I don’t watch much scheduled TV these days (although made an exception for the new clangers today, but that’s another story), but I was very interested in the new Channel 4 drama ‘Humans’ that started yesterday. I first saw references to it popping up via Twitter, following the creation of @PersonaSynths on Twitter advertising their new generation “synthetic humans”. The marketing was very good – they even had an ebay shop and a ‘store front’ on Regents Street London – and apparently it had a number of people fooled for a while, thinking it was real and that you really could buy one!
So having quite liked the trailer, I tuned in (apparently with 4 million others) to watch it last night, and I have to say it was really good. I lost count of the number of social and ethical issues around the future of technology that the show raised in just that first episode.
Here are some rambling descriptions of some of the issues I spotted that were interesting to explore in the programme. Warning – spoilers ahead!
In the very opening scenes, one of the “synths” (the robots) standing in a room full of synths slowly turns to look up at the moon. The Implication being that there is something more emotionally special about that one – that maybe a robot can appreciate the view of something beautiful, such as a clear, bright, full moon. We see her later staring at the moon from a garden too. As the plot unfolds, we are slowly discovering there are synths designed for emotions, but don’t quite know the ramifications of them yet, other than the fact that they appear to be in hiding among the “regular” synths.
When the family is struggling to cope with the mother being away working at the weekend, they (well, the husband and father), decide to buy a Synth, and immediately you are struck with the uncertainty of it being the right thing to do, by the looks on their faces … but the salesman wins out, with special finance deals and so on, just as it someone is buying a car. It is that easy.
On the way to the showroom, there are a number of times that you see a synth in the street doing things that people do today – handing out leaflets, giving directions and help people navigate public transport. What are the people who used to do those things doing now – do they have a life of luxury? Are they working elsewhere? We also see a number of synths working in a plantation picking food, doing repetitive, mechanical tasks, where they can work overtime and not need paying.
As things develop, we feel the sense of guilt that builds up with the mother, as Anita (their new household synth) steps in more and more with the youngest – reading stories (“but I like Anita reading to me – she doesn’t rush the stories”), or just how quickly the child adapts to having the synth around … (reminds me of the Paro therapeutic robot).
If that wasn’t enough, we have the old man attached to his young boy synth, so much so that he keeps hiding him and maintaining him himself, long after his health carers have tried to force him to upgrade. We don’t know why yet – is there a hint of being a son or grandson that never was? Is it companionship since his wife is gone? Is it something more sinister – perhaps an accomplice? I guess we will find out in time. Either way it is obvious that we are seeing emotional attachment built up here that was not anticipated when he was “issued” with his carer synth originally. We also get a sense of the trust he has in his synth, as we find out that it “knows too much” – something that could perhaps also be said of our technology today!
An interesting side plot point – the NHS has invested in 500,000 synths to support care work in general – although I think they need to upgrade the bedside manner of Vera if they are to catch on … but maybe that is a result of those heavily subsidised, bulk government, special offer personas from the company! Is this the “NHS synth” designed to a budget perhaps?
And then of course we have the teenage daughter’s relationship with the synth – it is a slave, to be controlled, to be abused, to be shot with an air rifle should she wish it. Why this hatred? We get a clue later – she sees no worth in continuing her education, the jobs are being performed by synths – why do people need education? Why to people need to work anymore at all? What is the point of sitting her exams at school? The resentment follows, alongside laziness – why bother even getting up to fetch something, when the synth can be told to do it for you?
We get glimpses of other dynamics too – the woman recovering from an accident (or is she disabled?) who has a hunky male synth giving her physiotherapy, and then carrying her to her bath, as her husband walks in. Will she grow closer to her synthetic carer we wonder, as her real-life partner fails to live up to the ideals of the synth?
We still don’t know the meaning of the pocketed ‘adult add-on pack’ that the male of the family found with their newly acquired synth. Once again there are implied ethics here – how far does the “command” extend. We see one working in the sex industry for example, but then find out it is actually one of the emotional ones in hiding “Did you turn off your pain sensors as I told you to?” “No, I was designed to feel pain” …
There are so many fascinating questions raised by this piece, that even if it has peaked out exploring social dynamics of technology and people, even if the plot doesn’t follow through on the promise so far, it has been very interesting to watch. I don’t think it will go down hill – the acting of the synths is superb. Just enough ‘uncanny valley’ behaviour to allow you to suspend belief and imagine the technology could exist today. The questions keep piling up and the plot is developing. It is a nice ‘just around the corner’ extrapolation, almost a parallel world where all other technology is the same (I wonder how they are powered).
