Judgement Day Update: e-David the Painting Robot

robot_bartenderRobots have been making quite the stir in the news lately. And no, that’s not a delicious pun on the robotic bartender – aka. the Makr Shakr, it’s just a frank appraisal of the leap and bounds by which robots and their integration to society is proceeding. Between developing machines that can imitate human movements, human facial expressions, and carry out specialized tasks, it appears that we may actually be on the verge on a world where robots are a common feature.

Just a few days ago, DARPA and Boston Dynamics unveiled their most anthropomorphic robot to date – the Atlas Robot. And this came less than a month after the Global Future 2045 conference took place in Moscow, where Geminoid robot clones – so realistic that they were virtually indistinguishable from their human counterparts – were put on display. And yet, it seems that the Singularitarians and roboticists of the world were not yet finished for the season.

e-DavidNow it appears that there is a robotic arm that is capable of performing another highly-specialized task: painting. Created by a team at the University of Konstanz in Germany, the E-David is capable of performing the artistic variety of painting, not the kind which involves spraying enamel onto car frames – something robots have been doing for decades, much to the chagrin of auto workers.

Granted, it is not capable of “artistic inspiration”, but instead takes a picture of what it wants to copy and takes it from there. What’s more, it e-David doesn’t require programming directions that tell it how to paint, relying instead on a concept known as “visual optimization” to make its own decisions. After each brush stroke, e-David takes a picture, and its software calculates where the next stroke needs to fall, what colors are needed, and whether it needs to be lighter or darker, etc.

e_David1In short, e-David can do the time-consuming and often monotonous task of reproducing original works of art, or cleaning them up, but cannot create someone all on its own. Now lets all join the artists of the world in breathing a collective sigh of relief. The team of university researchers described the e-David’s “process” in a release in which they stated:

We equipped a standard robot with all necessary means for painting. Five different brushes can be used, color can be selected from a repository with 24 colors, brushes can be cleaned, and colors can be distributed precisely on the canvas. The machine watches itself while painting and decides independently where to add new strokes. This way, paintings are created that are not completely defined by the programmer, but are the result of a visual optimization process.

While E-David isn’t the first robot capable of painting, it is in a class by itself when it comes to the quality of the images it creates. Much like the supercomputer Iamus that composed classical music which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded on an album, it is impossible to tell when looking at the finished product if the paintings were crafted by hand or machine. An interesting twist on the Turing Test, I think!

What’s next? A robot that can compose pop songs? I don’t think I can stand another version of “Friday”! And be sure to enjoy this video of e-David at work:

Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), fastcoexist.com

Of DIY Cybernetics and Biohacking

transhuman3It seems that biohackers and enthusiasts of body augmentation could be setting a new trend, and doing it all from the comfort of their basements. That’s the essence of an article filed by Neal Ungerleider this past September, in which he stated that biohackers have not only cloned the innovation strategies of Silicon Valley, but could also be reshaping how technology is being created.

Amongst their efforts are such things as brain interfaces that can control video games with human thoughts, Bluetooth sensors that are meant to go under the skin and send vital signs to mobile phones, tissue engineering that can create in vitro “steaks” and leather, and devices that convert brainwaves into actual speech. These efforts are collaborative in nature and connect numerous basements, labs and research facilities together to share research, resources, and breakthroughs.

Those who take an active part in this trend are often known as grinders or biohackers, people who have chosen not to wait for cybenetic enhancements and body augmentation to become commercially available and seek to create them on their own.

According to Ungerleider:

“West Coast biohackers and grinders were the pioneers of this tech-driven, California brand of utopianism… For biohackers everywhere, augmentation of humanity itself—whether through technology or more traditional methods—is the primary goal. Common conversation points include DIY cyborgs, the quantified self, and diet…

“But a growing community on the East Coast—in greater New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh—is synthesizing Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial DNA for its unique innovation model. Experimentation and science here is not only an exercise in advancing humanity through tech but is often applied toward creating viable cybernetic products for the market.”

One such group is Biohackers NYC, a group that was formed in 2012 largely in response to all the innovation that was taking place on the opposite coast. In additi0n to the initial startup group, it was joined by numerous startups, incubators, and workspaces scattered across the outer boroughs. As group founder and psychiatrist Lydia Fazzio claimed in an interview back in September:

“Our intent was to cover the spectrum of biohacking from manipulating non-human genomes to also the body and the mind. It’s a holistic approach to the meaning of biohacking, whether technology or nutrition. However you get there, we all have the innate potential to be an optimal functioning human in society. Our question is: How do we get there?”

davinci_transhumanOne of the attractions of this new movement is that it allows the merger of skilled professionals and dedicated hobbyists a chance to collaborate on projects of mutual interest. It also takes advantage of new business and development models – i.e. crowdsourcing – which is made possible thanks to the digital revolution.

