With generative artificial intelligence (AI) systems such as ChatGPT and stable spread since it’s the talk of the town right now, it might feel like we’ve taken a giant step closer to a sci-fi reality where AIs are physical entities all around us.
Computer-based AI indeed seems to be advancing at an unprecedented rate. But progress in robotics – which we might think of as the potential physical embodiment of AI – has been slow.
Could it be that future AI systems will need robotic “bodies” to interact with the world? If so, nightmarish ideas like the self-healing, shape-shifting T-1000 robot from the movie Terminator 2 come to fruition? And could a robot be created that could “live” forever?
Energy for ‘life’
Biological life forms like ourselves need energy to function. We get ours through a combination of food, water and oxygen. Most plants also need access to light to grow.
In the same way, an eternal robot needs a continuous energy supply. Currently, electrical energy dominates the energy supply in the robotics world. Most robots are powered by the battery chemistry.
An alternative battery type has been proposed that uses nuclear waste and ultra-thin diamonds in the core. The inventors, called a startup from San Francisco Nano Diamond battery, claim a possible battery life of tens of thousands of years. Very small robots would be an ideal user of such batteries.
But a more likely long-term solution to powering robots may involve different chemistry — and even biology. In 2021, scientists at the Berkeley Lab and UMAss Amherst in the US demonstrated that tiny nanobots could get their energy from chemicals in the liquid in which they swim.
The researchers are now working out how to scale up this idea to larger robots that can work on solid surfaces.
Fix and copy itself
Of course, an immortal robot may still require occasional repairs.
Ideally, a robot would repair itself if possible. In 2019, a Japanese research group showed a research robot named PR2 sharpen her own screw using a screwdriver. This is like self surgery! However, such a technique would only work if non-critical components needed to be repaired.
Other research groups are investigating how soft robots can heal themselves if they are damaged. A group in Belgium showed how a robot they developed recovered after being stabbed six times in one of its legs. It stopped for a few minutes until his skin healed itself, and then walked away.
Another unusual concept for repair is to use other things a robot can find in the environment to replace the broken part.
Last year, scientists reported how dead spiders can be used as robotic grabbers. This form of robotics is known as “necrorobotics”. The idea is to use dead animals as ready-made mechanical devices and attach them to robots to become part of the robot.
A video of a spider attached to a syringe being lowered onto another spider and picking it up. The proof-of-concept in necrobotics involved taking a dead spider and “reanimating” its hydraulic legs with air, creating a surprisingly strong gripper. Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University.
A robot colony?
From all these recent developments, it is quite clear that a single robot can, in principle, live forever. But there is still a very long way to go.
Most of the proposed solutions to the energy, repair and replication problems have only been demonstrated in the laboratory, under highly controlled conditions and generally on a small scale.
The ultimate solution may be one of large colonies or swarms of small robots that share a common brain or mind. After all, this is exactly how many species of insects have evolved.
The concept of the “ghost” of an ant colony has been thought about for decades. Research published in 2019 showed that ant colonies themselves have some form of memory not included in any of the ants.
This idea lines up very well with the fact that one day there will be huge clusters of robots that could use this trick to replace individual robots when needed, but keep the cluster “alive” indefinitely.
Ultimately, the creepy robot scenarios outlined in countless sci-fi books and movies probably won’t suddenly develop without anyone noticing.
Designing ultra-reliable hardware is extremely difficult, especially with complex systems. There are currently no technical products that last forever or even hundreds of years. If we ever invent an immortal robot, we’ll also get a chance to build in some safeguards.