And all the way through, @PersonaSynths maintains the “hey look, we’ve lent our products to a TV crew and they are using them in this great new drama” pretence which is continuing the innovative marketing style of the show. I particularly liked some of the tweets that went out whilst the show was airing:
I’ll leave the last word to them then:
In short, I look forward to the next episode. Fingers crossed it lives up to its initial promise.
(Aside, I now want to read up on the Swedish drama it is apparently based on. Actually, maybe I won’t as it has already been extensively documented – maybe I’ll just wait for the UK one to unfold).
I like to think I’ve been around a bit on the Internet, remembering my first exposure to web pages via IBM Web Explorer on OS/2 (don’t ask), following gopher information links, logging in to sites via command line FTP and I still remember my amazement when I first saw an ad on TV that included a URL, wondering how many people watching would actually know what to do with it.
So I find it fascinating when I find something that has been around for ages that I never knew existed. In this case, the Simple English “Translation” of wikipedia. Apparently this was created in 2003 and now boasts more than 100,000 pages. What brought me to this site was reading about the Euler Identity in the latest book to hit my bookshelves – Dataclysm (Euler – “He was a slacker” according to the footnote from Christian Rudder :)).
Searching for Euler Identity yeilded the Wikipedia entry as the first hit and the Simple English Version as the second hit. When I realised that you could use the “select language” option at the bottom of wikipedia pages to choose “Simple English”, I thought that was a really inspired use of the idea of language. I know techies often go to town with language and computers – just consider the Google “big data” approach to translation, Luis von Ahn‘s crowd-sourced approach using desire to learn language to translate the web with Duolingo and the fact that Unicode itself has been used to include non-Earth languages among its character set!
So when I thought about the idea of using “select language” to choose not just translations, but also approaches to conveying the information in the first place, I thought it was a really good idea, and looked a bit deeper on what else was available. It turns out there are actually a number of English language wikipedia sites:
And it turns out that there are also sites for:
Whilst they apparently didn’t want to split into British and American verisons, there is also apparently a schools wikipedia.
Naturally the first thing to do when one discovers the Simple English Wikipedia is to search for the most complicated subjects you can think of. Consequently, I present links to the Simple English guide to:
- Euler’s Identity (the article that started it all)
- Quantum Mechanics
- The Theory of Relativity – which includes the wonderful warning at the top of the page that “The English used in this article may not be easy for everybody to understand” (a warning worthy of Randall Munroe)
- Fermat’s Last Theorem
- Goldbach’s Conjecture
We’ve recently visiting the Warner Bros Studio Tour, which for now is geared up to show the Making of Harry Potter. If you are a Potter fan and haven’t been, then I recommend it. Being a film set, don’t expect to walk into shops in Diagon Alley or roam the corridors of Hogwarts, but do expect to see what lies behind the magic and be prepared for some amazing film scenery, models and props.
But what I thought was quite interesting was the fact that they had two houses from Privet Drive in the outside part, and we read about how they had build a small close of 10 houses for filming. But what is even more interesting is if you look up Leavesden Studios on Google maps and turn on the satellite view, right now the picture is as it was before the Harry Potter Tour was built – you can still see the older studios, the remnents of the runway (it used to be an airfield) and three rather curious structures in the grounds.
If you look really closely, you can spot the Privet Drive set (near the top and the main buildings) – complete with houses with only half their roofs built – Hagrid’s Hut (centre left) and what looks very much like the one life-sized part of the Hogwart’s bridge introduced in the Prisoner of Azkaban (towards the bottom, centre).
I don’t know what the refresh cycle of Google maps is, so don’t know how much longer it will show this historical arial view, but it is still quite interesting to see the sets they used for the films visible.
Working and being fascinated by computers and the Internet, I regularly come across interesting applications where someone has taken technology and done something quite unexpected with it.
