Could we soon be augmented with biosynthetic prostheses? How much can we already be repaired thanks to robotics applied to medical purposes? Piece by piece, humans are pushing the bionic man towards reality. Science fiction has long questioned the dangers of building powerful, “intelligent” robots, supplementing our body and mind. Today, these high-tech robots are no longer fiction. The United States and the European Union are both starting to discuss a legal and ethical framework for emerging robotics technologies.
This article also exists in French ("L'Homme augmenté : la fusion de la technologie et du corps pour demain ?"), translated by Timothée Froelich.
For a long time, science fiction has dreamt about the bionic man and cyborgs. Until five years ago this was total fiction. But, recently, things have been moving very quickly, as cutting edge robotic technology become available that can let paraplegics walk or bionic arms lift incredible weights. The beginning of 2013 has shown plenty of interest for close human-robot interactions. Here is a selection of them, compiled by Charles Grosseveur, community management intern at MyScienceWork.
Rex – the technological human being
“A ‘bionic man’ that costs $US1 million has gone on display at Britain's Science Museum, complete with artificial organs, synthetic blood and robot limbs.”
Rex, the bionic man, at the Science Museum, London - source : Flickr/ Rain Rabbit
Rex was created by roboticists for a TV show. It is probably the most advanced biosynthetic robot ever. His exoskeleton with its human-like face includes artificial organs such as a functioning heart, pancreas, kidney, liver, spleen and trachea and a functional blood circulatory system. He can see and hear, thanks to artificial retina and cochlear implants.
Merging the natural and the artificial?
On January 30th, 2013, a team of scientists at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts published an article about engineered heart tissues made of synthetic materials and living heart cells from rats. This hybrid material is made of carbon nanotubes and living cardiac cells inserted into cell-friendly gel. It mimics natural heart tissue more successfully than ever before.
As a first application, synthetic beating hearts could be used for robotics applications, using the powerful properties of cardiac cells (robustness, conductivity, reactivity). But of course the ultimate goal is to repair and replace dysfunctional cardiac tissues. For this purpose, there is still work to be done, as synthetic cells do not yet have the same electrical properties as living cells. That makes it difficult, for the moment, for them to beat in unison with real cells. Moreover, it needs to be proved that the synthetic cells are not harmful for the human body, even over long periods of time.
For a better understanding between humans and robots?
Computers and robots are not yet inside our body, but we rub shoulders with them daily as they conduct trains, open doors of shops and work on assembly lines in the manufacturing industry. In February, a study suggested that it would be possible to help robots and humans work better as a team by applying human-to-human methods to such mixed groups. The authors tried to allow humans and robots to swap their roles. The hypothesis was that this would enable them to better grasp each other’s work and difficulties. Apart from the new learning algorithm developed to enable the robots to take part in the experiment, this piece of research resembles a psychological study that does not really differentiate robots from humans.
It was also last week that a scientific team from Lyon University announced that the humanoid robot ICub was now able to understand our language and to anticipate the end of a sentence, thanks to a simplified artificial brain. This robot reproduces certain types of neural connections observed in the human brain. It is truly amazing, the level of similarity and connection that can be achieved today between humans and robots.
Towards a legal framework for robotics technology?
Upgrading the human body with machinery or repairing it with high-tech prostheses is becoming more common everyday. This brings new risks and questions. The most recent piece of SF that addressed that issue is probably the game Deus Ex: the Human Revolution. You can get a glimpse of it via two Deus Ex videos showing the same technological future through two different angles; the second reveals the drawback of augmenting the human body.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Sarif Industries Trailer
Deus Ex Human Revolution Decouvrez la verite sur Sarif Industries
Looking at the latest robotics advances that have been produced in 2012 and at the beginning of 2013, one would think it might be the right time to start concretely ask ourselves where to draw the line. A 2002 report commissioned by the US National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce addressed the potential uses of technological advancement from fields such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science in improving health and enhance human abilities for military purposes.
One year ago the European Union commissioned scientists from different fields to think about what is known as the “RoboLaw”. The project, whose complete title is Regulating Emerging Technologies in Europe: Robotics Facing Law and Ethics, addresses legal issues such as: Who should be responsible for damages caused during the eventual crash of an autonomous robotics system, such as the Google car? They also address ethical issues specially concerning personal data collected by domestic or public machines. Some of these questions aimed at protecting people can be handles by current law, but some of them still remain unanswered. According to an article recently published on Wired, the project also addresses the question of what a robot is and how we should treat it. Doesn’t this sound a bit like the questions asked by the 2001 movie A.I?
Today we see governments struggling to adapt laws to something as ordinary as the world wide web. In consequence, we can imagine the difficulty for lawmakers to anticipate future dilemmas causes by technologies that do not even exist yet. But it is important to be aware today of the lack of certain regulations, because the utopia of the bionic man and the really intelligent robot could become reality very soon.
To know more:
Sur MyScienceWork, Science (et) Fiction, Aventures Croisées
Free-swimming jellyfish-like robots and walking biological machines built from heart tissues and polymers
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