Dr. Hans Moravec's Robotic Future

Robots shall inherit the Earth. Blasphemy? Prophecy? Or the Ultimate Immortality? 

Dr. Hans Moravec was perhaps the world's most vocal advocate of humanlike robots: creations resembling us that could theoretically live forever—and make us obsolete. As the author of a controversial book that proposed that robots replace the human species, Moravec was able to start arguments almost at will. He even went so far as to say that God (as he understands him) is probably using computers to design earth species. He was completely unconvinced by how traditional religions explained the future of human beings. If you explain the human condition in terms of continual progress, it's easy to look at humans evolving into robots.

Moravec said robotic technology, when it's melded with the human mind, spirit or soul, will give us our first crack at ultimate longevity. Further, we might want to download our human characteristics into robots, viewing it as a bone we'd throw ourselves. 

The key thing for us to do, according to Dr. Hans Moravec, would be to step aside and let the robots take over. Completely.

When it came to his belief in science, Moravec was truly unyielding. Born in Austria after World War II, he was raised in Canada. Growing up, he played with small switches and motors, gifts from his electrical engineer father, and voraciously read science fiction and Boolean algebra.

When he was 10, Moravec built a robot: a tiny mechanical man put together with tin cans and spare parts from old toys. This set him on a path he has never left. By 1971, at age 23, he was studying for his Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford University and immersing himself in the world of computers and robotics.

How did Moravec support his vision of this new race of robotic beings? He focused first on ongoing advances in technology, then viewed a robot as their logical fruit. For example, in Mind Children, he considered how a robot could be made to see and hear. It doesn't take an expert to recognize that robot vision and hearing would mean a demanding set of requirements, yet every one of the necessary technologies exists and is the subject of extensive, well-funded research today.

Manipulate Atomic Matter

At the same time, other technologies now afoot could make up the distinctive, if not quite human, heart and soul of a robotic being. Within 50 – 100 years, he predicted, it's going to be possible to manipulate atomic matter on a very microscopic scale. This will enable us to produce very delicate, intricate parts for a robot that'll allow it to have astoundingly complex, precise functionality.

In addition, Moravec pointed out, the evolution of computers has been advancing a thousandfold every 20 years (and if we apply that logic to today, every year). Throw in parallel developments in superconductivity research, laser experimentation, tactile sensors, even artificial skin— and human robots will naturally arise from the caldron of scientific activity.

For humans interested in longevity, Moravec's thinking raises large questions. It's one thing, say some, for technology to produce life-extending body parts, vaccines, techniques, even completely new organ systems: They add to, but do not alter, the uniquely human quotient. But if such applications become so widespread that new humans— called robots or artificial super intelligent creatures—are the result, will something crucial have been lost? Is the idea of robot replicants no less devastating to man than nuclear extermination?

Again, Moravec doesn't think so. "Look at the evolutionary pattern among animals," he reasoned. "It's not only the 'survival of the fittest' that holds true. That view just suggests strength and growth with no direction. Instead, every so often the top niches on the scale get overcrowded, so there's elimination even at that level. When you consider that a computer with a trillion chips of memory could easily outthink me, you can see how robots could logically eliminate the need for humans."

Humans Are a Step in Evolution

Yet just when this kind of reasoning makes Moravec seem antihuman, he exposed a side that actually might qualify him as a superhumanist. “As our culture becomes less viable for us to inhabit under the onslaught of pollution, disease and famine, do we cling to our status as humans at all costs, or do we take the high road and evolve into something better? And if we're not around to see that something better, because we've passed the torch to robots, how are we any different from each generation of humans who don't live to see the next?"

If you talked to some of Moravec's peers, you found influential support for his thinking. "It's important that people be reminded," said Marvin Minsky, Donner professor of Science at MIT and perhaps one of this country's leading authority on artificial intelligence, "that today's humans are not a finality but a step in evolution. It's only because we're watching ourselves that we seem more final than we actually are." Minsky said it's entirely plausible to him that robotics could advance to the level Moravec projects.

Relinquish Existence to Robots

However, other experts in robotics aren't so sure. Charles Lecht, chairman of his own Tokyo-based robotics firm, Lecht Sciences, Inc., said, "As I'm talking to you, there's a robot paving machine outside. It can pave a street a lot better than a man can. If man can only be defined by things like that, then robots surpassed us a long time ago."

"But on the other hand," Lecht continued, “there's too much evidence for a nonmaterial side of man for him to relinquish his existence to robots. When it comes to human beings, there's something else there— something that nothing else can be."

Moravec, of course, thinks differently. “In the long run," he writes in Mind Children, "our survival will require changes that are not of our own choosing. Parts of us will have to be discarded and replaced. . . . Yet this evolutionary process, seen in a more positive light, means that we are already immortal, as we have been since the dawn of life. Our genes and culture pass continuously from one generation to the next. . . . [We] value change and growth, and our artificial descendants will share this value with us– their survival, like ours, will depend on it."

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