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When Timex introduced cheap, seemingly unbreakable watches in the 1950s, the product was given short shrift by both media and jewelers, but they soon were category leaders. The Timex Data Link of the 1990s, however, made in conjunction with Microsoft, was probably lavished with too much praise. Before computers were tiny and powerful, the Data Link was the first watch that could receive downloaded information. It wasn’t good enough, but it was (sort of) the future. As Apple releases more information today about the iWatch that no one seems to be clamoring for, here’s an excerpt from a 1994 New York Times article about the Data Link followed by a commercial for it.

“Talk about information at your fingertips. The Timex Corporation and the Microsoft Corporation said today that they had teamed up to develop a wristwatch that can store information received directly from a personal computer screen.

The Timex Data Link watch, which will cost about $130 when it goes on sale in September, uses a wireless optical scanning system to receive data from Microsoft software.

The Data Link watch was demonstrated today at a presentation by Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, who held it up to a computer as a series of bar-code lines flashed on the screen. After several seconds, Mr. Gates was able to scroll through personal information like appointment locations and telephone numbers at the touch of a button on the watch.

Fast Sales Predicted

C. Michael Jacobi, the president of Timex, predicted that the company would sell 200,000 of the watches in the final three months of this year, making it the fastest-selling watch ever in its price category.

The new watch looks like a regular round sports watch and includes such standard digital watch functions as a calendar, light, dual time-zone settings and alarms.

Using a microchip developed by Timex with Motorola Inc., the watch can store about 70 messages in its memory, downloading them in about 20 seconds, officials said.

Each watch will include software compatible with Microsoft Windows 3.1 and the company’s scheduling applications, such as Schedule Plus. The software also will be compatible with future versions of Windows, including a ‘Chicago’ upgrade expected out by the end of the year.

Users simply need to hold the watch about a foot away from their computer screens to download data, which can be done as often as needed.

Laptops Won’t Work

However, road warriors will be disappointed to learn that the watch will not work with laptop computers, which do not have a strong enough lighting source in their screens, Timex officials said.”•

Ross Andersen, Deputy Editor of Aeon, appearing on Tony Dokoupil’s MSNBC show, Greenhouse, to discuss existential risks to humanity and a potential colony being established on Mars by Elon Musk and SpaceX, a topic he covered at length in an excellent 2014 article.

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A house that’s impervious to storm and earthquake sounds pretty good right about now, and that was what Buckminster Fuller promised in 1929 when he introduced the Dymaxion House, an architectural dream never realized beyond a few prototypes. In a 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from a series on the future of the home, Fuller’s automated abode was given a public hearing. The opening of the piece below.

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“We are living in a spheroidal universe”:

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Google has withdrawn one of its recently purchased companies from the upcoming DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona, but the competition will continue apace, albeit with some accelerated marching orders (i.e., the cables have been cut). From Erico Guizzo at IEEE Spectrum:

In a call with reporters this afternoon, Gill Pratt, program manager for the DRC, said the tasks for the final challenge will be similar to the ones we saw at the trials. But this time the tasks will be “put together in a single mission” that teams have one hour to complete.

The robots will start in a vehicle, drive to a simulated disaster building, and then they’ll have to open doors, walk on rubble, and use tools. Finally they’ll have to climb a flight of stairs. But one more thing, Pratt said: there will be a surprise task waiting for the robots at the end.

Just when we thought the DRC couldn’t get any cooler—it just did. Naturally, Pratt declined to elaborate on what this mystery task might entail.

He also emphasized that now the robots will operate completely untethered. There won’t be cables to provide power and data—and to keep them from falling down. “They’ll have to get up on their own,” he said. “That’s raising the bar on how good the robots have to be.”•

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“Basically we have to cut the cord”:

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I posted last fall about Aloft Hotels introducing robotic butlers, machines that will likely be roaming the halls of every hotel chain in the near future. Here’s video footage of one such “worker” providing room service.

Allen Ginsberg was a great poet and performer, if a dubious person in other ways. Here he is in 1965 giving one of his rapturous readings at the Royal Albert Hall. 

