Ask A Scientist

Do you think our government or world will ever be run by cybernetic organisms (robots)?

Asked by: Andrew Torrance
School: Maine Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Mr. Wagstaff & Mrs. Buchak
Hobbies/Interests: Football & video games
Career Interest: Lawyer, judge, actor

Answer from Josh Brandoff

M.S. Candidate & Graduate Research Assistant, Binghamton University

Research area: Swarm robotics and cultural evolution
Family: Sister, Amanda; a Yorkshire terrier named Cashie and a Havanese named Lola.
Interests/hobbies: Snowboarding, swimming and travel
Web page address: http://bioeng.binghamton.edu/GPF.html?josh_brandoff&Students
 

Great question Andrew. Before getting to the answer we have to think about some additional challenging questions. What are cybernetic organisms? Why would we let them run our societies? What would they do once in power? Many books and movies attempt to answer these questions but, as the saying goes, reality is stranger than fiction.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a “cyborg”—short for “cybernetic organism”—as, “a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices.” By this definition, we have thousands of cyborgs living among us right now; anyone who has a pacemaker to promote a normal heartbeat, a prosthetic leg with electronic motors, or wears a hearing aid could be considered a cyborg. While many of these prostheses are designed to replace lost abilities, others are designed to enhance ones that already work. A company called Cyberkinetics recently received government approval to test a neural prosthesis that would allow humans with severe paralysis to send commands to a computer using only their thoughts. If this technology works, then people who aren't paralyzed might also be able to use it to supplement their normal abilities. The advanced cyborgs of the future—some of whom may be elected to government—may simply be regular humans with biological implants that give them super-human abilities.

In this case, we would let cyborgs run our societies because many of us would be cyborgs. However, if these implants were very expensive only wealthier humans would be able to afford them. The implant-free humans may want this class of “super-humans” to run things, or they may resent them and even fight against them. There are so many complex ethical and moral issues to think about here that it can make your head spin! Superhumans aside, we have already started letting robots of the wire-and-metal variety make decisions for us. The iRobot Roomba uses a pre-defined algorithm (a set of instructions on how to interact with the world) to decide where to vacuum and mop. The military has semi-autonomous aerial vehicles (UAVs) that fly around battlefields and find and destroy targets with the help of pilots who are safely located at an Air Force base. My own research involves using swarms of small robots to collectively perform tasks such as mapping unknown environments. Giving humans ever more advanced prostheses and robots the ability to make more complex and “human-like” decisions will lead to a society that might look nothing like it does today.      

So what might these super humans/robots/somethings do if we let them have some control over our lives? It's tough to say. It is easy to become afraid and think that future cyborgs may do all sorts of nasty things to “regular” humans, but this is based upon the assumption that they will have human emotions and motivations like we do today. In your English classes, you may have read about myths from Ancient Greece where Greek gods became jealous, angry and spiteful over little things—just like regular ol' mortals. We often try to put a human face on things we don't understand, but in the case of cyborgs this may be misleading if they develop into beings fundamentally different from people like you and me. Thinking about the future and dealing with all the questions and uncertainties that pop up can be overwhelming, but the best way to deal with an unknown future is to help create it today. If you change your mind and decide not to become a lawyer, judge or actor, consider a career in science!  

Last Updated: 9/18/13