Thursday, January 24, 2008

Human exoskeleton

If you combine my recent post about the T-1000 and the previous one about resolving the mechanic-organic dichotomy, you get this.

It is a robotic exoskeleton for humans, meant for lifting heavier weights, so you do not have to go to the gym anymore. It has a variable ratio with which it amplifies your muscle power and is connected to the skin, from which it detects the faint synaptic impulses from the brain.

How literally can you empower people?
How lazy can we get?
How evolutionary inferior can technology make you feel?
How is this not the first step in becoming fully hybrid?
How can this never be made in another country than Japan?

A few nice trivia are that this device is actually called HAL (while it is actually the opposite: physical, non-intelligent, unobtrusive). But the best, or the scariest, is that it is developed by a company called Cyberdyne. Yes, the same company that invented the Terminator! I'm getting paranoid.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blood-powered technology

Talking about blood, I just visited a lecture by Anthony Dunne (website) who mentioned a project for the Science Museum about future energy sources. Already, robots are developed that run on meat. This)is a link to an article about such a robot. Next to hydrogen and feces, blood might be an interesting alternative to power technological devices. This comes already closer to merging the organic with the mechanic.

The organic-mechanic dichotomy of our world always fascinated me, with only the extremes of the spectrum covered. Since this is the era of uniting dualisms, let's unite this one too. This is false logic, but still the idea seems good to me if we are to recreate the world as one well-integrated system. If machines are to fit to us, and we to them, even on a molecular level, we can become so intimate to them that we can physically become them, i.e. perceive no difference between what we conceive as 'ourselves' and as 'other'.

An obvious ethical counterargument is that it is dangerous. Such an argument stems mainly from fear. One day, robots might notice that humans carry blood, and no supreme intelligence is needed what their intention might then become.

I would say that empathy is crucial for robots. They need a mechanism such as the mirror-neuron mechanism that humans have, which makes their brains trigger the same circuits as the ones they perceive others to be having. So that when they try to kill somebody, they really feel what the victim is feeling. This would simply be a natural solution to keep everything in balance, I think.

I am talking about balance, or harmony, and you might have noticed that I think the argument that stems from fear is not very advantageous to humankind, only to the individual who has not become selfless yet. But inherently our technologies change us, i.e. destroy things we once had. What we gain is much more beautiful however. Sure, some intelligent devices will develop 'abnormal' personalities and kill people. We can never control how they develop. We can not even control ourselves. But the robots that display this kind of behavior will always be a small percentage, if we are careful enough. The empiricist in me believes that humans only learn by experience, and so humankind can also only do so. People always will do what they can do, out of simple curiosity. Then, it is time to clean up the mess, reflect, and take a next step. I can understand the fear, because the first steps will likely be very messy (think about the development of the pc as an early step - how has that changed humans, and how messy is that?), but I am optimistic about the long term.

This is, I believe a beautiful system will arise, and I am not talking from a sentimental point of view that is biased towards humans over other sentient beings. Actually, I believe that digital technology allows us to merge with it, so we can become liquid. That is, take any form we like. We should not value the human form that much any longer, and I think that we, in our current form, will only turn out to be useful in certain niches of the global system. Maybe this form will be remembered as the blueprint, the archetype, like the black Ford model-T.

We really need to lose our narcistic feeling for the human form. We are filling up the world with it much more than it needs it to stay in harmony. It is crazy that we follow our instincts to recreate ourselves, from a myopic viewpoint for example of the cuteness inherent in the proportions of a baby. We need to develop an intrinsic global consciousness underlying all our actions. If we internalize this we can become holistically happy. This is my deepest belief and I hope I will trigger at least some meditations.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bloody gloves

This struck my eye today. It seems to be a surreal expression of the fantasy for products that grow as parts of our own body, by Meret Oppenheim for Parkett, back in 1985.

Considering that microscopically small electronically controlled hydraulic systems can already be embedded into textiles, it is not a very unearthy idea that soon we will be able to make such gloves functional. Maybe they could be plugged into our vascular system, pumping extra blood directly from our chest into our hands, of which the amount would inversely relate to the perceived temperature. Or act as a continuous hand moisturizer. A perfume/pepperspray/cobweb dispenser integrated into the hand? Such perversely diabolic ideas.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Adaptive harddisk


A more transparent harddisk by fellow students from my department. It changes its external representation according to the data that it stores. A well-intended step in the evolution of black boxes, changing the inherently dissatisfying experience of using a desktop pc into a slightly more satisfying one, I would say.

Let's quote Paul Dourish, with whom I somewhat sympathize, on the dual nature of computers:

"Computation is an intentional phenomenon; what matters about it is that it refers to things. At the end of the day, it is the things that matter."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Liquid Dreams

Remember the scene from James Cameron's movie 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' where the T-1000 spreads himself out onto a checkerboard floor, even adopting the pattern on his own body?

For me this scene is an incredibly strong symbol for future technology: liquid technology literally arises from flat, logical technology. Where the checkerboard stands for logic, flatness, and dualisms, qualities that can be found in most modern products like mobile phones, liquid technology would be the next step. It can adopt these old qualities, showed by the T-1000 'empathizing' with it like a chameleon before showing what it can do more: it can put itself in any shape, and become more human. For me, future technology should fulfill the dream not of creating T-1000-like technologies, but of becoming the T-1000. That is, liquidly extend the human body so we can do or be anything we want to do or be.

Where you could see this as an ordinary science-fiction film from the cyberpunk era, please regard that science fiction often becomes science fact, and all human developments ultimately stem from some dream, whether we are conscious about it or not. My dream is to become our technology (we are, already, in a sense; the coupling just becomes increasingly intimate). I lately dreamed I literally was a train that could morph into an aircraft, and I can tell you it is pretty amazing, even while my subconscious simulation was not very convincing yet.

