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While it shocks me that test subjects in psychologist Solomon Asch’s experiments on conformity were at all swayed to ridiculous conclusions by groupthink, economist Tim Harford finds a silver lining in the cloud in his latest Financial Times column: Participants were independent more often than influenced. That’s true, but if a few minutes of suggestion can alter beliefs to a significant degree, what can longer term and more subtle social pressures do?

From Harford:

Asch gave his subjects the following task: identify which of three different lines, A, B or C, was the same length as a “standard” line. The task was easy in its own right but there was a twist. Each individual was in a group of seven to nine people, and everyone else in the group was a confederate of Asch’s. For 12 out of 18 questions they had been told to choose, unanimously, a specific incorrect answer. Would the experimental subject respond by fitting in with the group or by contradicting them? Many of us know the answer: we are swayed by group pressure. Offered a choice between speaking the truth and saying something socially convenient, we opt for social convenience every time.

But wait — “every time”? In popular accounts of Asch’s work, conformity tends to be taken for granted. I often describe his research myself in speeches as an example of how easily groupthink can set in and silence dissent. And this is what students of psychology are themselves told by their own textbooks. A survey of these textbooks by three psychologists, Ronald Friend, Yvonne Rafferty and Dana Bramel, found that the texts typically emphasised Asch’s findings of conformity. That was in 1990 but when Friend recently updated his work, he found that today’s textbooks stressed conformity more than ever.

This is odd, because the experiments found something more subtle. It is true that most experimental subjects were somewhat swayed by the group. Fewer than a quarter of experimental subjects resolutely chose the correct line every time. (In a control group, unaffected by social pressure, errors were rare.) However, the experiment found that total conformity was scarcer than total independence. Only six out of 123 subjects conformed on all 12 occasions. More than half of the experimental subjects defied the group and gave the correct answer at least nine times out of 12. A conformity effect certainly existed but it was partial.•

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An iteration of the Asch Experiment:

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I’ve mentioned this story before, but when I was a small child, I was taking a bus trip with my parents from the Port Authority early one morning, and we saw Truman Capote seated on the benches, wearing a big straw hat, wasted out of his mind. He was trying to get a homeless woman to talk to him. “Come over here, dear,” he kept urging her. She had no interest.

Here’s a half-hour portrait of Capote at the height of his career, as In Cold Blood was published.

The opening of a 1994 New Scientist interview with sociological salesman Alvin Toffler, which, among other things, reflects on his incredibly popular 1970 book, Future Shock:

Question:

What led you to write Future Shock? 

Alvin Toffler:

While covering Congress, it occurred to us that big technological and social changes were occurring in the United States, but that the political system seemed totally blind to their existence. Between 1955 and 1960, the birth control pill was introduced, television became universalized [sic], commercial jet travel came into being and a whole raft of other technological events occurred. Having spent several years watching the political process, we came away feeling that 99 per cent of what politicians do is keep systems running that were laid in place by previous generations of politicians.

Our ideas came together in 1965 in an article called ‘The future as a way of life,’ which argued that change was going to accelerate and that the speed of change could induce disorientation in lots of people. We coined the phrase ‘future shock’ as an analogy to the concept of culture shock. With future shock you stay in one place but your own culture changes so rapidly that it has the same disorienting effect as going to another culture.

Question:

Were you surprised by the reaction to the book? 

Alvin Toffler:

I think that it touched a nerve. Remember we were coming out of the Sixties, countries were being torn apart, change was almost out of control for a period. It touched a nerve, it gave a language, it introduced a metaphor that people could use to describe their own experience.

Question:

Looking back to 1970 when the book came out, how would you have done it differently? 

Alvin Toffler:

The great weakness was the book wasn’t radical enough, although everybody said it was a very radical book. The reason for that is that we introduced the concept of the general crisis of industrialism. Marx had talked about the general crisis of capitalism and the argument of the left was always that capitalism would collapse upon itself and socialism would triumph. We argued that both capitalism and socialism would collapse eventually because both were the offspring of industrial civilization, and that we were on the edge of a new way of life, a new civilization. Had we understood more deeply the consequences of that idea we would not have accepted as naively as we did the forecasts of the economists. If you think that economists are arrogant now, in the Sixties they were really riding high. They claimed we would never have another recession, and the reason was that we understand how the economy works, and ‘all we have to do is fine-tune it” as one economist told us. We were young and naive and we bought that notion. We should have anticipated that the revolution we were talking about would have hit the economy in a much deeper way.•

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Orson Welles narrated the 1972 documentary McGraw-Hill produced about Toffler‘s bestsellerThe movie is odd and paranoid and overheated and fun.

