When Robots Bleed: Reseach Scientists Blur the Line Between Nature and Machine
by James Bell

In his 1972 speech The Android and the Human, science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick told his audience, "Machines are becoming more human. Our environment, and I mean our manmade world of machines, is becoming alive in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves." In the near future, Dick prophesied, a human might shoot a robot only to see it bleed from its wound. When the robot shot back, it may be surprised to find the human gush smoke. "It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them," Dick added.

Present-day cloning, nanotechnology and robotics are blurring the lines between nature and machine. While laboratory-created biotech and robotic lifeforms proliferate, nature experiences a catastrophic decline. These technologies represent as great a threat to the ancient natural order of our world as they do the modern political one. This is why the US military is aggressively backing research in many of these new technologies.

It wasn't until 1963 that British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, inspired by experiments to copy a frog, coined the word "clone." Dolly, the world's most famous sheep, was cloned in 1997 from the udder cells of an adult ewe. The "inside joke" around the naming of Dolly speaks volumes about the scientific community's "boys with toys" complex. Embryologist Ian Wilmut admitted, "No one could think of a more impressive set of mammary glands than Dolly Parton's."

Ironically, some in the scientific community are banking on the work of the women's movement to justify cloning in the US. Any law banning reproductive cloning would ultimately run up against the US Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, which, by upholding the right of a woman to choose an abortion, arguably implies that the state cannot interfere with how she chooses to reproduce.

In November 2001, Advanced Cell Technology of Massachusetts jarred the nation's focus away from the recession and terrorism when it announced that it had succeeded in cloning early stage human embryos. Debate on the topic has stayed equally divided between those who support therapeutic cloning and those, like the American Medical Association, who want an outright ban.

The word "robot" (Czech for "forced labor") was coined by Karel Capek in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in which machines assume the drudgery of factory production, then develop feelings and proceed to wipe out humanity in a violent revolution. While the robots in R.U.R. could represent the "nightmare vision of the proletariat seen through middle-class eyes," as science fiction author Thomas Disch has suggested, they also are testament to the persistent fears of manmade technology run amok. In a modern manifestation of this theme, in 2003 movie goers will see robots revolt against their makers in the $180 million Warner Brothers movie, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Similar themes have manifested themselves in popular culture and folklore since at least medieval times. One such legend, from 16th century Prague, centers around Rabbi Low and the Jewish legend of the golem. After molding the golem (a statue or figure of a man produced from mud or clay) and endowing it with life, Rabbi Low was forced to destroy the clay creature after it ran amok. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings makes reference to this legend in the character of Golem. Here a humanoid creature is transformed by the "technology" of the ring into an immortal. In an ironic twist, Tolkien's Golem is brought to life on the silver screen via computer animation. It is truly a golem now, enchanted by programmers and interacting with the humans in the film.

While some might dismiss these stories simply as popular paranoia, robots are already being deployed in the real world and are poised to replace the more deadly duties of the modern soldier. The Pentagon is replacing soldiers with sensors, vehicles, aircraft and weapons that can be operated by remote control or are autonomous. Pilot-less aircraft played an important role in the recent bombings of Afghanistan, and a model called the Gnat was recently sent to conduct surveillance flights in the Philippines.

"The real challenge is to mix man and machines," said Colonel Leahy, program director for the Gnat. "It will be a loose ballet at first. But eventually, the systems will be linked to each other, sharing information and deciding among them who has the best shot."

Leading the Pentagon's remote-control warfare effort is the Northern Virginia-based Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The agency is working with Boeing to develop the X-45 unmanned combat air vehicle. The 30-foot-long windowless planes will carry up to 12 bombs, each weighing 250 pounds. George W. Bush enabled such research by increasing the military's already inflated budget, and in a way they're thanking him for it: the X-45 looks exactly like a flying "W."

According to military analysts, as early as 2007, the "W" will be used to attack radar and anti-aircraft installations. By 2010, they will be programmed to distinguish friends from foes without consulting humans and independently attack targets in designated areas. By 2020, robotic planes and vehicles will direct remote-controlled bombers toward targets, robotic helicopters will coordinate driverless convoys, and unmanned submarines will clear mines and launch cruise missiles.

