Judgement Day Update: Terminators at I/O 2014

google_terminatorsWe’ve all thought about it… the day when super-intelligent computer becomes self-aware and unleashes a nuclear holocaust, followed shortly thereafter by the rise of the machines (cue theme from Terminator). But as it turns out, when the robot army does come to exterminate humanity, at two humans might be safe – Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to be precise.

Basically, they’ve uploaded a killer-robots.txt file to their servers that instructs T-800 and T-1000 Terminators to spare the company’s co-founders (or “disallow” their deaths). Such was the subject of a totally tongue-in-cheek presentation at this year’s Google I/O at the Moscone Center in San Fransisco, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Robots.txt file.

https://i2.wp.com/www.product-reviews.net/wp-content/uploads/Google-IO-2014-keynote-dated-live-stream-as-normal1.jpgThis tool, which was created in 1994, instructs search engines and other automated bots to avoid crawling certain pages or directories of a website. The industry has done a remarkable job staying true to the simple text file in the two decades since; Google, Bing, and Yahoo still obey its directives. The changes they uploaded read like this, just in case you’re planning on adding your name to the “disallow” list:

Screen_shot_2014-07-03_at_7.15.23_pm

While that tool didn’t exactly take the rise of the machines into account, it’s appearance on the Google’s website as an Easter egg did add some levity to a company that is already being accused of facilitating in the creation of killer robots. Calling Google’s proposed line or robots “killer” does seem both premature and extreme, that did not stop a protester from interrupting the I/O 2014 keynote address.

Google_Terminators_WideBasically, as Google’s senior VP of technical infrastructure Urs Hölze spoke about their cloud platform, the unidentified man stood up and began screaming “You all work for a totalitarian company that builds machines that kill people!” As you can see from the video below, Hölze did his best to take the interruptions in stride and continued with the presentation. The protestor was later escorted out by security.

This wasn’t the first time that Google has been the source of controversy over the prospect of building “killer robots”. Ever since Google acquired Boston Dynamics and seven other robots companies in the space of six months (between and June and Dec of 2013), there has been some fear that the company has a killer machine in the works that it will attempt to sell to the armed forces.

campaign_killerrobotsNaturally, this is all part of a general sense of anxiety that surrounds developments being made across multiple fields. Whereas some concerns have crystallized into dedicated and intelligent calls for banning autonomous killer machines in advance – aka. the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots – others have resulted in the kinds of irrational outbreaks observed at this year’s I/O.

Needless to say, if Google does begin developing killer robots, or just starts militarizing its line of Boston Dynamics acquisitions, we can expect that just about everyone who can access (or hack their way into) the Robots.txt file to be adding their names. And it might not be too soon to update the list to include the T-X, Replicants, and any other killer robots we can think of!

And be sure to check out the video of the “killer robot” protester speaking out at 2014 I/O:


Sources: 
theverge.com, (2)

Revolution in Virtual Reality: Google’s Cardboard Headset

cardboardgifWith the acquisition of the Oculus Rift headset, Facebook appeared ready to corner the market of the new virtual reality market. But at its annual I/O conference, Google declared that it was staking its own claim. At the end of the search giant’s keynote address, Sundar Pichai announced that everyone in attendance would get a nondescript cardboard package, but was coy about its contents. Turns out, it’s the firm’s attempt at a do-it-yourself VR headset.

Known as Cardboard, copies of the headset were handed out as part of a goodie bag, alongside the choice between a brand new LG G Watch or Samsung Gear Live smartwatch. Intended to be a do-it-yourself starter kit, Google Cardboard is a head-mounted housing unit for your smartphone that lets you blend everyday items into a VR headset. With a $10 lens kit, $7 worth of magnets, two Velcro straps, a rubber band, and an optional near-field communication sticker tag, you can have your very own VR headset for the fraction of the price.

box-of-cardboard-google-io-2014You can use household materials to build one, and a rubber band to hold your smartphone in place on the front of the device. Assembly instructions, plans and links for where to source the needed parts (like lenses) — as well as an SDK — are available on the project’s website. Google hopes that by making the tech inexpensive (unlike offerings from, say, Oculus), developers will be able to make VR apps that hit a wider audience.

According to some early reviews, the entire virtual reality experience is surprisingly intuitive, and is as impressive considering how simple it is. And while the quality doesn’t quite match the Oculus Rift’s dual OLED Full HD screens, and it is lacking in that it doesn’t have positional tracking (meaning you can’t lean into something the way you would in real life), the Cardboard is able to create the 3D effect using just a single phone screen and some specialized lenses.

google_cardboardMeanwhile, Google has created some great demos within the Cardboard app, showcasing the kind of experiences people can expect moving forward. Right now, the Cardboard app features simple demonstrations: Google Earth, Street View, Windy Day, and more. But it’s just a small taste of what’s possible. And anyone willing to put some time into putting together their own cardboard headset can get involved. Never before has virtual reality been so accessible, or cheap.

