We all like to joke about what might happen if robots, powered by artificial intelligence, decide they want to overthrow humans.
That scenario is, at best, decades away. But this week I’ve been pondering something much more immediate, and in my view, more likely. What will happen when humans decide to become robots?
“We’re at a key transition in human history,”
The group’s aim is to establish the scientific and technological conditions that will eventually eliminate disability, whether through paralysis or amputation.
But that incredible goal has been achieved, then what?
They’re fusing the nervous system with the built world.They’re transitioning from a relationship where they use technology that is separate from our nervous system, to a new epoch of integration, of human physiology.
In 2014, Adrianne Haslet-Davis returned to the dancefloor, less than a year since losing a limb in the Boston marathon bombings. Her first performance after the incident brought a TED talk audience instantly to its feet.
When Prof Herr’s from MITs lab was visited , last week to learn more about the work is team is doing, and where it may lead. Right now, much of the research is focused on doing things the human body can do instinctively, but are extremely complex to engineer.
This is important to make the leg behave differently when, for example, walking down stairs. The human brain, whether the person realises it or not, is able to instinctively prepare the leg for to land on a step. Teaching a prosthesis to do the same is the difference between having a bionic leg and, to put it crassly, a peg leg.
The motor is able to work in such a way that simulates a real biological ankle joint!
Better, faster, stronger
But not all the work carried out here is about replacing limbs. It’s also looking at improving them.
One exoskeleton project reduces the physical exertion when walking by 25%, explained researcher Tyler Clites.
“What that means is, if you were to walk 100 miles, it would only feel to like you walked 75.
Isn’t that extravagant?
“I definitely think that we are entering an age in which the line between biological systems and synthetic systems is going to be very much blurred,”
This future brings a concern that the rich and fortunate of the world may become physically superior, too.
“Then what you do is create a new baseline for physical ability, and perhaps mental ability, that’s only achievable by people who are already in a position of privilege.”
Much like an old computer peripheral that can’t plug into a new laptop, nor can most amputees “plug in” to the latest technologies being developed in this lab.
To solve this, the team is urgently trying to change the way limbs are amputated.
“The method that is used today to amputate limbs has fundamentally not changed since the US civil war,” Prof Herr said.
“So while you’ve seen tremendous progress in mechatronics and robotics, you’ve not seen progress in how surgeries are performed to amputate limbs. That is now changing.
“They’re redesigning how limbs are amputated to create the right mechanical and electrical interfacing environment.”