A Tangible Dystopia: Human Robots

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We’re risking our most valuable asset: free will.

Human-machine interfaces are already a reality today. Total control over the human body could also be possible.

human-machine-port

Human robots? I’m not talking about “humanoid robots” that are designed to look like humans. I actually mean real people who literally become robots because they’ve handed over control of their bodies, their emotions, and their decisions. What sounds like distant science fiction might soon become reality if we’re not careful.

Technological progress is too fast for our opinion-forming systems.

Just like many engineers, we at Neura look to nature for inspiration and functional models. And, of course, the human being is the perfect blueprint for a project like our humanoid robot 4NE-1. The amazing coordination of sensory organs, nerve pathways, and the brain—where processing, decision-making, and learning occur—is truly admirable. Naturally, our 4NE-1 team wants to learn from this perfect blueprint to improve sensors, data transfer, and decision-making processes for our mechanical robots. It’s relatively easy to measure so-called brainwaves that flow during certain muscle movements, thoughts, and events by placing some sensors on a person’s head. The amount of data generated is massive. But with AI, we can analyze all this information relatively quickly. In no time, we were able to distinguish dual polarities. In layman’s terms: we could tell yes from no, right from left, or positive from negative. For every muscle movement, for every thought, there’s a corresponding electrical pattern. (Forgive me if that’s not exactly neuroscientifically correct. I’m just talking principles here.) Everyone was pretty excited about the insights we could derive for robotics research.

But this sparked another thought in me: If we can measure and read how individual muscle movements, decisions, and emotions correlate with certain electrical impulses sent by the brain, then surely somewhere in the world, research is already underway to see if this information can also be sent into the brain—or directly to the corresponding muscles. We’ve managed to decode the human genome using computers—unimaginable amounts of data with nearly infinite combinations! So, it’s also possible with AI to decode the brainwaves and electrical impulses that control the human body or trigger the release of certain hormones. And whoever can read this information from the brain can, with today’s technology, also send it back in. Unfortunately, I have to bring up Elon Musk again:

It’s only been five or six years since he mused on Joe Rogan’s podcast about whether people could become avatars of a higher intelligence through a direct connection between the brain and a machine. Shortly thereafter, he founded his company Neuralink, with the goal of building a brain-computer interface. And just in January 2024, Elon Musk proudly announced on X: “The first person received an implant yesterday and is recovering well.”

Any questions?

The brain could be put into rest mode at the push of a button.

As often happens in history, we do things without any humility towards nature and creation, and without asking ourselves whether we should. At the same time, everything moves faster and we no longer take the time to find answers to increasingly complex ethical questions. If we even have the time to ask such questions! I wonder if there are people out there right now trying to strip humans of their free will.

Experiments conducted by neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s already showed that a large part of our actions are prepared and triggered subconsciously. The big data companies of our time are valuable to shareholders partly because they collect vast amounts of data about people’s behaviors and interests. We experience the result of the interpretation and evaluation of this data daily when algorithms suggest personalized ads, personal playlists, or new friends to us. The advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages: Life becomes easier. We click away the terms and conditions of Apple, Amazon, Google, or Meta, only to share our online activities, address books, and private photo albums with these so-called data krakens soon after.

And big data has already gained access to our bodies: We wear smartwatches with biosensors that measure our pulse, count steps, and analyze sleep. Privacy advocates no longer just warn about the transparent customer, but about the transparent human. The warnings go largely unheeded. No one really knows how many of our decisions are already made for us subconsciously, because advertising, opinion bubbles, and group dynamics program us to think a certain way.

It’s expected that the next “upgrade” will initially come across very positively: Thought power controlling a wheelchair or a prosthetic. People with mental illnesses, like severe depression, might find relief through a brain chip, without the unwanted side effects of psychotropic drugs. But what is intended for people with illnesses and limitations will pique the interest of the masses. After all, many of us want to optimize ourselves. Who wouldn’t want to boost their performance with the right electrical impulses or compete against AI with optimized learning abilities?
Insomnia could be cured at the push of a button, putting the brain into “rest mode.” And as soon as the sex industry finds a way to stimulate orgasms with a brain chip, the breakthrough would be complete. All these wonderful benefits wouldn’t come from pills that we consciously take, but from a chip in the head that’s connected to the internet—and can therefore be hacked!

If merely analyzing our online click behavior provides enough data to steer our decisions subconsciously in a certain direction—how much of our free will remains when we can give away and even shape our moods through a chip in the brain? Then electrically triggered euphoria could spark a shopping spree—while artificially produced relaxation “helps” people accept political developments they would otherwise have protested against.

We need to take more time to reflect on and discuss these matters.

Progress cannot be stopped. And I’d be the last person to want to stop it. Those who know me know I’m a tech fan and I envision using technology, AI, and robotics to improve life for many people.

Werner Heisenberg, one of the most significant physicists of the last century, once said, “A sip from the goblet of science makes one an atheist, but at the bottom of the cup one finds God.” Heisenberg passed away in 1976 and recognized, in light of the developments of his time, that there are things to which we humans should respond with humility. But we are far from this humility today. We need to take more time to reflect and discuss these matters. I would be happy to have started this conversation with this post.

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