Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

Microsoft’s new free app, Seeing AI, is a life-changing accessibility tool…and a lot of fun!

July 14, 2017

Microsoft’s new free app, Seeing AI, is a life-changing accessibility tool…and a lot of fun!

It’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun with an app!

That may seem odd, since this is ostensibly designed to help those with visual challenges.

It will do that. I know a couple of people it will help.

Let me link to it first (it’s only currently available for iOS…iPhones, iPads, iPod touch):

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/seeing-ai-talking-camera-for-the-blind/id999062298?mt=8

What it does is recognize things: people, text, dogs, a kitchen, a computer…it’s gotten all of those right for me.

It doesn’t just tell you that it’s a person…it guesses at age and gender, and will tell you hair color, if the person has glasses or a beard, and so on.

It also, and this will be very useful for people with autism, will attempt to interpret the person’s expression (happy, neutral, angry…).

Now, it’s important for me to say that it didn’t ever get the age exactly right, although it was often close. A person I know well wasn’t pleased when it interpreted them as significantly older than was true. ūüėČ

I tried it both with photos on a computer screen, and with real life objects, and it was generally pretty good. We had fun when it interpreted a knit blanket as a close-up of a sandwich, but that was not typical.

It can also read text out loud, and that worked for me, too! There was a computer program which wasn’t accessible to the screen reader on the computer…but Seeing AI could read it. It will take some practice for how I hold it, but even initially, it did read what I needed.

I think you’ll have fun playing around with it!

A few tips:

  • The “scene” interpreter, which it says is in beta, is how it interprets objects (like dogs, toys, computers…)
  • Go to the Settings menu (three lines) to use face recognition…you can teach it to recognize specific people. That will be useful for someone I know who has “face blindness”: they can’t recognize celebrities or even family members in pictures by their faces
  • When I was trying to work with it reading off the computer, it worked much better when I went into settings and had it turn off “Manage lighting”…that meant the flash didn’t come on. When the flash was on, there was too much glare for it to recognize things

Okay,

Echo Show (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Gauntlet thrown! ūüėČ

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“Alexa, what did all those Back to the Future stories miss?” (and fact future v fict future)

October 22, 2015

“Alexa, what did all those Back to the Future stories miss?” (and fact future v fict future)

Yesterday was October 21st, 2015,

Back to the Future Day (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

That’s the day in 1989’s Back to the Future II that Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in the future.

There were many, many stories about it…enough to fill a Ford Super De Luxe convertible. ūüėČ Now, I’m not suggesting they were similar to the material that filled Biff Tannen’s car…far from it.

Most were thoughtful comparisons of what was shown in the movie (fict((ional)) future) versus how we actually live today (fact future…at least, the future to 1989). I particularly liked this one:

Back to the Future 2015 SuperScholar.org

However, as an owner of an

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

I’ve been really surprised that people have generally ignored Marty McFly’s future home’s automation and talktech.

In the movie (and there are mild spoilers here…more about bits than about the plot), the house welcomes a character. Another character says, “….you should reprogram: it’s dangerous to enter without lights on.” When the character repeats, “Lights on?”, the lights come on in the room, with a tone to let the user know that the command has been heard (or just to acknowledge the lights coming on).

That is how I turn the lights on in my house…and the voice that tells me “Okay” is much more natural than what we generally hear in the movie.

I say, “Alexa, turn on the Family Room”, or “Alexa, turn on the Library”.

My Echo hears me and Alexa turns on the appropriate bulb which was part of the

GE Link Starter Kit, PLINK-SKIT, Wireless, A19 LED Light Bulb, Pack of 2 (at AmazonSmile*)

Could I “reprogram” the house to simply turn on the lights when I got home?

Yes!

The Wink app (Wink, by the way, has been sold following a bankruptcy by Quirky, but my equipment still works) has “robots”. I could tell it:

  • If the robot detects my location changing to arriving at my home address
  • Anytime
  • Then turn lights on

I don’t do that, but it’s an option.

Later, another character tells the talktech to turn off the “art” on a big screen and to display several channels (simultaneously).

That’s a bit tougher to do currently. I’m going to be testing in the near future¬†using our

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

to communicate with a

Samsung SmartThings Hub (at AmazonSmile*)

to control a

Logitech Harmony Home Control (at AmazonSmile*)

to in turn control an

Amazon Fire TV (at AmazonSmile*)

I know, I know…that’s quite a daisy chain. Alexa is on my Fire TV (this is the 2nd generation), but it can’t actually control the channels or do voice search. The Fire TV does voice search, but that’s a different system. I do hope that the Fire TV will eventually be able to natively not only open, say, Hulu, but “Show me the next episode of [show name]”. I think we’ll get there within the next two years.

Regardless, talktech is a solid hit for BttF2…why wasn’t it being mentioned in stories and infographics along with self-lacing sneakers, hoverboards, and holograms?

Does it seem so natural that it wasn’t worth analysis? Alternatively, did the writers not realize that this arrived right on schedule? The Echo and the Alexa Voice Service have had a super soft launch…there weren’t lines of people outside a store waiting for the Echo. It’s been more like a rising tide than an asteroid strike. Amazon may be very clever in avoiding huge expectations and great demand and having it gradually just become part of our lives.

Now, let’s talk about fact future versus fict future.

How many predictions did Back to the Future 2 get right?

There were no predictions…so none. ūüėČ

Back to the Future 2 is a work of fiction: it’s not the analysis of a futurist or the premonitions of a psychic.

