Hawking Exoskeleton Story
Not As Funny As First Intended
By James Donahue
Back in 2007 when British
astrophysicist Stephen Hawking was preparing for his experience in weightlessness aboard a special aircraft as a guest of
NASA, we noticed a story in UnNews, an Internet misinformation site, that Hawking designed a robotic exoskeleton especially
designed to get him out of his wheelchair for the full effect of the ride.
While the story was presented
as a joke, the concept of moving a brilliant mind like that of Hawking into a robotic exoskeleton that would give him a mobility
his disease has denied him most of his life, is not only a good idea, it may soon be entirely feasible. Both robotic engineering
and experimentation in linking the human brain to super computers have been taking amazing strides in recent years.
The writer of the article
said the Hawking skeleton “can withstand radiation, intense heat, intense cold, particle beam-bombardment, laser rays
and Michael Jackson’s high-pitched squealing.” It said Hawking would use the exoskeleton “to conduct space
walks, for exercise, for sightseeing, and to help survey township lots on moons and planets that can sustain colonies.”
If you omit the joke
lines about Michael Jackson’s singing, sightseeing and surveying township lots on the moons, the other benefits suggested
for such a robotic alternative body make a lot of sense.
It has been Hawking who
has advocated human exploration of space to find potential new places for human habitation if we hope to escape the probability
of future extinction, either from our own failure to maintain Earth’s delicate ecology, or because of some future catastrophic
event of which we have no control.
Raymond C. Kurzweil,
of Kurzsweil Technologies in Wellesley Hills, Mass., has been a pioneer in applications
of artificial intelligence in machines that assist humans in the fields of medicine, speech recognition and reading machines
for the blind. His books promote the concept of a future where man and machines become interactive, with the human mind actually
moving from our frail bodies and into machines.
The probability of assuming
new bodies, such as that described in the Hawking spoof, is not only considered possible by researchers like Kurzweil, it
may also be necessary if humans have any chance of exploring space and finding new worlds on which to live. As we have noted
in past articles, the human body must bring all of the necessities of life with him during space travel, which makes long
flights to other planets and stars virtually impossible. A body that can resist extreme cold, heat and radiation, and exist
without food and water, yet have the capability of thinking 100 times the speed of the human brain, would be perfectly suited
for the rigors of such explorations.
While researchers appear
to be moving rapidly toward the creation of such a union of man and machine, naysayers like Shannon Larratt, editor and publisher
of BMEZINE.COM, warn that rushing into the production of machines that not only think faster than humans, but that can repair
and replicate themselves, is a form of creating a monster that is not only superior to man, but one that will eventually take
over the world.
Larratt warns in his
online journal of what he calls the “coming human-robot apocalypse,” a battle for survival between human and non-human
entities of our own creation.
Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems
also has expressed concern about this new technology. He warned that he sees us “being propelled into this new century
with no plan, no control, no brakes.”
As with all new ideas,
it is wise to proceed with some degree of caution. Yet as global warming overwhelms our world, the need to move into new and
more durable bodies may be so overwhelming, we may indeed rush to design and build them, without considering the consequences.