Are Robots Going To Destroy Us All?

With walking, talking joke-cracking robots now a reality, Michael Odell looks into what exactly lies ahead for mankind in the age of artificial intelligence. Are these machines really just here to aid us – or will we end up in a world that mirrors the likes of 'The Terminator', Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'...or even 'Wall-E'? 

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Professor Rolf Pfeifer, a gaunt, diffident 66-year-old Swiss engineer, has just become a father. He winces slightly as well-wishers pound him with procreational back slaps. He must unveil his child to the world’s media alone; the newborn has no mother. “It’s been a challenging nine months,” he says proudly next to his offspring. “I hope this boy will bring pleasure and inspiration to many people.”

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The birth was tough, he says, but the pregnancy was hell. There was no sex for a start. Instead, a team of 40 engineers in sterile gloves beavered away in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of  Zürich that is Pfeifer’s base in Switzerland. “Programming his leg movements was a nightmare right to the last minute,” says Serge Weydert, one of Pfeifer’s young assistants.

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There were other glitches and heartbreaks. Just days before the birth, Pfeifer realised the boy wouldn’t be able to ride a bike. This was a problem. He had promised the world’s media his son would scoot round on a tricycle the very day he was born. “We had to let that go. It was obvious his legs weren’t long or strong enough,” sighs Pfeifer.

Endearingly, Pfeifer had other, more prosaic father-like concerns, too. “I thought his head was too big but what can you do? I needed to reserve some cranial cavity space for new circuitry to go in later.”

After entering his lab and gluing sponsor stickers onto the foetus’ face, Pfeifer finally flipped the switch. The tiny motors whirred and the child cocked his arm. His big blue eyes gave a beatific blink. There were claps and whoops from his team. Roboy was born. “I have two fully human sons already,” says Pfeifer. “But this was still quite an emotional moment.”

Today, the bulky, 4ft-tall infant – his polyamide body parts lasered together in a 3D copier and stuffed with high-end circuitry – is being introduced to the wider world at Robots on Tour, a robot expo in central Zürich. Sitting on a little plinth, he looks this way and that like a child on his first day of primary school. When Pfeifer is done speaking, Roboy introduces himself through a tiny microphone.

“I am happy today. Sometimes I can be shy. Or sad,” he explains. The voice is what you might expect – young, ethereal, alien – like Michael Jackson, basically. Pfeifer raises a hand to calm the hubbub. He speaks about the future for Roboy and for others like him. “My dream is that one day we can all have a child like this. I foresee various applications.”

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“What, for example?” I ask.

“OK, I like to drink beer,” Pfeifer says. “One day Roboy might accompany me to a bar. He might be able to take a reading from sweat globules on my skin and tell me when I’ve had too much. Then he could drive me home. Roboy is here to help us do the things we don’t like to do or, when we get older, cannot do.”

“I will help you in any way I can,” says Roboy, swivelling his iMac-sized head to address his creator.

The cameras flash.

“Usually, I charge for pictures,” Roboy says.

You don’t need to watch Kraftwerk do their stiff-backed, jerky-elbowed dance to know they were right all along: the future will be run by robots. They, Hollywood movies, teatime TV shows and comic books, not to mention Maggie Philbin on Tomorrow’s World, have been softening us for this eventuality. At Robots on Tour, the wait is over. The robots are here.

The Puls 5 exhibition space is an old factory in a redeveloped former industrial quarter of Zürich-West. Giant pulleys and iron gantries hang from its ceiling. Once, a crowd in top hats and twirling parasols might have come here to admire, say, a new steam engine. Today, people form a queue which snakes out onto Turbinenplatz, the largest square in the city, to see something quite different: a selection of leading-edge robots, androids and cyborgs. Even those already holding tickets face an hour’s wait. A tiny robot dancing to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” keeps the crowd entertained out on the street.

Roboy is the star of the show: his limbs are controlled by tendons, allowing for unusually fluid, spookily human-like movements. But there are other specimens and prototypes present from the US, Japan, Korea, Switzerland and beyond. Admiring them are packs of geeky teenagers and awe-struck families. There are also scientists and engineers, investors and talent-spotters, hoping to secure the best ideas for mass-market development.

