Posted tagged ‘robots’

Creativity throughout the web.

May 28, 2010

Here’s a really interesting short film I bumped into while browsing the web that shows just how much great stuff is lurking out there. The imagery is the stuff of scifi dreams and the CGI, while not Avatar, shows a lot of work and craftsmanship. But it’s the simple plot that deals ultimately with humanity and machinery and the possibility of encoding human cognition in a synthetic form that’s really of interest. While it raises more questions than it answers, give it a view and post what you think.

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The creative ghost in the machine.

March 22, 2010

We writers spend so much time trying to be original. It’s not just for our sake so we can flatter our egos and point ostentatiously back at how unique we are. We also do it because we like to think we are dreamers. We look at the world outside and reconfigure it in new ways inside to bring it back out in the form of art so others can enjoy it and share in our dream. It’s so human that nothing could replicate it. Creativity is ours and ours alone. We paint the Mona Lisas and we write the sonnets. We also make the music… until Emmy came along. Emmy, and its new version, Emily Howell, are programs that create new, original music designed by Professor David Cope. The first program baffled people by creating songs indistinguishable from Bach original pieces, inciting an enraged uproar. Now, the second version is out and creating even more inspired pieces that you can find clips of in the link along with a lengthy and interesting article. In that article you will find what I’ve said multiple times: creativity is recombination of existing elements. Yet, it is recombination with a soul, isn’t it? Does the program feel the music or the thrill of making something new? Probably not but you have to give it credit. It recombines the way a DNA synthesizer recombines, coldly and with precision but creating products that are still beautiful. I think this demonstrates how we too are like the machine. We take everything we’ve seen and heard and process it; yet we do it because we love it, because it compels us whereas Emily Howell does it because Professor Cope hits the start button yet the results are still stunning. How does it know to put the notes in such an order as to evoke emotion? Are our emotions so transparent that we can be triggered to feel something based solely on an algorithm? What does this mean for the music industry if a machine can make music that sounds more genuine and heart-felt than most of the human musicians populating the Billboard charts? Whatever the case, I look forward to a machine that creates because it shares the human love of creating something new, something no one has seen or heard before.

New cancer treatment uses nanobots to target tumors.

March 22, 2010

A new treatment option for cancer is going into Phase 1 Clinical trials. Using nanobots that swim through a person’s blood stream, targeting only the tumors and not healthy tissue, researchers are giving a new hope to people who would otherwise have to suffer through painful chemo therapy and radiation treatments that make them lose their hair, drop huge amounts of weight, suffer intense nausea, and other terrible side effects. They’ve already demonstrated that the little nanobots can get to the tumors and won’t affect healthy tissue though they still need to check for side effects and what not to make sure it’s safe for humans. Still this is an amazing leap for both nanotech and gene therapy since not only do these nanobots seek out the tumor but they also target genes responsible for tumor growth and expansion.

Machine-brain dialogue through interesting research.

March 21, 2010

I’ve always thought it would be incredible to extend our nervous systems outside of ourselves to manipulate technology and machinery with just a thought. After seeing The Matrix and reading Neuromancer it seemed to open all kinds of new possibilities and who hasn’t thought it would be incredible to augment your body with mechanical parts a la Ghost in the Shell? It’s all part of the post-human dream to surpass the flesh and choose the path of our evolution through our technology. The problem is that the brain is the most intensely complex machine in the universe which makes understanding and programming for it such a difficult job. Luckily, there are lots of innovative people working on this problem and are making some really incredible advances. This video shows one of these research groups that I think really are looking at the problem, not just as one of picking up signals, but also in sending signals back to the brain. If you think about it, when your brain tells your arm to move, it is receiving signals back from the arm that confirm that the action has been done. If a chip managed to tell the brain that it was doing the assigned task, we would have a much more intuitive and intimate (as strange as that sounds) relationship with the computers we were connected to. All this new and exciting progress is getting us closer to a world in which we will connect to our environment in totally new ways. The future is looking stranger and stranger as we redefine what it is to be human.

