Disney’s Surrogates Question And Answer Session With Dr. James Canton And Randall Alley Part 2

February 5, 2010 • By



We were lucky enough to be part of a question and answer session with real world surrogates experts, Dr. James Canton and Randall Alley, who talked about robots and the movie “Surrogates.”

Surrogates released to Disney Blu-ray and DVD on January 26th!

Below you can check out the second part of the interview. You can read the first part here.

Q: Dr. Canton, this bonus feature talks about the science of surrogates and what is close to it….what is happening that might be an option to robotics? What other path is modern science taking that might serve the same purpose that these surrogates do in the film?

Dr. James Canton: Well the most radical developments in science that could run parallel to the robots in Surrogates are in nanoscience and biotechnology. Synthetic biology is the convergence of engineering and biotech. We are learning how to mix and match living systems to make new living systems. Some day this will make human cloning work. Nanoscience is the design of matter at the atomic scale. When you combine nano and bio, into a new field called nanobiology, you have a design science that could make clones, cybernetic entities and of course Surrogates. It is possible that the model of robots in the future will not be mechanistic but biological and bio-mimetic, they will mimic humans but use organic parts and systems grown from biochemicals, genes, tissue and cells. The synthetic biological creation of Surrogates may emerge even faster then the mechanistic one as depicted in the movie. Keep in mind that we are just scratching the surface of understanding DNA and the human genome. We will create synthetic DNA in the future and synthetic life forms in our image that I forecast will have no mechanical parts–they will be all organic, biological and exist as another evolutionary species. This is down the road 30 to 50 years. So the future Surrogates may be more then human mirrors but another parallel evolutionary species designed in our image.

Q: Gentlemen, in the Surrogates movie, the robots don’t appear to be very tamper-proof. Would this be a challenge to surrogate manufacturers – and what other security problems/solutions might exist?

Randall Alley: There is a never-ending battle between the march of technology and the needed security to protect it or prevent its misuse. We see it every day with security breaches of data networks or company firewalls making the headlines. I can’t imagine this problem being reliably solved in the world of surrogates. After all, they may be impressively complex, but the laws of physics still apply. If something can be created in the digital world it most likely can be altered or hacked after enough time has passed for those who wish to do harm to figure out the way in.

Q: While the film works as a metaphor for the dislocating and isolating qualities of digital-age social networking. If not a “Surrogates” future, then what are the other possibilities, if we extrapolate the premise of social connection exclusively (or near exclusively) via technology?

Randall Alley: One can only hope there remains within us a yearning to maintain some sort of physical connection with those around us for it is probably a foundation our souls cannot do entirely without. Given that the human race begins to value the digital life over the physical life, the possibilities are endless simply because our imaginations are endless. As we have seen in countless video games and animations, what can be experienced visually is incredible. The area of sensory feedback is also exploding. Combine these and who knows where we will go.

Q: James, what was the most accurate prediction in the film SURROGATES about our near future and what was most off the mark?

Dr. James Canton: The most accurate prediction from the film was the reasons why the Surrogates were created in the first place–to heal, to help and protect humans. Also, the domination of smart technology that may manipulate humans, by offering a seductive and exploitive experience I think as well is an accurate prediction that I am concerned about. We could be undone by our creations or our obsession with our technology. As technology becomes smarter, more connected to everything, especially us, the chances of advanced tech waking up, achieving self-awareness and deciding it does not need or like humans is not a casual concern. The Singularity is a term from popular culture that relates to the point in time when advanced computing, networking, robotic and biotech becomes smarter then humans and what the implications are for humanity. Most off the mark was that that I think that humans will continue to be on top of the food chain and that human emotions though they can be imitated by synthetic creatures they are not human. Intimacy, love and emotion are still only human traits.

Q: As someone working to help people overcome their disabilities do you worry that the technology can be misused? How do you see your work in the context (implied in the film) of creating a perfect version of ourselves?

