What if computers could learn from their mistakes? Not long ago, this question would seem like nothing but far off Sci-Fi. Even currently, almost everyone would just scratch their heads and say it has to be a few years away, at the most. After all, there is something about learning that seems to necessitate, deep down, a kind of realistic and organic intelligence – almost something soul-like.
Recently, the New York Times published an article detailing how brain-like computers will be available for commercial use starting this year. 2014. These new computer processors, instead of being based on the binary algorithms that have underscored computing for its entire history, will now have processor systems modeled on the neural connections found in the human brain.
Not long ago I saw a video on Facebook of a revolutionary new concept for phones. Whereas modern smartphones generate an unparalleled amount of waste – due to planned obsolescence, routine wear and tear, the inability to replace or upgrade parts, etc. – this video demonstrated an entirely new way to think about cellular technology. These phonebloks – phones of tomorrow, hopefully – are completely customizable and upgradable. At least in theory.
Recently I heard an amazing interview on NPR with Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. He discusses how bioengineers are currently developing microchips that function as working models of human organs on the miniature. Essentially, these are microchip organs, as explained in the video below – it is all a little beyond me.
The stated purpose of such technology is to better how new medicines interact with human organs. Eventually the research team hopes to create a fully functional model of the human body, completely through microchips; this technology will effectively end the need for animal testing – good news!
In even better news, the testing of new medicines through these microchip organs will also yield exponentially more accurate results. Although rats and humans do share some key characteristics, often times potentially awful side effects do turn up when new medicines are tested on humans that were not present in lab animals. These chips will completely nix any chance of this happening.
More amazing still, these chips will lead to a drastic decrease in the cost of prescription drugs. A large part of drug cost is due to the insane amounts of money pharmaceuticals have to pump into drug research, with many of these drugs then failing in human trials for safety reasons. These chips will help to streamline the entire process.
I wonder how far we will see this technology run. Already, in a perhaps even more amazing display of scientific magic, we have examples of organs being grown or created in 3d printers. Is there a way we can see these two technologies intersect? Is it possible that, in the not too distant future, we may have organs being grown on a microchip scaffold for those who need transplants?
I don’t want to delve too deeply into sci-fi here, but could these two technologies also eventually lead to the creation of full cybernetic life? These possibilities remind me of the classic Philip K. Dick book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Except, whereas Dick’s book paints a grim post-apocalyptic future that deal with androids as slaves incapable of feeling empathy, this future tech instead makes me dream of a world in which no one will die waiting for organ transplants and pharmaceutical drugs can become affordable for all.
I just recently read a fascinating article about the progress of true augmented reality through the invention of personal avatars. These personal avatars are robots that are controlled by a user through motion capture technology. What is truly amazing about these personal avatars are how they can be controlled from any point around the world, as long as there is an established connection between the user and the device. The BBC article I linked to demonstrates this via a video, showing a scientist in Spain controlling a robot in London with one-to-one movement.
The article focuses heavily on what could be the legal ramifications of this technology, saying how no countries have in place laws for dealing with sexual assault by a robot. While this is a fair point, I can’t help but feel it is some sort of extremely dark joke. I can just imagine a headline like this on the Onion “Vice-Presidential Candidate Violated by Personal Avatar – Changes Stance on Abortion.”
Instead of focusing on the possible awful ramifications of a few people having exploitative technology, it would be nice if people could instead focus on the amazing possibilities of this science instead.
For instance, personal avatars – if they reach a high enough level of precision – could be used by medical professionals. Say you have a critical heart condition requiring surgery but there are no qualified doctors in your area. Instead of wasting valuable time trying to airlift the patient to a different hospital, a doctor could just take control of their personal avatar and perform the operation from a different hospital.
Another major use of personal avatars could be in wish fulfillment. Imagine for a second that you are, tragically, paralyzed from the waste down but you have always had dreams of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (you were highly adventurous). Most likely, this goal would be impossible; however, via a personal avatar you could still have the experience of climbing the mountain with a few slight alterations to the sensors on your legs.
Essentially, there are innumerable ways that this technology could benefit humanity as a whole. Global businessmen could plug into avatars to cut down on travel time allowing on more time with their families, while simultaneously lessening the dangers of prolonged air travel; politicians could use avatars to appear at different functions and conferences worldwide; people without the money to travel could even partake in virtual getaways.
Basically, if you can’t tell, I am extremely excited about this technology… and not just because it’s the same technology from the Bruce Willis movie Surrogates.