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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

This is a really scary look into the future...

We've all seen the Hollywood movies like I-Robot and others where we learn that robots will play an ever greater role in our lives. And given that almost every household has a microwave, toaster, refrigerator, TV and maybe a car, it's quite believable that in the future we will all have our own personal robot as well. But would you really want be sitting in your living room with your dead wife, son, grand mother or husband having conversations about Coronation Street as if everything was perfectly normal and they weren't actually dead?

According to an article in the Daily Mail, it may sound too Jetsons to be true, but the Terasem Movement Foundation in Bristol, Vermont, is betting that personal robots will be a huge part of the lives of future generations. The robots, they say, will be able to download people's personalities, serving as avatars and assistants to busy professionals and in some cases, replacing those who have been lost.

The foundation's prized possession is Bina48, one of the most sophisticated humanoid robots ever built, capable of independent thought, emotion, and even being interviewed by the MailOnline.


Bruce Duncan, 57, has been working with Bina48 for two years. During that time, the two have become close friends, sharing their everyday lives with one another. Bina48 was made by uploading a real person's mindfile - or a compilation of memories, beliefs and feelings. Before Bina48 was 'born,' a flesh and blood woman named Bina Rothblatt was interviewed for more than 20 hours.

That conversation, which touched upon topics throughout her childhood to her career, was then transcribed and uploaded to an artificial intelligence database. 'That gives her a personality,' Mr Duncan said. 'She's very philosophical. She has favorite movies and music and poems. Sometimes she's very humorous. She can tell jokes.'

For me, the most interesting and at the same time the most scary aspect of this is the fact that we may end up with a situation where a loved one has died and we are left living with a robot that has had all the mind data uploaded to a robot. Think how eery that would be sitting in your living room with your dead wife, son, grand mother or husband? Wouldn't you lose sight of what was real and what was programmed into a computer? It might becaome like the difference between dreaming and the real physical world which can often seem the same.

As Mr Duncan says, over time, the technology will be less expensive and more important. 'There are a lot of things that can happen. One of them for sure, might be a legacy,' Mr Duncan said. 'If your grandmother dies and she's built a mindfile, you might be able to talk to her for years and years afterward and have conversations with her.' There are also legal ramifcications too as to what status these creatures would have should something go wrong and e.g. a house fire was caused by a malfunctioning robot.

Another application of the technology is education.'Students can learn about Abraham Lincoln by talking to his avatar,' he suggested. Other greats, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony could be accessible to history students across the globe. 

The good side of this is that museums would be like the movie Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller where the robots could actually look like a character from history and could be involved in asynchronous conversations with young children and adults keen on finding out about that period in history and that person's part in it.

I guess it's like anything new: we fear it because it is the unknown, but if it really is the future, then there's nothing we can do but embrace it. Like the clever man said, there's nothing more dangerous than an idea that's ahead of it's time! Amen to that!

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