Surrogate robots: more fact than fiction?
By Jeff Salton
March 1, 2010
Gizmag recently took part in a virtual round table with futurist Dr James Canton and prosthetics expert Randall Alley to look at the role robots - particularly surrogate robots - will play in mankind’s future.
The round table was arranged to coincide with the release on the Blu-Ray of the Disney movie Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, in which both gentlemen are interviewed on the extras DVD.
The fascinating discussion ranged from the technology itself through to security issues and ethics surrounding the implementation of surrogate robots in our future societies. So when will you be able to send your robotic surrogate-self to the shop for a loaf of bread while you relax in front of the TV?
Our abridged version of the round table is contained below. We’ve condensed it and added some more background material. It's a fascinating and important topic, and we hope readers will share their views on this subject in the comments section.
Surrogates - how close to reality?
“The most accurate prediction from the film was the reasons why the Surrogates were created in the first place - to heal, to help and protect humans," said Dr James Canton. "Also, the domination of smart technology that may manipulate humans, by offering a seductive and exploitative experience I think as well is an accurate prediction that I am concerned about.
“We could be undone by our creations or our obsession with our technology. As technology becomes smarter, more connected to everything, especially us, the chances of advanced tech waking up, achieving self-awareness and deciding it does not need or like humans is not a casual concern. "The Singularity" is a term from popular culture that relates to the point in time when advanced computing, networking, robotic and biotech becomes smarter then humans and what the implications are for humanity.
“Most off the mark was that that I think that humans will continue to be on top of the food chain and that human emotions, though they can be imitated by synthetic creatures, they are not human. Intimacy, love and emotion are still only human traits.”
Although he had no direct involvement in the making of the movie, Randall Alley welcomed the opportunity to give some thoughts on the subject from his perspective: “I would like to think that my chosen line of work enabled me to influence the subject matter, if only slightly. Prosthetic technologies are really coming into their own and I think this area is fascinating to the average person [who is] simply unaware of what we are working on and how far we have progressed.”
Two places at once
We asked Dr Canton if he had a surrogate allowing him to be in two places at once, would it improve his life or make it twice as complicated? And would only one surrogate be enough?
“Actually, I would be more productive, creative and have more fun if I could have about five surrogates. Most of the world moves too slowly for me, I am always running out of time to enjoy as well as work. Now if I could have a few surrogates to maximize my multitasking well I could fulfill many fantasies and live many lifetimes. This is a social networking phenomenon. Just as we text, download emails, listen to music, send video today tomorrow with surrogates I could live in a holographic world of many realities.
“So for me having access to surrogates would enhance and improve my life, it would make it less complex and sustainable for creating a high performance lifestyle that the movie points to. Likely humans would demand a re-patterning of their brains to be able to absorb and control the multiplicity of personalities. Virtual worlds like Second Life, games like World of Warfare, hint at this multiple layering of personalities and lifestyles that are coming. We will have a surrogate lifestyle. This will be too seductive and enticing to not embrace. Also, your next job in 2030 may require you to be Surrogate Enhanced Cognition Licensed so you can even perform that future job. The movie reveals a dominant use of surrogate technology and a misuse of this by some. I forecast that the surrogates will become an integral feature of our later 21st century lifestyle and reality. Get ready. By the way ... my surrogate wrote this while I was watching TV.”
We put it to Dr Canton that (hypothetically) while his surrogate was answering our question and he was watching TV, our surrogate was raiding his fridge and then stole his car.
“Well my surrogate took your gal dancing! This is exactly what will happen when the world of the surrogates comes on line. For example, I think and the Blu-ray features that we did show just how close we are to making a surrogate today. The science behind the movie is a movie in itself. What is in the lab today is in the market tomorrow,” says Canton.
“So nanoscience will give us life-like materials for skin, biotech will give us organic organs, neuro-computing will give us brain interfaces, all of the pieces are coming together. You don't need a smart autonomous robot to have the world of the Surrogates come into our reality. There is great progress here. But cloud computing and wireless networking could bring this reality closer. We are streaming sensation now in gaming. Next is feelings and immersive mobility, we will feel it, sense it and experience remote realities. A surgical procedure between the EU and the US last year was the surrogates reality. Immersive virtual reality where we are navigating new worlds is the Surrogate reality. It is closer then you think.”
