Monday, September 29, 2014

Horror Stories of the Postmodern Age

This past summer, I worked on a research project here at Stevens. I worked from 9 to 4 every weekday, and with the lack of homework or other obligations, I ended up with a lot of free time. What did I do with this free time? For the most part, I read. I tried out a couple of genres, but always found myself drawn back to 19th century horror stories.

There's something special about monster stories in that time period. The 19th century seemed to have the self-imposed isolation of today's society, but without the technological advances. There always seemed to be a sense of "community" in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it isn't really until the 19th century that one starts imagining people wanting to be left alone. Even though I'm sure there were, it's hard to imagine bums living on the street before then. Everyone seemed to have their own nice little cottage in the 1700s.

This is what I find so appealing about the horror stories of that time period - it was no longer uncommon for people to wander the streets alone at night, seemingly asking for a werewolf or a vampire to attack them. Soon, the newspapers would be printing, "Mysterious Attacker Drains Victim's Blood," and you've got the makings of a solid horror/detective story right there.

"But Dan," you may be asking, "this is a computers and society blog!"

That it is, and that's my problem with today's horror stories. Computers. Technology. In the 1800s, if you were attacked and were being chased, you were lucky if a bum heard your screams through his drunken haze. Nowadays, everyone has cell phones, ready to call for help at a moment's notice. You can't imagine how much I long for a story where the victim helplessly cries out in their final moments, and no one even knows they're gone, at least for a while. With today's technology, there'd be amber alerts and missing person searches as soon as someone doesn't answer their texts for a couple of hours.

But that isn't my only problem with today's horror stories - there are so few new ideas. Everything's some rehash of a vampire, or a werewolf, or, most often, a zombie. I just finished reading Aileen Erin's Becoming Alpha, and while it's a great book, it essentially embodies today's horror stories: everyone's trying to be postmodern, and almost satirical about it.

Back when the first stories were being written, nobody had any idea what a werewolf or a vampire was. When a character started turning into a werewolf, all they knew was that they were losing control and becoming increasingly furry. In Becoming Alpha, when the main character is turned into a werewolf, she turns to her fellow werewolves and asks how much of their abilities are shared with those of movie werewolves.

Granted, I realize there's not much more space to be covered, but I really feel like we need a new kind of monster. Everything's been done so much that even the writers seem like they're getting tired of it. We need a new Jekyll and Hyde, or Frankenstein, or Dracula, or even something like Dorian Grey. The closest we've come to a new kind of monster is a sentient computer turning evil, and even that's getting old, with the Terminator and HAL 9000 effectively dominating that territory.

Who knows, maybe a monster that emits electromagnetic waves that disable your cell phone so you can't call for help? Or is that maybe a little too scary?

3.62 * 10^2159 articles

As a socialist who babbles constantly about the exponential returns (both monetary and political) of increased capital, I find myself in a state of horrified fascination with the idea of a company literally trying to own all possible creative capital, as Quentis Corporation is currently trying to do.  Quentis is attempting to use distributed computing to generate and copyright all possible combinations of text, graphics, and music.  I'm going to proceed with a thought experiment based on a world where this is actually feasible, which it is (for various reasons) absolutely not.  The technology doesn't exist, copyright law doesn't work that way, and despite their claims of progress, Quentis can only reasonably be a scam or a parody.

Despite all the reasons Quentis can't succeed in what they claim to be their goal, the fact that they or their investors would try to speaks volumes to the environment we live in.  Clearly, businesses and wealthy investors merely see human capital as an unfortunate expense standing between them and maximized profit margins.  There's a terrifying possibility, with the rise of automation and the exponential growth of computing power, that the economy will swing drastically in favor of physical (or digital) capital over the next few centuries.  While I don't believe we'll ever reach 100% automation, the idea that someone's trying to replace even artists and musicians with machines is proof that corporations likely would employ 100% automation if they could.

Now, the unfortunate reality is that more ridiculous ideas have been entertained and upheld in court.  Despite the fact that US and many other nations intellectual property laws require some minimum level of human creativity to justify copyrights, the people involved in Quentis are not the type of people who mess around.  Quentis undoubtedly has lots of high profile investors with big bankrolls and powerful lawyers, and people like that can get away with a lot.  I do believe Quentis is pushing the boundary a bit too much for our current political climate to handle, but it draws attention to the attitude of big business people, who believe that their money makes them above everyone else.  While I am a fervent supporter of intellectual property laws, this is a sign that we may need to modify our approach to IP.

