Machinations

The sun will explode in 5 billion years, and robots are humanity's best hope to escape. Three guys are working on a plan. In a garage. In Heath, Texas.

"None of our robots," Anderson says, "are as sophisticated as a cockroach."

Still, it is a mistake to think that robots are not already a part of our society or that they won't play a greater role in the future.

"The robots already surround us. We already have a robot that washes your dishes," Anderson says, adding, "Here we are sitting at the end of 100 years of industrial revolution. It's given us the hands, the arms, the legs and the bodies. All we need is the brains."

Anatomy of a bot bone code: Before entering his step-by-step instructions into the computer, Yundt works the equation out on his yellow notepad. "I feel naked without it," he says.
Peter Calvin
Anatomy of a bot bone code: Before entering his step-by-step instructions into the computer, Yundt works the equation out on his yellow notepad. "I feel naked without it," he says.
SMU scientist David Anderson with the awe-inspiring SR04. Robots, he says, should be able to survive in their environments, independent of human intervention.
Peter Calvin
SMU scientist David Anderson with the awe-inspiring SR04. Robots, he says, should be able to survive in their environments, independent of human intervention.

Those brains, which consist of microchip technology, are getting rapidly smarter. In fact, it is only a matter of decades in which the microchips will match the human brain in terms of intelligence, according to Hans Moravec, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, home to one of the nation's leading robotics institutes.

In a 1997 paper, Moravec traced how computers are rapidly becoming more powerful, shrinking the time it takes to "double" their capacity from every 18 months in the 1980s to every 12 months in the 1990s. At that rate, Moravec wrote, computers suitable for "humanlike robots" will appear in the 2020s, while personal computers that match humans in brain power will arrive in homes before 2030.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, inside a classroom at the Bill Priest Institute just south of downtown Dallas, a couple of dozen DPRG members are getting an update on a new microchip, developed for Motorola by a Dallas company called New Micros. Randy Dumse, a company representative, tells the group the chip's advanced capacity is so exciting it drew him out of early retirement.

"When I heard about this one I said, 'Boys, this is gonna hit like the HC11 [another chip],'" Dumse says. "I see it plugging square into the robotics market. I see it taking robotics to the next level."

Later, David Martineau lays out his robotics vision, influenced heavily by Asimov, as he digs through a large cardboard box filled with the parts of a pinball machine he found at Salvation Army and promptly disassembled.

"After Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, it went all downhill. Until Asimov," Martineau says, adding, "I would like to see a world in which robots and humans live together in harmony, rather than the Frankenstein complex."

Nonetheless, Martineau says he loves to build robots, like his dog-shaped LEGO bot called "Hexadog," because he likes the feeling of controlling his creations. "Everybody wants to be gods," he says. "This is a way of creating your own life."

Asked whether he believes robots are capable of replacing human society, Martineau promptly stops digging through his wire-filled box.

"That's a loaded question," he says. "In 1950, people thought we'd have cities on the moon, and we don't yet. People tend to think things will happen sooner than they will. Still, we are now capable of creating something that can surpass us. Whether it does depends on how we handle it. Will it destroy us, or will they save us?"


Inside Barry Jordan's garage, Kip Moravec says he believes robots and the inevitable ethical dilemmas they present are something people need to think seriously about now, while there's still time. As he carefully screws a wire into an outlet, Moravec quotes a recent statement from science's leading mind, Stephen Hawking, as a reference.

"He basically said we better start using DNA to advance the human species or the robots will pass us," Moravec says. Seated at his computer, Yundt adds, "You know, like Terminator, where all the people were living in the sewers with rats."

Hawking, the author of A Brief History in Time who holds the Cambridge University chair once held by Sir Isaac Newton, made his comments during an interview with Focus magazine in September. During it, he said that while the task of "improving" human beings with DNA is still a long way off, it is a path humanity must embark upon because of the rapid rate at which computer technology is growing.

"The danger is real that they could develop intelligence and take over the world," Hawking is quoted as saying. "We must develop as quickly as possible technologies that make possible a direct connection between the brain and computer, so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it."

During an earlier public lecture titled "Life in the Universe," Hawking said that, on the other hand, robots might be humanity's only chance for survival 5 billion years from now. That's when the sun is scheduled to explode and, in the process, destroy Earth. If humans hope to survive, they must be able to relocate themselves on planets out of the sun's reach--a distance that far exceeds the human life span. In short, people must find a way to upload their brains onto microchips and install them in robots.

"These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules," Hawking said. "They could eventually replace DNA-based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier life form."

To Hawking, computer viruses, such as the Nimba virus that recently wormed its way through the world's computer systems, already constitute a new life form. That's because they, like all basic life forms, are capable of reproducing themselves, albeit in an electronic rather than biological way.

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