As in the movie, the appeal of our own surrogates could be greatly influenced by vanity. Surrogates can provide us with the ultimate ‘fountain of youth’, the body image we desire (without diet or exercise), the sex appeal to attract others who appeal to us. Too scared to go skydiving, don’t have the pain threshold to become a black belt – get your surrogate to do it for you. In other words, we could, quite possibly, mix our fantasies with our real world desires. How would Dr Canton’s surrogate appear?
“I am good with myself as I look, but I would like to have the agility without the danger to surf 50 ft waves and climb Mt Everest while I sit warmly and experience it from afar via my Surrogates".
But in a society with high divorce rates, many poor role models, a flourishing “adult entertainment” industry, and a fascination with dating websites, will the ability to design and purchase your own “perfect 10” surrogate quickly lead to an increase in promiscuity where fantasies are lived out rather than productivity gains recognized?
“Yes and no,” says Alley. “Without a doubt such fantasies would be lived out. You see this with people chatting on the net pretending to be somebody else, safe in the knowledge, or at least the belief, that no one will discover their real identity. However, I also believe productivity increases would also occur. As a species, not so much as an individual, we can't stop improving, growing, experimenting, learning. So where someone might simply choose to live out a fantasy day after day, there will be those individuals who recognize that while all these ‘sloths’ are tied to the machine, there's a huge opportunity to seize the moment and move onward and upward. As has always been the case throughout the history of man is that giant leaps of progress are typically the result of a very small number of very bright, or very determined individuals.”
“I think that surrogate robots will provide more lifestyle choices that will enable people to live out their fantasies, both good, bad and yes, ugly, says Dr Canton. "But this is no different then today. Human society even without the surrogates spends a larger portion of time engaging in behaviors that are promiscuous. Will the surrogates tech accelerate people having more of these experiences, perhaps. But it is certain that less social repression, especially associated with sexual behavior, leads to less violence against women.
“Countries that have more liberal laws have less violent crimes, so if we allow safe alternative experiences that are safe and accepted, it is likely we will gain a social good from this. This does not mean to say that productivity must be thrown out for other promiscuous behaviors, but this is human nature not technology's issue. The Surrogates movie does show how a technology as powerful as the surrogates can change society. It is up to us to make sure that we steer this technology of the surrogates to be used for good and in the public interest as opposed to being used to manipulate human beings or used by governments or criminals to control thought, desire or human experience,” he says.
Robotic body language
It is often said that human communication consists of 93 percent body language and paralinguistic cues, while only 7 percent of communication consists of words themselves. So maybe that says that no matter how good your surrogate looks, you might still strike out of you can’t interpret what a potential date (either human or surrogate) may actually be thinking.
Alley agrees, saying the hardest thing to replicate from humans now in robotics is that fluidic and lifelike motion.
“The skins can look pretty darn good even up close. And even the durometer of the silicones and other materials used can closely approach the feel of human skin. Obviously, reactions to external influences would also be a subset of movement capabilities and if all of these challenges were somehow overcome, the sensory ability of the surrogate would be at the greatest deficit in terms of technology, especially physical sensations and the subtle way in which we humans respond to touch, temperature, etc. Gross surrogate response may be highly capable, but high-fidelity response to subtle cues would be a tough thing to accomplish.”
What exactly are some of the productivity gains or positive influences on society that surrogates could bring? Dr Canton was asked if deep space exploration could be conducted via surrogates.
“Your surrogate will be the only being to explore deep space in the future,” he said. “Deep space explorations, especially beyond our solar system, will demand surrogates who can withstand the trip, the elements and survive. We carbon life forms will not survive the journey even with enhancement. I would start saving now to pay for the chance to experience deep space trips via your surrogate. I am planning on ‘going’ to Venus and terra-forming Mars via my surrogate.”