“I am wanting to source suitable robotry for deployment in a high-volume parcel despatch centre like Amazon’s,” a thrusting young Swede called Hampus Ahlborg tells me. He then tests an exoskeleton bodysuit that enables the wearer to pick up and carry huge weights without compromising a standard-issue human spine. His workers would “merge” with the exoskeleton suits and become doubly, trebly-strong for parcel despatch.

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There is a giddy enthusiasm at the various Robots on Tour stalls. This feels like “AI summer”, following what are known as intermittent “AI winters”, periods during which long-promised technological breakthroughs stall and funding collapses. (I listen as a gaggle of attendees remember the long AI winter in the Seventies in which engineers tried unsuccessfully to make speech-recognition work. No one remembers the exact year, so one asks Siri on an iPhone.) Developments in lightweight 3D copiable materials and the steady march of Moore’s Law (which states that chip processing power doubles every two years) mean powerful robots are now cheap to test and produce. The rise of the machines has reached critical mass.

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At the expo, there is a robot avatar for everyone. Lurching bots for the kitchen and for the classroom. Thought-recognising wheelchairs for the disabled. Cuddly pet bots for the lonely and infirm. “It makes me extremely happy to see humans interact with robots in a carefree way,” notes Professor Pfeifer.

Which brings us to Roboy’s other USP: as a PR tool. As manufacturers get ready to market robots for the home, it’s become essential for them to overcome the public’s suspicion of them. From Terminator to Blade Runner and Transformers to Star Trek, we have been brought up to think of robots as intrinsically bad. “If popular culture has taught us anything, it is that someday mankind must face and destroy the growing robot menace,” says author and robotic engineer Daniel H Wilson, whose 2011 novel Robopocalypse was optioned to be turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg.

“Robots were pop-culture icons before they even existed. They were space creatures and monsters. When robots really started existing, they already had this whole image set up not based on reality. It’d be like if someone found a living mummy and he was actually a really nice guy but we’d only ever seen evil mummies in fiction. That’s exactly what happened – a movie monster became real.”

Most of the exhibits at Robots on Tour are examples of “narrow AI”, artificial intelligence tailored for specific tasks. But how close are we to “strong AI”, the multi-disciplinary, self-learning robot intelligence of popular imagination? Say Roboy does drive us home after a night on the tiles. How long after that might it realise, actually, this frailty makes humans inferior and instead dump us in a ditch and take over our lives?

Science and science fiction have been promising – and warning us about – a robot future for over two millennia. Around 400BC, Archytas of Tarentum, a founding father of mechanics, put together a steam-powered pigeon. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci unveiled a robot knight controlled by pulleys and wires and in 1739, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson built his Canard Digérateur, a robotic duck that appeared to flap its wings, swallow seed and defecate like a real bird.

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Unease about man’s messing with science has been around even longer: the myth of Prometheus, punished for stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to man by having his regenerating liver pecked out by an eagle every day of his life, dates from 800BC. But it was only when the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century brought steam power, electricity and mechanisation that the warnings began in earnest.

Novelist Mary Shelley was among the first to suggest the new creations might not simply do our bidding as stipulated in the user manual. Her 1818 novel Frankenstein not only launched sci-fi as a genre, but also seems to predict Roboy: “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and then stir with an uneasy half vital motion. Frightful must it be for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Frankenstein’s creation is the monster 18-year-old Shelley imagined during a rainy afternoon on holiday with husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron in Lake Geneva, as they whiled away the time during bad weather thinking up the scariest story they could. Roboy, because he’s smarter and better brought up than Mary Shelley’s monster, would dismiss these objections. There have, however, been plenty of other optimistic assessments of what robots will bring. Elektro, a bulky, 7ft gold fridge with a face, unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair reflected public optimism with humanoid technology. Elektro smoked fags. He addressed people as “Toots”. He basically told the US, just prior to its unprecedented industrial boom, that machines were on its side. Soon after, sci-fi author Isaac Asimov reassured the populace further with his seminal Three Laws of Robotics, stating that robots should, in strict order of priority, serve and protect human life, do what humans say and then, and only then, protect themselves.

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Ever since Shelley’s macabre vision, we have lived with this duality: gleeful anticipation as well as quivering apprehension of the coming bots.

“Will they free us or will they enslave us? Most people fall on one side or another of that question,” Roboy engineer Serge Weydert says.

