Paralympics, Prosthetilympics or Cyberlympics? September 19, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
So, you were all been paying close attention to the Paralympics in London, right? They ended just over a week ago, but I thought a I’d follow-up on how Oscar Pistorius performed. As you should remember (since we mentioned it here and here and here), this year he was the first disabled athlete to compete in the “regular” or able-bodied Olympics using a prosthetic leg; he then went on to compete in the Paralympics, where he was already a multiple gold medal winner.
Given the global fascination with Pistorious, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by a news item suggesting that “Paralympians could soon outperform Olympians”:
“We’re already at the era where prosthetics can outstrip human performance,” said David James of the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University. “With the developments being made in things like powered knees and ankle joints, athletes will soon be flying down the track.
“It’s possible Paralympic athletes could one day run faster than Usain Bolt.”
Let’s assume that James means “flying down the track” metaphorically, not literally via some artificial wing implants. When I see this the question that comes to mind (via a frequent discussion in our STV 205 course) is this: at what point do prosthetic enhanced people become cyborgs? And will that mean a new Cyber-Olympics? A Cyberlympics, held every four years in the most high-tech cities of the world?
It’s not always an easy line to draw. For background, prosthesis are artificial body parts and there’s evidence people have been using them for thousands of years. The original definition of cyborg demands that the artificial component be a feedback device, as first applied to Rose the Rat in the 1950s. Rose was a rodent with an implanted osmotic pump driven by an artificial control feedback loop to deliver injections at a specific rate. She was described by the scientists who created her as a cyborg, shortened from cybernetic organism; the word cybernetics itself was borrowed from kybernetes, a Greek word meaning steersman or helmsman of a boat, a position which requires careful government and control. These days, the definition of cyborg is much looser. Some of my students have argued that a cyborg requires a permanent graft of an artificial body part, and many prefer it to be something high-tech. Glasses with corrective lenses don’t count, because we take them off at night and they’ve been around for centuries. The same goes for any prosthetic limb. They’re temporary and ancient. But something like Google Glass — glasses combined with a display screen, video camera and wireless networking that Google began prototyping this year — probably would count towards cyborg, even if the expectation is still that you would take those off now and then.
I think if we go back to Pistorious we get a better spot to draw the line. The sporting world’s worry with him was that his artificial legs provided an advantage over other athletes. That is, they worried the legs did more than normalize but enhanced his abilities beyond that of a normal human. His whole Olympic career hinged on the lack of enhancement: they don’t look like normal legs and they don’t even act like normal legs, but combined with the rest of his musculo-skeletal system there was no overall enhancement. And so, the Olympic able-body race was fair and he placed 16th.
Then, he attracted some controversy in the Paralympics after he lost the 200m race to Brazil’s Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira and complained that Oliveira’s blade legs were too long, giving him an unfair advantage. To quote the Guardian:
The twist in the story is that it is the very fact Pistorius wants to run in the Olympics and other able-bodied competitions that cost him here.
To do crossover like that, he can only run on blades that have been cleared for use by the IAAF, the sport’s governing body. Longer blades, of the kind Oliveira used, are only legal in Paralympic events.
If Pistorius switched, he would not be able to run in non-disabled competitions. Besides which, he would undermine his own argument that his success is about the body above the knee, rather than the technology below it. In a sense, he is a victim of his own ambition.
I don’t think the story is about undermining his own argument. I think the story is about the effort expended trying to normalize athletes, even Paralympic athletes who must conform to a series of rules and regulations regarding permissible technological aids. None of which permit enhancement, or unfair advantage. And that is where we find the line that demarcates prosthetics and cyborgs: enhanced abilities that exceed normal. A great deal of Pistorius’ complaint had to do with what he felt was a suspicious and abnormal leap in Oliveria’s abilities, which he attributed to the longer legs. For what’s worth, Pistorious did close out the Paralympics with a gold in the 400m race, though his time was still three seconds slower than the able-bodied equivalent (Pistorious would need a time machine to head for the 1930s before he could win in the 400m race).
Somehow I don’t think the Paralympians will ever exceed Olympians at their own game, if only because I’m a bit cynical and suspect the rules will be engineered (pun intended) to prevent that. Could a Cyber-Olympic substitute appear, with enhanced athletes, even the requisite flying ones? I have my doubts. Even there, it could never be a free-for-all, unlimited, anything-goes technological frenzy of super-normal abilities, because there can be no sport if there can be doubts about fairness. Faster, higher, stronger goes the motto, but that comes with an expectation of a normal baseline that all observers can see and judge just how much faster, higher and stronger. Without normal, there is no fairness; without fairness, there is no competition. And cyborgs aren’t normal (yet).
