April 18, 2019 § 3 Comments
I was eleven years old when Tron: Legacy was released. I didn’t know how to drive a car, nonetheless a motorcycle, but I knew that I wanted a light cycle. My brother and I spent the years following drawing out any and all modifications we’d make to the bikes, as well as creating different models. We were convinced we’d create a brand (like Audi or Jaguar) and release a new model once every 1-2 years.
Fast forward to 2019, however, and it’s already been created.
Meet Parker Brothers Concepts: Brothers Marc and Shanon collaborate with fabricators, welders, and craftsmen to create custom vehicles for their clientele. Imagine telling eleven-year-old me that this could actually be mine:
But it comes with a hefty price: $55,000 for D/C brushless motor and AGM batteries for limited range; $65,000 for upgraded motor and battery pack for extended range (compared to the standard model), as well as turn signals, headlights, mirrors, and other features; and $75,000 for the most upgraded motor and battery pack for over 100 miles of range, D.O.T.-approved headlights/taillights, turn signals, tag bracket with tag lights, bar-mounted mirrors, leather seating, and other features.
It’s unreal. Even if you’re not a Tron fan, imagine the possibilities… Doc Brown’s DeLorean DMC-12 Time Machine (Back to the Future). Aptera 2E (Star Trek). Hydrogen-fueled Lexus (Minority Report). Smart Car KITT (Knight Rider). Armored Personnel Carrier (Aliens). Ecto-1 Hearse (Ghostbusters).
Yep, the Parker brothers did a few of those too.
We might not be able to use the vehicles exactly as they’re used in their productions; however, we can still bring them into existence and use them however we’d like. (I say this in reference to things like spaceships and time traveling cars.) Some people in the sci-fi world have expressed these creations as being forms of art first- secondary to function- and I find that interesting in relating this back to Max’s blog on the “Meow Wolf” experience of immersive art. We’re constantly searching for ways to insert ourselves in the wonder-filled worlds of science fiction, whether that be by re-designing a warehouse, building simulations, creating virtual reality experiences, or replicating vehicles. Having science fiction on both the page and screen has proved to be far from enough; now we want to be in it. If we have the technology to at least simulate even the slightest aspect of these futuristic worlds, we will, and that’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we will continue to do.
P.S.- The Parker brothers are currently constructed a Mars Rover (below), but seriously go check it out: http://www.parkerbrothersconcepts.com/2020-mars-rover/
April 10, 2019 § 2 Comments
In many realms of science, people place a significant emphasis on what we consider to be “intelligent life.” We use our definition of what counts as “intelligence” when we allow the use of insects and animals in the laboratory; we brush off ethical concerns, often on the basis that these organisms are not close enough to us evolutionarily, or that they are not intelligent life forms, thus justifying our cruel use of them to serve our own ends.
We also use our idea of “intelligence” in our search for extraterrestrial life. If we find prokaryotes or bacteria on another plant, we probably won’t herald them as aliens, or view them as threatening competition. However, if we find life we deem “intelligent” (i.e. like the heptapods in “Arrival” who were able to travel to earth and had a form of written communication), the headlines would be everywhere.
Defining what “intelligence” means allow us to accept or dismiss other life forms, and gauge their impact on humans. In Alex Garland’s movie “Ex Machina,” AI experimenter Nathan decides that Ava is truly intelligent after she successfully convinces Caleb into thinking that she likes him, and earns his affections in return. To Nathan, Ava’s ability to manipulate Caleb emotionally qualifies her as being truly intelligent.
So, is the ability to manipulate a fair measurement of whether one is intelligent? Perhaps it is. Throughout human history, we have learned to successfully manipulate landscapes, chemicals, genes, crops, animals, and yes, other people, in order to survive and thrive. Many human triumphs, such as a more comfortable standard of living (for some), the efficient production of material goods, etc. are the result of successful manipulation. We manipulate the economy, each other (hello politics), and the law (i.e. loopholes), among other things, through institutions we have created.
Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” also emphasizes the role of manipulation. The narrator is able to hide under the gullible and giggly stereotype of a Beauty, allowing her to successfully manipulate her Designated Mate in order to gain access to valuable information. In this story, the narrator’s ability to manipulate is perhaps one of the main qualities that differentiates her from the other Beauties who she implies lack a certain degree of intelligence.
In Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena,” Carson wins a one-on-one battle against an alien life form by manipulating the barrier that separates them. Carson realizes that unconscious living organisms can pass through the barrier. He then proceeds to knock himself out so he can reach the alien on the other side and win the battle before he dies of thirst and his injuries. The alien did not figure this out, which resulted in the destruction of its entire species. In this story, one can argue that humans were the “intelligent” species and deserved to win, because Carson was able to successfully manipulate the barrier and end the battle.
On the other hand, in Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven,” the Martians are the intelligent species. The Martians are able to successful manipulate the humans into thinking that they are their dead relatives and friends. By employing strategic emotional manipulation, the Martians are able to kill off the human settlers.
It’s interesting to see how many science fiction stories zeroed in on the ability to manipulate as one definition of “intelligence.” Being able to manipulate is closely connected with the ability to think independently and creatively, so perhaps sci-fi really hit the head on the nail with this definition of intelligence.
April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the overall number of student athletes in high school sports has consecutively increased for the 29thyear now. As students get older, this increase in popularity for sports will likely extend into college and to the professional level. Consistent with this prediction, statistics from professional leagues like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have had increased ratings in the past years. ESPN’s audience for MLB rose 2% and ratings for the NBA increased by about 8% from 2017 to 2018. So, sports are becoming increasingly more popular. Similar to sports though, technology has also seen many advancements in popularity in the past decade. More and more people are either reading books and short stories or watching films from the science fiction genre. Could we possibly see an integration between sports and technology in the near future? Science fiction films and television shows have interestingly sparked this conversation in past years.
Filmed by director Shawn Levy, Real Steeltells the story of a previously prized boxer who lost his hopes of excelling in martial arts due to the rise of robotic boxing. Still passionate for the sport, he decides to create his own fighting robot from scrap metal who slowly rises in the ranks to the championship level. In the film, the ex-boxer typically controls his robot through voice command, but he can also use “shadow mode,” which allows the robot to mimic the controller’s physical actions as shown in the clip below.
Altogether, this film has helped to spark this conversation about intersecting technology and sports. Both engineers and sports enthusiasts can seek inspiration from this film and actually work together to design a new sport that is filled with cutting-edge technology. Just think about how cool that would be! While Real Steelhas promoted this idea, this film was not the first to come up with it. High school robotics club teams have been showing this intersection for many years now.
Arguably called a sport, high school robotics has shown that technology can be used in sport effectively. Led by coaches and mentors, teams from different high schools often spar and compete with each other in various robotics tournaments and leagues. One of the largest robotics leagues is the FIRST Robotics Competition, which consists of over 3,700 teams. Students in this league not only learn about STEM-related fields but also have fun in games and battles against other teams. Growing in popularity since 1992, this annual competition is now commonly covered by ESPN and has promoted the sport of robotics internationally. At this rate, robotics will continue to increase in popularity and potentially become a highly viewed sport in the future.
Similar to films like Real Steel, Megalo Box, a 2018 Japanese and science fiction anime television show, has also promoted the possibility of intersecting sports and technology. In this series, the protagonist namedGearless Joe is a classically trained boxer who tries to fight his way up through the ranks of a boxing league. Interestingly, in this technologically advanced society, all of the boxers in this league except Gearless Joe, as the name implies, use motorized gear that enhances their endurance, agility, and strength when fighting. Some of the gear even includes artificial intelligence (AI) driven robot arms. This allows boxers to learn from trial and error best and successfully combat an opponent’s fighting style. You can check out this awesome fight between Joe and a geared boxer below.
Interestingly, the AI technology from these boxing cyborgs in Megalo Boxreminds me of similar technology used by Iron Man when fighting Captain America in Captain America: Civil War. When beaten back to the wall, Tony Stark asks F.R.I.D.A.Y., a computer system that he created for his suit, to first analyze Steve Rodger’s fighting pattern and then choose a martial art fighting style to effectively counter him. As shown in the clip below, Stark accomplishes this task nicely and almost beats Captain America at the end of the fight.