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Dr. Eugenie Clark, an ichthyologist who specialized in sharks–even sleeping ones–just passed away at 92. She was not a fan of Jaws, the Spielberg blockbuster adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel. From her New York Times obituary by Robert D. McFadden:

For all her scientific achievements, Dr. Clark was also a figure of popular culture who used her books, lectures and expertise to promote the preservation of ecologically fragile shorelines, to oppose commercial exploitation of endangered species and to counteract misconceptions, especially about sharks.

She insisted that Jaws, the 1975 Steven Spielberg film based on a Peter Benchley novel, and its sequels inspired unreasonable fears of sharks as ferocious killers. Car accidents are far more numerous and terrible than shark attacks, she said in a 1982 PBS documentary, The Sharks.

She said at the time that only about 50 shark attacks on humans were reported annually and that only 10 were fatal, and that the great white shark portrayed in Jaws would attack only if provoked, while most of the world’s 350 shark species were not dangerous to people at all.

“When you see a shark underwater,” she said, “you should say, ‘How lucky I am to see this beautiful animal in his environment.’ ”•

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“The big ones are the females.”

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Harpo Marx kept his mouth shut even when answering questions on TV (here and here), but Marcel Marceau, mimetic Everyman and French Resistance hero, used his voice quite well when interviewed by James Day in San Francisco in 1974.

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There’s a lot more juice in that melon on our shoulders, but how to squeeze it out? Savants, whether congenital or by the consequence of head injury, have a portion of their brains that are super-developed to compensate for a part that’s underwhelming. How can we all unlock these gifts without a “lucky” concussion? From Allie Conti’s Vice interview with psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who specializes in savants:

Question:

How far are scientists from making all of us geniuses?

Darold Treffert:

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Allan Snyder’s work in Australia, but he uses what’s called RTMS, which is a rapid pulsation that you can apply to the scalp and actually immobilize an area of the brain with electrical currents. It’s used in neurology to discover the source of epilepsy, so it’s an accepted procedure. What he said was based largely on the work of Dr. [Bruce] Miller, who who studied 12 patients with dementia and discovered some of them developed some astounding abilities as their dementia proceeded. They tended to have lesions in the left temporal area. So Dr. Snyder said, “What if we took a group of volunteers and we immobilized parts of the left hemisphere temporarily? Would we see any special skills emerge?” He found subjects actually increased their abilities. So he’s developed something he calls the Thinking Cap, which you can put on and use. So there may be some technological approaches to enhancement.

Question:

What other ways can we bring out our inner geniuses, besides newfangled contraptions?

Darold Treffert:

In the long run, I don’t think we’re gonna have some striking technological solutions, although others disagree and feel there will be a capacity to turn on and turn off some of our abilities by using technology. Meditation is another method to access different circuity in the brain. And somebody wrote to me recently indicating that his idea was that the reason that a lot of [retirees] pick up new skills is not just because they have the time, but the aging process itself is producing “brain damage” which is leading them into new areas of ability. And I think that’s probably true.

Question:

If everyone became a genius through a medically induced process, would the world descend into chaos?

Darold Treffert:

I think the more that we access our hidden potential the better. We’re not gonna all be Picassos or Mozarts or Einsteins. So I don’t think that it would be a huge avalanche of new abilities in everyone. To the extent to which we are able to mobilize that would be very manageable and a good thing. I think we would still be a balanced society.•

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Morley Safer’s classic 1983 60 Minutes profile of “Rain Man” George Finn.

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My favorite passage of this long-form conversation between Brian Eno and David Graeber is the three-minute stretch just after the 39-minute mark in which the discussion turns to the human proclivity for virtualizing experiences that initially have an evolutionary impulse at their core. (Like eating, for instance.) Perhaps space travel has been reduced to a shadow on a wall for 50 years because of the monetary expense or maybe it’s wired into us to turn from reality and make the play the thing.

