Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2009

Robots In Our Image

By:

How a biblical creation myth replays itself from bone and muscle to jazz improvisation.

In labs around the world, a new breed is arising. A friendly breed of intelligent machines designed to look like us, move like us, behave like us, and interact with us in ways that seem less and less distinguishable from the human ways.

Cutting-edge AI projects aim, with an impressive degree of success, to embed human social and cognitive skills in intelligent machines that will eventually be able to seamlessly integrate into our social and cultural fabric. These machines will soon be able to read and understand our mental and emotional states and respond to them. They will be able to engage with us, to learn, adapt and share, challenging us to redefine our very conception of human identity and essence.

Here are 6 compelling beacons.

ASIMO

Robots walking amongst us has been a science fiction dream for many years. Recently, however, science is rapidly catching up in bringing this dream into reality. Japan’s technological giant Honda has been building an experimental anthropomorphic robot since the 80′s — ASIMO. His name stands for Advanced Step In Innovative Motion, but it’s hard to avoid associating it with Asimov, the iconic science-fiction author who envisioned intelligent humanoid robots in his stories and was the first to lay down the then-fictional 3 laws of robotics, regulating human-machine interactions.

Since as early as 2000, ASIMO’s advanced models have been capable, among other things, of demonstrating complex body movements, navigating complex environments, recognizing objects and faces, reacting to human postures, gestures and voice commands, and much more. ASIMO can safely conduct himself among us (not bumping into people) and perform an impressive set of complex tasks, like taking and order and serving coffee. Recent models even have limited autonomous learning capabilities.

KISMET

Social interaction, usually taken for granted in our everyday life, is a very complex system of signaling. We all use such signaling to share our rich mental and emotional inner lives. It includes voice, language production and understanding, facial expressions and many additional cues such as gesturing, eye contact, conversational distance, synchronization and more.

The Sociable Machine project at MIT has been exploring this complex system with Kismet, a “sociable machine” that engages people in natural and expressive face-to-face interaction.

The project integrates theories and concepts from infant social development, psychology, ethology and evolution that enable Kismet to enter into natural and intuitive social interaction.

The most significant achievement with Kismet is its ability to learn by direct interaction the way infants learn from their parents — previously a skill inherent only to biological species, and thus a major paradigm shift in robotics.

NEXI

Developed at MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group, Nexi combines ASIMO’s mobility with Kismet’s social interactivity skills. Nexi presents itself as an MDS robot, which stands for Mobile, Dexterous, and Social.

The purpose of this platform is to support research and education goals in human-robot interaction, teaming, and social learning. In particular, the small footprint of the robot (roughly the size of a 3 year old child) allows multiple robots to operate safely within a typical laboratory floor space.

Nexi’s design adds advanced mobility and object manipulation skills to Kismet’s social interactivity. Nexi’s facial expressions, though basic, are engaging and rather convincing. It’s also hard to overlook the “cute” factor at play, reminiscent of human babies.

While still slow and very machine-like in appearance, Nexi demonstrates today what was science fiction just a few years ago.

HANSON ROBOTICS

Hardly anything is more essential to the recognition of humanity than facial expressions, which modulate our communication with cues about our feelings and emotional states. Hanson Robotics combines art with cutting-edge materials and technologies to create extremely realistic robotic faces capable of mimicking human emotional expressions, conversing quite naturally, recognizing and responding to faces, and following eye contact.

We feel that these devices can serve to help to investigate what it means to be human, both scientifically and artistically.

Jules, a Conversational Character Robot designed by David Hanson, has a remarkably expressive face and is equipped with natural language artificial intelligence that realistically simulates human conversational intelligence. This, together with his/her rich nonverbal interaction skills, offers a glimpse of how fast robots are becoming virtually indistinguishable from us — social, interactive, eerily affective.

The team is also working on a futuristic project aiming to develop machine empathy and machine value system based on human culture and ethics that will allow robots to bond with people.

ECCEROBOT

In the quest to create machines in our image, of particular interest is ECCEROBOT — a collaborative project coordinated and funded by the EU Seventh Framework Programme.

ECCE stands for Embodied Cognition in a Compliantly Engineered Robot. Simply put, it means that while other humanoid robots are currently designed to mimic human form but not its anatomy and physiological mechanisms, ECCEROBOT is anthropomimetic — specifically designed to replicate human bone, joint and muscle structure and their complex movement mechanism.

The project leaders believe that human-like cognition and social interaction are intimately connected to the robot’s embodiment. A robot designed according to a human body plan should thus engage more fluently and naturally in human-like behavior and interaction. Such an embodiment would also help researches build robots that learn to engage with their physical environment the way humans do — an interesting concept that brings us a step closer to creating human-like robotic companions.

SHIMON

Music, many of us believe, makes us distinctively human — playing music together, especially improvising, is perhaps one of the most impressive and complex demonstrations of human collaborative intelligence where the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

But extraordinarily skillful music-playing robots are already challenging this very belief. Earlier this year, we saw the stage debut of Shimon — a robotic marimba artist developed at the The Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology. Shimon doesn’t look the least bit human, entirely lacks mobility and affective social skills, but is capable of something definitely considered exclusively human — playing real-time jazz improvisation with a human partner.