And that was precisely the purpose behind the development of this device. Originally concocted by David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris as part of the company’s “20 percent time” initiative, the program was started with the aim of inspiring a more low-cost model for VR development. After an early prototype wowed Googlers, a larger group was tasked with building out the idea, and the current Cardboard headset was born.

google_cardboard1As it reads on Google’s new page for the device’s development:

Virtual reality has made exciting progress over the past several years. However, developing for VR still requires expensive, specialized hardware. Thinking about how to make VR accessible to more people, a group of VR enthusiasts at Google experimented with using a smartphone to drive VR experiences.

Beyond hardware, on June 25th, the company also released a self-described experimental software development kit for Cardboard experiences. Cardboard also has an Android companion app that’s required to utilize Google’s own VR-specific applications, called Chrome Experiments. Some use cases Google cites now are flyover tours in Google Earth, full-screen YouTube video viewing, and first-person art exhibit tours.

google_cardboard2As Google said a related press release:

By making it easy and inexpensive to experiment with VR, we hope to encourage developers to build the next generation of immersive digital experiences and make them available to everyone.

Oculus Rift is still the most promising version of virtual reality right now, and with Facebook at the helm, there are some tremendous resources behind the project. But with Cardboard, Google is opening up VR to every single Android developer, which we hope will lead to some really awesome stuff down the road. Even if you can’t lean in to inspect dials in front of you, or look behind corners, the potential of Cardboard is tremendous. Imagine the kind of not only experiences we’ll see, but augmented reality using your phone’s camera.

But Cardboard is still very early in development. Its only been a few weeks since it was debuted at Google I/O, and the device is still only works with Android. But with availability on such a wide scale, it could very quickly become the go-to VR platform out there. All you need are some magnets, velcro, rubber band, lenses and a pizza box. And be sure to check out this demo of the device, courtesy of “Hands-On” by TechnoBuffalo:


Sources:
cnet.com, technobuffalo.com, engadget.com

The Future of Devices: The Wearable Tech Boom

Wearable-Computing-RevolutionThe wearable computing revolution that has been taking place in recent years has drawn in developers and tech giants from all over the world. Though its roots are deep, dating back to the late 60’s and early 80’s with the Sword of Damocles concept and the work of Steve Mann. But in recent years, thanks to the development of Google Glass, the case for wearable tech has moved beyond hobbyists and enthusiasts and into the mainstream.

And with display glasses now accounted for, the latest boom in development appears to be centered on smart watches and similar devices. These range from fitness trackers with just a few features to wrist-mounted version of smart phones that boast the same constellations of functions and apps (email, phone, text, skyping, etc.) And as always, the big-name industries are coming forward with their own concepts and designs.

apple_iwatch1First, there’s the much-anticipated Apple iWatch, which is still in the rumor stage. The company has been working on this project since late 2012, but has begun accelerating the process as it tries to expand its family of mobile devices to the wrist. Apple has already started work on trademarking the name in a number of countries in preparation for a late 2014 launch perhaps in October, with the device entering mass production in July.

And though it’s not yet clear what the device will look like, several mockups and proposals have been leaked. And recent reports from sources like Reuters and The Wall Street Journal have pointed towards multiple screen sizes and price points, suggesting an array of different band and face options in various materials to position it as a fashion accessory. It is also expected to include a durable sapphire crystal display, produced in collaboration with Apple partner GT Advanced.

iWatchWhile the iWatch will perform some tasks independently using the new iOS 8 platform, it will be dependent on a compatible iOS device for functions like receiving messages, voice calls, and notifications. It is also expected to feature wireless charging capabilities, advanced mapping abilities, and possibly near-field communication (NFC) integration. But an added bonus, as indicated by Apple’s recent filing for patents associated with their “Health” app, is the inclusion of biometric and health sensors.

Along with serving as a companion device to the iPhone and iPad, the iWatch will be able to measure multiple different health-related metrics. Consistent with the features of a fitness band, these will things like a pedometer, calories burned, sleep quality, heart rate, and more. The iWatch is said to include 10 different sensors to track health and fitness, providing an overall picture of health and making the health-tracking experience more accessible to the general public.

iOS8Apple has reportedly designed iOS 8 with the iWatch in mind, and the two are said to be heavily reliant on one another. The iWatch will likely take advantage of the “Health” app introduced with iOS 8, which may display all of the health-related information gathered by the watch. Currently, Apple is gearing up to begin mass production on the iWatch, and has been testing the device’s fitness capabilities with professional athletes such as Kobe Bryant, who will likely go on to promote the iWatch following its release.

Not to be outdone, Google launched its own brand of smartwatch – known as Android Wear – at this year’s I/O conference. Android Wear is the company’s software platform for linking smartwatches from companies including LG, Samsung and Motorola to Android phones and tablets. A preview of Wear was introduced this spring, the I/O conference provided more details on how it will work and made it clear that the company is investing heavily in the notion that wearables are the future.

android-wear-showdownAndroid Wear takes much of the functionality of Google Now – an intelligent personal assistant – and uses the smartwatch as a home for receiving notifications and context-based information. For the sake of travel, Android Wear will push relevant flight, weather and other information directly to the watch, where the user can tap and swipe their way through it and use embedded prompts and voice control to take further actions, like dictating a note with reminders to pack rain gear.

