Friday, April 27, 2007

Me And My Android

That photo is beyond creepy for more reasons than I can list here.

On the right is a Japanese robotics expert. On the left is his robot.And apparently it's a very convincing avatar of the man himself. The face is filled with more than 50 sensors and points of movement, and the scientist can speak through, see through its eyes (via cameras) and generally live inside his doppelganger in a virtual reality kind of way.

Fascinating, and slightly horrifying, to think that those who can afford to do so will be able to soon order up a new version of themselves, which can be upgraded as technology improves, and repaired in ways that the human version can't be. Basically, you can get another version of yourself made that never grows old, never sleeps and which you can engage in conversation.

Just how ready is the human race for this kind of thing? Not very, but it such a revolution is unlikely to cause much of a fuss. The only panic created will be by those who want their own synthetic version of themselves but can't yet get one because robot makers will become so overwhelmed by the demand.

Bizarre, yet extremely interesting. The inventor can actually speak his own thoughts through the mouth of the robot.

Could we actually see reality where those who can afford it will be able to send their replicant self out into the real world, while they stay at home, with virtual reality googles and microphone in place, to udertake their their duties?


I've been following the growth of robotics even since reading Philip K Dick's synthetic human novels (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, We Can Build You) as a teenager, but even this avalanche of replicant reality is taking a while to sink in. So much to think about. Not all of it good.

Westworld is closer than you think.

From the UK Daily Mail :
Japanese robotics expert Hiroshi Ishiguro has unveiled a robot doppelganger of himself.

Germinoid is a humanoid robot designed in his creator's image, down to the tiniest of details.

It sits on a chair and gazes around the room in a very human-like fashion, just like its creator.

Implanted beneath Geminoid's skin are 50 sensors and motors that can be controlled by simple movements Dr Ishiguro makes.

He can see through its 'eyes', talk through its internal speaker and shrug or scowl if prodded and poked. Compressed air forced through its body make Geminoid's chest rise and fall as if breathing.

Dr Ishiguro believes robots like Geminoid will in future allow people to be where they cannot be. Speaking through Geminoid, he says, has become natural, an extension of himself.

The close similarity between Dr Ishiguro and his robotic replica has caused some curious psychological effects, he said.

"When the body of Geminoid is touched by somebody, I get very similar feelings of being touched," he said.

Go Here To Read The Full Story

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Smarter Than The Average Human

Must have been a David Attenborough documentary, but one of the most vivid images stuck in my head from recent years of ape-watching, on the TV, was of a huge mother orangutan sitting in a canoe, using a paddle to cross a river.

She had been hanging around the local village, imitating the women scrubbing clothes on the rough wood of the little boat dock, and watching carefully as the men climbed into their canoes and paddled away.

One day the orangutan climbed into an empty canoe, took a moment to master the paddle, and off she went.

A few hundred years ago, the religiously fear-struck would have hung the poor orangutan for witchcraft. Apes aren't supposed to be like humans. They're animals. And, God forbid, they are not supposed to be smarter than us.

But an increasing number of scientists and researchers are now claiming that not only are many of the great apes all but genetically identical to humans, they are also a close match for intuitive abilities, cognitive brain functions, and have better memories than most of us.

Considering that only 60 or so years ago, there was little research of any value done on our closest living relatives, it is unnerving to keep reading of just how smart apes can be.

Not scary, just...strange. My generation, at least, were not raised to think of apes and monkeys as anything other than pretty stupid. When I was a kid, stories that apes had been seen using sticks as tools was widely dismissed as coincidental, a mere fluke. And that was only 30 years ago.

But as these stories below explain, apes using tools is no coincidence. They know exactly what they're doing. As apes in the wild die out in horrifying numbers, victims of deforestation, bush meat hunts and the awful ebola virus, we are learning just how brilliant these creatures are, and how much they have to teach us, about themselves, and ourselves, and the history of us as a species.

Not only can they be smarter, they are more evolved.