Already, message boards have sprung up that allow disparate “labs” to post information on their work and share with others who have similar interests and projects on the go. These include DIYbio, which deals with the larger field of DIY biotechnology labs; and biohack.me, where the possibilities of subdermal bone conduction headphones and echolocation implants are being contemplated.

TranshumanIn the end, this is really just a small part of a much larger movement, which takes on various names. On is transhumanism, a movement which believes that human limitations can and must be transcended with the help of technological innovation. Another is Singularitarianism, a movement popularized by such Futurists as Ray Kurzweil. These individuals believe that technology will (or has) reached the point where human beings can take control of their own mortality, abilities and evolution. While some are willing to wait, others are intent on making it happen sooner other than later.

Naturally, there is a great deal of skepticism towards this new trend. For one, there are countless people who believe it to be the stuff of “science fiction”, and not real science. But, as Ungerleider claims, this represents the culmination of trends that have been in the works for some time. What’s more, it represents the monetization and mass marketing of technologies which have been under development for many years. And in truth, the line between science fiction and science fact has always been a fine one. All that’s ever been needed for us to transcend it is for people to make it happen.

Sources: fastcompany.com, Wired.com, IO9.com

The Future…

A recent article from The Futurist concerning trends in the coming decade got me thinking… If we can expect major shifts in the technological and economic landscape, but at the same time be experiencing worries about climate change and resource shortages, what will the future look like? Two competing forces are warring for possession of our future; which one will win?

To hear Singularitarians and Futurists tell it, in the not-too-distant future we will be capable of downloading our consciousness and merging our brains with machine technology. At about the same time, we’re likely to perfect nanobots that will be capable of altering matter at the atomic level. We will be living in a post-mortal, post-scarcity future where just about anything is possible and we will be able to colonize the Solar System and beyond.

But to hear environmentalists and crisis planners tell it, we will be looking at a worldwide shortage of basic commodities and food due to climate change. The world’s breadbaskets, like the American Midwest, Canada’s Prairiers, and the Russian Steppe, will suffer from repeated droughts, putting a strain on food production and food prices. Places that are already hard pressed to feed their growing populations, like China and India, will be even harder pressed. Many countries in the mid-latitudes that are already suffering from instability due to lack of irrigation and hunger – Pakistan, North Africa, the Middle East, Saharan Africa – will become even more unstable.

Polar ice regions will continue to melt, wreaking havoc with the Gulf Stream and forcing Europe to experience freezing winters and their own crop failures. And to top if off, tropical regions will suffer from increased tropical storm activity and flooding. This will be create a massive refugee crisis, where up to 25% of the world’s population will try to shift north and south to occupy the cooler climes and more developed parts of the world. And this, of course, will lead to all kinds of political upheaval and incidents as armed forces are called out to keep them away.

Makes you wonder…

To hear the future characterized in such dystopian and utopian terms is nothing new. But at this juncture, it now seems like both of these visions are closer to coming true than ever before. With the unprecedented growth in computing, information technology, and biology, we could very well be making DNA based computers and AI’s in a few decades. But the climate crisis is already happening, with record heat, terrible wildfires, tropical storms and food shortages already gripping the world. Two tidal waves are rising and heading on a collision course, both threatening to sweep humanity up in their wake. Which will prove successful, or will one come first, rendering the other completely ineffective?

Hard to say, in the meantime, check out the article. It proves to be an interesting read!

The Futurist – Seven Themes For the Coming Decade

The Coming Singularity… In Song!

Singularitarian. That’s a good name for someone who embraces the idea of the coming Technological Singularity, which I believe I mentioned somewhere… Yes, these days a lot of high-minded terms get thrown around to describe what may very well be possible somewhere in this century and the next. Extropian, Post-Human, Clinical Immortality, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Ethics, Transhuman, Mind/Machine Interface, Law of Accelerated Returns, and so forth. It can be kind of confusing to stay up with it since all the lingo is kind of complex and esoteric. Lot of big and obscure words there…

Luckily, Mr. Charlie Kam has decided to explain. Setting the ideas to the tune of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”, he tells how the idea works and what the eventual aim is. Basically, the idea is all about improving the condition of humanity through the ongoing application of technology. By preserving our cells, our memories, lengthening our lives, we will ensure that humanity will live on and achieve more than we previously thought possible.

Since we don’t yet know how to do this, we will achieve the first step by either merging our own minds with technology to enhance our thought processes and expand our awareness. Or, we could just create machinery that could do the job for us (aka. AI). Then, applying this superior intelligence, we will unlock the mysteries of the universe, create nanotech machines, medicines that can cure all diseases, and machinery that can store human memories, senses and impressions for all time.

Some big names got thrown in there too, not the least of which was Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video. If nothing else, its good for a laugh.