Tag Archives: science

We’ve Built a Race of Robots

I’ve always wanted a robot. Or robots, actually. Just a couple of them, wandering around the house at all times. They don’t even need to do chores. They can just…be there. Being robots.

And I’m not talking about robots that are remote controlled. It has to have some kind of AI.

For me, the idea of robots just wandering around the landscape has been one of those signs that THE FUTURE IS HERE. It’s a sign that humanity has progressed enough that we can create something that can respond to us and grow and learn and become more than it was at the start.

It’s the idea of making a companion race to follow alongside us that’s so compelling. While I think it’s doubtful that we’ll find an alien lifeform of comparable intelligence and that is actually physically capable of talking with us, I do think there’s potential for us to create a new life and robotics is one of the keys to that.

So I’m going to build a robot. It’ll be very simple. No real programming. It’ll just follow a light. But it’s a start. I’ve ordered it already.

In a week or two, the future will be here.

-D-

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I Want to Go to There

This is Mars:

Stolen from NASA

Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to go into space. Most of the science fiction I grew up with was all about how awesome it is to explore space. I read space books and I watched the Star Trek and I fed my imagination on final frontiers and strange new worlds.

I’m less interested in the physics and the engineering behind it all. I’m more interested in exploration, discovery, experiencing something new. Because HERE there may, in fact, be dragons. We know so little about what Mars holds. Hell, we’re still surprised by things that we find on Earth.

There’s a venture that’s taking shape now called Mars One. They’re planning on having a viable, human settlement on Mars by 2023, which is only eleven years away. The reason why they feel confident about that timeline is because they’ve made no allowance for a return trip. Their idea is that the first trip to Mars is a one way trip. You go and you will never come home.

They plan on sending four people to Mars to start and then more people every few years to build up the settlement’s population. Rovers and supply shipments will get the base ready for them before anyone arrives planetside. The plan is to ensure that the colony will be as independent from the Earth as possible, so they’ll be sent equipment to make use of their surrounding environment. Which, if I forgot to mention, is MARS.

If they, for some reason, came to me tomorrow and said, “Do you want a one-way ticket to Mars?” I would seriously consider it. I wouldn’t do it. I think. But I would be severely tempted.

So just a heads up Mars One. If you need an astronaut, I’d be your willing, but unable guy.

-D-

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The Illusion of No Free Will

The debate over our free will has been around for far longer than I care to research. As creatures who posses a fair abundance of intelligence, we would like to think that we are completely in control of what we do. Unlike the savage ape or hedgehog, we have the cognitive capacity to decide, to make choices, to determine our own fates.

However, there have been a large number of theories that either lessen or eradicate humanity’s ability to self-determinate. If you’re of a religious bent, you might argue that God has determined what you’re going to do long before you were even born. Or maybe there’s Fate and, once again, your destiny is writ in stone.

Science has its own theories for why humans are nothing more than biological computers that are incapable of true free will, but some of those make even less sense than the religious reasons. For example, there have been studies that show that the conscious brain rationalizes actions after it has made the decision to act.

Now, I have a big problem with this particular scientific explanation for the lack of free will. No matter how you cut it, your brain is making decisions, whether it’s subconscious or conscious. That unique, three-pound lump of tissue in your skull is calling the shots. Whereas the theologians and philosophers say that an independent third-party entity is dictating your actions (hence a complete lack of control), neurologists are saying that your own brain (gasp!) is in control. I fail to see how this constitutes a lack of free will.

An author talks about an experience where a neurologist controls his hand using electrical stimulus. He talks about the creepy feeling of an stranger moving his hand. To me, this experience shows pretty clearly that we’re in control of ourselves (for the most part) if it’s so obvious when we don’t have control.

Free will, as I define it, is the individual’s ability to determine his or her own fate. And, by that definition, neurologists have done nothing but map out just how our brains do just that.

Dylan Charles

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The Robot Menace

We all have different notions about what the future will be like, about what our world will be like. For some us, the Future will be signified by an ushering in of newer and better technology; whether it’s hover cars, molecule-sized computer, genetically engineered monstrosities or, in my case, robots.

