Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Expanding Spheres

Chuck Hoberman ( is an American inventor of transformable physical structures. His work is so optimally engineered that there is an inherent simplicity pervading all his structures. His design approach follows that of Richard Buckminster Fuller, who wanted man to become a comprehensive, scientific thinker, using minimal materials for maximum effects as to minimize waste, and free man from having to clean up all the mess that results from short-sighted behaviour. Hoberman's structures are extremely smart on a material level, the structural efficiency making it almost look like an idealized natural construction, living and breathing. It seems like the perfect symbiosis of a structural form and its behaviour. Humans could learn something from that.

Exemplified in the movie shown below, his work is often presented very sculpturally. Nevertheless, many applications can be thought of that would integrate his elegance more pervasively into the world. Think nanobots too small for the naked eye that suddenly become visible by expanding, think cellphones that throb like a heart when someone is calling, think autonomous balls that learn to bounce and steer themselves. Not that I would encourage people to look for killer apps; experiencing the beauty of the thought process and resulting work, embracing and critically absorbing it, is much more satisfying.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Reverse Engineering the Brain

The Blue Brain Project, a collaboration of IBM and a Swiss polytechnic school called EPFL, might be leading to the first product that equals humans in terms of intelligence.

This ambitious project aims for an understanding of the human brain by modelling it from the bottom up. The team is trying to match the behaviour of individual simulated neurons with behaviour of real neurons by studying the brain of a living rat. So far, they have succeeded in simulating the behaviour of an entire neocortical column. This is the basic building block of which every brain is made up; ours contains a few thousands of these elements, each highly specialized in one function like recognizing the taste of cheese. After stimulating the model with impulses the simulated neocortical column just seemingly spontaneously began to grow dendrites, connecting neurons in an optimal way. Many entities, each of them behaving according to simple rules, can generate beautifully complex, highly intelligent, and seemingly unpredictable behaviour as a mass. The virtual model is now even so accurate to the behaviour of biological neurons that studying the model delivers better results than studying a real brain.

So the brain is simply a highly interactive network of these entities, and the major current limitation for the project is computing power. This is where IBM plays its role, by providing one supercomputer for simulating all neurons, and one to visualise the process. This results in spectacular imagery.

I'm pretty sure that this development will lead to the next humiliation of man, of a similar significance as the Copernican revolution. We will see that the brain is physically explainable, there is nothing metaphysical to it, that we can create artificial brains, and in the end, that technological organisms can be built that are as intelligent as humans. There already is the plan to build a robotic rat that would develop by interacting with the world, just like a real rat. Professor Henry Markram, director of the project, even believes that in the end, the model of the brain can let us experience what it experiences.

I myself do not believe in this latter prediction. The model will allow brains to communicate more easily and directly, as an alternative to language based communication about our experiences, but still it will remain communication, so there is inherently a gap caused by misinterpretation. You can never align two minds completely, so they can never share experiences, I think. The model can show us what it experiences, but then still our own consciousness selects what it picks from what is communicated. I, following the philosophy of embodiment, also feel that the project underestimates the importance of the physical form of an organism's body in generating its experiences and in the development of the inner structure of the brain. How you think is directly related to how your body is able to interact with the physical world, and this is different for every body. But I remain open for surprises, of course.

The project will have huge implications for designers of technological products. Like already with some other organs, we will possibly be able to create fully artificial human brains. But in contrast to organic brains, these technological brains could be networked electronically, via the internet for example. Brains become transparent, understandable, and rationally controllable. How can we make sure that humans still experience it as pleasurable if they become directly networked and others can directly monitor and influence them? I think to accept this, people first need to undergo a spiritual transformation, for example that of losing their egos, so they don't feel attacked but instead they feel helped by the technology.

Furthermore, how can we make sure our fellow artificially intelligent physical entities on this planet constructively and empathically interact with us? Still, biological brains are quite primitive, and need to go through great struggles to transform their internal configuration into one that works best in creating a fulfilling life. Egotism and territorialism, our present-bias, instinctive behaviour, our inclination to get stuck in self-reinforcing negative spirals, are just a few of the undesirable traits of the human brain, resulting from how we evolved in a primitive environment while these traits don't work anymore in our new, highly networked world. I think our task is not just to reverse engineer the brain, but rather already transform it so these brains more easily reach states like enlightenment. For example by equipping it with new hardwired couplings, like a new instinct. Or by giving it the additional function of being directly able to compare itself against the minds of others. Also, for people themselves to understand their brains, the electrical processes inside them must be translated for the senses, and not just remain abstract visualizations, so they can be easily interpreted and used in social communication in everyday life.