Faster than normal isn’t really normal July 26, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
In honour of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, I thought I’d try to take note of a few relevant stories from the games over the next few weeks.
First, I’ll note that the Oscar Pistorius, aka the “Blade Runner” qualified this year to run in the 400m dash event. Somehow, we’ve never discussed him on this blog, but Pistorius is something of a high-profile and controversial track athlete because he was born without any bones in his lower
legs. Shortly thereafter, his lower legs were amputed, and he walks on regular leg prosthetics and he runs on advanced carbon fiber prosthetics that look nothing like a human leg.
There are some interesting issues worth discussing here. The most obvious question most people ask is he gains an unfair biomechanical advantage. The science, as best as anyone can determine, suggests not, to the best of our limited understanding of the science of running. He might swing his lighter legs faster, but he has to push harder to maintain the same thrust as his competitors so it appears things even out with his prosthetics. And, it must be said, he only barely qualified in the event, as the last person added to the South African team; he only runs as fast as other 400m runners, not faster. These are prosthetics that bring him up to normal, not beyond.
If it wasn’t clear, we aren’t talking about Pistorius running in the Paralympics (although he did win gold in 100m, 200m, and 400m in the Beijing Summer Paralympics). In 2012 he qualifed for the, uh, “regular” or “normal” Olympics. This is what seems to be causing the controversy because no-one complained about his Paralympic presence, but could also be load of hogwash because an Olympic track athlete is not normal. They are just a few thousand people who were blessed with “unfair” genetics, or “unfair” social or economic advantages that allow them to train and compete at the highest levels around the world. That’s not normal. Almost by definition, they do things that normal people can’t: “faster, higher, stronger” is the Olympic motto, is it not?
The question I’d ask is faster, higher, stronger at what exactly? There is no 400m backward-hopping-on-one-leg race, for example. But why not? Each Summer and Winter Olympics sees some events added and others dropped, and for a variety of reasons the female events are not the same as the male events. In 2012, women’s boxing is new, and softball is out. Ultimately, each event at the Olympic games is a socially selected test of some arbitrary human ability. What’s normal actually changes from from time to time, and may, in time, come to include virtually any prosthetic.
In any case, pointing to his prosthetics hardly seems fair given other amateur sports have been employing high-tech devices for years to give themselves a known biomechanical or fluid-dynamic advantage. Remember when clap-skates were introduced? Or the full-body swimsuits? They both provided technological advantages to some athletes and not others. Not to mention the many professional athletes have had elective eye surgery to improve their visual acuity. I’d wager than Pistorius will be running next to athletes wearing a variety of expensive and optimally selected track shoes. No Olympic event, to my knowledge, takes place in a technology-free zone. Unlike the original Ancient Greek games, modern athletes do not compete nude.
Somehow, I doubt that Oscar Pistorius, aka “the fastest man with no legs”, will be the most controversial aspect of this years games.
From little blue men to brown shirts, in two easy steps! November 1, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV205, STV302 , comments closed
My children both love colouring pages, particularly if it is one of their favourite characters: little blue men (mostly men) about three-apples high, talking and fighting robots that “transform” into vehicles, fruit-themed dolls, race cars that talk and join international spy mysteries, and so on. Their favourite source for images to colour is our printer, or rather, the computer it’s plugged into and from there the world wide web. It’s surprisingly easy to find colouring pages with just a few keywords. So easy, in fact, that it can be disappointing and even baffling to them when Mom and Dad can’t find the exact, hoped-for image. Fortunately, when that happens, my children just move on and draw what they had in mind anyways, colouring as they go.
I couldn’t help but think of their colouring habits when I heard about the Origo, a 3-d printer intended for children:
In the promo video, the boy envisions a new toy, designs it on a computer, and out it pops from the printer. While the Origo is still a prototype, if 3-d printing (as we’ve discussed a few times here) came to kids, and I began to wonder how long it would take before entire websites sprang up to provide toys to download. As it turns out, such websites exist already. The things there are still fairly primitive: gears, and other simple devices are common. But how long until people can design (or 3d-scan) a Smurf, Transformer, Strawberry Shortcake, or Lightning McQueen that works in a 3d printer, and then starts sharing these designs online? As one blog puts it, “this could be last toy your child would ever need“.
