We puny humans can be depressingly fragile and flawed, a realization that's all the more discouraging when we consider the incredible potential for robots. Here are 12 reasons why machines will always have the edge over us meatbags.
Top image: Scene from Automata.
Before we get started, it's important to point out that I took a normative approach to this analysis. For the sake of simplicity, I assumed a sort of status quo among humans, one in which our future selves and descendants have opted out of enhancement technologies. Clearly, should we take the transhuman path to the future, our technologically enhanced minds and bodies would better match those of robots. We may even find ourselves integrating and fusing with them.
That said, we still don't know how safe, effective, and accessible human enhancement technologies will be. It's also an open question as to whether or not human enhancement will ever be socially sanctioned.
The development of robotic technologies, on the other hand, shows no signs of waning. Should we humans stay the same, here are 12 ways robots could come to dominate us in the future (listed in no particular order).
1. Mass Production and Self-Replication
It's easier to build robots than it is to make humans. Currently, robots have to be designed and constructed by us, but that's set to change with the introduction of fully automated systems capable of manufacturing other robots on an assembly line. While still in its primitive stages, researchers at the Modular Robotics Lab at the University of Pennsylvania have already developed a robot that can build other robots with spray foam.
Robots of the future will also be capable of reproduction, or what mathematician John von Neumann referred to as kinematic self-replicating machines. Researchers are the University of Oslo have already developed squirming three-limbed starfish-bots who can produce their own parts and adapt to novel environments, and Matt Denton at Robosavvy has developed a hexapod robot equipped with a cutting tool enabling it to fashion various machine parts — including, conceivably, its own parts. Considering these early developments, and given how long it takes to produce and raise a human (not to mention the costs), it's reasonable to assume we could eventually reach a tipping point when robots will start to outnumber us.
As this chart from the International Federation of Robotics shows, we're already on the way there — at least for industrial robots. The IFR estimates that, from 2015 to 2017, robot installations will increase by 12% on average per year.
2. Mind Transfer From One Robot to Another
Robots will be able to change their bodies at will. It's an advantage we humans simply won't have (mind uploading technologies aside). In the far future, robots will be able to transfer, or upload, their digital minds from one robot to another. Should a robot body fail, become obsolete, or inadequate for a given task, there will always be another one available.
And as demonstrated by the fictional Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, a robot could temporarily upload its mind to the cloud in the event of a disaster or massive systems failure. The prospects of digital mind back-ups and uploading/downloading suggests that robots will be capable of surviving indefinitely.
3. Advanced Intelligence
Digital or hybrid minds will be far more robust and specialized than those of humans.
Our intrinsic cognitive skill-sets were forged — and constrained — by the demands of evolution, but a robotic brain could be designed to excel at any number of arbitrary tasks. Robots will be able to calculate better and faster than humans, have superior pattern recognition skills, unlimited attention spans, and infallible memory.
4. Easier to Upgrade
Robots will also have improved access to their internal physical and cognitive states. It'll be easy for us to upgrade robots, but they'll eventually be able to do it themselves.
Futurist David Orban, an advisor and faculty member at Singularity University, told io9 that robots will have much deeper access to their physical states and thought processes when working to solve various challenges:
From the time we first became an agricultural civilization, it took us humans 10,000 years before we were able to start understanding our biophysical, psychological, and cognitive makeup. We've modeled the physical recipe of the DNA that underlies our cells and entire body. And now, we're just at the beginning of understanding our cognitive processes, the makeup and programming of our mind. But robots are going to have a huge head start on us. Open source approaches are going to be applied to their physical makeup and programming, allowing us to accelerate their design. But those same tools will also be available to them. Instead of the 10,000-year struggle faced by humanity, robots will be able to gain almost instantaneous knowledge of their physical and cognitive make-up.
Consequently, robots will improve faster than humans and adapt quicker to new environments and hurdles.
5. The Absence of Evolved Psychological Predispositions
Unlike us humans, robots won't be bogged down by the legacy of reptilian and mammalian cognitive "operating systems" and the various problems associated with them.
Unless they're explicitly programmed to do so, robots won't get restless or bored, or experience sudden shifts in mental clarity and mood. They won't get emotionally swayed or biased, or be prone to addictions. And perhaps most profoundly, they won't experience mental anguish or physical pain.
6. Dramatically Reduced Energy Needs
Robots will likely exert a smaller ecological footprint than humans and require fewer resources to function. This will allow them to become far more productive and cost-effective than humans.
Futurist James Miller, author of Singularity Rising, told io9 that:
Humans convert food and oxygen into energy, an inefficient process compared to what will someday power robots. If the wages of one person will be able to buy enough electricity to "feed" scores of intelligent robot workers, who will ever hire us? And since robots won't need to eat or breathe, they won't have to worry about preserving the environment and so will be able to cheaply dump their industrial waste.
7. The Potential for Moral Superiority
Robots could also be programmed to be morally infallible, or at least as moral as possible, given the complexities of moral decision-making (the vexing trolley problem is a prime example). Unlike humans, robots imbued with a pro-social moral code could exercise extreme consistency and predictability.