RSSCategory: Technology

Robots and human interaction

February 22, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Robots and human interaction

Last year, before I even heard of DI, I resolved to read all 15 of Isaac Asimov’s books/novels set within his Foundation universe this year. Why “before I even heard of DI”? Well, you may already know, but I won’t spoil the detective work if you don’t. (Hint: scroll down to the list about ¾ down the wiki page.) Why “this year”? I spent the summer and fall studying for an exam I had put off long enough and had little time for any outside reading.

I read I, Robot nearly 40 years ago, and The Rest of the Robots some time after that, followed by the Foundation trilogy, Foundation’s Edge when it was published in 1982, and Prelude to Foundation when it was published in 1988. I never read any of the Galactic Empire novels or the rest of the Foundation canon, and none of the “Robot novels”, which is why I decided to read them all, as Asimov laid out the timeline. I do like to re-read books, but hadn’t ever re-read any of the robot short stories, even when I added The Complete Robot to my collection in the early 1980s. As I’ve slept a bit since the first read, I forgot much, particularly how Asimov imagined people in the future might view robots.

Many recognize Asimov as one of the grandmasters of robot science fiction, (any geek knows the Three Laws of Robotics; in fact Asimov is credited with coining the word “robotics”). He wrote many of his short stories in the 1940s when robots were only fiction. I promise not to go into the plots, but without spoiling anything, I want to touch on a recurrent theme throughout Asimov’s short stories (and at least his first novel…I haven’t read the others yet): a pervasive fear and distrust of robots by the people of Earth. Humankind’s adventurous element – those that colonized other planets – were not hampered so, but the mother planet’s population had an irrational Frankenstein complex (named by the author, but for reasons unknown to most of the characters being that it is an ancient story in their timelines). Afraid that the machines would take jobs, harm people (despite the three laws), be responsible for the moral decline of society, robots were accepted and appreciated by few (on Earth that is.) {note: the photo is the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, now in the public domain.}

Robots in the 1940s and 1950s pulp fiction and sci-fi films were generally menacing like Gort in the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, reinforcing that Frankenstein complex that Asimov explored. Or functional like one of the most famous robots in science fiction, Robbie in The Forbidden Planet, or “Robot” in Lost in Space who always seemed to be warning Will Robinson of “Danger!”

When writing this, I remembered Silent Running, a 1972 film with an environmental message and Huey, Dewey and Louie, small, endearing robots with simple missions, not too unlike Wall-E. Yes, robots were bad again in The Terminator, but we can probably point to 1977 as the point at which robots forever took on both a new enduring persona and a new nickname – droids. {1931 Astounding was published without copyright}

Why the sketchy history lesson (here’s another, and a BBC very selective “exploration of the evolution of robots in science fiction“)? It was Star Wars that inspired Dr. Cynthia Breazel, author of Designing Sociable Robots, as a ten year old girl to later develop interactive robots at MIT. Her TED Talk at December 2010’s TEDWomen shows some of the incredible work she has done, and some of the amazing findings on how humans interact.

Very interesting that people trusted the robots more than the alternative resources provided in Dr. Breazel’s experiments.

Asimov died in 1992, so he did get to see true robotics become a reality. IBM’s Watson recently demonstrated its considerable ability to understand and interact with humans and is now moving on to the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine to work with diagnosing and patient interaction.

Imagine the possibilities…with Watson, and Dr. Breazel’s and others’ advances in robotics, I think Asimov would be quite pleased that his fears of human robo-phobia were without … I can’t resist…Foundation.

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Maddening Blather on Hold with AT&T

December 30, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Maddening Blather on Hold with AT&T

We lost our Roku internet connection this evening. Also the laptop connection, and the main computer. Basically, my internet was down.

So I went through all the usual things to find the problem. Computer was talking to the router that was in turn talking to the modem. So far so good. I managed to tell the router to tell the modem to change my IP address. Everything was working.

