Stranger Than Fiction: The Androids are Coming! Scientists Create a "Bionic Man" with Functional Artificial Human Organs
03.05.13 by BJSprecher
In the prosperous, optimistic days that followed World War II, Americans dreamed of a utopian future made possible by advances in technology. In this gleaming future, all menial labor would be performed by robot servants, sparking a new Renaissance as Americans found themselves unfettered from the need to work. But, during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and '70s, when many Americans began to distrust the government and other established institutions, robots and technology were increasingly viewed with suspicion and paranoia. Increasingly, visions of the future of human-robot relations tended toward the antagonistic, if not the apocalyptic, with the smarter, faster, stronger machines intent on supplanting human beings or wiping us out, altogether.
Whether you believe that we humans will always be able to keep our technology on a leash or you're of the variety that predict we will inevitably be challenged for supremacy of the earth by our humanoid creations, both of those future scenarios recently became closer to reality with the unveiling last month of the "world's most high-tech humanoid," a robot with lifelike features and expressions and working artificial human organs.
The Strange Truth
The word "robot" was first introduced to the English language by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920 sci-fi play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), but the concept of humans creating artificial people goes back millenia. The mythologies of numerous cultures around the world contain robot-like creatures — such as the golems of Jewish folklore, animated clay creatures in the shape of human beings that are brought to life by the power of a magic formula — and the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Egyptians all experimented with building self-operating machines called automatons, some in the form of people.
When talking about the modern concept of robots, however, we need only look back to the middle of the last century. George Devol designed the first programmable robot in 1954 and only five years later the first computer-assisted manufacturing robots were being sold commercially. By the 1980s, robots were being used in all manner of high-risk enterprises, from mining to handling toxic waste. For the next two decades, robots became instrumental in increasing numbers of industries, but few bore any resemblance to human beings. The year 2000 was a watershed year for humanoid robots, with both the Honda Asimo and the Sony Dream Robot debuting.
The next step in the eons-old quest to create an artificial life form has now been taken by a group of roboticists known collectively as Shadow. The group showcased their creation, Rex (for "Robotic EXoskeleton"), at the London Science Museum last month. Rex has an impressive set of prosthetic hands and feet, and a lifelike head capable of expressing emotions, but what really sets this robot apart from contemporary humanoid robots, or androids, like Roboy and earns it the title of "world’s most high-tech humanoid" is the fact that Rex possesses an array of fully-functional artificial human organs — heart, spleen, eyes, kidneys — and infection-resistant synthetic blood pumps through its artificial veins.
Though it may be "the most complete bionic man to date," there's little fear of Rex leading an uprising against humanity any time soon because Rex does not have an artificial brain. Still, the "extinction-level risks" to humanity posed by a real-life Robopocalypse-style uprising has prompted experts at the prestigious University of Cambridge to conduct research into the dangers of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology. Warns Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price and co-founder of the study:
It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology.
Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), Avatar (2009), Prometheus (2012)
The first android on screen dates all of the way back to the 1896 French movie L'Eve Futur (The Future Eve), and there's no discounting the influence the myriad movie robots that followed have had on not only the sci-fi genre, but popular culture, in general, but our modern notions of what androids of the future might be like are largely shaped by three contemporary filmmakers: George Lucas, Ridley Scott and James Cameron.
In his original Star Wars trilogy, Lucas depicts an advanced civilization far, far away in which androids come in all shapes, sizes and occupations, from the gleaming, delicate-featured etiquette droid C-3PO, to the only-abstractly-humanoid assassin droid IG-88. Despite their advanced artificial intelligence and universality, the droids in Lucas' universe don't seem that interested in overthrowing their human or alien masters (though the same can't be said for the evil cyborg overlord Darth Vader). Even the armies of droids that stomp their way across the galaxy in Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy are only acting according their programming.
The androids in Ridley Scott's sci-fi movies — Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus — are vastly different from Lucas' and far more terrifying. They not only look, talk and act just like human beings — no shiny gold carapaces here — but the human characters who interact with them are often unaware that the androids are artificial, adding a tonal element of paranoia to his movies. In Blade Runner, the androids, or Replicants, are so sophisticated that elaborate psychological tests are required to identify them from humans. One of the Replicants is so advanced that it even has implanted memories and thinks that it is human.
Another terrifying aspect of Scott's androids is that they seem capable of evolving beyond their programming and possibly even developing emotions. In Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender), seems enamored of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and something approximating sadness flashes across his face when his "father" (Guy Pearce) says that he doesn't have a soul. The Replicants in Blade Runner are even more lifelike than David, capable of exhibiting a range of emotions — sadness, fear, anger, joy, possibly even love — which could be what keeps their motivations and ambitions more localized and less world conquer-y.
Enter: Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, a.k.a. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). James Cameron's cyborg assassin can also pass for a human being, thanks to the living tissue that covers its metal endoskeleton chassis. But, unlike Replicants, the Terminator has no emotions and is programmed to kill humans. In the immortal words of Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn):
That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
Cameron can also be credited with showing us a vision of the future in which we can become androids. In Avatar, humans upload their consciousnesses into the bodies of genetically engineered human-alien hybrids and operate them to explore the alien moon Pandora and interact with the native Na'vi humanoid species. Is that what the future has in store for us? Will we be uploading our minds into manufactured bodies to perform dangerous work or to feel young again? Possibly. Unless, of course, Rex's "descendants" decide to band together and get rid of us weak, error-prone little humans once and for all.