By Scott Hamilton
Senior Expert in Emerging Technology
I have been watching reruns of two TV shows from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on the Roku channel that I know some of my readers grew up watching, “The Bionic Woman,” “The Bionic Mac” and “Knight Rider.” The things I found most interesting in watching these old series that showed off future technology is that we are very close to having the things of fiction come to reality. I can remember dreaming of two things as I grew up. The first was the flying and self-driving cars in the year 2000. I really wanted to live like the Jetsons. The second was the advanced robotics; I wanted a robot to clean my house, do the dishes and laundry, etc.
Everyone in the ‘70s thought this was all just a dream and would never come to pass; of course at the time a computer with any significant chance of doing just one of these things was the size of an office building. Now you carry that same computing power in your cell phone. Over the last couple of weeks, I have noticed a trend in new technology that is either recently released or is on the slate for beta level release later this year that fascinates me in light of the TV shows I have been watching.
The crazy thing is that most of this new technology that falls in line with the TV shows is coming from one individual’s companies. Elon Musk is the man behind bringing the fictional world of the ‘70s to reality in the 2020s. He was the first to produce a self-driving car that has been able to operate on California highways with only two accidents in 10-years, and both accidents were when the driver was in control of the vehicle. It brought to mind the series opener of Knight Rider, when Michael Knight was first introduced to KITT and told by Devon that the car could not be crashed. Michael nearly immediately got behind the wheel, floored the gas and drove through the closed garage door. He said, “I thought this car couldn’t crash.” And Devon replied that you must turn it on first.
Throughout the rest of the series Michael never turns KITT off and allows KITT to take control anytime. Ironically you still see KITT and Michael in a fair share of accidents, usually caused on purpose to protect Michael or some other innocent bystander. I find the technology we have today fascinating, but also a little bit scary. One episode of Knight Rider shows part of my fear. KITT is designed to protect the life of Michael and others around him, but the protype for KITT, named KARR in Season 3, Episode 6, was programmed for self-preservation. This made KARR a very dangerous machine, so the question gets raised in my mind, “How are self-driving Teslas programmed, to preserve self or to preserve life?”
The scarier technology that is on the horizon is related to bionics. In watching the introduction to “The Bionic Woman” the segment mentions her bionic arm controlled by Neuralink. Ironically or not, Elon Musk’s newest company, “Neuralink,” has prototype technology that links the human mind to computers, allowing one to control a computer with their mind. The implants have been tested on animals even to the point of allowing a monkey to play the classic video game Pong with its mind. The monkey’s brain signals were sent wirelessly via an implanted device to the computer. The macaque monkey, named Pager, was first taught to play the game with a joystick and rewarded with a fruit smoothie. During the training the implant measured the brain activity to record which neurons fired to control the movements. These mapped neurons were then used to allow the monkey to play the game without the joystick.
Plans are in the works to begin human testing later this year. The plans are more noble than allowing us to use computers with our minds, but rather to allow people with paralysis to regain their “digital” freedom. The early phases are meant to make it easier for them to communicate online via text, browse the web, express their creativity through art, and, of course, play video games. Later phases of the project are to use the technology in conjunction with robotics to restore physical mobility by using the same signals to stimulate nerves and muscles in the body, or control an artificial limb.
Along with the fascination that comes from the ability to control computers and robotics directly with the mind comes the fear that, just like a hacker can control your computer, would it be possible to hack your bionic body? These awesome new technologies give us a lot to think about and it makes me wonder where we should draw the line when it comes to regulating such technologies.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.