Blu-rayDefinition was invited to attend a “virtual round table” Q & A session with real life surrogates experts: Dr. James Canton (Futurist/ CEO of The Institute For Global Futures/ & Author) and Randall Alley (CEO of Biodesigns) to coincide with the release of the Bruce Willis sci-fi thriller on Blu-ray, Surrogates, which we recently reviewed. We were able to ask a few questions, and it was an interesting and thought provoking discussion all around. Below, you can read the entire transcript of that round table, which took place Wednesday, January 27, 2010:
Virtual Round Table Q&A Transcript with
Dr. James Canton, Futurist and Randall Alley, CEO of Biodesigns
January 27, 2010
Q: Randall, can you tell us what the first prosthetic limbs were like and compare it to the most advanced of today? Will the knowledge of these help the people who truly build the first surrogate robot?
Randall Alley: The first prosthetic limbs were amazingly heavy and cumbersome. Some were even marvels of engineering in their day. This was in large part due to the materials available to the artisans of the day. What characterized them then and to a great extent even now was and is the lack of attention to biomechanics of the interface that attaches to the limb or body. So what we’ve seen up until recently are tremendous advances in components, but then we stick this advanced hardware on a primitive socket design and wonder why the individual rejects it, or doesn’t get what he or she expected out of the prosthesis. A revolution has finally begun in this area of interface design which I am proud to say is currently led by biodesigns and our patent-pending “High-Fidelity Interface.” I have dedicated my career to exploring the limits of what we can accomplish in this area and I feel I have finally reached a point where I can say a “sea-change” will occur. I think the engineers of tomorrow that are capable of creating surrogates will have a good laugh at what we’ve accomplished today, but hopefully there will be those nuggets of timeless information that only experience can pass along that these engineers will find useful.
Q: Dr. Canton, would you want a surrogate of your own if they become available? Would you want it to look like you do now or did at a younger age or would it be completely different looking?
Dr. James Canton: I am good with myself as I look, but I would like to have the agility without the danger to surf 50 foot waves and climb Mt. Everest while I sit warmly and experience it from afar via my Surrogates.
Q: What happens to a surrogate when the real person dies? Could a surrogate be hacked? How would you imagine guarding against someone else taking control of your surrogate?
Dr. James Canton: I fully expect that one scenario that will emerge in the future where Surrogates will exist will be Surrogate crime. Theft and hacking, the use of Surrogates to commit crimes and terrorism will be just the obvious double-edge sword of technology. As I have written about in my book the Extreme Future, criminal hacks and theft of strategic tech for fun, profit and ideology by rogue players in the future will be common. This misuse of Surrogates will lead to more innovation, security and tech to defeat the bad guys. But there is a dark side to the Surrogates as even the movie shows; there is always someone or a faction that attempts to hijack or exploit technology to seize power. We must guard against those that would exploit tech like the Surrogates and use it control thought, ideas and repress freedoms and democracy or lest we shall become victims of our creations.
Q: Randall, are there bionic parts for pets or is the realm of prosthetics limited to humans so far?
Randall Alley: There have been several “bionic” parts made for pets, though most are simply structural replacements and not electronic or overly sophisticated in terms of composition. My first one was for a deer who had lost her foot due to trauma. Dogs and horses are common recipients, and a dolphin was recently fitted with a prosthetic tail.
Q: Randall, can you tell us about your company Biodesigns and how it came about?
Randall Alley: Biodesigns specializes in advanced upper limb and high-performance lower limb prosthetics. We are not a manufacturer but rather a clinical company that works with patients. However, we have partnered with manufacturers to develop prosthetic products and have several on the market today. How Biodesigns came about was through my work with a large prosthetic and orthotic company in the United States. I co founded and directed the world’s largest upper limb prosthetic program but became disenchanted due to the corporation’s financial targets, which often superseded clinical results in my opinion. I formed my own company so that I could work with individuals the way I wanted to: in small numbers, with my complete and total focus on maximizing their performance. I used my background in kinesiology and biomechanics to offer a more innovative approach to how we work with our patients/clients.
Q: Dr. Canton, what is the Institute for Global Futures?
Dr. James Canton: The Institute for Global Futures is a San Francisco based think tank that conducts trends research and provides advice to companies and governments on future trends such as leading edge technologies. See www.FutureGuru.com
Q: Dr. Canton, what specific different types of uses do you for see for this remote robotic technology shown in SURROGATES, are there more practical applications like you discus in this bonus feature, i.e. rescuing fire victims, policing etc…or will it be entertainment mostly that these get used for when they come around?
Dr. James Canton: I forecast that Surrogates will be without a sense of humor but have great surgical skills which will be the practical side of what brings Surrogates to life sooner then later. Health care is precious service that most of the developing world has little access to. I think Surrogates, representing not just human doctors but AI, synthetic intelligence doctors, virtual doctors will provide medical care by this platform. Human needs for health care, security and companionship will be in demand for Surrogate technology. Saving lives and protecting humans will be a huge practical driver of Surrogate tech. Also, care giving, taking care of the aging baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y population will require Surrogates who have special skills, better then humans.
Q: Randall, you make what seem like the ‘pieces’ of a surrogate…if you had to build one today what would be the missing ‘piece’ that has not yet been invented to make an android or remote surrogate work?
Randall Alley: That’s right, I make pieces aimed at making a person feel whole again. I think the missing piece would be the system or technology that allows for real-time control of the millions of bits of code that would be necessary to remotely control a surrogate and to instantly respond to external influences around the surrogate. We just don’t have the capability to have real-time fluidic remote control of such complex machinery at great distances without tremendous lag.
Q: Randall, if you had to put a timeframe on when surrogate robots, like those in the movie, would be an affordable option for Joe Citizen, what year would you guess it might be?
Randall Alley: This is going to be one of those answers that have three possibilities: 1) it never comes to pass and therefore my prediction disappears into the shadows of history; 2) I am so far off and have made such a great name for myself and my company that somebody bothers to dig up this answer and parades it around for all the world to be amused and 3) I am close enough to look like a sage and the world comes knocking at my door. I’m sure there are other possibilities but you get the point. It’s a long way of saying I’m about to give you a wild guess. I am going to offer up the year 2025, as there are surely higher priorities than surrogate creation on the to-do list of most scientists. Then to bring this tech down to the affordable level, well, that’s the tough part.
