The Futurist   February 1999


Robots: Our Evolutionary Heirs?

Robots will surpass humans physically and mentally by 2050, says one expert.

A "bush robot" prepares to juggle.
A robot composed of ever-finer branches,
as envisioned by Hans Moravec, would
have many talents, including being able to
perform instantaneous medical procedures.

Humanity can look forward to a long, idyllic retirement as early as 2050, thanks to intelligent robots that will handle all our work, suggests Hans Moravec, former Carnegie Mellon robotics expert.

Humanity's retirement will have its good and bad sides: On the one hand, all humans will be able to en joy an unprecedented level of robot-provided wealth, health, and pleasure. On the other hand, robots will so far surpass us physically and mentally that we may be relegated to the status of ani mals in a nature preserve--or pets, muses Moravec in his latest book, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind.

The process has already begun. Machines have replaced humans in most manufacturing jobs and are edging into office tasks such as accounting, product design, and customer relations. By the time robot-computers achieve human intelligence, around 2040, they will have taken over research and development, engineering, marketing, and executive decision making, Moravec predicts.

Other experts say it will take centuries, if ever, for computers to achieve human intelligence. But Moravec argues that market forces--in conjunction with breakthroughs such as molecule-sized switches, data bits stored in in dividual atoms, and quantum-level computers--will create humanlike artificial intelligence within decades. He notes that IBM's supercomputer, Deep Blue, not only defeated Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, but convinced the shaken grand master that it possessed an "alien intelligence."

Moravec envisions fully automated robot corporations governed by superhuman thought, owned only nominally by people, and bent on producing novel products for our enjoyment. Creating a scenario that is part Adam Smith, part Arthur C. Clarke, Moravec says these corporations will compete with each other for market share, exploring the solar system for sources of power, mining asteroids, and setting up factories in space.

The robot corporations will repair, reproduce, and even redesign them selves at will. They will conduct scientific research and learn. They will exchange information and design tips. The result will be machines that evolve like biological organisms.

"We marvel at the diversity of Earth's biosphere, but the diversity and range of the post-biological world will be astronomically greater," Moravec writes.

Envisioning Tomorrow's Robots

What might these super-advanced, self-created robots look like? Some may stretch across vast quantities of space: a home base here, a fleet of spaceships there, all directed by one giant program. Others may shrink to a few millimeters.

Moravec believes robots will model themselves after successful biological forms. One such form--used by trees, the human circulatory system, and basket starfish--is a network of ever-finer branches. Moravec envisions a "bush robot," which would look much like its name implies: "Twenty-five branchings would connect a meter-long stem to a trillion fingers, each a thousand atoms long and able to move about a million times per second." One of this robot's many talents would be medicine. "The most complicated procedures could be completed almost instantaneously by a trillion-fingered robot, able, if necessary, to simultaneously work on almost every cell of a human body."

Moravec doesn't lament the idea that robots will surpass us. In fact, he sees it as natural. "Intelligent ma chines, which will grow from us, learn our skills, and share our goals and values, can be viewed as chil dren of our minds," he says. They will be our evolutionary heirs.

Some humans will want to become computers, moving beyond the hu man state. The technology will most likely exist to accomplish this: Every human part, right down to the neurons of the brain, will be replaceable with a superior artificial substitute. In addition, humans will be able to upload themselves into computers and live forever as bits of data flow ing through bodies of hardware.

Source: Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind by Hans Moravec. Oxford University Press. 1998. 227 pages. Available from the Futurist Bookstore for $25 ($22.95 for Society members), cat. no. B-2222.