In my view, reverse engineering the brain is just a small start that will help catalyze a huge development: the complete convergence of the artificial and the natural.

More via Seed Magazine and the website of the Blue Brain Project.

Make sure you also watch this video where you can have a virtual flight through a model of the neocortical column. This will give you a feeling for the actual complexity of the human brain, and the scale on which thoughts occur; an entire neocortical column is only 2 mm long and 0.5 mm in diameter. For me this is extremely beautiful, because it confirms that thoughts are nothing but physical processes.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


These jewellery pieces made of sugar by Greetje van Helmond remind me of a Philippe Starck quote:

"You get the symbols you deserve."

This 'unsustainable' jewellery nicely flows with our consumptive lifestyles, and our lack of sensitivity to complex taste. The infantile consumer doesn't ask for complexity, quality and richness, thus superficiality is what he gets. You are what you eat, sure. And why not show this actual identity through jewellery?

The choice of materials and production process is interesting too, almost mocking the predominant idea that 'newness' is best. These products just immediately start deteriorating while in use, so people are shown more directly their illusory ideas of beauty being in a static image. We do need to look for beauty in how we act and think, not just in how we look. We need to step beyond designing products as static entities, but need to look at how they fit in larger social and natural processes.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Evolutionary locomotion design

Researchers from Boston Dynamics claim to have built 'the most advanced quadruped robot on earth'. While usually I would not be very interested in robots that basically emulate legs, this one is particularly striking, almost walking in a natural, biological way. It can walk at 5 mph, climb 35 degree slopes, and keeps itself balanced even when forcefully kicked or when traversing ice. It is actuated hydraulically, and has a system to reuse energy that would normally be lost in each step.

Generally, this is a nice move towards intelligent motor behaviour, but still it is a kind of backwards emulatory approach to technology design. Reverse engineering systems we find in nature just won't give technology its own intelligence, its own character and its own elegance. Technology needs to develop this from within itself, by self-reflection and gradual adaptation during its entire existence.

The silliness of this approach is almost caricaturally illustrated by a movie of another quadruped robot, Scott II, developed by McGill University:

It is so myopic to develop technology being inspired by things like the jolly tred of your neighbour's puppy teckel. Is this what people need? It seems that many robotics engineers are just too isolated, and a common framework is lacking to develop technology in a more holistic, deeply human way.

I'd say that some virtual technologies can conceptually score way higher on the mind-blowingness scale. Researchers in Oxford, Britain, developed a system to make virtual characters dynamically respond to their environment. No more inverse kinematics, no more mocap; these are clumsy, static, externally imposed and simply unnatural approaches towards the design of intelligently behaving systems. What these guys did was using genetic algorithms to have a virtual character learn it's own way of behaving, depending on the interaction of its own specific body with its own specific environment. 'Dynamic Motion Synthesis' is what they call this process of simulating a motor nervous system and physical body.

The nice thing is that this latter approach does not simply result in blindly evolving systems; the human designer can still specify his desires to some extent, like an end pose of a movement, or the goal of a movement. This is very elegant I think, and can be an inspirational approach to the design of physical products as well. You give the entity room to develop itself, but also provide some overall vision, an over-encompassing framework. So you balance a centripetal and a centrifugal force, which is very human I think. Natural evolution by itself is no holistic solution; it results in loose ends everywhere and a lot of uselessness. It is tedious, messy, and slow. A detached, artificial approach to technology design is opposite to evolution, and does not work either, as it is myopic and does not respect individuals. It dictatorially tries to frame in the world, inviting people to shrink and abstract their lifeworld. These two opposite approaches towards how entities in the world are created results in seeming dichotomies, and a lot of tensions in the world as a whole. We need a new approach that transcends this, stemming from the perspective that all is one and one is all. We are animals, we are technology, and we are the air that surrounds us.

My view is that future technology design needs an entirely different approach, merging these two opposites into one that transcends these. We need to give the artefacts we create an initial potential for positively changing our world, but also the openness and ability to develop themselves from interacting with their world, hence developing individually appropriate behaviour. But we need to constantly monitor and steer all individual development processes, and guide them like a friendly father, informing them, empathizing with them, and gently but convincingly and directly steer them as well. Like we should raise our own children.

My future is one where the biological merges with the technological, and everything feels socially connected as in a global family of highly interactive and morphologically highly diverse entities.

More info at:
Boston Dynamics
Natural Motion