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Are we programmed to become robots?

When ever I dip into the NewScientist it makes me think (which is great) and also worried (which is not so great); the latter seems to happen more and more often.…  And, like nothing else, it urges me to write – whether that’s good or bad I leave for you to decide!
If I should condense what worries me it would be this: is it the path of human evolution to become robots? Is this path inevitable?  Until quite recently I would have argued  that it is not (e.g. see Mailout 16th May), and that there might still be a path available to us that leads to living with and through nature rather than become suppliers of energy for robots.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had the great privilege to go on a 4.6 kilometre walk with Dr Stephen Harding where the 4.6 kilometre of our walk represented the journey of 4.6 billion years that it has taken planet earth from its origins of being a disc that revolved around the young sun to become the planet we know today.  (Here the link to the lovely depiction of earth’s evolution). During that walk I realised that perhaps the foundation for all life is the creation and passing on of currents, the flow of energy. That’s what makes our body work, that’s what enables our brain to function.

So perhaps a ‘being’, for one of the better words, that is entirely made up of electronic circuits is just the logical next step?

While our body already functions through the passing on of currents, we are using more and more external devices to supplement our body’s activities and capabilities. Digital devices and wearable technology are a first step: monitoring the electric pulses of our heartbeat, measuring the units of energy we consume.

Digital devices also relieve us from the need to read maps or read our environment in order to understand whether we are moving north or south (sat nav systems), and it has been a long time since we had to rely on our own computer (brain) for arithmetics.  If developments with babelfish, speech recognition and automated translation continue, we will also no longer need to learn languages and exercise that part of our brain as an earpiece promises do the translation for us (what happens with humour and its less friendly cousins irony and sarcasm, I wonder …).

Recent technological developments – representative of the next step of human evolution? – enable us to give up even more of conscious control: in a 2015 article NewScientist reports that our steps can be
remotely controlled – ‘human cruise control’. Such technology was  developed and already tested by Max Pfeiffer of the University of Hannover.  Seems simple enough: attach electrodes to people’s legs, use bluetooth and a mobile phone and off you go – or rather, off they go. Based on signals from the phone the muscles (and hence legs) act without conscious effort of their owner.  I think I rather sleepwalk, where my unconscious guides my steps than have a hacker decide my path! I felt somehow reminder of the animated Wallace & Gromit movie, The Wrong Trousers.

But we may not even need our legs any longer, Virtual Reality and google glasses will see to that. In a recent presentation Mark Zuckerberg shared a video of two people playing Pong together while being in different (real) places.

Am I being too facetious? And yes, I am aware that there are positive aspects to much of the technology that is being developed.

What irks me is that all these developments are presented as if it were all positive, glorious, not to be challenged or questioned, at least in mainstream media.  What is lacking are mechanisms that integrate a sense of responsibility into the expanding sea of technical possibilities.

If we do no longer need to think and make conscious decision, if we can be ‘programmed’, we are almost there, aren’t we?  Robots in the making?  Hang on, will we humans stop to think while the robots start, and do the thinking for us?

Oh, and what little brainpower is left can then be used to make decisions about what purchases to make, as retailers start to use big data (which we feed into with all our social media and other digital interactions) to bombard us with ‘just what we want’ at every step of our way, as a recent Forbes article suggests.

To put everything a little into perspective and burst the bubble of humanity’s self-importance: on the amazing 4.6 kilometre walk Stephen pointed out that we, Homo Sapiens, only entered the scene around 200 thousand years ago – the last 2 centimetre of our 4.6 kilometre journey.  Quite humbling, and perhaps an indication that we humans are just a glitch in the evolution of the universe, rather that its masters.  If we want to be more than a glitch, perhaps we need to make decisions more consciously, and with a greater awareness of implications for the future.
PS By the way, if you’d like to ‘walk’ the length of the evolution of our planet watch out for the crowdfunded App “Deep Time Walk” which is due to become available autumn this year.


The above was first published in the ILF ‘regular irregular’ mailout 25th July 2016

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