But I could not reach any web sites, email, or ftp servers. I finally figured out that the DNS must be down. Domain Name Service is the internet utility that converts name addresses (like DangerousIntersection.org) to numerical route addresses (like 206.225.8.91) so your packets (requests, pages, images, etc) can find their way through the web.

So I called AT&T and answered a series of questions, like “Can you get online?” (No) and “Did you try rebooting and turning the modem off and back on?” (Yes). Finally, I landed in the service hold queue.

What to my wondering ear did appear in the cannot-get-online and did-reboot queue? An annoying loop of messages telling me all the wonderful support I can get online! This, plus the repeated suggestion that I try rebooting.

ga-ah!GAA-AH!ga-ah!

I sat on hold for 35 minutes before I decided to vent on this forum. Well, at least to write about it. I have to wait till either they fix the problem, or I get through and can ask for a numerical address for the address server to bypass the broken automatic one.

After 73 minutes (1:13) of this, I reached an actual person. I started with asking if she knew how long the DNS would be down, largely to jump past all the AnyKey suggestions. No, but similar problems typically are resolved in 4 hours. Then I asked if she had a bypass DNS address that I could use until theirs was working. No she didn’t have this information. I suggested that she pass upstream my frustration with the “just go online” message piped in to people who were calling because they cannot get online. She had no mechanism for this. Oh, well. I stayed polite. Tech support folks are in a miserable position when they have no way to fix anything, and the problem is real.

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Beware Little Brother

December 27, 2010 | By | 6 Replies More
Beware Little Brother

Paranoia waxes and wanes in this country, but let’s set aside the propensity for some media personalities of late to fan the “they’re out to get you” flames. Even with the ubiquitous presence of Youtube videos from cell phone cameras and more heightening the sensitivity of everyone not a celebrity to the truth that someone is always watching, I’ll submit that few are aware of this surreptitious encroachment on our privacy…

Eva Galperin, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes in a commentary entitled “What is Traitorware?“:

Your digital camera may embed metadata into photographs with the camera’s serial number or your location. Your printer may be incorporating a secret code on every page it prints which could be used to identify the printer and potentially the person who used it. If Apple puts a particularly creepy patent it has recently applied for into use, you can look forward to a day when your iPhone may record your voice, take a picture of your location, record your heartbeat, and send that information back to the mothership.

I am a dinosaur when it comes to coding. I used to be able to reverse engineer programs to figure out how they worked – for fun or to learn a neat method, not for malicious purposes; it’s like taking apart a laser pointer or a DVD player…just a curiosity. But today’s software and hardware have too many hooks into other libraries, chips and Skynets. I have an iPhone to which I accede an agreement to 47+ pages of terms in order to use the only resource for loading applications (that would be the ever frustratingly inept coding known as iTunes) unless I want to jailbreak it. Uh, not today.

And for that, plus my microwave, camera, and who knows what else, I yield my privacy.

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Our technical difficulties

June 17, 2010 | By | Reply More
Our technical difficulties

A few days ago we upgraded our platform, but things did not go well. It became clear over 48 hours that our platform was no long stable and we were forced to revert back to our former set-up. In the process, we lost a few days of comments, though we were able to recover most of our posts.

If you were one of the dozen or so people who submitted comments over the past few days, and if you no longer see your comment, I apologize. Please feel free to resubmit your comments and I will promptly approve them.

We learned some lessons about upgrading in the process, and I don’t expect this problem to repeat itself.

Erich

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Testing your ISP

June 2, 2010 | By | Reply More
Testing your ISP

If you’d like to volunteer with work with the FCC to test the broadband speed of your ISP, go here.

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Conservation could eliminate the need to drill for any oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

May 15, 2010 | By | 11 Replies More
Conservation could eliminate the need to drill for any oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. consumes about an almost unimaginable amount of oil every day: 20,680,000 barrels of oil per day (and see here). Keep in mind that each barrel contains 42 gallons. Thus, Americans currently use 20,680,000 barrels per day = 239 barrels per second = 10,000 gallons of oil per second.Therefore , we desperately need to maintain almost 4,000 drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in order to keep drilling for oil, right? Not so fast.