From the International Herald Tribune :

For some time, paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have known that chimp ancestors were the last line of today's apes to diverge from the branch that led to humans, probably 6 million, maybe 4 million years ago.

Chimps display a remarkable range of behavior and talent. They make and use simple tools, hunt in groups and engage in aggressive, violent acts. They are social creatures that appear to be capable of empathy, altruism, self-awareness, cooperation in problem solving and learning through example and experience. Chimps even outperform humans in some memory tasks.

"Fifty years ago, we knew next to nothing about chimpanzees," said Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "You could not have predicted the richness and complexity of chimp culture that we know now."

Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta said that as recently as a decade ago there was still no firm consensus on many of the social relationships of chimps. "You don't hear any debate now," he said.

In his own studies at the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory, de Waal found that chimps as social animals have had to constrain and alter their behavior in various ways, as have humans. It is a part of ape inheritance, he said, and in the case of humans, the basis for morality. The provocative interpretation was advanced in his recent book, "Primates and Philosophers."

Other reports shortly before the symposium had elaborated on the abilities of chimps as toolmakers. Jill Pruetz, a primatologist at Iowa State University, described 22 examples of chimps in Senegal making stick spears to hunt smaller primates for their meat.

A team of archaeologists led by Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary reported finding stones in Ivory Coast that chimps used 4,300 years ago to crack nuts. Today's chimps have often been videotaped using rocks as a hammer to open nuts. The old stones with starch residues from nuts, the researchers said, were the earliest strong evidence of chimp tool use, and the finding suggested that chimps had learned the skill on their own, rather than copying humans.

Other researchers combine field work showing chimp behavior in natural habitats with laboratory experiments that are created to disclose their underlying intelligence - what scientists call their "cognitive reserve."

In experiments with mirrors, researchers showed that chimps had an awareness of themselves that is absent in monkeys but present in dolphins and all the great apes. Similar tests by Emory scientists showed some self-recognition among elephants. These behaviors were reported by de Waal and his associate J.M. Plotnik.

At the symposium, researchers said the interest in learning more about chimps was not just a case of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Their behavior and intelligence, scientists say, may offer insights into the abilities of early human ancestors like Australopithecus afarensis, the apelike "Lucy" species that thrived more than 3 million years ago. A more urgent motivation for the research, primatologists say, is that these are sentient beings and the closest living relatives of humans, and their survival is threatened.

(Jane) Goodall recalled that when she went to Africa nearly a half-century ago, at least a million chimps lived in the continent, and "now there are perhaps only 150,000."
From LiveScience :

Since the human-chimp split about 6 million years ago, chimpanzee genes can be said to have evolved more than human genes, a new study suggests.

The results, detailed online this week in the Proceedings of the large brains, cognitive abilities and bi-pedalism.

Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan and his colleagues analyzed strings of DNA from nearly 14,000 protein-coding genes shared by chimps and humans. They looked for differences gene by gene and whether they caused changes in the generated proteins.

Genes act as instructions that organisms use to make proteins and thus are integral to carrying out biological functions, such as transporting oxygen to the body’s cells. Different versions of the same gene are called alleles.

Changes in DNA that affect the making of proteins are considered functional changes, while “silent” changes do not affect the proteins. “If we see an excess of functional changes (compared to silent changes) the inference is these functional changes occurred because they were positively selected, because they were useful in some way to the organism,” said study team member Margaret Bakewell, also of UM.

Bakewell, Zhang and a colleague found that substantially more genes in chimps evolved in ways that were beneficial than was the case with human genes.

Let It Snow, China, Whenever You Like

That the weather can be controlled, to some degree, seems to remain in the realm of fantasy for most people. But it is an actuality. Russia and China, in particular, have had some great successes over the decades, forcing rain clouds to open up and 'influencing' wind cycles to blow pollution and smoke away from cities.

You just don't hear about it much.

What the United States is doing in the realm of weather control is pretty well top secret, although there have been some very interesting patents filed for control systems related to weather.

