Humpty Dumpty the Destroyer

Let's say you're a scientist. You wear a lab coat, you rock the clipboard, you nudge the bridge of your glasses to keep them from sliding down. You have been in the private sector. You have delivered results. And as you toil away in your fluorescent, dust-free environment, you have one goal: To accidentally doom humanity to destruction at the hands of our own mechanical creations. Don't get me wrong, this isn't the result you're hoping to achieve. You're no monster, you just like to get your science on. But deep down you know that despite your best intentions, your work will bring about the final darkness of civilization. Thankfully, we have a pretty good roadmap for this sort of thing, courtesy of Hollywood. Movies have demonstrated with 99% reliability that two courses of action will greatly increase the likelihood that your machine will conquer humanity.

• Give it artificial intelligence: Skynet, HAL 9000 • Give it the ability to reassemble itself when blown into a million pieces: T-1000, Iron Giant*

(It also probably helps if the machine eats biomass that may or may not include human flesh, depending on whom you ask.)

Artificial intelligence is the marquee name, of course, but its current level of development hovers somewhere around having a conversation with a head trauma patient. Who just began studying English a few weeks ago. And is distracted by butterflies.

On the reassembly front, however, there is apparently progress. Researchers at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab, who design robots and are good with acronyms, have been working on a module-based system that can put itself back together after impact. The GRASP lab is based at the University of Pennsylvania, which I believe is the Nittany Quakers, or the Panther Lions, or something. Whatever they are, if I had known they were working on world-ending technology I would have had them higher in my March Madness bracket.

The modules are equipped with LED displays, and cameras. When separated, the modules run a pre-set routine that allows them to find the other LEDs with their cameras, realign themselves, and scurry back into position. Once unified, they tear off your face.

Here's an excerpt from the lab's demonstration of the modules in action:

"If at any time a cluster senses a change in the direction of gravity, it starts the self-righting maneuver. Once two clusters are docked, they move as a unit, searching for the third cluster. The docking mechanism is a series of eight magnets arranged with alternating poles, allowing attachments at ninety degree rotational intervals. While magnetic misalignment is possible, it is unlikely."

The strict narration of a scientist can at times lack nuance, so allow me to translate that paragraph:

"They will come for you at night. You swore you would stay awake, but to fight sleep is to lose a war by inches. Ever since the television signals cut out, you and your neighbors have relied on rumors and hearsay, or at least you were until you heard the neighbors' screams. That was thirty-six hours ago. When they come, the motion detector lights in the front yard will not be enough to wake you — it is only when the first of your propane tank proximity mines detonate that you will come to your senses. You will rush to the window and peer through the blinds, watching as the first wave is blown to hell. The smirk will die on your face, because in that moment you will learn that the rumors were true. The pieces really do find each other. They really do reassemble. And while magnetic misalignment is possible, it really is unlikely."

Hollywood has been warning us for years.

(Watch the video all the way to the end, it's worth it.)

*Technically not a human creation, but absolutely would have iced us if it hadn't chowed down on that power plant.