Paul Ehrlich was not subtle, as people seldom are when throwing around the word “bomb.”

The Stanford insect biologist spent the ’60s and ’70s scaring the bejeezus out of people, predicting imminent societal collapse due to overpopulation, with hundreds of millions starving to death. In the big picture, he was right that environmental damage would prove challenging to the survival of the human species, but the devil was in the details, and his presumptions about the short-term ramifications of overpopulation were way off the mark.

Justin Fox of Bloomberg Review reflects on Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, a Malthusian message so chillingly effective that he did a solid hour one evening on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The opinion writer finds the philippic a mixed blessing. He points out the scientist’s wrong-mindedness about overcrowding while acknowledging that today’s widely held anti-Ehrlich belief that population will level off naturally could also be incorrect.

One note: Embedded below the Bloomberg excerpt is a new NYT documentary about the ominous prognostication that never came to pass. In it, a comment Ehrlich makes reveals the misanthropy that has always seemed to be lurking behind his views. It’s this: “The idea that every woman should have as many babies as she wants is, to me, exactly the same kind of idea as everybody ought to be permitted to throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.” Wow.

From Fox:

In a just-released New York Times mini-documentary on the book and its aftermath, the now-83-year-old Stanford biologist says insufferable things like, “One of the things that people don’t understand is that timing to an ecologist is very, very different from timing to an average person.” Uh, then why did you write a book clearly aimed at average people that confidently predicted that in the 1970s hundreds of millions would die of famine? “I expressed more certainty because I was trying to bring people to get something done.” (In that vein he also co-founded the activist group Zero Population Growth, rechristened in 2002 as Population Connection.)

Still, I figured I’d give the book itself a chance. I’ve had a copy for years, and thanks to a recentbook-sorting projectI was able to find it in a matter of seconds this morning. Because it’s not very long, I was able to read it in an hour or two. And I have to say it surprised me.

First of all, half of Ehrlich’s prediction came true. He forecast in the book that global population, about 3.5 billion at the time, would double by 2005. He was only six years off on that — world population hit 7 billion in 2011 — which I figure counts as getting it right.

What Ehrlich famously got wrong was the planet’s carrying capacity. Sure, global population doubled. But thanks to theGreen Revolution, per-acre grain yields went up much faster than that. The inflection point in global agricultural productivity, in fact, came just as Ehrlich was finishing his book.

Here’s the interesting thing, though — Ehrlich was well aware that this was a possibility.•

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“Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.”

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Of all the great things robotics have brought to our lives, Der Boxroboter is responsible for none of them. The aforementioned fighting machine was a German-manufactured 1980s sparring partner promised to be an alloy Ali. Watch it jab in the video below at the 20:35 mark. From a 1987 Sports Illustrated piece:

The German Democratic Republic is very advanced in the use of scientific training methods for its athletes. Now the East Germans have beaten the world to the punch in the sport of boxing. Meet Der Boxroboter, a GDR-designed-and-built computerized robot that can hang in there with the best of fighters for hours on end. ”It’s tough to find good sparring partners, especially for heavyweights,” says Dieter Seala of the GDR trade mission, which plans to market DBs internationally for a little more than $33,000 apiece. ”Human sparring partners get tired after a few rounds. They get punched too many times and lose their consistency.”

DB is not just a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot. It can be programmed to assume any fighting style — attack the upper body, go for the belly, back an opponent into a corner — and is allegedly quicker across the ring than any human boxer. DB is equally adept at throwing rights and lefts and has great wheels (literally).•

In 1973, the former child preacher Marjoe Gortner was hired by OUI, a middling vagina periodical of the Magazine Age, to write a deservedly mocking article about the American visit of another youthful religious performer, the 16-year-old Maharaj Ji, an adolescent Indian guru who promised to levitate the Houston Astrodome, a plot that never got off the ground. Two excerpts from the resulting report published the following May, which revealed a tech-friendly and futuristic cult leader, who would have been right at home in today’s Silicon Valley.

