Homo roboticus

As humankind evolves there will be a limit to what genetic changes are possible before Homo  meets an environment that cannot be colonized.  To progress further humankind must then become an individual entity that is beyond the concept of a genetically altered human being or an extra-terrestrial probe. This is where and when Homo roboticus must evolve. Those belonging to Homo roboticus will be individuals in which  control is still by a conscious human mind existing within a normal biological human brain.  However,  the body to which this brain is attached or implanted is totally manufactured.

Prior to this stage science must have perfected the techniques of body transplants. The  attachment of a brain, with an already contained consciousness [mind] depends upon research into neural chord reattachment.  Not too far in the future it will be  possible to do this and successfully perform a mind-brain transplant from a living human being who needs a new body. Body donation, ethically, should be treated no differently than heart or kidney donation.  It is very clear that in order for development of our lineage to Homo roboticus the problems of spinal cord repair must be solved for Homo sapiens.  This is a goal many scientists are striving towards today.   Without the ability to attach a body, via the central nervous system, to a pre-existing conscious brain, there is little possibility of our evolution towards Homo roboticus.

Homo roboticus will become a fact when a conscious brain is permanently attached to an independent manufactured body.  This body might be a mechanical device that bears no resemblance to human form. The principal idea for Homo roboticus is that the entire entity will be a self-replicating, partially manufactured individual that uses a pre-existing human consciousness. The problem of self-replication conceptually is not as problematic as one might think if we allow self-replication to go beyond our immediate thought of sexual activity.

There is more than one design possible for making  Homo roboticus.  The simplest method is using the entire head of a living human being, and attaching it to a manufactured body.  It must be emphasized  that the concept of Homo roboticus lies not simply in modifying the human body to adapt to changing conditions [including cell death] but the development of a completely manufactured body with a conventional brain and a mind containing conventional consciousness i.e. true mind/brain transplant. There are three ways in which this probably will be developed.

Progress towards H. roboticus lies in the technological developments that will enhance Homo sapiens. Science is continuing to develop mechanical and biological transplants that replace failing organs such as the eye, cochlear and heart. Already  the necessary knowledge to create failsafe replacement parts for most internal biological structures is progressing.  Development in this direction is moving quickly as abiological manufactured transplants of hearts, livers, sensory and other organs become viable alternatives to deterioration and death. John Lenihan [1975] provided an early look at this future in his book “Human Engineering” and numerous works in related robotics have followed.

Science is already well within the first stage for developing a manufactured body by the development of these mechanical implants and at the same time others are attempting to develop real biologic organs within ex-vitro containers. There is little chance of stopping this scientific progress because so many Nations are actively perusing such studies. The rewards at the level of the individual will become so great that many will choose to reap them. A lot of current research is into the details of specific relationships within living systems, and developing both physical and digital process - response models natural mechanisms [Holland and McFarland, 2001; Ayers, Davis and Rudolph, 2002]. Scientists are already studying the behavior of living systems and creating analogous behavior in robotic systems.  This will lead to the development of the necessary manufactured structures that will be the basis of developing mechanical-bodied Homo roboticus.   The really exciting future will occur when living neurons and manufactured devices are connected on a massive parallel basis.

Homo roboticus will occur as genetic and structural modifications, and the manufacturing of whole biological organs, become dominate in humankind. These developments will be associated with attempts to eliminate disease and aging.  However, there are numerous other ideas that are being explored  for improving Homo sapiens that have nothing to do with health.  These are often enhancements for Homo sapiens that  have the potential to be incorporated into Homo roboticus.   For example, the development of a wearable external skin, enclosing and enhancing the body will be generally preferable to an internal prosthesis such as an artificial limb by Homo sapiens and will be a logical basis for the skin of Homo roboticus. Wearable skin is of current interest to both the military and the erotic industry. Other devices such as the WearSat project at MIT are being designed to provide multimedia information within a spacesuit helmet by wireless communication. This technology can readily be used to provide instructions to individuals who do not have a detailed training to repair, for example, machinery of various kinds simply by providing a series of instructions and schematics upon voice request. It is not the same as transplanting knowledge directly into a brain but it has huge possibilities as an add-on module for H. roboticusHomo roboticus has one major advantage that will contribute towards development: it needs only those chemical functions that are required to support the brain and to maintain human consciousness i.e. it is the ultimate brain-in-a-box. For Homo sapiens the desire for organic devices similar to natural ones may be preferable but for Homo roboticus the control of the device by the conscious mind is the only requirement. 

