From scientific research to blockbuster films, the relationship between man and machine has captured the public imagination for decades. It’s an undeniably messy relationship — one that grows with time, sparks heated debate, and mutates unexpectedly. And when we look at how this relationship has changed in recent history, what we find is both inspirational and terrifying. In the last ten years alone, for instance, humans have developed supercomputers that complete quadrillions of calculations each second. China recently unveiled a 302-mph bullet train, and just last year we saw the advent of an ultra-powerful MRI scanner that peers deep into the recesses of the human brain.
There’s no doubt that machines like these are stronger, swifter, and perhaps even smarter than their humble human creators. As a result, however, we’re left grappling with a number of questions: How has technology changed us and our environment? Are these changes good or bad? Can machines save us from ourselves, or, like Shelley’s Frankenstein, will we be left at the mercy of our own creation?
It is questions like these that Issue 87.3 of the Yale Scientific will investigate. Featuring the work of acclaimed Yale faculty Wendell Wallach, the article on page 22 explores the controversy surrounding robotic weapons in US military policy. On a very different note, the exclusive cover story on page 12 investigates how robots perform in an educational setting. By designing robots to perform traditionally human functions, researchers have much to learn about what distinguishes man from machine. Even as our computers become smarter, scientists have yet to close the gap between artificial intelligence and the incredible brains that make us human.
While there are marked differences between man and machine, recent research has also brought them closer together. Our bodies, after all, can be described as a series of elaborate machines — from the vital pump that circulates blood, to the network of ropes and pulleys that move our muscles, to the tiny molecular machines within our cells. Thanks to advances in engineering, researchers have developed ways to mimic, fix, and improve upon these systems, blurring the lines between nature and technology. And as the synthetic biology movement gathers momentum — the global market is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016 — we’ve seen that the boundaries between man and machine can be surprisingly fluid.
In this issue of the Yale Scientific, we bring together surgeons, geoengineers, ethicists, and many others to examine the relationship between humans and technology. As always, we thank you for your continued readership and support. And as the academic year comes to a close, we hope to leave you with some interesting questions to ponder on your own.