But every now and again I happen upon something even more unexpected – a side effect of technology in action that is both quite unanticipated and extraordinary. The website Google Poetics is one such site.
If you use Google, I’m sure you’ve seen how it anticipates what you wish to search for. It is at times an interesting barometer for what the world is thinking about a topic. I remember a very topical time when typing ‘how to quit’ had ‘how to quit facebook’ right at the top. Probably after some Facebook update that was annoying people at the time. Today it has how to quit … smoking; smoking weed; your job; drinking. I don’t think this is personalised to me!
Now Google works very hard to anticipate everyone’s needs all as part of their mission to ‘return one search result – the one you want’.
But I doubt that even the engineers at Google anticipated that sometimes it will return a set of results that strikes a chord with people and actually means something quite profound. That is what Google Poetics is collecting – examples of poetry made from the accidental (or at least, algorithmic) collisions from millions of people searching using Google.
Here are some of my favourites so far.
Would you like me to
- Would you like me to be the cat
- Would you like me to seduce you
- Would you like me to
- Would you like me to rephrase the question
We are not p
- We are not permanent we’re temporary
- We are not pilgrims
- We are not pirates we are fishermen
- We are not promised tomorrow
As I turn
- As I turn the pages
- As I turn away
- As I turn up the collar on my favourite winter coat
- As I turn my back on you
Sometimes I p
- Sometimes I pretend to be normal
- Sometimes I pretend
- Sometimes I pretend I’m a carrot
- Sometimes I put my hands in the air
The examples above bought to you courtesy of @GooglePoetics. I could lose quite some time reading some of these. And all as a consequence of the Google algorithms (far to) honestly regurgitating the behaviours of millions with some quite profound results.
And another interesting property of these poems, is that they are changing and not always the same for all readers. Try it yourself – type the titles into Google and see what you get back for you. It will depend on your location, your search history, what everyone else has searched for recently and hundreds of other ‘small signals’ that combine within the walls of Google HQ to give you what it thinks you want. Imagine attempting to design a system from scratch that could do this. Talk about an emergent property!
Try it – its not quite as easy as I looks, and it can sometimes be dominated by song lyrics. But every now and again you might find a gem. If you do, make sure Google Poetics get to know about it.
Here is one of mine.
She is missing
- She is missing
- She is missing you
- She’s a freak never missin a beat
- She is missing me
Can computers write poetry? I think this is proof that they can, albeit as an unintended consequence of something quite different.
I’ve been reading “what if” on the xkcd blog recently. Its a very entertaining discussion of postulating about mathematics and physics solutions to hypothetical problems. And it made me think of something I’ve wondered about on and off, well, ever since I got involved in digital computing and that relates to the fact that a computer display is a large sequence of numbers and is basically finite. Yet it appears to be able to display anything you can imagine (and an awful lot that you probably can’t).
Each specific display is basically a very, very, very large number – including the screen I can see right now, i.e. some background windows on the Internet, WordPress ‘edit’ window open, characters appearing and so on. In fact every time a new character appears some digits in this very large number change. What do I mean by this? Well every display has a resolution. Early PCs had small resolutions, just enough for text. Then came things like VGA graphics providing a resolution of 480 by 640 pixels (picture elements) in the display. That means a total of 307,200 individually referenceable items.
Now if that is a black and white display, then each of those pixels can have just one of two values – 0 (off) or 1 (on). Like you drawing 480 dots in a line, then drawing 640 of these lines and each picture is made by colouring in black or leaving white each dot as required. Low resolution colour graphics might have 4 bits per pixel, allowing for 16 colours to be represented – each pixel is now described not just by 0 or 1, but by a number between 0 and 15, representing a colour. That means you’d need 307,200 times 4 bits storage to record the display on a screen, or approximately 1Mb (if I’ve got my maths correct).
Higher resolutions (such as the kind you might get on a non-smart, cheap PAYG phone these days) will need a larger number for each pixel until we get up to 24 bit colour, keeping VGA resolution, when you can have a red, green and blue value, each of between 0 and 255 for each of our 640 by 480 pixels. Combined you get a lot of colours but at the cost of needing much more storage – in this case 640 x 480 x 24 bits, or something approaching 7Mb per “screen”. I won’t go into more detail – as you might expect, there is a wikpedia article about the whole topic, so I refer interested readers there.
