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.
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.
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.
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.
If you had a chance to do the Stanford Prison Experiment again, what would you do differently?
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.
In context of the famous prison experiment, when you were first organizing it, what were some of the specific dangers you tried to avoid?
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.
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? permalink
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.
If there was a film adaptation dramatizing the events of the Stanford Prison Experiment, who would you want to play you?
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 titledThe 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.•
“Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside–don’t you know?”:
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.
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.”•
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.•
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.
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.
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.
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 of “Dead 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.•
Beginning in 1970, Chico Xavier began appearing on the TV show Pingo Fogo.
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.
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.
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.•
“It has created what it claims is the first robot chef.”
The kitchen of the future as presented by Walter Cronkite in 1967.
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, whichlooks 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.•
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.
Wearables will soon be small enough that you’ll forget you’re wearing them, and you’ll have no idea who else is. They’ll have many great applications and will improve life, but I bet there’ll be times when we long for the dorky obviousness of Google Glass. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shows off the button-sized Curie Module, available in the second half of 2015, by “conducting” a group of robot spiders.
A 1975 NASA video touting the design for the Stanford torus, the university’s proposal for a ring-shaped space colony. The agricultural model that was to provide sustenance was particularly interesting.
Festo’s eMotionButterflies, bionic and autonomous, participate in collective behavior and can likely be used for, among other things, the prettiest surveillance ever. From the company website:
Ten cameras installed in the room record the butterflies using their infrared markers. The cameras transmit the position data to a central master computer, which coordinates the butterflies from outside. The intelligent networking system creates a guidance and monitoring system, which could be used in the networked factory of the future.•
Stan Freberg, a household name for several decades in America, just passed away. He defied easy categorization, doing many things–satire, records, voice acting, radio, etc.–but was probably best at being an adman, lending the form a wryness and angst it hadn’t previously enjoyed. He was sort of the Philip Roth of the 30-second spot. Or maybe Joseph Heller? From his NYT obituary by Douglas Martin:
Mr. Freberg was a hard man to pin down. He made hit comedy records, voiced hundreds of cartoon characters and succeeded Jack Benny in one of radio’s most prestigious time slots. He called himself a “guerrilla satirist,” using humor as a barbed weapon to take on issues ranging from the commercialization of Christmas to the hypocrisy of liberals.
“Let’s give in and do the brotherhood bit,/Just make sure we don’t make a habit of it,” he sang in “Take an Indian to Lunch,” a song on the 1961 album “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,” a history lesson in songs and sketches. Time magazine said it may have been the “finest comedy album ever recorded.”
His radio sketches for CBS in 1957 included some of the earliest put-downs of political correctness (before that idea had a name). One sketch entailed a confrontation with a fictional network censor, Mr. Tweedlie, who insisted that Mr. Freberg change the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River,” starting with the title. He wanted it renamed “Elderly Man River.”
Mr. Freberg made his most lasting impact in advertising, a field he entered because he considered most commercials moronic. Usually working as a creative consultant to large agencies, he shattered Madison Avenue conventions. He once produced a musical commercial nearly six minutes long to explain why his client, Butternut Coffee, lagged behind its competitors by five years in developing instant brew.
His subversive but oddly effective approach caused Advertising Age to call him the father of the funny commercial and one of the 20th century’s most influential admen.•
With Dick Cavett, giving the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a deserved roasting.
A vintage Freberg Cheerios commercial, which was very offbeat for the time.
I feel like I’ve been living inside the second album from Public Service Broadcasting, The Race for Space, for years, so I’m glad the band finally recorded it.
Instrumental music applied to archival radio news reports from the era make for something glorious and epic (despite a relatively brief 48-minute running time). It’s the age of Sputnik and Apollo convincingly and beautifully re-awakened by two musicians who weren’t even alive at the time of the moon landing. An oddity, perhaps, but one with a wide embrace. From Richard Hollingham at the BBC:
We are all familiar with the visual icons of the space race – such as Gagarin being lauded in Red Square theEarthrise picturefrom Apollo 8 or the American flag on the lunar surface – but, for Willgoose, audio has proved just as emotive.
“Radio has the best pictures, there’s a certain amount of imagination that this music calls upon,” he says. “Our live shows are so video-heavy and we get a lot of presumptions that the music is totally reliant on the images but I think it’s the other way round.”•
There’s another passage from Andrew O’Hehir’s recent Salon interview with Alex Gibney I wanted to put up when I published the Going Clear one, a section about his forthcoming Steve Jobs documentary, but it seemed odd to combine them. Although, you know, cults!
