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Trending Now

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
June, 2015 Issue

Michael E. Duffy
All articles by columnist
Columnist's Blog

People have thought about the merging of human and robot since the concept of robots came about in the early 20th century.

There’s new stuff happening in technology every day. But what are the big trends that will shape the future? Understanding trends lets individuals and businesses get ahead of the competition and stake out unclaimed territory. Some of the biggest trends right now revolve around the ideas of artificial intelligence, robots and the so-called “singularity,” when human consciousness merges with hardware.
Assembly line robots have reduced the need for human workers in some industries, and raised the requirements for those workers who remain employed. In China, the era of cheap labor is ending, as the flow of rural workers to cities slows. So the government has instituted a program called “replacing humans with robots.” For a fascinating, five-minute video from the New York Times about this replacement program, Google “cheaper robots, fewer workers.” Ironically, one of the largest Chinese manufacturers of industrial robots, KUKA Robotics, doesn’t use robots to assemble those robots. Of course, humans still design those robots, but one can imagine a world in which sophisticated software evaluates robot designs, improves upon them and then builds them using existing robots.
White-collar workers have long felt themselves immune to the impact of automation, but programs like IBM’s Watson—now being applied to something more useful than winning on “Jeopardy!”—threaten to replace (or at least reduce the need for) highly skilled humans. Wellpoint is currently using Dr. Watson, the medical version of the Watson technology, and claims it’s already significantly better than human doctors at diagnosing lung cancer. Dr. Watson offers a number of advantages. First and foremost, it can hold all currently available information about a topic area in its head, so to speak. Watson can explain how it used that information to arrive at an answer and show you the “less likely” answers in ranking order. It never gets tired or makes mistakes. And like all software, even though the first copy of Dr. Watson was incredibly expensive to build, the next million copies are basically free.
It’s a small conceptual jump from robots that are programmed to assemble machinery or diagnose cancer to robots (and software) that decide what to do on their own. Here, too, progress is clear. Almost everyone is aware of Google’s self-driving car initiative, and concerns are already being raised about Google’s concept vehicles, which don’t include the ability for humans to take control. Boston Dynamics (now owned by Google) produces a line of autonomous robots aimed at military use. These robots are designed to accompany troops in the field, carrying heavy loads over terrain that’s unsuitable for vehicles. This keeps human troops fresher, and lets greater loads be moved. Go to YouTube and search for “boston dynamics” for some cool (and possibly scary) videos of its Spot and Cheetah robots.
People have thought about the merging of human and robot since the concept of robots came about in the early 20th century. Today’s experimental prosthetics let people control their artificial limbs by thought. Software analyzes brain activity to pick out the signals associated with the movement of muscles. We routinely replace worn-out hips and knees in people. But imagine if (when!) scientists develop a replacement nerve cell (neuron). For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that it’s exactly the same size and shape as a neuron. You—somehow—insert it in a person’s body next to an existing neuron and, through some mechanism, it replaces that neuron. It’s unlikely that it would be a surgical process, since the long stem (axon) of some neurons that control motor functions are more than three feet long. Perhaps it gradually replaces every molecule in the neuron. So, now a malfunctioning neuron works again. It’s easy to imagine the tremendous impact of replacing a damaged spinal nerve with a new one.
Now let’s go completely crazy. What if I replace all the neurons in a person with these artificial neurons, which are functionally identical? Not just motor neurons in the spine, but the entire central nervous system, including those in the brain? Is the person still human? In this thought experiment, his or her neurons function exactly the same as they did before the replacement. It’s an interesting progression. A person with a replacement hip is still human. And a person with all his or her bones replaced would still be human, right? A person with a few replacement motor neurons is still human. But what about a person with all neurons replaced? Logic says he or she is still human, but we’ll have to wait a few years to find out.
One more thing: Suppose we can’t build a replacement neuron. That’s pretty hard, I’ll agree. But what if we could make a perfect copy of an existing neuron in software—a perfect neuron simulator. And now we copy all the neurons in your head. What then?
Did you find this column thought-provoking? Then I highly recommend you attend TEDxSonomaCounty on November 7, 2015. Tickets are $40 ($25 for students) and, based on personal experience, well worth the price. You can find out more at (and watch some terrific videos from the past three years of the half-day conference). The topic: "Trending Now."


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