2000 : WHAT IS TODAY'S MOST IMPORTANT UNREPORTED STORY?

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Roboticist; Panasonic Professor of Robotics (emeritus) , MIT; Founder, Chairman & CTO, Rethink Robotics; Author, Flesh and Machines
People are Morphing into Machines.

Since I work in building autonomous humanoid robots reporters always ask me what will happen when the robots get really smart. Will they decide that we (us, people) are useless and stupid and take over the world from us? I have recently come to realize that this will never happen. Because there won't be any us (people) for them (pure robots) to take over from.

Barring an asteroid size thwack that knocks humans back into pre-technological society, humankind has embarked on a journey of technological manipulation of our bodies. The first few decades of the new millennium will be a moral battleground as we question, reject, and accept these innovations. Different cultures will accept them at different rates (e.g., organ transplantation is currently routine in the United States, but unacceptable in Japan), but our ultimate nature will lead to wide spread adoption.

And just what are these technologies? Already there are thousands of people walking around with cochlea implants, enabling the formerly deaf to hear again — these implants include direct electronic to neural connections. Human trials have started with retina chips being inserted in blind people's eyes (for certain classes of blindness, such as macular degeneration), enabling simple perceptions. Recently I was confronted with a researcher in our lab, a double leg amputee, stepping off the elevator that I was waiting for — from the knees up he was all human, from the knees down he was robot, and prototype robot at that — metal shafts, joints full of magneto-restrictive fluids, single board computers, batteries, connectors, and wire harnesses flopping everywhere; not a hint of antiseptic packaging — it was all hanging out for all to see. Many other researchers are placing chips in animal, and sometimes human, flesh and letting neurons grow and connect to them. The direct neural interface between man and machine is starting to happen. At the same time surgery is becoming more acceptable for all sorts of body modifications — I worry that I am missing the boat carrying these heavy glasses around on my nose when everyone else is going down to the mall and having direct laser surgery on their eyes to correct their vision. And at the same time cellular level manipulation of our bodies is becoming real through genetic therapies.

Right now we ban Olympic athletes who have used steroids. Fairly soon we may have to start banning kids with neural Internet connection implants from having them switched on while taking the SATs. Not long after that it may be virtually mandatory to have one in order to have a chance taking the new ISATs (Internet SATs).

We will become a merger between flesh and machines, and we (the robot-people) will be a step ahead of them (the pure robots). We won't have to worry about them taking over.