Why aren’t we seriously discussing our ability to entirely eliminate offshore drilling by getting just a little bit serious about conservation? Consider the following statistics, which should be on the front page of every newspaper in the United States because

[caption id="attachment_12529" align="alignright" width="210" caption="Image: creative commons"]Image: creative commons[/caption]

they prove that we don’t need offshore drilling but that we do need to seriously implement conservation measures for many reasons (one of which is impending peak oil):

Projecting ahead to the year 2016, the total oil production from the Gulf of Mexico will never exceed 2.1 million barrels of oil per day. Within the next 10 years, total GOM oil production is expected to exceed 1.7 million barrels of oil per day (MMBOPD), a projection based on existing shallow and deepwater operator commitments as shown in Table 2 and Figure 2. If industry-announced discoveries and undiscovered resources realize their full potential, production could reach 2.1 MMBOPD.

This information comes from page 12 of “Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas Production Forecast: 2007-2016,” published by the U.S. Department of the Interior. See also, this chart, Figure 2 on page 14 of this same report:

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How are Humans Better?

May 8, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
How are Humans Better?

A new comment thread on an old post discusses the precept that humans are somehow “better” than all other creatures. Sure, as a member of our team, I’d like to think that we are Number One. We’ve even written books attributed to deities that prove that we are the reason for creation, that the octillions of stars in the universe were all put there just for our amusement. Therefore, the book and its believers maintain, we must be the best thing ever. But as an educated human raised by scientists to find first sources and question suppositions, I wonder: “How are we better?”

I have posted before on some of the ways in which our Creator (to use that paradigm) has short changed us. Name any characteristic of which we are proud, and it is easy to find another creature that exceeds our ability. I can only think of one exception: Communicating in persistent symbols.

Unlike cetaceans, birds, fellow primates, and others who communicate fairly precisely with sounds, gestures, or chemical signals, we can detach communication from ourselves and transport or even delay it via layers of uncomprehending media (paper, wires, illiterate couriers, etc). We can create physical objects that abstract ideas from one individual and allow the idea to be absorbed by another individual at a later time. It also allows widely separated groups to share a single culture, at least in part.

This learned behavior is based on our apparently unique ability to abstract in multiple layers and to abstract to a time well beyond the immediate future. We can take an idea to a series of sounds to a series of static symbols, and back again. Our relatively modern ability to reason abstractly (math, science) evolved from our ability to abstract communications. Even Einstein couldn’t hold the proof of E=MC2 in his head.

But is this unique ability really sufficient to declare ourselves overall inherently “better”?

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Biology is drowning in data and complexity

May 4, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Biology is drowning in data and complexity

In the April 2010 edition of Nature (available only to subscribers online), you can read a counter-intuitive story of illustrating that more information is sometimes add confusion, rather than making things simpler. Maybe another way of putting it is that the path to understanding can often take one through phases of disorientation resulting from new influx of accurate data. This particular story, by Erika Check Hayden, titled “Life Is Complicated,” considers what has happened in the field of biology subsequent to the Human Genome Project. Prior to the Project, many biologists guessed that the human genome contained about 100,000 genes that coded for proteins. At the conclusion of the project, however, we found out that only about 21,000 human genes code for proteins.

One might think that this would simplify the field of biology, especially since biologists now know what many of these genes are. Many people thought that we were going to have for ourselves a clearly understandable “blueprint,” of the human species. The opposite is happening, however: “It opened the door to a vast labyrinth of new questions.” What kinds of questions? This article really surprised me with the vast scope of new territory opened up by the Human Genome Project. It can be summed up by Hayden’s quote from biochemist Jennifer Doudna: “The more we know, the more we realize there is to know.”