During the Hurricane Katrina horrors, a little bit of talk drifted out about "research" that had been going on for years that might lead to a day when even a monster hurricane like Katrina could be broken up, lessened or even dispersed.

But China is now proudly showing off its weather control abilities, boasting that it will skies of rain and (some) pollution during key events during the 2008 Olympic Games.

The Chinese have just given a very public demonstration of something few outside of China even knew they could now do. Make snow fall.

Incredible stuff :

China claimed yesterday to have caused a snowfall for the first time as part of its increasingly ambitious attempts to control the weather.

Officials in the meteorological bureau in Tibet said they had used "rain-seeding" techniques to trigger a snowfall over the city of Nagqu last week.

"This proves it's possible for humans to change the weather on the world's highest plateau," said Yu Zhongshui. The bureau said it had produced just under half an inch of snow at a height of 15,000ft.

Mr Yu said the experiment was conducted in the hope it would lead to alleviating drought on the northern Tibetan plateau, whose grasslands are turning brown as global warming melts and drains its permafrost.

The government also hopes that the project will benefit the great river systems of China. The Yellow, Yangtse, Salween, Mekong and Brahmaputra rivers all rise in Tibet, and the effects of damming and over-extraction for agriculture are beginning to threaten water supplies to major cities.

Weather Control : A Long Established, Though Secret, Reality

2001 : US Company Makes 'Weather Control Powder' To Disperse Hurricanes

Electronic Weather Control : Why It Doesn't Rain Much Anymore

Does Russia And US Have Technology To Control Hurricanes? The Wall Street Journal Says Yes
Real Mourners At Funeral For Fictional Character

Raoh is dead. Long live Raoh.

Who the f..k is Raoh, some of you ask?

Clearly you haven't been watching enough action-packed, colour-drenched, blood-splattered Japanese anime.

We in The West like to point at some of cultural events in Japan and shake our heads in disbelief, amazement and smirk-filled wonder. "They're just so whacky!"

Of course, most Japanese look at the events detailed in the story below and think the exact same thing.

The hype of manga and anime in the US, UK and Australia makes out as if every single Japanese person lives, breathes and sleeps the usually violent little comic books and animated movies.

They are popular, and millions are utterly obsessed by the ongoing storylines, but they are not Japan itself. As Crocodile Dundee is not Australia. As drunken English northerners in love with men who can kick balls real good smashing up Italian cafes is not England. As campus massacring psycho killers is not the United States.

Still, it's an interesting social phenomenon, anywhere in the world. Which is why it's here, on this increasingly un-updated blog (I'll try to keep it more regular).

What is it? An anime funeral of course, in the (semi) real world. Real mourners for the fictional death of a fictional character :

A lone temple bell tolled through the Tokyo night. Seven priests chanted the doom-laden lament for the dead. Thousands of black-suited mourners queued solemnly in the rain to offer incense and prayers to their fallen hero, Raoh.

As the tears rolled down the cheeks of the bereaved, few seemed bothered that nobody had actually died.

For although Raoh exists only in the fantasy world of manga comics and anime cartoons, the grief experienced by ordinary Japanese at his funeral yesterday was real.

“He was like a father figure to me,” Makoto Sounodai, a 21-year old Tokyo student, said. “I feel about him the way Westerners feel about Elvis.”

Roland Kelts, of Tokyo University, an expert on anime, described the scene at the Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin temple last night as “perhaps the most extreme blurring of reality and fantasy that Japanese pop culture has produced”. The full Buddhist shokonshiki, or spirit-rising ceremony, represented the first time that a Japanese temple had held a funeral for a fictional character.

As the arch villain of one of Japan’s best-loved — and most violent — comics, Raoh has as wide a fan base as any music or film star. “Raoh showed us the inner strength of men and showed that power can rule the world as effectively as love,” said a sobbing 38-year old fan who called himself Lina, after one of the characters in the story.