The Creative Writing Process: Part 3

March 20, 2010

Wow. I apologize for the delay in posting. The past week has been all about catching up with things I should have been doing over spring break. Oh the life of a college student but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, with the end of my senior year looming, I find myself wishing my under graduate career would just go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and we all find ourselves having to move on to the next phase. But enough of my personal musings and let’s get down to some writing!

So, you’ve come up with an idea that you want to expand on. You think it’s grand and you want to turn your vision into something that people will talk about and other writers will turn to years down the line. There’s just one problem: you need to start somewhere. How? We’re talking about a major undertaking and you haven’t a single word on the page. What I did to start out was to put it together like a puzzle. You can do this in your head but the problem is you will forget things. This may be a good thing sometimes. A little chaos is necessary for creativity but if you have a great idea or have plans for a plot twist you just know will wow your readers and you forget it, you will be kicking yourself for a long time. So what can you do to get your ideas down without actually writing out the story?

There are two very useful programs available that can help you trace out the possible routes your story can go down. The first is a program called FreeMind. FreeMind uses a wire diagram setup that allows you to create nodes from which other nodes can be attached and branch off. Want to brain storm a complex series of double-crossings and deceit? Make a “parent node” with lots of little baby nodes that will represent the literal web you are creating with the exploits of your characters. The same can be done for plotting and it will definitely help you keep it all straight. It’s a versatile system with a fairly small learning curve though you will have to get used to it. The second program requires far less practice time.

yWriter, now in its fifth version, can be used after you’ve completed your graph of the plot. What it does is provide a small but useful suite of functions that allow you to create folders for character biographies, setting descriptions, and finally, a robust system that breaks your novel up into chapters, allowing you to concentrate on the dynamics of character, setting, conflict, props, and other important aspects that contribute to a chapter functioning.

I used both programs in the planning stage of writing a novel but neither of them can really write your novel. Instead, you’ve got to pull the ideas together into something coherent and these programs can help with the organizing procedure. So where do you start? At the beginning is what I’ve heard works best. How do you know what that is and what’s worse, how do embark on this adventure? When I started my novel, I felt like I was about to jump off a ledge. It was a strange, out of control feeling, like if I started, I wouldn’t be able to change course. Once you’re falling, the only thing that will stop you is the ground. But that’s not true. You are in control at all times which is why you should start by thinking, “Alright, I have an idea for my story. This is a test run of sorts, a first draft of a first draft. A pilot episode of a book.” Test out a first chapter or two.

The two big questions you must ask to test the beginning of your chapter are: “If I picked this up in the book store, would I continue reading?” and “If I start here, will I be able to get where I want to go?” If the answer to either question is “no,” then you must switch things up. “But I thought my work with those programs would have fixed this!” you might be saying. All I’m saying is that even after I did all that work, I still discovered that when I went to write the novel, the ideas proved less secure than I had thought which meant that I had to modify them. I no longer have the first draft but if you looked at that then at the current and, I think for now, final draft, of the first chapter, you would think you were reading totally different books. This is okay and you should never be afraid of changing your ideas if you discover they are going to limit you and prevent you from telling the story you want to tell. Still, where do you begin in your story?

For my novel, I begin in media res which means, “in the middle of things.” In many stories, you will have to do this if you wish to avoid four chapters of pure exposition. This will force you to consider how you will get your reader to follow along with the narrative since they will be dropped into a world that is going full tilt. The up-side to this is that there is no down-time. The action or at least the intrigue begins at page one with later chapters providing the much-needed, and necessary, moments to pause and build your characters. The in media res method will give you the opportunity to introduce your problem or conflict that will be the center that your characters will circle around and it may introduce one of your major characters as well. You could begin with a description of the scenery if you wish and if you think that it will be important to adding atmosphere or revealing some important detail of the world. However, do not wait too long to introduce some human element, even if you use the method of a false protagonist in which the first character we meet is not actually our protagonist and may even be the antagonist. The fun for the reader will be the surprise that comes from the switch to the protagonist or main character’s narrative. Whatever the case, do not make the reader wait too long to encounter a human they can identify with. People want and need to have a person to ground them, to make a new and unfamiliar world you are introducing them to a little more recognizable and easy to follow. Whatever you do, don’t start off pummeling your readers with back story of the world or character. Readers don’t want a history lesson or a case study. They want a story about characters living and operating in the world you are creating then and there. So now we know that, where and when can we begin?

