Thursday, July 28, 2011

Facial Recognition System Causes Problems for Mass. Drivers

Facial recognition systems are starting to appear everywhere. All of the tech giants are staking out turf, including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft (click on each for a different recent news item). ieee spectrum has a recent (July 25, 2011) story by Robert Charette, called "Here's Looking at You, and You, and You ..." about some of the problems resulting from one of the first examples of use of such systems on a large scale. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles is one of approximately 35 states using automated anti-terrorism facial recognition systems. One of the big problems is the false positives, and the individual's "burden" to clear his or her name when mistakes are made. Read the story to learn more.

High-stakes forensic linguistics

The wonderful Language Log blog has had some excellent recent discussion of the use of forensic linguistic to determine authorship, stylistics, etc. The original entry, "High-stakes forensic linguistics," July 25, 2011, by Mark Liberman, framed the discussion around the legal battle over ownership of Facebook (also discussed by Ben Zimmer, NY Times Sunday Review, July 23, 2011, "Decoding Your E-Mail Personality"). As Mark pointed out, it was nice to see comments on the Language Log story by Ron Butters, Larry Solan, and Carole Chaski. A follow-up entry on July 27, 2011, "Authors vs. Speakers: A Tale of Two Subfields," provides some historical context related to forensic speaker identification.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why brains get creeped out by androids

And speaking of the brain, WIRED SCIENCE has a small story by Mark Brown that reports on a study thats attempt to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to help understand the "uncanny valley" effect. This is a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori related to reports that as androids become more human in appearance there is a purported drop in "likeability" on the part of human observers. The study, led by Ayse Pinar Saygin of the University of California, San Diego, was an attempt to explore the underlying brain bases of this phenomenon. Check out the WIRED SCIENCE article to learn more. As usual, results like these appear to be much too preliminary to be more than speculation or amusement for the tech media and those that follow them, such as the IS Group blog and me.

Kurzweil still doesn't understand the brain

PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, writing in his blog Pharyngula (Aug. 21, 2010) criticizes Ray Kurzweil and other futurists for their speculations on our ability to understand how the brain works. Kurzweil had responded to an earlier blog entry by Myers (Aug. 17, 2010) called "Ray Kurzweil does not understand the brain." (Thanks to RSC for reminding of this debate, which is related to other IS Group blog entries on the singularity, neuroscience and related matters.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Space Shuttle: the end of an era

After 30 years, the US Space Shuttle program has ended. Here are some articles on the program:

CBS News: Never forget the miracle and promise of space
Neil deGrasse Tyson reflects on the space shuttle program, 1981-2011
The end of an era: what the space shuttle means to Engadget
NASA STST-135 Launch and Landing
LA Times video: Final landing of NASA's space shuttle program

Image above: With space shuttle Atlantis in the background, the STS-135 astronauts are welcomed home from the final space shuttle mission. They are, from left, Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus, Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Image credit: NASA.

Robot Babies: Cute or Creepy?

IEEE Spectrum online (July 20, 2011) has a slideshow called "Robot Babies: Cute or Creepy?" Check out the recent proliferation of robot children. Let us know which you like best. If you find any others, please add them to the list.

The image at the left shows Telenoid R1, created at Osaka University, a telepresence robot that reproduces the voice and movements of a remote operator. Spectrum says, "It looks like an overgrown fetus or Casper the Friendly Ghost, depending on whom you ask."

(Photo: Osaka University and ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communications Laboratories)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When Will We Be Transhuman?

DISCOVER has an article called "When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism" by Kyle Munkittrick (July 12, 2011). He lists the conditions that he feels are necessary but not sufficient for transhumanism to have been attained. These include:
* The arrival of prosthetics and implants for organs and limbs that are as good as or better than the original.
* Better brains: cognition is improved significantly using cognitive enhancing drugs, genetic engineering, or neuro-implants / prosthetic cyberbrains.
* Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) are integrated into personal, everyday behaviors.
* The average life span exceeds 120 years.
* When global births stabilize at replacement rates, assisted reproductive technologies are the preferred method of conception, and responsible child rearing is more highly valued than biological parenthood, we will be procreating as transhumans.

Check out the rest of the list here and leave comments or your thoughts on this topic.

John Ohno's zzstructure emulator

John Ohno's zzstructure operating system (iX) was featured in the Hack A Day blog on July 12, 2011. John is a student member of Yale's Technology & Ethics group and is a friend. According to Hack A Day, a zzstructure is both a hypertext and operating system unlike anything we have today -- Ted Nelson has a version called ZigZag. John has posted a YouTube demo of his project and put all the code online.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Analog Underground

Ashlea Halpern has a long feature in New York magazine (Jul 11, 2011) called "The Analog Underground" that describes a new generation's growing interest in "celluloid, vinyl, ink, paper, and the click-clack-ding-slide of a typewriter." The online version (July 3, 2011) highlights the scenes and sellers related to the analog renaissance, focusing on typewriters, vinyl and turntables, and celluloid movies. Also covered are "analog imposters," retro versions of phonographs, game controllers, turntables, microphones, etc. Finally, there is a slideshow of "old souls," seven analog obsessive who "explain their allegiance to outdated technology."

