Science, technology & design

Artificial Lovers

If people can fall in love with rabbits why not robots? This question isn’t as silly as it sounds. The debate about whether we could – or should – fall in love with machines will become increasingly common in the future as computing and robotics move into unchartered areas. Take cats and dogs. There is little evidence of an inner consciousness in these animals but our attitudes and behaviours (and, critically, our relationships) with them is as though they have these attributes. Equally, some men have relationships with women that pretend to be in love when they are not and some women use machine sex as a substitute for real sex, so why is it so difficult to imagine a world in which people fall in love with bits of metal, plastic and silicon chips?Of course the future, as usual, is already here. In the US you can by a life-size and frightening realistic love doll from websites such as (please don’t do this is the office), while in Japan, home of all things robotic and futuristic, you can buy an artificial lover from the Honey Dolls website whose breasts are connected to electronic sensors so that when they are touched the doll 'communicates'. Of course you can take this even further. In Japan you can hire a ‘Dutch wife’ (doll) through an escort agency, while in Korea some ‘love hotels’ offer rooms with a doll included in the nightly rate.

Ridiculous? Of course. But there is already an enormous number of lonely (and in some cases weird) individuals out there for whom a sexbot would bring considerable pleasure. And remember, the ‘adult entertainment’ industry is worth about US$57 billion annually so there are market forces (and R&D dollars) at play in terms of vested interests and the desire to grow the market.This isn’t just my view; it’s also the view of 65-year-old David Levy, who is widely regarded as the godfather of artificial intelligence (AI) in Britain. His argument is not only that such machines will become increasingly common in the future (thanks to increasing computer power and other technological developments) but that one day – perhaps by the year 2050 – people will regularly have relationships with robots and even end up, in some cases, marrying them.

Putting aside the rather gigantic social and moral dimensions attached to this issue, the idea is quite plausible. For example, some men already develop deep emotional attachments to machines such as automobiles and these, futuristically speaking, are very basic forms of technology. Add the ability to smell, touch and talk and things could get very interesting (and weird) indeed. Furthermore, if something gives someone pleasure is it really a problem if that something is a thing? Music gives most people pleasure but most of the time our interface with music is through a machine made of plastic, metal and computer chips. The same is true with television, cinema and a whole host of other media and entertainment formats.Or how about live music? Surely that’s different? Perhaps not. What if you attended a concert at the Sydney Opera House but were asked to wear a blindfold? (They’d tell you it was an experimental art evening or something.) The performance you experience is fantastic but after the event you remove your blindfold only to see that the performer was actually a little black box. Would that in any way diminish your experience?
Ref: Sunday Times (UK), 30 March 2008, ‘On baby, you sexbots make the earth move for humans’, B. Appleyard. See also Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships by David Levy and The Second Self by Sherry Turkle.
Search words: Love, emotion, robots, robotics, sex
Trend tags: Robotics
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We Know Who You Are

Following on from news that Chinese authorities are using facial-recognition cameras to compare faces with car registration details (to see who is crossing borders and whether the driver of the vehicle is who it’s supposed to be), comes news from Japan that a number of manufacturers (notably NEC and Mitsubishi Electric) are developing technologies that will revolutionise retailing, point-of-sale and sales promotion. Generally speaking, all these new systems use face-recognition software to glean information from shoppers with or without their consent.For example, cameras can tell the gender and approximate age of individuals looking through a store window or web page and personalise what’s shown or said based upon this information. Gender analysis is 90% accurate while age prediction is 70% accurate. The idea is that information extracted from what customers look like can be used to change store layout or to understand why people enter a store without buying. The most obvious use for this technology is advertising. If a twenty-something Japanese ‘salary man’ walks past a window, an ad for a local fish restaurant could be screened whereas if the window recognises three women in their forties it might display an ad for a nearby Italian restaurant. Is this the future? Clearly there are gigantic problems inherent with these technologies. It can easily be argued that this is a gross invasion of privacy, especially if faces are ‘saved’ on a server. Also, what’s next? Will computers make predictions about people’s income and propensity to buy based on haircuts, shoes or what clothes they are wearing? Or how about if such information (together with real time location data) is sold to other retailers and individuals are constantly bombarded with personalised messages on walls and windows or via their own mobile phones?
Ref: Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 29 October 2007, ‘How old is that face in the window?’ J. Hayakawa and T. Yamaguchi.
Search words: Face recognition, prediction, locational marketing, now marketing
Trend tags: AI
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Suspended Belief

A common story line in science fiction novels is the individual put into a state of suspended animation for the long trip back home from Planet Xeros in the Alpha system. The human metabolism is slowed down to reduce the need for food, air and water. Crazy? Not at all. Animals do it all the time back on Earth. The Arctic ground squirrel can survive body temperatures as low as 27 degrees F and the wood frog turns into a partially-frozen frogsicle during its winter hibernation.So perhaps, in the future, we’ll be able to do it too. It’s certainly one way of passing the time or losing a bit of weight. In the popular cartoon series South Park, Cartman froze himself to bypass the wait for a new Nintendo Wii but overcooked it and ended up sleeping for 500 years. The serious point here is that if we could induce hibernation in humans, the critical-care benefits in areas such as car accidents or cardiac arrest could be enormous. Currently, according to one study, only 30% of patients survive cardiac arrest in hospital. Outside hospital the figure is as low as 5%. One pioneer of research in this area is Mark Roth at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle (US). His work is at a very early stage but he strongly believes that it will one day be possible to develop treatments that extend current survival limits for trauma victims through the use of induced hibernation or deep cooling. His research is being funded by the US Pentagon.
Ref: Forbes Asia (US), 11 February 2008, ‘Suspended animation’, R. Langreth.
Search words: Hibernation, freezing, cooling, suspended animation
Trend tags: Sleep
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Science & Technology Trends

New science and technologies often disappoint but occasionally the reality lives up to the early hype. Scientific American magazine recently uncovered what it thought were a few candidates for such optimism. The list of new machines, chemicals and scientific ideas included:
- Synthetic biology
- WiTricity (wireless power or the ‘broadcasting’ of electricity through the air),
- Genetically-engineered mosquitoes that cannot transmit disease
- Self-healing plastics
- Three-dimensional printers
- Better bionic limbs
- Intelligent route finders (the merger of transport and communications networks)
Ref: Scientific American (US), January 2008, ’50 Trends’,
Search words: Technology trends
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Information Technology Trends

A broad sweep of Australian IT experts at the beginning of the year revealed the following trends in no particular order: I have no idea what some of these are either.

- Green ITC
- Storage as a service
- Software as a service
- Gesture computing
- ITC in education
- ITC modernisation
- Infrastructure and contract flexibility
- Middleware consulting
- Risk aversion in ITC investments
- Data encryption
- Skills shortages
- Clean Tech
- Virtualisation
- Web 2.0 and other collaborative tools
- E-records in Healthcare
- Online business intelligence (especially video and audio)
- Ultra-mobile devices
Ref: The Australian (Aus), IT Business, ‘Predictions 2008’. S. Kennedy.
Search words: Lists, predictions, IT, ICT
Trend tags: -
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