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).
At night in the rivers of the Amazon Basin there buzzes an entire electric civilization of fish that “see” and communicate by discharging weak electric fields. These odd characters, swimming batteries which go by the name of “weakly electric fish,” have been the focus of research in my lab and those of many others for quite a while now, because they are a model system for understanding how the brain works. (While their brains are a bit different, we can learn a great deal about ours from them, just as we’ve learned much of what we know about genetics from fruit flies.) There are now well over 3,000 scientific papers on how the brains of these fish work.
Recently, my collaborators and I built a robotic version of these animals, focusing on one in particular: the black ghost knifefish. (The name is apparently derived from a native South American belief that the souls of ancestors inhabit these fish. For the sake of my karmic health, I’m hoping that this is apocryphal.) My university, Northwestern, did a press release with a video about our “GhostBot” last week, and I’ve been astonished at its popularity (nearly 30,000 views as I write this, thanks to coverage by places like io9, Fast Company, PC World, and msnbc). Given this unexpected interest, I thought I’d post a bit of the story behind the ghost.
When you bundle up all the time that gamers everywhere pour into their favorite games, the statistics are simply staggering. World of Warcraft’s legion of devotees, for example, have now spent more than 50 billion hours—about 6 million years—roaming their mythical, digital universe. Halo 3 players banded together to reach a kill tally of 10 billion, and when they blew past it, kept on shooting in pursuit of 100 billion.
If 10,000 hours of practice represents a sort of genius threshold, then gamers around the world are crossing that threshold. “This means that we are well on our way to creating an entire generation of virtuoso gamers,” writes game designer Jane McGonigal.
You might recognize McGonigal from her talk at TED, “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” But now that speech has become a full-on how-to guide: her new book Reality Is Broken, which came out yesterday. It details how games can fix what’s wrong with the real world (and not just escape from it).
When commentators bandy about those eye-popping numbers about how much time gamers invest in games, it’s usually done to bemoan the youth of America wasting their time on trivial pursuits. But to McGonigal, the allure of games can be used for good. Where our workaday lives can be filled with tedium and busy work, games challenge us with what she calls “hard fun”—hard work that’s satisfying. Games can improve our social connections, and they can provide a huge arena for collaboration.
Games, McGonigal writes, can fix what’s wrong with reality on small or large scales. A personal example: When she was struggling to recover from a concussion, she invented a game and enlisted friends and family as characters with tasks to fulfill, like coming over to cheer her up or keeping her off caffeine. A world-level example: EVOKE, a free online multiplayer games that challenges its players to solve major social ills like hunger and poverty.
We talked to her recently about her mission to save the world with games:
DISCOVER: What are you working on right now?
Jane McGonigal: There are a couple of big things. One of them is Gameful—we’re calling it a secret headquarters online for gamers and game developers who want to change the world. That was based on how many emails and Facebook messages I get from people who saw my TED talk or heard about these games and want to make one or play one, or learn how to design games so that they can make one. It’s a cross between a social network and a collaboration space online. So far we have over 1,100 games developers signed up. That’s a pretty significant proportion of game developers in the U.S. They committed to not just entertaining with games, but making a positive impact.
I also have a new start-up company, called Social Chocolate. It’s a company with which we’re creating gameful experiences that are based on scientific research about power-positive emotions and positive relationships—basically, games that are designed from top to bottom to improve your real life and to strengthen your relationships.
In the book, you write about games’ ability to captivate and satisfy our minds on a “primal” level. Why are games so good at getting in touch with our primal nature?
That is such a cool question. We’ve been playing games since humanity had civilization—there is something primal about our desire and our ability to play games. It’s so deep-seated that it can bypass latter-day cultural norms and biases. If you give us a good game, we can overcome our society’s “make you feel stupid for dancing in front of other people” feeling, or trying to block all thoughts of death because it’s depressing and we’re not supposed to be depressed. The game is much older than any of these societal constraints. So that, I think, makes it a powerful platform for getting in touch with things we’ve lost touch with.
Dancing’s really interesting because if you look at the new games with Kinect and PS Move and the Wii, it’s opening up this different kind of gamer experience. When you watch people play these games, the word “joy” is what you’d use to describe it. It’s different from the kind of immersion that we think of with games where we’re really focused mentally. The physical engagement in combination with music and movement and other people makes it feel more like ritual than computer games have been.
Yet, you say, the mission to create joy in games is often hampered because of the “uncoolness” of happiness. So how do we get over ourselves?
I was curious when I started the Gameful project if game developers would really get behind this idea. Because, there’s definitely that sense among some game developers that it would ruin the fun to be serious about making people happy or improving real life. Is it corny? Does it take away from the fantasy of games? I think there will be a huge part of the game development world that continues to feel that way. But what I’m seeing every year at the gamers’ conferences in a higher percentage of the game industry waking up to the responsibility that comes with the power. I hate to say this, but it’s not so much about wanting to make the world a better place as it is saying, “Wow, we are wielding a tremendous amount of power over young people’s lives. This is great; we’ve invented this powerful medium that’s capable of engaging people like nothing else. But is that what we want to do with our lives, or do we want to do something that matters while we’re wielding that power?”
If you make it a game, gamers will play it no matter what your motivation is in making it. FoldIt is a good example. Clearly, a lot of gamers would rather cure cancer while they’re gaming than do nothing while they’re gaming. It didn’t make the game less exciting to be doing good; it made the game more exciting to be doing good. But it only works because they made a really good game.