From Graeber: “I was watching one of those new Star Wars movies, the really bad ones, and I was thinking, Well, this is a bad movie but the special effects are amazing. I was thinking, Remember those clumsy science-fiction special effects from the ’50s? If people from back then could watch this movie, I’d bet they’d be really impressed. Then I realized, no they wouldn’t, because they thought we’d actually be doing this stuff by now instead of coming up with amazing ways to simulate it. They’d be really bitter and angry. You’re not on the moon? You just come up with better movies to make believe you’re on the moon? Then I realized, simulation, end of history, nothing new. Now I get it. The reason why we have these ideologies that history is coming to an end…we wouldn’t be saying this if we were actually on Mars. It’s just sort of a way of coming to terms with the fact that we can’t acknowledge that we actually thought we’d be doing all this stuff that now we’re just doing virtually.”

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At the beginning of 1970, directly following the Apollo 11 moon landing, Life published Rudi Gernreich’s predictions about the future of fashion. He foresaw a harsh landscape of environmental damage, overpopulation and traffic-clogged highways, all of which would inform designers who would create unisex protective garb made of alternative fabrics. While his fashion prognostications weren’t accurate, embedded in Gernreich’s ideas are some prescient remarks about technological innovations. An excerpt:

In cold, wintry weather, predicts Gernreich, “both men and women will wear heavy-ribbed leotards and waterproof boots. It will be impossible to drive to stores because of traffic, so all clothes will be ordered from a catalogue or TV set. And since animals which now supply wool, fur and leather will be so rare that they must be protected, and weaving fabric such as cotton will be too much trouble, most clothes will be made entirely of cheap and disposable synthetic knits.”

Clothing will not be identified as either male or female, says Gernreich. “So women will wear pants and men will wear skirts interchangeably. And since there won’t be any squeamishness about nudity, see-through clothes will only be see-through for reasons of comfort. Weather permitting, both sexes will go about bare-chested, though women will wear simple protective pasties. Jewelry will exist only as a utility–that is, to hold something up or together, like a belt or for information, like a combination wristwatch, weather indicator, compass and radio. The esthetics are going to involve the body itself. We will train the body to grow beautifully rather than cover it to produce beauty.

The present cult of eternal youth is not honest nor attractive, says Gernreich. “In an era when the body will become the convention of fashion, the old will adopt a uniform of their own. If a body can longer be accentuated, it should be abstracted. The young won’t wear prints but the elderly will because bold prints detract. The elderly will have a cult of their own and the embarrassment of old age will fade away.”•

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Trippy 1973 video showing a soft metallic armor Gernreich dreamed up to promote Max Factor cosmetics. He thought that designs in the future would need to be anonymous because the world was to become harsh and invasive. “Public Privacy” is what he called the look.

In the 1960s, Gernreich predicted a computerized future for attire. He believed that “clothes of the future will involve unisex. They will be interchangeable. Men are going to wear skirts and woman are gonna wear pants.” Not quite right in every detail but correct in a broader sense. 

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NYU psychologist Gary Marcus is one of the talking heads interviewed for this CBS Sunday Morning report about the future of robots and co-bots and such. He speaks to the mismeasure of the Turing Test, the current mediocrity of human-computer communications and the potential perils of Strong AI. To his comment about the company dominating AI winning the Internet, I really doubt any one company will be dominant across most or even many categories. Quite a few will own a piece, and there’ll be no overall blowout victory, though there are vast riches to be had in even small margins. View here.

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Perhaps it was the Space Race or just the oddness of the decade in general, but in 1966 a Michigan father of ten believed he spotted a UFO in the night sky and soon even the skeptical “girls” of Hillsdale were locating saucers with binoculars. Then the sightings went viral across the nation. Walter Cronkite devoted an hour of CBS airtime to confronting the ridiculous controversy. Rocketeer and space pioneer Willy Ley is interviewed and amusing IBM computer commercials are interspersed.

