Category Archives: Longer Posts

Rise of the Machines

New technologies generally start being used as “benefits to humanity”. They are medical breakthroughs and other applications for social welfare. After they become more mainstream, though, the luxury applications of new technologies become more common. In this context, let us examine some of the concerns about the increasing interaction between mechanical technologies and biological organisms, most specifically people.

We are currently living in an age where technology is increasingly becoming integrated with our bodies, generally to alleviate pre-existing medical conditions. For more information, I have an article up at 90 ways that goes into a lot of the cool things going on in the medical gizmo world. I certainly have no problem with using technology to help paralyzed people move and interact. But unchecked development of human/technology hybrids is worrying.

I wonder where biology will end and technology begin. If replacement organs are grown in vats, is that biology or technology? Regardless, once implanted, is the organ the property of the grower or the user? In a market where the manufacturers of goods try more and more to dictate the ways purchasers can use their products, this question is more and more relevant. Can the entity that “made” the organ regulate its use, or promote transplantation for reasons other than medical need (larger lung capacity for athletes, as an example)? What percentage of a body would have to be original parts in order for human rights to still apply? If I have more metal than flesh, am I still human?

Even if we never need to be concerned about definitions such as what is human and what is robot, creating augmented people almost certainly will increase the gap between those with wealth and those without. Once there are consumer goods that can be worn, implanted, swallowed or otherwise made part of us, there will be a few people who can afford to become “better” and the majority of the population will remain mundane. Or, more frighteningly, rich companies could offer to augment its workforce, creating super workers that are little more than cyborg slaves.

And then there is the cyborg soldier. More than one military is working on wearable or implantable technology to make a super-soldier. Concerns in this area involve everything from the very notion of the ethics of waging war to the rights of individual soldiers who have been modified.

Certainly some the fears I have outlined are exaggerated, and the popular vision of cyborgs from movies and novels plays into these fears. But questions regarding the nature of humanity and the way in which technological augmentation could change human nature need to be addressed before these items become consumer goods. For a very thorough discussion of the cyborg issue, I highly recommend the essays contained in The Cyborg Handbook. More info is in the bibliography.

Thoughts on the Reith Lectures – Part Deux

Hopefully by now, everyone who wants to has listen to or read the full content of the Reith Lectures. Lord Broers’ final lecture was, in my opinion, the most interesting and radical of the series. In it, he called for a stronger connection between scientists, technologists & engineers and everyone else, something with which I heartily agree.

Also, he discussed the alarming fact that we already have the technology to mitigate important ecological and social problems, but we aren’t using it. We could, for example, make energy meters into cool-looking kitchen applicances that show householders exactly how much power they are consuming at any given moment. This would allow consumers of energy to take control of their consumption – helping people control their energy bills and societies control their energy use.

When I heard this idea, I stopped what I was doing and listened to it again. We have the technology. For less than a cheap DVD player, we could all know the amount of power we use. Knowledge is the first step to making any change and it really is shocking that I do not know how much power I consume in a given day. How can I make any kind of informed decisions about my power consumption if I do not even have the most basic information?

This is the lesson I took from the final Reith Lecture. We have the technology for so many applications that never get used because there is no business model for things that promote ecology, fairness and helping people become more concientious citizens of the world.

We have the technology. Maybe we consumers should start demanding it.

Phonenet

I recently learned of an internet technology that I’m shocked isn’t getting more press. It’s called ENUM, and it is coming on hard.

What is it, you ask? Essentially, ENUM is the term to cover mapping telephone numbers to web addresses. The point of this, to most observers, it to facilitate VoIP, however there are other possibilities as well. The main one that I see is the ability to use telephones as devices to access internet services. If phone numbers are equivalent to web addresses, then any phone could theoretically function as an internet input device. The possibilities for new applications with cell phones are pretty enormous.

From poking around google, it appears that ENUM was pretty big news around 2001, but then it faded off the radar screen. However, several trials are currently underway around the world to test out the possibilites and an industry conference is planned for this June. I have heard estimates that ENUM could be live as soon as mid-2006.

The usual suspects have some concerns with this endeavour, particularly the requirement for a database of contact numbers and the increased ability of marketers (read spammers) to conact people. While I share these concerns, I am interested to see how this all plays out. As a fan of VoIP, this seems particularly interesting, and when coupled with text-to-speech software, I foresee a wholly new way to surf using your phone – by actually talking with the Internet.

