Under the Radar

Don't Be Afraid of 'Robocop'

Joel Kinnaman

The new remake/reboot of the 1987 classic Robocop arrives in theaters on Wednesday (so it doesn't conflict with your Valentine's Day date on Friday night). Early reviews suggest that Joel Kinnaman's Robocop is more complex and sensitive than Peter Weller's original character and that the new film's dystopian worldview is more focused on drones and the military industrial complex than the original's critique of privatized law enforcement.

The original Robocop was made at a time when the technology to fuse man and machine was in its early stages. We've come a long way in the last 25 years and a new version of the movie comes at a time when we're tantalizingly close to building the kind of tech that brings cop Alex Murphy back from his near-death state.


We had a conversation with Jason Silva about whether the technology exists to create a robocop and if everyone should be worried about how that tech is getting deployed. Jason is a noted futurist and self-described "epiphany addict" who's also well-know as the host of NatGeo TV's Brain Games. Neither of us had seen the new movie yet, but Jason is incredibly optimistic about how this emerging technology is going to be used to help repair war injuries and how sentient machines will be a lot less likely to screw up.


Introduce yourself to our readers.

I'm a media artist and futurist and I'm known primarily for a series of short films that explore the evolution of humans and technology, the sort of symbiotic relationship between humans and technology. And I'm a popularizer of big ideas related to futurism and how we use technologies to extend the boundaries of the human mind. My short films on the internet have been seen millions of times around the world and I've spoken keynote at events for IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Adobe, Oracle, Electronic Arts, and the TED Conference.

Most recently I became the host of Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel, which is their highest rated show ever. But really it's the short films, my Shots of Awe YouTube channel, that I'm known for. People can watch my keynotes on the web.

So let's talk about this movie that neither of us have seen yet.

Well, it's interesting because I think that what I think is good about the film is it's putting out a conversation about man/machine symbiosis, hopefully in an entertaining way.

Whether people are understanding of exponential growth in technology or not, this stuff is happening. I mean most people are not aware that information technologies evolve at an exponential rate. Forty yeas ago, a computer used to take up half a building and cost $60 million dollars. Today, the computer in your pocket is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful. And the computer that currently fits in your pocket is eventually going to be the size of a blood cell and more intelligent than you are.

Whether or not the AI's are coming is not a matter of if, but of when. And because of these exponential trends we're seeing, technology is actually coming a lot faster. I think that the technology explored in the film is not far-fetched at all.

Joel Kinnaman;Marianne Jean-Baptiste

The original movies took a pretty dim view of technology.

Well, stories need to have conflict to be entertaining. The dystopian view of technology is a popular one when you're creating a cautionary tale. And in a way, cautionary tales are cultural technologies that are meant to inform how we use these terms.

If you actually look at the human story, for the most part we use these tools in a positive ways. When the telegraph was invented, people opposed it. Even way back when writing was invented, people used to say, if you write things down, it's going to rot your brain. I think Socrates used to say that. So there's always been this fear of technology.

There's always been this thinking that technology is somehow unnatural, but anything that’s allowed by the laws of physics is natural, right? I mean if we emerge from nature and technology emerges from us, technology is nature. And, seen in that context, it's a sort of self organizing universe that engenders more and more novelty. We're moving in a direction that’s anti-entropic. It's just greater complexity and greater organization. I talking about tools that extend mind into the world, that impregnate the world with mind. The context in which I see technology is just within the space of evolution and emerging complexity and emerging possibility. That’s how I see it.

The fact that this technology will have military applications is of particular interest to our readers.

You’re starting to see more and more robots that can emulate living creatures. And anything that really augments our capacity can be used towards any end, right? Technology extends and it's a double-edged sword. You can use fire to cook your food or to burn your enemies. I’m sure that there will be military uses and technologies that are going to be artificially intelligent. Well, we already have missiles and tools and weapons that can fly themselves, that can find targets.

People are, of course, worried about the runaway AI effect. What if these weapons that are self-organizing and sentient start to wreak havoc on the world? If we really create something that’s more intelligent than humans, then it's going to be infinitely less likely to make a mistake. So if anything, I think that will make the world safer.

There are a lot of people who would like to see this kind of technology applied to helping people with their war injuries.

I think that’s definitely going to come. They already have this spray that you can put on burnt skin right after it burns. We're absolutely going to have self-assembling nanotechnologies that are going to be able to do amazing repair in the field.

I'm sure that we'll have immense, amazing robots that can do search and rescue. And there will be all kinds of exoskeletons for soldiers. There are just limitless applications. It's all about creating situations in which our capacities are augmented extraordinarily, and that includes our capacities to help each other, hurt each other, rescue each other, heal each other. Anything we can do, we'll be able to do better.

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