Essentially, we seem quite at home with narrow AI, like all the creations at Robots on Tour, which will do their specific tasks happily and then stand in the corner awaiting further instructions. Maybe that’s because we are actually surrounded by similar machines already: robots build our cars, fly our planes and even do surgery on us. They play the stock market (in May 2010, during the so-called “flash crash”, 1,010 points were wiped off the Dow Jones index by faulty high-speed robot trading).

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In the East, they permeate everyday life further: South Korean “telepresence” robots (a real, human teacher appears in the classroom via a robot screen, beaming lessons in from, say, the Philippines, where teacher pay rates are lower) teach English in primary schools and even babysit. This is part of wider, stated government aims of “a robot in every home by 2020”. Closer to home, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is testing Mobiserv, an EU-funded robot that will care for the elderly by interacting with sensors in their smart clothing.

Dr Peter Diamandis, chairman of the non-profit XPrize Foundation, is currently offering a $10m award to the inventor of the first working “tricorder”, a hand-held medical diagnosis machine capable of diagnosing 15 serious illnesses: he estimates the money will be claimed within five years. Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla believes machines will replace 80 per cent of doctors within a generation. Your workplace may soon be roboticised, too. Perhaps even your job. The MantaroBot  – essentially an iPad on a wheeled stem whose movements around the office can be remotely controlled – recently went on sale in the UK for £2,200. Parent company Opticus makes great play of MantaroBot’s potential for chairing meetings.

Last year, Google licensed driverless cars in Nevada, Florida and California enabling the infirm, and even the blind, to get back on the road. In the UK, 100 driverless, two-passenger pod-cars capable of 12mph are planned for Milton Keynes by 2017. David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, told a policy exchange session entitled “Rise of the Robots” in July that in 20 years’ time, “the idea that you spent one-and-a-half hours sitting behind a steering wheel and changing gears will look peculiar to people”.

Narrow AI is happily taking on dirty, dangerous or dull human chores – mining and the decommissioning of nuclear power stations are steadily roboticised – and driving us towards the leisure destiny envisioned in Pixar’s Wall-E (2008). The titular cleaner robot is basically a high-end Henry Hoover who inhabits a dead, spent Earth. He and his ilk clean up the place while fat humans with chronic bone density issues dwell on a fully automated, intergalactic cruise spaceship called the Axiom. In Wall-E, humans face extinction because we become lazy. It’s our fault. But at least we seem to be having a good time.

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One of Google’s directors of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, believes we should be optimistic about harnessing the power of AI. Google has recently bought a number of pioneering software companies – including the UK’s DeepMind for an estimated £242m – as part of a tooling up for what has been termed “a Manhattan Project of AI”. The goal is to produce computers that have “natural language understanding”, ie, that can read, question, infer, cross-reference and extrapolate just as you are doing while reading this article. With a computer’s ability to process a million times more data than a human, this would herald a machine able to pass the Turing test, when a computer equals the intelligence of humans. Kurzweil thinks this moment may come as early as 2029. Furthermore, he believes the resultant AI could help humans effectively live forever. And if you think that sounds crazy, Kurzweil has saved the writings, archives and data of deceased family members so that they can be retro-engineered back to life when the tech is ready.

“We are at a unique point in history where, if this generation can stay alive long enough to see the technology come to fruition, the horizon is limitless,” he has said. “Humanity has never stood at a threshold like this before.”

But not everyone shares Kurzweil’s and Google’s optimism. They see strong AI – the advent of powerful, self-determining artificial intelligence – as a darker and more imminent threat. In 1993, sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge popularised the term “technological singularity” for the moment such an artificial super-intelligence emerges. There exists a computer that can outplay the world chess champion: in 1997, Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov by evaluating 200,000,000 potential moves per second. What about when they can beat us at everything? ­

According to some experts, the moment is not that far away. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, a series of conferences focused on the future of converging technologies like robotics and nanotechnology held in Australia, 2040 was deemed the year this would happen. “This [the singularity] could be very, very good if we get it right and very, very bad if we get it wrong,” singularity expert Eliezer Yudkowsky said.

