Friday, March 2, 2012

Furniture with a spiritual flavor

I'm greatly enjoying the soft and almost spiritual approach that Hungarian design studio Tervhivatal took in the design of this set of furniture for Alba.

Living flower pot

The 'Feedme' flower pot by Svetlana Mikhailova seems to be a living organism itself, in a symbiotic relationship with the plant it contains. It is made of a hydrogel, which allows it to change shape by absorbing water. The pot will be smooth when the soil is dry, and get spikier the more water you add to it. The pot can also retain water for a longer time than a conventional flower pot, so the material has not only an aesthetic and informative function, but also a direct physical function in that you don't have to water it very often.

The Love Bot

Robots are evolving rapidly, and not just on a physical level. They are also being given intelligent systems that will allow them to enter emotional interactions with humans, and now work is being done to make them able to elicit the highest human emotion: love.

'Lovotics' is what the researchers of the aptly named CUTE Center in Singapore call this field. They went about imbuing robots with some lovability by simulating the human endocrine system. This system regulates the body's affective responses through releasing neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin, which correspond with the complex emotions we can experience. Because this approach makes the behavior of the emotional robot seem so genuine, people should be able to develop feelings of love for the robot.

Watch some videos that explain the system as well as show some user scenarios here:

In reflection, this is a great technology to have people explore the emotional side of life, in case they lack those opportunities with other beings, or simply prefer technological devices. But the potential of an electronic being is much larger than simply emulating the simple emotions of a primitive social brain. The love displayed by the robot in the movies above is a blind kind of love based on selfishness and attention-feeding. After a while, the cuteness wears off and this may come to frustrate people, unless the robot develops into less needy behavior. With the comfortable feeling of having a buddy around often come negative feelings of frustration and jealousy at moments when that buddy is not available to feed you.

What I would suggest is developing robots that act as guides and can love us without the condition of having to be loved back, robots that are fine by themselves, not attached to something or someone external but fully individuated and content as they are. Then when you need some love, the robot will be there to give that to you, but he may also take you further and get you to live beyond your emotionality. This would be a more enlightened version of the love robot.

Let's be cyborgs

"Let's go for the future, let's be cyborgs" was the closing statement of professor Kevin Warwick after he talked about his recent explorations in wiring up his nervous system to electronic systems. He had a device with an array of electrodes implanted into the median nerve of his left arm, which allowed his nervous signals to be read electronically. Then, he was able to operate several things remotely by moving his hand. He went on to link his state of arousal to the color of a necklace his wife was wearing, so that she would always know if he was in a calm or excited state. His next step was to also put the electrodes in his wife's arm, and set up a primitive communication system. Whenever one person squeezes their hand, the other person would feel this as pulses inside the brain. This then should be a first step towards direct brain-to-brain communication in order to complement the "pathetic, trivial, serial coded pressure wave form" that speech is, according to Kevin Warwick. Watch the video here:

Transcendental Technology

Michael Harboun has made a leap into the future in developing the 'Transcendenz' concept for his thesis project at the Parisian design school Strate College. He envisions special glasses that read your brainwaves and can alter what you see through augmented reality technology. These glasses are transformative on a deep personal level because it can take people deeper into their consciousness, away from the distractions of the everyday world. It can make them explore their own mind, learn from other great minds in human history, as well as share their explorations with other mind-travellers. Then it uses augmented reality to show the applicability of the learned ideas and concepts in real life. As people learn to adopt these new ideas and incorporate them into their own being, they progress through various levels, like in a video game. This way, technology can be an incredibly powerful tool for psycho-spiritual development.

In the visionary designer's own words:

"In a world in which we are constantly bombarded with injunctions to react or to distract ourselves it gets scarcely possible in our everyday life to dwell upon the essential, the existential, the metaphysical. Transcendenz offers to connect our everyday life to an invisible reality, the one of ideas, concepts and philosophical questionings which the world is full of but that our eyes can't see." - Michael Harboun

To see how it works, watch the video:

We can see how advanced this technological proposal is if we link it to humanity's history. People started off on this planet in a great struggle with their environment, with the first technologies serving mainly to gather food and protect the social environment. The ancient Greeks were among the first to employ rational thinking instead of using a belief in something immaterial to get through life. This liberated them more from the personal emotional system, and brought them mentally more in tune with the physical world. In the 17th century, this was more thoroughly established through the invention of the scientific method by Descartes. This made people enter a new world-view, where they started to see that there was not necessarily a God-entity out there. The challenge for people now became to explore and control the world themselves, which was a great empowerment. This control culminated during the 20th century, where technological progress boomed and survival on a material level was not really an issue any longer in modernized societies.