Q: I’d like my surrogate to explore deep outer space. Could this be a realistic proposition?
Dr. James Canton: Your Surrogate will be the only being to explore deep space in the future. Deep space explorations especially beyond our solar system will demand Surrogates who can withstand the trip, the elements and survive. We carbon life forms will not survive the journey even with enhancement. I would start saving now to pay for the chance to experience deep space trips via your surrogate. I am planning on “going” to Venus and terra-forming Mars via my Surrogate.
Q: James, this bonus we are seeing is on a blu-ray disc, as it is new to many people, what do you think the benefits of the blu-ray itself is in the technological world?
Dr. James Canton: The Blu-ray disc is first off beautiful. The colors and images are very real and sharp. It is a huge improvement in technology and Blu-ray players are so cheap they are giving them away almost. Versions I have are Wifi ready and go out to the Internet as well. But the compelling reason is other then clarity of image and sound is that producers are putting more content on the Blu-ray disc to add value. My interview on the bonus feature is only on Blu-ray. I think it is a future platform that until we have a new holographic 3D immersive world, Blu-ray is great.
Q: Dr. Canton, this bonus feature talks about the science of surrogates and what is close to it….what is happening that might be an option to robotics? What other path is modern science taking that might serve the same purpose that these surrogates do in the film?
Dr. James Canton: Well the most radical developments in science that could run parallel to the robots in Surrogates are in nanoscience and biotechnology. Synthetic biology is the convergence of engineering and biotech. We are learning how to mix and match living systems to make new living systems. Some day this will make human cloning work. Nanoscience is the design of matter at the atomic scale. When you combine nano and bio, into a new field called nanobiology, you have a design science that could make clones, cybernetic entities and of course Surrogates. It is possible that the model of robots in the future will not be mechanistic but biological and bio-mimetic, they will mimic humans but use organic parts and systems grown from biochemicals, genes, tissue and cells. The synthetic biological creation of Surrogates may emerge even faster then the mechanistic one as depicted in the movie. Keep in mind that we are just scratching the surface of understanding DNA and the human genome. We will create synthetic DNA in the future and synthetic life forms in our image that I forecast will have no mechanical parts–they will be all organic, biological and exist as another evolutionary species. This is down the road 30 to 50 years. So the future Surrogates may be more then human mirrors but another parallel evolutionary species designed in our image.
Q: Gentlemen, in the Surrogates movie, the robots don’t appear to be very tamper-proof. Would this be a challenge to surrogate manufacturers – and what other security problems/solutions might exist?
Randall Alley: There is a never-ending battle between the march of technology and the needed security to protect it or prevent its misuse. We see it every day with security breaches of data networks or company firewalls making the headlines. I can’t imagine this problem being reliably solved in the world of surrogates. After all, they may be impressively complex, but the laws of physics still apply. If something can be created in the digital world it most likely can be altered or hacked after enough time has passed for those who wish to do harm to figure out the way in.
Q: While the film works as a metaphor for the dislocating and isolating qualities of digital-age social networking. If not a “Surrogates” future, then what are the other possibilities, if we extrapolate the premise of social connection exclusively (or near exclusively) via technology?
Randall Alley: One can only hope there remains within us a yearning to maintain some sort of physical connection with those around us for it is probably a foundation our souls cannot do entirely without. Given that the human race begins to value the digital life over the physical life, the possibilities are endless simply because our imaginations are endless. As we have seen in countless video games and animations, what can be experienced visually is incredible. The area of sensory feedback is also exploding. Combine these and who knows where we will go.
Q: James, what was the most accurate prediction in the film SURROGATES about our near future and what was most off the mark?
Dr. James Canton: The most accurate prediction from the film was the reasons why the Surrogates were created in the first place–to heal, to help and protect humans. Also, the domination of smart technology that may manipulate humans, by offering a seductive and exploitive experience I think as well is an accurate prediction that I am concerned about. We could be undone by our creations or our obsession with our technology. As technology becomes smarter, more connected to everything, especially us, the chances of advanced tech waking up, achieving self-awareness and deciding it does not need or like humans is not a casual concern. The Singularity is a term from popular culture that relates to the point in time when advanced computing, networking, robotic and biotech becomes smarter then humans and what the implications are for humanity. Most off the mark was that that I think that humans will continue to be on top of the food chain and that human emotions though they can be imitated by synthetic creatures they are not human. Intimacy, love and emotion are still only human traits.
Q: As someone working to help people overcome their disabilities do you worry that the technology can be misused? How do you see your work in the context (implied in the film) of creating a perfect version of ourselves?
Randall Alley: I strive to get my patients and clients (depending on how they view themselves) to forget they are wearing a prosthesis. We don’t really have much of a capability at this point to create a more perfect version of ourselves. We have a tough enough time trying to catch up. I will say, that just as with weapons, whether they are knives, handguns or our own limbs, it is not the weapons themselves that are responsible but the individuals wielding them. So yes, I worry technology can be misused, it is misused every day around the world and in many different ways. But I simply don’t think it is within our power to check our progress, nor is it necessarily a good idea to do so out of fear of misuse. We do what we do naturally, move forward, or onward and upward. We do our best to adapt to a changing world and pray we don’t get in over our head with no way out.
Q: Dr Canton, if you had a surrogate and found you could be in two places at once, would it improve your life or make it twice as complicated? And then there’s the question … would only one surrogate be enough?
Dr. James Canton: Actually I would be more productive, creative and have more fun if I could have about five Surrogates. Most of the world moves too slow for me, I am always running out of time to enjoy as well as work. Now if I could have a few Surrogates to maximize my multitasking well I could fulfill many fantasies and live many lifetimes. This is a social networking phenomena. Just as we text, download emails, listen to music, send video today tomorrow with Surrogates I could live in a holographic world of many realities. So for me having access to Surrogates would enhance and improve my life, it would make it less complex and sustainable for creating a high performance lifestyle that the movie points to. Likely humans would demand a re-patterning of their brains to be able to absorb and control the multiplicity of personalities. Virtual worlds like Second Life, games like World of Warfare, hint at this multiple layering of personalities and lifestyles that are coming. We will have a Surrogate lifestyle. This will be too seductive and enticing to not embrace. Also, your next job in 2030 may require you to be Surrogate Enhanced Cognition Licensed so you can even perform that future job. The movie reveals a dominant use of Surrogate technology and a misuse of this by some. I forecast that the Surrogates will become an integral feature of our later 21st century lifestyle and reality. Get ready. By the way…my surrogate wrote this while I was watching TV.
