The Foresight Directorate of the U.K. Office of Science and Innovation has released the results of two wide-ranging “strategic horizon scans” of the next 50 years. The “delta scan,” conducted by the Institute of the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, looks at likely developments in science and technology, while the “sigma scan,” conducted by the U.K. research outfit Outsights, concentrates on implications for public policy.
One of the recurring themes is the blurring of the line between people and machines, between the human mind and the computer. Noting the granting to Microsoft, in 2004, of a patent for a “method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body,” the authors foresee the rise of “invasive applications”: “Personal electronic products [will be able to] communicate with each other and with external networks using human skin as a medium. The convergence of electronic implants, wearables, and personal area networks (both wireless and ‘wired’ using the skin as a medium) could coincide with a shift from therapeutic body modification for disabilities to personal augmentation for healthy individuals.”
We will also see the arrival of “ambient displays” that make computing “ubiquitous”: “In ubiquitous computing, the physical location of data and processing power is not apparent to the user. Rather, information is made available to the user in a transparent and contextually relevant manner … ‘Ambient’ displays communicate on the periphery of human perception, requiring minimal attention and cognitive load.” More broadly, we will see the “end of cyberspace,” as the virtual world and the real world merge: “Rather than requiring users to focus exclusively on either the digital or physical, new devices will allow users to attend to both simultaneously.”
By 2020, the authors write, we are likely to see “the first physical neural interface between a computer and a human brain”: “A neural interface is a direct connection between a human or animal brain and nervous system and a computer or computer network. With the advent of such interfaces, humans will be able to interact directly with computers by merely thinking. This capability has been described in cyberpunk science fiction by authors like William Gibson, who wrote in his short story ‘Burning Chrome’ about humans ‘jacking in’ by inserting a chip or net interface directly into a socket or connector in the skull or spinal cord.” The neural interface will have many medical applications, but it also offers the “potential for outside control of human behaviour through digital media.”
One of the future policy questions identified by the study is whether we’ll need to grant rights to robots:
A monumental shift could occur if robots continue to be developed to the point where they can at some point reproduce, improve themselves or if they gain artificial intelligence. This would open complicated issues in a range of areas. If robots were granted rights, the natural progression for such an eventuality might include citizens’ responsibilities being extended to them. Extension of legal rights to robots would likely include requests that robots also be subject to certain responsibilities within society such as voting, the obligation to pay taxes, and serve compulsory military service. Robots’ rights would invariably clash with the property rights of their owners, and the extension of rights to robotic beings could be manipulated through programming and mechanical abilities at faster rates of reproduction than humans. Humankind could engage in spirited debates as to how humans, animals and robots rank with respect to rights and responsibilities in our world. This would include debates and qualifications on consciousness, intelligence and the capacity for emotional response.
That’s interesting, but the question of robot rights will probably be rendered moot by the advance of invasive computing. It may become impossible to distinguish the robot from the man.