GUESS WHAT'S COMING TO DINNER?
Robots will rule. Let's hope they get the kinks out and that they like us.
2065 Chapter six, age sixty
THE FIRST TIME I saw her, she was sitting in a booth just inside the entrance gate at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan. She was demure, quiet, pretty and pert in a hostess uniform and matching cap, the quintessential Japanese career girl. Hundreds of other young women looking very much like her were deployed all around the fairgrounds, many of them assigned—and apparently delighted—to do nothing more than bow to everyone who passed by. One hundred thousand visitors a day made for a lot of bowing.
But the girl in the booth never left her seat, and she never stopped showing her perfect teeth. She was, of course, an automaton, Actroid the Receptionist Robot. Your girl Friday, come some Friday in the far, fabulous future.
“Ask her anything,” my guide urged. Actroid, she said, had been programmed to answer more than 40,000 different questions in Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and English. So I tried my best Chinese.
“Xianzaijidianzhong}” I asked. (“What time is it now?”) But she just stared at the lunatic foreigner with vacant brown eyes, the way everyone in Chinatown or China does whenever I open my mouth. Since I don’t know much Japanese, and my Korean is limited to a single phrase I learned during the 1988 Seoul Olympics—“One more bottle of beer, please”—I tried again in British. “What—is— the—weather—forecast—for—tomorrow?”
Actroid hesitated, as if waiting for someone listening in a back room to check the Weather Channel. Then she smiled coyly, nodded her pretty plastic head and said: “Please! Consult the forecast!”
Take for example the 12-year-old schoolboy who, receiving a poor grade for spelling errors in composition, used his father’s muscular “remote” [robot] to beat the English teacher to a pulp and break all his furniture. This remote, called Body Guard, sold like hotcakes. -STANISLAW LEM, PEACE ON EARTH, 1987
IT IS REASONABLE to expect these sort of kinks to be worked out well before 2065. Certainly, Kevin Warwick thinks they will be. He is the professor at the University of Reading in England who proclaimed himself the world’s first non-medical cyborg in 1998, when he had a silicon chip transponder surgically implanted into his forearm and used it to open doors and turn up the thermostat, without touching a switch. (The implant allowed the computer to monitor his movements and respond accordingly.)
By the time my Elizabeth is in her 30s, Warwick expects that she—and almost everyone else, save some obdurate holdouts—will be fitted with a silicon implant, not in the extremities but deep in the brain, thereby permanently merging hardware and humanity and forging a Brave New Canada of receptionist robots, journalist robots, Rock’Em Sock’Em-style hockey robots, and comedian robots who, no doubt, will all be named Dan Actroid. “Today, if you don’t have a TV,” Wawick says, “you are seen as quite strange. Soon, people will say, ‘You don’t have an implant?’
“Being a cyborg opens up abilities in sensing the world in different ways,” he goes on, and he should know. “Your value system changes. You are concerned about security—making sure that no other machine affects your operation and your relationship to other machines, and to the non-implanted humans that we will call naturals. To me, it is clear that this is going to happen by 2040 with implant technology. A signal is a signal, whether it is in the brain or on wires in a computer. They’re interchangeable. Linking the brain directly to the computer will allow us to do many things we cannot do now.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“Looking at the brain-computer interface today, most of our funding comes for work with paraplegics. Some say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t give people hope!’ But we are looking at giving patients the possibility of operating technology in their own homes just by thinking about it—switching lights on, controlling heating, opening doors. The big question we ask ourselves is which implant to use, and where to position it in the brain. We are talking about long-term enhancement. It goes in, but it doesn’t come out.”
To me, this sounds unnervingly like the Roach Motel, but Warwick never misses a beat. “What will affect all of us is the communications aspect—brain to brain,” he says. “We will have to learn how to communicate in a whole new way. In 10 years, it will be telegraphic, and in 20 years, it will be telepathic. I really see it operating like telephone calls, but I don’t know what to call it.” The term “T-mail” for telepathy comes to mind, or B2B—Brain to Brain. Hail the virtual cellphone.
MEAN MACHINES FROM THE SILVER SCREEN
1. Shouting “Let’s watch the world go to hell,” Evil Maria caused a riot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
2. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gort helped his alien master convince humans peace on Earth is a great idea.
3. Making his debut in Forbidden Planet, MGM’s Robby the Robot became a cult icon.
4. The giant ape fought his evil robot twin in the 1967 Japanese flop King Kong Escapes.
5. Who knew bleeps could be so endearing? C-3PO and R2-D2 are iconic robot buddies.
6. C-3PO’s evil cousin was a relic from a droid infantry in The Empire Strikes Back.
I think, therefore I speed-dial.