Potential bad outcomes are being taken increasingly seriously. In January 2012, Professor Stephen Hawking signed up to the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the highest profile signatory to a think tank that also includes Huw Price (Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at Cambridge), Martin Rees (emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge) and Jaan Tallinn, founder of Skype. The idea for the Cambridge Project arose after Price and Tallinn got chatting in a taxi following a conference in Copenhagen in 2011. Tallinn mused he felt he was as likely to die as a result of rogue AI as cancer or heart disease. Rees decided to do something about it, forming the think tank with the express task of assessing robots and other “extinction level risks to our species as a whole”.

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“Sometime in this or the next century, it seems likely intelligence will escape human constraints,” Price told Cambridge students last year. “We know intelligence is possible in a small space – it’s in our skulls. It seems likely that at a point where computer power and brain science [ie, neuroscience] meet, we’ll be able to replicate that artificially.”

Once artificially intelligent and fully self-aware robots begin looking out for themselves and even building and programming their own progeny, anything might happen, Price says. “It is a mistake to think that any artificial intelligence, particularly one that arose accidentally, would be anything like us and would share our values, which are the product of evolution in a social setting.”

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This doomsday scenario doesn’t necessarily have to mean a genocidal robot attack, like those launched by Skynet in the Terminator movies. Price suggests super-intelligent robots might simply have a similarly dismissive attitude to humans as we currently do to some animals. “It might be that human needs might be deemed irrelevant in the same way that mice and rats are not really included in our plans now,” he says.

Some people think the robot threat is more urgent. Noel Sharkey, professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, thinks the threat is here now. Sharkey has devoted his life to robots (he frequently cropped up on Nineties’ cult teatime show Robot Wars). But as co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, an NGO seeking an international treaty to prohibit the development of autonomous robot weapons, he warns we are close to losing control of technology. In April 2013, he and representatives from 30 NGOs, including a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, launched the Stop Killer Robots campaign at the House of Commons. It sounds preposterous, but Sharkey is entirely serious.

“We are about to cross the line into very, very dangerous territory,” he tells me. “The US Navy is currently flight testing a fully autonomous aircraft called the X-47B, capable of select and kill [once pre-programmed with targeting criteria, the plane will find and destroy enemies without further human intervention]. ICRAC [the International Committee for Robots Arms Control] says there should always be a human in the decision-making loop. Robots cannot decide on proportionality. They cannot distinguish targets. You’ll never see a robot take a prisoner.”

Autonomous weapons already exist (the Royal Navy has Sea Wolf, an anti-missile system that will launch before any human could spot an approaching enemy weapon). But the unmanned Northrop Grumman X-47B is a next-level invention. The fighter-sized craft can take off and land from an aircraft carrier, fly 2,000 miles to do its terminating and then fly back and land.

“It’s a way of fighting wars that should never have been invented,” Steve Goose from Human Rights Watch told the parliamentary panel at the Stop Killer Robots launch. “It’s human responsibility replaced by machine responsibility.”

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It is part of an arc that, since 9/11, has seen the war on terror become increasingly roboticised. The US had only a handful of drones before 9/11. It now has over 7,500, with the General Atomics Predator and Reaper drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) having a huge impact in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in the last decade.

Data from the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests up to 3,400 people have been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan alone since 2004. Anything between 475 and 900 casualties are estimated to have been civilians, including 176 children. There is, however, a raging debate over who exactly in an insurgency qualifies as a “civilian”.

What is undisputed is that with the advent of low-risk “targeted killing”, robot warfare is here to stay. It is “the only game in town”, Leon Panetta, former US secretary of defence from 2011 to 2013, has said. This, depending on your personal liberal settings, is what both excites and horrifies in equal measure: the image of the CIA drone pilot commuting down a US freeway en route to his suburban ops bunker. There, joystick and Starbucks in hand, he wins a war thousands of miles away, vapourising enemies with a heavily armed aerial robot.

From a Taliban point of view, Skynet is already here. The Taliban’s weapon of choice is the AK-47 assault rifle, first used in 1949. Yet a $150m Predator drone can hover above them unseen for up to 40 hours, identifying human heat signatures from a height of 3km. As the awful truth dawns, the insurgents sometimes run for it. In the US control bunkers, these runners are known as “squirters”. Thereafter, Hellfire missiles, or smaller Griffins, render them pink mist.