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The guru’s people do the same thing the Pentecostal Church does. They say you can believe in guru Maharaj Ji and that’s fantastic and good, but if you receive light and get it all within, if you become a real devotee-that is the ultimate. In the Pentecostal Church you can be saved from your sins and have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, but the ultimate is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This is where you get four or five people around and they begin to talk and more or less chant in tongues until sooner or later the person wanting the baptismal experience so much-well, it’s like joining a country club: once you’re in, you’ll be like everyone – else in the club.

The people who’ve been chanting say, “Speak it out, speak it out,” and everything becomes so frenzied that the baptismalee will finally speak a few words in tongues himself, and the people around him say, “Oh, you’ve got it.” And the joy that comes over everybody’s faces! It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. They feel they have got the Holy Spirit like all their friends, and once they’ve got it, it’s forever. It’s quite an experience.

So essentially they’re the same thing pressing on your eyes while your ears are corked, and standing around the altar speaking in tongues. They’re both illuminating experiences. The guru’s path is interesting, though. Once you’ve seen the light and decided you want to join his movement, you give over everything you have–all material possessions. Sometimes you even give your job. Now, depending on what your job is, you may be told to leave it or to stay. If you stay, generally you turn your pay checks over to the Divine Light Mission, and they see that you are housed and clothed and fed. They have their U. S. headquarters in Denver. You don’t have to worry about anything. That’s their hook. They take care of it all. They have houses all over the country for which they supposedly paid cash on the line. First class. Some of them are quite plush. At least Maharaj Ji’s quarters are. Some of the followers live in those houses, too, but in the dormitory-type atmosphere with straw mats for beds. It’s a large operation. It seems to be a lot like the organization Father Divine had back in the Thirties. He did it with the black people at the Peace Mission in Philadelphia. He took care of his people-mostly domestics and other low-wage earners–and put them up in his own hotel with three meals a day.

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

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The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of ‘modular units adaptable to any desired shape.’ The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•

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“The Houston Astrodome will physically separate itself from the planet which we call Earth and will fly.”

In 1972, when this variety special was recorded, Bob Hope had already turned into a terrible comedian, but Bobby Fischer was not yet behaving like a terrible person. The chess champ had just “won the Cold War,” besting his Russian counterpart Boris Spassky before the world in a bravura if sometimes bewildering performance. Long before Watson, Fischer was a supercomputer with his wires crossed, unable to conquer just one opponent: himself. While sharing a stage with Hope, he believed he knew what his future held, but he didn’t even know what was lurking inside of himself. Things were going to get strange and stranger.

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Sir Hubert Wilkins, polar explorer, was familiar with investigating uncharted swatches of the globe by air, but in 1931 his aim was lower, as he commanded the Nautilus expedition whose goal was be the first to explore the North Pole by submarine. The voyage, which began in New York Harbor, was a grueling, troubled one, and after casualty and numerous engine failures, his benefactor, William Randolph Hearst, begged the adventurer, via wireless, to end the mission. Eventually Wilkins acquiesced, but not before proving a submarine could operate underneath the polar ice cap. Prior to the journey, Wilkins was thought to be batty for even trying, being seriously doubted in an article in the May 2, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Below the piece is Wilkins’ 1958 What’s My Line? appearance.

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“It was thought to be fantasy”:

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I loved video games as a child and have no interest in them as an adult, and I wonder sometimes if that’s because it seems like we live inside one 24/7 now. Our heads are in the cloud, our lives held in devices, and that experiment in anarchy we encounter on the Internet is going to increasingly career back into the physical world, as real and virtual forge a new partnership. What a game it will be.

Even to a non-gamer like myself, No Man’s Sky, a video game universe being built by a small team of designers and coders and artists outside London, sounds amazing. The interplanetary game has an essentially infinite playing field and a butterfly effect of interdependence so profound that even the creators are surprised by the causes and effects. Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker visited the Hello Games offices and brings a remarkable clarity to a runaway ambition that’s not yet fully realized. One example: He lucidly explains how “procedural generation”–producing content algorithmically rather than manually–allows a small independent company to turn out a blockbuster-sized vision. 

As for what I said above about feeling like we’re becoming players inside of a game, Khatchadourian said this in a Reddit AMA tied to his piece: “Your character won’t be defined as it is in many other games. In other words, you won’t have an avatar that you can build. You will be you.” And at the same time, you will not be you, not exactly. In that sense, the game seems appropriate to the moment.

