29th May 2015 Written by Hannah Greethead Technology

Intelligent Futures: Does Science Fiction Have a Role to Play?

Marvin, Douglas Adam’s deeply depressed android creation was given what some might consider to be a rather cruel gift… not only was he bestowed with unfathomable intelligence, he was also the recipient of a gamut of human emotions. This combination of smarts and feelings, mixed with the menial jobs often tasked to him by the rouge president of the universe Zaphod Beeblebrox led Marvin into a permanent and unrelenting state of despair. Now you might think, surely a bored, depressed robot is just the stuff of stories. But, it might just be time to think again, autonomous robots and Artificial Intelligence is no longer the stuff of the far future or simply flashy action film fodder, no, this stuff is starting to get real.

The UN recently staged a conference focused on discussing the use of autonomous killer robots and determining whether the use of such technology could potentially violate human rights and the laws of war. Director of the Ethics and Emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, Patrick Lin, has weighed in on these deliberations, pointing out, in this article, an inherent need to ‘personify’ robotics, questioning whether human standards should really be applied to objects that don’t have any capacity for moral concern. We might dismiss this as a problem for future humans to deal with, but the reality of AI is fast approaching, and it has me wondering, where do these ‘human’ expectations for robots and AI come from?

Where else to look but that enduring fictional genre… science fiction? Science fiction (aka Scifi) has long used the cutting edge of science and engineering as fodder for the imagined futures of humanity. Within this realm of imagined futures, the development and evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) stands out as a Scifi favourite. From Isaac Asimov to Spike Jonze and Douglas Adams in between, it’s hard to find an example of a fictional future that doesn’t contain human-like robotics and AI. It seems to me that there is a very strong link between these historical, fictional visions for Humanity’s future alongside autonomous robots, and the contemporary, cutting edge of robotics.

Across the world there are a number of organisations working to develop artificially intelligent, human-like robots. Hanson Robotics in the USA have built a series of robots that have been designed to appear as human as possible, from their ‘frubber’ skin and expressive faces right through to their ‘personalities’ the resemblance is a little eerie at times. One of Hanson Robotic’s most prominent creations is BINA48, a robotic bust that has been bestowed with the looks, memories, ideas, feelings and beliefs of a real individual, a woman named Bina Apsen. By giving BINA48 all of these ‘human’ characteristics and information, the hope is that ‘she’ might be able to evolve her own intelligent consciousness. Another company, Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories have a similar approach to the development of human-like AI. Their robots are designed to appear like real humans, they also have two models, the Geminoid HI-4, which has been developed to have a larger degree of autonomous ‘behaviour’ and the Geminoid F (a robot I had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ back in 2013), a ‘lite’ version of the Geminoid HI-4 that has fewer autonomous capabilities. A third example of an attempt to create a hyper-real, human-esque robot is apparent in Akio. Designed by robotics enthusiast Dr Le Trung, Akio is one man’s attempt to create a human-like robotic companion to assist individuals with domestic tasks. Akio’s has been given the appearance of a young woman, however, has not be explicitly based on a particular human individual.

All of these robots, developed in a bid to create an autonomous intelligence, have been given human attributes, both in their form and with the information that is intended to define their ‘personalities’. I can’t help but think that these attempts to recreate human intelligence stem not only from our inherent narcissism as humans, but also from what we consistently see in science fiction. In every story that I can think of artificially intelligent robotic characters almost always take on human characteristics (no matter how flawed they might be). Consider Ultron, the main antagonist of Marvel’s latest blockbuster generates a machine-made body that looks distinctly human, or the aforementioned, perennially depressed android Marvin. Similarly, Samantha, the nearly omnipresent operating system in ‘Her’, does something extremely human when she falls in ‘love’ (even if it was with hundreds of different people all at once).

Speaking of ‘Her’, it seems that a ‘Her’-like world is set to occur in a not too distant future. Google is in the process of developing new technology that could enable computers to develop ‘common sense’ within a period as short as a decade. That’s right, soon we might be talking to our computers as though they are our friends… I wonder how that will change the current social isolation that seems to be developing out of our Internet oriented societies? Rather than being a device that allows you to remotely connect with your friends, your computers and phones can become your friends instead…

It seems that there are clear connections between what has been presented in science fiction and what we are now seeing at the cutting edge of technological development, but there’s also a chance that this obsession with artificially emulating human intelligence doesn’t derive from scifi at all and maybe it’s all in the spirit of competition, with these developments entirely focused on developing AI that is capable of passing the Turing test. This test, founded on the work of mathematician Alan Turing, has been developed to determine whether a machine is ‘intelligent’, based on its ability to ‘trick’ a human ‘judge’ into thinking a machine is also human. Add some money into the pot (there are a number of prizes on offer to anyone who can create such intelligent programming) and you’ve got even more motivation to focus on the creation of human-like artificial intelligence.