Enevitably, drone ethics is a burgeoning discipline. There are drones deployed in Afghanistan (where there is an official war) but also in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia (where there isn’t). Waging robot war has raised pressing territorial issues, not to mention questions over who gets to see the top-secret targeting criteria.

All we know is that in a weekly Washington meeting dubbed “Terror Tuesday”, a US national security team of 100 anti-terror wonks examines nominated targets by video conference. Names come up. Is that a terrorist, a henchman or just his driver? Some names are approved. The “kill list” goes to Barack Obama and his national security advisor. Robots do the rest.

Aside from questions of accountability, for perhaps the first time in history, one of the central objections is that the West’s robot advantage makes war too easy. “If you don’t see body bags coming home, war is too easy to wage,” Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK has said.

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Now drones’ successful war record means they’re being utilised at home, too. Unarmed Predator drones are already being used by US law enforcement. In 2011, Predator surveillance data was employed to convict a farmer in a cattle-rustling case in North Dakota. Six cows had wandered onto the farmer’s property. He decided to keep them. When the Sheriff arrived, an armed standoff ensued. The nearby Grand Forks US Air Force base sent over a drone. The surveillance-from-the-sky-without-a-warrant, which ended the siege, enraged civil-liberties campaigners. In the UK, the Serious Organised Crime Agency is considering drones for use in surveillance (they can be tiny: the British Army has been using hand-launched Black Hornet nano-drones since 2012).

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And yet we might argue drones are precisely the remote war-waging technology Leonardo da Vinci dreamed about with his robot knight. No need for a “boots on the ground” invasion. No need for Western human casualties. As many advocates point out, robots make fewer mistakes than stressed jet-fighter pilots.

Doctor Simon Ramo agrees. A consultant to the CEO of Northrop Grumman, one of the largest defence contractors in the world, Ramo led the development of the ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) in the Fifties under the personal orders of President Eisenhower. “There was a similar discussion when the ICBM was deployed. Can we wage war remotely? I think history has answered that,” Ramo says. “The ICBM showed that war could be waged remotely and the threat of that helped keep the peace.”

Ramo expanded his thinking in his 2011 book Let Robots do the Dying: The Coming Partnership of Men and Robots in the US Military, where he argues that after the success of drones in the Middle East, “we could move toward a much more extensive robotic replacement of our forces”. He foresees not only robot aircraft carriers and submarines but also asserts chirpily, “we may see humanoid robots in infantry combat roles by 2020–’25”.

Dr Ramo, who turned 101 this year, says, “In the century I’ve lived, I assumed flight would prove the greatest innovation. Now, I believe I am seeing the start of a greater one: warfare delegated to robot forces. We know the Chinese have invested heavily in them. The next conflict will be a contest between machines and the control of information coming to and from them.”

Professor Pfeifer, with Roboy sitting peaceably next to him like a friendly little washing machine, is worried by all this. Dystopian robot nightmares make his job all the more difficult. In a glass cabinet at the rear of the Zürich exhibition hall, a gang of iconic movie droids are proudly on display. The sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger tearing off his shirt to reveal the Terminator’s grotesque metallic skeleton and waving a shotgun in the air isn’t really helping. That’s why making people trust robots is part of Pfeifer’s mission.

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“Robots in Europe have a very bad reputation,” he sighs. “In Japan, they love technology, but in Europe they hold a fear for most of us. We believe robots will steal our jobs or become out of control. Films like The Terminator sum up what we think is the inevitable outcome of robot development. But it need not be.”

Pfeifer is not the only one encouraging us to cosy up to the machines. Will Jackson of Cornwall-based Engineered Arts builds life-sized humanoid robots. He’s in talks with major airlines to produce robot greeters at airports. They will have gender, age and facial expression recognition capability.

“People are ready to trust them as long as they don’t look too humanoid,” Jackson says. “We like robots to retain some machine-like qualities. I’d say two, three years from now, a robot in departures will tell you look stressed and offer help.” “Roboy was built as an ambassador,” Pfeifer says. “It is very important that people like him.”

