Northern Colorado Business Report
“In our own image: The pursuit of living machines”
By Kai Staats
14 January 2011

We are all aware of industrial robots, programmed armatures designed to do the dirty, dangerous, tedious tasks we’d rather avoid or cannot do to the same degree of accuracy, speed, and repetition. Nearly every product you purchase is created using a semi-intelligent, autonomous robotic system: from the stamping of aluminum cans to the assembly of injection molded parts for your mobile phone; from laser engraved beer mugs to order fulfillment and shipping of everything we take for granted. All accomplished by high-speed, highly efficient robotic systems.

In our homes commercially available, low-cost robot toys continue to perform, relatively speaking, little more than collision avoidance and basic interaction with the environment while robot vacuum cleaners keep up after our kids and pets.

However, what is happening in the field of robotics as a whole is astounding. Educational, research, and military robotics are making science fact from what was not long ago science fiction. Take a look at Dean Kamen’s (inventor of the Segway) “Luke Arm”, a highly advanced robotic arm funded by DARPA and inspired by Star Wars which is giving those who have lost a limb in military conflict a chance at a normal life.

What’s more, there is significant headway being made toward synthetic skin created of both biological and mechanical foundations. When these two research efforts merge, we will have a means of repairing our own skin and at the same time providing a naturally appearing shell more sensitive than our own living skin.

In particular, I encourage you to search YouTube for “Big Dog” by Boston Dynamics, the Honda Asimo, the Akiba android actress, robots that automatically reassemble themselves, human child robots (iCub), fish, spider, and snake robots that in one form or another mimic the real thing. Each is created in an effort to study means of locomotion and interaction with the real-world.

While I could prepare a column of this length every hour of every day and not keep up with the advances in synthetic eyes, ears, hands, finger tips and joints, balance, perception, and cognition, what interests me as much as the applied technology is the motivation which compels our species to create machines in our own image.

Consider the relatively recent examples in print and film: Pinocchio, Frankenstein’s monster, Metropolis, Westworld, Blade Runner, Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, iRobot, and many more. Look then at the ancient legends and texts which reference gods in human form and humans having been made in the likeness of God. While it is not my goal to give this column a religious overtone, I do call focus to what I believe is an intrinsic desire for humans to give life to the inanimate.

Close your eyes, for just a moment, and imagine yourself as a child again. Recall how easily you arrived to that magical world where dolls and stuffed animals spoke to you, their voices as removed from your vocal cords as were their actions from your fingers. It was real to you then, just as the creation of life-like robots are to those who animate them now.

Just a few days ago, hacker Taylor Veltrop was successful in combining the real-time feedback of a Microsoft Kinect controller with a small humanoid robot, granting an uncanny glimpse of near-future, remotely controlled robots. Every move he makes, his robot attempts to duplicate. Combine Veltrop’s hack with Emotiv’s EEG, Kamen’s prosthetic arm, bio-synthetic skin, and Boston Dynamic’s running humanoids, and we will, in only a few years, be walking alongside robot androids fully human in appearance and function—personal avatars far more 3D than the imagination of James Cameron.

Scary? Perhaps. Inevitable? No doubt. While mobile phones have slowly evolved into smart phones with highly interactive systems, the rate at which robotic devices will move into the mainstream of our commodity world will likely be far faster because we are, in many ways, prepared for the next leap. The next generation of our children will not know a world in which there was not a choice between a real dog or a synthetic pet nor will they necessarily understand what the world was like before bio-mechanical organisms catered to our needs.

Children caring for aging parents, who require daily living assistance, may soon find they are replaced (for better or for worse) by a care giver which is omnipresent, forever alert, and fully trained to prepare food, change bed sheets, and administer life preserving drugs. In fact, children and physicians alike will be able to log-in to their parents’ care giver to observe and to interact from afar, the care giver’s synthetic face automatically changing shape and voice to match that of the person who is temporarily channeled by the host.

By the time you purchase your fully electric, five hundred miles per charge Honda, a family home assistant will be bundled with the car, the transfer of your prior model’s persona and memories conducted in the sales manager’s office as easily as you swipe your smart card.

The boundary between biological and mechanical is fading. The division between natural and artificial is being merged. I believe we are fast becoming the creators of new life forms in the pursuit of living machines for there is something that drives this innovation beyond commercial gain or the desire to replace aging or disabled body parts. We are compelled to learn about our own bodies and behavior through duplication, even improving upon the very foundation of that which makes us human.

We are in the pursuit of living machines.