An excerpt from “World Without End“:

We were in a lounge on the second floor of the renovated studio; concept art hung beside a whiteboard covered with Post-its. The furniture was bright, simple, IKEA. Sitting in front of a flat-screen TV the size of a Hummer windshield, [Sean] Murray loaded up a demo of the game that he had created for E3: a solar system of six planets. Hoping to preserve a sense of discovery in the game, he has been elusive about how it will play, but he has shared some details. Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal is to head toward the center, to uncover a fundamental mystery, but how players do that, or even whether they choose to do so, is open to them. People can mine, trade, fight, or merely explore. As planets are discovered, information about them (including the names of their discoverers) is loaded onto a galactic map that is updated through the Internet. But, because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance. As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.

Sitting in the lounge, we began on a Pez-colored planet called Oria V. Murray is known for nervously hovering during demos. “I’ll walk around a little, then I’ll let you have the controller for a bit,” he said. I watched as he traversed a field of orange grass, passing cyan ferns and indigo shrubs, down to a lagoon inhabited by dinosaurs and antelope. After three planets and five minutes, he handed me the controller, leaving me in a brilliantly colored dreamscape, with crystal formations, viridescent and sapphire, scattered in clusters on arid earth. Single-leaf flora the height of redwoods swayed like seaweed. I wandered over hills and came to a sea the color of lava and waded in. The sea was devoid of life. With the press of a button, I activated a jet pack and popped into the air. Fog hung across the sea, and Murray pointed to the hazy outline of distant cliffs. “There are some sort of caves over there,” he said, and I headed for them. The No Man’s Sky cosmos was shaped by an ideal form of wildness—mathematical noise—and the caves were as uncharted as any material caves. I climbed into one of them. “Let’s see how big it is,” Murray said.•

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This very melodramatic postmortem of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the March 9, 1917 Brooklyn Daily Eagle asserts that the dirigible builder passed away a broken man because his airships were deemed no longer worthy of bombing missions meant to reduce humans to piles of limbs. Interesting to note Zeppelin was a young German military officer when he encountered his first transport balloons while traveling in America during the Civil War, meeting aeronauts Thaddeus Lowe and John Steiner. (In the top photo, taken in 1863, the German visitor is the second from the right, an embed with a Union unit.) It wasn’t until he was past 50 that Zeppelin was able to completely devote himself to his long-deferred dream of popularizing dirigibles, and his successes with the ships, among many failures, helped make mass air travel seem like destiny.

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1912: “Zeppelin’s first cruise over Germany.”

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One revelation from the Reddit AMA conducted by Philip Zimbardo, still best known for the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a dress rehearsal more or less for Abu Ghraib, was that the psychologist was high school classmates with Stanley Milgram, author of the equally controversial “Obedience to Authority” study. That must have been some high school! Zimbardo was joined by writer Nikita Coulombe, to discuss their new book Man (Dis)connected. A few exchanges follow about the notorious test at Stanford.

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Question:

If you had a chance to do the Stanford Prison Experiment again, what would you do differently?

Philip Zimbardo:

Yes I would, I would have only played the role of researcher and there would be someone above me, who would be the superintendent of the prison and when things got out of hand I would have been in a better position to terminate the study earlier and more appropriately.

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Question:

In context of the famous prison experiment, when you were first organizing it, what were some of the specific dangers you tried to avoid?

Philip Zimbardo:

We selected young men who were physically healthy and psychologically normal, we had prior arrangements with student health if that was necessary. Each student was given informed consent, so they knew that there would likely be some levels of stress, so they had some sense of what was to come. Physical violence by the guards, especially if there was a revolt, solitary confinement beyond the established one hour limit, but primarily trying to minimise acts of sexual degradation.

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Question:

Being particularly interested in social psychology, I’m a big fan of what you have accomplished through your research. I was wondering what really got you interested in social psychology, and your research is connected to that of Stanley Milgram, another favourite psychologist of mine – so what I’m asking is what initially got you into this field of psychology, and what did you think of Milgram’s research when you first came across it?
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Philip Zimbardo:

Thank you. I was interested in psychology from a young age: I grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and started wondering why some people would go down certain paths, like joining a gang, while others didn’t. I was also high school classmates with Stanley Milgram; we were both asking the same questions.

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Question:

If there was a film adaptation dramatizing the events of the Stanford Prison Experiment, who would you want to play you?