Now the reason for this post is that something incredible struck me, having thought that I had seen everything already. David Gallo is a deep sea explorer, and showed footage of squids during his talk on The one on the end is simply mind-blowing: it actually can change the characteristics of its skin (even the texture!) in order to seamlessly blend into the environment, even make itself look like a piece of coral. This, together with other developments, like new understandings of the mechanisms of the mind, and the concept of Foglets, gives me more and more hope that once we can create similar systems. I want that skin. I want it I want it I want it!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blog: Next Nature

Man's desire for grandiosity has run wild, with the result that the whole world is becoming transformed to suit his needs, that is, the needs he is conscious of having.

In fact, what is happening is that nature becomes cultivated, hence creating a 'Next Nature', or 'Nature 2.0', in the popularized terms of Koert van Mensvoort. The woods smell of shampoo, we can design our own pets, and people know more brands than birds. Koert is a homo universalis from Holland who explores this theme especially from an artistic viewpoint, and records his notions on the blog Since he is also a teacher in interaction design, the blog mentions interesting interactive products. An example are the 'Switch Critters', light switches that are not directly controllable but have to be persuaded into switching. Nature was never controllable, and it is an illusion that our 'next nature' can be controllable, and hence should not be designed to giving people the impression that they can easily control it. Instead, products should also support values like mysticism.

Anyway, this blog is a great inspirator and especially makes you see what is happening with the world. The task then is making sure that this next nature will be satisfying enough and takes humanity to a new level, because we are obviously not yet seeing the light. In our paralysis caused by a highly complex world, some Western/Dutch innovations simply seem to stem from rattle-brained fools. Just look at the image on top of this post. Potential onlooking aliens must be having an experience similar to 'laughing your ass off'. Oscar Niemeyer's architectural work for the city of Brasilia already in the 1960's told us that this approach will never work on the long term.

As a side notion, I must mention that I do not believe that the term used by Koert is an accurate description for the larger development that is going on. The dualism between nature and culture is merely one more to be dissolved in a process of union that we are seeping into. Just as the relationship between man and his technology tipped into a new harmony when we moved from an agricultural to an industrial organization of the world, we will now tip into another balance that will allow us to handle an even greater complexity. For example, we should learn how to integrate human's paradoxical needs for both expressive and norm-conformative behaviors towards the environment in one smooth system. And we should base this system not on abstract notions such as the optimization of money or time, but on experiential, human concepts like value, happiness, enlightenment. The understanding of the brain is the catalyst of this development, and the world will be a reflection of a happier human brain. But here I go again - this is long enough for a side notion.

For now, Next Nature is a nice concept to form an opinion about, so spread the word!

Book recommendation

To get a feel for evolution and design, the book 'Invention and Evolution: Design in Nature and Engineering' by Michael French is a great starter. It is a fairly old book (1988) but therefore also very clear and recognizable. It talks about important inventions and how they can be optimized by adopting processes from natural evolution.

Did you know that suspension bridges are very much the same design as the skeleton of a Brachiosaur?

This book truly gives you a feel for why things are the way they are, and especially handles mechanical design issues. But the most important thing you can obtain from it is a feeling for the elegance with which nature solves things, and how designers can adopt this way of integrative thinking. Of course, there is much more than mechanical design to be tackled by designers currently, like how designs help people to change, or to give them a certain experience. But still, I think that this way of thinking should also be applied to those issues; i.e. with minimal means reach optimal, elegant results.

The book is ideal for students, is written in a light way, and richly illustrated by all kinds of inventions. Highly recommended, so order it here on Amazon!

Friday, January 11, 2008


Constructions of highly elegant beauty, even with a function, are Theo Jansen's Strandbeesten. You probably all know this famous Dutch artist, nevertheless does he deserve a place on this blog, especially because of his design methods.

Strandbeesten are artificial mechanical creatures, powered by the wind, that walk along the beach to and fro the sea shore. Their purpose is to loosen up the sand, so it can get blown onto the dunes by the wind, thereby strengthening them. The nice thing is that Theo Jansen optimizes these constructions to get maximum movement with minimum material. The materials he started with was simple PVC tubing, tape and other low-cost materials, although he is currently building larger structures made of wood.

To get to optimal designs, he used evolutionary computer algorithms; shapes that would evolve generation after generation. So in the evening he would create a simple shape, set a goal for it to optimize towards, and in the morning he would wake up and an elegant design would have evolved. For these purposes, this method really takes away the need for the designer to be intelligent; only meta-intelligence is needed. Brilliant.

Here are a few movies, the first one showing Animaris Rinoceros, one of his latest creations, the second is his TED talk.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bone chair

Evolutionary thinking is finally seeping through in the minds of designers. Joris Laarman's Bone Chair shows how a chair could look that is optimized according to the forces that work upon it, similar to a tree. Still, it is a detached copycat approach from the outside inwardly designed. It would be beautiful if the chair would dynamically adapt its construction according to the forces it encounters during its lifetime. Or even, that the DNA of a tree would be altered so the tree would not rely on sunlight, but on people sitting on it in order for it to grow and reproduce, thus 'naturally' forming itself optimally for people to sit on; human satisfaction as a goal for all natural evolution; tree becomes chair/house/teapot/airplane/iPhone? A nice initial exploration though.

fractals in African design

Check out this nice TED talk by mathematician Ron Eglash on how fractal patterns actually emerge from bottom-up design thinking in African architecture and design, and how different cultures differ within this conceptual framework. Once again it shows that the most symbiotic designs stem from intuition derived from iterative experience in the real world, not from detached analytical thinking; on the question of the Western scientist as to what algorithmical rules he applied, the African answered "no you silly, it just looks pretty". How detached have we become. Damn you, Descartes!