Start your book where your conflict starts. This is the most efficient method I know. What is the first encounter or first action that draws your character into the main plot of your story? That is where your story begins. In an action oriented book, what is it that the protagonist does or has done to her/him that brings the character into the main web of the story? Is it a plot to steal valuable secret from a science lab? Maybe your character is a con man who manages to con the people behind the theft into letting him in on the robbery and he steals the info for himself. In this story, you might start right at the heist detailing the run then surprise your audience with the character running off with the info. Why not start when he joins the group? The group stealing from the research team hired the con man, yes, but the actions of the thieves only start to affect him when they go after him. All the rest is exposition you can fill in as the story progresses.

That’s about all I can say for actually beginning your novel. Hopefully this was helpful in making that first big leap into the story. For the next time, I’ll see what pops into my head. Possibly I’ll talk about how to introduce background information and maybe I’ll talk about writing style though that might have to be a separate subject all its own. Until then, good luck starting your novel!

The best part of waking up is coffee in your car… What has science done?

March 11, 2010

I love it when science gives us something to smile about. It’s not all just dystopian futures and killer robots but sometimes it’s cars powered by espresso. The Volkswagen Scirocco is powered by coffee grounds that go through a fairly complex processing system that derives energy from them to power the car. While I don’t suspect that you should look forward to a coffee bean powered car, I still think it’s pretty great to see the ingenuity it took to make this slurping speedster. Another example of how machines and humans are becoming more and more alike: we both need that pick me up first thing in the morning.

Silly and sleek technology on display in Germany’s CeBit convention.

March 4, 2010

That's what I call a fashion statement

At the CeBit technology convention, there was plenty of new tech on display to get any gear-head’s heart racing. There was an assortment of innovative new technology that will be hitting the market and will both be useful tools and useful for making some mischief. On the useful side of things is a robotic tutor who will teach you how to speak Chinese (it wasn’t specified whether it was Cantonese or Mandarin). Her/its name is Amy and she comes equipped with over 400,00 sentences and the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in her head. Using AI and voice recognition she can communicate with you in real-time. A screen serves as her face or it seems she can project her avatar on a wall as well. Another interesting gizmo is the eye tracking computer. One can control a computer just by the movement of his/her eyes. A proposed use given in the article is to allow business people to know what products a customer looks at first.  However, I think this could also be used with people suffering from neurological problems such as stroke and brain damage to train their brain to keep their eyes level or focused on a certain object, a problem people will sometimes suffer after these incidents.

Not all the devices on display were so serious. A little gadget called the Tunebug Vibe can turn any surface into a stereo by sending vibrations through it, making it create sound. Another fun thing was a team of four robots who could play football (i.e. soccer). Another neat thing to program a smile to your face was a remote control that can turn off any television in Europe. This was just a sample of the tech on display. Some extra bits of info and lots of pictures can be found through the link.

I honestly wish I could have been there. The great thing a show like this does is to demonstrate that technology can be as fun as it is useful. The AI in the Amy system is really exciting as it shows progress in the way we can interact with intelligent machines. Voice recognition is still a big problem since there are so many parts of language that need to be understood for the meaning of something to be ascertained. Syntax, semantics, the sound and rhythm of the voice are all things that must be picked up on. But this certainly shows we’re making strides in the right direction. Still, technology can just be fun and some of the devices on display have a wonderful, childlike sense of fun about them. A lot of technology can seem far removed from us, locked away in special labs, or threatening us with import impinging on our lives. This expo, and expos like it, give us a chance to see that technological progress can be a boon for us and can add some novel fun to our lives.