Enter the flaw.

 

I promised a drone update this week, but by now, it is probably already old news. It is a safe bet there are probably a few thousand more drones than last week. Hence, I’m going to shift to a topic that I think is moving even faster than our clogged airspace.

And now for an AI update. I’ve blogged previously about Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, but the evidence is mounting every day that he’s probably right.  The rate at which artificial intelligence is advancing is beginning to match nicely with his curve. A recent article on the Txchnologist website demonstrates how an AI system called Kulitta, is composing jazz, classical, new age and eclectic mixes that are difficult to tell from human compositions. You can listen to an example here. Not bad actually. Sophisticated AI creations like this underscore the realization that we can no longer think of robotics as the clunky mechanized brutes. AI can create. Even though it’s studying an archive of man-made creations the resulting work is unique.

First it learns from a corpus of existing compositions. Then it generates an abstract musical structure. Next it populates this structure with chords. Finally, it massages the structure and notes into a specific musical framework. In just a few seconds, out pops a musical piece that nobody has ever heard before.

The creator of Kulitta, Donya Quick says that this will not put composers out of a job, it will help them do their job better. She doesn’t say how exactly.

If even trained ears can’t always tell the difference, what does that mean for the masses? When we can load the “universal composer” app onto our phone and have a symphony written for ourselves, how will this serve the interests of musicians and authors?

The article continues:

Kulitta joins a growing list of programs that can produce artistic works. Such projects have reached a critical mass–last month Dartmouth College computational scientists announced they would hold a series of contests. They have put a call out seeking artificial intelligence algorithms that produce “human-quality” short stories, sonnets and dance music. These will be pitted against compositions made by humans to see if people can tell the difference.

The larger question to me is this: “When it all sounds wonderful or reads like poetry, will it make any difference to us who created it?”

Sadly, I think not. The sweat and blood that composers and artists pour into their compositions could be a thing of the past. If we see this in the fine arts, then it seems an inevitable consequence for design as well. Once the AI learns the characters, behaviors and personalities of the characters in The Lightstream Chronicles, it can create new episodes without me. Taking characters and setting that already exist as CG constructs, it’s not a stretch that it will be able to generate the wireframes, render the images, and layout the panels.

Would this app help me in my work? It could probably do it in a fraction of the time that it would take me, but could I honestly say it’s mine?

When art and music are all so easily reconstructed and perfect, I wonder if we will miss the flaw. Will we miss that human scratch on the surface of perfection, the thing that reminds us that we are human?

There is probably an algorithm for that, too. Just go to settings > humanness and use the slider.

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How we made the future in the past.

 

 

Decisions. Decisions. Today’s blog was a toss up between another drone update (probably next week) and some optimistic technology news (for a change). Instead, I decided to go another route entirely. This week FastCo blurbed a piece on the “new” limited edition book collection, “The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It’s no so new, the 4 volume set that sold for $1000 sold out in no time, but the story is a compelling one. The $70, second printing is on my Christmas list. There are a dozen fascinating angles to the 2001 production story. FastCo’s article, “The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, focuses on the film’s “attention to the technical and design details that made the film such an enduring paragon almost 50 years after its release.” I could not agree more. This latest book’s author, Piers Bizony wrote a predecessor back in 1994 entitled “2001: filming the future.” This book is currently out of print, but I managed to snag a copy for my library. It’s a captivating story, but like FastCo, I am in awe of Kubrick’s brilliance in the team he brought together to build the sets and design the props.

“He assembled a skunkworks team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and production designers. Aerospace engineers—not prop makers—designed switch panels, display systems, and communications devices for the spacecraft interiors.”

The objective was realism and total believability. It worked. I remember seeing it in the theater on the BIG screen (I was five years old). There was nothing else like it — ever— a testimony to the fact that we still marvel at its accuracy nearly fifty years later.

Clearly Kubrick was a visionary, but what might be more impressive is how they made it look so real. Today, we watch tidal waves take out New York City, and 20 story robots transform into sports cars. It has almost become ho-hum. To capture the effects that Kubrick did it required an inspiring level of ingenuity. Much of this goes to his production designers and the genius of Douglas Trumbull. These special effects, people walking on walls, floating in weightlessness, or believable spacecraft gliding through the cosmos were analog creations. Take for example the gracefully revolving centrifuge: they built it. Or the spacewalking scenes that I believe are every bit as good as 2013’s Gravity. The film was full of artifacts from the future and a tribute to design and engineering problem solving that was and is most rare.

Kubrick's-Centrifuge
They built it!

I could rave about this movie all day, but I can’t sign off until I rave a bit about the film itself. By this, I mean the story. First released in 1968, at the crux of this narrative is an Artificial Intelligence that becomes self-aware. It is so freaking convincing that I leave with this clip. You can also get a taste of how truly visual this film was.

Photo from 2001: Filming the future. Piers Bizony 1996
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The killer feature for every app.

I have often asked the question: If we could visit the future “in-person” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present? Part of the idea behind design fiction, for me, is making the future seem real enough to us that we want to discuss it and ask ourselves is this the future we want. If not, what can we do about it, how might it be changed, refined, or avoided altogether? In a more pessimistic light, I also wonder whether anything could be real enough to rouse us from our media-induced stupor. And the potion is getting stronger.

After Monday and Tuesday this week I was beginning to think it would be a slow news week in the future-tech sector. Not so. (At least I didn’t stumble on to them until Wednesday.)

1. Be afraid.

A scary new novel is out called Ghost Fleet. It sounds immensely entertaining, but also ominously possible. It harkens back to some of my previous blogs on autonomous weapons and the harbinger of ubiquitous hacking. How am I going to get time to read this? That’s another issue.