Much of what we see is there for comic effect, and to tie into the first and third movies.

Let’s take Jaws 19 playing at a movie theatre.

  • Jaws was released in 1975
  • Jaws 2 was released in 1978
  • Jaws 3-D was released in 1983
  • Jaws: The Revenge (effectively Jaws 4) was released in 1987

From 1985 (when Bttf2 is set) to 2015, a new Jaws movie would have to have come out on average every 15 months or so. While it’s certainly possible that production schedules will become shorter as technology improves, I’m not sure that’s a specific prediction they intended (but I’d be happy to be contradicted by the moviemakers…comment, Bob Gale?). ūüėČ

We can also see that Jaws 19 is directed by Max Spielberg. Max was born on June 13, 1985…and is the son of Steven Spielberg, the director of the original Jaws (and an Executive Producer) on BttF2. Is this a prediction of a fact based on trends and analysis…or an in joke? I’d lean towards the latter… ūüėČ

While some geeky fiction is trying to project current trends, it’s also often a commentary on the present. It may not be intended at all to represent a likely future…in some cases, it’s actually intended to help stave off some developments portrayed within it.

That’s one issue with fict future versus fact future comparisons.

Another one is this: the future may be boring. ūüôā

Drama is based on difficulty: stress, risk, friction, and difficult choices.

Technology, especially in the past decade or so, has been about removing all that.

Let’s say we set a new Back to the Future, set thirty years from now (2045).

Cars are impossible to crash. It’s impossible to fall off a building. All weaponry is nonlethal. Anyone on the street can be immediately identified and helped.

I’m not saying that’s going to happen by then…but it is a not unreasonable assessment of the trends.

Not only is the tendency towards less danger (and therefore less drama), there are two other factors.

Technology is becoming more invisible, and it’s becoming more internal.

BttF2 uses fingerprint technology for the house to allow someone to enter.

Currently, SmartHomes can use SmartPhones to recognize when someone comes to the home and unlocks the door (although there is a hypothetical risk that the phone could be stolen).

In the future, I fully expect that our technology will recognize us by our simple biology…no technology necessary to be carried. Facial recognition is one way, but there may be others, akin to the original Outer Limits’ O.B.I.T. (Outer Band Individuated Teletracer), which basically picks up on an individual’s unique electromagnetic emanations.

It wouldn’t be very dramatic in a movie, though, to simply have the door open, with no indication of how the individual was recognized.

Similarly, the TV should have been able to largely anticipate what the character wanted to watch…or at least, most of it. That conversation should not be necessary at some point in the future (not necessarily in the next thirty years), but again, would be much less dramatic. Imagine this scene in a movie:

A detective wakes up at home. The lights simply come on. The self-cleaning clothes change from pyjamas to a uniform with no interaction. The detective sits down to a breakfast table, where the food is already ready and eats breakfast (again, no interaction). The detective steps outside, and a car is waiting. The detective gets in the car, and it drives away…already knowing where the detective wants to go, and monitoring the detective’s emotional reaction to its choices. En route to where a criminal¬†is already unconscious (having been spotted and subdued by autonomous¬†technology), other cars smoothly move out of the way on their own.

Not very dramatic, right?

In terms of technology becoming more internal…I feel like we are very connected to other people now, but not with the strangers immediately in our vicinity.

Classic old time movie scene: a newsboy shouting, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Somebody buys a paper, and we see the headline. The character exclaims, “Gosh all hemlock!”

Current version: character gets a subtle vibration notification, glances at a watch, and reads the news. In the same room, other characters are checking watches or phone…could be the same headline, might be something else, like a reminder to buy milk. Everything is done without speech.

Which one makes the better scene?

Even though geeky fiction isn’t usually trying to actually predict the future, sometimes it does…but intriguingly, it is sometimes a case of life imitating art.

Dr. Martin Cooper has suggested that seeing the communicator on Star Trek inspired his work on the mobile phone.

Does anyone doubt that Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon have been inspirations for work on ray guns?

Fiction may not intentionally predict the future…but it may help to inspire it.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

A tragic argument for self-driving cars

October 12, 2015

A tragic argument for self-driving cars

A recent event in our neighborhood has been weighing pretty heavily on me.

Several years ago, we got a new dog.

One of our cats wasn’t happy with the dog. We’ve generally had dogs and cats together, but this dog was particularly bouncy. Not aggressive, but just overly excitable and without much self-control.

The cat ran away…

When cats run away, they are almost always on the same block, or at least, right nearby. When dogs get scared, they can run for miles, and then have no idea where they are. Cats go to ground within territory they know…at least, that’s what an animal expert I know told me.

I found the cat across the street at a neighbor’s…we didn’t know that neighbor well.

Our neighbor already knew “Leo”…he would go over and see her, prior to the dog becoming part of the family. She was so nice in taking care of him while he was there, and even more nice in giving us Leo back.

Leo and the dog eventually came to terms.

Later, when our neighbor became more infirm, she couldn’t keep a pet of her own…and gave us cat items she had.

Still later, I believe she had a stroke.

She started using a walker.

It would take her a few minutes to get out of the car.

One or two relatives apparently moved in with her as caregivers.

Recently, there was a tragic incident.

Our neighbor hit a person in a wheelchair while driving.

The person in the wheelchair died a couple of days later, apparently from injuries sustained.

We first heard about it when it was reported as a hit and run.

We feel terrible for the victim, and for the victim’s family.

We are also very worried about what is going to happen with our neighbor.

