Running With Machine Herds

Continuing its annual tradition of walking the lines between genuine social goodyness and highfalutin’ techno utopianism, the TED2013 conference kicked off this week in Los Angeles. Gathering together some of the brighter minds and more well-heeled benefactors, attendees come to tease apart the phase space of possibility and to take a closer look at how we consciously examine and intentionally evolve our world. Among the many threads and themes, one in particular tugs deeply at both aspirational humanism and existential terror.

On the early pages of this year’s conference blog is a sensational, video-heavy list of the 10 best robots from TED. Featuring autonomous birdbots, dancing ballbots, silicon helpers, procedural comedians, affective mimics, and, of course, a smattering of tomorrow’s robowarriors, the cavalcade of robotic evolution marches on with genuinely awe-inducing cadence. The field of robotics is being lifted by the same tides moving all industries: ubiquitous microcontrollers, breakthroughs in materials science, the global web of shared knowledge, and the mature capital markets looking for new profits.

And we humans appear to be deeply enthralled with robotics, both as hope and harbinger. Turning our hands to create better hands, we develop robotics as a means to extend our abilities, explore the kinetics of cybernetics, and to understand, or perhaps even question just what it means to be human. Through our desire to glimpse the spark of awareness in the cybernetic eyes of the Other, we always project our selves into that mirror. And so the shape of robotics necessarily recapitulates the shape of humanity and our relationship to nature.

Setting aside the philosophical considerations for a moment, it’s worth considering how the landscape would shift to accommodate the presence of robotic, autonomous cohorts. Self-driving cars may be the nearest robofauna to meet us on the modern Savannah plains of the carpool lane, edging out the humans for priority, but those TED videos remind us of how many more species are at play in the human-assisted evolutionary tides. If survival is of the fittest, even programmatically, then our swimming, walking, flying, trotting creations will seek to protect and sustain themselves – even if only so we won’t be bothered with the responsibility.

As we populate the world with more and more self-guided machines how will they advocate for their own needs amidst the competitive landscape? Are we introducing machine competitors into the survival marketplace? Of course we are, but this may not be immediately different from any other competitive machine. The internal combustion engine has certainly competed quite well for resources that may otherwise go to us humans. So too has the corn-based biofuel engine, as seen by the coupling of ethanol stocks to the price of corn. Regardless of the skin, more resource consumers brings more competition. The long-prophesied robot wars may yet come to pass… Especially if we continue to mold them so fittingly in our own image.

If we might soon join gangs of self-driving cars on the freeways, then a scenario takes shape where we encounter other forms of mechanical flocking. We may run with machine herds, glinting & gleaming, the evening skies joined by murmurations of silvery drones. Aibo’s and Roomba’s might become house pet companions scuttling along for walks in the park. In this scenario, what micro machines might cling to our arm hairs testing skin flakes or trudge along the walls of our intestines sending SMS notes about the quality of our, uh, byproduct or line our mind meats facilitating neural mesh nets and wireless brain-computer interface? Do we trust the intimacy involved in these relationships?

Cybernetic control systems, biomimetic musculatures, micro-controlled servo arrays, machine vision, machine sensing, machine learning… The outcome is inevitably going to recapitulate biological structures and behaviors but with a distinctly manufactured aesthetic sensibility. Machine sensing, machine watching, machine swarming… machine memory, and machine modeling of future states & outcomes. These are the ingredients for genuinely emergent and unexpected behaviors. Consciousness isn’t so much as a switch you turn on and a program that executes. It’s likely to be more of an irreversible manifold that expresses on top of innumerable complex functions.

The bardic philosopher, Terence McKenna, likened us humans to coral animals extruding shells of technology around ourselves. In the same tradition, Kevin Kelly speaks of a natural force of Technium that expresses through our heads and hands. Whether Technium is its own thing or merely an expression of humanness itself, there is indeed some natural force of biology and complexity that works through our manipulation of matter, taking form in ways that evolve our very ability to create. The iterative process of create-evaluate-revise drives what began as a clumsy cobbling of raw materials towards greater and greater refinement and efficiency, inevitably approximating the extreme perfection of natural systems. Nature is the template for everything. It’s just that our creations are not yet mature enough to really look like it.

So if we are compelled to recapitulate nature into our creations, and if we are compelled to turn our innate evolutionary and competitive imperatives into machines extensions & adaptive advantages, then we will very likely loose upon the natural world an array of biomimetic machines. And it’s likely that we will continue to lay the complex and unpredictable patchwork for emergent forms of directed behavior, stigmergic flocking, and at least the seeming mimesis of self-awareness.

Machine intelligence may someday decouple from human supervision though it will likely retain the watermark of humanity for some time. Or at least, by the time it does so, it will very likely be contained by the same natural rules as the rest of us worldly occupants. That or, you know… Rise of the Robots.

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