For the most part, Google had already revealed most of what Wear will be able to do in its preview, but its big on-stage debut at I/O was largely about getting app developers to buy into the platform and keep designing for a peripheral wearable interface in mind. Apps can be designed to harness different Android Wear “intents.” For example, the Lyft app takes advantage of the “call me a car” intent and can be set to be the default means of hailing a ride when you tell your smartwatch to find you a car.

androidwear-3Google officials also claimed at I/O that the same interface being Android Wear will be behind their new Android Auto and TV, two other integrated services that allow users to interface with their car and television via a mobile device. So don’t be surprised if you see someone unlocking or starting their car by talking into their watch in the near future. The first Android Wear watches – the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch – are available to pre-order and the round-face Motorola Moto 360 is expected to come out later this summer.

All of these steps in integration and wearable technology are signs of an emergent trend, one where just about everything from personal devices to automobiles and even homes are smart and networked together – thus giving rise to a world where everything is remotely accessible. This concept, otherwise known as the “Internet of Things”, is expected to become the norm in the next 20 years, and will include other technologies like display contacts and mediated (aka. augmented) reality.

And be sure to check out this concept video of the Apple iWatch:


Sources:
cnet.com, (2), macrumors.com, engadget.com, gizmag.com

Immortality Inc: Google’s Kurzweil Talks Life Extension

calico-header-640x353Human life expectancy has been gradually getting longer and longer over the past century, keeping pace with advances made in health and medical technologies. And in the next 20 years, as the pace of technological change accelerates significantly, we can expect life-expectancy to undergo a similarly accelerated increase. So its only natural that one of the worlds biggest tech giants (Google) would decide to becoming invested in the business of post-mortality.

As part of this initiative, Google has been seeking to build a computer that can think like a human brain. They even hired renowed futurist and AI expert Ray Kurzweil last year to act as the director of engineering on this project. Speaking at Google’s I/O conference late last month, he detailed his prediction that our ability to improve human health is beginning to move up an “exponential” growth curve, similar to the law of accelerating returns that governs the information technology and communications sectors today.

raykurzweilThe capacity to sequence DNA, which is dropping rapidly in cost and ease, is the most obvious example. At one time, it took about seven years to sequence 1% of the first human genome. But now, it can be done in a matter of hours. And thanks to initiatives like the Human Genome Project and ENCODE, we have not only successfully mapped every inch of the human genome, we’ve also identified the function of every gene within.

But as Kurzweil said in the course of his presentation – entitled “Biologically Inspired Models of Intelligence” – simply reading DNA is only the beginning:

Our ability to reprogram this outdated software is growing exponentially. Somewhere between that 10- and 20-year mark, we’ll see see significant differences in life expectancy–not just infant life expectancy, but your remaining life expectancy. The models that are used by life insurance companies sort of continue the linear progress we’ve made before health and medicine was an information technology… This is going to go into high gear.

immortality_dnaKurzweil cited several examples of our increasing ability to “reprogram this outdated data” – technologies like RNA interference that can turn genes on and off, or doctors’ ability to now add a missing gene to patients with a terminal disease called pulmonary hypertension. He cited the case of a girl whose life was threatened by a damaged wind pipe, who had a new pipe designed and 3-D printed for her using her own stem cells.

In other countries, he notes, heart attack survivors who have lasting heart damage can now get a rejuvenated heart from reprogrammed stem cells. And while this procedure awaits approval from the FDA in the US, it has already been demonstrated to be both safe and effective. Beyond tweaking human biology through DNA/RNA reprogramming, there are also countless initiatives aimed at creating biomonitoring patches that will improve the functionality and longevity of human organs.

avatar_imageAnd in addition to building computer brains, Google itself is also in the business of extending human life. This project, called Calico, hopes to slow the process of natural aging, a related though different goal than extending life expectancy with treatment for disease. Though of course, the term “immortality” is perhaps a bit of misnomer, hence why it is amended with the word “clinical”. While the natural effects of aging are something that can be addressed, there will still be countless ways to die.

As Kurzweil himself put it:

Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow. Of course, we’re working on that here at Google also, with self-driving cars.

Good one, Kurzweil! Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who question the validity of these assertions, and challenge the notion of clinical immortality on ethical grounds. After all, our planet currently plays host to some 7 billion people, and another 2 to 3 billion are expected to be added before we reach the halfway mark of this century. And with cures for diseases like HIV and cancer already showing promise, we may already be looking at a severe drop in mortality in the coming decades.

calico1Combined with an extension in life-expectancy, who knows how this will effect life and society as we know it? But one thing is for certain: the study of life has become tantamount to a study of information. And much like computational technology, this information can be manipulated, resulting in greater performance and returns. So at this point, regardless of whether or not it should be done, it’s an almost foregone conclusion that it will be done.

After all? While very few people would dare to live forever, there is virtually no one who wouldn’t want to live a little longer. And in the meantime, if you’ve got the time and feel like some “light veiwing”, be sure to check out Kurzweil’s full Google I/O 2014 speech in which he addresses the topics of computing, artificial intelligence, biology and clinical immortality:


Sources: fastcoexist.com, kurzweilai.net