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So sad to learn of Oliver Sacks’ terminal illness. I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at a young age, and I didn’t know what the hell to make of it, so stunned was I to find out that we’re not necessarily in control of our minds. In this piece of writing and so many others, Sacks examined the brain, that mysterious and scary thing, and because of his work as an essayist as well as a doctor, that organ is today a little less mysterious, a little less scary. It doesn’t mean he was always right, but how could anyone be when sailing in such dark waters? Sacks was accused sometimes of being a modern Barnum who used as diverting curiosities those with the misfortune of having minds that played tricks on them–even stranger tricks than the rest of us experience–and sometimes I cringed at the very personal things he would reveal about his subjects, but I always felt he strived to be ethical. We certainly live in an era when the freak show still thrives, albeit in a slickly produced form, but I don’t think that’s where Sacks’ work has ever lived. His prose and narrative abilities grew markedly during his career as he he came to realize–be surprised by?–his own brain’s capabilities. I hope he has a peaceful and productive final chapter. 

A profile of Sacks by Diane Sawyer with good 1969 footage of his work as a young doctor.

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Artist/urban philosopher Liam Young, working with sci-fi writers, has created a trio of dystopian, futuristic cities, including one that exaggerates–somewhat–the intrusion of corporations on metropolitan life, an avenue Ray Bradbury earnestly suggested we pursue in the 1990s. From Shaunacy Ferro at Fast Company, Young’s description of his moving-yet-static vision of “Samsung City”:

“The Samsung city is based on this strange condition in Korea where Samsung, the tech company, had moved into property development,” Young explains, describing a series of Samsung-branded tower blocks that got him thinking about the fact that Apple has revenues comparable to the GDPs of some nations. “What would happen if we started to form brand and nationalistic allegiances to tech companies in the same way we do in countries?”•

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The 1960s video report embedded below about computers includes footage of American college students asking concerned questions about automation and the coming technological unemployment. No different than today, really. Luddite-ism is never the answer, though some political solutions may be required. A couple weeks back, Newsweek referred to its 1965 cover story, “The Challenge of Automation.” An excerpt:

In 1965, America found itself facing a new industrial revolution. The rapid evolution of computers provoked enormous excitement and considerable dread as captains of industry braced themselves for the age of automation.   

Newsweek devoted a special edition to discussing “the most controversial economic concept of the age” in January 1965. “Businessmen love it. Workers fear it. The government frets and investigates and wonders what to do about it,” the report began. “Automation is wiping out about 35,000 jobs every week or 1.8 million per year.”•

Here’s a real rarity: Walter Cronkite and Bill Stout of CBS News interviewing authors Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration on the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The two writers (and Cronkite) were inebriated by the excitement of the moment, believing we would in short shrift colonize the universe. Clarke thought travel to other planets would end war on Earth, which, of course, has not yet come close to occurring. Heinlein called for female astronauts, saying “it does not take a man to run a spaceship.” Both believed the first baby born in space would be delivered before the end of the twentieth century, and Heinlein was sure there would be retirement communities established on the moon in that same time frame. Go here to view the video

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To celebrate the 40th anniversary of SNL, here’s what’s likely the show’s most infamous moment, a 1981 performance by Fear, booked at the behest of the punk band’s fan John Belushi during Lorne Michaels’ five-year absence from the program. Donald Pleasence, looking like a defrocked priest who still performs exorcisms to make some extra cash, provides the introduction. Twenty-thousand dollars worth of damage was done to the stage.

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Narrated 18-minute newsreel portrait of Iraq in 1953, as the state made a push toward modernization.

Marc Goodman, law-enforcement veteran and author of the forthcoming book Future Crimes, sat for an interview with Jason Dorrier of Singularity Hub about the next wave nefariousness, Internet-enabled and large-scale. A question about the potential for peril writ relatively small with Narrow AI and on a grand scale if we create Artificial General Intelligence:

Question:

Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates have expressed concern about artificial general intelligence. It’s a hotly debated topic. Might AI be our “final invention?” It seems even narrow AI in the wrong hands might be problematic.

Marc Goodman:

I would add Marc Goodman to that list. To be clear, I think AI, narrow AI, and the agents around us have tremendous opportunity to be incredibly useful. We’re using AI every day, whether it’s in our GPS devices, in our Netflix recommendations, what we see on our Facebook status updates and streams—all of that is controlled via AI.