As the seating inside the temple overflowed, 2,500 mourners watched the hour-long ceremony on giant screens outside. Those with seats at the front, who included the cartoonists and voiceover actors involved in the series, fingered Buddhist juzurosaries as Raoh’s soul was “sent back to his native star”.

In Fist of the Northstar, a manga series that started in the 1980s, Raoh is a vast, merciless tyrant whose cruelty and thirst for power make him supreme in the futuristic, postapocalyptic wastelands. Raoh’s brother and hero of the series, Kenshiro, has struggled to defeat this despot for nearly three decades and, in the latest movie, succeeds.

Although the action in Fist of the Northstar involves severed limbs and blood-soaked executions, many admire the series for its complex plots and moral dilemmas. Keiko Tsurugai, 35, a mother of three, said that her love for the comics arose from the way they tackled the dichotomy of love and hatred between brothers.

Seeing as this event came ten days before the Japanese premier of a new film in the Raoh series, it should probably be thought of as a unique cultural event, and a stunningly effective international publicity coup.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Can I Have My Arm Back, Please?

Unfortunately, this crocodile had to be shot so that Taiwanese police could retrieve the arm of the veterinarian, who lost it while treating the massive reptile :

Dramatic television footage showed a police officer firing on the animal to wrest the severed limb from its jaws.

Chang Po-yu, 38, from the southern Kaohsiung city's Shou Shan Zoo, was injecting the sick crocodile with anaesthetic when it attacked him.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Can't Smoke In Your Local?

Build Your Own Pub

A property developer in Wales knew the all out smoking in public ban was coming. He loved nothing more than going to the pub, having a pint and lighting up a cigarette. He wasn't happy about the ban, so he built his own pub, big enough to sit 90 people, in his garden.

It's not open to the general public, but the locals in his village love it. They can smoke away without having to worry about being fined.

Go Here For The Full Story

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

India : Children Cheaper Than Buffalo

A sad, dehumanising story from the London Times about child slaves in India. Hard to believe that an animal is valued more highly, at least in commercial terms, than a child :

It is cheaper to buy a child than a buffalo in India, according to activists who marched on a summit of South Asian nations in Delhi yesterday to protest against human trafficking.

Most end up in bonded labour or working as prostitutes, the leaders of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) said as they escorted more than 200 children to the gates of the Indian Parliament to call for changes to legislation.

“While buffaloes may cost up to 15,000 rupees (£177), children are sold at prices between 500 and 2,000 rupees,” Bhuvan Ribhu, who conducted a study to be released later this year, said.

(Activists) claim that more than 50,000 Nepalese children and 40,000 Bangladeshi children are bought and sold across the border every year by scouts rounding up workers for farms, carpet factories, quarries and brothels.

Desperately poor parents frequently exchange their children for money, often as little as $5.

Some falsely believe that their children are being taken to work as domestic servants and will send money home. Few ever return. Others trade their sons and daughters to pay money lenders.

Up to 15 million children in India, most of them from low-caste families, could be enslaved to work off someone else’s debt, according to a Save the Children report published last month on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by Britain. The report also said that children account for a fifth of India’s workforce in sandstone quarries and nearly a third of sex workers.

India still has more than 12.6 million child workers aged 5 to 14. In Asia the estimated number is 122 million, according to the International Labour Organisation. India still has more than 12.6 million child workers aged 5 to 14, the largest number of any country in the world.

The Angel In The Vatican

A quite beautiful tourist photo from inside the Vatican has become one of the fastest e-mail distributed images in the world. No doubt you can see why.

It's hard to miss The Angel Of The Vatican, even if a close-up (below) reveals the remarkable image has been caused by light beams and reflections coming together to form a cherubic winged glowing vision. You can clearly see where a light beam curves around the surface of the pillar to form the shape of the 'angel's' head.

But don't let me spoil it for you. If you think it's an angel, well so be it.

The photos were taken by British tourist Andy Key and sourced from the
UK Daily Mail.

Read The Daily Mail Report On 'The Angel In The Vatican' Here