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World Science Festival 2009 report: Battlestar Galactica: Cyborgs on the Horizon

Posted by: Matthew Trost

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A young and enthusiastic crowd packed the 92nd Street Y on Friday night to enjoy yet another reunion of science and art at the World Science Festival — an event that featured two stars of the SciFi Channel’s hit show Battlestar Galactica, two scientists in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence, and one futurist/transhumanist philosopher. The lively, thought-provoking session, moderated by effervescent radio host and actress Faith Salie, covered the prospects for developing real cyborgs and the possible ramifications of creating them.

nick_bostrom_panel.jpgSwedish philosopher and TEDster Nick Bostrom, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, while unwilling to say exactly when fully functioning cyborgs or artificial intelligence might be created (or exactly what they might do), he was clear that the fact that making them is theoretically possible is reason enough to consider the consequences. He said that we must begin by building frameworks for thinking about such technology’s potential before we plow ahead toward creating them. Clearly, to the crowd, his dry delivery and sharp logic were an amusing counterbalance to the actors on the other side of the panel. The crowd roared when he suggested that Battlestar Galactica was full of flaws — one in particular: “Why would the robots exterminate all of the ugly people first?”

A leading roboticist based at Cornell (and also a TEDster), Hod Lipson‘s video demonstrations of some of his team’s creations were a highlight for many in attendance, and it was a treat to be in the audience as many expressed awe and disbelief at first being exposed to his starfish-like robot, which learns what it looks like and teaches itself to walk. The world of the future certainly seemed much closer after Lipson’s contributions to the discussion, which showed that using evolutionary algorithms running on powerful computers can give robotic creations eerily “biological” forms and behaviors. The concept that robots might break free of the constraints of human imagination and design was certainly food for thought for the Battlestar fans.

michael_hogan.jpgKevin Warwick, a British professor in robotics and artificial intelligence who recently designed an “intelligent” deep-brain stimulator to treat Parkinson’s Disease, is best known for his research with implants, including experimentation on himself. His mind-bending anecdotes from his lab, which managed to use real neurons from a rat’s brain to control a locomotive device via electrodes, wowed the festival attendees (and clearly the actors on the panel too). Though his motivations certainly remained obscure to some in the crowd, the story of how he became the “World’s First Cyborg” yet left a deep impression. (A microchip embedded in a nerve in his wrist transmitted perceptible pulses to directly to his brain, based on signals sent via the Internet across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Battlestar Galactica actors were the crowd favorite. Michael Hogan, who played Colonel Saul Tigh on the show, noted how (Spoiler Alert!) stepping into the mind of a cyborg was not so unlike stepping into a character with some form of mental illness — and, with a character already beleaguered by alcoholism, adding such a new illness was not too difficult a stretch. Academy Award nominee Mary McDonnell, who played the terminally ill President Laura Roslin (nicknamed “Airlock” at the WSF event for her character’s propensity for executing antagonists by flushing them into outer space), closed the session with a moving comment about what she learned from the show: the profound impact that results from the shared study of possible futures — science and art, together.