Is the world ready for this idea that games can fix serious real-world problems?
In general, I think there are 2 groups of people who don’t push back at all. One are the hardcore gamers who know that they’re capable of doing amazing things and are happy to hear somebody actually talk about that possibility seriously. There’s been a lot of talk about gamers as if they’re wasting their lives, or they’re never going to amount to anything, or they’re not learning anything that really matters. People who play a lot of games love to hear this idea—the games that you love could become a part of your life, not a distraction from your life.
Parents of gamers also seem to get it right away. Parents know that their kids are capable of doing extraordinary things, and they want to believe the best in them—and to have somebody explain to them the science of why games could actually empower their kids rather than waste their lives. They see how much time their kids are playing games and they know that there’s nothing wrong with their kids. They just don’t understand what that passion is about.
People who don’t have gamer friends or family are the hardest to convince. There’s still a perception that games are like single-player experiences with guns more often than not. Usually I have to explain to people that 3 out of 4 gamers prefer cooperative to competitive, and that the majority of our game play is social.
Greetings from South Africa, where I’ve been visiting these past two weeks. It’s a country of great beauty and cultural complexity. Besides mastering driving on the left hand side of the road, and not getting too excited when I see “ROBOT” painted in giant white letters on the road (it means stop lights ahead), I made a stop at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The events surrounding the real District 6 were part of the inspiration for both the title and content of District 9, the great 2009 science fiction mockumentary set in South Africa.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is about a group of aliens who arrive on a mysterious mother ship hovering above South Africa. Eventually the authorities send an expedition up to find out what’s going on and discover a bunch of starving aliens. They are settled in a South African township called District 9, directly below the mother ship (a squatter camp in the township of Soweto, called Chiawelo, was used for the shooting). Much of the story revolves around the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Besides being confined to the township and being forcibly relocated, they suffer various other kinds of oppression very reminiscent of the ways blacks were treated during the time of apartheid. Interestingly, in this case, South Africans of all colors are united in their hatred and mistreatment of the aliens, derogatively called “Prawns” (not least because they look like supersized bipedal version of king prawns, a delicious crustacean that is often on the menu at nicer restaurants in South Africa).
It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.
A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.
Here’s the extended version of our interview with director Joe Kosinski from the December issue of DISCOVER, in which the first-time feature film director talks about reinventing the light cycle, building suits with on-board power, and how time passes in Tron compared to the real world.
Why return to Tron, and why now?
The original Tron was conceptually so far ahead of its time with this notion of a digital version of yourself in cyberspace. I think people had a hard time relating to in the early 1980s. We’ve caught up to that idea—today it’s kind of second nature.
Visually, Tron it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before: Completely unique. Nothing else looked like it before, and nothing else has looked like it since—you know, hopefully until our movie comes out.
How did you think about representing digital space as a physical place?
Where the first movie tried to use real-world materials to look at digital as possible, my approach has been the opposite: to create a world that felt real and visceral. The world of Tron has evolved [since it's been] sitting isolated, disconnected from the Internet for the last 28 years. And in that time, it had evolved into a world where the simulation has become so realistic that it feels like we took motion picture cameras into this world and shot the thing for real. It has the style and the look of Tron, but it’s executed in a way that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s virtual. I built as many sets as I could. We built physically illuminated suits. The thing I’m most proud of is actually creating a fully digital character, who’s one of the main characters in our movie.
What did you keep from Tron, and what evolved?
A few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.
The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.
Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.
A way back, in 1999, the SyFy channel (then called SciFi) show Farscape featured an episode in which the mad genius Nam Tar offered to take DNA samples form our fugitive crew and use it to provide a roadmap back to each of their home planets. Ostensibly, NamTar could trace the mutations in their DNA back to their planetary origins, and, using that data, provide a road map back to their home planets.
This was one of those times when a science fiction show’s writers had less imagination than reality: Not only can we use DNA to trace back to our origins (though only locally, on this planet); we make art out of it.
I heard about artist Lynn Fellman at a talk by Ira Flatow, of Science Friday fame: Working with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Outreach/Engagement Center, Fellman sent DNA samples from seven north Minneapolis residents to The Genographic Project, which specializes in population genetics. The lab analyzed mutations in the DNA to provide an ancestral path for each resident from present day Minneapolis down through pre-history to humanity’s origins in Africa. Fellman turned these maps into art for UROC’s Deep Ancestry exhibit.
I’m a science educator. I often think, nay obsess, on how I can do my part to help bring more scientific literacy into everybody’s daily life. In a recent blog post entitled The Myth of Scientific Literacy, worthy of a read, Dr. Alice Bell opines that if we (scientists, educators, politicians) are going to plead the case for increased science literacy, then we should do a better job of defining just what we mean by “science literacy.” She says:
Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:
- Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
- Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
- Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured
On the first point, I do think that there are some basic science facts which should be required fodder in K-12 education. From my field alone, people should not only know that Earth orbits the sun, they should know that our year is based upon the time takes Earth to complete the journey. Don’t laugh. On my last birthday, when I told folks that I’d completed another orbit of the Sun, a distressing number of them did not understand the implication and, upon further questioning, didn’t know that Earth’s orbital period was the basis of one year. K-12 students should know that the Moon orbits Earth, why it goes through phases, and given it’s significance (in particular for several religious holidays), that our month is based upon that orbital period. Finally, everybody should know why we have seasons.
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.