I can only imagine the intellectual property hazards. Not that copyright violations or trademark infringements are an unknown problem in the 3d-printing world. Star Trek had replicators, and I’d be willing to be some Golden Age sci-fi writers already envisioned dozens of social, political and economic consequences to such technology, decades before it was even possible to print objects. What comes to my mind is the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of a boy who magics a broom into doing his work, then compounds his problem by making more brooms.
The moral of that story was to leave great magic to the master. And what that made me think of was a report a few months ago that 3d-printers were being used for ATM fraud:
In June, a federal court indicted four men from South Texas (PDF) whom authorities say had reinvested the profits from skimming scams to purchase a 3D printer. According to statements by the U.S. Secret Service, the gang’s leader, Jason Lall of Houston, was sent to prison for ATM fraud in 2009. Lall was instrumental in obtaining skimming devices, and the gang soon found themselves needing to procure their own skimmers. The trouble is, skimmer kits aren’t cheap: They range from $2,000 to more than $10,000 per kit.
Secret Service agents said in court records that on May 4, 2011, their undercover informer engaged in a secretly taped discussion with the ring’s members about a strategy for obtaining new skimmers. John Paz of Houston, one of the defendants, was allegedly the techie who built the skimming devices using a 3-D printer that the suspects purchased together. The Secret Service allege they have Paz on tape explaining the purchase of the expensive printer.
“When [Lall was] put in jail, we asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ and we had to figure it out and that’s when we came up with this unit,” Paz allegedly told the undercover officer.
Will stories like these leave 3d printing in some kind of licensing limbo to prevent these sorts of shenanigans? Will it come to pass that every 3d printer is given individual serial numbers and registered by a central authority, akin to the registration of typewriters to the KGB during the Cold War? Many colour printers already output nearly invisible id codes, to prevent (or at least trace) bank note fraud. Of course, the dream of some 3d-printer hobbyists is a printer that can print itself, so there could be a mighty-big loop hole to that plan (keeping in mind the lessons of Ken Thompson, and his famous Turing Award Lecture: “Reflections on Trusting Trust“, which is probably a topic for another blog item).
To say nothing of kids growing up in a world where it is increasingly possible and commonplace to imagine and create all in one go, or, perhaps more dangerously: wish, download and create all in one go. Instead of Origo, maybe they should have called it “Santa’s Workshop”…
If Rubik’s is right, do you ever want to be wrong? October 19, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
When the chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, the IBM chess computer, in 1997, someone had to move the pieces for the computer.
Fourteen years later, watch as a Lego-Smartphone hybrid solves a Rubiks cube faster than the human record of 5.66 seconds, without a human moving the pieces:
Note that a normal Rubik’s speedcubing contest, the participant is allowed to study the cube for some time before they solve it, and can map out a strategy in advance of turning a side. This contraption does both in only 5.352 seconds. Undeniably impressive, and it seems unlikely that humans will ever reclaim the title of world’s fastest solution of Rubik’s cube. From now on, for that competition there must be two classes: machines and humans.
Traditionally, the response to such machine triumphs goes something like this
“Gah! The computer robot overlords are here and we’ll all be out of a job soon.”
“Don’t worry! These are specialized technologies with limited external applications, so jobs are still pretty safe.”
An odd coincidence then that an intriguing report appeared in the Globe and Mail today, pointing out that:
For decades, American workers and their machines advanced in tandem. As companies invested in technology, more workers were needed to operate machines.
That relationship is now looking unsteady.
Since 1999, business investment in equipment and software has surged 33 per cent while the total number of people employed by private firms has changed little.
Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics and an astute observer of the relationship between humans and machines, observed over 50 years ago that if machines were not integrated well into society, then they had the power to eliminate blue-collar, manual labour as much as white-collar, intellectual labour. And though there was quite a bit of fear of computers in the post-war decades, that fear gradually dwindled as it became clear that computers were not (yet) replacing humans and most people grew quite comfortable using them.
But how about today and for the future?
