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Comment: Re:So, a design failure then. (Score 1) 114

by hey! (#47921919) Attached to: Developing the First Law of Robotics

It depends on your design goals.

In Asimov's story universe, the Three Laws are so deeply embedded in robotics technology they can't be circumvented by subsequent designers -- not without throwing out all subsequent robotics technology developments and starting over again from scratch. That's one heck of a tall order. Complaining about a corner case in which the system doesn't work as you'd like after they achieved that seems like nitpicking.

We do know that *more* sophisticated robots can designed make more subtle ethical systems -- which is another sign of a robust fundamental design. The simplistic ethics is what subsequent designers get when they get "for free" when they use an off-the-shelf positronic brain to control a welding robot or bread-slicing machine.

Think of the basic positronic brain design as a design framework. One of the hallmarks of a robust framework is that easy things are easy and hard things are possible. By simply using the positronic framework the designers of the bread slicing machine don't have to figure out all the ways the machine might slice a person's fingers off. The framework takes care of that for them.

Comment: Re:The protruding lens was a mistake (Score 1) 175

by hey! (#47921441) Attached to: Apple Edits iPhone 6's Protruding Camera Out of Official Photos

I don't think you've really grasped Apple's design sensibility. Job one for the designers is to deliver a product that consumers want but can't get anywhere else.

The "camera bulge" may be a huge blunder, or it may be just a tempest in a teapot. The real test will be the user's reactions when they hold the device in their hand, or see it in another user's hand. If the reaction is "I want it", the designers have done their job. If it's "Holy cow, look at that camera bulge," then it's a screw-up.

The thinness thing hasn't been about practicality for a long, long time; certainly not since smartphones got thinner than 12mm or so. They always been practical things the could have given us other than thinness, but what they want you to do is pick up the phone and say, "Look how thin the made this!" The marketing value of that is that it signals that you've got the latest and greatest device. There's a limit of course, and maybe we're at it now. Otherwise we'll be carrying devices in ten years that look like big razor blades.

At some point in your life you'll probably have seen so many latest and greatest things that having the latest and greatest isn't important to you any longer. That's when know you've aged out of the demographic designers care about.

Comment: Re:Of course you use force control to run fast. (Score 2) 85

by Animats (#47920041) Attached to: MIT's Cheetah Robot Runs Untethered

Pardon my ignorant question, but how is it a problem to have traction control? Wouldn't it be enough to glue traction strips to the feet or something?

That's like wearing shoes with golf spikes all the time.

Traction control for feet does roughly the same thing as automotive traction control for cars. The basic idea is to keep the sideways force below the break-loose point. This is the down force on the wheel times the coefficient of friction.

For car wheels, the down force is mostly constant. For a legged robot, it changes throughout the ground contact phase So the side force has to be actively controlled and changed throughout the ground contact. It's also necessary to compensate for leg angle.

Legs have an additional option. If a leg has three joints, you can adjust the angle at which the contact force is applied. This is a big win on hills.

I used to work on this stuff in the mid-1990s, but nobody was interested in building legged robots back then. It could be used for animation, but it was overkill for games. I never expected that DARPA would spend $120 million on BigDog. Robotics projects in the 1990s were tiny.

Comment: Of course you use force control to run fast. (Score 5, Insightful) 85

by Animats (#47915427) Attached to: MIT's Cheetah Robot Runs Untethered

That article is written as if that crowd invented running using force control. Of course you use force control. Everybody in the field knows that by now. I patented that 20 years ago. The Scout II robot at McGill, developed by Prof. Martin Buehler, used that approach. Buehler went on to become the designer of BigDog, but never got much public credit for it and quit to work for iRobot.

The key to legged running in non-trivial situations is careful management of ground traction. Traction is first priority, then balance, then foot placement. Historically, everybody worried about foot placement first, but that turns out to be backwards. As soon as you get off flat surfaces with good traction, traction control dominates.

The next unsolved problem in that area is not going fast. It's starting, stopping, and turning fast. Most of the legged robots accelerate very slowly, and don't make abrupt high-speed turns. Big Dog starts by trotting in place, then extending the gait out. Starting fast, stopping fast, and turning fast are all facets of the same problem. You have to take one stride using completely different control algorithms than you use for normal locomotion. That's all I'm going to say about this for now.