Q: Dr Canton, while you’re surrogate was answering my question and you were watching TV, my surrogate was raiding your fridge and then stole your car. You’re right, we do need more than one – a security surrogate is the first model I’d get!
Dr. James Canton: Well my Surrogate took your gal dancing. This is exactly what will happen when the world of the Surrogates comes on line. For example, I think and the Blu-ray features that we did show just how close we are to making a Surrogate today. The science behind the movie is a movie in itself. What is in the lab today is in the market tomorrow. So nanoscience will give us life-like materials for skin, biotech will give us organic organs, neuro-computing will give us brain interfaces, all of the pieces are coming together. You don’t need a smart autonomous robot to have the world of the Surrogates come into our reality. There is great progress here. But cloud computing and wireless networking could bring this reality closer. We are streaming sensation now in gaming. Next is feelings and immersive mobility, we will feel it, sense it and experience remote realities. A surgical procedure between the EU and the US last year was the Surrogates reality. Immersive virtual reality where we are navigating new worlds is the Surrogate reality. It is closer then you think.
Q: Randall, physically, what do you think is the greatest thing that would set humans apart from fully developed surrogates? Is it our skin, touch, reactions …
Randall Alley: Tough question, and it largely depends on just when we take a snapshot of surrogate technology. If that snapshot were taken now, it would most certainly be a combination of all the above. Probably the most obvious would be fluidic and lifelike motion as this would be the first thing you’d notice when approaching. The skins can look pretty darn good even up close. And even the durometer of the silicones and other materials used can closely approach the feel of human skin. Obviously, reactions to external influences would also be a subset of movement capabilities and if all of these challenges were somehow overcome, the sensory ability of the surrogate would be at the greatest deficit in terms of technology, especially physical sensations and the subtle way in which we humans respond to touch, temperature, etc. Gross surrogate response may be highly capable, but high-fidelity response to subtle cues would be a tough thing to accomplish.
Q: Surely the idea of a surrogate will only be available to the wealthier classes simply due to the high cost of making one. What will this mean for those who can’t afford a surrogate? I can’t imagine governments being able to underwrite a surrogate for everyone. Will the world further divide into the haves and have-nots and instead of utopia lead (again) to a dystopia?
Dr. James Canton: I don’t think that this will play out quite this way. I do think we all benefit from Moore’s Law, the doubling of computer power every year or so. At the same time this same doubling of power costs half as much. When I was introducing at Apple the new Macintosh computer in 1984 it was $2,400 for 30 Megahertz computer. Now this same amount of money buys a supercomputer, actually I can buy two for this price today. The point is that accelerating technologies are both exponentially increasing in power, all tech, bio, neuro, networks, quantum and are getting cheaper by the hour. So I believe that just as there Porsche’s and Toyota cars there will be high end and lower end Surrogates. Economics will play a role, but I have a forecast that says it makes more sense to donate to the world Surrogate tech, like vaccines have been in the past, because it may lead to better health care, world peace, productivity and less conflict between the haves and have nots. I am an optimist not a utopian on this forecast. It is self-serving for all, rich and poor to have access to Surrogate tech, just as mobile phones, computers and the Internet are available today in the most economically poor regions of the world–and these technologies are leading to better quality of life. I believe that Surrogate tech, will help and heal more then hurt and harm in the long run.
Q: Can you tell me your involvement in the making of “Surrogates” ?
Randall Alley: I wrote the script, produced and directed the film and still found time to take care of my patients. Just kidding. I had no direct involvement in the making of “Surrogates” but I would like to think that my chosen line of work enabled me to influence the subject matter if only slightly. Prosthetic technologies are really coming into their own and I think this area is fascinating to the average person simply unaware of what we are working on and how far we have progressed. It was an honor to be a part of the bonus feature and to be able to give some thoughts on the subject from my perspective.
Q: Randall, do you think life-like surrogate robots would quickly lead to a promiscuous society where fantasies are lived out rather than productivity increases recognized?
Randall Alley: Yes and no. Without a doubt such fantasies would be lived out. You see this with people chatting on the net pretending to be somebody else, safe in the knowledge, or at least the belief, that no one will discover their real identity. However, I also believe productivity increases would also occur. As a species, not so much as an individual, we can’t stop improving, growing, experimenting, learning. So where someone might simply choose to live out a fantasy day after day, there will be those individuals who recognize that why all these “sloths” are tied to the machine, there’s huge opportunity to seize the moment and move onward and upward. As has always been the case throughout the history of man is that giant leaps of progress are typically the result of a very small number of very bright, or very determined individuals.
Q: James, same question for you, do you think life-like surrogate robots would quickly lead to a promiscuous society where fantasies are lived out rather than productivity increases recognized?
Dr. James Canton: I think that Surrogate robots will provide more lifestyle choices that will enable people to live out their fantasies, both good, bad and yes ugly. But this is no different then today. Human society even without the Surrogates spends a larger portion of time engaging in behaviors that are promiscuous. Will the Surrogates tech accelerate people having more of these experiences, perhaps. But it is certain that less social repression, especially associated with sexual behavior, leads to less violence against women. Countries that have more liberal laws have less violent crimes, so if we allow safe alternative experiences that are safe and accepted, it is likely we will gain a social good from this. This does not mean to say that productivity must be thrown out for other promiscuous behaviors, but this is human nature not technology’s issue. The Surrogates movie does show how a technology as powerful as the Surrogates can change society. It is up to us to make sure that we steer this technology of the Surrogates to be used for good and in the public interest as opposed to being used to manipulate human beings or used by governments or criminals to control thought, desire or human experience. For more information see my website at www.GlobalFuturist.com and www.SingularityU.com for an exploration of these ideas.
Q: Randall, what roll does the human brain play in operating prosthetics/bionics? Can they ever be as complex as the biological connection to the hand would be for example?
