Monday, September 12, 2011

Mind-controlled robots, the Supreme Court on GPS, Wii without a wand, and computers that write

A small avalanche of PAIT-related articles buried me this weekend; let me see whether I can dig my way out.
  • Disabled Patients Mind-Meld With Robots by Sara Reardon (ScienceNOW, September 6, 2011) - Using Skype and wearing "a cap of tiny electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes," two people "whose lower bodies were paralyzed and who had been bed bound for 6 or 7 years" controlled the movements of a modified commercial robot - Robotino -100 kilometers away. They used only their brain waves - no moving eyes, no twitching fingers. The paralyzed subjects had been trained for 1 hour a week for 6 weeks. The system had been tested earlier with non-paralyzed people, and the paralyzed subjects "performed just as well as the healthy subjects." Think of what this would mean to paralyzed people and their friends and families - it would be a miracle.

    My enthusiasm is, of course, always tempered by caution. The Hollywood version would have someone hack the system and take control of the robot to frame a paralyzed person for murder. My real concern, though, is accessibility. There's no mention in the article how much this rig would cost, and the manufacturer of Robotino, Festo Didactic, lists all of the prices associated with Robotino as "on request." I fear this is an instance of "if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it."

  • Court Case Asks if ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS by Adam Liptak (New York Times, September 10, 2011) - At least three federal judges have compared the use of global positioning system (GPS) devices by police to George Orwell's novel, 1984. In November, the Supreme Count "will address a question that has divided the lower courts: Do the police need a warrant to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and track its movements for weeks at a time?"

    The answer seems obvious to me (hint: it begins with a "y"), but with the current court I'm not making any bets.

  • Remote Control, With a Wave of a Hand by Anne Eisenberg (New York Times, September 10, 2011) - "Scientists at Microsoft Research and the University of Washington have come up with a new system that uses the human body as an antenna. The technology could one day be used to turn on lights, buy a ticket at a train station kiosk, or interact with a world of other computer applications. And no elaborate instruments would be required." No need for a Wii wand or the Kinect's cameras that track motion.

    Nothing is said about whether this technology could be used to identify and track specific individuals (is your repertoire of everyday gestures as distinctive as your face or fingerprints?).

  • In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column, allegedly by Steve Lohr (New York Times, September 10, 2011) - I had heard some time ago about the effort to make computers write newspaper-style sports articles based solely on the statistics of the game. That such writing would soon be indistinguishable from prose written by a human sports writer I did not doubt. The time seems to be near.

    Somehow I can't get excited by this one.
Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

2 comments:

Ken Pimple said...

See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/protect-our-right-to-anonymity.html for an editorial on the Supreme Court taking on GPS. The author is Jeffrey Rosen (New York Times, September 12, 2011, "Protect Our Right to Anonymity").

Ken Pimple said...

See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/books/review/do-androids-dream-of-electric-authors.html for a critique of robots-as-authors.