Comment: Re:Where the pessimism comes from. (Score 4, Insightful) 171

by hey! (#47915329) Attached to: Sci-Fi Authors and Scientists Predict an Optimistic Future

I'd argue that we do try to write about the future, but the thing is: it's pretty damn hard to predict the future. ...
The problem is that if we look at history, we see it littered with disruptive technologies and events which veered us way off course from that mere extrapolation into something new.

I think you are entirely correct about the difficulty in predicting disruptive technologies. But there's an angle here I think you may not have considered: the possibility that just the cultural values and norms of the distant future might be so alien to us that readers wouldn't identify with future people or want to read about them and their problems.

Imagine a reader in 1940 reading a science fiction story which accurately predicted 2014. The idea that there would be women working who aren't just trolling for husbands would strike him as bizarre and not very credible. An openly transgendered character who wasn't immediately arrested or put into a mental hospital would be beyond belief.

Now send that story back another 100 years, to 1840. The idea that blacks should be treated equally and even supervise whites would be shocking. Go back to 1740. The irrelevance of the hereditary aristocracy would be difficult to accept. In 1640, the secularism of 2014 society and would be distasteful, and the relative lack of censorship would be seen as radical (Milton wouldn't publish his landmark essay Aereopagitica for another four years). Hop back to 1340. A society in which the majority of the population is not tied to the land would be viewed as chaos, positively diseased. But in seven years the BLack Death will arrive in Western Europe. Displaced serfs will wander the land, taking wage work for the first time in places where the find labor shortages. This is a shocking change that will resist all attempts at reversal.

This is all quite apart from the changes in values that have been forced upon us by scientific and technological advancement. The ethical issues discussed in a modern text on medical ethics would probably have frozen Edgar Allen Poe's blood.

I think it's just as hard to predict how the values and norms of society will change in five hundred years as it is to accurately predict future technology. My guess is that while we'd find things to admire in that future society, overall we would find it disturbing, possibly even evil according to our values. I say this not out of pessimism, but out my observation that we're historically parochial. We think implicitly like Karl Marx -- that there's a point where history comes to an end. Only we happen to think that point is *now*. Yes, we understand that our technology will change radically, but we assume our culture will not.

Comment: Where the pessimism comes from. (Score 4, Insightful) 171

by hey! (#47914675) Attached to: Sci-Fi Authors and Scientists Predict an Optimistic Future

The pessimism and dystopia in sci-fi doesn't come from a lack of research resources on engineering and science. It mainly comes from literary fashion.

If the fashion with editors is bleak, pessimistic, dystopian stories, then that's what readers will see on the bookshelves and in the magazines, and authors who want to see their work in print will color their stories accordingly. If you want to see more stories with a can-do, optimistic spirit, then you need to start a magazine or publisher with a policy of favoring such manuscripts. If there's an audience for such stories it's bound to be feasible. There a thousand serious sci-fi writers for every published one; most of them dreadful it is true, but there are sure to be a handful who write the good old stuff, and write it reasonably well.

A secondary problem is that misery provides many things that a writer needs in a story. Tolstoy once famously wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I actually Tolstoy had it backwards; there are many kinds of happy families. Dysfunctions on the other hand tends to fall into a small number of depressingly recognizable patterns. The problem with functional families from an author's standpoint is that they don't automatically provide something that he needs for his stories: conflict. Similarly a dystopian society is a rich source of conflicts, obstacles and color, as the author of Snow Crash must surely realize. Miserable people in a miserable setting are simply easier to write about.

I recently went on a reading jag of sci-fi from the 30s and 40s, and when I happened to watch a screwball comedy movie ("His Girl Friday") from the same era, I had an epiphany: the worlds of the sci-fi story and the 1940s comedy were more like each other than they were like our present world. The role of women and men; the prevalence of religious belief, the kinds of jobs people did, what they did in their spare time, the future of 1940 looked an awful lot like 1940.

When we write about the future, we don't write about a *plausible* future. We write about a future world which is like the present or some familiar historical epoch (e.g. Roman Empire), with conscious additions and deletions. I think a third reason may be our pessimism about our present and cynicism about the past. Which brings us right back to literary fashion.