For whatever reason, robots mean the Future for me. Robots fighting, robots flying, robots vacuuming the floor, robots fetching beers: that’s truly a sign that we’ve entered a new age. And not remote controlled robots either, but fully autonomous bots that are capable of learning and adapting to changes in the environment.

So I’m constantly scanning the news, looking for newer and better ‘bots. And by that, I don’t mean those terrifying monstrosities that the Japanese can’t get enough of. There is, apparently, no analogous term for “the uncanny valley” in Japanese.

I’m more interested in, say, the PR2. It learns to better do chores around the house. And look, it doesn’t have vaguely human features designed to send the user shrieking from the room. There’s also the blob-bot, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bot…that’s a blob. It moves through a complicated process that I can’t explain. Just watch the video.

But I think my interest (and the interest of many of the designers) goes deeper than just geeking out over cool tech. The idea of one of our creations being smart enough, flexible enough, human enough, to talk back to us is exciting.  I believe that humanity has, in general, always been on the lonely side. Our stories are populated with creatures and beings with brains that match ours and walk alongside us. We keep pets and then anthropomorphize the shit out of them. We keep a constant eye on the stars in the hopes that somewhere out there, there is intelligent life. Hopefully benevolent (or at least morally ambivalent) and willing to talk to us.

With artificial intelligence, it’s just one more way we’re trying to find a companion who is Other and, at the same time, very familiar.

Dylan Charles

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On Life

One of the big flaws in human thinking has been the tendency to view things from the wrong way round. We see things as they are now and then work backwards from this point. We look at the world around us and see the entire breadth and depth of history as a chain of events that leads, irrevocably, toward the here and now.

We look at our planet and say, “Ye gods, it’s like it was all set up for us. There’s food to eat, it’s aesthetically pleasing and the weather is just right.”

In reality, the planet just is. We developed to fit the planet, not the other way round. The weather is right, because our body hair, fat layers and internal temperatures let us live in the places we do. It’s aesthetically pleasing, because we have instinctual and learned behaviors that show us what looks right (symmetry, bright colors and what have you).  There are things to eat because our digestive systems evolved to eat a wide variety of fruits and animals.

One viewpoint tells us we are the undoubted masters of our domain, lords of the manor who can go where we want and do what we want. The other way, we’re just another in a long line of guests who’ve parked their asses on planet Earth.

Taking it even further, the fact we even exist is a miracle, going from front to back. The planet is orbitally in the right place, our star is the right brightness and size, our planetary neighbors like Jupiter provide us shelter from asteroids: the Earth is a a safe haven in an unbelievably hostile environment. It’s a miracle that life even exists!

What is not taken into account is that this solar system is only one of 200 billion other star systems in our galaxy. And that’s the conservative estimate. There could be up to 400 billion other stars. Assuming there’s a one in a billion chance of a planet Earth forming, that still gives us 200-400 other Earths in our galaxy.

And that’s our galaxy.

Look here:

That is an image taken from the Hubble telescope. Each of those stars and whirls are actually galaxies. Thousands and thousands of galaxies. Some larger, some smaller than our own galaxy.

And that’s just what we can see. The Hubble can only see so far and there is, probably, much more out there. Galaxies upon galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, spinning through the void.

The Earth, our Earth, is most definitely, a bit of an odd duck. There are plenty of things that could have been different that would have led to a lifeless solar system. But, it so happened, that the Earth was in the right place, with the right star, with the right conditions. And, it so happens, that there are hundreds of trillions of other potential chances for Earths to happen, all over the universe.

While this might reduce humanity’s significance in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t take away from the coolness that we’re not alone. We’ll ignore the probability and possibility we’ll ever meet intelligent life. And the infinitesimal odds that we’ll be able to communicate with whatever intelligent life we come across.

Let’s just bask in a universe that permits us to exist.

Dylan Charles

Picture stolen from hubblesite.org

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