Given all this, I am glad I can confidently say that this isn't the end of art or artists, and that Quentis won't nearly accomplish what it is trying to do.  Fifteen years ago, the popular cartoon Futurama joked about Quentis' premise, claiming that in the year 3001, "the only names not yet trademarked are 'Popplers' and 'Zittzers'."  This is of course, absurd, since there are an uncountably infinite number of conceivable names, even if you restrict the idea to only pronounceable names.  However, Quentis claims it can effectively do just that, by using n-grams and other algorithms to create all possible meaningful texts under 400 words, and it wants to try similar methods with images and music.  Anything over that length will have to take excerpts, and Quentis will presumably try to profit off of that, too.  Even this basic approach won't work; just getting the English text alone would require tens of googols worth of permutations.  Creating "every possible image" would be a beast unto itself.  The most likely goal to achieve is to copyright all musical riffs (since there are really only 13 recognized pitches, and US courts are willing to protect relatively short segments).

Regardless of how this works out in the courts, there will always be workarounds.  Writers may make up new words, or vary their sentence structure in a way we've never thought of before.  Or, since there is a statute of limitations beyond which works enter the public domain, this may just have the inadvertent effect of ending intellectual property laws altogether.  There's actually something poetic about that: intellectual property trolls becoming so pervasive as to destroy the very system that allows them to thrive.

Government's Grasp on Social Media


            Social Media has always been a powerful tool. With the power to spread information and news in the matter of seconds, it can be a dangerous platform to governments and society. That is why some governments have opted to limit and censor social media in their country. With many of them opting to limit access to the biggest social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, they have decided to limit the freedom of their citizens. What we take for granted in America is limited and it demonstrates the power that other governments have on their citizens. But to understand their decisions we have to look into the actions that these governments are trying to limit.
            Ruling with an Iron Fist, North Korea has been in the forefront in limiting citizen’s rights. Even though North Korea has access to the Internet, many citizens are not able to access it or are too scared to use it. Even the graduate students and professors in North Korea’s Universities frightened to use the internet because of the backlash that comes from the government. The dictatorship rule over North Korea is the modern interpretation of the society that was ruled by the totalitarianism government in 1984 and it is really scary to know that this exists. Yet, not all counties that limit access to social media are like this. Many countries block social media due to the government issues or controversial issues that appear on these sites. For example, Turkey and Iran have limited access to social media platforms before and after their Presidential elections. Due to the increased political tensions that happen during these elections they have decided to stop access to these sites. With the spread of videos that include violence and political corruption it is easy to see why these governments have stopped access to these sites. Yet, politicians and governments should place more emphasis on stopping these actions from happening in the first place. If they prevent these crimes from happening then they won’t have to limit access to Social Media sites. The ability to limit the communications of people will ultimately lead to disagreements between the state and the government and that will lead to more violence between the two.
            This leads into the case of China’s limit on social media. Even though they have access to these sites since 2009 due to violent riots, they have violated the rights of another country and limited their communication. Ever since Sunday, Hong Kong has been struggling to protest against the Chinese’s government take-over of its city. With many students taking to the streets of Hong Kong they have been demonstrating against China’s decisions to limit their elections. These protests eventually led to violence between the police and demonstrators and soon China began to limit social media to Instagram as the protest escalates. This reveals how scared China is of this protest that is taking place in Hong Kong. The Chinese government should’ve taken more precaution to prevent this protest from happening because it will escalate to something bigger and more violent. Hopefully this doesn’t escalate and become the next Tiananmen Square Protest that has ended in the death of thousands of people which included many students. Governments like these should end their absolute rule over people and they should allow them to have more freedom to express their opinions. Without these basic rights that people deserve, many people will protest in peace and in violence against these governments and it will end with chaos and violence in many places.


Probably shouldn't take notes on a computer

I very strongly considered writing about cellphones and the problems the created in social relationships. Now, the only thing preventing me from writing about that is how it would most likely come across as very techno-phobic. Especially when I start talking about the fundamental purpose of a cellphone is terrible because the act giving someone your phone number tends to impress upon them that they have some measure of control over your time when they message or call you. So instead of that I am going to write a completely different rant about technology and why you should not use it to take notes.

Quick test before we move on. Grab your laptop, if you are not on it already, and pen and paper. Got it? Great. Open up some sort of text editor on your laptop (I recommend notepad since it is very bare bones), put your hands on the home row, and hammer on the 'j' key as many times you want. Done? Without counting the characters on screen write down how many times you typed the letter j. Now count up the amount of j's on screen. How close are you to the actual amount? Now take the pen and paper and write out the letter j until you feel like stopping. Write down how many times you think you wrote j and then compare to the actual amount. If you are like me the number you wrote down for the amount times you wrote j is a lot closer to the actual amount than the amount you thought you type out was to the actual amount.

Another experiment you can do that takes a bit more time is to take notes by hand for a chapter of a book you are reading and then take notes on another chapter on the computer. Wander off for an hour or so and come back. Which chapter do you remember the best? What were the important parts of the chapter? Did the way you take notes on each medium differ?