“Does this mean that if you are dreaming about someone far away, you will have to pay roaming charges?” I wonder.
“Think positively,” says Warwick. “There will be the ability for someone to know where you are, and potentially to know what you are thinking about. We are going to have to learn to keep our thoughts to ourselves.” Warwick—named one of the “Thirty Great Minds of the Future” by a panel at Oxford University—envisions brain implants as a two-way path to enrichment and revelation. In 2065, not only will Elizabeth command her personal devices merely by imagining their operation, but she will also be able to input data into her own memory just by having her chauffeur-robot drive her to a Centrino hot spot.
Of course, The Singularity will have come and gone by then. “That’s probably when we will begin to have problems with machines that can out-think humans, Warwick says. “Of course, at that point, if you’re a cyborg, you’re okay.
“The education side will change dramatically,” he goes on. “Physically, the person still will have his brain, but we will be looking at downloading other images. We would probably start with short-form learning of things like foreign languages, but that would soon progress to the learning of anything.
7. Twiki, the cheery sidekick in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, wore an even smarter robot as a necklace. Biddi-biddi-biddi!
8. Following in a literal-thinking robot tradition, Data’s innocence won people’s hearts-or, as he might say, affected their sensory input patterns-in Star Trek.
9. The toughest cyborg to walk the Earth, RoboCop was part machine, part dead police officer.
10. Robin Williams played the humourless robot who wants to become human in The Bicentennial Man.
11. Sonny, the introspective robot who wants to know what a wink signifies and why Will Smith harbours such hostility toward his kind, in I, Robot.
12. “Life? Don’t talk to me about life”— dour Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“So, could a brain implant let me play golf like Tiger Woods? Well, first you would need to extract the entire memory of Tiger Woods and somehow download it. At the present time, you might need a billion electrodes to probe everything that is going on
in his brain. Unfortunately, that would destroy his brain in the process. But just think about it—for me, the biggie is that linking the brain to the computer directly opens up our experience to more dimensions. To actually experience that, what is that like?”
Warwick believes the merger of the living brain and the Singularity Machine will create a consciousness that can think at the speed of time, and move backward and forward through space and eternity. “You dream of going to different planets—how about having the feeling that you are there without going? Maybe we could get to Pluto. Think about going to other galaxies, not physically but mentally. Once we figure it out, people will wonder, ‘How did people ever live in only three dimensions?’ ”
At this point I am thinking, why didn’t Expo 2005 hire Kevin Warwick to be the Reception Robot?
“Being a cyborg opens up all sorts of possibilities,” he says. “Instead of downloading a DVD, you would just get the experience. We could all say, ‘Let’s have sex with Meg Ryan!’ ”
“There is one small problem, professor,” I note. “She’ll be a hundred and twenty years old.”
WITH THE exception of the blithe and vigorous Kevin Warwick, the reality of combining men and machines has been slow, challenging and often tragic. The handful of patients who have been fitted with experimental brain implants have been “lockedin” paraplegics who have lost all motor function, sufferers so severely impaired that they can do little more than blink, hurt and wait.
Melody Moore is the director of Brainlab at Georgia State University and a specialist in Brain-Computer Interfaces. She was part of the team, led by Dr. Philip Kennedy, that implanted a single electrode in a hollow glass cone into the brain of a 53-year-old stroke victim known as Johnny Ray in 1998. The electrode was connected to a computer mouse, and the goal was for Ray to move
the cursor—and communicate with his doctors and nurses—just by imagining that he was moving his hand. (Electrical thought patterns in Ray’s brain used to perform specific physical movements were mapped out and each time the same pattern appeared the computer would perform the subsequent action, such as moving a cursor.)
“Lie would think about moving his hand and that worked for quite a while,” Moore says from Atlanta. “Then, one day we asked him what he was thinking about to move the cursor and he typed out ‘nothing.’ His brain had absorbed the process so that he didn’t have to think about it any more, just like our brains do when we write or type something.”
After four years of this pioneering experiment, Johnny Ray had another stroke and died. In 2005, neurotechnologist John Donahue at Brown University in Rhode Island was having some success enabling another “locked-in” patient—permanently paralyzed by a vicious knifing—to move a prosthetic arm using a 96-electrode implant. But even this was a long way from trips to Pluto, junk T-mail, or Sleepless in Seattle.
‘Being a cyborg brings many benefits. We could airsay, Let’s have sex with Meg Ryan!’
