Future Tense

The Difference Between Inspiring and Creepy Human-Robot Technology

Yesterday, we were wowed by the video of a paralyzed woman using her mind to direct a robotic arm in picking up a coffee thermos and bringing it to her mouth. Most observers (with the possible exception of Gizmodo’s Andrew Tarantola) praised the technology that made it possible for Cathy Hutchinson to sip coffee without another person’s help for the first time in almost 15 years.

About the same time, another story began circulating online: that of a group called Russia 2045 that hopes to, among other things, download the human mind to a robot, which would essentially enable immortality sans biological body. Russia 2045’s timeline to create real-life avatars, as stated in the description of a YouTube video, is ambitious. About 2040-2050, the group estimates there will be “[b]odies made of nanorobots that can take any shape arise alongside hologram bodies.” But first, between 2015-2020, we’re promised “[a] robotic human copy controlled by thought via ‘brain-computer’ interface. It becomes as popular as a car.” That sounds not unlike what Hutchinson did as part of the BrainGate2 clinical trials.

Gizmodo called video released Tuesday (below) of one of Russia 2045’s recent androids “creepy.” Commenters on the Verge said things like, “I don’t like this” and “This is all bad news.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether Russia 2045 will actually accomplish any of its stated goals. (I’m quite dubious.) What’s interesting is the telling difference in reactions to the videos of Hutchinson and of Russia 2045’s bot. Part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that there’s a humanoid robot in the Russian clip—the uncanny valley and all.

But it isn’t just the fake-looking man that is creeping out many; it’s the idea of an avatar, a la Surrogates, for daily use by able-bodied humans. (It’s also drawn some comparisons to the Japanese animated film Ghost in the Shell.) To use technology to bring a disabled person back to (or at least closer to) base line physical capability is wonderful. To use it as a substitute for a human body altogether is unnerving. But technology that originally helps the disabled will almost inevitably be used at some point to enhance the “normal.”