Randall Alley: You know it’s quite amazing how fast and how far brain interface control has come in only a few short years. It has been discussed and theorized for many decades, but we are now truly on the cusp of a revolution in this area. What people tend to forget is that two different areas need to come together for this to work. The brain interface side of the equation is getting very close as is the prosthetic capability side of the equation, but they have not yet met in a successful and reliable fashion. What we’ve had for a very long time are rudimentary prosthetic capabilities and therefore simply having the brain control the components would still not result in much more than a fascinating science project. What has to merge is the capability of controlling complex systems with multiple degrees of freedom. It is only at this juncture that we get the full benefits of mind-machine interfacing. In a way, with myoelectric control that’s been around for many years and is a strategy that utilizes signals generated by contracting or relaxing muscle to control prosthetic components, we already have mind control. It is simply not direct brain interfacing. The brain still commands the target muscle to contract or relax, and the sensing electrode sends the signal to a microcontroller which then passes it on in an appropriately filtered and amplified manner to the target effector, such as a hand, wrist or elbow.
Q: Randall, do you think the promotion of surrogates will only further promote a sedentary society which already suffers many health problems associated with a lack of simple exercise?
Randall Alley: As in all things, you will have those who want to sit on the couch and those who want to get out and seize life by the horns, regardless of the technology that is available. I, for example, view the internet as the most amazing library of information on the planet and am amazed at how fast I can get answers and get back to what I need to do, while others want to sit and play video games all day and night. It really comes down to what is inside of you.
Q: Randall, Surrogates goes to the heart of the question of human identity. In your work, do these kind of philosophical questions figure in your work?
Randall Alley: All the time, though often they are the quiet moments that my patients spend reflecting on their situation and not discussed aloud. An example of the terminology we use to describe individuals who have lost their limbs, and even in some cases those who were born without is the use of the word “amputee.” While it is often far easier to use this word because it is understood on a global scale, I have lectured many times on the subject of appropriate terminology. Though I have used “amputee” as a descriptor, I don’t very often and typically only in a context such as this one where fragile psychologies are not present and time is of the essence to answer these questions. These are individuals who have lost an arm or a leg, or who were born without, not some different category. We have to remember that. It serves us well to consider the human factor in even the small things. When I remove an electric hand from a prosthesis while it is being worn the individual, maybe because I need to service it but we don’t want to take the time to remove the prosthesis itself, I have to be careful of how they view this “snap on snap off” capability. It definitely takes the human out of the equation momentarily, and this can affect people in different ways.
Q: Randall, what was your greatest success story at biodesigns in helping an amputee with technology?
Randall Alley: Probably the most memorable happened quite a long time ago. I worked with a middle-aged woman with quadrimelia (born without arms or legs) at very high levels, so she was at the hip level as well as the shoulder level on both sides. Adding to her challenges, she also had severe scoliosis, so her upper back was significantly rotated off of center. Her parents took care of her every minute of their lives and had been doing so for more than forty years. Just sit back and imagine that. Eating, toileting, dressing, everything. When I met her, all she wanted was to be able to feed herself. The technology at the time was too heavy or simply incapable of providing the function she needed so I, along with an engineer designed a system that brought components together from different manufacturers that weren’t meant to work with one another. The system not only weighed far less than anything out there at the time, but was also simple to use and reliable. She ate her first cookie right in front of me and her family wept. I won’t ever forget that.
Q: James, could the world depicted in Surrogates be truly possible? What are the likely scenarios needed to achieve such an existence from social, economic and political points of view?
Dr. James Canton: As a futurist I see the world of the Surrogates as probable and not just because of technology’s progress. There are other social drivers that could bring the Surrogates into our reality faster. Population declines due to low fertility , war or pandemic could leave nations with more jobs then workers. Japan is a nation that is de-populating and is also a leader in robotics for this reason. Aging societies will need to be taken care of by robots, both surrogates and autonomous bots. Another likely scenario is that disasters due to climate change, wars and disease may require Surrogates to engage in areas we do not want to risk human life. Finally, the convergence of robotics, AI computers, nanoscience and biotech will offer new choices for humans to extend their consciousness beyond the limitations of their bodies, for entertainment, sports as well as careers that will be dominated by Surrogate tech. Other likely scenarios will be driven by health care and medicine. We may not be able to treat the 8 billion people on the planet over the next 30-40 years without Surrogates. So social drivers will make the world of the Surrogates a reality to help humanity cope with population, conflict, health care and security.
Q: Randall, if you could have a surrogate, what would it look like and what would you want to use it for most?
Randall Alley: Now there’s a loaded question! I think depending on the age I was at the time my surrogate was created, it would resemble me as opposed to being some enhanced version, only because I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have to constantly see the more youthful me, or the more physically capable me. This would only make the reality that much more painful, as we see in the movie. As for what I would use it for, well, networking on a much more personal scale! And this begs the question, why only one? Why not a vast array of “me’s” so I could ostensibly get much more done. For me it would be more about being efficient as opposed to living a double life, though that certainly has its attraction.
Q: As the media and entertainment industry does have a strong influence on our society, do you think that movie studios sometimes seek advice or approval from futurist oriented companies to offer audiences what could perhaps be plausible expectations in technology to sort of adapt the general population’s minds towards acceptance of these things as they become available to the public?
Randall Alley: Yes this is often the case. One of the most difficult projects I was involved in was the show ER where the script was written for an actor to pretend to be missing an arm and had to wear a prostheses. This was prior to widespread use of green or blue screen technology as is used in the Surrogates film, and so it was a really tough thing to pull off. This was a good example of the script writers not contacting prosthetists or futurists ahead of time. I believe now it is a fairly common thing to interview experts in the relevant field so as to keep the film at least within the realm of possibility, as you say plausible.
Q: Dr. Canton, why surrogate robots? Wouldn’t we want independent thinking robots so we don’t have to be hooked up to them directly? Is there an advantage to ‘remoting’ a robot ala surrogates as opposed to operating separately from its human owner?
Dr. James Canton: Surrogate robots are only one part of the extreme future that is coming over the next decades. We will have many different types of synthetic humans, both autonomous and tele-robotic, the surrogates controlled by humans. This emerging Blended Reality that the movie captures challenges us to consider that technology will be developed first to heal or fix people and then to entertain, engage and enhance human experience. When you mix these different entities, some more robotic or synthetic with humans, a new type of co-evolution of our civilization and even our species will be the end game. New choices but also new risks. Who will be considered in charge? More human than humans?
