IoUC Robot Month Recap: Challenging the outer limits of bioethical boundaries


“Machines of Loving Grace.” “Digital People.”

These are book titles, but don’t judge these tomes by their covers. They sound like science fiction, but sci-fi they’re not. These books provide a real-life glimpse into where we have been with article intelligence (AI), where we are today, and a peek into where AI is headed in the future.

That future, many researchers believe, is one in which humans will create – in fact, have already begun creating – a new race of beings. At some point, scientists on the cutting edge of AI contend that these beings will become two new races. One will be mechanical-human hybrids, the other will be molecular-manipulated life forms. The hybrids, according to these visionaries, will have human elements such as a brain embedded in sensors and metal parts. The new life forms, they say, will be created by modifying human beings.

These beings, according to this line of thinking, will be just the beginning of AI applications that will challenge the outer limits of bioethical boundaries.

Sidney Perkowitz is one of those people. A writer, speaker and blogger about science, technology, and culture and the Candler Professor Emeritus at Emory University in Atlanta, Perkowitz said recently at a Starbucks just off the town square in nearby Decatur that he thinks “the time will come when you will see a spirit in artificial intelligence. When you put a human brain in a mechanical being, there will be something going on inside its head,” he said. “That something is a spirit.”

Sidney, Tom and Deb at the Decatur Book Festival, September, 2015

Sidney, Tom and Deb at the Decatur Book Festival, September, 2015

When that time arrives and we share the Earth with these beings, Perkowitz, speaking over a latte and coffee straight and black, told me and Deborah Gonzalez, co-founder of The Internet of Unintended Consequences, it will make us think of what it means to be human. We will wonder, he continued, “How much of us is them? How much of them is us?” ‘Them’, he said, are robots.

Don’t wonder if they are coming, he cautioned. They are. What we should wonder and the question we should be asking, he said, is this: “Will they be our partners, friends, or enemies?”

The discussion was a follow-up to a presentation that journalist and author John Markoff gave about his book, “Machines of Loving Grace,” at the Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day weekend. Perkowitz introduced Markoff to an almost-full ballroom. Many in the audience, interestingly, were seniors.

Deb, John, and Tom at the Decatur Book festival, September, 2015

Deb, John, and Tom at the Decatur Book festival, September, 2015

In the book, Markoff, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times science writer and the first reporter to cover the World Wide Web, addresses the history of automation since the 1950s against the backdrop of one of the most fundamental questions since the middle of the last century: How have the developers of artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation addressed the fundamental question of whether the machines they are creating will help or replace us?

In his book and in his presentation, Markoff makes it clear that robots have already profoundly transformed our lives and will do so even further. But, he also makes it clear that the people who are creating robots must be careful not to upset the delicate balance between what is a machine and what is human.

Markoff doesn’t see that as something that should concern us in the short term. “If you’re worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed,” Markoff told the Decatur audience. To make his point, he showed videos of various robots on two legs and four trying to perform human functions such as delivering a package. They never made it to a front door. Some barely made it out of a vehicle. They kept falling over.

But the demonstration also showed something of equal or, depending on your perspective, even greater note. In one sequence of the video, a human kicked a four-legged robot that resembled a dog. The act drew an audible gasp of shock and disapproval from the audience watching the video.

Clearly the crowd felt empathy for the robot and saw the act as one of cruelty, even though the robot had no feelings. Or, did it? And if that ‘dog’ robot didn’t feel pain, could a kick hurt one physically or emotionally in the future? What will robots be like in a world in which there are new races of beings that are mechanical-human hybrids and molecular-manipulated life forms with a spirit?

Will they have a grace and spirit that will be similar to, or the same as, the grace and spirit that so many people in today’s world think of in religious terms? Will robots respond to humans, especially when robots create robots without human intervention, with the same sort of empathy that the Decatur crowd felt when the person in the video kicked the robot?

Or will robots of the future think, act, and respond to situations in a Spock-like emotionless manner based on the cold logic of algorithms? There is no way to know for sure at this time. These and other questions are so intriguing, though, that Perkowitz said the Starbucks discussion has gotten him to think about something he’s never before contemplated: revisiting a topic he already wrote about.

It’s been 10 years since he published “Digital People.” That’s an eternity when measured against the rapid changes technology is bringing to how we all live, work, and play.

Markoff has a message for folks, especially older people who might be worried that those changes will eventually lead to home healthcare robots that could be dehumanizing. Home healthcare robots will actually preserve dignity and independence, he told the Decatur audience. His worry, he said, is that these types of robots may not come in time for him. If they do, perhaps he’ll get at least a hint of how much the creators are considering the consequences of their work.

In the meantime, the bioethicists and theologians will have plenty to debate about those consequences. And the rest of us? We’re on our own, left to wonder if we’re living in a world that is playing God or playing with fire.


Tom Older







For more on “Digital People” and Sidney Perkowitz:

Sidney Perkowitz was born in New York and earned his BS and Ph. D. degrees at Brooklyn Polytech and the University of Pennsylvania respectively. As Candler Professor Emeritus, Emory University, he wrote plenty of research papers. Now, he writes about popular science from quantum technology to synthetic food, science in entertainment to neuroscience, for New Scientist, the Los Angeles Times, Quo, JSTOR, Aeon and more, with appearances on CNN, NPR, the BBC, and other media and Internet outlets. He has written extensively about the future of robotics in his award-winning book Digital People and elsewhere. His other books include Empire of Light, Universal Foam and Universal Foam 2.0, Hollywood Science, Slow Light, Hollywood Chemistry, and Frankenstein 2018 (in progress). He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Author Page:

Digital People Book Page:

NBC News:

Russell Scott Show:


51c8z6M+xZL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_For more on Machines of Loving Grace and John Markoff:

John Markoff has been a technology and business reporter at The New York Times since 1988. He was part of the team of Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and is the author of What the Dormouse Said. He lives in San Francisco, California.

NY Times Book Review:

NPR Interview:

Citrius YouTube Video of Markoff:

CSPAN Markoff Interview:

PBS Newshour Author Interview:

Author Page:


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