Sunday , February 25 2018
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Could we build a Blade Runner-style ‘replicant’?

Fumiya Iida, University of Cambridge

The new Blade Runner sequel will return us to a world where sophisticated androids made with organic body parts can match the strength and emotions of their human creators. As someone who builds biologically inspired robots, I’m interested in whether our own technology will ever come close to matching the “replicants” of Blade Runner 2049.

The reality is that we’re a very long way from building robots with human-like abilities. But advances in so-called soft robotics show a promising way forward for technology that could be a new basis for the androids of the future.

From a scientific point of view, the real challenge is replicating the complexity of the human body. Each one of us is made up of millions and millions of cells, and we have no clue how we can build such a complex machine that is indistinguishable from us humans. The most complex machines today, for example the world’s largest airliner, the Airbus A380, are composed of millions of parts. But in order to match the complexity level of humans, we would need to scale this complexity up about a million times.

There are currently three different ways that engineering is making the border between humans and robots more ambiguous. Unfortunately, these approaches are only starting points, and are not yet even close to the world of Blade Runner.

There are human-like robots built from scratch by assembling artificial sensors, motors and computers to resemble the human body and motion. However, extending the current human-like robot would not bring Blade Runner-style androids closer to humans, because every artificial component, such as sensors and motors, are still hopelessly primitive compared to their biological counterparts.

There is also cyborg technology, where the human body is enhanced with machines such as robotic limbs, wearable and implantable devices. This technology is similarly very far away from matching our own body parts.