Q: Randall, what is the one part of the body most difficult to create a prosthetic for?
Randall Alley: I would have to say the organs, specifically the holy grail of prosthetic replacement, which would be of course the brain. But with regard to the body parts most commonly considered for prosthetic replacement, the hand is way up there in terms of its natural capabilities and hence its complexity. For many decades we have had good success with lower limb prosthetic replacements, and while there is still of course room for improvement, the greatest disparity between human and prosthetic function has been with regard to the upper limb. Our hands are amazing and truly difficult to functionally replicate, both in terms of appearance (statically and dynamically) and dexterity or manipulation. This is why DARPA chose to fund programs designed for upper limb advancement as opposed to lower limb. They felt the lower limb prosthetics were pretty good at what they do, while the current upper limb technology fell far short. What biodesigns and Deka Research are attempting to do is to utilize currently available technology (eg off the shelf) to create the next generation of upper limb prostheses. This project is called the Luke Arm project as named by Dean Kamen in honor of Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame.
Q: Dr. Canton: Could the situations evoked in the film one day become real?
Dr. James Canton: Yes, the situations, even the drama between lifestyles of human and robotic could become real. We are closer to the world of the Surrogates then people realize. My book published in 2007 The Extreme Future forecasted this reality. The movie is a bit ahead of today, but this cybernetic future is coming.
Q: Randall, could the situations evoked in the film one day become real?
Randall Alley: They most certainly could, but to what degree is the real question. It is occurring and will occur in stages and in different areas of research and development. Artificial limbs, skin substitutes, controllers will all be developed at different rates and with different goals in mind. It will be those who assimilate these technologies into a single package that will create the first “surrogates” that approach what you see in the film.
Q: Dr. Canton, in the business context, what do you think that is more valuable an efficient machine or an efficient human?
Dr. James Canton: For business there are jobs that are ideally suited for humans and increasingly for smart machines. So I view the future as co-evolutionary, meaning we will need both humans and machines to function: manage cities, security, health care, finance. Simply put, the increased complexity of our world will demand smarter machines for our society to survive.
Q: Something philosophical: Do you agree or disagree that the human identity is bound to the body?
Randall Alley: I think for now, and for most, yes, it is very much bound to the body. However, many amputees for example have adjusted to their missing limbs and the prosthetic technologies that attempt to replace them become a part of their identity. They recognize that despite their “artificiality” they are an extension of themselves. Taking that further you then get into remote control of objects that we as a human race will begin to identify with and give personalities to until finally, as in the Surrogates, though the characters understand they are real human beings, they begin to identify more closely with their counterparts.
Q: Dr. Canton, you mention not being far from the world we see in the film. Still, it does seem like we’re still quite a way away from this complete form of “virtual” life. How far away are we from this sort of reality?
Dr. James Canton: If you consider that immersive Web 2.0 technology with force feedback where you can sense and feel digital experiences online, in what I call a Blended Reality, then the world of the Surrogates is not as far away as you think. Virtual worlds are exploding, but tele-robics, human operators operating virtual and physical robots is real.
Q: Randall, in the business context, what do you think that is more valuable an efficient machine or an efficient human?
Randall Alley: Why that depends on what business you are in. Those business processes that require automation will of course speak for the efficient machine, while those that require the human touch so to speak will identify more value with the efficient human. I for one believe the efficient human is still on top of the pyramid. It will be interesting to watch the level of the efficient machine rise.
Q: Dr. Canton, could the situations evoked in the film one day become real? In that case, what do you think would occur?
Dr. James Canton: One day, in the near future, due to exponentially accelerating technologies will enable humans to interact with feeling streamed emotions from other cybernetic or robots, it will change everything. We are on the verge of this world. Streaming sensations and emotions back to humans, though tame today, will be intense as a pervasive experience tomorrow.
Q: Dr. Canton, how would the existence of artificial human bodies change the law? Would there be more anarchy on the streets?
Dr. James Canton: The existence of artificial human bodies is today’s reality. Today we have synthetic hips, hearts, limbs, hearing and sight. But tomorrow when humans are downloaded into robotic beings will require new laws to recognize these new citizens. Will they have rights to self-awareness and evolution, the very idea of what a human is will change. Human enhancement and soon robotic enhancement, will redefine the Post-Human, not all of this will be positive.
Q: Can you tell something about the distance between the current status of technology and the artificial substitution of the whole body with prostheses?
Randall Alley: One of the main thrusts of the DARPA programs, with which biodesigns is involved, is the replication first of human function, and then both human function and human appearance. Two projects are currently underway utilizing two different endgame scenarios. The first is designed to see how far we can get to with current technology that can be purchased off the shelf. This system will be a strap on and go system designed to utilize more degrees of freedom than are currently available. The second project is far more ambitious, and will attempt to mimic the human arm and be capable of submersion. Both projects could be considered for direct brain interface control.
These are very ambitious and expensive projects and still only deal with the arm. Other areas of research deal with artificial intelligence, brain interfacing,etc. are all in various stages of development. To rise to the level of total body substitution is a large leap yet to be attempted and quite a ways off. Mimicking the body will occur long before total body replacement technology will, though we do have individuals utilizing all four limbs for functional use.
Q: Dr. Canton, how far away do you think we are from downloading our actual consciousnesses into an avatar that we can then send out into the real world to act as a surrogate for us, in a similar situation to the film?
Dr. James Canton: If you are one of the millions of people that are using virtual worlds like Second Life or playing interactive video games like Halo, then you have a sense of this future. It is immersive, pervasive and seductive. Though the download of human consciousness seems outrageous, when you are facing death or disease, this choice will not seem so strange. Humans will enhance and transform themselves, this is social evolution but with the tools of nanotech, biotech, neurotech and quantum tech, we will, I would forecast, be downloading minds within 30 years.
Q: Mr. Alley, in a world like the movie suggests, when nobody would care about his real body, would there be a chance to be a successful fitness trainer?
Randall Alley: Interesting question. The likelihood would be that the individual controlling the surrogates would be in great need of a trainer, having been hooked up all day to the system and not getting any vital exercise. Come to think of it, that happens now with a lot of individuals who stay connected to the internet for example all day. So, yes, unless there exists a machine substitute, trainers will still be in demand.