She is cooperating with the police investigation. They found her a few blocks away from the accident…near (possibly at) her house.

Of course, we don’t know what actually happened. We don’t know if she even knew she hit the wheelchair.

If she did, my best guess is that she was going to her home to get help from her caregivers. The house is literally under five minutes away from the intersection. It would have taken her that long to get out of the car where he was, and she couldn’t be much help.

She is older, and I had someone ask me if I thought she was sharp enough to know she should have waited at the scene.

I said yes, and I also thought she was compassionate enough to risk going to jail in order to get help for the victim.

We will follow what happens.

It’s been especially hard to read heartless comments on line about¬†what happened…speculation and assertions about our neighbor’s intentions.

I’ve also seen more caring comments talking about what to do about senior drivers. Yes, senior drivers are involved in more fatal accidents than the average…although not as many as young drivers.

We don’t know if age was a contributing factor. We don’t know that our neighbor’s own disability was a contributing factor.

We do know one thing…a human being was driving that car.

A self-driving car would not have hit the wheelchair, sparing both of them (and everyone who knows them).

This will be part of our future.

When I was speaking about self-driving cars to a group, I had someone say, “What if a three-year old ran out into the street?”

I’d much rather have a self-driving car in that situation. It’s going to avoid the collision…it likely won’t know it’s a child, and no, it won’t have compassion, the empathy a human being would have. It will avoid the child with the same efficiency with which it would avoid a rolling garbage can.

Humans, in that situation, may panic. It happens many times a year that a person steps on the gas instead of the brake when something goes wrong.

Right now, the biggest barrier to saving lives with self-driving cars is emotional and political.

No, they aren’t as good as the best human drivers are in all situations.

Yes, they are good enough right now to do some things better than the average human driver…and by doing so, reduce tragedies like this one.

Nothing is going to make what has already happened better. I know that for me, this is partially just an emotional desire to have some sort of impact on happens in the future…just like the people who want more driver testing for seniors, or who wanted to blame the driver for being on a cellphone (which almost certainly wasn’t the case).

Even if I can’t make it real, though, I think I’ll see a future within in the next ten years where horrible happenings like this are reduced…thanks to self-driving cars.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog.

The Geeky Seventies

June 9, 2015

The Geeky Seventies

CNN is following up their successful series on the 1960s with one on the 1970s:

http://www.cnn.com/shows/the-seventies

Tom Hanks is an Executive Producer.

The existence of this series is kind of funny to me. I did a comedy bit years ago on our community access TV show (Freedom from Fear) called “In Search of the Seventies”. I treated it as a mystery as to whether or not the Seventies even (culturally) existed. I asked if they were really just “…the end of the Sixties and the start of the Eighties”.

I think that’s because I was too close to it. I was really engaging in pop culture in the Seventies…well, often culture that wasn’t so popular, but you know what I mean. ūüėČ I didn’t have the distance from it and maturity to recognize what was special about it.

Certainly, I thought the 1960s had a unique culture…with the Beatles in part driving the bus.

As to the 1980s, well, New Wave music seemed to stand out to me.

The 1970s? At that time, I wasn’t seeing what made it special.

Now I do. ūüôā

This post is going to give you an overview of geek-friendly culture in the 1970s.

It was definitely¬†a transformative decade…even if the Transformers didn’t arrive until the 1980s. ūüėČ

Geek culture moved mainstream in very big ways. Predominantly, there was Star Wars, which made space opera a blockbuster, but we could also look at The Exorcist for horror, and Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice) for vampires.

We saw the arrival of Stephen King as a novelist, and the publication of Dungeons and Dragons.

Home video technology meant that people could easily watch movies after they were out of theatres…decades after, in some cases. Prior to that, some of us had three-minute long Super 8 movies, and the real hobbyists might have 16mm reels, but the Betamax and others meant our cinematic history (including the geeky part) was much more accessible.

Star Trek: the Original Series was canceled in 1969…but the fandom continued. That led to the first Star Trek convention in the 1970s. Science fiction conventions went back to 1939, but this was different.

Batman in the 1960s might have made superheroes a hit on TV, but Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were part of the 1970s scene.

The Weird World interested a lot more people…the In Search Of TV series was only one part of that, but was many viewers’ first exposure to some of these topics.

Let’s look at some of the highlights in different areas:

Movies

How times have changed!

When you look at the top ten US grossing movies released in the 1960s, arguably only two are geek-friendly (GF) and not specifically intended for the family/children’s market:

  1. The Sound of Music
  2. 101 Dalmations
  3. The Jungle Book
  4. Doctor Zhivago
  5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  6. Mary Poppins
  7. My Fair Lady
  8. Thunderball (GF)
  9. Cleopatra
  10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (GF)

By the end of the 1970s, that picture had entirely changed, and would look more like our box office today:

  1. Star Wars (GF)
  2. Jaws (GF)
  3. The Sting
  4. Animal House
  5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (eventually) GF
  6. The Godfather
  7. Superman (GF)
  8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (GF)
  9. Smokey and the Bandit
  10. Blazing Saddles

The Exorcist (1973) brought straight up horror to blockbuster status and mainstream acceptance (along with a lot of protests).

In 1975, Steven Spielberg changed the summer. Up to that point, it had largely been a season of cheapo exploitation movies. People actually went outside (including drive-ins), not to the movies. Jaws reshaped all that, giving us the summer blockbuster season. There have been heated debates about whether or not Jaws is a fantasy (are we supposed to believe the shark is just a shark, or something more?), but it was clearly a monster movie.