Rising to the challenge of "mix[ing] man and machine, MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (backed by a five-year, $50 million US Army grant) is busy innovating materials and designs to create military uniforms that rival the best science fiction. Human soldiers themselves are being transformed into modern cyborgs through robotic devices and nanotechnology. Soldiers may one day very soon, as Dick envisioned, "gush smoke."

The 2002 International Conference on Robotics and Automation, hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, kicked off its technical session with a discussion on "bio-robots," the melding of living and artificial structures into a cybernetic organism or cyborg.

"In the past few years, the biosciences and robotics have been getting closer and closer," said Palio Dario, director of the Advanced Robotics Technology and Systems Lab. "More and more, biological models are used for the design of biometric robots, [and] robots are increasingly used by neuroscientists as clinical platforms for validating biological models." Artificial constructs are beginning to approach the scale and complexity of living systems.

Some of the scientific "breakthroughs" expected in the next few years promise to make cloning and robotics seem rather benign. The merging of technology and nature has already yielded some shocking progeny. Consider these examples:

Researchers at the State University of New York in New York City have turned a living rat into a radio-controlled automaton, using three electrodes placed in the animal's brain. The animal can be remotely steered through an obstacle course, making it twist, turn and jump on demand.

In May, eight elderly residents of Florida were willfully injected with microscopic silicon identification chips encoded with medical information, making them "scannable just like a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket checkout line." Applied Digital Solutions, Inc., the creator of the chip, will soon have a prototype of a device able to receive satellite signals and transmit a person's location.

Human embryos have been successfully implanted and grown in artificial wombs. The experiments were halted after a few days to avoid violating in vitro fertilization regulations (see EF!J March-April 2002).

Researchers in Israel have fashioned a "bio-computer" out of DNA that is capable of handling a billion operations per second with 99.8 percent accuracy. Reuters reports that these bio-computers are so minute that "a trillion of them could fit inside a test tube."

IBM has built a video screen whose images appear so true-to-life that "the human eye finds [the video images] indistinguishable from the real thing."

In England, University of Reading Professor Kevin Warwick has implanted microchips in his body to remotely monitor and control his physical motions. During Warwick's Project Cyborg experiments, computers were able to remotely monitor his movements and open doors at his approach.

Engineers at the US Sandia National Labs have built a remote-controlled spy robot equipped with a TV scanner, microphone and a chemical micro-sensor. The robot weighs one ounce and is smaller than a dime. Lab scientists predict that the micro-bot could prove invaluable in protecting "US military and economic interests." US scientists have built a machine that, when released into the environment, powers itself by feeding on the bodies of snails and other living creatures.

In April 2001, scientists built a robotic fish that was guided by the brain of an eel. The Washington Post heralded the grotesque achievement with the headline: "Scientists Start to Fuse Tissue and Technology in Machines."

In February 2001, MIT researchers successfully tested a robotic fish controlled by a microprocessor and powered by the muscle tissues stripped from a frog.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Botanical Congress and a majority of the world's biologists believe that a global "mass extinction" is already underway. "The speed at which species are being lost is much faster than any we've seen in the past--including those related to meteor collisions," said University of Tennessee biodiversity expert Daniel Simberloff. As a direct result of human activities, including resource extraction, industrial agriculture, the introduction of non-native animals and population growth, up to one-fifth of all living species--mostly in the tropics--are expected to disappear within 30 years.

A 1998 Harris poll of the 5,000 members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences found 70 percent believed that what has been termed "the sixth extinction" is now underway. A simultaneous Harris poll found that 60 percent of the public was totally unaware of the impending biological collapse. Nature and technology are not just evolving--they are competing and combining with one another. Unless changes are enacted now on a global level, Mother Earth may one day be better known as our "motherboard." Let's just hope it doesn't rust.

For more information, visit Technotopia

James Bell is a writer for Sustain, a national environmental information group based in Chicago.

© Earth First! Journal August-September 2002