The 2002 International Conference on Robotics and Automation, hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, kicked off its technical session with a discussion on biorobots, the melding of living and artificial structures into a cybernetic organism or cyborg.
Researchers are not looking to build anything like Hollywood's "Terminator" but they are on the path to such achievements as interfacing robotic limbs with the human nervous system, said Paolo Dario, director of the Advanced Robotics Technology and Systems Lab at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy.
"In the past few years, the biosciences and robotics have been getting closer and closer," Dario told the conference. "More and more, biological models are used for the design of biometric robots (and) robots are increasingly used by neuroscientists as clinical platforms for validating biological models."
Artificial constructs are beginning to approach the scale and complexity of living systems, Dario said.
For example, microelectromechanical systems, built with computer chip-making techniques, have decreased in size nearly to the point where they could connect with individual nerves, he said. An ongoing challenge, he added, is learning how to translate computer signals into neural impulses, and vice versa.
Those signals eventually must control a large enough set of actuators, or artificial muscles, to duplicate or enhance the range of motion in the human body, said Harry Asada, director of the d'Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
MIT's approach uses a two-dimensional grid to connect dozens of actuators to a single amplifier, Asada said, which could lead to an exoskeleton with hundreds of actuators for enhancing a soldier's strength or providing mobility to a paralysis victim.
This merging of efforts also could directly improve human medicine, said Takeo Kanade, a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Researchers are learning how to give robots the ability to observe, understand and react to the world around them, he said.
In doing so, they can gather the information to make a surgical simulator that accurately reproduces the entire body's reactions to an operation, he said, as opposed to creating a simple virtual representation of tissue for a doctor to manipulate.
The advances achieved so far raise a number of ethical questions, said Penelope Boston, a biologist at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. While robotics are seen as a way to extend human senses and abilities, researchers must consider the biological analogies of co-existing organisms, such as symbiosis, she said.
For example, advanced medical implants such as pacemakers, collect information about patients. This makes real the concept of "instrumented humans," Boston said.
"It's high time to start this debate," Boston told the conference. "Bioethicists are dinking around the edges of the robotics question, but it has to come to the fore. They're probably not aware of the tremendous push within these converging technologies."
Recently published work on robotically controlling rats is another troubling area for ethics, Dario said, and one that promises to become a huge dilemma as the technology improves to the point of being used on humans. Even the idea of augmenting human performance with "supersenses" requires ethical judgement, he said.
The other side of cybernetics, where an artificial construct contains living tissue, raise equally important questions, Asada said. "I'm not saying it should be done, but it probably will be done," he said.
In response to questions from the audience, Dario promised to establish a formal group within IEEE to host discussions and workshops on the ethical considerations of cybernetics.