Then in 1977, Star Wars changed it all.

While those movies were all big hits, there were a lot of other significant geek movies. Undeniably, we have to count the Rocky Horror Picture Show as establishing midnight movies and a special kind of cult film. It flopped when it came out, but then got a new life in a new way. He’s the hero…that’s right, the hero. ūüėČ

Here are some other stand-outs:

  • Alien (1979)
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  • Mad Max (1979)
  • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
  • Carrie (1976)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  • Halloween (1978)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
  • The Omen (1976)
  • King Kong (1976)
  • Eraserhead (1977)
  • Solaris (1972)
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
  • Logan’s Run (1979)
  • The Wicker Man (1973)
  • Live and Let Die (1973) (the first Roger Moore James Bond)
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • Enter the Dragon (193)
  • The Amityville Horror (1979)
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Zardoz (1974)
  • The Wiz (1978)
  • Westworld¬†(1973)
  • Four of the original Planet of the Apes movies
  • A Boy and His Dog (1975)
  • Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
  • Tommy (1975)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1978) (Ralph Bakshi)
  • Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)
  • The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  • Phantasm (1979)
  • The Sentinel (1977)
  • Suspiria (1977)
  • Death Race 2000 (1975)
  • Rollerball (1975)
  • The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
  • The Omega Man (1971)
  • Tales from the Crypt (1972)
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
  • Freaky Friday (1976)
  • The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)
  • The Car (1977)
  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The ¬†Stepford Wives (1975)
  • Dark Star (1974)
  • Eraserhead (1977)

TV

Sure, the 1960s had been huge for high concept TV (with 1964 particularly important), but the 1970s built on that with many geek-friendly hits. Batman on TV had burned out by 1970, but opened the field for other superheroes (DC, Marvel, and bionic). Star Wars and James Bond were both big in movie theatres, and we saw their effect on the small screen as well. Home video arrived, which began to give us more options (although cable wouldn’t be a factor until the 1980s). Saturday morning got trippy with the Kroffts (although H.R. Pufnstuf debuted in 1969), and saw the return of Star Trek with the original cast…in animated form.

Some geek-friendly series:

  • Wonder Woman
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Saturday Night Live (Coneheads! Land Shark!)
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Fantasy Island
  • Mork & Mindy
  • Land of the Lost
  • Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
  • Kung Fu
  • Space: 1999
  • The Six Million Dollar Man
  • The Bionic Woman
  • The Muppet Show
  • The Tomorrow People
  • Isis
  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker
  • Blakes 7
  • The Amazing Spier-Man
  • Nanny and the Professor
  • Shazam!
  • Tales of the Unexpected
  • SCTV
  • Paddington Bear
  • The New Avengers
  • Schoolhouse Rock!
  • Super Friends
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series
  • Man from Atlantis
  • Return to the Planet of the Apes
  • Sigmund and the Sea Monsters
  • Sapphire & Steel
  • Star Blazers
  • The Prisoner
  • Quark
  • Josie and the Pussycats
  • The Invisible Man (David McCallum)
  • Electra Woman and Dyna Girl
  • Doctor Who in the United States
  • Monty Python in the United States

Books/literature

I’ve gone into depth on the general topic of literature of the 1970s in another blog of mine:

I Love My Kindle: Books in the 1970s

In terms of geek-friendly, it was a huge decade! Just as movies saw the mainstreaming of geek-friendly genres, bookstores saw bestsellers from a new author named Stephen King, and a vampire hit (Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice).

While geek-specific bookstores (and comic book stores) were crucial, you could walk into a the newly national Barnes & Noble chain and get a variety of science fiction/fantasy/supernatural horror. You wanted military SF? You had Joe Haldeman. Light fantasy? Enter Xanth by Piers Anthony. Social science fiction? The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Ringworld…Riverworld…we weren’t only reaching out to new planets, we were visiting new worlds and universes.

Here are some of the stand-out titles and authors:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
  • Gateway by Frederick Pohl
  • Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by¬†Philip Jos√© Farmer
  • Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven
  • The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
  • Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
  • Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
  • The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner
  • Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky
  • Autumn Angels by Arthur Byron Cover
  • The Cave of Time (Choose Your Own Adventure) by Edward Packard

Gaming

1974 saw the release of Dungeons & Dragons…and we had Advanced D&D by the end of the decade. This was really the decade that saw the RPG (Role-Playing Game) world established, and would include Runequest and Traveller.

Fandom

Star Trek:  The Original Series ended in 1969, but the people who had come together to fight for a third season kept at it. That included the first Star Trek convention (well, the first widely available to the public one in 1972), the return of the original cast for the animated series, and eventually, 1979, to the big screen.

Comics

Again, there was a transition happening, with some significant experimentation.

