Robots are pathetic. You need only watch a robot soccer fail compilation to see that humans’ ancient quest to build synthetic replicas of ourselves out of nuts, bolts and wiring has been a bust. Every new, groundbreaking robot inevitably turns out to be an ungodly abomination, either physically inept or utterly incapable of social interaction. Our latest attempt at a full-on humanoid, Sophia, looks like a pre-loved department store mannequin and sounds like a 2007-era chatbot dialed to the VERY DEPRESSED setting. She’d be a walking repudiation of brainless techno-optimism, if she could actually walk.
Even attempts to build simpler, dog-like droids, such as Boston Dynamics’ Spot, have produced robots barely worthy of the name. They don’t look much better than what you’d expect from an adult Erector set enthusiast’s weekend garage projects. Some people find these things terrifying, but I take my cues from the manufacturers, who seem incredibly proud when one of their creations performs a task as easy as opening a door.
Imitating human intelligence in software has also proven a task more difficult than expected. Despite the well-financed wet dreams of companies like Uber, the automotive industry has begun to quietly admit that truly self-driving cars are going to happen in decades, not just a few years from now. The Blue Brain project, which received a billion euros from the EU in 2013 and promised to simulate a human brain by 2019, did not succeed. Blue Brain seems to have had some success building a 3D atlas of a mouse brain, but the project’s supercomputer, which takes up an entire room, is heaving and groaning under the strain of doing the same for a human mind. Valiant efforts to simulate a transparent, one millimetre nematode called C. elegans, ongoing since 2004, have yielded similarly slow progress. C. elegans has 302 neurons. The human brain has 86 billion.
The promises of robotics and AI are so seductive that people suspend their critical faculties.
These stuff-ups are endlessly amusing to me. I don’t want to mock the engineers who pour thousands of hours into building novelty dogs made of bits of broken toasters, or even the vertiginously arrogant scientists who thought they could simulate the human brain inside a decade. (Inside a decade! I mean, my god!) Well, okay, maybe I do want to mock them. Is it a crime to enjoy watching our culture’s systematic over-investment in digital Whiggery get written down in value time and time again?
On the other hand, maybe the people doing this stuff have just figured out that attaching the terms “robot” or “artificial intelligence” to whatever you’re up to is a great way of attracting investment from rich idiots. Sometimes I feel naive for thinking anyone takes these wild claims seriously, but that is precisely the power of a good ideology. The promises of robotics and AI are so seductive that people suspend their critical faculties. Whether you are a business like Uber striving to eliminate the messy and expensive production input known as “human beings,” or a normal person desperate for easy transportation or someone to keep your elderly relatives company, the way we talk about robots and AI suggests these smart solutions are just around the corner. Even people with their heads screwed on properly don’t seem to understand how credulously the media hypes up their coverage of AI.
What these doomed overreaches represent is a failure to grasp the limits of human knowledge. We don’t have a comprehensive idea of how the brain works. There is no solid agreement on what consciousness really “is.” Is it divine? Is it matter? Can you smoke it? Do these questions even make sense? We don’t know the purpose of sleep. We don’t know what dreams are for. Sexual dimorphism in the brain remains a mystery. Are you picking up a pattern here? Even the seemingly quotidian mechanical abilities of the human body — running, standing, gripping, and so on — are not understood with the scientific precision that you might expect. How can you make a convincing replica of something if you don’t even know what it is to begin with? We are cosmic toddlers waddling around in daddy’s shoes, pretending to “work at the office” by scribbling on the walls in crayon, and then wondering where our paychecks are.
“The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day,” writes philosopher Thomas Nagel. But accepting this epistemic knuckle sandwich doesn’t mean abandoning the pursuit of robotics.
Enter the frogbot, a “living machine” synthesized by a research team at the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University in Boston.
Frogbots (called xenobots by their creators, a stupid name I refuse to use), are tiny little artificial animals made out of stem cells from the African clawed frog. They can’t do much yet — move around on two stumpy legs, carry tiny objects in a pouch — but to me, they are stranger and scarier than any robot we’ve made out of metal and plastic.
There are three basic steps to the frogbot process. First, stem cells that will develop into frog skin and frog heart are grown in a dish. (The proto-heart cells produce rhythmic contractions, which is how the finished frogbots move around.) Second, a computer runs an algorithm that simulates thousands and thousands of different frogbot designs in a virtual environment to see which ones are capable of whatever action you want them to perform. Finally, the designs that are likely to work are physically produced from clusters of stem cells using microsurgery, then let loose in another dish to see what they actually do. So far, they do pretty much whatever we want them to do, within reason.
This is very cool. Even though frogbots are tiny and stupid at the moment, they impress me way more than the conga line of faildroids we’ve managed to cobble together so far. Of course it makes sense to use materials from existing animals; we’ve been doing this using selective breeding techniques since the dawn of time. What are pigs or cows or sheep but frogbots built over thousands of years? The key innovation here is modelling selective evolution quickly, instead of standing around like idiots for millenia, waiting for hundreds of generations of dogs to fuck.
It makes perfect sense. Why try to reinvent the wheel when you could simply hijack biological processes that already exist? This is a classically human way of solving a problem, cleverer and yet also lazier than the futile pursuit of purely artificial robotics. A big congratulations to the scientists who figured this out, using only keen wit, a positive attitude, and a gigantic pile of money from the U.S. military research agency.
Yes, naturally this exciting new field of science is being used to develop weapons of war. This, not simply the prospect of new intelligences, is the upsetting thing about groundbreaking developments in robotics and AI. Will frogbots be a military invention that simply slides into everyday life, like the internet, canned food, and microwaves? Or will they be used to administer dangerous MKULTRA hallucinogens to innocent populations America decides are in its way? In a world controlled by a small and powerful elite that can essentially do whatever it wants, we’re forced to be suspicious of new technologies. Will the frogbot become bigger, smarter, and stronger? Yes, probably. Will it be my comrade? That’s another question entirely.