Hail cyborgs! The line between robots and humans is blurring

Scientists are already ramping up to eventually create a robotic human

As robotics quickly advance, scientists say the lines between robots and humans is beginning to blur.

That means one day with robotic prosthetics that work seamlessly with a human's muscles, with tiny robots that swim in our blood streams and fix medical problems and nano-scale robots implanted in our brains, we will become robotic humans.

As scary and sci-fi as that may sound, researchers say robotics will cure diseases, make amputees feel whole again and greatly extend our lives.

"It's not a question of whether it's fanciful," said Daniel Wilson, author of the novel Robopocalypse and a robotics engineer with degrees in machine learning and robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. "Thinking of the nanorobots swimming in your blood cells is still pretty far out there, but there are much more concrete examples really in the works.... By utilizing technology, you're able to improve your body beyond anything you could do in the past."

Borg Locutus_Captain Picard
Headgear worn by Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who is transformed into Locutus the Borg, a combination of human and cyborg. (Photo: Tomer Gabel)

Many, if not most people, will be wary of the idea of the melding of humans and robots, with images of Star Trek's evil cyborgs running through their heads. The fictional characters -- with both human and mechanical parts -- have superhuman strengths but have lost their individualism.

Despite frightening images in the Star Trek movie series and Robocop, these actually are exciting times because the advances in robotics, said Victor Walker, a robotics research scientist at Idaho National Laboratory, an Idaho Falls, Idaho-based facility that focuses on energy and national defense research.

"We are currently in this revolution today," Walker told Computerworld. "I think there's potential there. We don't want to replace humans. We want to enhance humans."

And that is already happening.

More than six years ago, a University of Arizona researcher who had successfully connected a moth's brain to a robot predicted that by 2017 or 2022 we'll be using "hybrid" computers that run a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

Robotic exoskeletons have helped people suffering from paralysis walk again and the U.S. military is just weeks away from testing a new exoskeleton, or Iron Man-like suit, designed to make soldiers stronger, give them real-time battlefield information, monitor their vital signs and even stop their bleeding.

Robotic prosthetics, using a built-in computer, 100 sensors and 17 motors can take natural cues from a user's residual limb, giving him or her the dexterity and grace to play a piano.

"The line between robots and people will be blurred with smart prosthetics and implanted components," said Russ Tedrake, an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. "It won't be robots and people but robot people.... If you were in distress and given the choice for a longer, more comfortable life by simply replacing your spleen with a machine that could do the same job, wouldn't you take it? What if it was a part of your brain?"

Robots and people both have their limitations and their advantages.

"This, I think, is the ultimate reason why [linking] robots and people might make so much sense," said Tedrake. "Perhaps we can combine the best of both worlds."

Tedrake added that he doesn't think we'll have tiny humanoid robots running around inside our bodies anytime soon. But robotics will have a significant role in supporting or replacing parts of our bodies.

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