The march of the machines

2018-03-04 05:58
The world’s first operational police robot in downtown Dubai on May 31 last year PHOTO: AFP Photo / Guiseppe Cacace

The world’s first operational police robot in downtown Dubai on May 31 last year PHOTO: AFP Photo / Guiseppe Cacace

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Roughly defined, the term “transhumanism” is a (closer-than-you-think) near future where humanity merges with technology, which then enables the human race to evolve beyond its physical and mental boundaries.

You’d better keep that definition in mind because the age of transhumanism has already begun. It might seem to be stuff of sci-fi movies, but the encroachment of technology – robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), in particular – into humanity has been subtle, but speedy.

Robot citizens and co-workers

Last year, Saudi Arabia made history by granting Sophia – one of the world’s most advanced robots – citizenship. The historic moment was capped when Sophia was invited to address the UN and, if you have not seen the video of her fielding questions, during that session, google it – it will impress you, as well as terrify you.

But while Sophia is arguably the most high-profile robot, there are other, more anonymous robots that literally walk among us. Last year, the first Robocop was deployed in Dubai. Pitched to the public as a benign law-enforcement assistant to the human police force, this Robocop has cameras for eyes, records conversations and is enabled with AI so it can “learn” more by itself. This self-learning is what concerns thought leaders such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.

Dubai, which is also the first city state to appoint a state minister of AI, wants to scale up its Robocop presence to make up 25% of its total police force by 2030. They are in the process of integrating futuristic hover bikes into their police fleet. If you happen to visit the city state in the next decade, you can be forgiven if you think you’ve just stepped into a movie set for Star Wars.

Over in San Francisco, another robot called K9 (which looks a lot like the R2D2 Star Wars droid) is making history of another kind. Like its humanoid counterpart in Dubai, K9 is a patrol robot and can scan 1 500 licence plates in a minute and is equipped to film its surroundings and record conversations. K9 recently made news after the SPCA deployed it to ensure homeless people do not settle on the sidewalk of their property. This, as well as the influx of small delivery robots, has forced the city to make robot “employers” apply for robot permits or face a $1 000 fine (R11 700) per day.

Humans becoming machines

So, while we’re getting used to robots as co-workers, humans are slowly but surely becoming cyborgs. In healthcare, the next generation of bionic prosthetics is ensuring that the disabled have a very different future with improved mobility, thanks to technology.

However, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred as able-bodied people are voluntarily opting for some form of biometric system to be embedded into their bodies.

Last year, American software company Three Square Market, offered its employees the option to be microchipped. The rice grain sized microchip, embedded into a hand, can be used to open doors, log into the computer network and purchase snacks from the company’s vending machines. Fifty employees agreed to be chipped.

The company’s CEO, Todd Westby, said this technology will become standardised, allowing you to use it as your passport, on public transport and as a means of payment.

The blurred lines of transhumanism

While the debate rages on about the morality of owning a sexbot, one Chinese citizen has taken his own “great leap forward” and married one.

Zheng Jiajia (31) had become tired of the constant nagging from his family, pressurising him to get married, so he decided to marry the robot he built. The wedding ceremony, although not officially recognised, was attended by his mother and friends. A warning to nagging parents: be careful what you wish for.

Over in the marketing space, a very different kind of social media influencer is causing a commotion. Miquela Sousa, known by her Instagram handle @lilmiquela, is a 19-year-old, Los Angeles-based, Brazilian/Spanish model and musician. She has 500 000 followers – known as “Miquelites” – and fills her Instagram feed with “outfit-of-the-day” shots, featuring Chanel, Proenza Schouler and other designer labels. She is suitably woke and uses her platform to support social causes including Black Lives Matter and transgender rights.

The only problem is that she is a virtual avatar, not a real person. This has made the marketing and PR industries ask why they are paying celebrities a fortune to promote their brands, when a virtual avatar can pull the same number of fans and followers and do the same job. Good question.

Like it or not, the era of transhumanism is upon us and will most certainly raise more complex questions as it forces us to question our own humanity.

For South Africans, best we tweak the movie title iRobot and get used to calling ourselves amaRobot.

- Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit

Read more on:    technology

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