Robotics Integrated With Human Body In Near Future? Technology Gulf Between 'Have' And 'Have Nots' Predicted By 2020

December 06 2008 / by Covus / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: 2020   Rating: 10 Hot

2033_Digital_Man-3.jpgIt sounds like a prediction right out of “The Singularity Is Near,” but this one is from Antonio López Peláez, a professor of sociology at Spain’s National Distance Learning University, UNED, and co-author of the study on the future social impact of robots, jointly carried out with the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies. International experts working on inventing and adapting cutting edge robots for practical use were interviewed during the study, in order to find out by when we will be regularly using the models they are currently designing. All agreed on 2020 as a technological inflection point, because by then robots “will be able to see, act, speak, manage natural language and have intelligence, and our relationship with them will have become more constant and commonplace”, said López Peláez. This will follow a revolution in robotics after which they will no longer be sophisticated machines, but tools to be used on a daily basis, helping us with a large number of work and social activities. He goes on to say even more significant will be the insertion of robots into our bodies, such as intelligent implants in the brain, which will improve our rational thought, and nanorobots to be released into the blood to clean our arteries. You can find the article here.

AI(Artificial Intelligence) and IE (Intelligence Enhancement) is all hype. Nonsense!

While I am still skeptical, I am inclined to agree based on developments of the past few years. More and more I am seeing major breakthroughs in computer science and we are reaching specific milestones that were correctly predicted to happen. The memristor, the missing fourth electronic circuit element, was created just this year by HP (Hewlett Packard). The circuit element had only been described in a series of mathematical equations written by Leon Chua, who in 1971 was an engineering student studying non-linear circuits. Chua knew the circuit element should exist -- he even accurately outlined its properties and how it would work.  It has been theorized that it may lead to instant-on PCs as well as analog computers that process information the way the human brain does. 

Another huge breakthrough, the first  superconducting transistor was just created and promises a PC revolution. Andrea Caviglia "and his colleagues at the University of Geneva in Switzerland grew a single crystal containing two metal oxides, strontium titanate and lanthanum aluminate, as separate segments. At the interface of these materials, the team found a layer of free electrons called an electron gas (Science, vol 317, p 1196). At 0.3 kelvin - just above absolute zero - these electrons flow without resistance and so create a superconductor."  Caviglia says that computers using such transistors would be "much faster than the gigahertz speeds currently available." Not only that, we have heard of 80 core processors being designed by Intel for everyday use in the near future. Coupled with these discoveries, computers 10 years of now will make computers of today seem ancient. 

We’ve also reached an important milestone in computing power with not one but two computers reaching the petaflop. IBM’s Roadrunner and Cray’s Jaguar hit 1.104 and 1.05 petaflops, respectively.

As for AI, it is still controversial and hotly debated, but european researchers are making progress on piecing together a new generation of machines that are more aware of their environment and better able to interact with humans. 

We don’t need a human brain for robots to do simple tasks. It is more important they have the capacity to take orders, do what we need them to do and understand us while being able to respond appropriately. Many menial jobs don’t need much brain power to begin with – it only makes sense to use our robots to do the “dirty work” freeing people up for creative endeavors. I can already see robot cooks or robots taking orders at McDonalds. Narrow AI will still serve many purposes, while strong AI is still the main goal. IBM and a consortium of universities are poised to simulate a simple brain in 2012-2013 paving the way to more complex projects and hopefully the development of strong AI.

Nanomachines, Stem Cells again? Hogwash.

At first glance, professor Lopez’s claims seem quite fanciful, but if you do a small amount of research, it doesn’t seem so far fetched. Consider that they have just created the first nano-wheel. According to the article, scientists have devised a microscopic "swimming machine" that could deliver drugs inside the body by mimicking the wheel of a paddle-steamer. The microswimmer is the first such device to move without using chemical propulsion or bending itself into different shapes. New Scientist reported that the team at the University of Sheffield and the University of Barcelona believes its technology can easily be shrunk to nanoscale – at which size it would be useful as a drug carrier. Video can be seen here or here. While this is just the first of many nano-machines, it is still years away from being used in a human body. If it proves to be effective, it will be a revolution in western medicine and blaze a trail to better nanotechnology.

Not only nano-machines but stem cells are becoming practical and used in real medical procedures. Recently, the first trachea was transplanted from stem cells. Quoted from the article: “the patient was a 30-year-old woman whose left airway collapsed as a result of tuberculosis. She'd already had a stent implanted to reopen that airway, but that didn't work out and the stent had been removed. Doctors got a trachea from an organ donor and stripped the donated trachea of cells that would have been rejected when transplanted into another person. The doctors took adult stem cells and some other cells from the healthy right airway of the woman needing the trachea transplant, grafted those cells onto the stripped-down donated trachea, and marinated the trachea in chemicals in a lab to coax the trachea into rebuilding itself. When the trachea was ready, the doctors implanted it into the patient. The procedure worked, and since the trachea had been prepped by the patient's own stem cells before transplantation, her body accepted it without immune-suppressing drugs.” Forget just nano-tech – the stem cell revolution might actually be just as important. This is not to mention the anti-aging research and  the technology that is being tested right now. Our health looks like it will be vastly improved in the coming decades.

iRobot? Stop watching Will Smith movies!