The wearable skin idea has other avenues for exploration.  A wearable skin can have additional sensors: such as sensing electric current as in primitive fish; or, micro-magnetic and micro-gravity sensors for location.  Technology of this sort is being developed at many places: ranging from distance sensors for the blind to wearable computers connected to the Internet. The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) at MIT promises to make important strides in physically enhancing the capabilities of humankind. A flexible exoskeleton can provide protection from external elements: ranging from a tree limb to a blizzard.  Attached energy sources can greatly magnify muscular strength for enhanced human performance such as lifting and locomotion, and with the advances currently taking place in specialty clothing the suite itself could dispense drugs and vitamins and provide real-time medical treatment.

Consciousness in a manufactured biological body

The immediate future holds out the possibility for manufactured biological organs: formed in a laboratory. Impetus to develop a manufactured biological body will certainly come from the need for replacement parts for Homo sapiens. By the time a body transplant  has occurred the development of wholly manufactured biological body could progress quite rapidly. As scientists gain a thorough understanding of the gene-protein-trait processes, and our knowledge of embryological development progresses the manufacturing of replacement parts will rapidly increase. This type of knowledge is increasing exponentially and by the end of the present century a completely manufactured biological body, could be possible and await a brain-mind implant.

To what extent the body system of  Homo roboticus will be entirely carbon-based depends upon future developments but it is likely that totally carbon-based humanoids will not continue once the new species is well established. Because Homo roboticus will be manufactured numerous chimera-structures can be incorporated into a bio-body system,  and the species can be modified and even optimized for many conditions it is likely to encounter in space. If proteins and enzymes are retained as the basis of structures and functions then Homo roboticus will have a lot in common with Homo sapiens’ construction. When developed along the bio-body direction it is probable that the basic body plan will be fairly conventional, although modified for efficiency.

One reason to believe that bio-systems will be important is simply because living systems have evolved to do what they do both efficiently and effectively, and, the basic building blocks of living systems are abundant in the universe. Thus it may turn out that the optimum structure for Homo roboticus, in the immediate short term, is biologically and carbon-based simply for ease of replication and repair, with a manufactured exoskeleton for protection and advanced sensory systems.  Using elements present in abundance throughout the universe is the simplest approach, especially when we have a complete understanding of how Homo sapiens work as a chemical machine.

Another alternative is to devise a method of reproducing a new brain with a new consciousness that is not transplant [although it may be a clone]. Reproducing a brain will follow as a result of extra-cellular manufacturing of other biological organs i.e. within a laboratory set-up. I am referring here to attaching a biologically manufactured brain to all of the necessary sensory inputs [whether biological or mechanical] and allowing the mind to develop naturally to a conscious level. Surprisingly current scientific trends indicate that neither of these hurdles will be difficult given a hundred years, or less, of research.

Consciousness in a manufactured mechanical body

Judging by the present pace of technical discoveries and speed of development of robotic systems, the short-term [100 year] may favor mechanical systems. Some additional major breakthroughs in understanding cell development and embryology are needed to accelerate the manufacturing of carbon-based body-systems.  The rigors of getting to most locations in the universe will necessitate much more hardy body designs, which can exist in differing temperature, pressure and chemical regimes. Undoubtedly, those forms of Homo roboticus in which mechanical parts dominate will have structures that are highly resistant to corrosion and wear and they will be advantageous for long and hazardous space exploration. With a completely mechanical body it is easy to plug and unplug parts that need to be used for specific situations and there is no reason why a mechanical body for Homo roboticus cannot be modular. 

