Update 5/24/11: The conversation continues in Part II here.
I recently gave a talk at the Directors Guild of America as part of a panel on the “Science of Cyborgs” sponsored by the Science Entertainment Exchange. It was a fun time, and our moderators, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant from the HowStuffWorks podcast, emceed the evening with just the right measure of humor and cultural insight. In my twelve minutes, I shared a theory of how consciousness evolved. My point was that if we understand the evolutionary basis of consciousness, maybe this will help us envision new ways our consciousness might evolve further in the future. That could be fun in terms of dreaming up new stories. I also believe that part of what inhibits us from taking effective action against long-term problems—like the global environmental crisis — may be found in the evolutionary origins of our ability to be aware.
This idea is so simple that I’m surprised I’ve not yet been able to find it already in circulation.
Was it just me, or was their something faintly bizarre about yesterday’s historical ass whooping of man by machine? Maybe it was Brad Rutter’s increasingly frantic swaying as Watson took his lead and asked for yet another clue in its stilted, strangely mis-timed way. Perhaps it was the effect of the last corporate stiff of the event – in front of a stone wall backdrop that seemed a parody of cheesy corporate décor – telling us where Watson’s winnings will go, all while speaking with a monotone that would make Al Gore jealous. Or maybe it was Alex Trebek’s nonchalance after the historic event as he immediately turned his attention to pitching the next day’s all-teen tournament. Somehow I expected balloons and confetti to descend from the ceiling, maybe with the voice of Hal in the background—“I’m sorry Ken, but you were really improving from your performance yesterday. Would you mind taking out the garbage?” The most important intelligence test of machine versus man in decades sails by with hardly the rattle of a plastic fern.
Besides the very impressive technical achievement of Watson, IBM should be congratulated for managing to turn three episodes of Jeopardy! into a three-episode-long infomercial for their brand. We saw breathless executives tell us how Watson was a real game-changer for medicine, genomics, and spiky hairdos for avatars. We saw the lead engineers puzzling over mathematical squiggles written on staggered layers of sliding glass panels (something we’ve seen in an Intel commercial before when it was necessary for a visual joke to work, and so obviously useless for doing real work that it seems an insult to viewers in this context).
People who work in robotics prefer not to highlight a reality of our work: robots are not very reliable. They break, all the time. This applies to all research robots, which typically flake out just as you’re giving an important demo to a funding agency or someone you’re trying to impress. My fish robot is back in the shop, again, after a few of its very rigid and very thin fin rays broke. Industrial robots, such as those you see on car assembly lines, can only do better by operating in extremely predictable, structured environments, doing the same thing over and over again. Home robots? If you buy a Roomba, be prepared to adjust your floor plan so that it doesn’t get stuck.
What’s going on? The world is constantly throwing curveballs at robots that weren’t anticipated by the designers. In a novel approach to this problem, Josh Bongard has recently shown how we can use the principles of evolution to make a robot’s “nervous system”—I’ll call it the robot’s controller—robust against many kinds of change. This study was done using large amounts of computer simulation time (it would have taken 50–100 years on a single computer), running a program that can simulate the effects of real-world physics on robots.
What he showed is that if we force a robot’s controller to work across widely varying robot body shapes, the robot can learn faster, and be more resistant to knocks that might leave your home robot a smoking pile of motors and silicon. It’s a remarkable result, one that offers a compelling illustration of why intelligence, in the broad sense of adaptively coping with the world, is about more than just what’s above your shoulders. How did the study show it?
WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio, recently gathered together several of my fellow science and engineering researchers at Northwestern University to talk about the science of science fiction films. The panel, and just short of 500 people from the community and university, watched clips from Star Wars, Gattaca, Minority Report, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Matrix. I was the robot/AI guy commenting on the robot spiders of Minority Report; Todd Kuiken, a designer of neuroprosthetic limbs, commented on Luke getting a new arm in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; Tom Meade, a developer of medical biosensors and new medical imaging techniques, commented on Gattaca; and Catherine Wooley, who studies memory, commented on Eternal Sunshine.
The full audio of the event can be streamed or downloaded from here.
