If there was any consolation for humanity’s wounded pride in the face of defeats by machines in brainy arenas like chess, in which Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, and Jeopardy, in which Watson outshone the prodigy Ken Jennings in 2011, it was that we organic beings could count on dominating the more physically demanding sports into the foreseeable future. For instance, robot soccer is almost as ridiculous, and not nearly as cute, as the puppy bowl—for now at least. So, when KUKA Electronics announced last month that their robot Agilus would be taking on former number 1 ranked table tennis player Timo Boll in an epic ping pong match, the most prideful and nerdy of us humans looked forward to the date, March 11th, with bated breath.
KUKA released a video trailer for the event, but it didn’t feature any actual play. As anyone knows who’s visited Aptera’s headquarters, either in Fort Wayne or Nashville, we like to bat the ol’ pong ball around a bit here. More than one of us, I’d wager, set alerts for when the video of the match was released online.
The Machines versus the Humans?
Agilus is little more than a big orange multi-jointed arm fixed to a base on the floor. Still, something about the publicity images of Boll facing off across the table against the robotic appendage brought to mind the factory scene in Terminator, in which the newly defleshed cyborg lurched and crawled after Linda Hamilton amid the clatter of automated assembly. How smart, how agile, how humanlike do we really want to make these things? Ken Jennings captured something of the anxiety in a joking addendum to his Final Jeopardy response: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.”
The dystopian visions of the future our whirlwind romance with technology is sweeping us toward are too numerous to count. But what if the worst possible outcome isn’t inevitable? What if it’s not even likely? What if the relationship between humans and their machines continues along the path of intimate symbiosis it’s on now—to the point where an all-out battle is all but unthinkable, because hybridization will have so thoroughly erased the tribal, and even the fleshly, boundaries between us and them?
We’re already easing away from computers on our desks toward devices attached to our persons. As the head of our mobile app team here at Aptera Matt Noggle points out, most of the innovation in the consumer electronics industry is currently taking place in the market for wearable devices and mobile apps that record and analyze data about our health and fitness activities. What the people subjecting themselves to all this self-tracking are counting on is that by monitoring their behavior they’ll be motivated to achieve better health scores, which translates into living a healthier lifestyle.
The next step is to aggregate the data from multiple users to see if you can identify previously unknown risk factors or diagnostic indicators. This would be like the individual consumer version a business intelligence strategy. And there’s nothing keeping it from moving beyond the consumer market. One of the main focuses of The Affordable Care Act, for instance, is to find ways to integrate data from multiple internet sources to increase efficiency and disseminate information about best practices.
Big Data and the Hive Mind
“If you look to 2020, there’s no way electronic medical records are not running primarily in the cloud,” says Ryan Howard, one of the founders of a company called Practice Fusion, which builds platforms for integrating individuals’ health data with professional healthcare providers’ tracking applications. Daniela Hernandez, reporting on Practice Fusion for Kaiser Health News, writes,
“For now, patients must come into their doctors’ offices to upload data to the platform wirelessly through the cloud, but there are plans to let patients upload their own data from home in the future. The idea is to leverage the power of the internet to increase social interactions and productivity and provide users seamless, on demand data access from any device.”
Already, many providers in the healthcare industry are integrating data and sharing files with other businesses in their networks using cloud offerings like Windows Azure BizTalk Services. And, since many in the “Self-Quantifier” community are eager to share and aggregate their personal biometrics, it’s not hard to imagine a day when Big Data tools like Power BI are used to comb through health statistics in search of correlations and insights on which to base public policies and initiatives.
Regardless of any misgivings we may have about technology, corporate or government control, and imperiled privacy, we can all agree that improved health for individuals and for society as a whole is a worthy goal. If computers churning through all that Big Data can make the healthcare system more efficient, less costly, and able to produce better outcomes for patients, we should all be onboard—assuming drawbacks like potential violations of privacy and heavier tax burdens aren’t too severe. And what’s to say we’ll continue to be content with cloud-connected mobile devices bringing us the power of Big Data from our pockets or sending our vitals along to our doctors? If technology can help make sick people healthy, what’s to say it can’t make healthy people better chess or ping pong players?
The Feed from BrainGate
One of my favorite dystopian novels is Feed by M.T. Anderson. The story extrapolates along our current trajectory toward rampant consumerism and all-consuming fascination with brain-dead media into a future in which we all have something like Amazon.com implanted directly into our brains. This isn’t the violent takeover of the machines we saw in Terminator; it’s more of a lulled descent into consensual slavery. As compelling as Anderson’s story is, though, I think it’s at least possible for the future to turn out better. But computer interfaces with our brains aren’t as far over the horizon as we might think.
In 2001, Matthew Nagle (not to be confused with our mobile app guy Matt Noggle) was left paralyzed after being stabbed several times in an attack. He was later contacted by the company BrainGate and agreed to participate in experiments connecting electrodes to parts of his motor cortex. Nagle went on to learn how to use the technology to play a version of the old Atari game Pong—oh, and he could also operate a prosthetic hand.
All these advances in Big Data and brain-computer interfaces may be heralding the rise of Skynet or the enslavement of the stupefied masses, but they could also lead to so many cures and breakthroughs and improvements to the lots of the impoverished and afflicted that there’s something a bit small-minded and peevish about obsessing over the worst possible outcomes. As the old joke goes, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. Though we’ll need to be vigilant of our rights and freedoms, we must also realize that fearful resistance to progress is no more called for than an enthusiastic embrace of the unknown.
So, yes, the machines will eventually beat us at ping pong and soccer—but to do it they’ll probably have to become a lot more human. Just now, though, it looks like Agilus needed quite a bit of help from choreographers and film editors to compete with Boll. The video KUKA released is more in the tradition of Bruce Lee playing pong with nunchucks than of events featuring the likes of Deep Blue and Watson.