Shimon isn’t merely playing a pre-programmed set of notes, but is capable to intelligently respond to fellow human players and collaborate with them, producing surprising variations on the played theme. The robot’s head (not on video), currently implemented in software animation, provides fellow musicians with visual cues that represent social-musical elements, from beat detection and tonality to attention and spatial interaction.

Spaceweaver is a thinker, futurist and writer living in future tense, mostly on the web. Check out his blogs at Space Collective and K21st, and follow him on Friendfeed and Twitter.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

01 SEPTEMBER, 2009

Kidrobot QR Scavenger Hunt

By:

Why vinyl is at the cutting edge of technology, or how to scan your way around Manhattan.

Since 2002, designer Paul Budnitz has been pushing the boundaries of what art toys can be in his iconic brand of super-premium vinyl toys, Kidrobot. Now, he is pushing the boundaries of what technology can do. As Android and other mobile platforms make QR codes an increasingly prevalent data tag format, why not have some fun with it? That’s exactly what Kidrobot is doing in Dunny Hunt 09 — a QR-based scavenger hunt around Manhattan, promoting Kidrobot’s Dunny Series 2009, from strategic creative studio WeArePlus.

The five-day hunt kicked off yesterday, offering Kidrobot fans daily clues leading to a promotional displays — posters, stickers, postcards, t-shirts — hidden all around the city. Kidrobot also provides links to free smartphone apps which, once installed, can be used to scan the QR codes embedded in the promotional displays. (Although their choice of iPhone app is BeeTagg Reader, we’d recommend UpCode instead.)

Victorious hunters can collect the day’s Virtual Dunny Collection image, with a chance to win various prizes, including limited-edition Dunny toys. The first person to scan the QR Code from the day’s hidden item wins a special reward. The grand prize is no less than a full set of the Dunny Series 2009 designer toys.

Dunny Series 2009 drops on September 10. Artists behind the collection include Amanda Visell, Mori Chack, Brandt Peters, Gary Taxali, Amy Ruppel, Travis Cain, Thomas Han, and more.

25 AUGUST, 2009

AskNature: The Biomimicry Design Portal

By:

Life lessons from the natural world, or what Galapagos sharks can teach us about healthcare.

Imagine that the solutions to the world’s most intractable problems already exist — right in front of us, just waiting for humanity to take notice. From carbon load to water scarcity, the biggest challenges of the near future are already solved somewhere in nature’s genius.

According to AskNature, the world’s first biomimicry portal, explores this untapped problem-solving treasure chest. Launched in November of 2008, the project is the brainchild of author, science consultant and TEDster Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute. And its mission is nothing short of saving the planet by encouraging designers and engineers to emulate nature, one evolutionarily designed organism at a time.

AskNature arose from the philosophy that the ultimate designer and engineer of life — a 3.8-million-year-old R&D department, as Benyus has called it — is life itself. The sister site to E. O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, the project provides an interactive open-source platform for the study of natural solutions to innate environmental problems. To date, the site contains a catalog of more than 1200 natural “strategies” for processes like chelation, desalination, and energy production.

Benyus laid out the framework for AskNature in her 2005 TED talk. With a brilliant presentation long in potential but short(er) in practical application, she made a compelling case for biomimicry — designing in the example of nature — as an alternative to unsustainable industries.

But this was only an introduction. When Benyus returned to TED this year, her presentation was replete with real-life entrepreneurial examples of businesses drawing on the natural world to devise sustainable products and technologies.

One such example comes from an engineer at the Japanese train manufacturer JR-West, who studied Kingfisher birds in mid-dive to determine how they avoided any splash upon impact, then applied this to minimizing the noise produced by bullet trains puncturing air pressure vacuums as they exit tunnels. That not only quieted the train, but made it go 10% faster on 15% less electricity.

Diving Kingfisher birds inspire quieter, more efficient trains.

In another instance of biomimetic implementation, aerospace firms Grimshaw Architects and Qinetic researched insects that collect water from fog, replicating these mechanisms in frost-repelling aircraft surfaces and skins for arid climes.

Perhaps the most compelling example is that of AQUAporin, a Danish cleantech company that finds its inspiration for water desalination technology in our very own red blood cells. With water scarcity topping experts’ lists of imminent global crises, AQUAporin’s biologically sourced method of osmosis could be the lifeblood of our collective future.

Human red blood cells provide a reverse osmosis model for water desalination.

These are just a few examples of biomimicry’s incredible, far-reaching potential for application, and yet billions are being spent in R&D labs around the world on reinventing the wheel when nature provides prolific, evolution-tested design and technology solutions. We find it astounding that, given how obvious biomimicry’s solutions seem, academy and industry haven’t been drawing on this latent knowledge all along.

The unique micro-scales on sharks

In 2005, Benyus pointed out the obstacle of disciplinary “silos” — the tendency of engineers, designers, scientists, technologists, and other professionals to work in isolation from each other, missing opportunities to synergize problem-solving. But the success of any biomimetic project depends on this interdisciplinary cross-pollination of ideas. AskNature invites practitioners from diverse fields to explore the library, contribute to it, and draw from each other’s knowledge in a way that yields truly revolutionary solutions.

Go ahead and AskNature how it created the foundation — and the ongoing miracle — of life. You’ll be amazed.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not doing the work spends far, far too much time on  Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.