More than just what is seen in high school robotics tournaments, both science fiction films and television shows hint at how sport can effectively be integrated with technology. Just imagine how cool many of our leagues today would be if players had enhanced and safe gear that made them perform better. Imagine NFL quarterbacks with geared-up arms throwing much faster passes to wide receivers. Additionally, imagine if basketball players had technologically enhanced legs that allowed them to jump even higher to throw down stronger monster dunks. In the next couple of years, we might just start hearing more about how athletes will use technology to help them perform better in sports.
April 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Derisively labeled by the Huffington Post as “’Pocahontas’ in Space.” James Cameron’s Avatar is by no means an original work. It can’t even be counted as a well-known eco-warrior film (An Inconvenient Truth ). Moreover, it is not the only example of media that tries to espouse the viewer to think critically about our own relationship with nature and the world around us.
What Avatar does manage do, however, is to introduce to a mass audience a romantic form of thinking about nature. In a more nuanced manner than, say, Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, the viewer is presented with the framework that has a justification for it (at least on Pandora).
What exactly is this romantic form of thinking about nature? First, it is not just ecological conservation. One can be an ardent environmental conservationist yet still reject this philosophy (more on why later). Instead, this thinking is probably best understood by what it isn’t: modernity. As Jonah Goldberg sums up in his book Suicide of the West, for tribes “a tree was many things – a source of fuel … shelter and tools, plaything for children… and a manifestation of some divine purpose or entity. Separating the practical ways of seeing a tree from the transcendent ones is a modern invention.”
In premodern days, human societies “layered meaning atop meaning, horizontally, like one sheet of tinted film on top another.” Now, however, the immediate frame of mind is to compartmentalize these meanings, rather than managing the abstract and incomprehensible.
One particularly testy exchange in Avatar illustrates this perfectly. Dr. Grace Augustine tries to explain to Colony Administrator Parker Selfridge the damage he had caused by bulldozing a sacred Na’vi site. Parker begins by dismissing her concerns, arguing that “you throw a stick in the air here, and it’s gonna land on some sacred fern.” Dr. Augustine’s response is the following:
“I’m not talking about some pagan voodoo here. I’m talking about something real… something measurable, in the biology of the forest … electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. …it’s a network, it’s a global network and the Na’Vi can access it… upload and download data, memories.”
Dr. Augustine is trying to say that man should not view trees as single objects, but rather emblematic of larger entities. In the lingo of modern science and technology (“upload and download data”), Augustine attempts to translate to Parker (and indirectly the moviegoer) how the forest could have been truly sacred and transcendental.
Of course, Parker simply fails to understand, much less acknowledge, this viewpoint. “What the hell have you people been smoking out there? They’re just goddamn trees!” He responds. Their final dialogue is an argument about which one of them “need[s] to wake up.” As this exchange makes clear, the modern and romantic are two, completely incompatible ways of viewing reality. If you choose one reality, the other must be a hallucinated dream. Scully’s dual life as a Na’Vi and a human is a parable of this fact.
As an utilitarian, I completely disagree with the fundamentals of romantic philosophy. Nonetheless, I do believe engagement with this frame is important. Therefore, I want to present the history of Avatar’s Na’vi philosophy, which in our world has been echoed by poets and philosophers for centuries.
One of the most famous examples of such thinking emerges in late 17th century with Jean de la Fontaine’s work La Foret et Le Bucheron. Fontaine points out the irony of a woodman using the wood of the tree as an axe handle, while proceeding to chop down the very tree with the same axe:
“Twas thus the Woodman spoke.
The innocent Forest gave the bough.
The Woodman hacked both oak and fir!“
The trees are presented as helpless, giving the woodman the weapon for it’s own demise. Man’s exploitative nature ravages the earth with no concern for the tree.
