Friday, April 20, 2007


The great thing about the Terminator movies, when it comes to actually understanding robotics and artificial intelligence, is that they deliver two extremes on a spectrum of misunderstanding. At the one end is Skynet, a computer which takes over the world, and at the other end is the Terminator, a machine which looks human.

The same thing happens in the Matrix movies, where you've got armies of giant robots hunting down humanity at the same time as you've got whole legions of human beings spending their entire lives trapped inside virtual reality.

The idea is that either computers will dominate humanity, or humanity will dominate computers. It's a classic dichotomy and it's as false as you could wish any dichotomy to be. The reality will be very different - both much more optimistic and much more creepy.

The reality is that machines will become like mitochondria. The mitochondria is a part of human cells. Originally, in the days before cells commonly existed, the mitochondria was a tiny independent organism. As cells evolved and came into being, the mitochondria was absorbed into cells and became part of the system.

This will happen - in fact, it's already happening. This robot resembles a leech, or a caterpillar, or an eel. It inches across the surface of a human heart, "injecting drugs or attaching medical devices." It makes it possible for doctors to perform surgical procedures on hearts in a less invasive surgical context than such surgeries usually happen in. It could be a marvellous improvement in safety for very important surgery. Yet it is very unnerving to witness.

I first figured out this idea in the early 90s. It was edited out of an article I wrote for Wired (which Wired edited heavily) in late 1994 and which Wired published in 1995. Being published in Wired was a thrill at the time, I was pretty young and what was going on with Wired was still very new and exciting, but the editing is the main reason I never really got into magazine writing.

But, for what it's worth, click the links. Read the article and watch the video. Something I predicted in the mid 90s is really starting to happen.

And the Hollywood dichotomy is still actually relevant. It's just that the question should be more sophisticated. The question should really be, are the machines going to be the mitochondria? Or will we?


  1. "Something I predicted in the mid 90s is really starting to happen."

    You could have predicted it earlier had you read anything by Manfred Clynes in the 60's, or one of several scifi novels about cyborgs, nanotechnology, etc.

  2. Well nyeeeeeeah.

    I could have predicted it even earlier if I had been born at the dawn of time and I knew everything.

    So there.

    There's a difference between sci-fi about things that might happen and saying "this possibility is definitely on a collision course with reality."


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