PR2 robot plays music

It’s not exactly talented just yet, but it’s a start:

Here are a couple of things this robot also does:

It’s not exactly fast yet (notice the “15x” in the video?)

Another one where acceleration is more clearly visible because of humans in the background:

Clearly, robotics is making progress, but that also makes the gap between robots and animals more humbling. The other day, a dog was running alongside me while I was biking, and I couldn’t help but admire the agility of the run: 30km/h in the bushes, downhill on slippery gravel, avoiding a multitude of obstacles with a large variety of strategy (run around, jump over it, …) all the while checking where I was…

The Singularity has already happened…

IEEE Spectrum has a special report about the Singularity, that point in our future where predictions fall apart because major technical changes make any extrapolation we may make based on today’s trends essentially obsolete. Even the New-York Times has an article, entitled The Future Is Now? Pretty Soon, at Least, which quickly brushes up some of the ideas.

The special issue in IEEE is more extensive. There are many interesting articles. In one of them, Ray Kurzweil, arguably the inventor of the concept of Singularity, debates with Neil Gershenfeld, and Vernor Vinge shares what he sees as the signs of the Singularity.

One important point, I believe, is that “there will be a singularity at time t” is a proposition that might depend on the time it’s being enunciated. It seems very likely to me that when you are in the middle of a singularity, you have no idea that it’s there. That’s why I am a bit wary of the use of a singular noun, the singularity, when I think really that there have been many singularities over the course of history.

How could someone from the middle-age, for example, predict the structure of a society after motorized personal transportation became not only possible, but mainstream and relatively cheap (I know, I know, gas prices…)? In other words, seen from the middle-age, the invention of the automobile or, even more so, the airplane, were singularities that might be predicted (e.g. by Leonardo da Vinci), but whose impact on society was really difficult to grasp. The same is true for remote communication, from the telephone to television to the Internet.

Now, one singularity is somewhat special, and it’s when we started building enhancements to our intelligence, and not just our physical abilities. That’s the very definition Vernor Vinge uses when he writes:

I think it’s likely that with technology we can in the fairly near future create or become creatures of more than human intelligence. Such a technological singularity would revolutionize our world, ushering in a posthuman epoch.

But that already happened. The first modest pocket calculators enabled computations so complex that they completely changed the course of engineering. Any engineer with a calculator has “more than human intelligence”, for he can compute faster than any human being without a calculator can. It’s only recently that we redefined intelligence to exclude the ability to perform computations, and the only reason we did that is because computers were so much better at it than we are.

So that’s my personal view on that question: the most important singularity, the one that Ray Kurzweil sees sometime in the future, has already happened, and we are right in the middle of seeing its effects.

Robotic Arm by Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen, of Segway fame (among other things), recently presented a breakthrough in bionics: a robotic arm that behaves almost as if it was real (the demo is about 2 minutes 15 into the video):

The fact that this guy worked so much on the interaction between human nervous systems and machines is a reason to hope that this is almost real. A lot of progress seems to have been made since last time I wrote about this topic.

Things that do not make sense

There is an interesting article on the New Scientist web site about 13 things that do not make sense. One of them I particularly like:

Madeleine Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

The reason I like it is that, if this report is true, this Madeleine Ennis is a courageous person, twice: once because she shows readiness to admit, both privately and publicly, that she was wrong. This commitment to truth even when you don’t like it is the key ingredient to make a real scientist. But Ennis is courageous once more because homeopathy has such a bad name that she simply cannot ignore the flak she is going to receive, irrespective of the quality of her work. Kudos to her.

Just hold your breath…

… and you might live longer. OK, I’m just slightly over-interpreting the contents of this article, which tells in substance that cells that were deprived from oxygen might not die from oxygen starvation (they apparently survive a few hours without oxygen), but kill themselves when oxygen comes back. According to the article, some mitochondria mechanism to fight cancer cannot tell the difference between lack of oxygen and cancer, or something like that.

Interestingly, this was “the way I knew things”, and when I talked about this with colleagues here, they seemed to agree. Is it possible that this would be old news for European or French emergency response teams, and a recent discovery or something still under debate in the US? If you know the answer, please post a comment.