  • Jack Kirby jumped from Marvel to DC, and introduced Darkseid
  • The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide first appeared
  • Green Lantern and Green Arrow take a philosophical walk-about across America
  • Mister Miracle debuts
  • An arc in Spider-Man features drug use, and defies the Comics Code Authority
  • Ra’s Al Ghul first appears
  • The Kree-Skrull War storyline
  • The Sandman
  • War Machine makes his first appearance
  • Wonder Woman gives up her powers

The Weird World

  • The TV series In Search of… (hosted by Leonard Nimoy) was instrumental in reinteresting people in the Roswell Incident
  • 1973 was dubbed “The Year of the Humanoids” by UFO researcher David Webb…one of the most famous was the Pascagoula incident
  • Uri Geller was famous, even appearing on the Tonight Show in 1973 to “bend spoons”
  • Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain by¬†Lynn Schroeder and Sheila Ostrander was published in 1970
  • The Mysterious Monsters was a Sunn Classics documentary, featuring Peter Graves
  • The Legend of Boggy Creek was released in 1972
  • The Unidentified, published in 1975, by Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark, is Coleman’s first “name on the cover” book
  • John A. Keel’s inimitable The Mothman Prophecies was published in 1975
  • Momo, the Missouri Monster, was just one of many hairy bipeds
  • Newsstands had magazines galore, including Ancient Astronauts
  • The “flipper photo” of the Loch Ness Monster was taken in 1972 by Dr. Robert Rines’ team
  • In 1975, Travis Walton is missing for several days, and a report emerges of an abduction by aliens

Records

Listening to LPs was definitely a 1970s thing, and there were some definitely geeky concept albums.

  • 1972: David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  • 1973: Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells
  • 1978: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds
  • 1978:¬†Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

Science/Tech

  • Home computers became a thing in 1977, with the Apple II, the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), and the TRS-80 (Tandy Radio Shack)
  • Skylab launched in 1973…and docked with the Russian Soyuz in 1975
  • The Atari 2600 was released in 1977
  • The first Pong arcade game was put to use in 1972. Arcade games would really take off with Space Invaders in 1978

There’s a bit of the geeky 1970s for you! We certainly didn’t cover everything, but you can see the big shift from geek culture being kids and niche to becoming the mainstream pop culture force that it is today. Want to add something? Feel free to comment on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Before Ex Machina, there was My Living Doll

April 6, 2015

Before Ex Machina, there was My Living Doll

“I’m just an it.”
–AF709 (aka Rhoda Miller)
I’ll Leave It All to You
episode of My Living Doll
written by Alan Dales

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina¬†opens this Friday, April 10th, in the USA.

If someone has described the movie to you, perhaps based on seeing the trailer, what are the odds they’ve started out with saying it’s “that movie about artificial intelligence”? I would guess it’s far more likely that they’ve featured¬†that it has a “female robot”, or perhaps even “girl robot”.

I write a lot about

Robots

in The Measured Circle, both the fictional kind and the ones that are inhabiting the world with us.

One of the most fascinating things to me is how we relate to them. As The Measured Circle defines robots*, they are already part of our lives. Our perceptions of them, especially what prejudices we bring to the relationships, may profoundly affect the future lives of Homo sapiens.

There has been a lot of talk recently about gender stereotypes, especially in the geek community.

There is no question that Ex Machina would be perceived as a very different movie if its “robotagonist” was constructed to appear to be male.

“Female” appearing robots have been the exception in science fiction…but have not been absent:

  • In R.U.R., the play which coined the term in 1920, there are main robot characters who are female. These robots are human appearing, and in fact, are organic…nowadays, we might be more inclined to think of them as clones, but they are created¬†to be workers (which is essentially what the term means)
  • In Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis, a robot of Maria is able to impersonate a human being (passing the so called “Turing test”). We also see the robot without its human skinlike covering
  • Starting in 1962, The Jetsons had Rosie, a robot maid. In some ways, she has established the standard of what we want from our home robots, both in terms of task¬†¬†capability¬†¬†and social interaction. Rosie could not only carry on a conversation, she could disagree and give advice. She is shown to be an older model, but the family has an understandable emotional attachment to her
  • 1962 also brought us Platinum (AKA Tina), one of The Metal Men. These were artificially intelligent robots, and a superhero team. Platinum had a faulty “responsometer”, which made her believe she actually was human…and she was in love with Dr. Magnus, the human creator of The Metal Men. While that situation was sometimes played for laughs, Platinum was a full member of the team
  • 1966’s Italian spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the¬†Bikini Machine, and its sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, have robotic female weapons
  • If you had as much money as Richie Rich, wouldn’t you want a robot in your house? 1970 introduced Irona, a robot maid…who had considerably more capabilities than that. The 2015 Netflix series had an android appearing Irona, although the original was obviously metal
  • In 1976, The Bionic Woman popularized the term “fembot” for female appearing robots. That is not, of course, The Bionic Woman herself (who is a cyborg…a human with machine amplification), but actual robots (constructed from scratch). Similarly Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager is not a robot
  • Daryl Hannah garnered a lot of attention as Pris in BladeRunner in 1982
  • 1985 brought us Small Wonder on TV, with “V.I.C.I.” (Voice Input Child Identicant), a robotic ten-year old
  • If you visited Delos, the adult amusement park that is the setting of Westworld, female robots abounded…and human/robot sex was the norm
  • 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery¬†¬†recycled¬†¬†the term “fembots”, although the robots were arguably more like Dr. Goldfoot’s creations than the ones which appeared on The Bionic Woman
  • Summer Glau portrayed Cameron, an intellectually (and emotionally?)¬†complex Terminator who is a main character in Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles, starting in 2008

That’s only a partial list: for more, see

Wikipedia’s List of fictional female robots and cyborgs

although as it states, not everyone on this list is a robot.

However, a series which very directly addresses the idea of how humans will relate to robots, and the role of artificial intelligence, is

My Living Doll (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping**)

and available on Hulu.

Well, at least part of it is…at this point, only eleven episodes are available (and those may be all that survive, although fans hold out hope for the discovery of the others).