CLARICE: Zoe Graystone was Lacy’s best friend. A real tragedy for all of us. She was very special. I mean, she was brilliant.
NESTOR: At computer stuff, right? That’s my major. Did you know that there are bits of software that you use every day that were written decades ago?
LACY: Is that true? Oh, that’s amazing.
NESTOR: Yeah. You write a great program, and, you know, it can outlive you. It’s like a work of art, you know? Maybe Zoe was an artist. Maybe her work… Will live on.
From: Rebirth, Season 1.0 of Caprica
I’m excited that today Caprica is back on the air for the second half of its first season. As the show’s science advisor, I thought I’d pay homage to its reentry into our living rooms with some thoughts about how the show is dealing with the clash between the mortality of its living characters and the immortality of its virtual characters.
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the word “cyborg,” Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon is running a 50-post tumblr of quotations and articles about, well, cyborgs. The first post gives us the space-oriented (and rather wordy) origin of the term:
For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term “cyborg”.
– Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline Cyborgs and Space (ASTRONAUTICS, Issue 13 September, 1960)
Eye-scanning technology, voice-print security, palm prints: Biometric security has almost become one of the basic signifers of existing in the future, like clean white walls and rounded surfaces. In Minority Report the biometrics extended to the point that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, was easily identified by animated advertisements as he walked through a mall, and later on he had to actually replace his own eyeballs so he could avoid detection.
Ickiness aside, biometrics have become less futuristic and more now-istic. The entire town of León, in central Mexico, contracted with Global Rainmakers, Inc., to install iris scanning technology throughout the town. Locals will be able to use iris scanning to get on the bus, use ATMs, and get hospital care.
But the people of Leon might want to consider a report (free with registration) from the National Research Council before they go too far down that road, because there are some significant problems with going all biometric, all the time.
To think scientifically is to think dangerously. Scientists, from Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, are among the many “Great spirits [who] have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds,” as Einstein so eloquently put it. Daniel Dennett, a prominent New Atheist and philosopher of science, aptly named one of his tomes on evolution Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Constantly challenging the status quo, science is the engine of the future. Science generates the ideas and science fiction gives us whole universes in which to explore them. Science fiction classics like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four, Slaughterhouse-Five, and A Wrinkle in Time are oft challenged on the premise that they are dangerous or harmful to the impressionable minds reading them. So science and sci-fi push the envelope, but among all of the guesses, theories, and what-ifs, is there an idea most dangerous?
This August, Big Think tried to answer the question with their “Month of Thinking Dangerously.” Max Miller did his best to offend his loyal readers, investigating ideas that are an affront to the common perspective – disband NATO? Control the weather? Cut special-ed? Max! for shame! Though many of the dangerous ideas were political, the preponderance of topics trended towards science of the future: eugenics, space colonization, selling organs, memory erasing, synthetic biology, and drug legalization, to name a few. As such, I was expecting one topic in particular to cap the list at the end of the month. Instead, the editors of Big Think invited their readers to “propose your own dangerous idea.”
So I thought, and considered, and pondered, and then remembered that the idea I’ve spent the past two years obsessing over always manages to raise ire and eyebrows. Thus, Big Think, I submit to you the most dangerous idea in the world:
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
I recently joined Meitar “maymay” Moscovitz and Emma Gross of Kink on Tap to discuss sex, cyborgs, and politics. In the podcast episode, entitled “Hymen on a Budget,” we have ourselves quite a little chat. Body modification and plastic surgery, the nature of personhood, sexuality and gender selection, and criminally dangerous sex all get their moments in the sun. And while I may not precisely agree with maymay’s statement “eugenics isn’t sexy,” I can’t thank Emma and him enough for having me on the show. Gender and sexuality studies are where my interest in transhumanism started, so it’s always good to get back to basics.
Just a heads up: The content is explicit, so if frank discussion of sexuality, bodies, and politics is upsetting to you or anyone who may overhear, I’d recommend not listening–or at least wearing headphones.
For those of you comfortable with whatever we may say, you’ll be happy you listened and even happier to discover Kink on Tap.
Image via J (mtonic.com) on Flickr