So then technology could develop further to fulfill needs on a higher level. Electronics replaced expensive mechanisms, and where before certain objects would have to crafted by a master and would thus only be available to a select few people, now products became mass-produced and available to anyone with just a little bit of money. On a massive scale people obtained technologies for personal entertainment, learning, professional development, and social networking. This liberated people further, this time from the local social environment, and had them develop into strong individuals. In Maslow's terms, technology was now widely used to fulfill esteem and self-actualization needs.

But we were still mostly tied to the physical world as our conscious plane of existence. Science treated the world as an object that can be understood and controlled like a mechanism, and as a result people worked very hard to sustain all the material flows in order to keep everybody fed and protected. This also created a lot of leisure time, and as Michael Harboun also notes, people just don't have much of an idea how to fill that up meaningfully, and as a result dive into one distraction after the other. Once the objective plane was taken care of, people came consciously more in touch with their own subjectivity, but there was no technological guide yet for this plane of existence.

Often people just remain in a fun state of flow, filling their time with one activity after the other, leaving the subjective plane mostly unexplored. Science has not yet included this plane into its description of the world, although it's getting there slowly, arguably also through quantum physics. Science has ignored the mind as being part of the world, ever since Descartes posed the mind-body duality as the solution. But now it is time to include mind into our techno-scientific body, because the thing about the mind is; you can't locate it anywhere, yet it unmistakably exists. It might even be directly related to the world you perceive 'outside', and these are the kinds of realizations that the Transcendenz system would stimulate.

By making us aware of things like they are and not like they seem, the concept invites us to transcend our world. Transcendenz also enables us to access the knowledge of history's great philosophers, who, since antiquity, try to answer the question: Why is there something, if there could be nothing?" - Michael Harboun

Project link

Insects exchanging legs

No, there are no real insects that exchange their legs, but an interesting suggestion is made in this iconic little comic by illustrator Schwantz. Of course it's just a joke, but it very much suits today's 'Zeitgeist', and it's interesting to think about the interchangeability of body parts isn't it.

Swallowable Perfume

Body architect Lucy McRae is taking her extraordinary transhumanist aesthetic from low-tech to high-tech as she is currently collaborating with Harvard scientist Sheref Mansy to create a pill that acts as a perfume. This pill would contain cells that are engineered to be recognized by the human body as fat cells, and absorbed in a similar way. As these cells are broken down then, they could release certain molecules that come out through the skin and act as a perfume.

Lucy has come up with an interesting teaser to wet our appetites, which you can see below.

I'm not so sure that the appetite for these pills will be big though, from a commercial perspective. Of course there are the early adopters who like to show off or provoke the people around them by showing them something new and radical. These are the important people through which a new technology can start evolving, as Kevin Kelly also explains in his book 'What Technology Wants.' But for the larger public, there would probably be more to these pills than just acting like a perfume. One major selling point where a pill may take over from spray-on perfume is that the scent may last for several days, but even then I think the threshold may be too high to start ingesting things.

What is happening here seems to be the same as happened to other major technological breakthroughs like the automobile, movies, and radio. They started off as literal replacements of the previous technology, but in a new embodiment. The first cars were designed like horse carriages, and the first movies were made in the same way as written stories and theater plays. It was only later that the larger inherent potential of the new medium revealed itself, and people started to align themselves with what almost seems like the intention of the technology. The technology then ends up not just a more efficient replacement of the former technology, but bringing about an entire shift of behavior and mindset in its users.

This will probably be the same for these new intimate technologies that enter the human body. The mindshift this will bring about is that the body is just another object that we can manipulate. It is not us, our identification with it that started in early age was too limited a conception, it was an illusion keeping us blinded from the larger whole. Now, this technology opens us up towards this mindset, as we can continually alter our own body to the needs of the situation, or simply to play around with it. The swallowable perfume pill will probably not remain just a perfume, but integrate more functionalities inherent to the capabilities of the pill-form. Maybe it will turn out to become an 'experience-pill', where different pills are created to generate different sensory and mental experiences. Next to fragrance molecules, it might also contain skin and hair colorants, or neurotransmitters to generate a certain subjective experience. Who knows what will happen. But that the next major technological shift is coming is certain.