In Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Alan Turing excludes “men born in the usual manner” from his essay on computer cognition. In today’s world of science fiction, authors present an array of humanoid creatures: Some are cyborgs, that is, humans with mechanical parts that give them super-human capacities. Some are robots, or mostly mechanical machines. Some are mutants, or genetically-altered humans who are smarter, and stronger than we are. The creatures made by humans have brains, thoughts, and beauty that are biological imitations. Is there a point in quibbling about being randomly born, or created? Turing thought so.
This purposeful action is important in assessing our own failings, perhaps not so much in design, but in desires. The evil is not in the technology, but in the creator. The question isn’t what we create, but to what purpose we use our creations, and more so, how these very inventions change us. The creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein can be viewed as a metaphor for humanity’s own corruption, and so it is with our own new inventions. We probably will not be attacked physically by them, but our lives are changed as we surrender our intellect, our human interactions, and our power to them.
Turing ultimately committed suicide because society in the 1950’s condemned him for being homosexual. No one blamed God for Turing’s sexual orientation. His essay suggests that in what he calls “The Imitation Game” we couldn’t tell the difference between a machine and a human, and he raises interesting questions about what it means to think, and what it means to be human. Interestingly, the essay begins with a contest to guess the difference between a man and a woman. Would it matter? I wonder if anyone would guess his sexual orientation. We already seem bent on blaming the machines for whatever curses they lay on us, but who created them? The fault is not in the machines, but in ourselves.
We are surely on the verge of a singularity in human existence at the dawn of CRISPr technology. Already, genetically-altered humans walk among us in this world, while virtual assistants are learning to speak with human nuances through artificial intelligence.3
The technologies of both mechanical and biological engineering exist today in one lab. My brilliant student, Sophie Edelstein, was a research associate in a bio-engineering lab run by Laura Niklason at Yale, where she helped engineer tracheas. She assured me that synthetic material is key to forming a scaffolding to grow biological materials that might be used someday to replace tracheas in people, and save lives. Sophie is herself a cyborg, as many of us today are. She was born with a condition that required her to have both of her hips replaced with synthetic materials before she was seventeen. It is likely that the humanoid robots of tomorrow, should we choose to create them, will have both synthetic and biological components. It is equally likely that the humans of tomorrow, should we choose to save them, will be cyborgs, with both synthetic and biological components, or have altered genomes, to make their lives better. In the near future, both humans whose lives are improved with genetic manipulations or implanted devices and somewhat humanoid robots created to assist us will inhabit the same world. How will we all fare is a reflection of who we are, and who we want to become.
And what to call them? The word robot is derived from a Czech word for slave4 and it seems somewhat derogatory. Automaton evokes something purely mechanical and non-sentient. Will there be different words for all categories of humanoid entities, genetic, mechanical, or combinations of both, a kind of LGBTQ+ of other beings? Will gynecoid be added to android? Will humanoid be preferred? Perhaps Jason Silva’s word, transhuman, will be in vogue.