-KEVIN WARWICK, named by a panel at Oxford University as one of the ‘Thirty Great Minds of the Future’
Moore expects that my Elizabeth—and her own 16-year-old daughter—will not need to have holes drilled in their skulls, or
Pentium chips Krazy-glued into their cerebral convolutions. “I think that in the future, we will use a non-invasive technique that will not require surgery,” she says. “But if you really want my wild idea, the true future is something injectable. It would be a nanocomputer that would infiltrate the spinal fluid and listen to the whole brain at once. But that is 50 to 100 years out.” The problem, of course, is the brain’s magnificent complexity. Deciphering its inner workings, says Moore, is “like lowering a microphone into a stadium full of people all talking at once and trying to figure out what’s going on.” Moore envisions military uses, videogames—“You’re steering your spaceship, you think ‘Fire!’ and it would shoot. You can type faster with your brain than you can with your fingers, so you could certainly see students composing their homework just by thinking about it.” Imagine the excuses when Elizabeth is in Grade 8: “The dog thought my homework.”
“WE WILL GIVE birth by machine!” thunders Damon, the militant mechanical leader
of Rossum’s Universal Robots in R.U.R., the Czech play that popularized the R-word in 1921. “We will build a thousand steampowered mothers. From them will pour forth a river of life. Nothing but life! Nothing but robots!” At which point the androids kill every human in the factory except one.
Still, there’s a happy ending—“life will not perish, it will renew again with love”—and this is how we hope things will go in real life, if anything about life in 2065 will seem real in any way.
“What precisely do we want robots to do'?” asks Janet Rossant, the University of Toronto geneticist. “The Sixties fantasy was to have them as a companion—someone to clean my house and cook my food.”
It is an echo of the mechanical grandmother of Ray Bradbury’s I Sing The Body Electric!:
I cannot sin, cannot be bribed, cannot be greedy or jealous or mean or small. I do not relish power for power’s sake... Name the value you wish, tell me the Ideal you want and I can see and collect and remember the good that will benefit you all. Tell me how you would like to be: kind, loving, considerate, well-balanced, humane... and let me run ahead on the path to explore the ways to be just that... I shall be all the things a family forgets it is...
But because of the way that the global economy is structured, we got nannies from the Philippines instead of the Jetsons’ faithful Rosie. Even in wealthy, techno-mad Japan in 2005, Reception Robots still were outnumbered by bowing, smiling, flesh-andblood Japanese girls, 1,000 to one.
At Expo, Miss Actroid was just one of dozens of machines on display, each one designed to perform a specialized function: Child Care Robot, Person Following Robot,
Dress-up Robot, Batting Robot, Amphibious Snake-Like Robot, Kite Flying Robot, Suspicious Object Removal Security Robot, Pre-Hospital Care Robot, Robotherapist, Robot Woodcutter, Wallwalker, Doctor Impact, the Man-Machine Synergy Effector (“Even Capable of Easily Crushing a Wal-
nut"). A guidebook to the Robot Project contained photographs of the scientists and engineers who were responsible for these comradely contraptions. Not one of them was a woman, which may be why, for example, the Child Care Robot is unable to run, crawl or climb stairs.
At the Toyota pavilion, 40,000 people a day stood or sat or picnicked on the pavement for up to six hours in 37-degree heat, just to watch a band of sparkling white Partner Robots with flexible lips and artificial lungs walk or roll into an auditorium and play When the Saints Go Marching In on trumpet, trombone, French horn and drums.
"The light-bodied Toyota Partner Robots embody the qualities of kindness and inelligence," the pavilion booklet said. But that’s what they said about Damon before he and his brothers ran amok.
‘You could certainly see students composing their homework just by thinking about it’
-MELODY MOORE, director of Brainlab at Georgia State University
“A WORKING machine must not want to play the fiddle, must not feel happy, must not do a whole lot of other things,” says Domain, the general manager of Rossum’s, to a visitor in the opening scene ofR.U.R. “The product must be the best from a practical point of view. What sort of worker do you think
is the best from a practical point of view?” “The best?” asks his guest. “Perhaps the one who is most honest and hard-working.” “No,” says Domain. “The cheapest. The one whose needs are the smallest.”
How many of tomorrow’s machines will become an intimate, or even useful, part of
Elizabeth's life? This may depend on whether she never dates the Yasukawa Electric Corporation's SmartPal, which has two strong arms but no head—exactly the sort of life partner that many women are looking for.
Kevin Warwick doesn't see any problem with one of these robots falling head oved wheels for my daughter. "The emotion of love is probably going to take on a different meaning," he says.
"A cyborg could love a person, but respect comes into it, too. It all depends on how the cyborgs view the naturals. I mean, we like cows, but we're going to eat the cow next week. It's the respect that cyborgs have for humans that will matter.
"Maybe they will say, 'They're good for amusement, it's fun to see them in the zoo, but there is certainly no reason to listen to them.