It seems that we are incapable of separating intelligence from humanity. We cannot envision that any other intelligent, autonomous ‘being’ could have intelligence or abilities that are not rooted in humanity. And, as we see in the aforementioned discussions on the use of autonomous robots in war, that is, we are starting to apply human standards, morals and ethical expectations to machines. Perhaps we need to look elsewhere for inspiration when it comes to the development of AI, to create an intelligence that is something other than Humans 2.0…. what do you think?

Image: Hannah Greethead

20th June 2014 Written by Erin Cook Technology

How Not to be a Glasshole

Over the past few months, the term ‘glasshole’ has infiltrated the vocabulary of most self-respecting tech-heads. According to Urban Dictionary, a ‘glasshole’ is “a person who constantly talks to their Google Glass, ignoring the outside world.”  

Google Glass is the latest in be-all and end-all products to enter the Google family. In layman’s terms, Google Glass is a pair of spectacles with an in-built computer, display and microphone. While Google has made no immediate plans to release Google Glass in Australia, the product has made quite a splash in the US. 

The initial response to Google Glass has not been entirely positive. In a twisted turn of events, most complaints have come from innocent bypassers, rather than actual users. Why, you may ask? Users of Google Glass have gained a reputation for using their new device in situations that are socially unacceptable for mobile phones. Reports have emerged of users filming people without their permission and being rude by staring off into the distance for long periods of time. Users that are guilty of this anti-social behavior have been labeled ‘glassholes’.

These ‘glassholes’ are seriously giving Google Glass a bad rep. So much so, that Google compiled a list of ‘Don’t's’ to address the problem head on. The list is as follows:

DON’T glass out.
“Glass was built for short bursts of information and interactions that allow you to quickly get back to doing the other things you love… So don’t read ‘War and Peace’ on Glass. Things like that are better done on bigger screens.”

DON’T rock glass while doing high impact sports.
“Glass is a piece of technology, so use common sense.”

DON’T wear it and expect to be ignored.
“Let’s face it, you’re gonna get some questions.”

DON’T be creepy or rude.
“Respect others' privacy and if they have questions about Glass don’t get snappy.”

Let’s just hope that Google Glass users read this advice in the privacy of their own home, rather than blankly staring off into the distance of their local café. 

Photo sourced here

2nd June 2014 Written by Jasmine S. Technology

Google’s Self-Driving Car is Pretty Smart

The car equivalent of autopilot seems like a faraway dream, but it's actually happening right now as we speak. Google’s self-driving car might possibly be the transportation of the future. You know what this means don’t you? You can now text, call, snapchat, watch movies, and have sex in your moving vehicle and you won’t get fined. 

Google’s driverless car began its development in 2009 in Mountain View, California by installing a laser radar system in existing cars. The project was ultimately inspired by the staggering statistics about car accidents each year, and so Google took it upon themselves to fix the situation (because Google is God). The cars use lasers, radars, and cameras to construct a 3D map of the environment and are very perceptive to other vehicles, cyclists, and even pedestrians. It has a 360-degree view, making the car an even better driver than humans. The cars have logged nearly 700,000 autonomous miles with 0 road accidents. That’s right, in 5 years, the cars have been in no accidents whatsoever. How many accidents have you been in? 

The question is whether or not autonomous cars will be legally allowed on the streets. Because although the car has been smooth-sailing for 5 years, it has also never ventured out of the United States, which has relatively safe streets compared to, say, the busy roads of Mumbai or Beijing. However, this is a great step forward in innovation, especially for those with physical disabilities who find it difficult to drive. The self-driving car should be available for consumers in 3-5 years, and that’s being optimistic. The form it gets released in—will we have to buy the entire car or just the system and gears?—is yet to be determined. Let’s just hope the robotic cars won’t develop a mind of its own and take over the world.