I’ve recently watched all of the episodes, and while it might seem easy to dismiss it as “Julie Newmar as a man’s fantasy”, it’s much more interesting than that.

AF709 certainly starts out as simply an object. Robert Cummings’ ¬†psychiatrist is a womanizer and misogynist (his perfect woman would “keep her mouth shut”), and accidentally ends up caring for this robot, which has been built without authorization. It’s inventor coincidentally gets sent to Pakistan after the robot escapes from the lab.

Over time, though, AF709 (who is introduced by Cummings’ Dr. McDonald as “Rhoda” to other people, from whom he is hiding her nature), begins to appear to exhibit genuine human emotion and innovative behavior.

Does she, though?

In early episodes especially, there can be confusion when her “echo confirmation” (as we might call it today) causes her to repeat what people say back to them…often leaving off the first word or two. That can lead to them thinking she is confirming what they are saying. An exchange might go something like, “You fed the dog, right?” “Fed the dog.”

In later episodes, she appears to be having fun, and even acting independently.

Newmar’s performance is extraordinary, and much above the material. She has a dancer’s discipline, and the ability to reproduce actions the same way from episode to episode. She explains her databank depth in the same way, even ending with, “This…is a recording” with the same pause. She talks about her “associated components”, and does the same move to demonstrate them.

Famously, when she doesn’t understand something, she may say, “That does not compute”. That’s been cited as the origin of that phrase, although I would guess more people know it from The (male-sounding) Robot’s use of it on Lost in Space (years later).

It isn’t clear in the series as to whether Rhoda has genuinely become self aware, as appears to be the case, or if she is still mimicking human behavior (as she is clearly created to do, presumably as an easy way to program her for her intended use…space missions). Dr. McDonald intentionally sets out to make her more human (but not in a liberated way) as an experiment…did he succeed, or is she just better at acting the way she has computed humans should act?

I’m sure that question (and its implications for how we treat robots, including what “rights” we give them) will be part of Friday’s Ex Machina…and will increasingly be part of our own lives in the future.

* A robot is something created by humans (directly or indirectly) that performs tasks (autonomously or not) done by humans (or, more broadly, by other animals…a robot dog, for example, would perform work done by living dogs, including providing companionship). 

The word may conjure up an image of a mechanical man, perhaps clunky and made of metal. The way we use the term at The Measured Circle, it would include software performing human tasks, and non-anthropomorphic devices like an answering machine or a calculator.

** When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Tech controversy 1908: PHONE MAGNATE BARS WIRELESS FROM STANFORD

February 15, 2015

Tech controversy 1908: PHONE MAGNATE BARS WIRELESS FROM STANFORD

The San Francisco Call | July 9 1908 | page 1
retyped from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1908-07-09/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1836&index=0&rows=20&words=BARS+FROM+MAGNATE+PHONE+STANFORD+WIRELESS&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1922&proxtext=phone+magnate+bars+wireless+from+stanford&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1

===

PHONE MAGNATE BARS WIRELESS FROM STANFORD

Trustee Hopkins Orders Experimenter from Laboratory When Voices Sound

Stock Holder in  Commercial  System Resents Sordid Spirit of Worker

Brave Professors Comes to Aid of Young Scientist with Offer of Barn

When advancement of  learning  leads to sordid gain should it be frowned upon by a university? Trustee Timothy Hokins [sic] of Stanford, the temporary business manager of the institution while Treasurer Charles G. Lathrop is away, has answered this question emphatically in the affirmative by withholding the privileges of the laboratories for a brilliant young graduate of the cardinal institution, who has lately developed some startling improvement in wireless telephony.

Dr. C. D. Marx, ¬†head of the department of civil engineering and a member of the commission of engineers, engaged in the rebuilding of the university, has answered the question just as emphatically in the negative by installing the apparatus of the young inventor in his spacious barn,¬†¬†where¬†¬†it is said that the system has proven so successful that the professor’s livestock have been driven into a ¬†state of panic by the mysterious voices in the loft of their home.

IS HEAVY STOCK HOLDER

Friends of C.F. Elwell, the inventor in the case, have been unkind enough to suggest that Hopkins was moved to issue his ukase by the fact that he is a heavy stock holder and a member of the executive board of the Pacific States telephone and telegraph company. They point to the significant fact that the apparatus of the big steel tower of the ruined library building was allowed to remain  undisturbed  as long as the university authorities believed that it was there to catch dots and dashes and not vocal sounds.

Elwell has become well known for his original work in electrical engineering and long before his graduation he was made an assistant in that department at Stanford. Last year his work attracted the attention of the men who are trying to sell a wireless telephone system to the government, and the young engineer was appointed to conduct experiments for the company on this coast. The backers the enterprise supplied him with $6,000 worth of apparatus, and while college was still open he used this in conjunction with the electrical and chemical laboratories of the university.

OVERLOOK PHONE SIDE

As soon as Stanford closed for the summer he applied to Hopkins for the privilege of using the  laboratories during the vacation period, and it is said that the business manager, still laboring under the delusion that the experiments were concerned with wireless telegraphy alone, granted the required permission without question.

The secret was well kept for a time, but the voices in the tower swore at central one day, and Hopkins must have been passing at the time, for the inventor was summoned to his office and ordered to remove himself and his apparatus from the campus.

Asked for a reason for this order, the business manager declared that the project was purely a commercial affair, and ans such should be given neither the aid nor the sanction of the university. With no place to take his expensive apparatus, Elwell was in danger of despair until Marx came forward with his offer of a refuge.

