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More Human Than Human? – Could Blade Runner Be Our Future?

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Is Blade Runner the best depiction of our future doom at the hands of traitorous robots?

Ask Siri about Blade Runner and the iPhone’s digital assistant will tell you that Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic is about “intelligent assistants that want to live beyond their termination dates.”

“Is that too much to ask?” she’ll add.

Expect a similar response when you ask world-class artificial intelligence researcher Massimiliano Versace about his favorite “robo-overthrow” movie. He named Blade Runner because the rage displayed by android Roy Batty, as played by Rutger Hauer, would “probably [be] the pinnacle of what somebody in my field would want to achieve.”

“The basic idea of the robot developing feelings, an awareness of his own destiny and rage with respect to his own creator,” Versace says, “I would say that’s the most desirable outcome that you could want from a robot.”

He added that the desirable outcome was the human-like emotions, not the rage itself.

Versace laughs when people say that researchers like him shouldn’t program feelings into robots — especially as NASA has called for his help on two projects that include robot emotions. In one project, he’s using something that resembles fear to get autonomous flying drones to steer away from danger before wasting time analyzing what that danger might be. In the other, he’s designing a hierarchy of needs for small drones that could eventually land on Mars. The machines, whose intelligence matches that of a rat, would follow their curiosity, hunger and desire to fulfill their mission — as supported by their battery levels.

Should artificial intelligences ever reach the point when they feel as strongly as the Nexus-6 models in Blade Runner, Versace says that it would only complete the circle. The android named Rachel managed to feel something like love toward human bounty hunter Rick Deckard, but humans already feel emotional bonds toward their machines.

Versace pointed to the example of soldiers in Iraq who named their bomb disposal robot “Scooby-Doo.” The troops later mourned Scooby’s “death” after an IED exploded while Scooby worked on it. The resulting blast damaged the ’bot beyond repair. Closer to home, you can find videos on YouTube of people (and animals) who clearly see their Roomba as something more than a well-programmed appliance. The Roomba and Scooby, meanwhile, feel precisely nothing.

While Versace admires the emotional angle to Blade Runner, he also notes that the film runs counter to its genre by failing to feature humanity’s downfall at the hands of its creations  à la Skynet in the Terminator films. Instead, Versace noted, the movie follows “one very pissed-off robot” with a beef toward its creator.

The scenario may be far from paradise, but at least humans wouldn’t need to rally around the radio-scratchy voice of a John Connor figure just to survive for another generation.

For more on the future of A.I. with Massimiliano Versace, check out our interview with the A.I. expert: On Edge About AI? – An Interview with AI Expert Massimiliano Versace

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