In the Future: Machines

pacificrim_jaegersA whole swath of science fiction is dedicated to the future of machines and their relationship with human beings,. Even machines without their own innate intellect have a special relationship with us both now and in the future. In the cinemas right now, Pacific Rim is making its mark with huge machines—interfaced with humans—saving the world from invading monsters. Surely we can expect an influx of inspired stories in the coming year.

Recently, French and Japanese researchers created a machine that operates by human thought alone, by scanning the brain patterns of the controller. That’s not too far from teams of pilots drifting to control their Jaegers, not compared to where we were 100 years ago.

Of course, that’s hardly commonplace, it may be a while before we can think our breakfasts to our machine-servants.

Machines in our homes are limited to things like the delightful little Roomba or the beautiful (and very desirable, could we have one at our desks, please?) Top Brewer coffee machine. They have minimal independence—so far.

Machines in industry and the military are far closer to the fighting machines in Pacific Rim. Little robots are used on the battlefield to search for bombs. When a robot is damaged, troops prefer to wait for theirs to be repaired instead of taking out a new one—because it’s part of the team. We can’t seem to stop trying to relate to machines, no matter what our common sense tells us.

The tiny cardboard Tweenbot travelled the streets of New York not only unharmed but even assisted by passers-by whenever it was stranded. The more machines integrate with us, the more we relate to them and the more we personify them, even when they have no minds of their own.

Many of our SF nightmare scenarios spawn from the fear of machines gaining independent intellect. Perhaps that’s inevitable in our quest to make machines more like us, more relatable as well as more useful. Until then, though, machines will keep helping us push forward into the future and we’ll keep naming them and getting attached to them even as we know it makes no sense.

Right now, we’d like a future in which my bedside table made our coffee for us. A Jaeger to get past rush hour traffic wouldn’t be bad either.

We think we’d make pretty good drift partners.

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