But getting back to the original point, taking the black and white 640 x 480 screen, that can be represented by a binary number containing 307,200 digits (2^307,200) or 2 times 2, 307,200 times. So that means you take a number and double it 307,200 times. That is the number of combinations of numbers that you’d need to count every combination that a 640×320 black and white display could possibly show. And that really would include everything that could possibly be shown on that display. So in the translation from an analogue photograph (for example) to a digital, 640×480 black and white image, the digitisation process takes something that has an infinite resolution down to one of a finite number of options – albeit still quite a large number of options.
Just adding in the 16 colours, we’d need a number that is 2 to the power of 1,228,800 – a binary number with over a million digits. So, when you factor in for today’s typical resolutions, my current screen is 1024 x 1280 with “32 bit colour”. That means a single screenshot from my computer is a number with 1024 x 1280 x 32 bits – or 2 to the power of 41,943,040.
So, how long would it take to cycle through the finite number of pictures that my computer monitor could potentially display? Well my maths is too rusty to transfer a 40 million digit binary number over into decimal to divide by seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries, millenia and so on. But by way of some context, the Universe is something like 14bn years old (or there abouts). That is 14,000,000,000 * 365 * 24 * 60 * 60 seconds or 43 followed by 16 zeros or so (in decimal). In binary that would be a number of around 60 to 70 digits I think. So we’d need to double the age of the universe over 40 million times if we were showing one screen a second, to cycle through the whole lot.
Such is the interesting power of contrasting infinite analogue resolution with finite digital resolution. It is very large, it can display practically anything we can imagine, but actually it is still a finite number. Just an unimaginarily large number. But of course what is more interesting still, is that infinity is still a lot larger than that.
I’ve recently got into Twitter, after having an account sitting unused for around 5 years and in that time some rather interesting, but slightly quirky videos have wandered past my twitter feed.
The Christmas Almost Number 1
First of all, a great candidate for a Christmas #1, but unfortunately they didn’t make it. They should have done. Funny, slightly tongue in cheek, a little humble, and musically very accomplished, is “Christmas Gets Worse Every Year” by ‘The Other Guys’ – 12 students from St Andrew’s University, in Scotland. See it for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YvZn1hgIvo
Thanks to the QI Elves (@qikipedia) for that one.
A Pale Blue Animation
This is a nice animation to accompany Carl Sagan’s monologue ‘A Pale Blue Dot’, itself inspired by the most distant photograph taken of Earth – a photograph from Voyager 1 from a distance of almost 4 billion miles away . A thought provoking, perspective giving monologue with a slick animation to nicely drive home the meaning. See it here: http://vimeo.com/51960515
A Father-Daughter Yearly Pilgrimage
This is a nice story – every year Steve Addis takes his daughter to the same street corner in New York and takes a photo of him holding her. Something that started when she was a year old. This is a TED talk he shares his 15 most treasured photos from doing this, and the experience of getting a random stranger to take their picture – and how no-one has ever declined. See it here: www.ted.com/talks/steven_addis_a_father_daughter_bond_one_photo_at_a_time.htm
I can’t remember where I first saw that one retweeted, but now I subscribe to TED Talks (@tedtalks) to make sure I don’t miss any more.
Don’t Assume Anything
This is another one that I saw courtesy of a retween from someone and then followed up. It took me to the site of Richard Wiseman, that contains a number of very well done videos that challenge your views of the world – this is a particularly nice optical illusion. See it here: http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/do-you-make-assumptions/
Now I follow Richard Wiseman (@RichardWiseman) too.
The Boy and His Robot
This is a lovely tale about a boy and is robot companion. It combines the imaginary with the real, an idea of a fantasy future with the here-and-now and love, hate and dependency. You might be tempted to click back after a couple of minutes to whatever you were doing before, but don’t – I thoroughly recommend watching the full 12 minutes. Its sensitively surprising. See it here: http://io9.com/5970839/a-lovely-short-film-about-a-boy-and-the-robot-he-cant-get-rid-of
Thanks to IO9 (@io9) for that one.
So a very interesting first few weeks on twitter – long may it continue.