For a lot people, the written notes were probably the easiest to remember and provided a better view of the important points of the chapter. The written notes are probably the easiest to remember for a couple reasons.

One, writing usually takes a lot more time then typing does nowadays especially with computers being so prevalent in our daily life. I am a bad typist on a good day I probably hit only 40 words per minute on a good day and more than likely hover around about 20 words per minute on average. Even with my poor typing speed I could still probably type out this blog post faster than I could write it down. Writing and typing are not particularly hard, but writing out a paper seems a lot more difficult than typing it. This is because it takes a lot longer to write out the paper. Things that take a lot time seem difficult not because they are but because it presents the illusion of difficulty. Video games use this trick all the time, modern Zelda games are a good reference for this in particular. Boss has a big glowing weak point to damage it but you cannot hit it whenever you want. You have to wait for it to be vulnerable then you can attack and even though the boss only needs to be damaged a few times it will take a lot of time to defeat it. If you decide to replay the game, you will probably remember pretty clearly how to beat the boss because you spent a lot of time on it originally.

Two, the information is most likely more concise. When writing out notes, you are condensing information to what seems to be the most relevant or important details as well as a more chunked version of the information. Most people employ shortcuts when they write down notes so that they can keep up with the professor or just to speed up the note taking processor. So with becomes w/, and becomes &, etc. Not only are you thinking more about what details are being recorded but also about how you are presenting the data. When it comes to typing up notes as one reads or sits in lecture, most people end up typing the notes word for word as well as more notes in general. There is a lot less analysis done on the information itself in this case because there is a lot more information being absorbed. This leads to less pathways being formed in the brain about the information so it is more likely to stay in one's short term memory instead of moving into the long term memory.

Another reason for why it is easier to remember notes you write rather than typing is due the medium itself. When writing notes there is a lot less to potential for distraction as ostensibly the only thing to distract you while writing is the things happening directly around you which is minimize-able. On the computer, there are a lot more potential things to distract you from what you are working on at that moment. Here is a short list of things I have done while writing this blog post: checked my email, facebook, twitter, reddit, hacker news, facebook again, got message, etc. The list goes on for awhile and this just while I am trying to write the blog itself.

Taking notes on the computer might seem really convenient, and it can be, but for the most part there is a lot of inertia centered around it that make it bad for taking notes. Sure, you can take notes on your computer exactly the same way you would write them down but you would probably still not remember it as well if you were to write it down. In fact, there is study that looks into this [1][2]. Now I am not saying never to take notes on your laptop, but to be more mindful about when you are using your laptops to take notes in class. I personally learn and remember information a lot better and more clearly when I write out my notes on paper rather than typing them up; but I am not everyone and neither are you. So test it out, figure out which works better and think about why it does. If you do experience a big loss in information retention from one medium to another, consider switching mediums as it could improve how much you remember in class by quite a bit.

[1] If you happen to have a subscription, you can find the paper here

[2] If not, here is an article about it.

Robotics in Biomedicine

          Biomedical robotics seeks to solve the current shortcomings that exist within the medical field. Society constantly strives for new methods of aiding the physically and mentally impaired with new creations and ideas, revolutionizing the healthcare system and its capabilities. By reflecting on the achievements and shortcomings of past and present technologies, a prediction for future issues can be made, lowering the margin of error in not only testing, but also implementing the use of new technologies. Many experts anticipate the integration of robotics in medicine to revolutionize healthcare. Surgical robots that assist in expediting surgery and three dimensional organ printing are just a few or many achievements illustrating the potential of biomedical robotics. Further research is needed to fully implement such creations into practical procedures, but professionals anticipate their influence to lead biomedicine towards positive growth. 
          Professionals will be working with mechanical assistance, but there is a possibility that future professionals will be too heavily reliant on technology. There a possibility that the younger generation will grow to lack the basic skills that their presiders had, or even worse, their original focus. There is a possibility that humanity will gain too much control over naturally occurring phenomena, making the artificial indistinguishable from the natural. The development of soft tissue robotics, the integration of tissue and mechanical engineering, has the potential to create fully functioning limbs for victims of amputation or innate handicaps. The development is exciting and has the potential to give many patients more natural looking alternatives to standard prosthetics, but all in all may not be entirely necessary. Soft tissue robotics could potentially become more of a cosmetic procedure than a necessity for patients. The aesthetic that this project could provide would, for many, outweigh the functionality that a more efficient robotic limb would provide a patient with, simply because of the patient’s own negative body image. 
            While soft tissue robotics may not be entirely morally sound, that is not to say that it is not revolutionary. When thinking about robots the general consensus is that these structures are machines made of rigid metals or synthetic plastics. Harvard University Labs has recently launched a tool kit that allows consumers to build and operate soft robots, mechanisms with a flexible base material. The kit does not contain the basic parts necessary for building said structures, but it does delve into detail regarding how to build them. With this technology so easily accessible, it is clear that robotics in biomedicine is much further along than many could have anticipated.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Should Robots Be Used In War?

