Cyborgs in the making?

March 18, 2014

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

Read the rest of this entry »


Interactive science

August 19, 2012

As an adult I’ve learned to appreciate visual displays in museums better than I did as a child. But I have to agree with what my older son said yesterday, that the best science exhibits are interactive.

Since he hadn’t been with us when we went to the Mythbusters exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in March, I took both boys to Chicago this weekend. This time we stayed overnight Friday so we could have all day Saturday to see the museum.

I tried a few of the interactive portions of the Mythbusters exhibit that I hadn’t been able to do last time because the crowds had been too big. First I tried the airplane on a conveyor belt, but I never managed to get the airplane’s speed to match that of the car to start with, as the instructions said to do.

I also tried the blind driving, with unsurprisingly poor results. (I do think it would help if there were headphones so I didn’t struggle to hear my son’s instructions over all the other conversations around me.) I also tried “Cliff Hanger,” thinking that perhaps my weight training at the Y might have improved my arm strength. But my fingers failed me so fast that I landed almost immediately on my butt on the (fortunately very soft) mat below.

All three of us finished with the Mythbusters exhibit fairly quickly, and decided to go look for more fun elsewhere in the museum. Here are some of the highlights of our visit.

Read the rest of this entry »


Books: Animals in Translation

August 15, 2011

I had been intending to read a book by Temple Grandin at some point, but hadn’t gotten around to it. When I found Animals in Translation in the library catalog, I immediately put a hold on it. The book not only tells some of Grandin’s own story as a person with autism who has a successful career and communicates effectively, it explains a great deal about animal behavior, and touches on issues of language and brain research. Once I had finished reading The Big Burn, I read through Grandin’s book in a single day.

Besides touching on multiple subjects that are important to me, it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I had wondered what the writing would be like in a book written by a person with autism. Grandin had a co-author, Catherine Johnson, so I don’t know just how much of the “feel” of the book is Grandin’s and how much is Johnson’s, but I got the impression that I was hearing Grandin’s “voice.” (The acknowledgements section at the end of the book includes a section by each writer; Grandin’s section reads like the rest of the book, while Johnson’s reads quite differently.)

The writing is simple and straightforward, without the abundance of complex and subordinate clauses that many writers (including me) tend to use. Unfamiliar words (of which there are many, at least for a reader not previously familiar with the study of the brain and animal behavior) are explained clearly. I don’t think I ever had to go back and reread a paragraph because I hadn’t understood it the first time. But there was no sense of reading a book that had been deliberately simplified.

The focus of the book is understanding animal behavior. Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science, and has spent her career working with livestock (designing equipment for humane handling of livestock and providing consulting on various livestock handling problems). She had noticed, both in her academic research and her work with livestock, certain similarities between how she perceives things and how it appeared that animals perceived things.

Read the rest of this entry »


Brains, minds, and computers

May 15, 2010

Long before I started studying computer programming, I was fascinated by the subject of artificial intelligence. I had been enjoying science fiction novels since I was about ten years old (having exhausted the resources in the children’s section of the local library on Greek mythology, which had been my previous interest). The issue of non-human intelligence comes up frequently in sci-fi, whether it is highly intelligent animals (such as dolphins or other primates), aliens (which may or may not be carbon-based life forms), or the silicon-based “intelligence” of computers.

One of my favorite sci-fi authors for several years had been Robert Heinlein (until I read I Will Fear No Evil and decided it belonged in the trash rather than on the shelf of the English classroom in the Christian school where I taught Spanish, then tried to read Stranger in a Strange Land and didn’t even finish it). One of my favorites had been The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and while I remember virtually nothing of the lunar colony revolt against rule by Earth, I remember the narrator’s relationship with a computer that had become self-aware.

I don’t know what scientist or science fiction writer first speculated that there was some threshold in terms of numbers of connections within a computer, past which it would become self-aware, but it seems to have become a common idea. In this novel, when the number “neuristors” in the HOLMES IV computer exceeded the number of neurons in the human brain, it develops self-aware. Mannie, the technician who works on it, calls it Mike.

At the end of the book, Mike has been damaged during an attack. The computer continues to operate, but Mike’s personality is gone. Mannie grieves for the loss of a friend, and I found myself also grieving. (This convinced me there was something wrong with me. I had cried when the horse died at the end of Marguerite Henry’s Black Gold, and even when this fictional computer personality died, but I couldn’t remember crying when any real human beings died.)

Read the rest of this entry »


Minds and machines

March 10, 2008

This morning my sister – whose interests in learning are similar to my own in many ways – forwarded me an article from KnowledgeNews, which presents itself as “A Cure for Brain Flab.” I had never heard of this website before, but now I’m going to have to check it out. It has four sections, on the world, America, science, and the calendar (about the seasons and events associated with them).

The article she sent me came from “Today’s Knowledge,” which is emailed to members (this was a “bonus issue” she received Saturday), and deals with research into creating a machine that can sense what a person is thinking. To call it a “mind-reading” machine is stretching the definition, but as the article points out, with technology advancing at the pace it has in recent decades, the idea may not be so far-fetched.

Read the rest of this entry »