Hail cyborgs! The line between robots and humans is blurring

Scientists are already ramping up to eventually create a robotic human

As robotics quickly advance, scientists say the lines between robots and humans is beginning to blur.

That means one day with robotic prosthetics that work seamlessly with a human's muscles, with tiny robots that swim in our blood streams and fix medical problems and nano-scale robots implanted in our brains, we will become robotic humans.

As scary and sci-fi as that may sound, researchers say robotics will cure diseases, make amputees feel whole again and greatly extend our lives.

"It's not a question of whether it's fanciful," said Daniel Wilson, author of the novel Robopocalypse and a robotics engineer with degrees in machine learning and robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. "Thinking of the nanorobots swimming in your blood cells is still pretty far out there, but there are much more concrete examples really in the works.... By utilizing technology, you're able to improve your body beyond anything you could do in the past."

Many, if not most people, will be wary of the idea of the melding of humans and robots, with images of Star Trek's evil cyborgs running through their heads. The fictional characters -- with both human and mechanical parts -- have superhuman strengths but have lost their individualism.

Headgear worn by Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who is transformed into Locutus the Borg, a combination of human and cyborg. (Photo: Tomer Gabel)

Despite frightening images in the Star Trek movie series and Robocop, these actually are exciting times because the advances in robotics, said Victor Walker, a robotics research scientist at Idaho National Laboratory, an Idaho Falls, Idaho-based facility that focuses on energy and national defense research.

"We are currently in this revolution today," Walker told Computerworld. "I think there's potential there. We don't want to replace humans. We want to enhance humans."

And that is already happening.

More than six years ago, a University of Arizona researcher who had successfully connected a moth's brain to a robot predicted that by 2017 or 2022 we'll be using "hybrid" computers that run a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

Robotic exoskeletons have helped people suffering from paralysis walk again and the U.S. military is just weeks away from testing a new exoskeleton, or Iron Man-like suit, designed to make soldiers stronger, give them real-time battlefield information, monitor their vital signs and even stop their bleeding.

Robotic prosthetics, using a built-in computer, 100 sensors and 17 motors can take natural cues from a user's residual limb, giving him or her the dexterity and grace to play a piano.

"The line between robots and people will be blurred with smart prosthetics and implanted components," said Russ Tedrake, an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. "It won't be robots and people but robot people.... If you were in distress and given the choice for a longer, more comfortable life by simply replacing your spleen with a machine that could do the same job, wouldn't you take it? What if it was a part of your brain?"

Robots and people both have their limitations and their advantages.

"This, I think, is the ultimate reason why [linking] robots and people might make so much sense," said Tedrake. "Perhaps we can combine the best of both worlds."

Tedrake added that he doesn't think we'll have tiny humanoid robots running around inside our bodies anytime soon. But robotics will have a significant role in supporting or replacing parts of our bodies.

Walker noted that Glass, Google's prototype of a wearable computer, is helping to blur the line between human and robotics.

The computerized eyeglasses are not traditional robots, but they do have sensors, computational smarts and can help people relate to the world around them with maps and other applications. Google Glass is designed to enhance the human experience.

By making the computerized eyeglasses less passive, they take a big step toward being considered a robot.

"There's a lot of potential for enhancing us with machines," said Walker. "Things like Google Glass and prosthetics are already happening. We're always comfortable with just a little change. That's how this will happen -- slowly. We'll be very accepting of things that make our lives easier or better."

Analysts say the advance of human robotics will largely come from the medical industry, as with robotic prosthetics, and the military, with robotic exoskeletons.

"That's usually where investments start," said Walker. "We're excited about every technology enhancement, because it makes our lives better. I think there will be fear in the first steps. It will start with, 'Hey, let's enhance your capability,' and then 'Let's attach something to the outside of your body.' We'll start with things we can strap on and take off. Then it will move to machines inside our bodies."

Wilson, whose novel Robogenesis is due to be released June 10, noted that advances in hearing aids is a good example. The new hearing aids now are Bluetooth enabled, turning the devices into a new type of ear bud for cell phones and streaming music.

"If I could stream music or a cell phone conversations or Skype directly to my auditory nerve, man I'd find that exciting," he said. "If you want to look at what the next generation is going to be, look at people who have serious problems they want to solve. And they have problems that are being solved by robotics."

Dmitry Berenson, right, assistant professor of computer science at WPI, works with student John Morrow to put a soft robotic hand on a Baxter industrial robot. (Photo: WPI)

Dmitry Berenson, an assistant professor of computer science at Massachusetts-based Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the advance of robotics will happen slowly, which will help people adjust to the change.

"It's really happening faster than anyone predicted," said Berenson, who works with WPI's robotics engineering program. "These are tools. Much like a car or airplane, it can be used to help people and make life better or it can be used like a weapon. Look at the exoskeletons. The military could use them to create super strong soldiers, but they can also be used to help the disabled.

"If you're paralyzed from the waist down and someone gives you a pair of exoskeleton legs, that's enormous," he added. "With technology, it's not good or bad. It just comes as a package and we as a society have to decide what we're going to do with it. It's really up to us. It's not the technology. It's what we do with it."

All technology is about change and change is scary, so adding robotics to the human body is going to scare a lot of people.

"We're talking about changing the human body in unprecedented ways and giving people abilities they've never had," said Wilson. "Sure that's scary, but it's also exciting to be able to help people and to grow into the future. It's incredibly exciting and I can't wait."

WPI computer science professor Dmitry Berenson accepts a water refill from PR2 (Personal Robot 2). (Photo: WPI)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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