The ability to understand, process, and express true emotion is what has traditionally separated man from machine — but that line is continuously blurring with the rapid advancements in technology and artificial intelligence (AI). As machines become more human, and vice versa, we find ourselves facing a fascinating and perhaps terrifying future — one that might eventually make us question how we define humanity.
In sci-fi literature and film, the classic contrast between cold, calculating robots and expressive, free-thinking humans has always been ripe for exploration. And when you look at how far we've come in recent decades — with self-driving cars, giant robotic "dogs" that can navigate tricky terrain, and other techno-innovations — the advent of advanced robots capable of human-like behavior no longer seems so far-off.
It's a topic that's gotten a lot of play in recent years, and Ex Machina is the latest film to focus on the delicate symbiosis between humans and the robots they've created. This sci-fi thriller from writer/director Alex Garland digs into dark territory, exploring the potential for psychological and even romantic emotional connections between robots and humans. While this science is still fiction, it seems all but inevitable that AI will someday transcend its current limitations, with robots becoming self-aware and even interacting with humans in a way that's potentially indistinguishable from the way we interact with one another.
It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a measure of the human brain's capacity for self-awareness, empathy, social skills, motivation, and managing emotions. These five categories are key for distinguishing between human EQ and robotic AI. We feel and express emotion. We can adapt and interact socially. We pick up social and emotional cues and respond accordingly. And incredibly, humans have already designed artificial intelligence that can detect the body language and emotional cues of humans and deliver an appropriate response. It's called "affective computing," and it's a growing field of research in the scientific and robotics communities.
With adaptive, emotion-sensing technology already in existence, suddenly the idea of humanoid robots doesn't seem like such a huge leap. We've already created robots with fake skin that look eerily lifelike — so much so that the Japanese engineers who made them felt lonely when one of the robots was placed in a "hospital" for a month during a test trial. The big questions posed by Ex Machina may not be so outlandish after all. (RSVP for a free screening in your city here.)
The potential for personal connections between organic and inorganic life forms is certainly there, especially as robots grow even more realistic and adaptive in the future. But what about sentience and self-awareness? That's a bit fuzzier, though there are indications that this isn't far off. We've already created robots that learn, adapt, and make decisions without human control. Be afraid, be fascinated, or both.
Then we have the issue of humans acting more like machines. The human brain isn't perfect, and psychological disorders that result in a lack of empathy and remorse are common among humanity's worst criminals. Consider, too, our increasing dependence on and obsession with technology. We're always glued to a screen of some sort, constantly checking our email, messages, or social media while growing further disconnected from real human interaction. How many times have you been out with friends who can't go more than a few minutes without checking their phone? With Google Glass and the continued growth of wearable tech, it's only a matter of time before humans inevitably move on to cybernetic implants that keep us plugged-in 24/7.
We're become more attuned to machines, and the machines are becoming more attuned to us.
As the human and robot worlds continue to merge, some people — like Google's Ray Kurzweil, an AI scientist — are hard at work making AI consciousness a reality. He believes that the human/computer gap will close by 2029. Our future may indeed be bright — illuminated by LEDs and the warm glow cast from the watchful synthetic eyes of our robot overlords.
Image by Jake Inferrera.
Nathan Meunier is a journalist and freelance writer who covers video games, technology, and geek culture. He's also the author of Up Up Down Down Left WRITE: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism, which is out now on Kindle and in print.