Hail cyborgs! The line between robots and humans is blurring

Scientists are already ramping up to eventually create a robotic human

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Walker noted that Glass, Google's prototype of a wearable computer, is helping to blur the line between human and robotics.

The computerized eyeglasses are not traditional robots, but they do have sensors, computational smarts and can help people relate to the world around them with maps and other applications. Google Glass is designed to enhance the human experience.

By making the computerized eyeglasses less passive, they take a big step toward being considered a robot.

"There's a lot of potential for enhancing us with machines," said Walker. "Things like Google Glass and prosthetics are already happening. We're always comfortable with just a little change. That's how this will happen -- slowly. We'll be very accepting of things that make our lives easier or better."

Analysts say the advance of human robotics will largely come from the medical industry, as with robotic prosthetics, and the military, with robotic exoskeletons.

"That's usually where investments start," said Walker. "We're excited about every technology enhancement, because it makes our lives better. I think there will be fear in the first steps. It will start with, 'Hey, let's enhance your capability,' and then 'Let's attach something to the outside of your body.' We'll start with things we can strap on and take off. Then it will move to machines inside our bodies."

Wilson, whose novel Robogenesis is due to be released June 10, noted that advances in hearing aids is a good example. The new hearing aids now are Bluetooth enabled, turning the devices into a new type of ear bud for cell phones and streaming music.

"If I could stream music or a cell phone conversations or Skype directly to my auditory nerve, man I'd find that exciting," he said. "If you want to look at what the next generation is going to be, look at people who have serious problems they want to solve. And they have problems that are being solved by robotics."

Working with soft robotic hand
Dmitry Berenson, right, assistant professor of computer science at WPI, works with student John Morrow to put a soft robotic hand on a Baxter industrial robot. (Photo: WPI)

Dmitry Berenson, an assistant professor of computer science at Massachusetts-based Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the advance of robotics will happen slowly, which will help people adjust to the change.

"It's really happening faster than anyone predicted," said Berenson, who works with WPI's robotics engineering program. "These are tools. Much like a car or airplane, it can be used to help people and make life better or it can be used like a weapon. Look at the exoskeletons. The military could use them to create super strong soldiers, but they can also be used to help the disabled.

"If you're paralyzed from the waist down and someone gives you a pair of exoskeleton legs, that's enormous," he added. "With technology, it's not good or bad. It just comes as a package and we as a society have to decide what we're going to do with it. It's really up to us. It's not the technology. It's what we do with it."

All technology is about change and change is scary, so adding robotics to the human body is going to scare a lot of people.

"We're talking about changing the human body in unprecedented ways and giving people abilities they've never had," said Wilson. "Sure that's scary, but it's also exciting to be able to help people and to grow into the future. It's incredibly exciting and I can't wait."

Prof with robot
WPI computer science professor Dmitry Berenson accepts a water refill from PR2 (Personal Robot 2). (Photo: WPI)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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