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Archive for the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ Category

Post by Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

Why are scientists less popular than artists? Take Mozart and Doppler, for example, both born in Salzburg. Mozart’s music is remembered and loved centuries after he composed it. Although the Doppler effect led to the invention of radar and influences our lives every day, Doppler does not enjoy the same level of fame or popularity.

Even if you produce both art and science, the disparity is noticeable. Natalie Portman just won an Oscar for her acting in “Black Swan”. She also has a graduate degree in neuroscience and a research award from Intel. As an article in the New York Times noted, “You can be a scientist, but if you want your name in lights, you’d better play one on TV.” Few people are aware of her scientific achievements–and most who are heard about them after her Oscar.

We enjoy and appreciate art with our senses; sight, smell, hearing, and touch. It doesn’t require analysis, or comparison to some outside truth. Art has no defined boundary. But science can seem hard to appreciate without just this kind of analysis.

If we combine science with art, will the science be appreciated more? Will its essence become more memorable? Will it touch people’s hearts?

Science has been expressed through art many times. Many movies make use of science (Terminator or Iron Man), as do many video games (Half-life). Yet another place where science and technology are integrated with art is opera. “Death and the Powers” is the latest example. It was composed and directed by Tod Machover at MIT media lab, and the premiere is coming to Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre starting March 18th. The opera comes to Chicago’s Harris Theatre starting April 2nd.

“Death and the Powers” is centered on Simon Powers, an entrepreneur and a computer genius who gets tired of his life in the flesh, and wants to upload his “self” into purely digital form. He tries to find out what happens after his death: What is left behind? What can he control? By moving from one form of life to another he hopes to project himself into the future. Whether he is even still alive or not is a question. His wife, his daughter and his adopted son must come to terms with events, and decide whether they want to join him in his digital existence.

In addition to being about technology, the show also takes advantage of technology for its effects. Several robots transform into human form, reenacting the lives of the Powers family in order to learn more about humans and to understand death. The performance uses moving and flashing walls, and a chandelier whose strings seem to speak and respond to touches from a human performer.

The opera also uses something called disembodied performance system. This system allows an off-stage actor or singer to give compelling and rich performance on stage in a completely non-anthropomorphic form. The system uses a variety of sensors to collect the performer’s gestures, action, and voice, distilling the character’s essence at any moment. Light, projection, mechanical movement, and sound then recreate the performance on stage. So just as the play is about humans becoming part of a machine, it also takes advantage of the same phenomenon.  Simon really is inside the system.

The motive behind the opera is to use technology to tell a story about how humans relate to technology. You can see excerpts here.

When people watch “Death and the Powers,” will they appreciate the art, the science, or both?  And which will be remembered the longest?

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Where is technology driving us? On the one hand it is helping us talk to each other. Or perhaps it is taking over the world.

With the advent of wireless technology and remote controllers, our everyday life has been transformed in an amazing way. You can operate almost all electronics, anything from your television to your thermostat, remotely.  Now, integration of Artificial Intelligence with electronics means that you can drive your car without even touching it.

A team of research scientists led by Prof. Raul Rojas at the AutoNOMOS innovations lab of Freie University Berlin have developed an autonomous driving system called the “braindriver”. The car is controlled by the brain signals of the driver. The Electroencephalogram (EEG) was used to collect brain waves corresponding to normal driving functions, such as acceleration, braking, and turning. This information was fed into the software. The software then matches the real-time signals from the driver, as they think about where they want to go, with those stored from the software. It then executes the commands accordingly, with a slight time delay. You can see a video of the test drive at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

The car is equipped with cameras, lasers and sensors so that the software can work with a 360o view of its sorroundings.

While braindriver is far from ready for real life driving, advances are coming. With sufficient improvements, the braindriver will be a boon for those who aren’t physically capable of normal driving.

The real challenge is that the driver must have the utmost focus. Don’t be distracted by the attractive driver in the next car over, or by planning dinner! And texting while driving would be even more dangerous than it is already. If you get angry at a car that almost collided with yours, you may be the next dangerous driver.  I found this video very interesting that shows how the car can deal with you when you get angry while driving (sorry, you got ot listen to the commercial first, if you like to watch the video!). But then how big is the difference in signals between being angry and wanting to accelerate?

If the car gets into an accident, liability is a real issue. Who is responsible? Is it the software, the sensor, the driver or the car manufacturer? A lot of work will be needed to solve these puzzles. If nothing else, it will increase our understanding of the brain itself.

The same research group has previously tested I-phone as well as eye-gaze controlled driving. In a podcast recorded a few months ago, Professor Rojas and the Italian researcher Alberto Broggi, who is also working on autonomous driving, talk about their innovations and their future plans.

An autonomous taxi is another concept that the scientists have tested. With the touch of an I-phone, your car can pick you up, drive you home and park itself in its garage.  This could, theoretically, eliminate the need for personal cars. One technical barrier that still needs to be overcome is facilitating communication and coordination between the autonomous cars.

As a scientist, I am very excited by the technological breakthroughs that my fellow scientists have brought in through autonomous car and the braindriver . But I fear that the mankind will increasingly lead a solo life as the human interaction reduces.

– Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

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As we continue our focus on new technologies this week, it’s hard to overlook IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that stepped into the spotlight last week when it (or he?) defeated two of Jeopardy’s all-time winners (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) in a three-day battle.

Not surprisingly, Watson’s feat has stirred up a storm of emotions and strong opinions – while many people seem to be excited about the possibilities, others are still unimpressed or skeptical, or even terrified by false implications that machines are taking over (a la Skynet).

While having Watson compete on Jeopardy did serve as a great way to demonstrate his ability to comprehend natural human speech and word play, quickly search for and retrieve information, and make correct decisions based on confidence levels, the participation of a machine on a traditionally very human game show does make the whole thing a little creepy.  By giving a supercomputer a name such as “Watson,” an almost-human voice, and an avatar that constantly changes in a way analogous to human body language, IBM has forced us to pit man vs. machine.  In reality, shouldn’t we be thinking man plus machine?

Maybe this was his way of coming to terms with competing with a computer, but Brad Rutter seems to have the right mentality.  According to ABC News, Rutter’s view was that “Ken and I are representing humanity in this thing but, at the same time, Watson was developed, built, programmed by human beings.  So I think humanity wins no matter what happens.”

Jennings takes a slightly different approach, according to the Washington Post:  “Even when machines are doing more of our thinking and remembering for us, it’ll be more useful to have the wealth of information,” he said.  “To make informed decisions about anything in life, you need to have knowledge.  If you need a Google search, you’re still at a disadvantage.”

Although I think that Jennings may just have been a little bitter (he also expressed concern at having his “one real talent” stolen away by a machine), his comment makes some good sense.  I remember reading an article a few months ago about the dangers of externalizing knowledge, and how it’s becoming easier and easier to acquire knowledge these days, but at the expense of insight.  Might be something to think about.

My hope for Watson is that his “skills” are kept in the correct context.  Arguments such as “he has an advantage because he can buzz in faster” are really absurd, considering that the point is not the fact that Watson won on Jeopardy – it’s the fact that he could compete at a human level at all.  (I definitely missed this point at first – thanks to Alan Maas for that insight, among others!)

Let’s just think of this as an exhibition match for Watson and move on – I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in real applications, such as medicine, for example.  Jeopardy’s fun and all, but I think I’d rather watch humans compete – the thought of three spinning avatars wagering $1,246 on daily doubles is just weird.

And speaking of trivia, did you know that Sherlock Holmes never actually says “Elementary, my dear Watson” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books?

– Minna Krejci

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