A couple of days ago I mentioned that I had to help a friend with a very sick computer. I’d run into him in Dublin, and he’d told me he wanted to add the drive from his old PC into his new one. I assured him that as someone with mechanical skills, he should have no problem. These things are quite straightforward.
How naïve I can be.
A day or two later he texted me. Something was wrong, the screen had gone mad and he couldn’t read it. I thought at the time he just meant that there was an error message he didn’t understand. When I saw it later I couldn’t believe it: Neat vertical stripes like a butcher’s apron making everything – including an error message – completely unreadable. Weirdest way I’ve ever seen a screen go awry.
But that only came later. First, while investigating the screen problem, he’d found a switch. A red switch. Red-for-a-reason red.
Just about any PC can work on the two most common voltages used worldwide: 110v (US etc.) and 230v (Europe etc.). Most switch between them automatically, but older and/or cheaper ones have – you guessed it – a red switch, on the back of the power supply. Throw this in the US and your PC shudders to a half-powered halt. Throw it in Europe…
You know, I can’t be annoyed with him. Sure, they made the switch red so that people would know it’s not something you can just throw. And in most cases that works. But there’s another kind of person that it has a completely opposite effect on.
There’s a strange phenomenon, familiar to people at the cutting interface of technology and art, that goes by the name of “the uncanny valley”. As a general rule, the more something looks like a living human, the more humans like it. We like photographs or drawings of humans. We like kittens and monkeys, lively animals with human-like faces, even better.
So naturally in fields like CGI or robot design, people have striven to make their work look more and more like reality. And this is where they hit a strange snag. Because though the relationship between realism and likeability is pretty much a smooth straight graph, as soon as something looks almost, but not quite exactly, like a living human, it suddenly scares the living toothpaste out of us.
It may be because our minds are upset by the category conflict. We like things that seem human, but we aren’t fooled into thinking they really are. When we actually become uncertain, it’s disturbing.
Or perhaps it is simply, if sadly, that instinct tells us something which looks and acts almost but not exactly like a human is a human – but one who is severely diseased and therefore dangerous.
The worst effects occur when something is very human-like in one way but not in another. A robot with very realistic human skin and features for example, but whose movements are unnatural. Or one that moves right, but has an inhuman, skeletal face. These things are as creepy to adults as clowns are to children. So it seems if we ever do have mechanical companions, they will either be friendly, cartoony machines we will never mistake for people, or so damn realistic we wouldn’t know they weren’t without being told.
The computer-animated film Polar Express was said by some to be stuck in Uncanny Valley, the motion-capture technique giving the CGI characters uncomfortably too-natural movements. But today, I came across another example:
That’s right. Baby sloths are really cute, really silly-and-sweet-looking. But the way they move… creeps me the fuck out. See for yourself.
This is an article I wrote on the Microsoft-Nokia deal, and to some extent it reworks material in earlier posts. If you’ve read those you could skip this. If you’ve heard enough about the damn deal already, you could skip this. I wouldn’t blame you. I’ll put up something else less techy later.
Over the last few years we have enjoyed astonishing innovation in the smartphone field, with competing systems from Apple, Nokia, Google, Microsoft, RIM, and more. A technology market has rarely been so open to all comers, certainly not since the home computer explosion of the early 80s. It’s been an extraordinary time.
And now it’s over. The partnership between Nokia and Microsoft probably signals the end of the expansive phase and the beginning of shake-out. But this may not be a bad thing. In one view they are the dream team to create a credible third force in a vital market. That should improve competition, drive up the creativity and drive down prices. From another it’s a dinosaur wedding: When giants get into bed together, they push everyone else out.
Are we to be offered fewer, better choices – or simply fewer?
A “third ecosystem”, as Nokia CEO Stephen Elop calls it, means a third major platform for app developers, far more likely to succeed where Microsoft and Nokia individually were lagging. Almost certainly, it also means a second giant media delivery system alongside Apple’s iTunes, and far greater penetration for Microsoft services that mainly rival Google’s.¹ Between them, Nokia and Microsoft have just about every angle covered.
Which, interestingly, would put them on a similar footing to Apple. Google suddenly looks like a weaker player here. With no real hardware of its own, and with little control over what people do with its open-source Android OS, they risk seeing their app market become fragmented into various flavours and their name dragged through some appalling hardware. Close integration with the desktop version of Windows should make it a compelling tool in the business segment too, putting severe pressure on RIM’s Blackberry.