Q: Do you think when surrogate technology is mass producible, will it only be available for those that can afford it or do you think it will become a mass technology readily available for anyone at consumer friendly prices?
Dr. James Canton: Surrogate technology will be at first, like most expensive leading edge innovations like space tourism, be for the affluent. But with an emerging mass market, supply and demand economics will take over and provide Surrogate type upgrades to all for the right price. Think about all tech, more buyers, less cost. In a world driven by Moore’s Law where every tech power is increasing every year or so, the possibility of Surrogate tech is getting closer.
Q: Do we really need surrogates? Are they real help or just “for fun”?
Randall Alley: I think surrogates can be looked at in many different ways. For example, machines that operate simply as extensions of our brains and physical control, such as remote controlled robots or military and civilian drones, in which case, it could be argued there is a direct need. However, to create virtual models of ourselves, with all the cosmetic technology that is required is probably more for the “we do because we can” crowd.
Q: Do you think that, if the situations in the movie ever actually happen; it would be good or bad for us?
Randall Alley: It’s interesting that this question has probably been posed throughout history regarding a lot of technologies and developments that have already occurred. Many have been positive, and many negative. The main thing to remember is that we, as humans, adapt amazingly well to what comes our way. Should this technology arrive, it would mean that we have made significant advances in our capability and much of these advancements will herald other developments in other areas that will undoubtedly have a positive and negative effect. So, my answer is that advancement is the nature of the human race, which I see as a positive. What negatives come along for the ride is yet to be seen, and will have to be dealt with as they appear.
Q: Dr. Canton, what do you think about the human need of security? Will it be more important in the near future than personal freedom? How far do you think humans will go to be safe and how much of their freedom are willing to pay?
Dr. James Canton: I think that the human need for security, given the increased risks to life and safety, will threaten our democratic ideals and laws. Some nations may use the fear associated with security as an excuse to curtail liberty and freedoms as well as control democracy with advanced tech, such as robotics. This trade-off, less privacy and freedom for more security, is a theme I wrote about in my book the Extreme Future because I am concerned how tech can be used to manipulate desire, information and the truth.
Q: At what stage is the technique of clones today?
Dr. James Canton: Cloning of humans is not a legally responsible activity. But given the rogue governments and rogue scientists we have to assume that the tech to clone a human is progressing as we learn how to clone organs. It will be possible as we clone organs to use this tech, though radical as it sounds, to attempt cloning.
Q: Will it be ethical to create surrogates that look specifically like someone famous? Do you think that will become an issue – with celebs basically having to copy write or trademark their faces for protection?
Dr. James Canton: The question of ethics to create surrogates to begin with will take humanity on a social exploration that is coming in the near future. Who is human and who is not? It will be likely illegal to create a surrogate that is not licensed by a celeb. The Madonna licensed surrogate may be on the market. But as with many branded products there will be knock offs. Celebs will be licensing the rights for their surrogate identities to be sold, I forecast.
Q: Why do you think humanities main purpose of technology seems towards escapism rather than making their reality better?
Dr. James Canton: I think humanity is constantly yearning for the unknown. I believe it is in our genes, or soul if you will. Escapism can be viewed as just that, or as a way of venturing into new and exciting areas. It really depends on the perspective of those who judge. In the film, it was presented largely as escaping the reality, but this is only one way of presenting it. These very same surrogates could in fact have saved lives and helped make life better just as easily as being used for pure entertainment.
I think making one’s own reality better is tough to do for many and therefore the yearning to escape is great, while others embrace technology in order to make their reality more efficient. It really depends on the individual. Technology is driven both by demand, certainly, but also by our ability to push the envelope because we can imagine and be creative for our own whims. The purpose of technology is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the researcher, developer, futurist, engineer, etc.
Q: Randall, could the situations evoked in the film one day become real? In that case, what do you think would occur?
Randall Alley: The situations as described in the film could indeed become real as the tele-robotic technology progresses and as the conflict between humans and surrogate-advocates becomes tense.
Q: If the kind of cybernetic future shown in the film was to happen, do you think it would create repression in relationships, similar to what we see in the film?
Dr. James Canton: Just as today, relationships are influenced by looks, some augmented by surgery, tomorrow our ideas of eternal beauty or attractiveness may be shaped by more advanced tech or surrogate tech as in the movie. Conflict or repression in relationships will happen.
Q: Randall, could the situations evoked in the film one day become real? In that case, what do you think would occur?
Randall Alley: I think it could become real, but it may differ than what was shown in the Surrogates. This movie is simply one path we can take. The use of a human-like surrogates has been on our minds for a very long time. I think there are so many variables that will occur between now and then that will alter the path of our development in this area.
A good example is the internet and all the new technologies that can change the way we approach things literally overnight in some cases. Just look how fast mp3s took over for example. There are evolutionary and revolutionary changes that affect our interpretation of the future. What if we discover for example that mimicking the human body is not the most efficient way to go and that another form is required? This would relegate surrogates as shown in the film to being largely for entertainment while other types of surrogate forms would get the nod for more significant advancements.
In short, we simply have no idea what this winding road will look like the farther we attempt to travel down it in our minds. We are only capable of seeing to the next b curve and only surmising what’s just around the bend.
Q: Dr. Canton, where in the world are they developing real surrogate like technology, does anyone country or scientist stand out as the leading edge in android / surrogate / human like robots?
Dr. James Canton: There are some secret labs working in Asia–China and Japan, on surrogate like tech I have seen in my travels. They are working on attractive female and male surrogate-like robots, some are quite attractive. Consider de-population a vexing problem of the near future. You can search for Hugo DeGaris and Rodney Brooks for more info on state of the art in robotics and my website www.FutureGuru.com
Not enough people to work, marry or live in a nation or region could be offset by robotics. Even with bringing health care to the millions who cannot get it, tele-robotics, human doctors operating these surrogates to provide health care will happen.
Q: Dr. Canton, can you tell us what you think is ahead immediately in the next decade, as it relates to these virtual worlds, and possible surrogate like virtual robotic connections?
Dr. James Canton: I think what is ahead in the next decade will astound most people. Immersive virtual worlds. Tele-sensing. Remote viewing, mobility and travel into any reality. The interaction with other intelligences, some robotic some virtual will open up new careers and lifestyles beyond today’s limitations. In this time window we will “see” through the eyes of our Surrogates far away new worlds in space, experience dangerous extreme sports and engage in erotic safe adventures that will expand our reality. Surrogates points to a basic human drive–the exploration by humanity into new worlds, new experiences and new adventures.
