Joseph Henry Press
May 5, 2004
Robots – especially their most human-like incarnation, androids – by now are a staple of popular culture. But in labs around the world, scientists and robotics experts are tinkering with the next generation of 21st-century beings, turning science fiction into science fact. At MIT, for example, you can meet COG, obviously constructed of metal and wires, yet eerily human in its aspect. While you’re there, you can drop in on COG’s “cousin,” Kismet. With a friendly, sort of clownish appearance, its body language signals a change in moods, complete with frowns, smiles, and a child-like babble. And if you happened by ROBODEX 2003 in Yokohama Japan, you’d have had a chance to meet and greet the smartest robots around – they walk, they talk, and they are almost guaranteed to produce a hair-raising, gut-level reaction. Because just as we connect to R2D2, Commander Data, and even the Terminator, the merest hint of human-like action or appearance in an artificial being, invariably engages us on a deep and meaningful level.
Digital People examines the ways in which technology is inexorably driving us to a new and different level of humanity. A scientists draw on nanotechnology, molecular biology, artificial intelligence, and material science, they are learning how to create beings that move, think, and look like people. Other researchers are routinely using sophisticated surgical techniques to implement computer chips and drug-dispensing devices into our bodies, designing fully functional man-made body parts, and linking human brains with computers to make people healthier, smarter, and stronger.
In short, we are going beyond what was once the stuff of books and films to create genuine bionic people with fully integrated artificial components – and it will not be long before we reach the ultimate goal of constructing a completely synthetic human-like being. While we hope to produce a better humanity, we nevertheless harbor fears that our power to create will ultimately debase the human spirit. Certainly this God-like ability brings us face-to-face with a host of troubling spiritual, ethical, and legal dilemmas.
In Digital People, scientist and acclaimed author Sidney Perkowitz examines the achievements of contemporary science at the highest level, makes bold predictions about the evolution toward the next level of humanity, and contemplates what this development means for our vision of ourselves. This thoughtful and provocative book shows us just where technology is taking us, in directions both wonderful and terrible, and asks us to ponder what it means to be human.
Sidney Perkowitz is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University. He has presented and written about science, technology, and culture for CNN, NPR, The Sciences, Technology Review, Encyclopaedia Britannica, American Prospect, The Washington Post, and other outlets. His books include Empire of Light, about science and art; and Universal Foam: From Cappuccino to the Cosmos. Professor Perkowitz lives in Atlanta, Georgia.