===

The Measured Circle note: it’s fascinating that we already see the narrative of a corporate interest trying to prevent disruption to its industry. Wireless voice transmission? Sounds like a cellphone…which may make the use of one¬†in Oz a few years later less impressive (The Wizard of Oz invented the¬†cellphone).¬†Is it also being suggested here that it was profanity that led to the shutdown (“…the voices in the tower swore at central one day”), or was that just because it was loud enough to be overheard? If the former, it mirrors issues which still exist today.

Join thousands of readers and try the free The Measured Circle magazine at Flipboard and try the  The Weird Old Days Flipboard magazine as well

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Is it swarm in here? The Navy announces autonomous swarm boats

October 15, 2014

Is it swarm in here? The Navy announces autonomous swarm boats

“You sunk my battleship!”

Well, technically, you didn’t sink it…robotic ships you unleashed surrounded it and sank it.

In this

media release by David Smalley

the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, proudly says, “The Future Is Now”.

We geeks know that isn’t always a good thing. ūüėČ

In this case, the Navy can retrofit boats with CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing), enabling them to (on their own) coordinate a “swarming attack” on an enemy vessel. They can surround it and just hold it there, or (under human direction), destroy it. The Navy says they can “…deter or destroy attacking adversaries. Any weapons fire from the USVs would need to be initiated by a Sailor supervising the mission.”

There is a video linked on that page, and somehow, it reminded me of the M-5 drill from the original Star Trek’s The Ultimate Computer episode*.

This was kind of a mirror universe version. In the Trek episode, a robotically controlled Enterprise is swarmed by human-controlled starships in a war game.

In this case, a human-controlled vessel was swarmed by robotically-controlled vessels in a war game.

Generally, robots in war are designed to reduce unintended collateral damage. A gun doesn’t have to be “smart” to kill people: it’s made smart so it knows who not to kill. ¬†A smart land mine would choose whether or not to explode, as opposed to current land mines, which maim¬†¬†indiscriminately.

Even as an advocate of robot rights, we at the Measured Circle have to admit feeling a bit…weirded out by this one.

It certainly seems as though military vessels could be sailing along with this fleet of fast boats zooming along side, like dolphins following a fishing boat. The USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) detect that a kayaker has entered the area, and immediately surround it…at their own discretion. They won’t shoot unless told to do so…if everything goes according to plan (and it always does, right?). ūüėČ

Okay, feeling fine with that? What if we throw drones into the mix? Yep, the media release (which shows this is forward thinking…it isn’t a “press release”) specifically mentions that this system could be expanded to include UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). It suggests it could also be used for tanks and such.

There is just something about the way they’ve written the press release and done the video that makes it sound like one of those weapons demonstrations we see in the movies…just before everything goes wrong.

On the other hand, maybe it’s the demo from Short Circuit…one of these vessels¬†gets hit by lightning, becomes self aware, and sets off on a wacky but peaceful boat trip¬†with Zach Galifinakis and Zooey Deschanel on a madcap comedy, while being pursued by Colonel Nick Offerman as it seeks its designer, Jim Parsons.

If that’s the case, carry on…

* I rewatched that episode in preparation for this post, and it is worth noting that there is a “self-driving” spaceship in it…and it seems to be accepted as routine that an ore freighter would be driving itself around. Yet another case where Star Trek preceded reality…

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Transformers got you in the mood for more robots?

July 3, 2014

Transformers got you in the mood for more robots?

Transformers: Age of Extinction

had the biggest opening of the year so far. We geeks always have to remind ourselves that some people haven’t already seen/read/played everything there is.

Think about it: there are kids where this will be their first ever encounter with robots.

We owe it to them, and to geekery, to point out some of the other robots in visual media.

First, a little bit of vocabulary (because that’s always fun, right?): ūüėČ

Technically, and the way we usually use the term in this blog, a robot is an artificial something that performs work.

This is how we define it for our On the Robot Beat stories:

A robot is something created by humans (directly or indirectly) that performs tasks (autonomously or not) done by humans (or, more broadly, by other animals…a robot dog, for example, would perform work done by living dogs, including providing companionship). 

The word may conjure up an image of a mechanical man, perhaps clunky and made of metal. The way we use the term at The Measured Circle, it would include software performing human tasks, and non-anthropomorphic devices like an answering machine or a calculator.

On the Robot Beat presents news about our creations that are, even in small ways, replacing us.

However, you probably don’t want to go from Transformers to, oh, an electric toothbrush.

For this post, we’ll use it to mean an inorganic artificially created life form.

That’s how many geeks use it. A clone is not a robot, even if it was created to do work, because it is organic.

Now, there are robots (in the above definition) designed to resemble human beings…sometimes, they do it so well that you wouldn’t know. Those are called androids, from the Greek meaning something like “man-like”.

An android is a robot, but a robot isn’t necessarily an android, in the same way that a cat is an animal, but an animal isn’t necessarily a cat.

Two other terms sometimes get thrown into this category are cyborg and bionic.

A cyborg (cybernetic organism) is a human being (or, I suppose, an animal) which has been made partly mechanical.

Bionic (bio ((life)) and “onic” from electronic) is an adjective. Something can be bionic (like a bionic arm), but there isn’t a being which is a “bionic” (although it wouldn’t surprise me if some story used it that way).

A cyborg might have a bionic leg.