(Photo: Danny Kim/New York Times Magazine; Tetra Images/Corbis)

Hydrothermal Worm Viewed Under An Electron Microscope

Huffpost Green, 7/18/11, has a short feature by Dean Praetorius showing a wonderful image of a hydrothermal worm taken using an electron microscope. The small version at the left does not do justice to the original. They say: "Taken using an FEI Quanta SEM, this image is amazingly zoomed in 525 times. The real width of the field in the image is 568μm, or 568/1000 of a millimeter. It's far larger than an atom, but still among the smallest living things. The worm, as scary as it looks, is something most people will never actually get to see (or have to worry about, for that matter). Hydrothermal worms are deep sea creatures, almost as small as bacterium, and are largely found near hydrothermal vents in the ocean.

This shot was captured by Philippe Crassous and submitted to FEI's gallery. Other amazing shots taken using FEI's microscopes can be seen here."

(The full image is by FEI and Phillippe Crassous.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

123 Year Old Talking Head

John Stevens writing in The Daily Mail Online, 15 July 2011, has a story called "Voice of Thomas Edison's talking doll is heard again after 123 years as scientists crack the code of mysterious metal ring." He says: For decades it lay in the bottom of a secretary's desk drawer, its purpose unknown. But now, 123 year after it was made, the secret of this bent metal ring,which was found in Thomas Edison's laboratory, has finally been uncovered. Scientists have found that the microscopic grooves on the ring make up the tune of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' and mark the world's first attempt at a talking doll and the dawn of America's recording industry. ... But the metal ring - about 2.5 inches around and half an inch wide - was so bent and damaged that scientists couldn't play it. More than four decades later, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, used image analysis to create a digital model of the record's surface. That model was then used to reproduce the recording as a digital file, not unlike the modern technology behind the voice that emerges from today's talking dolls."

Commenting on the story, IS regular, Gordon Ramsay, says: "There is a description of this doll in Scientific American around 1880. Interestingly enough, the first talking doll was patented by Maelzel in the 1820s, but unlike Edison's, it used a bellows and reeds, etc., to mimic the voice - so the same shift from mechanical synthesis to copy synthesis played out in dolls as well as humans (evolution repeating itself ;-) )."

Thanks and a hat tip to Robert Remez for pointing this story out to us.

Monkbot, a 16th century automaton

Boingboing has re-discovered a 16th century automaton described earlier by Elizabeth King in an article called "Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk") in Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2002. Here is the reprinted description from the Blackbird journal:

"Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. After over 400 years, he remains in good working order. Tradition attributes his manufacture to one Juanelo Turriano, mechanician to Emperor Charles V. The story is told that the emperor's son King Philip II, praying at the bedside of a dying son of his own, promised a miracle for a miracle, if his child be spared. And when the child did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having Turriano construct a miniature penitent homunculus."

Thanks and a hat tip to Sherwin Borsuk for bringing this to our attention.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Stux redux

Just when I thought I'd read everything there was to read about the Stuxnet worm, Wired delivers a blockbuster piece with masterful writing and juicy technical detail. The hidden message feature is only one small tidbit in an incredibly complicated story.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Singularity is Far: A Neuroscientist's View

David J. Linden, a neuroscientist, has an article in boingboing (July 14, 2011) that expresses his skepticism about the view of some, such as Ray Kurzweil, that the singularity is imminent. Linden says "Kurzweil ... argues that our understanding of biology—and of neurobiology in particular—is ... on an exponential trajectory, driven by enabling technologies. The unstated but crucial foundation of Kurzweil's scenario requires that at some point in the 2020s, a miracle will occur: If we keep accumulating data about the brain at an exponential rate (its connection maps, its activity patterns, etc.), then the long-standing mysteries of development, consciousness, perception, decision, and action will necessarily be revealed. Our understanding of brain function and our ability to measure the relevant parameters of individual brains (aided by technologies like brain nanobots) will consequently increase in an exponential manner to allow for brain-uploading to computers in the year 2039. That's where I get off the bus. I contend that our understanding of biological processes remains on a stubbornly linear trajectory. In my view the central problem here is that Kurzweil is conflating biological data collection with biological insight." Thanks to Christina Spiesel, IS Group regular, for letting us know about this article.

Steampunk articulatory synthesis

An article by Rebecca Boyle in, called "Moaning Mouth-Bot Learns to Croon, Is Even Creepier Than Ever," features the "enhanced" version of a talking mouth created by Hideyuki Sawada of Kagawa University in Japan. Check out its scary vocal skills. Thanks and a hat tip to Robert Remez for pointing out this article to us.

The Art of Failure 2011

ieee spectrum online, July 13, 2011, has a slideshow, by Ritchie S. King, of the surprising stuff you find when chips fail.

The figure at the left shows the melted ends of gold wires from a semiconductor that look like a bonsai tree sitting atop a platform.