In the “modern” era, this frame of mind found its best advocate in German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger believed there was a “difference between older forms of technology (the windmill, for example, which draws its energy from the wind but does not extract and store that energy) and modern technology which exploits and exhausts–in Heidegger’s terms, “challenges”–our planet’s resources.”
In Heidegger’s view, modern industrial societies had begun to view nature as a “standing reserve.” In short, this terminology is the idea that nothing in the world, even nature, is “good” in and of itself, but only “good for” something. Even for the environmentally conscious to call themselves “conservationists” suggests such groups are not there to challenge the system, but rather to help it more effectively exploit and try to satisfy an ultimately insatiable appetite. The impact is that there will come a day when “humanity itself [turns] into [a] standing-reserve.”
This impact is shown in the post-apocalyptical Earth of Avatar. At the beginning of the movie, Jake Sully, a disabled former marine, is treated with disdain. Having completed his military service, he no longer has any value to society. However, because of his genetic material being the same as his twin brother, Tom, he is approached to be part of the Avatar project. Because Tom represented “a major investment” by the company, Jake by extension now has value.
But it is more than just Jake who is commoditized. In an almost slapstick manner, Colony Administrator Parker Selfridge complains he is at the mercy of the company’s investors for turning out excellent quarterly results. Colonel Miles Quaritch is loyal to his military code, but is nonetheless fatally flawed as he does not see himself as just a commodity providing “private security.”
Heidegger does leave a way out. While the vehicle of modern technological machinery puts humanity in danger, humanity nonetheless can get out of the driver’s seat by a new orientation towards technology. This does not mean, according to Heidegger, of disposing Science. Reality of course exists: trees exist, the earth exists. But he believes we can approach it with frame of mind that harkens to a deeper truth, much like what Dr. Augustine does in Avatar.
Unfortunately, as well as I understand this philosophy, I still cannot accept it as truth. Heidegger’s recommendation is merely that we “rethink.” He does not conclude with any recommendations of action. But rethinking isn’t going to do anything for anyone’s next meal.
Indeed, while Avatar may seem to conclude with the hero’s success, it is clear such a victory is pyrrhic and one-sided. What about the millions of people on Earth who are starving due to the Unobtanium energy crisis? These are women and children who must reckon with a bleak economic future thanks to the events on Pandora. The loose end by corollary suggests Sully’s victory was temporary: as Unobtanium prices continue to rise on Earth, a crushing “second-wave” military expedition to Pandora is unavoidable. Ultimately, the ground truth is that the only thing the hungry masses care about is their next meal. To say anything more, as Parker hints at in his bewildered response to Dr. Augustine’s explanations, one will have to light up some really dank stuff.
— Wenhao Du
 “‘Avatar’ = ‘Pocahontas’ In Space,” Huffington Post, March 18, 2010.
 Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West.
 Fontaine, Jean. “Forêt et Le Bucheron.” 2015.
From Jean Fontaine, The Fables of La Fontaine, 776. London; New York: Project Gutenberg.
April 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
In James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi action movie Avatar, the themes of colonialism and environmental destruction show a connection to the scientific exploration that has become the basis for much of what we understand about our world today. The plot of Avatar borrows from a wide range of source material, and was clearly inspired by several previous literary works. Cameron may have based his movie off of works such as “The Word for World is Forest,” by Ursula K. Le Quin, Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, among others. However, the movie’s plot also mirrors the complex history of scientific discovery and exploration in the 15th to 18th centuries in several ways.
Fueled by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, scientists and naturalists were able to discover, ship, and dissect flora and fauna samples from around the world. Slave traders and early naturalists worked closely together, according to science historian Kathleen Murphy. She told Science Magazine that naturalists often hired slave ship surgeons as specimen collectors. Their exposure to new environments and basic anatomical and scientific backgrounds enabled them to collect samples, and even to train some slaves to help them. This specimen collection led to increased anatomical, botanical, and evolutionary knowledge which have revolutionized the modern world, but it was only possible because of colonialism and the cruel practices of the slave trade.
