Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The long arm of the laws of robotics

Here's Molly at ICRA, apparently being interviewed by a robot

Okay, it may only be a robotic arm, but just watch what that arm can do!

The demonstration of "back-drivable" programming is just after a minute in. Watch the way the "hand" moves after its been programmed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

Apocalypse Now! Is the End of the World Imminent?

You may have caught the news a week ago that the last of nearly three dozen Russians have finally left their cave near the Volga River. They had repaired to these disagreeable digs last Fall on the advice of a self-proclaimed prophet, Pyotr Kuznetsov, who told them that the world was going to end in May. Apparently doomsday was going to occur in such a way that anyone cowering under a dirt roof in central Russia would somehow escape the consequences.

It’s unclear why any of the cult followers would believe this, especially as Father Pyotr himself stayed out of the cave, preferring a nearby (and less loamy) house. But believe it they did, until the low-grade lifestyle and the death of two women in the group drove them out.

Apocalyptic predictions seem to be perennially popular, and a staple of late-night radio. After all, who could fail to be impressed by the assurances of a smooth-talking seer that everything’s going to end, and do so sooner than you’re scheduled to make your final car payment? The doomsday business has gotten a particular shot in the arm of late thanks to weird readings of the Mayan calendar, which (according to some) suggests that 2012 will be the last year you’ll have to get your teeth cleaned or pay property taxes. Of course, I’ve always wondered why – if the Mayans were so adept at prognoticating doom – they couldn’t foresee their own dissolution.

Well, before you get caught up in a preparing for The End, consider this: Life began on Earth close to four billion years ago. Since then, large rocks have slammed into the landscape, supernovae and gamma-ray bursters have burst their galactic guts, the continents have crawled hither and yon, giant volcanoes have belched brimstone, and the entire ocean surface has frozen solid (more than once, it seems). Now those are events worthy of note. And yet despite it all, the thread of life was unbroken – for four billion years!

So when someone tells you to move underground because the end is nigh, ask yourself “what’s the prophet motive here?” The history of life on Earth suggests that survival is a far better bet than destruction.

Then again, May’s not yet over…

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"A widespread and popular impression of SETI is that it's a worldwide enterprise. Well, it's not, and there's something modestly puzzling in that."

Read Seth's latest essay, Why Don't They Do SETI?, and find the possible answers to why SETI research seems to be an American endeavor.

This essay is also available on SETI Thursday at

Friday, May 2, 2008

Nick Bostrom Believes Discovering Extraterrestrials Would Be Awful

[In response to the article in MIT's Technology Review magazine by Nick Bostrom, and continuation of April 25 post below]

Are we better off not finding life?

Whether we trip across pond scum on Mars or a signal from ET, Nick Bostrom thinks it would be bad news. Bostrom is director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and was a guest on Are We Alone? on August 27, 2007 [show available here].

Why is he hoping our efforts to find biology elsewhere will fail? Because, says Bostrom, to succeed will have profoundly depressing implications for the future of humanity. In particular, Homo sapiens will be doomed.

His argument goes like this. He starts by claiming that there is a “big silence” from the skies. After nearly a half-century of SETI, we’ve still not found a signal. So clearly, he maintains, that’s good reason to doubt the aliens are out there. And if the lack of any telecommunications doesn’t convice you, Bostrom suggests you try the Fermi Paradox, the idea that if cosmic intelligence were widespread, the aliens (or their self-replicating machines) would be here now. We’d see clear indications that they’d spread out and colonized large tracts of the Galaxy.

Now the way that Bostrom connects this apparent lack of clever critters with life on Mars is as follows: If we were to find life (dead or alive) on the Red Planet, that would tell us immediately that life must be commonplace. After all, if the next world out also spawned biology, it can’t be particularly rare. The universe must have germinated life in countless nooks and crannies. But the fact that we haven’t heard from ET (either via visits or via a signal) means that, despite the fecundity of the cosmos, intelligence never hangs around long enough to either colonize or broadcast. Our future is bleaker than winter on the tundra.

The logic is nice, but the assumptions are questionable. In particular, the claim that the universe appears devoid of intelligence is unfounded. Yes, there have been SETI experiments for a long while now – since 1960. But the total amount of telescope time devoted to this enterprise has been paltry. The number of star systems carefully examined for signals is fewer than one thousand. To say that we’re alone after having only looked at this incredibly small sample of the Galaxy is akin to arguing in 1400 AD that no major continent lies between Spain and Japan, because, after all, we’ve had ships for thousands of years and never seen it.

As for the Fermi Paradox, that’s a similarly impotent reason to say there’s no sentience in space. It’s a huge extrapolation from a very local observation. The fact that there are no polar bears in my backyard, despite the fact that they’ve had plenty of time to get there, hardly proves their non-existence.

In other words, there’s still no compelling reason to maintain that intelligence is a rare commodity in the universe. The jury’s still out on that one.

On our show, Bostrom made the daring claim that there’s a 20 percent chance the world we’re living in has no objective reality; it’s all just a simulation on a computer of the future. You’re no more than a sophisticated avatar, and that applies to your friends, too. It’s a gutsy thing to say. So is his dystopian view of the search for extraterrestrial life. But his pessimism needn’t discourage us, as it, too, is based on expansive conjecture, not data. Doing the experiment is the best way to know what’s correct and what’s not.