This then is the danger: The market shrinking to just three, perhaps only two, real players. It would be particularly sad if those two turned out to be old stagers Apple and Microsoft.
Though on the other hand it means one rival fewer for Google Maps, as both Microsoft and Nokia have products there.
Duh. Week in Dublin was great, but I was up early almost every day. Reloaded with sleep this morning, and followed that up with a nice lie-in. Which ended when I sprang upright, suddenly remembering I had a bus to catch. Got out of bed, dressed, made it to the stop in fifteen minutes flat.
When I remembered I’d forgotten my phone.
Just as well perhaps. Staying in town gave me a chance to help a friend with a computer problem. But oh… It made me wish I’d caught the bus. This was a sick kitty.
Never mind, I got a Christmas present! Secret Santa, from my secret internet community. (Yes, this is pretty representative of how together we are.) It’s… Jesus. A plastic Jesus, about a foot high, covered in the most tacky silver glitter. With a slot on its back. Yes it’s a Jesus money-box. Even as an atheist I find that disturbingly sacrilegious. It’ll have to be used to save for something very special… Any suggestions?
And the big news: My girlfriend’s sister just had a baby boy! That makes me a… a… Guy who’s girlfriend is an aunt. Dammit there should be a word for that.
Hmm. Iarnród Eireann (Irish Rail) are sneaky. Offer a low fare if you book online, then add an administration fee – for booking online. IarnRyanaireann?
Railway improvement was one thing I’m glad we spent money on while we had it, though we started too late to get enough done and cut corners on the way. I was never really convinced by this Spanish-made rolling stock. Too cheap to buy French. But they’re comfortable, and a hell of an improvement on the old.
So I’m off to Dublin to sort out this lot in Leinster House. Oh OK, to see a girl. The upside of getting up for a train at seven in the morning is seeing the sunrise framed by a beautiful… railway shed. The downside of getting up for a train at seven in the morning is of course that it’s seven in the morning. To me that may as well be a visit to another country where I don’t speak the language. What, shops aren’t open? How does that work – where do morning people buy things?
And I made the foolish decision to travel in my suit. The things you do to impress ladies. Well that’s partly why. I must confess this is the first one I’ve ever owned and it feels like I’m playing dress-up. Plus, it cost a bit and I want to get some wear out of it before suits go out of fashion.
What I should have done is worn the usual combats and hoodie, and carried the suit. Voluminous pockets are a thousand times more practical for travel than tailoring. I could have nipped into the toilets and changed just before the train arrived. Superblogger! But I was worried it would get creased in a backpack.
Wrong idea. When you’re wearing a suit underneath a greatcoat, a portable computer slung over one shoulder, and a backpack that contains your ‘casual’ pair of German army boots, you are a crumpling machine. It couldn’t get more creased if you stuffed it in a horse.
And I feel wildly overdressed for a train in the middle of a bog. On the bright side though – if I turn up in Dublin looking crumpled and overburdened and like I haven’t had enough sleep, I may get interviewed by foreign TV.
IBM has a really interesting – and just slightly scary – plan. In cooperation with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, they want to simulate the human brain.
They’re building a computer model. This is not the same thing as Artificial Intelligence (AI), programming a machine to act human. That would be a ‘top down’ approach; trying to understand how the mind works by looking at what it does. Instead this is ‘bottom up’, simulating the nuts and bolts of the brain, its biological wiring, its cells, even its molecules.
Which is quite an undertaking – in fact it is hard to exaggerate how big the task is. The brain is often described as the most complex thing in the known universe. Complexity is a thing that’s difficult to define but easy to perceive. Looking into the back of a TV, you’re instantly aware that it’s more complex than say a food mixer. Basically it looks more tricky to fix. The parts are small, numerous, and connected together in many different ways. Perhaps that’s the most intiuitive shorthand measure of complexity – the number of different ways that the parts of something interconnect. The human brain has far more connected parts than any other thing known, certainly more than any computer. Even Japan’s Earth Simulator, built to model the climate of the entire planet, is nothing compared to the brain of an average person.
