Will the RoboCops rise by 2015?

RoboCop, released in 1987, features a crime-fighting cyborg set in the year 2015: one part veteran police officer Alexander James Murphy (played by Peter Weller), who, after his brutal murder, is resurrected by mega-corporation OCP to be one part Kevlar laminated titanium and one part artificial intelligence. A cyborg describes a cybernetic organism that is half-metal and half-flesh. In the film, RoboCop is guided by three directives in his programming: to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the sci-fi action flick was a huge commercial success. Grossing almost $54 million, it spawned two sequels, three television series, and numerous video games. But how on point were Verhoeven and Neumeier with their technological predictions?

Since 1987 scientists and engineers worldwide have made significant advancements in their efforts to meld man and machine. We’ve been able to substitute technology for biology; with artificial hearts, to keep our blood pumping; cochlear implants, to help us hear better; neural implants, to combat neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; and our iPhone implants, to keep us up to date and geo-located with Twitter, FourSquare and Facebook.

Well maybe our iPhones are not implanted in us - yet. But how far are we from the day when robots will replace humans - the day when RoboCop, the Cybermen from Doctor Who, or The Borg from Star Trek could be a reality?

They’ll fix you. They fix everything.

“2015 is a tight schedule to literally create Robocop as we know it in the film, but it won’t be too much longer, maybe by 2020 or 2025”, says Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics professor at Reading University in England, who is commonly known as the world’s first cyborg.

In 2002, Warwick had a 100-electrode array implanted in his forearm that allowed a computer to tap into his neuroelectric signals. Using this connection, Warwick controlled an electric wheelchair and an artificial hand. He never had any pain or infection, nor did his body attempt to reject the implant, which was in for 3 months. In fact, when the surgeons went to take the implant out, they found his body tissue had grown around it.

Warwick currently experiments with half-animal half-robot “animats” like Gordon, whose brain consists of foetal rat neurons on an array of 60 electrodes that pick up the electrical signals emitted by the neurons. The neurons begin forming connections within 20 minutes and establish an elaborate active network within a week.

In the film, RoboCop feeds his digestive system with a rudimentary paste (similar to babyfood). Warwick says that this is “pretty much on the ball”. Warwick’s team feeds Gordon’s brain regularly with an energy drink containing minerals and nutrients.

One particularly sentimental moment in the film is when Murphy’s partner Anne Lewis (played by Nancy Allen) reminds him of his former, human self. According to Warwick, we know very little about how memories are stored, recalled and assimilated. But, he explains, Alzheimer’s patients often get flashbacks that can be either vivid or distorted - so in light of this, Robocop remembering some of his past life seems very plausible.

At the time, the 1986 Ford Taurus police cruiser was used in the movie for its then-futuristic design. A cyborg with RoboCop’s driving skills is incredibly doubtful by 2015, but we are already living in a world filled with robotic cars or driverless vehicles like those in the DARPA Grand Challenge.

“When it comes to joining together a human with technology, I think RoboCop in 2015 is probably pushing it a bit”, says Warwick. “But being able to help people with disabilities, perhaps restoring their hearing, sight or curing neurological problems like Parkinson’s through technological means is happening now so it's very plausible that “cyborgs” [but probably not cyborg police officers] will be a widespread reality by 2015”.

In 2004, John P. Donoghue, director of the Brain Science program at Brown University and a founder of Cyberkinetics, developed the BrainGate System, a direct brain-computer interface allowing severely paralysed individuals to communicate with a computer to control external devices like prosthetic limbs.

In 2007, inventor Dean Kamen developed a prosthetic arm, commonly referred to as “The Luke Arm”, at the request of the US Department of Defence. Underneath the silicon coated skin is a device that weighs 6.9 pounds, with 14 active degrees of freedom so a war veteran who has lost an arm can once again pick up a pen, scratch his nose and even feel temperature.

According to Warwick our current cyborg technology is “okay”, but the quantity of experiments in this realm simply haven’t been tried and tested anywhere near as much as he would’ve hoped or expected when he first started in 2002.

Dead or alive, you’re coming with me

In 2015, it is more likely we will have robotic police officers (devoid of the mushy, human stuff like hearts, brains and muscles and filled with response, defence and offence algorithms, wires and bullet-proof plastic) than cyborg police officers. In the past decade, engineers and scientists have created robots with human capabilities like James Kuffner’s violin playing Asimo and fleshy, human looking robots like Japan’s Kobian, an “emotional humanoid robot”, which has eyelids, lips and eyebrows so that it can cry, act happy, sad, surprised and angry.

Today we have robot crime fighting systems that don’t look like humans. These bots are closer to the frightening reality of Dick Jones’ Droid series 209, the self-sufficient law enforcement robot that kills a junior executive in one of the early scenes. In Robocop, the police force worries that they may be replaced by cyborgs. Should policemen fear for their job security?

According to a government report, military robots are better suited than human soldiers for “dull, dirty or dangerous missions.” In Iraq, military robots with semi-autonomous map-based controls to navigate rough terrains have defused over 10,000 roadside bombs, which are responsible for 40% of U.S. casualties there. According to ethics and emerging technologies specialist Patrick Lin, the U.S had no ground robots in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2003, but now has over 12,000 robots on the ground and 7000 in the air.

In 2006,¬†South Korea unveiled a military robot named the “Intelligent Surveillance and Guard Robot” that can “detect suspicious moving objects, literally go after them, and can even fire at them”, says Sang-Il Han, the principal research engineer at Samsung Techwin. The $200,000 robot, which supposedly sits at the border with North Korea can “sound an alarm, fire rubber bullets or open fire with a K-3 machine gun”.

But until we’ve also built the ethical framework needed for a world filled with crime-fighting robots and cyborgs, policemen not involved with “dull, dirty or dangerous missions” should feel safe for now. Perhaps the most plausible element in RoboCop is that in just a few years Detroit, Michigan will be a crime-ridden dystopia due to financial ruin.

Technology is one of the most important aspects of human existence, helping us to solve our “disorders”, whether it is of the personal or social kind. But as the boundaries between natural and artificial intelligence become as grey as matter itself, we are left to wonder when the day will come when robotic science fiction will become reality.

Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening.

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