Hayden explains that sequencing the genome undermined “the primacy of genes by unveiling a whole new classes of elements–sequences that make RNA or have a regulatory role without coding for proteins.” It turns out that “much non-coding DNA has a regulatory role “that we are just beginning to understand.” To illustrate how complex things have gotten, Hayden discusses what we’ve now learned about a single protein, “p53,” which for many years was simply known as a tumor suppressor protein. Consider what we know now:

In 1990, several labs found that p53 binds strictly to DNA to control transcription, supporting the traditional Jacob-Monod model of gene regulation. But as researchers broadened their understanding of gene regulation, they found more facets to p53 . . . [R]esearchers now know that p53 binds to thousands of sites in DNA, and some of the sites are thousands of base pairs away from any genes. It influences cell growth, death and structure and DNA repair. It also binds to numerous other proteins, which can modify its activity, and these protein-protein interactions can be tuned by the addition of chemical modifiers such as phosphates and methyl groups to create through a process known as alternative splicing. P53 can take nine different forms, each of which has its own activities and chemical modifiers. Biologists are now realizing that p53 is also involved in processes beyond cancer, such as fertility and very early embryonic development. In fact, it seems willfully ignorant to try to understand p53 on its own. Instead, biologists have shifted to studying the p53 network as depicted in cartoons containing boxes, circles and arrows meant to symbolize its maze of interactions.

Hayden reminds us that the p53 story is one of many similar stories in post genomic-era biology. She explains that we now know that many of the signaling pathways that we thought we were close to understanding are not simple and linear but organized in vast complex networks that sometimes appear fractal. She quotes James Collins, a bio-engineer: “Kevin made the mistake of equating the gathering of information with a corresponding increase in insight and understanding.”

Here’s another counter-intuitive result of this new dilution of information: many of our models have gotten too complex to be useful.

In many cases the models themselves quickly become so complex that they are unlikely to reveal insights about the system, degenerating instead into mazes of interactions that are simply exercises in cataloging.

The genome project has made biologists into kids in a big candy store: a candy store with unending aisles and endlessly deep bins of dazzling, disorienting candy, much of which is currently out of our reach. Such is the horizon of new knowledge, equal parts frustrating and tantalizing.

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The state of robotics

April 17, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
The state of robotics

In a recent article in Discover Magazine called “Machine Dreams,” (May, 2010, not yet available online) a panel of robotics experts discussed the relationships among people and the machines we call robots. What is a “robot”? Rodney Brooks of MIT offered this definition:

[A] robot is something that senses the world, doesn’t some sort of competition, and decides to take an action outside of its physical extremity. That action might be moving around, or it might be grabbing something and moving it. I say “outside it’s extremity” because I don’t like to let dishwashers be defined as robots.

The panel offered a lively discussion, focusing on many real-world applications. Robots are doing many things these days, including surveillance and reconnaissance during flood disasters. Robots are already quite good at some things, but Rodney Brooks offers some sobering thoughts for those who think of robots as replacements for human beings. We have quite a ways to go. Where are we headed? Here are the goals for which robotics researchers are currently striving to reach (according to Brooks):

First the object recognition capabilities of a two-year-old child. You can show a two-year-old a chair that he’s never seen before, and he’ll be able to say, “that’s a chair.” Our computer vision systems are not that good. But if our robots did have that capability, would be able to do a lot more.

Second, the language capabilities of a four-year-old child. When you talk to a four-year-old, you hardly have to dumb down your grammar at all. That is much better than our current speech systems can do.

Third, the manual dexterity of a six-year-old child. A six-year-old can tie his shoelaces. A six-year-old can do every operation that a Chinese worker does in the factory. That level of dexterity, which would require a combination of new sorts of sensors, new sorts of actuators, and new algorithms, will let our robots do a lot more in the world.

Fourth, the social understanding of an eight or nine-year-old child. Eight or nine-year-olds understand the difference between their knowledge of the world and the knowledge of someone they are interacting with. When showing a robot how to do a task, they know to look at where the eyes of the robot were looking. They also know how to take social cues from the robot.

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