james_geary's picture
Deputy Curator, Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard; Author, Wit's End

J. Craig Venter may be on the brink of creating the first artificial life form, but one game-changing scientific idea I expect to live to see is the moment when a robotic device achieves the status of "living thing." What convinces me of this is not some amazing technological breakthrough, but watching some videos of the annual RoboCup soccer tournament organized by Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The robotics researchers behind RoboCup are determined to build a squad of robots capable of winning against the world champion human soccer team. For now, they are just competing against other robots.

For a human being to raise a foot and kick a soccer ball is an amazingly complex event, involving millions of different neural computations co-ordinated across several different brain regions. For a robot to do it — and to do it as gracefully as members of the RoboCup Humanoid League — is a major technical accomplishment. The cuddlier, though far less accomplished quadrupeds in the Four Legged League are also a wonder to behold. Plus, the robots are not programmed to do this stuff; they learn to do it, just like you and me.

These robots are marvels of technological ingenuity. They are also "living" proof of how easily, eagerly even, we can anthropomorphize robots — and why I expect there won't be much of a fuss when these little metallic critters start infiltrating our homes, offices, and daily lives.

I also expect to see the day when robots like these have biological components (i.e. some wetware to go along with their hardware) and when human beings have internal technological components (i.e. some hardware to go along with our wetware). Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have trained two monkeys to munch marshmallows using a robotic arm controlled by their own thoughts. During voluntary physical movements, such as reaching for food, nerve cells in the brain start firing well before any movement actually takes place. It's as if the brain warms up for an impending action by directing specific clusters of neurons to fire, just as a driver warms up a car by pumping the gas pedal. The University of Pittsburgh team implanted electrodes in this area of the monkeys' brains and connected them to a computer operating the robotic limb. When the monkeys thought about reaching for a marshmallow, the mechanical arm obeyed that command. In effect, the monkeys had three arms for the duration of the experiments.

In humans, this type of brain-machine interface (BMI) could allow paralyzed individuals to control prosthetic body parts as well as open up new fields of entertainment and exploration. "The body's going to be very different 100 years from now," Miguel Nicolelis, Anne W. Deane Professor of Neuroscience at Duke University and one of the pioneers of the BMI, has said. "In a century's time you could be lying on a beach on the east coast of Brazil, controlling a robotic device roving on the surface of Mars, and be subjected to both experiences simultaneously, as if you were in both places at once. The feedback from that robot billions of miles away will be perceived by the brain as if it was you up there."

In robots, a BMI could become a kind of mind. If manufacturers create such robots with big wet puppy dog eyes — or even wearing the face of a loved one or a favorite film star — I think we'll grow to like them pretty quickly. When they have enough senses and "intelligence," then I'm convinced that these machines will qualify as living things. Not human beings, by any means; but kind of like high-tech pets. And turning one off will be the moral equivalent of shooting your dog.