Consciousness in a hybrid bio-mechanical body

Even though early developments might favor the mechanical bodies it is also correct that later developments may favor bio-bodies, or at least hybrid forms, because of the ease of obtaining the necessary chemical elements in space. However, making individual mechanical devices, or individual organ transplants work within a hybrid body may be more difficult than making an entire functioning body.  With completely biological or mechanical manufacturing the total body can be built as an integrated system that discards items that are of no use and includes other novel items that are of use.  The major hurdle would be connecting the brain-mind to the body and making it work as a complete organism.

For those who take a moral stance against the effort to develop Homo roboticus I ask two questions.

QUESTION ONE:  “If you know your death will shortly occur but I offer you the opportunity for your mind to live on within another body, will you allow your brain to be transplanted into a manufactured biological body that has human form?

QUESTION TWO: “If you know your death will shortly occur but I offer you the opportunity for your mind to live on within another body, will you allow your brain to be transplanted into a manufactured mechanical body that has the form of a fish that will be placed in the Pacific Ocean to explore that oceanic world?

I have asked these two questions to many people over the years and most answered ‘yes’ to both. Many want the ability to commit suicide to be part of the ‘package’, a suggestion that has merit.

I believe the moral question of implanting a human consciousness inside a fish-like marine Homo roboticus var oceanicus will be of only passing concern.  It will remain an ethical question only as long as the failure rate is high. Certainly, at the end of my own normal human life it is an experience I would willingly look forward to.  I believe many would take such a second chance at existence, especially if their conscious mind remained significantly intact and only the body changed. Many humans living today will answer yes to both questions and this will be the answer to the moral-issue of the neo-Luddites! If the question is placed within the framework of individual choice the moralists and ethicists have no voice.  The ethicists will try to place the questions within a societal context i.e. the group is more important that the individual but in doing so will place themselves upon their own ‘slippery slope’ as they intertwine individual rights with group rights..

Humankind will be drawn by the very nature of ‘mind’ to extensions into presently adverse environments here on Earth, allowing permanent dwelling in the hydrosphere.  Indeed, it is this mental urge that will drive humankind to live elsewhere in the Solar System and beyond. Adaptation to the low gravity of the Moon and the poisonous atmosphere of Mars should be relatively simple to achieve once the human brain can be placed within a synthetic body.

In summary the essential transition from Homo sapiens to Homo roboticus will involve advancements in manufactured mechanisms and manufactured biological components.  To a large extent robotics in the past has relied upon manufactured mechanistic organs [see for example Mark Rosheim’s, 1994, book on Robot Evolution]. I have no doubt that a brain transplant that retains the original consciousness of the mind will be possible before the end of the 21st century and by that time all three scenarios for building Homo roboticus will have been explored.

Mind transplantation

Brain transplantation is the placing of a conscious human brain within a donor body-system.  Mind transplantation is different. This is the placing an individual’s consciousness [mind] within an artificial brain.  The classic idea is to use a computer as the artificial storage system for both access and perpetual existence.  Robotico earthensis, by definition, requires the development of manufactured consciousness and the development of mind transplantation could be the necessary pre-cursor scientific break-through to this final stage in the evolution of our phylogeny. Moravec [1998], Kurzweil [1999], Minsky [1988] and Extropians have all embraced the scenario of mind transplantation for perpetual existence.  Their procedure goes something like the following.

Looking beyond using a computer to store the mind this scenario may turn out to be one that is quite feasible. There is no reason why scientists could not manufacture a blank brain in a manufactured bio-body that simply waits re-programming.  The problem I see is that given the choice of implanting my entire present brain and mind into a manufactured body or having my mind re-programmed into a new brain I would choose the former.  The second is effective death for the original individual unless the two separate entities are somehow linked in space-time.

In order to transpose human mind into a mechanical device such as a computer, nanotechnology is seen by some as the key. In the future nanotube circuitry will be several orders of magnitude greater than a similar volume of brain cells in computing capacity according to Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil believed that within 30 years the human brain will have been reverse engineered.