Randall Alley: I strive to get my patients and clients (depending on how they view themselves) to forget they are wearing a prosthesis. We don’t really have much of a capability at this point to create a more perfect version of ourselves. We have a tough enough time trying to catch up. I will say, that just as with weapons, whether they are knives, handguns or our own limbs, it is not the weapons themselves that are responsible but the individuals wielding them. So yes, I worry technology can be misused, it is misused every day around the world and in many different ways. But I simply don’t think it is within our power to check our progress, nor is it necessarily a good idea to do so out of fear of misuse. We do what we do naturally, move forward, or onward and upward. We do our best to adapt to a changing world and pray we don’t get in over our head with no way out.

Q: Dr Canton, if you had a surrogate and found you could be in two places at once, would it improve your life or make it twice as complicated? And then there’s the question … would only one surrogate be enough?

Dr. James Canton: Actually I would be more productive, creative and have more fun if I could have about five Surrogates. Most of the world moves too slow for me, I am always running out of time to enjoy as well as work. Now if I could have a few Surrogates to maximize my multitasking well I could fulfill many fantasies and live many lifetimes. This is a social networking phenomena. Just as we text, download emails, listen to music, send video today tomorrow with Surrogates I could live in a holographic world of many realities. So for me having access to Surrogates would enhance and improve my life, it would make it less complex and sustainable for creating a high performance lifestyle that the movie points to. Likely humans would demand a re-patterning of their brains to be able to absorb and control the multiplicity of personalities. Virtual worlds like Second Life, games like World of Warfare, hint at this multiple layering of personalities and lifestyles that are coming. We will have a Surrogate lifestyle. This will be too seductive and enticing to not embrace. Also, your next job in 2030 may require you to be Surrogate Enhanced Cognition Licensed so you can even perform that future job. The movie reveals a dominant use of Surrogate technology and a misuse of this by some. I forecast that the Surrogates will become an integral feature of our later 21st century lifestyle and reality. Get ready. By the way…my surrogate wrote this while I was watching TV.

Q: Dr Canton, while you’re surrogate was answering my question and you were watching TV, my surrogate was raiding your fridge and then stole your car. You’re right, we do need more than one – a security surrogate is the first model I’d get!

Dr. James Canton: Well my Surrogate took your gal dancing. This is exactly what will happen when the world of the Surrogates comes on line. For example, I think and the Blu-ray features that we did show just how close we are to making a Surrogate today. The science behind the movie is a movie in itself. What is in the lab today is in the market tomorrow. So nanoscience will give us life-like materials for skin, biotech will give us organic organs, neuro-computing will give us brain interfaces, all of the pieces are coming together. You don’t need a smart autonomous robot to have the world of the Surrogates come into our reality. There is great progress here. But cloud computing and wireless networking could bring this reality closer. We are streaming sensation now in gaming. Next is feelings and immersive mobility, we will feel it, sense it and experience remote realities. A surgical procedure between the EU and the US last year was the Surrogates reality. Immersive virtual reality where we are navigating new worlds is the Surrogate reality. It is closer then you think.

Q: Randall, physically, what do you think is the greatest thing that would set humans apart from fully developed surrogates? Is it our skin, touch, reactions …

Randall Alley: Tough question, and it largely depends on just when we take a snapshot of surrogate technology. If that snapshot were taken now, it would most certainly be a combination of all the above. Probably the most obvious would be fluidic and lifelike motion as this would be the first thing you’d notice when approaching. The skins can look pretty darn good even up close. And even the durometer of the silicones and other materials used can closely approach the feel of human skin. Obviously, reactions to external influences would also be a subset of movement capabilities and if all of these challenges were somehow overcome, the sensory ability of the surrogate would be at the greatest deficit in terms of technology, especially physical sensations and the subtle way in which we humans respond to touch, temperature, etc. Gross surrogate response may be highly capable, but high-fidelity response to subtle cues would be a tough thing to accomplish.

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

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