The chief concern he has “is whether we’re going to allow individuals to have access to these technologies to change and improve themselves if they’d like to. I don’t see this as being an either/or scenario — that if we allow these technologies, they’re necessarily going to run rampant, or will inevitably lead to some intractable divisiveness between post-humans and humans.”

As for machines evolving past us? “That’s not gonna happen,” says Clement. “This idea that technology only advances in one field and not other fields is totally false. As technology advances in microprocessing, it’s also advancing in biotech and the cognitive-science areas — and we’re simply going to incorporate smaller, faster, better chips for our own use,” thereby keeping pace with our silicon friends.

We’re getting there faster than some realize. “How far away is this from The Matrix?”, Warwick marvels in his e-mail exchange. “In my own [cyborg] work, with my nervous system linked into the Internet, I experienced new (ultrasonic) senses, was able to control technology directly from my brain signals on another continent . . . and (most of all) was able to communicate in a whole new way. Who needs speech (a trivial coded-message system) when we can communicate directly brain to brain? This is not science fiction, it is science of today.”

More human than human
That all sounds so exciting. Let’s just hope the teeming, self-replicating nanobots don’t eat us all first.

I watched a video the other week that was at once fascinating and disturbing: the simplistic white machine writhed and twisted, sort of like a synthetic pupa, slowly but inexorably growing and splitting off into two. It was reproducing itself. All by itself.

“This is very much in its infancy,” says Hod Lipson, a professor at Cornell who studies biologically inspired robotics and worked on that prototype. “But the basic idea is not so much self-replication as, essentially, self-repair. Self-replication is the ultimate form of self-repair: basically, the machine builds another copy of itself. It’s made out of lots of small pieces or modules, and each of these is interchangeable. The module robot is able to take a bunch of modules and assemble them into an identical robot. And then that robot again takes a set of modules and makes another robot. And so forth.”

Even as some people strive to make themselves more like robots, the inspiration for this project is the opposite, to make robots more like multicellular bio-organisms. “In biology, we’re made of lots of units, these units are swapped in and out: cells die, new cells are formed, and so forth,” says Lipson. “We’re not made of the same cells we were made of 10 years ago. But that’s how our bodies sustain.”

Sure, things are pretty basic now. And humans are hardly out of the loop — everything from the power supply to the placement of the modules must be arranged just so for the robot to avail itself of its man-given capabilities.

But Lipson acknowledges the uncanniness of a machine that can do something that was once the sole province of living organisms: repair and reproduce. “It touches on some of the basic questions about life,” he says, “and the fuzzy boundary between the natural and the synthetic.”

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