Philip Zimbardo:

Glad you asked the question, amazingly there is a new Hollywood movie that just premiered at the Sundance film festival to great reviews winning lots of prizes titled The Stanford Prison Experiment. It will have national showings in America starting in July and hopefully in Europe in the Fall. I was hoping that the actor who would play me would be either Johnny Depp or Andy Garcia but they were not available so instead a wonderful young actor, Billy Crudup is Dr Z. You may be aware of his great acting in Almost Famous and Dr Manhattan in Watchmen.•

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“Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside–don’t you know?”:

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The second entry in the New York Times’ “Robotica” video series is a look at military-automation research by the Navy in San Diego. Right now the driverless vehicles and pet-like machines are being developed as tools to help “take our war fighters out of harm’s way,” but they will certainly be delegated more integral roles over time.

“I don’t see a robot that’s a killer robot,” says computer engineer Mark Tjersland, not seeming to realize he’s working on a project ripe for mission creep. Navy Bomb Technician Jeremy Owen acknowledges the military’s ultimate goal: “You’ll never completely eliminate the soldier from the fight, as much as they want to try to… maybe in a hundred years.”

Of course. even semi-autonomy could make robots deadlier, as drones have shown us, perhaps making war unthinkable–or even more inviting to those nations flourishing in advanced robotics.

For some reason, people long for their cars to fly. In the 1930s it was believed that Spanish aviator Juan de la Cierva had made the dream come true, although he coincidentally died in an air accident in Amsterdam just as his roadable flying machine was proving a success in Washington D.C.

In 1920, the man from Murcia invented the Autogiro, a single-rotor-type aircraft which led several years later to his creation of an articulated rotor that made possible the world’s first flight of a stable rotary-wing aircraft. The American government licensed the technology and eventually turned out a working prototype of a flying car, hoping that suburbanites would soon soar to work from their backyards directly to helipads atop city office buildings. If they needed to nose down and drive on a highway, that would be possible.

The test was deemed a success on road and in sky (even though the machine was clearly more plane than automobile). Sadly, almost simultaneous to the triumphant run, Cierva was killed while a passenger aboard a standard Dutch airliner that crashed in England.

The aerobile was clearly never made available for public consumption, probably owing to safety and cost concerns. One enterprising hotel in Miami, however, purchased a roadable Autogiro and used it to fly guests to the beach, further enticing them by employing celebrity pilot Jim Ray, who had handled the D.C. test run.

An excerpt from an article about the test and tragedy overlapping, published in the December 13, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

  • The D.C. demonstration of the Autogiro:

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In 2010, Mitch Moxley wrote “Rent a White Guy,” an amusing and insightful first-person Atlantic report about being hired by a Chinese firm to be a make-believe American businessperson. “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face,” he was told. In a New York Times documentary short, David Borenstein provides an excellent visual tour of the practice five years on, as it’s become fashionable for desperate real-estate developers of remotely located properties to temporarily stock their buildings with Western workers or performers to make the provincial neighborhoods appear like “international cities of the future.” It reveals a sense of inferiority still felt by the Chinese even as they’ve moved to the center of the global stage. He describes the assignment thusly:

In provincial West China, I filmed specialty firms that collect groups of foreigners whom they rent out to attend events. Clients can select from a menu of skin colors and nationalities; whites are the most desirable and expensive. The most frequent customers are real estate companies. They believe that filling their remote buildings with foreign faces, even for a day, suggests that the area is “international,” a buzzword in provincial areas that often translates to “buy.”•

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Killing just got easier, as DARPA reports its made great strides with “guided bullets,” which allow a novice to hit a long-range moving target every time. You will no longer murder the wrong person, just the ones you intend to shoot. No ammo wasted.

Video from February tests of the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program.

Putting ants to shame, Stanford University’s Biomimetics Dextrous Manipulation Laboratory has produced tiny robots, which operate similar to inchworms, that can haul 100 hundred times their weight. Huge long-term implications for construction and emergency rescues, like the one we’re currently witnessing in Nepal. From Aviva Rutkin at New Scientist:

Mighty things come in small packages. The little robots in this video can haul things that weigh over 100 times more than themselves.

The super-strong bots – built by mechanical engineers at Stanford University in California – will be presented next month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle, Washington.