As in many things in geekdom, this can get hard to pin down…we’re so imaginative! ūüėČ For example, if a robot has an organic skin (and that happens with the T-800 series from Terminator…so they can better infiltrate human groups), does that make it a cyborg?

I would say no: the artificial has been augmented with the organic, rather than the other way around.

For this post, we’re going to stick with robots (including androids) although some organic enhancements might sneak in here.

That does leave out Doctor Who’s Cybermen and Daleks. Both of them may look like machines, but the former are clearly cyborgs and the latter are more like a human in a suit of armor (although it’s much more complex than that).

Here we go!

Robby the Robot
First appearance: 1956, Forbidden Planet

Robby was an amazing part of an incredible movie. This is what many of us think of when we think of a robot. Robby “lived” to serve humans, and was physically awkward. This mechanism spoke (and in nearly 200 languages, along with their dialects and sub-tongues) and was artificially intelligent. The character was so successful (including the suit) that Robby went on to appear in other movies and to guest star on TV shows.

Tik-Tok
First literary appearance: 1907, Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Featured in Return To Oz, 1985

The land of Oz in the original books is surprisingly technological, with gramophones, a wireless pocket telephone invented by the Wizard, and a robot.

There was actually more than one robot in the series, but Tik-Tok became a main character and an important person in the Land of Oz. Tik-Tok had to be wound up to operate, but was able to think, speak, and act.

The Robot (B9) from Lost in Space
First appearance: 1965

“Danger!” Will Robinson was a geeky kid in a pioneer space family. While he was arguably friends with Dr. Smith, his real friend was artificial: the robot. Like Robby the Robot, Lost in Space’s worker was designed by Robert Kinoshita. However, “Robot” (it was often used as a name) was a lot more “human” in emotional affect.

Rhoda (AF 709)
First appearance: 1964, My Living Doll

Certainly not as well known as some of the others on this list, Rhoda was an experimental robot in the shape of…well, Julie Newmar. This was what I call a “mermaid out of water” story…like a “fish out of water”, but with a fantasy/science fiction element (like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, or My Favorite Martian). It’s a typical sitcom in some ways, but Newmar brought special elements to it…for example, Rhoda enters a beauty pageant, but Newmar takes it to the next level during the talent portion, by (actually) playing piano well. The series was sexy (for one thing, Rhoda was controlled in part by pushing buttons disguised as beauty marks) and funny. Rhoda’s perceptions of the world showed an interesting insight into how an artificial intelligence might view the world. Some clips are also available on YouTube (including the piano clip).

K-9 (Doctor Who)
First appearance: 1977, The Invisible Enemy (Doctor Who)

Not every biomorphic robot is shaped like a human being. Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor introduced us to this robot dog. Certainly, some might feel that K-9 is an upgrade from a biological dog: I mean, the laser weapon in the nose comes in handy, and although your dog may think she knows everything (and you cat knows he does), K-9 had a wealth of information. The character was popular enough to appear with other doctors, and in spin-off series. For another robot dog, see Woody Allen’s Sleeper, and for a dog-like robot, see Muffitt II, a robot “daggitt” from the original Battlestar Galactica series.

Maria
First appearance: 1927 (Metropolis)

This silent movie is remarkably solid science fiction, and clearly was greatly influential. [SPOILER ALERT] Maria is a decidedly female robot, and is turned into an android to take the place of a human in a plot of manipulation. [END SPOILER]

We could keep going…and going…and going…

Here’s are some more to consider (and this just the tip of the cybernetic iceberg):

  • Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
  • Number (Johnny) 5 (Short Circuit)
  • Huey, Dewey, and Louie (Silent Running)
  • Tobor the Great
  • Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still)
  • R2-D2 and C3PO (Star Wars)
  • Bubo (a robot owl from The Clash of the Titans)
  • The Scudders (Red Dwarf)
  • Bender (Futurama)
  • Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and others (Mystery Science Theater 3000)
  • Yo-Yo (Holmes and Yo-Yo)
  • Hymie (Get Smart)
  • Marvin (Hitchhiker’s¬†Guide to the Galaxy)
  • Astro Boy
  • Dorian (Almost Human)
  • The Fembots (Austin Powers…and Dr. Goldfoot)
  • Vicki (Small Wonder)

That should get you started. ūüôā

Feel free to suggest other robots by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

Tech wars…1913 style

June 21, 2014

Tech wars…1913 style

http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1913-06-01/ed-1/seq-22/#date1=1836&index=3&rows=20&words=calculating+machin+machine&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1922&proxtext=calculating+machine&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1

New-York tribune., June 01, 1913, Image 22

Image from the Library of Congress.

Comptometer

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Gilligan’s Drone

June 7, 2014

Gilligan’s Drone

“Sooner than you think” is a series of posts on The Measured Circle where we find that things we think are modern have actually been around a bit longer than that…

While you may not think of Gilligan’s Island as a geeky TV series, there were certainly elements of fantasy and sometimes science fiction in it.

In

Gilligan’s Living Doll (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

a second season episode by Bob Stevens (originally broadcast on February 10, 1966), a robot is accidentally dropped on the island.

The castaways try to use it to get off the island (of course).

What you might find surprising is how we are told the robot got on the island in the first place:

“…and the drone plane which accidentally ejected the robot XR-1000 landed at Vanderburg Air Field. Since the airplane was operated by remote control, the officials have no way of knowing where the robot was ejected.”

That’s right: in 1966, a fictional aerial craft with no humans aboard was referred to as a drone.

Sooner than you think…

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the  The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


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