Journal tags: robots

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Mars distracts

A few years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not everyone liked that book. A lot of people were put off by its structure, in which the dream of interstellar colonisation meets the harsh truth of reality and the book follows where that leads. It pours cold water over the very idea of humanity becoming interplanetary.

But our own solar system is doable, right? I mean, Kim Stanley Robinson is the guy who wrote the Mars trilogy and 2312, both of which depict solar system colonisation in just a few centuries.

I wonder if the author might regret the way that some have taken his Mars trilogy as a sort of manual, Torment Nexus style. Kim Stanley Robinson is very much concerned with this planet in this time period, but others use his work to do the opposite.

But the backlash to Mars has begun.

Maciej wrote Why Not Mars:

The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun.

Manu Saadia is writing a book about humanity in space, and he has a corresponding newsletter called Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents:

What if space colonization was merely science-fiction, a narrative, or rather a meta-narrative, a myth, an ideology like any other? And therefore, how and why did it catch on? What is so special and so urgent about space colonization that countless scientists, engineers, government officials, billionaire oligarchs and indeed, entire nations, have committed work, ingenuity and treasure to make it a reality.

What if, and hear me out, space colonization was all bullshit?

I mean that quite literally. No hyperbole. Once you peer under the hood, or the nose, of the rocket ship, you encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ghoulish garbage.

Two years ago, Shannon Stirone went into the details of why Mars Is a Hellhole

The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the case for Mars colonisation is that its most ardent advocate turns out to be an idiotic small-minded eugenicist who can’t even run a social media company, much less a crewed expedition to another planet.

But let’s be clear: we’re talking here about the proposition of sending humans to Mars—ugly bags of mostly water that probably wouldn’t survive. Robots and other uncrewed missions in our solar system …more of that, please!

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Brian David Johnson

The newest dConstruct podcast episode features the indefatigable and effervescent Brian David Johnson. Together we pick apart the futures we are collectively making, probe the algorithmic structures of science fiction narratives, and pay homage to Asimovian robotic legal codes.

Brian’s enthusiasm is infectious. I have a strong hunch that his dConstruct talk will be both thought-provoking and inspiring.

dConstruct 2015 is getting close now. Our future approaches. Interviewing the speakers ahead of time has only increased my excitement and anticipation. I think this is going to be a truly unmissable event. So, uh, don’t miss it.

Grab your ticket today and use the code ‘ansible’ to take advantage of the 10% discount for podcast listeners.

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Carla Diana

The dConstruct podcast episodes are coming thick and fast. The latest episode is a thoroughly enjoyable natter I had with the brilliant Carla Diana.

We talk about robots, smart objects, prototyping, 3D printing, and the world of teaching design.

Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast feed in any podcast software you like, or if iTunes is your thing, you can also subscribe directly in iTunes.

And don’t forget to use the discount code ‘ansible’ when you’re buying your dConstruct ticket …because you are coming to dConstruct, right?

Space by Botwest

I had a whole day of good talks yesterday at South By Southwest yesterday …and none of them were in the Austin Convention Center. In a very real sense, the good stuff at this event is getting pushed to the periphery.

The day started off in the Driskill Hotel with the New Aesthetic panel that James assembled. It was great, like a mini-conference packed into one hour with wonderfully dense knowledge bombs lobbed from all concerned. Joanne McNeil gave us the literary background, Ben searched for meaning (and humour) in advertising trends, Russell looked at how machines are changing what we read and write, and Aaron …um, talked about the helium-balloon predator drone in the corner of the room.

With our brains primed for the intersections where humans and machines meet, it wasn’t hard to keep pattern-matching for it. In fact, the panel right afterwards on technology and fashion was filled with wonderful wearable expressions of the New Aesthetic.

Alas, I wasn’t able to attend that panel because I had to get to the green room to prepare for my own appearance on Get Excited and Make Things With Science with Ariel and Matt. It was a lot of fun and it was a real pleasure to be on a panel with such smart people.