Q: Randall, what was it like for you to be interviewed and now be on a blu-ray bonus feature for the world to see?
Randall Alley: It’s just one more example of how fast our world is shrinking on the one hand, and yet how much more depth is waiting to be discovered. The capability of connecting to a global audience in “virtual real-time” opens up quite a few doors for us all and I am very excited to be a part of it. How could I not be? It allows me to reach out and touch an audience that in the past was hidden to me. I look forward to what develops from here.
Q: Dr. Canton, why do you think humans use tech toys to escape reality?
Dr. James Canton: I think humans use of tech toys to escape, or to be entertained, is due to the young nature of our species and the relative primitive nature of our civilization. Entertainment is fundamental to al life forms, especially ours. The stress and complexity of life demand better escapes–Surrogate tech shows us what’s possible.
Q: Do you feel SURROGATES is the film that comes the closest to depicting the possible reality of robotics and surrogates? Are there any other films that have come close?
Dr. James Canton: Surrogates the film does show a possible future that is practical and realistic. Other films that capture an accurate picture of robotics, autonomous bots, such as the Terminator movies and Bladerunner demonstrate as well the future of robots that I consider just as realistic. The TV series Battlestar Galactica as well goes even further the biomimic of humans. The interesting convergence of nano-bio-computer-neuro technologies are the background for these future forecasts in films. Films point to the future possibilities.
Q: With all the good that surrogates could potentially do, there is the criminal element as well? How do you find a criminal who committed an act through a surrogate? What would it mean for global terrorism?
Dr. James Canton: We will need surrogates to track down surrogates. So I have no doubt just as hackers today have used the Internet and cell phones to conduct criminal and terrorist acts that in the future, surrogates will be used by criminals to enhance their crime skills. We will have rogue surrogates commit crimes as orchestrated by their human operators.
Q: Randall, can you tell us some examples of the work you do at your company and the recent breakthrough and success you have had with artificial limbs?
Randall Alley: I really specialize in maximizing human performance in the areas of prosthetic technology. biodesigns focuses largely on two areas, high-tech limb replacement for daily functional use and high-performance technology for athletes/ recreational enthusiasts who have lost a limb or limbs or were born without, and simply want to get back to the active lifestyle they desire. biodesigns is also the chief prosthetic consulting company on the Luke Arm project with Dean Kamen and DARPA, whose goal it is to develop the next generation upper limb prosthesis. I am the creator of a new type of interface or socket (the part that attaches to the body) and this is what forms the foundation for that used on the Luke Arm.
I am very excited about the developments we are seeing today in prosthetics. For a long time, progress was slow because we were more or less a “backwater” profession that many folks didn’t even know existed. Our technological development curve looked like a gentle incline for decades. All that has changed now and we are advancing at an incredible pace. It’s very exciting to be at the leading edge of all this and to see patients that only a few years ago were offered merely “partially functional” technology and now can be fit with dexterous hands or computerized and motorized knees and ankles.
I chose the name biodesigns for obvious reasons, as we are perched at the threshold of man and machine as never before. We are pushing the envelope every day and it is simply a great place to be. New forms of control are being created and new companies are entering the fray that will help drive us forward even faster. I used to think in terms of decades. I now look forward to the next year and even the next few months.
Q: In a world were surrogates rule, though the widespread usage of robotic avatars would make an impact on our own physical safety (i.e. car accidents), do you see the actual human life expectancy dropping to a frighteningly younger age (lack of exercise, etc.), and perhaps even in terms of evolution, an increasing trend in our own physical stature beginning to change, as only the eyes and mind are necessary to the surrogate?
Dr. James Canton: As the film makes the case for tech gone wrong, we have come to over rely on tech in this future and it’s taken on a life of its own, with its own agenda. This would over time influence human evolution, with people sitting in stem chairs and not going out into the world, the lack of mobility, increased reduction in person to person communications and contact would likely be the case. But humans are basically social creatures and I am less concerned about this future scenario. Our social demands for intimacy and communication with other humans is fundamental to our society. But there could be changes that once have taken hold, could be hard to reverse. That is the risk we encounter in a world of our design.
Q: Looking at the rebirth of 3D in the entertainment industry, the advancements this has made and will continue to make, do you see this as a connection to what may in the near/distant future be the roots of society’s acceptance of a virtual reality network similar to the likes of “Surrogates”?
Dr. James Canton: Without a doubt, the new 3D technology setting the stage for an immersive future that will make virtual reality increasingly acceptable with consumers. As we get better at making 3D and eventually, every movie theatre will have stimulant chairs and inter-sensory media, we get closer to the world of the Surrogates. See MIT’s Media Lab for more info.
Q: Randall, how expensive is the most advanced artificial limb? How can the cost be brought down so more people can afford?
Randall Alley: The most expensive and most advanced prosthetic system today that is currently being provided for daily patient use is upwards of 150K. Biodesigns is currently involved in helping to develop the next generation of upper limb prostheses in conjunction with Deka Research (Dean Kamen’s company) and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the eventual cost is yet to be determined. Much of the development was funded by DARPA and hence this should reduce the commercial price of the system to below what it would’ve been had this been an entirely private venture.
There are many reasons costs are so high. The most significant one is supply and demand, which if you think about it, is a good thing as there simply aren’t so many amputees in the world as to consider this a true mass market. The downside is that because of limited demand, there are few companies willing to step in and invest the huge amounts of capital required to develop new technologies. Those that do must price their products at a level that with minimal sales will still give them a return on their investment. This is the catch-22.
However, as more universities and individuals enter the fray, development will occur on a much more global scale and certainly with cost in mind such that we should begin to see more competition in the prosthetic industry.
Another driving force is payer reimbursement in those countries such as the U.S. where insurance often determines the level of reimbursement. As they begin to ratchet down on reimbursement, technology may begin to focus on less expensive, less functional (unfortunately) systems as ultimately, we prosthetists won’t be able to provide components we simply can’t get paid for.
