Month: October 2009

2D Goggles – Lovelace and Babbage – Women, Crowbars and Computers


I have a new heroine. Not just Ada Lovelace but Sydney Padua who has created the most fantastic strip about Lovelace and Babbage over at 2D Goggles.

I love also that I can quote women about the world’s most interesting stuff right now. See Cynthia Breazeal, Sherry Turkle, Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, Patti Maes, Elizabeth Grosz, Catherine Harding and of course, Sydney Padua, who just gets why you’ve got to love women with crowbars and computers.

Sherry Turkle on Robotics and Relational Artifacts

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauz?? Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, a center of research and reflection on the evolving connections between people and artifacts. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Professor Turkle is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution (Basic Books, 1978; MIT Press paper, 1981; second revised edition, Guilford Press, 1992); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984; Touchstone paper, 1985; second revised edition, MIT Press, 2005); and Life on the Screen:  Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, November 1995; Touchstone paper, 1997).

Seminars and workshops at the Initiative on Technology and Self led to four edited collections, all published by the MIT Press, on the relationships between things and thinking. The first volume, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, was published in Fall 2007. The second volume, Falling For Science: Objects in Mind, appeared in Spring 2008. The third volume, The Inner History of Devices, was published in Fall 2008. The final volume, Simulation and Its Discontents, followed in Spring 2009. Professor Turkle is currently completing a book on robots and the human spirit based on the Initiative’s 10-year research program on relational artifacts.

Professor Turkle has written numerous articles on psychoanalysis and culture and on the “subjective side” of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers. She is engaged in active study of robots, digital pets, and simulated creatures, particularly those designed for children and the elderly as well as in a study of mobile cellular technologies. Profiles of Professor Turkle have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Scientific American, and Wired Magazine. She is a featured media commentator on the effects of technology for CNN, NBC, ABC, and NPR, including appearances on such programs as Nightline and 20/20.

I (andra) recommend reading some of Turkle’s papers on nascent robotics and relational artifacts. Although I’m not certain how to relate that to my art. lol.

Henry Markram builds a brain in a supercomputer

The 2009 TED Talk by Henry Markram describes how we now have the maths to model the neurocortical columns of the brain. He (and IBM) have built Bluebrain, a computer capable of modelling the brain. What’s most interesting to me are the philosophical questions raised; what is a person? where and how do we begin and end? and with whom can we communicate? even, why are we here? And especially, what can a robot think? And is our brain evolving outside of our body in augmented reality?

These are all touched on in this fabulous TED Talk . It’s one of the best 15 minutes I’ve spent all year! I’ve added the official TED bio below to do better justice to the rich subject than I can.

“In the microscopic, yet-uncharted circuitry of the cortex, Henry Markram is perhaps the most ambitious — and our most promising — frontiersman. Backed by the extraordinary power of the IBM Blue Gene supercomputing architecture, which can perform hundreds of trillions of calculations per second, he’s using complex models to precisely simulate the neocortical column (and its tens of millions of neural connections) in 3D.

Though the aim of Blue Brain research is mainly biomedical, it has been edging up on some deep, contentious philosophical questions about the mind — “Can a robot think?” and “Can consciousness be reduced to mechanical components?” — the consequence of which Markram is well aware: Asked by Seed Magazine what a simulation of a full brain might do, he answered, “Everything. I mean everything” — with a grin.

Now, with a successful proof-of-concept for simulation in hand (the project’s first phase was completed in 2007), Markram is looking toward a future where brains might be modeled even down to the molecular and genetic level. Computing power marching rightward and up along the graph of Moore’s Law, Markram is sure to be at the forefront as answers to the mysteries of cognition emerge.

“Markram refers to the robot as “science on an industrial scale,” and is convinced that it???s the future of lab work. “So much of what we do in science isn???t actually science,” he says, “I say let robots do the mindless work so that we can spend more time thinking about our questions.””

Jonah Lehrer, Seed Magazine”

Consulting the ‘Oracle’ – Transcending literacy issues with the web in poor/emerging areas

Proving that the internet???s information doesn???t always have to appear on-screen, Question Box brings the web???s intelligence to offline communities. At the heart of the venture is a solar-powered intercom box that features a large green button. By pressing the button, a user is connected to an operator sitting in front of a computer. The caller asks a question and the operator does a web search to find the answer.

Two Question Boxes are currently operational in the Indian state of Maharastra, where the first box was installed by California-based non-profit Open Mind in September 2007. In March 2009, the Applab Question Box service was launched in Uganda???tweaking the model by enabling callers to contact call centre operators from their own mobile phones. Both services log previously answered questions in local databases, speeding up responses to future enquiries and providing information offline in case of lack of connectivity. Queried topics range from crop prices and cricket scores to exam results.

The free service brings almost limitless information to poor and rural areas, in a format that transcends literacy. As the scheme expands, it will be interesting to see whether the boxes begin to focus on specific niches: health advice or political updates, for instance, or be adopted by corporate sponsors offering a similar service in exchange for airing commercial messages. (Related: Internet-in-a-box for areas without electricity.)

Far too much of the commentary around internet for ‘third world’ as a transformative technology ignores the reality that voice is the ‘killer app’. Just the mobile phone by and large gives “access” to any other person on the planet. Adding internet to the equation is useful, sure, but assumes literacy and common reference points.

This type of Oracle service is a really way to bring the ‘lookup’ advantages the rest of us have with the web to those without the advantages of internet access and/or (generally English) literacy. Brilliant idea.

I also really like the idea of specialized “boxes” for different niche queries. This would tie beautifully into work by Reeves and Nass on how subconsciously we use all the heuristics of human relations with devices (i.e. information from specialist (devices) is considered more valuable than information from generalist (devices)) – the effect has been shown with TVs, computers, and other modern media.