The secret is in the adhesives on the robots’ feet. Their design is inspired by geckos, which have climbing skills that are legendary in the animal kingdom. The adhesives are covered in minute rubber spikes that grip firmly onto the wall as the robot climbs. When pressure is applied, the spikes bend, increasing their surface area and thus their stickiness. When the robot picks its foot back up, the spikes straighten out again and detach easily.

The bots also move in a style that is borrowed from biology.•

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We mostly eat horribly, so if it made us healthier to quantify our calories burned with a smartphone fitness app and use a nutrition app to plan our dinner, that would be good, wouldn’t? I mean, even if we weren’t the ones exactly making the correct decision. In a Nautilus video, systems theorist David Krakauer speaks to the dark side of being governed by algorithms.

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An excellent New York Times short-form video report “Cheaper Robots, Fewer Workers” by Jonah M. Kessel and Taige Jensen delves into the automation of labor in China, which claims it suffers a shortage of workers in some provinces and districts despite its immense population in the aggregate. Chinese firms say employees displaced by faster, cheaper machines are offered better positions, but that appears, unsurprisingly, to not be the case.

You probably wouldn’t want to live in a country left behind by robotics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great societal challenges for those nations that thrive in this new age.

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Apart from a few exceptions, any job that can be automated will be automated. Weak AI may seem dull, but it’s capable and relentless. Hanson Robotics is trying with “Han” and “Eva” to make things more interesting while rolling the future forward, developing machines that look like us and can react to voices and recognize faces. Perfect for customer service and myriad other services.

It’s fun staying at hotels but not at hospitals. Both, however, are starting the process of automating delivery services. Aloft Hotels began experimenting with robot butlers last year and the new Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki hopes to employ enough AI to halve its service force. People making these machines (while they’re still made by people) will have good jobs, but other fields will be wiped away almost entirely, disappeared along with travel agencies and video stores.

A Scottish university hospital has just invested a couple of million dollars in delivery drones. It will probably be a good thing for the facility and its patients, but we’ll likely have to eventually reckon with Labor destabilized by automation.

From Margi Murphy at Techworld:

South Glasgow University will task a fleet of 22robotswith trolleying medical equipment, food and linen around the hospital form next week.

The brand new hospital, which cost £842 million, spent £1.3 million on the drones – which have a lift to shuttle up and down the 14 storeys.

In a post on the hospital’s website, facilities manager Jim Magee said the robots would help boost patient services.

“The technology is brilliant. For example, the Swisslog Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) will return themselves to a charging station if their power is running low.

The robots sit together at pick-up points waiting until they are needed, replacing each other when necessary.•

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“Safe and accurate navigation”:

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Francisco Cândido Xavier was a prolific writer, though he had help.

At least, that’s what the Brazilian man affectionately known as Chico Xavier claimed. He fancied himself as a ghostwriter for ghosts, a medium who would “receive” the books from the deceased and transcribe them. Psicografía, it is called. The opening ofDead Man Talking,” Laura Premack’s Boston Review article:

In Brazil, dead people write books. Not only do they write books, they sell them. Many fly off the shelves.

The process is called psicografía or psychography, also known in English as automatic writing: mediums go into trance, channel the spirits of the deceased, and record their words. Sometimes mediums channel the spirits of famous writers and poets such as Victor Hugo and Humberto de Campos, the renowned Brazilian poet and journalist whose family sued the medium-author of several collections of his supposedly posthumous poems and essays—not because they objected on principle but because they wanted a share of the profits. Sometimes mediums channel historical figures, such as nineteenth-century politician Bezerra de Menezes, and sometimes they channel unknowns.

Brazil’s most prolific and beloved medium was Francisco Cândido Xavier. Known fondly as Chico Xavier, he published more than 400 books from 1932 until his death at age ninety-two in 2002. At least 25 million copies of his books have been sold, likely more. They have been translated into many languages, including Greek, Japanese, and Braille. His Nosso Lar, a sort of spiritual memoir first published in 1944, is probably the biggest psychographic hit ever. More than sixty Brazilian editions have been printed and nearly 2 million copies sold.

In addition to publishing books, Xavier used his psychographic ability to record more than ten thousand letters from dead people to their families.•

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Beginning in 1970, Chico Xavier began appearing on the TV show Pingo Fogo.

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The kitchen of 1985, as predicted in 1964: fast-growing indoor gardens, self-sufficient power supply, closed-circuit televisions, automated cleaning, etc. The above photo is an Avedon from Harper’s Bazaar of the ’60s.

