Intelligent Machines

Humachines

From the Editor in Chief

Don’t be surprised if you didn’t recognize the title of this column. The word isn’t in dictionaries yet. But it may be soon. Or some other word like it, coined to describe the symbiosis that is currently developing between human beings and machines. Humachines. A few examples:

A Canadian teenager begins tinkering with imaging and computing systems that can be worn on his body. His first effort is a burdensome rig that blisters his feet when he wears it-and causes people to cross the street when they see him coming. Later he comes to MIT. Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Media Lab, recognizes the young man’s inspiration and lets him earn a doctorate in “wearable computing.” Today, Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, having worn computing gear of his own design virtually every day for the last 15 years, is hankering to assemble a community of human-machines, who will share perceptions and thoughts. “Cyborgs” he calls them, using a word from the early history of computing. We’d say humachines.

Second example: Harold Churchey, a blind man from Maryland whose retinas were destroyed by an untreatable disease called retinitis pigmentosa. Churchey participates in a series of experiments at Johns Hopkins aimed at creating an artificial retina: a silicon device that will transmute light into electrical signals and send them to the brain, where they can be interpreted as visual images. In the not-too-distant future, Churchey and many others like him may have artificial retinas implanted in their eyes, joining seamlessly with their biological nervous systems.

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In the world of art, too, human beings and machines are becoming increasingly intimate. Consider another humachine: David Rokeby, a Canadian artist and self-educated computer tinkerer. Rokeby’s artistic efforts are so thoroughly entwined with his video camera and Macintosh that it’s impossible to tell where the artist leaves off and the technology begins. His dances, for example, are accompanied by a musical score that fits his movements like a glove-largely because it’s created simultaneously by camera and computer as he moves.

These are all instances of human beings joining with or assuming the powers of the machine. But the phenomenon works the other way, too, as machines assume qualities we think of as human. The Japanese, for reasons that are rooted in their specific cultural history, are particularly receptive to the idea of warm and friendly robots-robots you wouldn’t mind hugging or having as pets in place of a cat or dog. These androids are now coming out of many Japanese universities and corporate laboratories.

The blending of human and mechanical capabilities cannot be reversed. Machines are now in our bodies and minds-and we in theirs-far more firmly than ever before. This is an exciting prospect, because it extends our human powers into the world in new and wonderful ways. But what excites can also be frightening, because it blurs the boundary between us and our mechanical servants, raising the possibility of our being invaded and controlled in unforeseen and devious ways. How we respond to this paired fear and delight will constitute a large part of the human future. Humachines.

After reading this issue of Technology Review, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. We already do.

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