All this robot talk sounds out-of-this-world but consider that in Japan, robots female_robot-1.jpgare commonplace. "There are robots serving as receptionists, vacuuming office corridors, spoon-feeding the elderly. They serve tea, greet company guests and chatter away at public technology displays. Now start-ups are marching out robotic home helpers"; it is almost inevitable that robots will sweep across the world in the same fashion, appearing first in first-world countries. They will eventually get more complex and sophisticated. When they do, we will interact with them more on a daily basis.  Professor Lopez points out that  The most striking feature of this technological revolution are social robots, machines with artificial intelligence, and with which we will have emotional and even intimate interactions. “A robot might be a more effective partner and a better person than the humans we actually have in our immediate lives: just as you can see dog owners talking to their pets today, soon we will be talking to robots,” says López Peláez – to such an extent that sexual robots are currently being designed to carry out pleasurable personal interactions. These will be equipped with the required sensorial abilities, such as touch. “Since they will be used as objects, sexual robots may be able to act as a future substitute for prostitution or pornography.” I might still prefer a real human for contact, though. 

What’s it all mean?

As with anything, take any predictions with a grain of salt. However, in my opinion, the future is coming at us at blinding speed and we're seeing a convergence of technologies like we've never before seen. While it might be far from the utopia we long for, it is a little closer to the future we've all imagined. 

Will the Singularity happen? I don’t know. Justin Rattner, CTO of Intel predicts it by 2048. I don't have to mention Ray Kurzweil. It seems like a more plausible scenario more and more, if you weigh the evidence properly but that’s not what this article is about. A lot of things have to happen between now and then and I don’t like to speculate. Although, the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Comment Thread (6 Responses)

  1. A note on skepticism – optimists usually operate not just by taking the long view, but also the broad view. To see what is possible, you need to assess the impact of other advancing technologies. For example, in the next ten to twenties working quantum computers will be developed. Since they will be able to simulate quantum systems (i.e atomic, nuclear, particle physics systems), can you imagine the impact this will have on e.g. chemistry, materials research, nanotechnology, medical engineering etc ad infinitum?

    Fore some reason, people often omit a field when they make predictions, and this is understandable – there are probably things we haven’t even thought of. This broad view is essential to see how the next few years will be different from the way things advanced in the 20th century. The AI predictions are fairly plausible, and at the very least we will have AI so advanced that it will also aid with research just like other fields will. The robot doesn’t have to have a sense of humour to change our world.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   December 07, 2008
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  2. @CptSunbeam – I agree with you. I hope you enjoyed my first blog post.


    Posted by: Covus   December 07, 2008
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  3. I certainly did enjoy your post! I think Kurzweil was great at prediction before the convergence of various fields started, which makes the art of prediction a more complex and hazardous business, so I think I’m just repeating your main point. So of course, with AI, a highly complex form of computing by definition, skepticism is all the more due. Congratulations on your first post :-)

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   December 07, 2008
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  4. @CptSunbeam – It’s not that I am skeptical – you misunderstand. I am optimistic that these things will happen but I am always reminded that being practical and rational should come first. Like I said at the end of my post: “the truth is always more stranger than fiction.”

    Predicting change and/or technology is difficult because one paradigm might fail and it throws a monkey wrench in a sequence of events leading to a discovery/technology. That’s why I am watchful of what is occurring but my post was to convey that this stuff is real and it is coming. So get ready, because it’s heading towards us – fast.

    And thank you. :)

    Posted by: Covus   December 08, 2008
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  5. Very good, Covus, well done.

    As to robots, I think their continued development is assured given the nature of Japanese population demographics. I think two conditions will have a pronounced effect on their deployment into other countries however.

    One of these will be the regulatory/legislative environment each country will enact that robots must be designed to function within. Property rights, financing and liability will be only three issues that will directly effect robotic expansion into human societal interaction. Given the unknowable nature of prediction, I don’t think it too extreme to say that there will be issues we haven’t begun to imagine yet, let alone seriously consider.

    Another influence (and this isn’t a reflection of any priority I place on these points) will be the mechanisms enacted to alleviate the disruption in the lives of humans displaced by robots. There are lots of possibilities here, of course, but I have to say that human history to date doesn’t fill me with happy excitement as to how this is most likely to commonly occur. One mechanism I’d like to see tried as soon as technologically practicable is for human workers to perform their assignment by having their actions and/or commands direct a robotic counterpart that actually performs the task to exact tolerances. A human is immediately available to respond to any circumstance that exceeds the design parameters and is involved in the on-going process when all is well. Such an on-site relationship could quite easily translate to a tele-presence when robotic capabilities permitted spontaneous response to non-programmed events. Not just hazardous work environments either; your stipulated Micky D’s employee could cook the food and serve it by directing a robot via “video game” controllers and electronic interface capability now if it could be made cost effective to do so. My own manufacturing occupation involves product assembly work; automating that by means I have described would certainly result in an improvement of product build quality as well as a reduction in assembly process time requirements.

    Funding human existence (whether or not we use “money” to do so :)) will be an on-going requirement of a technological society well into the Singularity development curve, I think. Not doing so can only inhibit our travel up the exponential path.

    Posted by: Will   December 08, 2008
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  6. Great post Covus. I agree wholeheartedly with Capt Sunbeam re: landscaping parallel technologies and scientific developments to get a true sense of what is occurring and what will be possible in the next decade. It seems this is a nascent notion to many in the scientific community. Look forward to future posts from you and would sure love to see one from the good Captain too :)

    Posted by: Jeff Hilford   December 10, 2008
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