It’s no surprise therefore that they aren’t trying to do the whole thing at once, or anything approaching that. They are starting with the best bit though: the neocortex (also called the cerebrum), the outside layer of the brain that’s most recent in evolutionary terms. It’s not unique to us, but it is far more developed in humans than in any other animal and appears to be responsible for what we experience as thought.
Even alone though, this is still far too complex for current technology to tackle. All they’re hoping to simulate right now is what’s known as a neocortical column. This can be described as a single ‘circuit’ of the brain, one of its processing units. The whole neocortex contains about a million of these. And for the moment at least, they only plan to model it on the level of its cells; to get down to the molecules that make up the cells will take vastly more computational power again. Yet even this is an immensely ambitious target. To model just one circuit of the brain in this (relatively) simple way will require four whole modules of Blue Gene – the technology IBM used to take the title of world’s fastest supercomputer back from the Earth Simulator.
So how far are we then from modelling the whole brain? Well assuming this first stage succeeds – it won’t be easy – all they really need to do is scale it up. Vastly. These four Blue Gene racks would fit in a normal kitchen. Four million? They would take up a golf course, and require the energy of five medium-sized power stations.
When you consider that your actual brain fits inside your head and runs reasonably well on sandwiches and cups of tea, you realise what a gap there is between nature’s technology and our own.
What’s the point then in going to all this trouble when a brain can be made much more cheaply using just two humans? If the object were to create machines that think, this would clearly be a madly inefficient way to go about it. But that’s not the object. The fact is we know amazingly little about how our own brains work. Simulating a part of one, even a solitary neocortical circuit, will teach us so much about what is really going on in there. Modelling allows you to find out why something is the way it is, because it can show you what would happen if it were different. The beneficial applications of that are obvious; as we see how it works, we gain greater insight into why it fails – what causes schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, the things that plague our minds.
But though it’s always good when research has palpable benefits, I think we need no such excuse when it comes to researching the structure and function of the brain. To know ones own mind – that is surely a philosophical imperative.
Ho Ho. Time again for one of my jolly Christmas tirades. About now it is as seasonal as robins roasted on an open fire to advertise toys to kids. Is Wrong. It’s like marketing flight to penguins. Children cannot actually buy toys, no matter how hard they try. These commercials should not be shown until the kids are in bed, like those for other drugs.
Not all toy adverts are aimed at children though. I saw one for a vast Fisher-Price toddler entertainment unit, obviously aimed at parent rather than off-sprog. Its slogan was “Oh the possibilities!” It didn’t really mean “Think of the possibilities of the great big shiny thing with loads of knobs to push!” It meant “Think of the possibilities for your little baby if you buy them all this crazy stimulating plastic shit they’ll grow up to be something clever and successful like a surgeon or a lawyer!”
Or even an advertising executive. Give the kids enough brightly-coloured stuff that makes noise, the sales pitch goes, and they’ll grow up to be hyper-intelligent Übermenschen. Bollocks. For once I agree wholeheartedly with Steven Pinker, you can’t stimulate kids into brilliance by throwing money at them. The difference between ‘to play with’ and ‘to understand’ may just be a matter of degree, but what is there in a baby-crawler to understand? Nothing. Kids learn not by twirling pointless plastic things but by interacting with others. These so-called ‘educational’ toys though are often put to quite the opposite end – keeping kids out of adult hair. You can’t help but wonder if they have anything to do with the apparent rise in autism.
So toy commercials should perhaps be kept away from the more impressionable parents too. Thankfully the technology now exists. Hard disc video recorders can serve up your evening’s viewing with all the adverts edited out. (No you can’t buy the TiVo here, but you can set up just the same thing using a computer.) At last, commercial-free viewing will be a possibility. All channels will be like the BBC. Except without all the adverts for the BBC.
Unless the advertising industry ban it. They’re trying. The ads, they say, pay for the programs. Therefore if you’re editing out the commercials, you’re watching the programs without paying for them. Not watching adverts, they’re trying to argue, is theft. Hmm. Gives the phrase ‘Pay attention’ a whole new meaning. By the same logic, channel surfing or turning the sound down during the commercial breaks is also stealing from the broadcasters.
So you won’t be able to protect your kids from the toy adverts. In fact unless you want them to be criminals, you’ll have to force them to watch. Don’t look away dear, you’re stealing from Barney.
See you next week. Don’t touch that dial! (Under penalty.)