Image: Stefan Waginger

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The July 7, 2011 issue of The Economist has a long article on the next generation of animal-like robots that are about to emerge from the laboratory. In addition to the numerous dog-robots that we have seen over the past few years, they describe "shrews complete with whiskers, swimming lampreys, grasping octopuses, climbing lizards, and burrowing clams." Other examples include the Lampetra (pictured at the left), which is a robotic version of a lamprey. To read about other robotic wonders, check out this story.

Controlling a Quadrotor Using Kinect

Markus Waibel, in a blog entry in ieee spectrum online, shows a new video of the Flying Machines Arena (FMA) at the ETH Zurich. This new system uses a Microsoft Kinect XBOX game controller system to provide for "more natural and intuitive interaction" when controlling their quadrocopters.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Best. Samurai. Movie. Ever.

Having known about director Takashi Miike from stomach-churners like Audition (had to look away several times) and Ichi the Killer (too squeamish to even try watching it), I hesitated before renting his more recent 13 Assassins. Though the comparisons to Seven Samurai and other Kurosawa epics can't be avoided, 13 Assassins stands on its own as a thrilling, emotionally overpowering masterpiece of cinema. With a villain who makes Hannibal Lecter look like Mr. Rogers, and some delightful comic dialogue ("You Samurai are useless -- especially in large numbers!"), this film is, as the director says in the bonus-features interview, as much a drama as an action/adventure spectacle.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

TWIE 68: Amphibious Ice Cream Truck

Check out the TWIE 68 video at's This Week in Engineering (TWIE). Stories include: shark-repelling fish hooks; touch-screen steering wheel; amphibious ice cream truck; paraplegic college grad lands a job as a bionic leg tester; Chinese satellite leaves lunar orbit; and nightshirt that monitors your sleep.

23 Creepiest Robots You've Ever Seen

HuffPost Comedy has posted a collection of videos of "creepy" robots and talking heads.

Topological insulators make "spintronics" possible

"Quantum magic can make strange but useful semiconductors that are insulators on the inside and conductors on the surface."

Joel E. Moore, in ieee spectrum online, July 2011, describes how mathematical theory may make "spintronics" possible. "By 2006, three separate groups of mathematicians had discovered that it was possible, in theory, to produce materials that are insulators on the inside but conductors on the outside. The theorists concluded that these materials—called topological insulators because changes in their shape have no effect on their conductivity or quantum mechanical behavior—will make it simple to manipulate the quantum mechanical spin of an electron. That level of subatomic control would make it possible to use spin as the underpinning for computer logic that would outclass today’s microprocessors in both speed and fuel efficiency—or as the mechanism by which hard disks are written, read, or rewritten."

(Image: Aharon Kapitulnik and Zhanybek Alpichshev/Stanford University)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Light Painting Art Done Using Swarms of Robot Vacuum Cleaners

An article in PetaPixel by Michael Zhang features light painting photographs created by students in Germany using a swarm of seven Roomba automated vacuum cleaners. Zhang says, "Each one had a different colored LED light attached to the top, making the resulting photo look like some kind of robotic Jackson Pollock painting. There’s actually an entire Flickr group dedicated to using Roombas for light painting — check it out of you have one of these robot minions serving you in your home."

Every Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monster ever, in one video

boingboing has a link to a video by matbergman of every stop-motion creature created by the master, Ray Harryhausen. Check it out. Thanks to Xeni Jardin and Aaron-Stewart Ahn.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Acoustic cloak from metamaterials

Devin Powell, in an article in ScienceNews, describes an "acoustic cloak" that can bend sound. The cloak is made of a metamaterial, developed by researchers at Duke University as reported in the June 24 Physical Review Letters. Using metamaterials to make a cloak that can guide sound waves was first proposed by Duke team member Steven Cummer, an electrical engineer, and a colleague in 2007 in the New Journal of Physics. Powell writes:

"To manipulate sound waves in air, Cummer's team designed and built a cloak that sits atop an object like a piece of draped carpet. By layering simple metamaterial building blocks — ordinary strips of perforated plastic — the researchers hid a triangular wooden block a couple of inches high and more than a foot long at its base. Sound waves over a range of high but audible frequencies slowed and changed direction cleanly after striking the holey plastic. Most reemerged appearing to have traveled all the way down to the flat surface beneath the block. The prototype is two-dimensional — both the speaker generating the sound and the microphone recording it must be in the same plane above the object. But Cummer believes he could make a 3-D version that would cover an entire bump on a log, not just a slice."

PossessedHand turns your hand into a remote controlled cyborg

David Brin, in an article called "Milestones Leading up to the Good Singularity" in his Contrary Brin blog, mentions this "Creepy… but probably helpful… new teaching tool." Brin says, "Do you want to play the violin, but can't be bothered to learn how? Then strap on this electric finger stimulator called PossessedHand that makes your fingers move with no input from your own brain. Developed by scientists at Tokyo University in conjunction with Sony, the hand consists of a pair of wrist bands that deliver mild electrical stimuli directly to the muscles that control your fingers, something normally done by your own brain." Michael Trei, in DVICE, provides additional photos and discussion of the device.