With regard to AGI, however, I put myself firmly in the camp of concern.

Historically, whatever the tool has been, people have tried to use it for their own power. Of course, typically, that doesn’t mean that the tool itself is bad. Fire wasn’t bad. It could cook your meals and keep you warm at night. It comes down to how we use it. But AGI is different. The challenge with AGI is that once we create it, it may be out of our hands entirely, and that could certainly make it our “final invention.”

I’ll also point out that there are concerns about narrow AI too.

We’ve seen examples of criminals using narrow AI in some fascinating ways. In one case, a University of Florida student was accused of killing his college roommate for dating his girlfriend. Now, this 18-year-old freshman had a conundrum. What does he do with the dead body before him? Well, he had never murdered anybody before, and he had no idea how to dispose of the body. So, he asked Siri. The answers Siri returned? Mine, swamp, and open field, among others.

So, Siri answered his question. This 18-year-old kid unknowingly used narrow AI as an accomplice after the fact in his homicide. We’ll see many more examples of this moving forward. In the book, I say we’re leaving the world of Bonnie and Clyde and joining the world of Siri and Clyde.•

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Bellhops, desk attendants and bank tellers are beginning to go robotic, and you can add waiters to the list. In Singapore, such restaurant service workers are in short supply and drones are a measure of desperation, but if the machines succeed there, they become an option for places where there’s no paucity of willing human capital. Even if it’s more gimmick than solution, the kitchen-to-table technology still shows the flexibility of relatively inexpensive Weak AI. From Tessa Wong at the BBC:

In Singapore food is a national obsession. But finding enough people to bring the food to diners is increasingly becoming a problem.

One company thinks it has come up with a solution – flying robot waiters. They are sturdy, reliable, and promise never to call in sick at the last minute.

Infinium Robotics’ drones, due to be introduced at a local restaurant-bar chain by the end of this year, can carry up to 2kg (4.4lbs) of food and drink – that’s about two pints of beer, a pizza, and two glasses of wine.

The unpiloted robots whizz above the heads of diners on paths charted by a computer programme, and navigate using infra-red sensors placed around the restaurant. …

Infinium Robotics’ chief executive officer Junyang Woon says that his technology frees up capacity: “So staff are able to interact more with customers and enhance their dining experience.”

Drones can pose safety and liability issues, especially when used indoors. In December, a drone crashed into someone’s face at a TGI Fridays outlet in New York.

But Mr Woon says their machines use onboard cameras and sensors to ensure they do not collide with one another or with people. Their blades are covered with grates.•

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Harvard Business School’s Professor Clayton Christensen, student of disruption, being interviewed by VC veteran Mark Suster about the near-term future of higher education, provides the money quote: “In fifteen years from now half of U.S. universities may be in bankruptcy.” America’s higher-education system has been one of our greatest triumphs, one of the great marvels of all civilization, but the growing costs seem unsustainable and the giant money at stake makes nimble reinvention difficult. Some sea change will likely occur.

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Boston Dynamics, now property of that AI company Google, shows off its latest four-legged robot, Spot. The unguided stair climb is most impressive.

In a Big Think video, Andrew McAfee explains how automation is coming for your collar, white or blue, limo driver and lawyer alike. He leaves off by talking about new industries being created as old ones are being destroyed, but from his writing in The Second Machine Age, the book he co-authored with Eric Brynjolfsson, it’s clear he fears the shortfall between old and new may be significant and society could be in for a bumpy transition.

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Jeb and Hillary have company because Zoltan Istvan has announced his intention to run for the U.S. Presidency in 2016 on the Transhumanist Party ticket. The former National Geographic correspondent believes we’ll soon (within a decade) be electively receiving robotic hearts and eventually be living in a post-gender society in which we can choose when and if we die. We will be able to tweet indefinitely! As often is the case with life-extension enthusiasts, his timeframe seems wacky, and replacing a failing organ in a human being shouldn’t be made to sound as simple as switching out a carburetor in a Chevy. Zach Weissmueller of the Libertarian Reason TV interviewed Istvan, so some government-bashing is included.

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