Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Robot?

Humanity; in a word it describes something which is essentially humane, deriving from being human. When we think of humanity as a word it invokes in us a certain sentiment. It invokes something naturally occurring, something organic. We imagine a world of natural beauty compromising nature and all of its complex variety; from the mountains, trees and lakes to the beautiful sunsets, islands and oceans — views from animals of all walks of life and of course mankind himself at the very center. Captured within this imagination of the natural world is the expectation of its preservation — the deep-seated fear of its becoming something less earth-like, something less than natural, or at worst, destroyed. Mankind’s very psychological instinct is to preserve this ideal vision of humanity, as well as his survival within the center of that natural context.

Then of course would come humanities obsession with transcending this natural world, pushing its limits and re-defining the landscape. Over the course of the past 500 years of human history, we have come to understand more about our natural world, and the rules of science that govern it.

In the year 1619, astronomer Galileo Galilei observed a comet which encouraged him to form a radical hypothesis: that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. His hypothesis was formally printed in Italy later that year, and became formally known as the Heliocentric Theory of Planetary Orbit. The Bible advocated differently; the Bible held that a divine creator, a universe created by God, had Earth at its center. This was generally accepted as the correct theory, the Geocentric Theory. Man was seen as the center of the universe, because God created the universe with the vision of man in mind.

Galileo contradicted this claim. And given church laws were also seen as the law of the land, most were unenthusiastic about his hypothesis. He would be placed on house arrest for life as a result of his heresy.

Hundreds of years later, what Galileo hypothesized, humankind would confirm. Centuries of progress, and man continues to redefine the natural world around him. Mankind does not do well with change, it proceeds slowly, but inevitably.

Fast forward to DARPA’s latest invention: ATLAS. ATLAS is a human-like robot, with distinctly human-like features and structure. It has been designed for use with human tools, like rifles, or disaster aid. It is revolutionary in the sense that we have begun to replicate ourselves with technology. And as you can imagine, mankind just like in the 1600s, is alarmed.

Leading technology magazine CNET published its coverage of DARPA’s latest revelation under the title ‘Be Afraid: DARPA Unveils Terminator-like ATLAS Robot.’ The alarming title then proceeds to cover a story about the dangers present in this invention. And if you’ve been reading my blog for any period of time, you will know I’ve covered this fear of machine before; specifically as it related to the United Nations banning autonomous robots for combat.

The obsession with the preservation of the natural world has led mankind to fear anything that could disrupt that. Those who fear technology or who are phobic of it have that fear because they worry that we may become less natural in the process. Man’s only understanding of man-like machines comes from movies like the Terminator. His only context of man-like robots comes from these dystopic science fiction films.

As a result, instead of focusing on the positive things robots like ATLAS can do, we focus on the horrible things they can do. We think how much these robots could become terminators, instead of aiders or facilitators to the preservation of the natural world. Man must on the same account not be too optimistic for technological progress, especially in the fields of artificial general intelligence and advanced robotics. With all powerful creations, there must be a fail-safe mechanism. As robots become advanced enough to be truly autonomous, we must consider how to program them beforehand to not execute certain actions or ideas (see Assimov’s Laws of Robotics).

Man and machine need not be mutually exclusive. We can still preserve humanity and humankind while also improving it through the presence of robotics and artificial intelligence. We will reach a point, possibly within out lifetime, that could blur the very meaning of “artificial intelligence” and/or “humanity.”

For something to be organic in the sense of that word, mankind believes it should originate with some kind of a natural life form. But what if things are created by super-intelligent machines? What happens when robots start creating on their own, because they will have adapted human-like intelligence, even superseding human intelligence? Will we see their creations as unorganic? Or will we come to appreciate it as being organic in the sense of a common origin?

More crazy than that thought is nature actually synthesizing and merging with technology. The emergence of biotechnology has seen mankind augment his physical limitations with the help of cyborg-like technology. Once debilitating handicaps are now overcome with advanced sensory-controlled prosthetics.

Scientific research has accepted treating patients with the aid of technology.  Some are so enthusiastic that they have begun to research implants into the brain to deliver medication. The US government, along with the EU has funded brain-scanning research to unlock the coding of the brain. Leading researchers believe we may be more like the robots that we fear than we think. The fact of the matter is, everything from DNA and RNA down to the sequences and functions of the brain can be written and interpreted as code, like code of a computer.

When we do unlock the brain’s code, and allow ourselves to understand how it works, we can possibly cure disease, or even make our inner thoughts available through avatars and human replication through machine. What once seemed artificial is now in a way organic. The lines are becoming blurred.

As this technological ‘Singularity’ is reached, it will create a rupture in the very fabric of that notion of humanity and humankind. It will be irreversible. And to many, that is scary, because man sees this as a threat. But its not.

The concept of a Singularity is not mutually exclusive to humanity any more than Galileo’s heliocentric theory was. Man is constantly evolving. Now man is set to evolve his biology, to transcend into a marriage of biology and technology. This will not erode the mountains, the lakes and seascapes. This will not end human-life. Just the opposite, it has the power to extend it, and possibly indefinitely.

We should of course place any scientific advancement as it relates to artificial intelligence and robotics within a set of rules (possibly like the Laws of Robotics). However, we should not be so immediately dismissive of technology like ATLAS or human-augmentation. The past 500 years has seen incredible evolution in scientific thought and progress. Looking back, it has mostly lead to an overall improvement in quality of life for mankind. And if adopted correctly, there’s no reason technology and advanced scientific understanding of humankind won’t continue to do the same in the future.


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