Saturday, May 31, 2008

The robotic monkey arm

I love this sort of story. The news outlets tell us that there is a new technology [I've been seeing this story since 2002] and that it's good news for some particular group, missing the mind-blowing potential of the tech. This week we're told that the ability to control computer interfaces with our minds is "good news for amputees..."

Yes, it is good news for amputees. In the same way the advent of coal was good news for people who ran out of peat. But there were other things that came from our utilization of coal as a fuel source that changed how we live, such as railroads, steam-powered mills, industrialization, you know. Stuff like that.

See video below

This is classic outside context thinking. Big, huge, giant, game changing technology. Narrow view.

Allow me to name just a few of the things that WILL come of this particular tech, besides the obviously good and well-timed news for amputees: First, anyone in a critical position with a high technical workload will be equipped with this because it could save their lives and the lives of the people they're paid to keep alive. So, pilots, especially military pilots will get this pretty early on. Special Forces, tactical police, anybody who has something they need to do with their hands and also communicate, navigate, and otherwise interface with data.

But the next level is where it gets really interesting. Say goodbye to keyboards, joysticks, steering wheels, buttons, knobs, switches and mouse and trackpads. It's over. It will simply be easier and cheaper to have those things replaced by wireless signals directly from your brain. Yes, from your brain. Look at your cell phone and think how much different it would be if you didn't have to type on it. Where would it be? What would it look like? What shape would it be?

Now imagine text messaging if you didn't have to type. How much does that change, oh, say...taking the SATs? Being at a party? Working on a group project? It's electronic telepathy. Think of it that way and you see the potential this has to change how we live in a profound way. Our hands stop being the interface. Our voices stop being the interface. Our minds become the interface. Where does that path take us, especially with so many people's bodies begining to fail them as the Baby Boomers age. Is the Several-Generation- Away-Second Life Avatar essentially a brain in a jar?

Monkey controls robotic arm with brain computer interface

Monday, May 5, 2008

Outside context problem

Though I am loath to credit Mel Gibson with anything, as the Mel is either despicable or crazy or both (my guess) based on his drunken ramblings, this scene from Apocolypto best illustrates the concept of a challenge that is entierly outside a given group's set of experiences.

The term was coined and perhaps best described by Iaian M Banks in his novel Excision:

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.