Inbetween dozing on the train today, I happened to notice the person sitting next to me was typing on a laptop – as many often do. Then I noticed that rather than something that looked like an email or a formal document, she was typing raw text into notepad, so I looked a little closer and then saw what she was doing. She was writing a story; part of a narrative about a relationship.
Intrigued I then noticed the title of the document she was writing, and made a mental note, as I wondered if she was writing it to publish it anywhere or just writing for her own personal curiousity. Well it turns out that the story is part of a series of fan-fiction writings being published via a LiveJournal.
Now, I have to say I am not a fan of the specific subject in question, but then I seriously doubt I am her target audience either. But what really intrigued me though was to see a small glimpse of the creativity at work. How the author was using the time as part of a commute (I don’t know if its a regular commute or not) to escape from the mundanity of the day into her own private fantasy world, using that time to turn that private world into a publicly visible fantasy world for others to enjoy too.
The LiveJournal blog contains the prolific writings of two authors, and it would appear that for a small moment, I stumbled across part 7 of a 9 part series being created right there and then. It was interesting to see the care over writing, thinking, editing, deleting, writing some more and so on – the time taken to construct just a few phrases until they appeared to her liking.
I do wonder how many times during the day the author’s mind was with her fantasy world when it should have been on the real world and how long the entire work will take in terms of hours consumed to bring it to the public. How many more train journeys it will take.
In interesting short insight into the act of creation as it happens. I’ve made a mental note to check back in a month or two to see if the series is complete.
There is a lot of talk of “big data” – but I quite like the idea that big data means “more data than you have the computing power to process”. And that isn’t new. I particularly like this talk by John Graham-Cumming about big data – describing a big data problem they encountered … in the 1950’s. The blurb for the conference describes it thus:
It’s 1951 and you’ve got the world’s first business computer and you’ve just been handed a Big Data problem. Go! With 2K of memory it was powerful enough to run the then massive Lyons business. But it wasn’t long, in 1955, before Big Data came calling in the form of a request from British Rail to calculate the shortest distance between every one of their 5,000 railway stations.
So why mention it at all? Well there is an interesting discussion going on at the moment that we might soon be running out of metric units to describe big data. Andrew McAfee’s blog describes the problem:
Yotta- , signifying 10^24, is the only metrix prefix left on the list. Only 20+ years ago, we didn’t anticipate needing anything beyond yotta. It seems safe to say that before the current decade is out we’ll need to convene a 20th conference to come up with some more prefixes for extraordinarily large quantities not to describe intergalactic distances or the amount of energy released by nuclear reactions, but to capture the amount of digital data in the world.
Yotta? See wikipedia for the full list:
- kilo = 1,000
- mega = 1,000,000
- giga = 1,000,000,000
- tera = 1,000,000,000,000
- peta = 1,000,000,000,000,000
- exa = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
- zetta = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
- yotta = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
Yes, that is 1 followed by 24 zeros. But even that might not be enough.
So what is being considered? Well some have suggested hella for 1 followed by 27 zeros, but I think that is missing a great opportunity. I think it should be helluva. Then we can have distances that are a helluvameter, really heavy things that are a helluvagram and if you are into really big data then obviously you need storage that has a helluvabyte in it.
I just stumbled across this blog today – http://www.thisiscolossal.com. In the owners own words:
I like to describe Colossal as a blog that explores the intersection of art, design, and physical craft, specifically artwork that is tactile, physical and non-digital in nature. Each week you’ll find roughly 20-25 posts on photography, design, animation, painting, installation art, architecture, drawing and street art. There are frequently posts about things far out in left field, but generally Colossal is a reminder that in this digital age there are still countless people making incredible work with their bare hands.
Naturally there is a wonderful irony in using the tools of the digital age to promote art work that is firmly placed in the physical. It is great that these works can reach such a large audience, and the owner of the blog appears to live up to his word when he states that he spends a lot of time considering what to include.
If you have the time, I strongly recommend browsing through the visual gallery (a visual index to all the posts). If you want a quick taster, you could check out the top 20. Otherwise, here are some of my favourites from the most recent entries.
