Robots Rule OK? Scientists Ask: How human do we want to make

our robots?

By Peter Day in Pittsburgh / BBC News Online

August 20, 2000

I went to Pittsburgh to talk to a man about robots. Once a
dirty coal and steel town, it is now a centre of finance,
medicine and learning.

I went there to meet a remarkable academic whose predictions
may make your flesh creep.

In fact, Hans Moravec is the most amiable of men. He has
been building robots since he was 10. Talked about [it] for
so long, now, he thinks, their time has come.

By around 2050, predicts Hans Moravec, a computer costing
only a few hundred pounds will have the capacity of the
human mind - after that, it will start exceeding it

Certainly the little machines were buzzing along the
corridors of Carnegie Mellon University's Department of
Robotics on the day I was there, recognising their
surroundings and edging around them. But that is nothing.

Mr Moravec's thesis is that some time in the next 50 years,
machines like these are going to become more intelligent
than we are. It is, he says, the way the world is evolving.

Brain Power

Currently, he says, men can create machines such as the ones
negotiating his corridors with the calculating powers of
insects. But with computer power doubling every year, or
year and a half, robots will evolve from insects to animals
to human intelligence - at breakneck speed.

By around 2050, predicts Hans Moravec, a computer costing
only a few hundred pounds will have the capacity of the
human mind. After that, it will start exceeding it.

It may sound like pure science fiction, but it is serious
academic stuff. Sometimes we non-scientists glimpse the
details of it.

Human Chromosomes - But Will Robots Soon Be Superior?

The American computer chip maker Gordon Moore enunciated
what is now known as Moore's Law 30 years ago, when he
noticed that the power and pace of computing was doubling
every 18 months or so.

But the roboteer Hans Moravec thinks the evolving change we
are now experiencing in computing has in fact been going for
centuries in human evolution.

When machines have more intelligence than men, they will be
able to do the things we do better and faster than we do.

Taking Over

For Hans Moravec - and he keeps a straight face here - that
means they will start taking over from us. It is not, he
insists, a frightening prospect.

These super-intelligent machines will be our children, says
Mr Moravec. Each generation of humans eventually learns to
accept the idea of handing over continuing existence to its
own offspring.

Well, the abiding faith in technological progress has long
been one of the defining features of American life - it is a
mainspring of the country's current extraordinary optimism.
But even some Americans see a dark lining to the silver

The scientist Bill Joy is an influential man. He is one of
the founders of the huge computer company Sun Microsystems.
The magazine Fortune called him the "Edison of the

Last year when I saw him in his think-tank hideaway in
Aspen, the ski resort in the Rocky Mountains, he was still
one of the optimists.

But now Bill Joy is having second thoughts, about things
such as the advances in robotics that Mr Moravec is


Add to them the human genome project, and nanotechnology,
the new ability to build minute machines that can replicate
themselves, too small for the human eye to see.

The result, says Bill Joy, is the possibility of electronic
and biological plagues which could threaten the future of
the human race.

In the networked computer world he has been instrumental in
creating, knowledge about all these things is now readily
available to everyone - for good uses or bad.

Bill Joy first voiced his concerns in a magazine article
last spring, and because he is co-chairman of President Bill
Clinton's Information Technology Advisory Committee, he got
a lot of attention.

With genetic codes now cracked by computers, people will
soon be able to choose desirable attributes for their

The smallpox genome may soon become very easy for anyone to
get hold of. Bill Joy's message to his fellow scientists is:
stop and think.

He is so concerned about the misuse of knowledge that he is
urging restraint - limits, voluntary or imposed, on where
scientists should tread, and what science should do.

Forging Ahead

But most of the technology experts dismiss out of hand the
idea of reining themselves in.

Nevertheless, we have been warned.

A few days later on my summer trip criss-crossing America, I
saw one of the wittiest advertisements I've ever seen.

A billboard sign just outside Philadelphia said in huge
letters: "Go Ahead. Pick Your Nose". The message was
followed in small print by the name of the advertiser:
Gehry's Cosmetic Surgery.

It won't be long before we're picking more than just our
noses. And within a few decades, it is just possible that
our noses may be picking us.

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