Thoughts on the Reith Lectures

I have been listening to the 2005 Reith Lectures, and can only reiterate my previous recommendation. I knew that Lord Broers was an inveterate tech booster, and his first two lectures have failed to disappoint on that front. Regular readers of GH know that I am critical of those who espouse progress for its own sake and perceive the negative impacts of technological advances as merely minor side effects. Lord Broers does fall into this category, though his responses to these very criticisms are among the most thoughtful I have encountered.

The lectures so far have made me think and question my own assumptions. But one overarching aspect of the talks has had me thinking the most, and it is something about which I have become more and more confused. The lectures include a question period with the audience which is often critical of the ideas put forth in the lectures. However everyone seems to agree on one thing: people (and in this case, I think specifically Britons) are uninterested in learning about and supporting the development of technology. Much of the question period after the first lecture seemed to be composed of a bunch of engineers whingeing about how, like some latter day Rodney Dangerfield, they just don’t get any respect.

I am completely baffled by this. I have never lived in the UK, and claim to have no particular knowledge of specific attitudes. I do know, however, that the use of high end mobile technology for telephony and data transfer is extremely common – much more common than it is in North America. I know that England has all the high tech stuff we have in North America, and I know that sometime is woks more seamlessly there than it does here. And some recent studies have shown that in a land that still charges a TV tax, people are getting more and more of their entertainment over the Internet.

I really don’t think that folks in the UK are luddites in comparison with their North American counterparts, though I suppose if one is making comparisons with some Asian countries it may seem that way. But I think that more people the world over share Lord Broers’ view of technology as a positive agent for progress than are critical of engineering advances. Even in England.

The New Boob Tube

When I was a kid, I remember I had this book. It was a small saddlestitched flip book of maybe 20 pages, all of which were brightly illustrated and was written in 18 point font. It was about how you (you, being a kid at the appropriate age for this type of book) should not watch too much TV. It was general TV-will-rot-your-mind propaganda, and I distinctly recall that it advocated no more than 4 hours of the tube per week. Yes, that’s right, per week.

I don’t know how much that one little book affected my adult choices, buy I have been known to haughtily state, in the midst of conversations about American Idol or Survivor, that I don’t watch TV. Sort of like the way some people say they don’t smoke – as if doing it is just so last century.

But, I’m starting to realize that computers are the new TV, and they are much more insidious. Because they really are used for work and education, it’s easy to get caught in the habit of thinking it’s all work. Even playing games can be rationalized away as a “mental health break.” I certainly agree that five minutes of solitaire can be a necessary diversion after a particularly tough bout of work, but it’s hard to argue that a ten hour LAN party is just a break.

The Guardian recently reported about a new study by European education experts that shows that children who use computers extensively actually do more poorly in school than their less technologically connected peers. Not surprisingly, kids use computers to chat with their friends and play games – just like their parents do. And an informal look at the state of written English shows that e-mail and text chat are contributing to a lack of concern for spelling and grammar. It seems as though staring at that box really does rot your brain.

Perhaps a backlash is starting, though. There was the strange success of grammar books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Also, many more people seem to be critical of the idea of promoting computer use with children. Just like televisions, computers are tools. And just like with TV, history seems to show that we are much more likely to choose to use computers for entertainment rather than education. As the Guardian article suggests, maybe it’s time to just turn off the tube and pick up a book.

Old ideas fighting older ideas

I had the opportunity to watch some of the National Film Board of Canada‘s 1971 animated short “Evolution” recently. It is a very cute, childlike explanation of concepts such as survival of the fittest and genetic mutation as adaptation to changing surroundings. Watching it, I found myself thinking – how odd; almost 35 years after the film was made, the very concepts being illustrated have somehow become controversial.

The seeming regression of some people to ideas that, for many critics, are more appropriate to the dark ages than the 21st century, is something that I have lately found fascinating. I wonder why it is that in an age of unprecedented scientific knowledge and technological advances, so many people all around the world have turned to fundamentalist religions and a spurning of science.

Perhaps it is because of the primacy of science and technology in many aspects of modern life that so many people are turning away from the lessons of science and embracing ideas first conceived thousands of years ago as ways of explaining the unknown. Perhaps it is a longing for the simplicity and comfort that creation stories provide that draws some people to them. In an era where physical personal contact become more infrequent in favour of asynchronous telecommunication, maybe stories that assert the special nature of humanity help people feel less isolated.

Most people are afraid of change to some degree or another. Technological change can be particularly frightening, and not necessarily without reason. By outright denial of science, perhaps some people are trying to fight change by refusing to acknowledge its source.

It will be an interesting footnote in history: The age which is ushering in a reality mediated by gadgets, where individuals’ lives are becoming more entangled by technology and science is hosting a renaissance of religious beliefs that haven’t been mainstream since Medieval times. This may be merely a strange short-lived side effect of our current times or the beginning of a serious philosophical schism between fundamentalists and everyone else.