Alley forecasts that while surrogates may lack some emotions, like a sense of humor, they could be endowed with great surgical skills. “Health care is a precious service that most of the developing world has little access to. I think surrogates, representing not just human doctors but AI (artificial intelligence), virtual doctors will provide medical care by this platform. Human needs for health care, security and companionship will be in demand for surrogate technology. Saving lives and protecting humans will be a huge practical driver of Surrogate tech. Also, care giving, taking care of the aging Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y population will require surrogates who have special skills, better then humans.”
Using surrogates in emergency services – rescuing victims from fire or disaster (think 911), policing hostile environments or even manning the armed forces – is a definite possibility.
Did Alley think the promotion of surrogates would only further promote a sedentary society that already suffers many health problems associated with a lack of simple exercise?
“As in all things, you will have those who want to sit on the couch and those who want to get out and seize life by the horns, regardless of the technology that is available. I, for example, view the Internet as the most amazing library of information on the planet and am amazed at how fast I can get answers and get back to what I need to do, while others want to sit and play video games all day and night. It really comes down to what is inside of you.”
What we need …
Alley, working in the field of prosthetics, creates pieces aimed a making a person feel whole again. He says the what has yet to be invented that would assist in making a surrogate robot work is the system of technology that allows for real-time control of the millions of bits of code that would be necessary to remotely control a surrogate and to instantly respond to external influences around the surrogate.
“We just don't have the capability to have real-time fluidic remote control of such complex machinery at great distances without tremendous lag.”
Misuse and abuse
In the Surrogates movie, the robots don't appear to be very tamper-proof. Alley says there is a never-ending battle between the march of technology and the needed security to protect it or prevent its misuse.
“We see it every day with security breaches of data networks or company firewalls making the headlines. I can't imagine this problem being reliably solved in the world of surrogates. After all, they may be impressively complex, but the laws of physics still apply. If something can be created in the digital world it most likely can be altered or hacked after enough time has passed for those who wish to do harm to figure out the way in.”
Does he fear misuse of the technology he has created in prosthetics?
“I will say, that just as with weapons, whether they are knives, handguns or our own limbs, it is not the weapons themselves that are responsible but the individuals wielding them. So yes, I worry technology can be misused, it is misused every day around the world and in many different ways. But I simply don't think it is within our power to check our progress, nor is it necessarily a good idea to do so out of fear of misuse. We do what we do naturally, move forward, or onward and upward. We do our best to adapt to a changing world and pray we don't get in over our head with no way out.
The haves and have nots
Will it only be the wealthier classes that will avail themselves of surrogate technology? Will having a surrogate be the new status symbol, the new BMW or beach house equivalent?
Dr Canton says: “I do think we all benefit from Moore's Law, the doubling of computer power every year or so. At the same time this same doubling of power costs half as much. When I was introducing at Apple the new Macintosh computer in 1984 it was US$2,400 for 30MHz computer. Now this same amount of money buys a supercomputer, actually I can buy two for this price today.
“The point is that accelerating technologies are both exponentially increasing in power, all tech, bio, neuro, networks, quantum and are getting cheaper by the hour. So I believe that just as there Porsche's and Toyota cars there will be high end and lower end Surrogates. Economics will play a role, but I have a forecast that says it makes more sense to donate to the world Surrogate tech, like vaccines have been in the past, because it may lead to better health care, world peace, productivity and less conflict between the haves and have nots. “I am an optimist not a utopian on this forecast. It is self-serving for all, rich and poor to have access to Surrogate tech, just as mobile phones, computers and the Internet are available today in the most economically poor regions of the world--and these technologies are leading to better quality of life. I believe that Surrogate tech, will help and heal more then hurt and harm in the long run,” says Dr Canton.
Possibilities (now and then)
Alley says his greatest success story at Biodesigns was with a middle-aged woman with quadrimelia (born without arms or legs).
“Adding to her challenges, she also had severe scoliosis, so her upper back was significantly rotated off of center. Her parents took care of her every minute of their lives and had been doing so for more than 40 years. Just sit back and imagine that. Eating, toileting, dressing, everything. When I met her, all she wanted was to be able to feed herself. The technology at the time was too heavy or simply incapable of providing the function she needed so I, along with an engineer designed a system that brought components together from different manufacturers that weren't meant to work with one another.
