Ever since the 1980’s blockbuster Terminator, movies featuring technological singularity and its pitfalls have frequented the cinema screens. Although the concept of humans becoming prisoners of their own devices is much older and was picked up in the epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey that was released in 1968. More recently, movies like Ex-Machina and Her have explored human relationship with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Similarly, the 2014 Johnny Depp movie Transcendence examined the digitisation of human consciousness and its utilisation of cloud computing. It also delved into the synergy of Nano-technology and digital intelligence to great effect.
Each passing day we are coming close in attaining “technological singularity”. The term refers to the times when machines will not only be able to think for themselves but will also have the ability to self improve. In science fiction, technological singularity often entail the machines’ ability to replicate themselves in mass and the eradication or subjugation of human species.
The term singularity also implies the assimilation of different domains of science and technology. This can be understood by looking at the smartphone, which can now perform thousands of functions compared to its analog counterpart in the past.
According to the philosophy of Maslow, psychological needs make the bedrock in the “Hierarchy of Needs pyramid” for humans. Machines however would have no basic psychological needs. For them the process starts from securing their own existence before beginning the process self replication (procreation).
From Matrix to AI, the list grows of movies analysing sprouting consciousness in robots and human consciousness downloaded into machines. Machines do not just need the ability to think for themselves to achieve self sustenance. They would additionally need mechanisms for sustained energy supply and kinematic ability (movement and force). If not, they would remain like trees, rooted merely to their existence but hardly becoming a force to reckon with.
Mankind has always been able to find inspiration from biology. To this day the fascination with the hummingbird’s ability to counter G forces continues to trigger our ingenuity and so does the Sperm whale’s ability to dive to the deepest levels of seas. The field of Biomimetics continues to replicate the models of nature to expand human capability. Similarly, synthetic life can also benefit from mankind’s progress biological sciences as much as its progress in computing and mechanics.
Three areas of research that are bringing the technological singularity ever closer are as follows:
The biological unit or the Cells can perform certain functions based on external or internal stimuli. The performance of certain “events” is almost mechanised. i.e. to a particular stimulus they give exactly the same response over and over again with clockwork precision. Scientists are studying this behaviour by observing the most simplest of cells before tuning to more complex organisms. If the input and output (stimulus and response) tables are perfected, than biological computers will be a reality.
Neurons are biological cells that are electrically excited. They can transmit information at speeds of 112 m/s. Wires can be replaced by neurons and diode/ transistors can be replaced by cells, while multicellular organisms (like C elegans) can replace processors. The study of digital biology is very succinctly explained by Stephen Larson in this TED talk (see below)
Not in the distant future we can have computers that not only can think but are also living and breathing. They can feed on chemicals instead of electrical energy and can automatically repair (heal) themselves. Already Bio-inspired computing has opened up the fields of Genetic Algorithm and Membrane Computers.
Muscles allow us to do work at various degrees of freedom. They have flexibility and the ability to expand, contract and rotate. Robots use motor, bearings and hydraulics in tandem to achieve functionality similar to muscles. However, Hydraulics actuators because of the time lag (pumping working fluid) and restricted freedom of motion, can never achieve smoothness of humanistic movements. The answer to overcome this limitation is electro-active polymers (EAP). Research on EAP Muscles has been going on for decades and remarkable advancement has been made. Already whole robots have been successfully developed using EAP. In fact to increase the interest in the field, arm wrestling match between EAP arm and Human opponent was arranged in 2005.
There have been electro active polymers developed that can achieve activation (deformation) with voltages as low as 1 or 2 volts.
A completely EAP muscle based android would be similar to the Character of Vision from Marvel Comics. EAP are flexible materials that can expand and contract whereas stimuli responsive gels allow volumetric expansion. Their usage in sensors and microfluids is being researched. Synthetic Optical membranes can also be created using EAP.
Ask any group of people and most of them would not be keen on shaking hand with a robot. The reason will be the fear of a crush, given the metallic nature of the endo-skeleton. This apprehension is valid. Pressure sensors that are present in the human skin are absent in a robotic arm. Even bionic arms suffer from the lack of pressure feedback and therefore can often apply too much force when handling objects.
Recent research has indicated that it is possible to develop a Graphene based skin that will serve dual purposes. Not only does it provide a non erodible outer layer but can also act as pressure sensor with a much higher measuring range and high sensitivity. It should be noted that traditional pressure sensors of smaller size are limited by their choice of singular function which allows them to with either of high sensitivity or high range.
The cost of Graphene is the real inhibiting factor in its widespread use despite its proven benefit. It still remains mostly a lab material with some skeptics slapping it “used to be next best thing” label. Nonetheless with the advancement in Nano and 3D printing technology, cost of producing Graphene is coming down.
“I think therefore I am” has been our litmus test philosophy on existence. Computers are here, artificial intelligence is here and mankind must respect its power rather than getting complacent about it. As we move into an era of hyper connectivity and lives that are spent more in the virtual environment than real, we must re-think the descartean philosophy. Cogito Ergo Sum.
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