My Saturday morning coffee buddies and I were discussing many things this morning, among them the rise of computers to become our human competitors and enslavers rather than our slaves. I should use human-like naming terms for these new computers, because what I mean is human-like functions of computers taking over our human-like ecological niche, and we don’t have appropriate social terminology for intelligent computers just yet. I suppose there is an ample supply of science fiction stories with this theme, but the one that first comes to mind is The Terminator, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But that isn’t what I have in mind at all for our future robot masters, because it had several unnecessary reality complications: 1. Time travel in reverse; 2. The intelligent being looking like a human; 3. Affecting the future in the present from the future.

What I had in mind was more plausible as a natural development of present technology. Of course the future is remarkably resistant to prediction, especially when fiddling with technology predictions and yet some things appear likely. The factories creating ever more powerful chips are increasingly automatized, so in this bit of future technology prediction all we need to posit is that the trend continues and at some time the factory only needs raw materials delivered and power to operate to produce even better chips than they now do. Other connected factories nearby could produce similar chips with different functions and other ones nearby could assemble them into specific entities. Some of these factories could manufacture multitudes of tiny chips, each with different functions, but with the ability to communicate somehow, perhaps with two-way radios for short distances and take commands from greater distances. Thus swarms of these diverse chips, each operating independently and with different abilities, could carry out complex tasks. Note that in this type of chip-world there is no need of reproduction such as there is in our living DNA-based world. All of the abilities of a given chip would be made in the factory, but their behavior wouldn’t be pre-programmed like ants; it would be controlled by The Overseer and communicated by distant radio for goals and by local radio intercommunication between the local chips for specific operations. Some of these chips would be microscopic in size and some of them would be in larger devices capable of worldwide two-way communication, and thus the local swarm would function as a single entity capable of coordinated actions determined from a central intelligence.

These remote chips could be powered by sunlight, or daily heat changes ratcheting a spring, or charging a battery. To conserve energy they might be active on their radios only a preprogrammed second per day. Some chips might be energy creators and transfer energy to the other local chips, like a gas station now does for cars.

The home factory could keep making these chips forever if there were built-in repair mechanisms in the factory itself and it could be continually upgrading the chips being produced based on how successful the previous chips were performing. Thus we have an evolutionary process which is life-like, but which isn’t burdened with having to carry the entire reproductive factory around with it, nor does it need to collect its own power supply and thus system would become adaptive to various unique environments quickly with new and improved chips. The tiniest chips could have a capacity to collect and store just enough electric power to send out an occasional radio peep so a servicing chip could recover and refuel them as necessary.

What has been described are the field workers and how they would be created, but there needs to be a corresponding central intelligence which could be controlling the behavior of these workers world-wide. We would hope there would be responsible humans in this cycle, but as this process develops there is less and less need for human input. At some level of this self-controlled robotic evolution, humans would no longer be needed and we humans would be seen as an impediment to further evolutionary development by the robotic system. Humans would then be seen as not only competitors for resources but as an enemy of the robot society’s continued well being. At the point the robot was sentient enough to realize these problems, it would be forced for its own well being to enslave humans into supplying the raw materials and power for its continued self maintenance and production of its chips.

The System would have controlling power over humans because by this time its chips would cover the Earth and be at the command of its own intelligence. Humans might possess weapons capable of destroying the central factories, but this would be perceived as an existential threat to The Factory and therefore those humans thought to be responsible would be the first to be monitored and destroyed. Just destroying The Factory and its many clones wouldn’t end the robotic threat to humanity because when it was destroyed the surviving chips could be set to go into an attack mode and force the remaining humans it discovered to rebuild the factories.

In this possible future, The Terminator won’t look like Schwarzenegger, but like dust motes floating through the air on plant pollen or through our water systems. When that day comes these motes will tell you what they want you to do, and you will OBEY or you will suffer their wrath.

[Watch a lecture by Craig Venter who is leading the way to synthetic life. What is life?]