2. Play it again.

Google applied for this years ago, but their patent on storing “memories” was approved this week. It appears as though it would have been a feature for the ill-fated Google Glass but could easily be embedded in any visual recording function from networked cameras to a user’s contact lens. Essentially it lets you “play-back” whatever you saw, assuming you are wearing or integrating the appropriate recording device, or software. “Siri, replay my vacation!” I must admit it sounds cool.

Ghost Fleet, Google memories, uber hacking, Thync.
Ghost Fleet, Google memories, uber hacking, and Thync.

3. Hack-a-mania.

How’s this for a teaser? RESEARCHERS HACKED THE BRAKES OF A CORVETTE WITH TEXT MESSAGES. That’s what Fast Company threw out there on Wednesday, but it originated with WIRED magazine. It’s the latest since the Jeep-Jacking incident just weeks ago. See how fast technology moves? In that episode the hackers, or jackers, whatever, used their laptops to control just about every technology the Jeep had available. However, according to WIRED,

“…a new piece of research suggests there may be an even easier way for hackers to wirelessly access those critical driving functions: Through an entire industry of potentially insecure, internet-enabled gadgets plugged directly into cars’ most sensitive guts.”

In this instance,

“A 2-inch-square gadget that’s designed to be plugged into cars’ and trucks’ dashboards and used by insurance firms and trucking fleets to monitor vehicles’ location, speed and efficiency.”

The article clearly demonstrates that these devices are vulnerable to attack, even in government vehicles and, I presume the White House limo as well. You guys better get to work on that.

4. Think about this.

A new $300 device called Thync is now available to stick on your forehead to either relax or energize you through neurosignaling, AKA  electricity, that zaps your brain “safely”. It’s not unrelated to the less sexy shock therapy of ages past. Reports tell me that this is anything but all figured out, but just like the above list, it’s just a matter of time until it escalates to the next level.

So what ties all these together? If we look at the historical track of technology, the overarching theme is convergence. All the things that once were separate have now converged. Movies, texts, phone calls, games, GPS, bar-code scanning, cameras and about a thousand other technologies have converged into your phone or your laptop, or tablet. It is a safe bet to see that this trend will continue, in addition to getting smaller and eventually implanted. Isn’t technology wonderful?

The only problem is that we have yet to figure out the security issues. Do we, for one moment, think that hacking will go away? We rush new apps and devices to market with a “We’ll fix that later,” mentality. It’s just a matter of time until your energy, mood, “memories”, or our national security are up for grabs. Seems like security ought to be on the feature list of every new gadget, especially the ones that access out bodies, our safety, or our information. That’s pretty much everything, by the way. The idea is especially important because, let’s face it, everything we think is secure, isn’t.

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Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

 

 

One of the more ominous articles of recent weeks came from WIRED magazine in an article about the proliferation of DNA editing. The story is rich with technical talk and it gets bogged down in places but essentially it is about a group of scientists who are concerned about the Pandora’s Box they may have created with something called Crispr-Cas9, or Crispr for short. Foreseeing this as far back as 1975, the group thought that establishing “guidelines” for what biologists could and could not do; things like creating pathogens and mutations that could be passed on from generation to generation — maybe even in humans — were on the list of concerns. It all seemed very far off back in the 70’s, but not anymore. According to WIRED writer Amy Maxmen,

“Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”

Maxmen states that startups are launching with Crispr as their focus. Two quotes that I have used excessively come to mind. First, Tobias Revell: “Someone, somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”1. Next, from a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis: “We don’t write laws to protect against impossible things, so when the impossible becomes possible, we shouldn’t be surprised that the law doesn’t protect against it…” 2.

And so, we play catch-up. From the WIRED article:

“It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.”

The most disconcerting part of all this, to me, is that now, before the rules exist that even the smallest breach in protocol could unleash repercussions of Biblical proportions. Everything from killer mosquitoes and flying spiders, horrific mutations and pandemics are up for grabs.

We’re not even close to ready for this. Don’t tell me that it could eradicate AIDS or Huntington’s disease. That is the coat that is paraded out whenever a new technology peers its head over the horizon.

“Now, with less than $100, an ordinary arachnologist can snip the wing gene out of a spider embryo and see what happens when that spider matures.”

Splice-movie-baby-Dren
From the movie “Splice”. Sometimes bad movies can be the most prophetic.

It is time to get the public involved in these issues whether through grass-roots efforts or persistence with their elected officials to spearhead some legislation.

“…straight-out editing of a human embryo sets off all sorts of alarms, both in terms of ethics and legality. It contravenes the policies of the US National Institutes of Health, and in spirit at least runs counter to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. (Of course, when the US government said it wouldn’t fund research on human embryonic stem cells, private entities raised millions of dollars to do it themselves.) Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore.”

Maxmen interviewed Harvard geneticist George Church. In a closer to the article,

“When I ask Church for his most nightmarish Crispr scenario, he mutters something about weapons and then stops short. He says he hopes to take the specifics of the idea, whatever it is, to his grave. But thousands of other scientists are working on Crispr. Not all of them will be as cautious. “You can’t stop science from progressing,” Jinek says. “Science is what it is.” He’s right. Science gives people power. And power is unpredictable.”

Who do you trust?

 

 

1. Critical Exploits. Performed by Tobias Revell. YouTube. January 28, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2014. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlpq9M1VELU#t=364.
2. Farivar, Cyrus. “DOJ Calls for Drone Privacy Policy 7 Years after FBI’s First Drone Launched.” Ars Technica. September 27, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/09/doj-calls-for-drone-privacy-policy-7-years-after-fbis-first-drone-launched/.
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