Are you a fan of Battlestar Galactica?
Like a lot of science fiction, I like some of it and some of it I don't like. With any of this, when you're a scientist there's some bits that grate, and some things that you think they get right
What are some things they get right?
The power of the network is something I really like – this idea that networks are not allowed on the Galactica, that they are to be feared. That's something very real. It's only very recently that governments are starting to treat it seriously. It's good to see it reflected in the show, this idea that out of the network comes something you never expected. The human brain is a network, and we can see the power of that. With networks come all sorts of things – you can get signals coming in that didn't expect, and decisions are being made in ways you can't predict.
What don't you like about the show?
This may put me in a bad light with Middle America, but the God angle – the fact that the cylons have a god – I really find that to be grating. Whether that's just about appealing to Middle America or the Bible Belt I don't know, but from a scientific point of view it really grates. I don't want people to think I'm some Mr. Atheist Incarnate - I'm not - but I am a scientist, and for the cylons to be so absolutely certain in their faith doesn't make sense.
Do you think that today's robotics will lead to something similar to BSG's cylons?
It's different, the old military types vs. the new humanoid ones. The military ones, I can understand, because that's what's coming out now in military robotics– machines that can think for themselves and make decisions, and are programmed with a desire to destroy something – and often that something is human. The cylon centurion does come out of where science is now, just extrapolated a little bit forward. That's interesting, that's not so far out of it. But the humanoid ones, while I understand that from an acting perspective it makes a lot more sense, I don't know why that would happen, I'm not completely sold on it. Robots would only evolve into human form if we wanted them around the home or in other civilian uses, and they had to interact... well then they'd need human sensory input to be able to respond, but the uncanny valley seems to dictate that this would not be a good goal. Although I guess we're on the other side of the valley with the humanoid cylons. And the idea that the cylons themselves evolved into human form, instead of being engineered that way by humans, that I have a hard time with. All the work to create AI that thinks like humans – what do we want to do that for? We're missing so much – why do you want to throw away lots of the good stuff and limit yourself to being human?
You sound a lot like the cylon Cavil - in the 4th season episode "No Exit," he rails against the limitations of his humanoid body - how frustrated he is by only being able to see a small fraction of the EM spectrum, only being able to hear vibrations in the air, etc. Do you think that this frustration with our own limits is part of what it means to be human?
Discontent is part of being a human, but there's no reason it couldn't be part of being a cylon. We're seeing it even in monkeys. The creativity isn't on a par with humans, but it's there. It's a human downfall, that we do want to develop and grow. [Editor's Note - check out Warwick's comment in an earlier interview - "There is no way I want to stay a mere human."]
How is it a downfall?
Well, look where it takes us. If you develop and keep developing artificial intelligence, at one point it's bound to be more powerful than human, especially if it is being developed to out-think and outperform humans. So up to a certain point you can use these machines for a specific purpose, but beyond that...
Beyond that it could be trouble? Again and again in science fiction, we see robots waging war on humanity. Why are we so fascinated with that potential outcome?
Well, I actually think it is a realistic possibility. If you base it on humans, and look at how we have been ourselves, when one group has come across another one, there has almost always been some kind of a battle, with one side trying to destroy or consume the other. Even with the Aztecs and Incas, often one group is wiped out. Looking at the group that was destroyed, from the outside, you can reflect and say they are typically culturally more advanced... they had better drainage systems, education, social order; but the others came along with better weapons and they wiped them out. So particularly if the machines or cyborgs we are looking at were created from humans, and even more particularly if it was created from military background, they could very well say “What are we listening to the humans for? They can stay in zoos or colonies, but if they try and fight back we'll destroy them.” And if that happens, I'm afraid the humans have no chance.
Robots have the advantages of computer thinking, and the power of the network. We see it with the cylons. If your brain is linked into the network – if you can share thoughts, and download your thoughts into the next version of yourself – you can learn and evolve much faster. Just on communication alone, humans are so backwards - our form of interaction with other humans is absolutely pathetic.
Battlestar Galactica asks us to take a really hard look at this question of what it means to be human. How does your work ask or answer that question?
I would ask the opposite question – what is it like to be a machine, a robot, a cyborg... My research is about seeing the opportunities that it presents, but it's also about trying to see how the other side of thinking – how humans think. Take things like the question of multiple dimensions; you say to someone “if we link up to a computer, we can see ten dimensions” and they say “what's the point of that? the world is three dimensional” - because as a human, your understanding of the universe is shaped by your limitations. You think that the world is as you perceive it. What my work does, and science fiction does, is it gets us to look at what it means to be human by looking at it through the eyes of a robot, or a cyborg, by looking at our own limits. Some science fiction people are very interested in my work, and how it's related to science fiction, and how it is bringing science fiction to life – other people in the science fiction world are very unhappy with it, they want sci-fi to just be sci-fi, something separate. If it stays within the world of fiction, they can deal with that – but thinking about it as something real, it becomes too scary. Which is kind of the point of my work.
To scare people?
I think one of the purposes of my work is to make people think about the consequences. Like we discussed already with the idea of the network, and the dangers that come along with it. I want to show people the power as well as the dangerous potential, and to show people that it is technically possible to do this. If you can plug into a network, and your brain can control a wheel or another machine, but your brain is networked, what could happen?
Are we close to that—being able to network the human brain, control machines with it, etc?
It's something I have already done - as an experiment, of course, but in terms of having it in the shop at your local corner, its on the horizon. From a military perspective it's definitely on its way. Instead of visiting other planets, you can stay here but your mechanical body explores other places. People worry about the dangers of having electrodes in your body, but you have to balance that with the dangers of being in space or on the battleground, and of course the relative dangers are quite small.
So we create artificial intelligence to do the work that humans just can't do.
Like in Battlestar Galactica, with the first cylons particularly – it is a potential reality. Maybe not exactly in terms of how BSG portrays it, but it's not bad at it. We send them off to another galaxy and they come back with a vengeance. Some people have suggested that the robots will be sent off into the universe with their backpacks because of the advantages they have. We have this obviously huge problem, traveling such vast distances, so we need to come up with ways around it. What is it called, on BSG - the FTL drives? And Star Trek has the warp drives. So we either figure out how to fold space or jump into other dimensions, or we send the cylons out.
What will your presentation focus on, at the 92nd Street Y event “Battlestar Galactica: Cyborgs on the Horizon”?
I think my perspective will be much more reactive; looking at “what is a robot” “what is AI,” in relation to Galactica; I will be talking about my own work, not just the cyborg/implant work, but developing the biological brain, the robot brain, robots with biological brains. This ties in with Galactica in terms of Mary McDonnell's character, who had cancer but was cured by the blood of this human/mechanical hybrid – and that's what we're doing; working with stem cells to grow the robot brain for medical purposes. There's a lot of potential for this kind of work in areas like Alzheimer's; can we use this to overcome the effects of diseases like that. So that part really struck home; the show really gives scientists ideas.
Do you have a favorite character on Battlestar Galactica?
I really go for the cylons; I'm not a human supporter. I enjoy listening to what the cylons are doing, how they deal with things. One thing the show does really well is getting humans to respond to the cylons, using the cylons to look objectively at the humans. It's almost making fun of humans, and the ways we think.