If It Feels Good…

There’s no question that human beings are hardwired to make new stuff out of old stuff, to want to discover new things and make old things better. Ever since the first proto-human picked up a rock and used it as a tool, there have been engineers, and ever since someone investigated what that rock could break and what it couldn’t, there have been scientists. People like figuring our how things work and then making new things that work. It turns out that all those teachers were right: Science is fun!

Scientist and lecturer Arnold Pacey’s book Meaning in Technology focusses on the emotional aspects of the pursuit of science and engineering. He points out that generally it feels good to solve problems and create things, and that science as a purely objective discipline has never existed. Pacey also explores how just using technology also has some of these same effects – it feels neat to use high-tech equipment. The proliferation of magazines and websites devoted to what’s new and cool in consumer technology can testify to this.

Pacey points out that there’s nothing wrong with getting pleasure out of working with technology, but the emotional motivators must be checked by critical reasoning.

“An important lesson to learn from creative work in science and engineering is the although ideas may arise in all sorts of ways that may be described as intuitive or participatory, there is always an obligation to translate them into more rigorous, often mathematical formulations, so that others may understand and check them, and explore their precise implications.” (p.13)

These days, there seems to be a new hedonism reigning both in sci/tech labs and the gadget aisles at your local store. The motto is If it feels good, do it! The big problem with hedonism has always been that others can inadvertently be harmed by one person’s excesses, a problem which is greatly exacerbated when the lust for more is in the arena that brought us the nuclear bomb, genetic modification and an endless supply of annoying downloadable ringtones. We need to start showing a bit more restraint in the things we build, modify and buy. Even though something cool and new can be done, we still need to determine if it should be done.

CNN’s Top 25 Innovations

It’s a new year, and that means that everyone and their dogs feel compelled to write about the most interesting things of the last X amount of time. CNN had weighed into the fray with its list of the top 25 innovations of the last 25 years.

We can quibble about a lot here: so far it’s only 24 items, some of which were definitely invented and even fairly widely used prior to 1980. Not to mention that the criteria for inclusion stated that the items “have become widely used since 1980, are readily recognizable by most Americans, have had a direct and perceptible impact on our everyday lives, and/or could dramatically affect our lives in the future,” but several items on the list don’t fit the criteria. For example, regardless of the hype, nanotechnology(#21) is not widespread, and I highly doubt that the average American could recognize an organic light-emitting diode (#17) if it had a big red name tag on it.

However, what is interesting about this list is not how the selection panel failed to follow its mandate. Rather, this list illustrates that the pace of change for high-tech consumer goods has been accelerating pretty rapidly. In 1980 I was still listening to 8-track tapes and vinyl records – today I store my music collection on my laptop, having moved past both cassette tapes and CDs.

The popular conception of Moore’s Law says that computer hardware will keep getting better and cheaper. The corollary to this is that innovations in technologies will come faster and faster. Certainly, a quick overview of the technological changes that occurred in the 20th century seems to bear this out. As we move into an era where these developments and changes will be quicker and more powerful, we need to pay attention to what these changes are, and whether they are actually useful. It’s interesting and a little frightening that high definition television (#19) is on the same list as air bags for cars (#13). In a world where natural disasters and armed conflicts continue to threaten lives all over the globe, maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the basic necessities of life than a sharper tv image.

Using Technology for Awesome

So far I have been talking pretty exclusively about technologies that I think need some scrutiny for their potential negative effects. So, in the name of balance I thought that I ought to point out that I don’t think all tech is bad tech. To that end, here are a half dozen technologies I think are really cool.

In no particular order, they are…

Wiki While I would argue that working in groups is pretty much always preferable to working alone, it does still have to be done sometimes. This is a tool that most groups that have to do a lot of work together should have in their arsenals.

Electric sailboat engines that generate electricity when not in use.

A search engine for handwritten documents One of the things that’s so annoying about the digital world is that it draws distinct lines between what’s online and what isn’t. This is a huge step in smudging that line.

A car that runs on compressed air is a very interesting alternative to the much touted (and much maligned) hydrogen fuel cell car.

VoIP – Voice over IP Using broadband internet to make phone calls reduces your phone bill, eliminates long distance charges, makes you feel like very 21st century and means you can actually be a part of breaking the local phone company’s monopoly. There are also ways of encrypting voice conversations which are particularly interesting to the privacy seekers among us.

Marine current turbines Tide power squared (or more).

Comments on these technologies (or other uses of tech power for awesome) are most welcome.