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On a panel shared by Elon Musk, Bill Gates briefly discusses superintelligence and its threat to humans, recommending Nick Bostrom’s book on the topic. Gates thinks our brains make for substandard hardware, and he argues that if machines can be made to be intelligent, they will almost immediately run in a direction far beyond us, with no intermediate stage needed for crawling or toddling. For a couple of minutes beginning at the 19:30 mark.

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Iron chefs may truly be made from metal if Moley Robotics brings its AI cook to the market in 2017 as planned. The idea is that you call in your order on a smartphone and the machine at home can make any of 2,000 recipes (though so far it’s only perfected one: crab bisque). Who knows if the company’s robot will be ready for the kitchen in two years and if the price can really initially be kept to a not-so-modest $15,000, but this is the general direction many restaurants (and perhaps homes) are headed. From Megan Gibson at Time:

Moley, which was founded by computer scientist Mark Oleynik, has partnered with the London-based Shadow Robot Company, which developed the kitchen’s hands. Twenty motors, two dozen joints and 129 sensors are used in order to mimic the movements of human hands. The robotic arms and hands are capable of grasping utensils, pots, dishes and various bottles of ingredients. Olyenik says that the robot hands are also capable of powering through cooking tasks quickly, though they’ve been designed to move quite slowly, so as not to alarm anyone watching it work.

Sadly for vegetarians, like Shadow Robot’s managing director Rich Walker, crab bisque is the only dish the robot is currently able to make. However, the company plans to build a digital library of 2,000 recipes before the kitchen is available to the wider public. Moley ambitiously aims to scale the robot chef for mass production and begin selling them as early as 2017. The robotic chef, complete with a purpose-built kitchen, including an oven, hob, dishwasher and sink, will cost £10,000 (around $15,000). Yet that price point will depend on a relatively high demand for the kitchen and it’s still unclear how large the market is for such a product at the moment.•

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“It has created what it claims is the first robot chef.”

The kitchen of the future as presented by Walter Cronkite in 1967.

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The sun is dying, and I’m not feeling so great myself.

Unless we figure out a clever way to “fix” our star, we’re going to have to get off spaceship Earth at some point, moving to Mars or Titan or elsewhere. That’s the only way our species can survive (though our species will be completely different by then).

In a Salon piece, astronomer Chris Impey presents a passage from his latest book, Beyond: Our Future In Space, which looks at many facets of space colonization, from law to sex to evolution to transhumanism. An excerpt:

A mass exodus from Earth is implausible. After all, it costs $50 billion just to send a dozen people to the Moon for a few days. Elon Musk may claim he’ll reduce the price of a trip to Mars to $500,000, which is a hundred thousand times less, but that seems unlikely at the moment. If the Earth becomes contaminated or inhospitable, we’ll have to live in bubble domes, fix it, or suffer through it. Nonetheless, in this century a first cohort of adventurous humans will probably cut the umbilical and live off-Earth. What issues will they face?

Beyond survival, their first issue is their legal status. As we’ve seen, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty addresses ownership. According to Article II, “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” That seems transparent, but it doesn’t mention the rights of individuals. Bas Lansdorp, the CEO of Mars One, said his legal experts looked into the treaty. He thinks that “what goes for governments also goes for individuals in those governments.” If Mars One achieves its goal, thirty people will settle the red planet by 2023; the gradually expanding settlement will use more and more Martian land. Lansdorp insists that their goal isn’t ownership. “It is allowed to use land, just not to say that you own it,” he says. “It is also allowed to use resources that you need for your mission. Don’t forget that a lot of these rules were made long ago, when a human mission to Mars was not within reach.”

Some space players claim altruistic motives, but none of them can succeed without revenue to fuel their dreams. What happens when profit is the only goal?

Large multinational corporations are bound by international trade law, but they could plausibly argue that they have the right to use, even to exhaust, the resources of an extraterrestrial body. A government that wanted to appropriate land on the Moon or Mars might withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty, and it’s unlikely it would suffer any serious -consequences. Even Mars One exists in a legal limbo. Bas Lansdorp needs to fund his $6 billion mission: “Imagine how many people would be interested in a grain of sand from the New World!”

At some point, the debate will stop being hypothetical.•

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Carl Sagan waxing philosophically about the need for humans to eventually colonize space, to curl up like newborns on comets and fly like birds on Titan, going on after the sun dies but before the universe does.

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