Comment: Clueless (Score 1) 59

by Animats (#47911665) Attached to: New Data Center Protects Against Solar Storm and Nuclear EMPs

This keeps coming up. The effects of an electromagnetic pulse and a solar storm are completely different. EMP is a big RF pulse with a risetime in the nanoseconds. This is a risk to input transistors connected to external wiring. Twisted pair, coax, and small mobile devices are relatively immune. Fiber optics are totally immune.

Solar storms induce DC voltages across long distances of conductive landscape. This is a risk only to transformers with grounded center taps connected to long transmission lines.

Here are the PJM power grid emergency procedures for geomagnetic events. They had to be implemented for a day two years ago. Almost nobody outside of power grid operators noticed.

Comment: Re:When the cat's absent, the mice rejoice (Score 5, Insightful) 283

Well, I'd be with you if the government was poking around on the users' computers, but they weren't. The users were hosting the files on a public peer-to-peer network where you essentially advertise to the world you've downloaded the file and are making it available to the world. Since both those acts are illegal, you don't really have an expectation of privacy once you've told *everyone* you've done it. While the broadcasting of the file's availability doesn't prove you have criminal intent, it's certainly probable cause for further investigation.

These guys got off on a narrow technicality. Of course technicalities do matter; a government that isn't restrained by laws is inherently despotic. The agents simply misunderstood the law; they weren't violating anyone's privacy.

Comment: Re:Crude? (Score 2) 96

by hey! (#47904781) Attached to: Original 11' <em>Star Trek Enterprise</em> Model Being Restored Again

Compare that to some of the ST:TNG props that I've seen that look fine on screen, but when examined closely look like someone gave a 5-year old a couple of shots of vodka and turned them loose with a paintbrush.

There's a certain wonder to that too.

I had the same reaction when I saw the ST:TNG props in person. You wouldn't buy a toy that looked that cheesy. The wonder of it is that the prop makers knew this piece of crap would look great onscreen. That's professional skill at work. Amateurs lavish loving care on stuff and overbuild them. Pros make them good enough, and put the extra effort into stuff that matters more.

Comment: Re: Great one more fail (Score 1) 576

by hey! (#47904749) Attached to: High School Student Builds Gun That Unlocks With Your Fingerprint

These kinds of responses are conditioned on certain assumptions that may not hold for all users.

For example, let's assume that you have no need whatsoever to prevent other users from using your gun. Then any complication you add to the firearm will necessarily make it less suitable, no matter how reliable that addition is. An example of someone on this end of the spectrum might be a big game hunter who carries a backup handgun.

On the other hand suppose you have need of a firearm, but there is so much concern that someone else might use it without authorization that you reasonably decide to do without. In that opposite situation you might well tolerate quite a high failure rate in such a device because it makes it possible to carry a gun. An example of someone on this end of the spectrum might be a prison guard -- prison guards do not carry handguns because of precisely this concern.

This isn't rocket science. It's all subject to a straightforward probabilistic analysis *of a particular scenario*. People who say that guns *always* must have a such a device are only considering one set of scenarios. People who say that guns must *never* have such a device are only considering a different set of scenarios. It's entirely possible that for such a device there are some where it is useful and others where it is not.

Comment: Only Apple can't make sapphire work. (Score 0) 201

by Animats (#47903731) Attached to: Sapphire Glass Didn't Pass iPhone Drop Test According to Reports

Everybody who gets an iPhone immediately puts it into a rugged, generally rubberized, case.

That's pathetic. All that effort to make a super-thin device, and you have to put it another case to protect it. Nokia would laugh.

Get a non-toy phone.

It's amusing that Apple can't get sapphire-coated glass to work. Sapphire glass for checkout scanners is a standard product. Every Home Depot checkout scanner has sapphire-coated glass. People slide metal tools across those for years without damage.

Comment: Voice operation of smartphones sucks (Score 1) 324

by Animats (#47900405) Attached to: Technological Solution For Texting While Driving Struggles For Traction

The smartphone crowd assumes they own the user's eyeballs. They don't. What's needed is better voice integration. You should be able to call, receive calls, text, and receive texts via a Bluetooth headset with the phone in your pocket.

Android sucks at this. My Samsung flip-phone had better voice dialing than my Android phone. Wildfire, which is from 1997, did this quite well. But it was really expensive to do back then, and was priced as high as $250/month. Then Microsoft bought Wildfire and abandoned the product.

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