The above may result in us revisiting traditional technologies and enhancing them rather than continually developing more exotic systems. biodesigns is not only involved at the highest level of technology with the DARPA project but also with some cable-driven enhancements that make older, more basic systems better. I think we will see a spread in costs over a wide spectrum and for those with the means will go the spoils. The good news is that when this occurs, the most basic systems often get substantially better.
Q: Dr. Canton, what is the most fantastic future tech you have ever seen in person? What blew your mind when you saw it?
Dr. James Canton: The most fantastic future tech I have seen in person was a Artificial Life form called Fin Fin that was created from a computer program that imitated evolutionary human processes. It was a cross between a bird and a dolphin. This was developed by Fujitsu some years ago. Recently Honda’s free walking and instrument playing robots that I visited were mind blowing. The idea of a robot being able to play an instrument. Also, I viewed a robotic woman who was quite beautiful in a lab in China. What was fantastic was how she tracked me with her eyes and her skin was very life like. Finally the 200 petabyte supercomputer at Tata in India was mind blowing as it showed me that artificial intelligence must be used to think through the big challenges that we face today.
Q: Randall, what was the hardest technology for biodesigns to create, what did you struggle with most in your artificial limb development?
Randall Alley: biodesigns focus was initially on simply providing our patients with the best set of components currently available but we soon began to see the weak link in the chain was actually the interface or socket that attaches directly to the body. While other manufacturers/ prosthetists/ engineers focused on developing hands, elbow and feet, biodesigns focused on improving the human-machine interface.
Biomechanically what was being fit was decades old in design, and merely was viewed as an attachment point. I recognized it was far more than a means to attach components, but rather was responsible for the transfer of energy, feedback to the user, maximizing efficiency of movement and positioning, and of course comfort. Current designs still being fit today, allow the bone inside the socket to move freely, resulting in a tremendous loss of efficiency and comfort. biodesigns developed “the High-Fidelity Interface” utilizing what I call Vector-Enhanced Control and Soft Tissue Relief that maximizes intrinsic bone capture and truly makes the user feel as if the prosthesis is part of their body. it is the concept being utilized in the Luke Arm project funded by DARPA and developed by Dean Kamen’s company Deka Research.
It is a patent-pending design and the only one of its kind on the market. I am very excited to see where it will take us, particularly with athletes at the highest level of their game that require maximum performance.
Q: Dr. Canton, the director of the film Jonathan Mostow said he purposely set the film in the near future rather than 2050 with flying cars. So in reality, which will come first, the flying cars or the surrogates and why do you think so?
Dr. James Canton: Flying cars are not an accurate marker for the future. This is why. We have flying cars today, we just call them planes, extra-light planes, really hang gliders with engines have been around for some time. The proliferation of masses of flying cars is not a tech invention problem but a logistics and safety problem we cannot control. Now the world of the surrogates will come first but have many more social and legal challenges then flying cars. See Singularity University where there is more info on advanced social and tech issues related to this issue.
Q: Randall, how has bionics changed in the last 20 years? Can you tell us what might be getting closer to make them even better?
Randall Alley: We’ve gone from purely mechanical joints to motorized and computerized versions that are fairly dependable. We’ve also crossed over from simple electric hands with one type of grip and fixed fingers to fully articulating systems with varying types of grips. We’ve developed lifelike looking skin coverings for all of the above and we’ve done it on a very tight budget.
Now with the DARPA project and others, we are getting far closer to mimicking not just the basic function of the human body, but in some areas the physical capability limits of the human body. While this is still a ways off, we are approaching this reality far faster than ever before. Perhaps the brain interface technology will reach us faster than the ability to jump tall buildings in a single bound, but what we can imagine now is getting a hard look by a lot of very bright minds.
Q: Rather than thinking about what is in store for us in the next decade, what do you think will happen in the development of surrogate technology in the new decade that’s now upon us? Where do you see it going in the next 10 years?
Randall Alley: I think prosthetics will enjoy a much more intimate relationship with robotics than has occurred in the past. For example, there are many very dexterous robots on the market currently, capable of performing a wide variety of tasks that are simply too large, too heavy, to dependent on auxiliary power,etc. to be considered for human application. On the flip side, current prosthetic technology must take into account the weight, complexity of operation, battery life and real functional capability in our daily lives, not simply a focused task that many robots are designed for.
We will begin to see the merging of these two areas and in fact already are. biodesigns is involved in the Luke Arm project with Deka Research and DARPA, and the capabilities of the limb closely approach what is typically thought of as being confined to robotics. Multiple motorized grips, impressive speed and strength e, and yet it’s light enough to be worn on the body and is fairly easy to control.
Q: Randall, is skin hard to replicate? Can you describe in detail what it takes to make a convincing and functional artificial skin to cover a prosthetic?
Randall Alley: There are many things to consider when looking to create artificial skin, which at this stage is a combination of art and science. The current challenges are not just making the “skin” look good, but ensuring it is not only durable but also does not restrict the capabilities of the intrinsic system it is covering. For example, at this stage various types of silicone are used, but one has to be careful that the skin does not slow the prosthetic system down, reduce its functional range of motion or sap the system’s battery life. All this while being durable and easy to clean and subjectively acceptable in appearance to its wearer. It is indeed a challenge!
Q: Randall, what personally got you into the field of bionics? What interested you in it? Are there lots of people in that industry right now?
Randall Alley: I had wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon but wasn’t gripped with passion about it. My uncle came to visit one weekend and as it turned out he lived across the street from a prosthetist who had invented a foot that was state-of-the-art at the time. I had never thought about the prosthetic field and it just so happened that UCLA, where I was a student had one of only six or so prosthetic programs in the country. Of course, being naive about the progress of things in the late eighties I thought we were much farther along. I spent the entirety of my career dedicated to advancing a field which seemed to me until recently was moving along at a snail’s pace.
There are only a few thousand orthotists and prosthetists in the U.S. and simply not enough of us to go around. As they say, there is 100% employment in our industry.
Dr. James Canton: Thanks everyone, great questions, if you need anything more let us know. Dr. James Canton CEO Institute for Global Futures www.FutureGuru.com and email@example.com
Randall Alley: I would just like to say it has been an enjoyable experience to interact with you all and please feel free to contact me if you have any other questions pertaining to prosthetic technology and I will be glad to help you any way I can. Kudos to Disney for this exciting format. I hope you got what you came for.