Clearly, a world-record setting Rubik’s cube solving Lego robot is not the sign of the Singularity (when Artificial Intelligence will supplant human intelligence). It’s a fairly straightforward, if also extremely clever, application of known Rubik’s cube algorithms and the servo motors from a toy. Tinkering at its best.
But I wonder if it is somehow symbolic of something else. This is, after all, a machine designed to restore “perfection”. Notice how in the video that the inventor has the randomize the cube first. Humans make the mistakes, and the machines clean them up. Humans that make mistakes are imperfect; humans are imperfect. It fits within a certain kind of dread some people share, that living in a machine age compels this kind of perspective and orientation towards the world, and that we must orient ourselves towards the needs and requirements of machinery. As George Grant said, “Technology is the metaphysics of the age, it is the way being appears to us.”
That a machine can solve a Rubik’s cube faster than a human really shouldn’t impress us. I’d be disappointed if it couldn’t. I think I’d be more impressed with a Rubik’s solving machine that did it the same way a human would: haltingly, tentatively, one side at a time, until giving up and leaving it on the shelf for a few years before trying again. Without the inevitable perfection, and happy getting just one or two colours done.
Which brings me back to another IBM supercomputer: Watson, the trivia master that won on Jeopardy earlier this year. It did need special circuitry to bypass the hand-held buzzer, but least it wasn’t always perfect. Indeed, it was, occasionally and amusingly, spectacularly wrong.
Ethical drones? April 1, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV205, STV302 , comments closed
A recent article in The Economist notes one response to the continuing controversy over the use of drones for attack and assassination by the US military and CIA: The drone could be programmed to think for itself on the ethics of its missions.
The software conscience that Dr Arkin and his colleagues have developed is called the Ethical Architecture. Its judgment may be better than a human’s because it operates so fast and knows so much. And—like a human but unlike most machines—it can learn.
After each strike the drone would be updated with information about the actual destruction caused. It would note any damage to nearby buildings and would subsequently receive information from other sources, such as soldiers in the area, fixed cameras on the ground and other aircraft. Using this information, it could compare the level of destruction it expected with what actually happened. If it did more damage than expected—for example, if a nearby cemetery or mosque was harmed by an attack on a suspected terrorist safe house—then it could use this information to restrict its choice of weapon in future engagements. It could also pass the information to other drones.
The Ethical Architecture seems to involve a limited form of utilitarian calculus, weighing benefits against harms to reach a decision. The harms and benefits considered are those more easily and immediately observed and quantified, e.g., the number of casualties and damage to infrastructure. Less tangible considerations, like fairness or resentment, will likely not be factored in. Hopefully, the operators of the drones will understand the limitations of the Ethical Architecture and not concede ethical deliberations to them.
I should point out, too, that military drones are not the only place where ethical software might soon be deployed. Consider the increasing deployment of automated driving features in cars, for example. As computers in our cars take over more and more of the tasks of driving, they will have to make more of the decisions. A collision avoidance system, for instance, may have to decide who lives and who does not when a sudden collision becomes unavoidable and the only variable left to consider is how it will occur.
Saving a finger… March 18, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV205 , comments closed
Assuming nobody minds a personal aside, one of my hobbies is woodworking. For the moment, this involves a bit of wood carving, which requires simple hand-held tools, and remains a quiet, clean (aside from the mountains of wood chips and shavings), and relatively safe past-time. With even the sharpest of gouges, the biggest safety risk is nicked fingers. These can be fixed with bandages or, at worst, stitches. However, one of my ambitions is to expand my activities and move into wood working proper, which generally requires a table saw.
The table saw market includes hobbyists, the do-it-yourself handyman, contractors, and professional cabinet makers; there are at least a dozen major brands, and the prices range from a hundred dollars or less to many thousands of dollars. Somewhere in the middle is the SawStop, a unique product that is designed to stop the spinning blade within a few milliseconds of contact with human skin. Thus, a nicked finger (or hotdog, as employed in their demonstrations) instead of potential amputation for the careless, accident-prone or unlucky.
CSTV is not in the business of advertising or promoting products, so why bring this up? Because of a recent trial in Boston:
A Boston jury has awarded $1.5 million to a Malden man who injured his fingers on a saw while installing oak wood flooring several years ago in a first of its kind case that claimed the standard design of American table saws is defective.
Carlos Osorio accused One World Technologies Inc., maker of Ryobi saws, of negligence for failing to include a flesh detection technology that would prevent most serious injuries, according to a copy of the complaint filed in 2006 in US District Court in Boston.
