The Best of Spectrum Edition

IEEE Spectrum has published their 50th anniversary issue this month, entitled The Future We Deserve. I have enjoyed reading the entire magazine, and see many relevant connections between their prognostications about our human-machine future and those that I discuss in Robot Futures. There are, of course, several places where IEEE Spectrum’s text demonstrates various forms of naive thinking and, as ever, it is fun to point these out. Here are my top five excerpts for your digestion:

On the future of self-driving cars, Philip Ross says that in 30 years, cars won’t even need our advice. Then he makes a Ginger-level prediction:

Accident rates will plummet, parking problems will vanish, streets will narrow, cities will bulk up, and commuting by automobile will become a mere extension of sleep, work and recreation. With no steering column and no need for a crush zone in front of the passenger compartment (after all, there aren’t going to be any crashes), car design will run wild

This reminds me of Ginger becomes smart people said “this two-wheeled machine will change the way cities are designed and built.” No accidents, no bumpers and new versions of cities, all in thirty years? Well, at least, once people stop flying airplanes, they’ll stop crashing, right? Oh, wait, no, the Washington Post reports that drones crash too…

Eliza Strickland writes about a very exciting aspects of robo-empowerment: intelligent, active prosthetics that compensate far more fully for missing limbs and joints.  This work is outstanding, and a well-recited trope emerges regarding the day when cyborg limbs are preferable to the real thing: the day when folks start chopping off their legs. On purpose:

MIT’s Hugh Herr imagines that synthetic body parts could easily become more desirable than biological parts, especially as people age. ‘You wake up at the age of 50 and your joints are stiff, but your friend has bionic limbs that he upgrades every year that make him feel like an 18-year-old,’ Herr says. ‘What would you do?’

I must say, as someone approaching fifty, the thought of switching wholly to robot legs has far less appeal than doing exactly what many do now as their joints age: going in for joint replacement, which is an interesting side story not covered by this article. After all, the real bionics we are creating are not only part-machine, part-human; the massive majority doing this look the same as the rest of us from the outside. The technology has melted into the interior, replacing the joint itself literally whilst leaving the nerves and muscles untouched. This is a much likelier story of robot-human merging for the masses.

Ariel Blaicher, writing about wearable computers, pushes over the edge of computer forethought- to where computers know us better than we know ourselves. Always a fun place to end up:

And when our computers know us better than we know ourselves, they will help us to communicate better with one another. They will monitor our conversations and inform us when others are bored, inspired, hurt, grateful, or just not on the same page. They will encourage us to speak up when we are shy, …

Those sci-fi writers out there amongst you, I encourage you to write some outstanding, dystopian stories about just what happens when AI-puppetmasters control our every communication act. Of course, the very fundamental concept of a computer knowing me better than I know myself raises a basic philosophical question, since it’s not at all clear what this means, really. Can anything or anyone know me better than I know me?

From the home robot department, Erico Guizzo suggests just how domestic robots may become affordable:

A free app will let your robot find all the socks in the bin; a paid version will find, pair and place them in your drawer.

Oh, joy. So our homes just might be locations of the upsell, with negotiations between us, our credit cards and our robots. I can make you Beef Stroganoff for dinner. It is ranking three stars. But for an extra eight dollars tonight, I can make you a vegetable ragout and souffle that has ranked five stars. Or, perhaps, I actually know where you misplaced your reading glasses. For only three dollars, I’ll bring them to you and give you the new glasses-tracking app, so you never lose them again. I can give you one hint for free: they’re not in the basement. Somewhere, somebody is brimming with new home-robot-upsell opportunities, and the rest of us are rolling our eyes.



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