“The system not only weighed far less than anything out there at the time, but was also simple to use and reliable. She ate her first cookie right in front of me - and her family wept. I won't ever forget that,” he says.
Other developments – total body replacement
“One of the main thrusts of the DARPA programs, with which Biodesigns is involved, is the replication first of human function, and then both human function and human appearance,” adds Alley. “Two projects are currently underway utilizing two different endgame scenarios. The first is designed to see how far we can get to with current technology that can be purchased off the shelf. This system will be a strap on and go system designed to utilize more degrees of freedom than are currently available. The second project is far more ambitious, and will attempt to mimic the human arm and be capable of submersion. Both projects could be considered for direct brain interface control.
“These are very ambitious and expensive projects and still only deal with the arm. Other areas of research deal with artificial intelligence, brain interfacing, etc, are all in various stages of development. To rise to the level of total body substitution is a large leap yet to be attempted and quite a ways off. Mimicking the body will occur long before total body replacement technology will, though we do have individuals utilizing all four limbs for functional use.”
Why do we need surrogates?
Dr Canton says that as a futurist he sees the world of the surrogates as probable and not just because of technology's progress.
“There are other social drivers that could bring the surrogates into our reality faster. Population declines due to low fertility, war or pandemic could leave nations with more jobs then workers. Japan is a nation that is de-populating and is also a leader in robotics for this reason. Aging societies will need to be taken care of by robots, both surrogates and autonomous bots. Another likely scenario is that disasters due to climate change, wars and disease may require surrogates to engage in areas we do not want to risk human life.
"Finally, the convergence of robotics, AI computers, nanoscience and biotech will offer new choices for humans to extend their consciousness beyond the limitations of their bodies, for entertainment, sports as well as careers that will be dominated by Surrogate tech.
“Other likely scenarios will be driven by health care and medicine. We may not be able to treat the 8 billion people on the planet over the next 30-40 years without Surrogates. So social drivers will make the world of the Surrogates a reality to help humanity cope with population, conflict, health care and security,” he adds. Surrogate personalities
Dr Canton says that if you are one of the millions of people that are using virtual worlds like Second Life or playing interactive video games like Halo, they you have a sense of what it might feel like to be downloading your actual consciousnesses into an avatar that could be sent out into the real world to act as a surrogate, as in the movie.
“Though the download of human consciousness seems outrageous, when you are facing death or disease, this choice will not seem so strange. Humans will enhance and transform themselves, this is social evolution but with the tools of nanotech, biotech, neurotech and quantum tech, we will, I would forecast, be downloading minds within 30 years.”
Get ready for what’s ahead
Dr Canton says he has seen some secret labs in Asia - China and Japan – working on surrogate-like tech.
“They are working on female and male surrogate-like robots, some are quite attractive. Consider de-population a vexing problem of the near future. You can search for Hugo DeGaris and Rodney Brooks for more info on state-of-the-art in robotics.
“I think what is ahead in the next decade will astound most people. Immersive virtual worlds, tele-sensing, remote viewing, mobility and travel into any reality. The interaction with other intelligences, some robotic some virtual will open up new careers and lifestyles beyond today's limitations. In this time window we will "see" through the eyes of our surrogates far away new worlds in space, experience dangerous extreme sports and engage in erotic safe adventures that will expand our reality. Surrogates points to a basic human drive - the exploration by humanity into new worlds, new experiences and new adventures.”
Dr Canton adds that what has blown his mind so far was an artificial life form called Fin Fin that was created from a computer program that imitated evolutionary human processes. It was a cross between a bird and a dolphin. This was developed by Fujitsu some years ago. Recently, Honda's free walking and instrument playing robots that I visited were mind blowing. The idea of a robot being able to play an instrument. Also, I viewed a robotic woman who was quite beautiful in a lab in China. What was fantastic was how she tracked me with her eyes and her skin was very life like. Finally, the 200 petabyte supercomputer at Tata in India was mind-blowing as it showed me that artificial intelligence must be used to think through the big challenges that we face today.”