This is not an isloated incident. There are, apparently, 60 such lawsuits in the United States right now.
I had two reactions to this news. First, the intellectual property aspect is intriguing. SawStop was initially a patented braking device that the inventors hoped to sell as a safety feature to other table saw manufacturers, who had expressed interest but eventually rejected the idea. Undaunted, the inventors produced their own line of table saws, in the mid- to high-end range. Now, however, there a possibility that their patented product will become a regulated one, required on all table saws, and I’m curious about precedence. Air bags and seatbelts for cars were patented by their various inventors, but to my knowledge regulations requiring these devices were only passed after the patents expired. Should SawStop be compelled to license their patent to all manufacturers? Who should set the licensing fee?
The second thing I thought of was if this changes a power tool into a power machine, and the consequences of that transformation. One question I pose to my students in STV205 is the distinction between tools and machines. Some students feel it’s a matter of mechanical complexity, or of size, or of the number of people involved. I present another view: that it’s where the intelligence lies. To use a tool properly requires experience, hand-eye coordination, training, skill, perhaps strength or endurance, plus judgment and wisdom; to use a machine may require some of these, but machines are also embedded with the necessary experience, skills and strength, to remove these qualities and decisions from the user. It may require different skills or experience, but there is no doubt that machines also remove the need for some as well.
How will this affect the safety of a table saw that can no longer (presumably) remove a finger? Will users grow complacent about kickback, another dangerous risk of table saws? Will they become too casual around other power tools? How much safety should be built into a tool if it takes away from the understanding required to use it?
It reminds me of Edward Tenner’s arguments in Why Things Bite Back, in which he describes a increase in sports injuries brought on by an increase in the use of padding and head protection. Though intended to increase safety and reduce injuries, the unintended consequence has been an increase in violence and chronic injury, unless also accompanied by a rise in “care, maintenance and vigilance” that people did not expect.
MakerBot and darning genes: bringing high-tech to the people March 16, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV203, STV205, STV302 , comments closed
Although CSTV is an interdisciplinary program and we accept students from every faculty at UW, it is located in the Faculty of Engineering, both bureaucratically and geographically. In fact, our offices in the E3 extension are next to a mechatronics undergraduate lab, a nanotechnology lab, and a rapid prototyping lab. Although living next to an undergrad lab can be noisy, the upside is watching student projects scuttle down the hallway (I’m told they’re currently working a fire-fighting robot; let’s hope things stay where they’re supposed to).
Teleportation has been an enduring dream of science fiction. We’re nowhere near the ”Beam me up, Scotty” stage, but there are already hints of teleportation today…
Transmission of the information necessary to reconstruct an object is not a problem; what we need are 3-D scanners and printers. I’m not sure there are any 3-D scanners, but there is a fascinating open-source effort going on now to develop a 3-D printer, called the MakerBot. The MakerBot works like a computer-controlled hot-glue gun, squirting melted plastic onto a platform moved by stepper motors. Under software control, it can reproduce plastic objects up to about the size of a small milk bottle.
The MakerBot project is a fascinating one, in that hobbyists are blazing their own trail in a field that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive or limited to corporate or university laboratories. One recursive dream of some hobbyists is the day when one MakerBot can build another MakerBot, further distributing the means of production in the hands of the masses. If the raw materials were cheap enough, what kind of revolution might this spark if everyone could have their own 3D printer on their desktop?
In many ways, this resembles the 1970s when microcomputing hobbyists started building their own personal computers at home. This was driven by the availability of relatively cheap microprocessors from Intel, but also a movement to make computers more personal and to bring them outside of corporations and universities directly into the hands of “the people”, as envisioned by Stewart Brand and ultimately implemented by inventors and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. The costs of computing came down, the number of people with access to computers increased as did the opportunities for creativity and innovation.
The MakerBot is not the only example of an area where hobbyists are pushing ahead. Genetic engineering in your basement isn’t out of the question anymore, as the cost of decoding the genome continues to fall and the scope of synthetic biology grows and reshapes the biotech industry, and perhaps the rest of the world. There may even been some overlap for these hobbyists. One of the more intriguing MakerBot templates is the DremelFuge, an incredibly cheap centrifuge for molecular separation. According to the designer current models should spin down bacteria; future models should be comparable to some high-end commercial products.