Recently, I attended a talk by Steve Cousins on Open Source Robotics at Berkeley. Steve is the founder and CEO of Willow Garage, a robotics research lab known for its Robot Operating System (ROS) and PR-2 robots. Willow Garage focuses on realizing something we all dream of – a personal robot! As the 1980s saw computers becoming personal, 2010s will see robots leaving research labs and entering domestic households. We have seen the first domestic robot entering the mainstream market, with the Roomba having sold more than 6 million units. Roomba is a vacuum cleaning robot manufactured by iRobot.
We already have robots that vacuum your house, do laundry and fold your clothes such as Peter Abeel’s LaundryBot at Berkeley, and even cook pancakes! And we now have robotic cars that can drive through the streets of San Francisco on their own! As robots continue to evolve, they will become capable of substituting humans in an increasing number of tasks. This begets the question, what will we do when robots become smart enough to do all our work? Singularity enthusiasts will point out that robots will then become sentient beings aware of their own existence. Will we then fight robots? Will there be an Abraham Lincoln of the 21st century who will abolish robot slavery? Robot citizens and AI governments?
There is, however, a different possibility. Robots may not evolve into sentient organisms with a life of their own. Instead, we might see a future where machines become embedded within the human body to augment our senses and overcome our physical limitations. Pacemakers have been around for quite a while. More than 150 million people in the world wear contact lenses. Silicon implants are pretty and common. Prosthetic limbs are becoming available. They are still slow and heavy, but it is only a matter of time before they become as good as human limbs. The question is, what happens when artificial limbs become better than human limbs? Would you mind going for an organ transplant if it makes you stronger and faster, boosts your vision and makes you immune to all biological illnesses? We may never have a war with machines, because we will ourselves turn into machines! Will human beings simply evolve into a higher form of a robotic life?
Only time can tell whether robots evolve into sentient organisms or we evolve into robots. What future do you want to see?