The unclear boundary between human and robot

I am pleased to see a letter in this week’s Nature that shows that I’m not the only neuroscientist concerned about the coming robot war. Brain researchers Olaf Blanke and Jane Aspell wrote in to warn about the use of brain-machine interfaces, not to control machines with thoughts, but to control thoughts with machines.

Imagine if insights from the field of cortical prosthetics in human and non-human primates were combined with research on bodily self-consciousness in humans. Signals recorded by multi-electrodes implanted in the motor cortex can already be used to control robotic arms and legs. Cognitive cortical prosthetics will allow the use of other cortical signals and regions for prosthesis control. Several research groups are investigating indications that the conscious experience of being in a body can be experimentally manipulated.

The frontal and temporoparietal signals that seem to be involved encode fundamental aspects of the self, such as where humans experience themselves to be in space and which body they identify with (O. Blanke and T. Metzinger Trends Cogn. Sci. 13, 7‚Äì13; 2009). If research on cortical prosthetics and on the bodily self were applied to humans using brain-controlled prosthetic devices, there might be no clear answer to Clausen’s question: which of them is responsible for involuntary acts?

It may sound like science fiction, but if human brain regions involved in bodily self-consciousness were to be monitored and manipulated online via a machine, then not only will the boundary between user and robot become unclear, but human identity may change, as such bodily signals are crucial for the self and the ‘I’ of conscious experience. Such consequences differ from those outlined by Clausen for deep brain stimulation and treatment with psychoactive drugs.

The letter is a follow-up to a recent Nature piece on potential new ethical issues raised by the development of implantable brain technology.

Unfortunately, these sort of in-house scientific debates rarely do much to raise the public consciousness about the importance of such issues.

However, I have high hopes for the future. Not least because a new film in the Terminator documentary series is soon to be released.

Link to letter in Nature.

6 Comments

  1. thatlarkin
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    “…not only will the boundary between user and robot become unclear, but human identity may change, as such bodily signals are crucial for the self and the ‘I’ of conscious experience…” Why do we always assume that the current experience of “I” is the pure unadulterated version. Hmmmmm.

  2. Posted April 9, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    “Why do we always assume that the current experience of “I” is the pure unadulterated version.” Even if we didn’t assume this, this version of self will still be the most practical and relevant for us. We are not just born with a brain, we are born with a body. And we cannot cut that out from our definition of self.

  3. Posted April 10, 2009 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of when I read The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. He talks about the blurring of lines between humans and machines. Some of his ideas were fairly “out there” when it was released back in 2000, but almost 10 years later things like this start popping up.

  4. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted April 10, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    “not to control machines with thoughts, but to control thoughts with machines.”
    Uh what? You fear peoples thoughts being controlled by machines?
    What is the intent of all psychiatric drugs? To control the patients “bad” thoughts isn’t it?

  5. Mark Temporis
    Posted April 14, 2009 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    If you’re looking forward to the Terminator movie, I must recommend Terminator:The Sarah Connor Chronicles. There’s a theme running through the series regarding the creation and instruction of Artificial Intelligences that goes beyond any media science fiction I’ve ever seen.

  6. Posted April 15, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the interesting post!
    You might be interested in checking out a project initiated by the University of Chicago – Defining Wisdom. This project consists of 24 smaller funded academic projects aimed at exploring the meaning of “wisdom” from the perspective of different disciplines.
    Specifically, you might be interested in the academic discussions of the meaning of wisdom: http://wisdomresearch.org/forums/33.aspx, and in one of the projects by Ankur Gupta “Wisdom Is Compression: Data Compression as a Mathematical Measure of Wisdom”, http://wisdomresearch.org/Arete/Gupta.aspx.
    – Ksenia


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