Pfeifer and his team left nothing to chance here. The public voted for Roboy’s face on, er, Facebook (choosing from big, bigger or massive gloopy eyes) and his development was partly crowdfunded. Some people paid 25 Swiss francs (CHF; £17) for a postcard from Roboy. Others paid for sponsorship: 750CHF (£497) got you a company logo on his face; 50CHF (£33) bought you a pelvis mention (that option sold out first). In a quaint reversal of usual babysitting etiquette, you can even take Roboy out for the day if you fork out 5,000CHF (£3,315). 

Crowdfunding, corporate thigh sponsorship, a mass Facebook “Like”, it’s all very feel-good branding. But I can’t help thinking of Frankenstein’s mission statement back in the 19th century. Like Roboy, the “fiend” wanted to be friends with humanity. But when we decided we didn’t like him, he began killing. In Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film, the monster tells his creator Victor Frankenstein: “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

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There is another outcome, though. A third way, whereby the choice is not us or them. I find it during a break from petting Roboy, in a fast-food restaurant outside the expo hall.

“This seat free?” I ask a guy on crutches sitting in a chair in Hitzberger, in the Puls 5 complex.

“Sure,” he answers.

I sit down and am about to slurp my coffee. When he turns to give me full eye contact I almost leap out of my seat. He has a false, silvered eye with a visible microchip implanted in it.

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“Hi, my name is Rob,” he grins. “Some people call me ‘Eyeborg’.”

Rob Spence, aka Eyeborg, is working as an exhibit at Robots on Tour. He’s on a coffee break, having spent the day being poked and prodded by punters. Everyone wants to talk to the man a part-human, part-machine. He’s “transhuman”, a human who has absorbed components of the robot revolution into himself. People like Spence don’t fear robot power, they want to merge with it. Maybe we’ve taken the homo sapiens project as far as we can? It’s time to put it to bed and embrace the new platform – homo robotum.

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“People have embraced iPhones as parts of their identity in the last few years,” says Spence. “I think we are ready to absorb technology into our lives, even our bodies, in a very meaningful way.”

Of course, Rob Spence didn’t plan it. When he was nine, he was at home messing about with his grandpa’s shotgun. For reasons best known to himself, he was shooting at a pile of cow dung. A round exploded in the gun chamber with his eye next to it. He was patched up and fitted with a prosthetic eye.

Several years later, Spence became a film-maker and decided to get a wireless camera installed in his eye socket. This doesn’t give him vision per se, but it does mean he can wirelessly transmit what his eye camera sees to a screen or even as a live feed to the internet, much like Google Glass. This makes him an actual cyborg, and it makes him look pretty cool (Time listed Spence’s eye as one 2009’s 50 best inventions). But it’s also a devil of a threat when it comes to bootlegging new movies or making sex tapes.

“I don’t miss my real eye,” he says. “It’s an intriguing possibility that people may one day choose to lose a limb and instead of a prosthetic replacement, have something more advanced instead. We might choose brain implants, muscle implants, or implants that prolong our life.”

Eyeborg lets on about something else. We are at a tipping point when it comes to robot sex. Once, Spence might have been looked upon as disabled, perhaps pitied even. No more. These days, he says, people find bionics increasingly sexy. He is not disabled anymore – he’s augmented.

“I’ve had a lot of girls that wouldn’t have been interested in me if I didn’t have a camera eye. Take it from me, girls love robots.”

Maybe Spence is right. A OnePoll survey of 2,000 people in the UK published in April revealed that though one-in-three people believe robots will eventually threaten humanity, 17 per cent of them would be happy to have sex with one. Perhaps we will not just accept amazing and unusual gadgetry into our lives as never before, we will welcome limb or organ enhancement in ways currently unimaginable. But the singularity, the very moment we high-five a bionic hand for achieving technological mastery, may also be the moment we lose control, wrested from us by the very machines we create. Gathering in basements for secret screenings of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, we’ll be trying to work out how a schlocky film and TV franchise came true.

To avoid, this we might be advised to proceed with caution, taking the views of lawyers, sceptics and knowledgeable party-pooper types like Dr Sharkey on board as we go.

“I think one of the problems is that people who don’t know the science cannot quite believe that things would really go that far,” Sharkey says. “But robots, particularly in the military, are moving at such a pace now, we really do need to put the brakes on and ask about all the eventualities. Because at the end of the day, a robot world might not be so great for humans. We don’t want to share power with the machines.” Or, to put it another way: “A human should always, always be in charge.”

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