Artificial Intelligence has taken of since the start of the 2000’s.  With faster processors and computer power growing at alarmingly fast rates, the concept of robots being used more often is more achievable.  Of course, as is most technology, robots and artificial intelligence are inherently political.  Who will decide the multitude of moral questions these robots will have to face? A human will have to make a decision for all robots since robots cannot calculate decision like humans can.  Our ability to feel is what drives our decisions.  For example, one of the issues the UN plans to speak on this year is the use of robots in the military.  If a robot is programmed to kill, what is to stop it from taking out an entire country so that the robots manufacturer can win that war?  According to Isaac Asimov’s laws which were first introduced in 1942, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”.  How can we expect to use robots for military purposes but expect those robots to follow the three laws of robotics?  Eventually, war will be between robots of one country against the robots of another.  Seeing how much of a failure it is in terms of war to have robots killing robots, we would eventually resort to other means of fighting such as biological and nuclear weapons.  You are not winning a war if the only casualties are robotic ones.
            As of now, every piece of technology used, whether in the military or not, is monitored by another human.  According to David Akerson, a lawyer and member of the Internation Committee for robot Arms Control, “Right now everything we have is remotely controlled and there’s always a human in the loop…We’re heading the direction to give the decision to kill an algorithm” (Garling).  How can we trust a piece of technology to rely on an algorithm to kill a human being.  People say that because robots don’t have feelings of empathy, rage, revenge, etc. that they would be more reliable at killing.  I disagree.  I think every human life is different and no algorithm can decide whether or not someone should die.  Would an algorithm be able to read a person’s emotion and know whether or not to kill him/her or question him/her for information?  There are too many things to consider that no one algorithm can teach a hunk of metal whether to kill or not.
            I think that we should research robotics and artificial intelligence, but I do not think robots should ever be made to be used in the military.  I think to live a safe life, robots should be made to follow Asimov’s three laws of robotics (which are attached below).  These three laws may seem simple in theory, but to actually program a robot to understand and abide by these laws has proven to be on of the most complex problems in the field of artificial intelligence.

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Impact of Technology on Television

Technology has brought many advances into our lives and society. Take for instance television industry. Technology has helped revolutionized television. The way people watch and perceive television now compare to few decades back has totally changed due to technology.
In the past, television was very limited. Only few networks, shows, and movies were available. There was also a space restriction with where one could watch the TV. Look at now! The television industry has succumbed everyone with its unlimited options. There are so many more networks, shows, sports, and movies bombarding a viewer with unlimited options ranging from all sorts of genres. Television has indeed evolved! Technological advances such as faster transistors, chips, and displays have definitely helped shape the television industry. People can experience TV in such great HD quality – providing a great viewing experience. Internet, in my opinion has been the key factor in revolutionizing the television industry. Television was only a means to so called “entertainment” before. People would watch TV to get some relaxation or relieved stress from everything (work, chores, etc). Not anymore though! It is no longer restricted to space anymore. It is made available anywhere and everywhere thanks to the Internet. People do not need to be sitting home in their living room in order to enjoy TV. They can enjoy it anywhere they like thanks to computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.
Television is a part of life for everyone. Everyone is hooked into shows nowadays. Some people get so absorbed in them that they repeatedly watch an episode over and over again that special term is created for those – binge watching! So many people spend time just by absorbing themselves into these shows. There are so many varieties, such cleverly written stories out there that it is impossible to resist them. Social media here becomes the key factor in spreading the news and making something go viral that everyone gets dragged into it. It creates a peer pressure for teens, adults, etc. It has become a social norm - conversation starter and much more. For some, these shows become addiction. All they can think of is about watching these shows. They can’t separate themselves from them and waste all their valuable time.In addition, recent Internet networks such as Netflix have took this even far - allowing access to these shows and movies anywhere, anytime. How can one not get absorbed in them?
Shows aren’t the only thing television provides. Sports are another huge thing. There are so many sports as well. Sports are even more popular than shows in America. People spend time following (watching or keeping up with their games online through stats), talking, arguing, betting about their teams and much more. Sports is like a religion in America. Every other person is watching them.
So many of us (including myself) are absorbed into the television (shows, sports, etc) that we waste so much of our time. While writing this, I realized how much of my valuable time I have wasted on watching sports, shows, and movies. I understand that some sort of “entertainment” is required to relieve our stress. How much of it is needed to relax though or how much fun do we need through television? Why can’t we control ourselves with the excessive use? Think about how much more productive we become if we could only control the “how much” part of the television.