Parallel to surrogates
The most radical developments in science that could run parallel to the robots in surrogates are in nanoscience and biotechnology, says Dr Canton.
“Synthetic biology is the convergence of engineering and biotech. We are learning how to mix and match living systems to make new living systems. Some day this will make human cloning work. Nanoscience is the design of matter at the atomic scale. When you combine nano and bio, into a new field called nanobiology, you have a design science that could make clones, cybernetic entities and of course Surrogates.
“It is possible that the model of robots in the future will not be mechanistic but biological and bio-mimetic, they will mimic humans but use organic parts and systems grown from biochemicals, genes, tissue and cells. The synthetic biological creation of Surrogates may emerge even faster then the mechanistic one as depicted in the movie. Keep in mind that we are just scratching the surface of understanding DNA and the human genome.”
I want my robot!
We asked Alley to put a timeframe on when surrogate robots, like those in the movie, would be an affordable option for Joe Citizen, what year would he guess it might be?
“This is going to be one of those answers that have three possibilities: 1) it never comes to pass and therefore my prediction disappears into the shadows of history; 2) I am so far off and have made such a great name for myself and my company that somebody bothers to dig up this answer and parades it around for all the world to be amused and 3) I am close enough to look like a sage and the world comes knocking at my door.
“As a wild guess I am going to offer up the year 2025, as there are surely higher priorities than surrogate creation on the to-do list of most scientists. Then to bring this tech down to the affordable level, well, that's the tough part.”
Randall Alley is CEO and Chief Prosthetist for Biodesigns, a technology-driven high performance prosthetic facility specializing in the most advanced upper and lower extremity patient care and product development.
Alley is the inventor of the revolutionary, patent-pending High Fidelity interface for both upper and lower extremity applications and is the creator of the widely used XFrame and ACCI (Anatomically Contoured and Controlled Interface), two upper extremity prosthetic interfaces that brought superior biomechanical principles to socket design.
Alley has traveled the world working on complex upper extremity cases and has trained hundreds of practitioners.
In addition to his practice, Alley is working with DEKA Research as their chief prosthetic interface design consultant for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) “Revolutionizing Prosthetics Project” chartered to develop the next generation upper extremity prosthesis for the military (a.k.a. the “Luke Arm”). He is also a Touch Bionics’ Development Partner for its revolutionary i-LIMB Hand (recently named a top invention for 2008 by TIME magazine) and its ProDigits Technologies.
He is also an ISSA certified fitness trainer and a member of the National Athletic Trainer’s Association.
Dr James Canton is a renowned global futurist, social scientist, keynote presenter, author, and visionary business advisor. For more than 30 years he has been predicting the key trends that have shaped our world. He is the author of The Extreme Future: The Top Trends That Will Reshape the World in the 21st Century, Dutton 2006, and Technofutures: How Leading-Edge Innovations Will Transform Business in the 21st Century.
Dr Canton is CEO and Chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, a leading think tank he founded in 1990 that advises business and government on future trends. He advises the Global Fortune 1000 on trends in innovation, financial services, health care, population, life sciences, energy, security, workforce, climate change and globalization. From a broad range of industries, clients include: IBM, BP, Intel, Philips, General Electric, Hewlett Packard, Boeing, FedEx, and Proctor & Gamble. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Research in Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management. He has advised three White House Administrations, the National Science Foundation and MIT's Media Lab, Europe.
Recognized as “one of the top presenters in the 21st century” by Successful Meetings Magazine, Dr Canton is a highly sought-after keynote presenter. He has spoken to thousands of organizations on five continents.
Dr Canton is a commentator on CNN. He was named "the Digital Guru” by CNN and “Dr Future” by Yahoo. His media coverage has included CNBC, Fox, PBS, ABC, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Report, The New York Times, US News and World Report, CEO, CIO and CFO Magazines. His Global Futurist blog has a world-wide audience.
In the videos below, actors Boris Kodjoe and Rosamund Pike talk about the film Surrogates and a future in which robot look-alikes roam the streets.
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