Birds on Twitter – Someone has attached bacon and fat to a keyboard, and when birds land to peck at it, the result is a series of rather odd looking tweets to the @hungrey_birds twitter account – interspersed with various tweets about the project and a bit of this and that too. Go back to March to see the tweeting birds …
Cardboard Stop-motion Animations – This is a video where frames have been turned into paper cut-out frames which themselves have been stop-motion animated. Again, you have to see the videos to appreciate this wonder. Very, very clever and quite effective.
Cloned Video Animations – These are a set of animated gifs that give the impression of one of those repeated patterns you’d get on a zoetrope. They are a bit large and slow to load, but well worth the effort and very slickly done.
Flawed Symmetry of Prediction – A time-lapse photography film that includes lots of amazing skylines, elements of graffiti and some perspective based optical illusions. It’s very well done.
Slit Scan Photography – what a great effect! And there is a classic moment where someone wanders by in the back corner of the video and goes a little wobbly too! This had me wandering off to wikipedia to read more about the technique – although I must admit I’m still not really any the nearer in understanding it …
Moleskine Notebooks Stop-motion Animation – an interesting idea, just take notebooks and animate a scene or several. Very smooth and inventive.
… and that just takes me back through a single month of the posts! I think this website will keep me busy for some time to come.
I get Make Magazine and from time to time find something that peaks my (software related) curiosity. This time it was an article about making synthesized music from data using the algorithms from Dr Jonathan Middleton’s Music Algorithms website – http://musicalgorithms.ewu.edu/
Basically this takes a sequence of numbers, scales it to a pitch range you select, gives you options for translating pitch – e.g. scale backwards, replace specific notes with another note, use division or modulo arithmetic, etc – and then gives you options for applying a duration to each note – either a fixed duration or using a scaling formula.
Finally you have the option to play it, download it as a MIDI file or see it in a crude representation of notation.
There are a number of ‘preset’ options to get you going – I experimented listening to pi, the Fibonacci sequence and their ‘chaos algorithm‘ using ranges of 0 to 88 (a full piano range) and 40 to 52 (basically an octave starting from middle C). I tended to use a fixed duration of 0 or 1 as it went by suitably quickly and kept things interesting.
Then I thought I’d try something a little different. Using the option to ‘import your own sequence’ I took a wander over to Google Trends. This plots the frequency of people searching for specific terms over time. If you login with your Google account you can download the results as a CSV and then its trivial to open it in a spreadsheet, select the column of results and paste it into the Music Algorithms form and listen to what something sounds like.
For my own entertainment, I had a listen to the following:
- Default ‘swine flu‘ search that Google Trends offers. This works well scaled 0 to 88, as the pitch then mirrors the graph quite well. I didn’t paste in all the zeros, just the portion with the shape and got a nice quickly peaking and decaying piece.
- Facebook is a good one … it goes from continuous low through a slowly rising scale, increasing in pitch and frequency of change as time moves on, finally tinkling along in the high register as search frequency fluctuates. This would be a really interesting one to do with number of users, scaling from Mark Zuckerberg as #1 up to user 1 billion …
- Considering the date, Halloween was an interesting one – you get a random sounding very quickly rising and falling scale and then silence … the ration of silence to scale is around 1 in 12 funnily enough and the pattern repeats 8 times (for 2004 to the present day) … this works well with a duration of 0 across the full piano range – nice and quick.
- The text ‘music algorithms‘ generated a curious pattern – reasonably random around a specific value, but that value has slowly decayed over time.
- Then I tried a whole range of whatever came into my head looking for an interesting graph – seeing fluctuating searches, lots of rising trends – then finally settled on Tim Berners-Lee. Not sure why! But that gives a nice, angry sounding (especially on duration zero) left-hand piano line for the majority of the data set, generally getting slightly lower, adding to the angry nature, until there is a quick high flourish representing him appearing in the Olympics opening ceremony!
I only played the MIDI files back using the standard instrument, i.e. a basic piano sound. It would be really interesting to actually use some of these data sets to define a synthesized timbre too. Could be the start of a very interesting musical piece.
What would be really interesting is to hook it up live to some Google or other Internet stats and then allow you to hear what is going on, say on Twitter. A bit like a musical version of The Listening Post. Maybe that could be a job for my Raspberry Pi …