I basically used the panel as an opportunity to geek out about some of my favourite science-related hacks and websites:

After that I stayed in the Driskill for a panel on robots and AI. One of the panelists was Bina48.

I heard had heard about Bina48 from a Radiolab episode.

Radiolab - Talking to Machines on Huffduffer

Jon Ronson described the strange experience of interviewing her—how the questions always tended to the profound and meaningful rather than trivial and chatty. Sure enough, once Bina was (literally) unveiled on the panel—a move that was wisely left till halfway through because, as the panelists said, “after that, you’re not going to pay attention to a word we say”—people started asking questions like “Do you dream?” and “What is the meaning of life?”

I asked her “Where were you before you were here?” She calmly answered that she was made in Texas. The New Aesthetic panelists would’ve loved her.

I was surprised by how much discussion of digital preservation there was on the robots/AI panel. Then again, the panel was hosted by a researcher from The Digital Beyond.

Bina48’s personality is based on the mind file of a real person containing exactly the kind of data that we are publishing every day to third-party sites. The question of what happens to that data was the subject of the final panel I attended, Saying Goodbye to Your Digital Self, featuring representatives from The Internet Archive, Archive Team, and Google’s Data Liberation Front.

Digital preservation is an incredibly important topic—one close to my heart—but the panel (in the Omni hotel) was, alas, sparsely attended.

Like I said, at this year’s South by Southwest, a lot of the good stuff was at the edges.

One hundred and seven

The word “awesome” is over-used. I’m about to over-use it some more.

The internet is mostly awesome. Some human beings are also awesome. When you combine the two, you get awesome things. Here are just two such awesome things:

  1. Anton Peck is a brilliant illustrator. He’s currently executing a project called 100 Little Robots. Anton will craft postcards for 100 people, each postcard displaying a unique hand-drawn robot. If you want to be one of those 100 people, order your robot card now. I got mine and it is, well …awesome.
  2. James Bridle is a brilliant writer. He just finished a series of articles called Seven posts about the future. Read them all. Seriously. They are all wonderful and the final story reads like a Nerdpunk copulation of Salman Rushdie and William Gibson.

Awesome.

A drawing of a robot

Automata

The Flash on the Beach conference is currently underway here in Brighton. I spoke at the conference two years ago so thanks to organiser John Davey’s commitment to giving past speakers guest passes to future events, I’ve been popping in and out of the Dome over the past couple of days to sit in on some talks.

Yesterday I saw Branden Hall talk about Brilliant Ideas that I’ve Blatantly Stolen. Although his specific examples dealt with ActionScript, his overall message was applicable to any developer: look around at other languages and frameworks and scavenge anything you like the look of.

I wanted to make it to Aral’s talk this morning but as he was on first thing and I’m a lazy bugger, that didn’t really work out. I did, however, make it over in time to hear Carla Diana.

Carla made her name in the Flash world a few years ago with her wonderful site Repercussion where you can play around with sounds through a lovely isometric interface. Lately she’s been working with robots. Or rather, one robot in particular: Leo.

Here’s Leo attempting to become a that :

Leo

Carla’s job was to come up with a skin for Leo that didn’t send children running screaming. Yes, it’s the problem that plagues Japanese robots and Robert Zemeckis CGI movies in equal measure: .

Want to see something uncanny?

Boston Dynamics Big Dog

I was at Carla’s talk with Sophie and we were talking about robots afterwards (as you would). She said that watching robots in motion often makes her feel sad. Looking at that video, particularly the bit where the quadruped is kicked to demonstrate its balance, I understand what she means.

Funnily enough, my favourite robot is also a quadruped. All I want for Christmas is a .

Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG

Or I maybe I should just build my own. The latest project that Carla Diana is working on is something to make the arduino enthusiast drool. It’s called littleBits:

littleBits is an opensource library of discrete electronic components pre-assembled in tiny circuit boards. Just as Legos allow you to create complex structures with very little engineering knowledge, littleBits are simple, intuitive, space-sensitive blocks that make prototyping with sophisticated electronics a matter of snapping small magnets together.

littleBits intro