An excerpt in which the director tries to explain why he believes there was a deluge of grief over the passing of Jobs, a businessman:
How does your approach to Jobs differ from the conventional wisdom?
It’s an impressionistic rumination on his life and what it means to us. I didn’t want to do a dutiful, stone-skipping, “Here are all the events in Steve Jobs’ life” movie. But I was interested in the idea that, when he died, people all over the world who didn’t know him from Adam were weeping. I mean, this guy was not like Martin Luther King Jr. or John Lennon. He was a businessman. But nobody is going to weep for Lloyd Blankfein when he goes. [Laughter.]
No. Or Bill Gates either, I think.
Or Bill Gates, despite the fact that Bill Gates has contributed more to make the world a better place than Steve Jobs ever did. That’s one of the things we get at, because what I got interested in was values. Not just the story of technology, but the story of values. Why do we care so much about him? And I think the answer — I hate to say “the answer,” because then why bother making the movie — but one of the answers is that he was our guide through this world of the computer. He introduced us to it. He made the computer warm and fuzzy. He made us feel like we were one with the computer. He came very much out of counterculture. He took acid, he went to Reed College and dropped out, he traveled around the world. It was all about “Think Different,” and putting up billboards with Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks.
Where did those values take us? By the end, they didn’t take us to such a nice place, although there are aspects of his life that I find very important and moving. For those who see the film as a slam, they’re looking at the wrong end of the telescope. Because a lot of the film is about us, it’s about how we deal with our machines. There’s a small group of people in the film, and they’re not always the ones you would think of. So I hope it ends up being an interesting and in some ways unexpected portrait. We spent a lot of time on his affection for Zen, for instance. We found some great footage of his spiritual adviser, Kobun Chino, talking about his first exchanges with Jobs. So it’s a meditation on many aspects of this person’s life.
Well, there’s such a contrast with Jobs. We have this person who was really a revolutionary and a visionary when it came to understanding the way people use technology, and then we have the effect he had on the culture of the American workplace.
We definitely talk about that. And as I say, there’s the question of values, expressed in terms of how Apple used and uses its corporate power. It’s one thing for Jobs to give the finger to IBM as a young man. But when you’re atop the most valuable corporation in history and you’re still giving the finger, to whom are you giving the finger?
Yet Apple still somehow has this cultural cachet of being an underdog company who we’re all supposed to root for.
Yes! And how that happens, I just don’t get. Last year I did a film about James Brown, and there’s a lot that’s similar about James Brown and Steve Jobs. He’s an awesome performer, on stage at those Apple events and presentations. Most people think of him as Edison. Steve Jobs was not Edison — he was a lot closer to P.T. Barnum.•
In a few months, Mattel is releasing an interactive, Wi-Fi-enabled version of its most iconic doll, and it’s only surprising that Siri and Barbie haven’t met sooner. It could be a great moment for teaching–or marketing and surveillance. From Natasha Singer at the New York Times:
This fall, Mattel plans to introduce Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the iconic doll, which uses ToyTalk’s system to analyze a child’s speech and produce relevant responses.
“She’s a huge character with an enormous back story,” Mr. Jacob says of Barbie. “We hope that when she’s ready, she will have thousands and thousands of things to say and you can speak to her for hours and hours.”
It was probably inevitable that the so-called Internet of Things — those Web-connected thermostats and bathroom scales and coffee makers and whatnot — would beget the Internet of Toys. And just like Web-connected consumer gizmos that can amass details about their owners and transmit that data for remote analysis, Internet-connected toys hold out the tantalizing promise of personalized services and the risk of privacy perils.
“Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing it?” asks Nicole A. Ozer, the director of technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?”
The advent of connected toys that can record and talk back to children is likely to deepen this debate over the Internet of Things because of the potential for these intelligent toys to powerfully affect children’s imagination, learning and social development.•
Sally Ride became the first American female to travel into space in 1983, and those enlightened designers at Mattel’s Barbie division were ready to pay tribute to the progress of women–well, to a point. Astronaut Barbie was a trailblazer in outer space, but she also enjoyed dancing in high heels under a disco ball. Seemingly intended for young girls with serious cocaine problems.