as being touched by the beauty and the scent of a flower, for example. But tell us, when was the last time you’ve stopped to smell the flowers, so to speak?
CRYONICS OR CAVES AHEAD
In fact, in many ways, we may witness Replicants gearing toward more humanlike qualities, even if devoid of our organic integration with the world, while we may head to a more automatized society. A world where personal, sensorial contact would be shunned and replaced by online networks, and where virtual exchanges would precede the physicality and tactile demands of the body.
This is all speculation, of course, and it’d be a mistake to try to imagine the future, ignoring the many factors that can and eventually will disrupt its progression. While developments in artificial intelligence that may help us leap as a civilization a few hundred years ahead, a primitive, brutal event such as a meteorite collision can set our clock into a different time too, but this time, back.
So while we may be reduced to a brain preserved inside a machine, communicating mentally with each other, robots will be walking around, dating and traveling to places. That is, until the earth gets off its axis and another Ice Age forces us back to caves and to do our own bidding to survive. Assuming that we do.