Similarly, in Avatar, the inhumane actions of a group of colonizers looking for resources – in this case unobtanium, rather than human slaves – allow for the scientific exploration of a foreign location. In both the case of human history, and in the film, however, this exploration came at a high cost for those native to the regions. In the movie, humans have depleted Earth’s natural resources and the Resources Development Administration (RDA) are driven to mine a heavily forested moon, called Pandora, for an energy source called unobtanium. Pandora is also native to a host of phenomena and species foreign to Earth, including a race of highly-evolved, blue humanoids called the Na’vi.
Although the native Na’vi are not the objects of capture and enslavement, as was the case with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they suffer from the mining of their human invaders, nonetheless. The RDA’s administration, and its private security force, led by colonel Miles Quaritch, stop at nothing to attempt to deplete Pandora’s unobtanium resources. Quaritch and his men kill the Na’vi, and actively destroy Na’vi settlements, not to mention their ecosystem, when they impede the RDA’s mining efforts.
In both the case of the slave trade, and in Avatar, the understanding gained from the scientific discoveries which resulted had the power to revolutionize the way the world was viewed. As a part of the effort to explore Pandora’s biosphere and harvest its resources, a group of scientists is also at the RDA base, taking samples of the flora and fauna in a similar manner to early naturalists. They genetically link themselves with Na’vi-human hybrid bodies, called “avatars,” in order to better explore the planet’s environment. Scientist Dr. Grace Augustine heads the Avatar program, taking samples and collecting data from the soil, plants, and animals of Pandora, while seeking the least disruptive way to mine for unobtanium. During the course of the team’s sampling, Dr. Augustine discovers that Pandora’s ecosystem acts as a biological neural network. She argues with the administration that bulldozing the trees to mine will disrupt this system, which she has only just begun to understand.
The obvious difference between the slave trade and unobtanium mining, as relates to their scientific implications, besides that humans were the sought-after resource in Africa as opposed to a mineral, is that one is a fictional story. There are many things that can be taken away from the similarities and differences between the plot of Avatar, and the real-life story of slavery on Earth. One of these takeaways should be the understanding that many, if not most, of the specimens and naturalists responsible for developing modern science were collected as a result of a horrific event in human history. Cameron may or may not be attempting to show this truth in Avatar, but the unnamed slaves will never be credited for their connection to the discoveries we read about in museums. However, we should, as humans, acknowledge this history.
by Liam O’Brien
April 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth” – George Orwell (1984)
The idea of memory manipulation and its various tropes have long been a staple in science fiction. The 1880 novel Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process by American author Edward Bellamy was one of the first and looked at the positive aspects of memory erasure in his novel where the main character dreams of a doctor who can erase painful memories and make individuals feel whole again. Isaac Asimov used it in his novel Foundation and Empire where memory erasure used as a form of security clearance is regularly practiced. Even in the present day we find memory erasure as a common trope in movies such as the Bourne Films (2002 – 2016), Memento (2000), or the mind-boggling Inception (2010).
So why the fascination with memories? As humans, we see memories as the ultimate safe, containing all of our experiences, emotions, and thoughts. Ultimately, these memories become the gate to ourselves. The idea is relatively simple; when we think about a memory, let’s say your first middle school dance, you believe that you are that pre-pubescent teen in your memory. This sense of mineness that you attribute to your memory is what makes them so important to your personal identity. Philsophers, the likes of Locke, Butler, and Humes, have also generally come to the unanimous conclusion that memory is one of the largest drivers of personal identity and thus the lack of any sense of memory compromises one’s own notion of self. This creates a goldmine for science fiction because with the alteration of memories comes the potential consequences of changing a person’s self-identity or by giving memories creates an entirely new identity.
Now that we’ve established why memories are so important in science fiction. Let’s look at the science behind them. While the entire process is extremely complicated it can be boiled down to a few steps:
- Encoding – This is the process by which your hippocampus consolidates all of the sensory signals at a singular moment (i.e. people you see, things you hear, etc.). Neurons and synapses are what drive this part of the process and every time you have a new experience, new synapses are formed in your brain.
- Memory Storage – This process has yet to be fully understood, but scientists do know that we have short-term and long-term memory. The movement of information from short-term into long-term seems to be via the importance of it as the most you use certain information the more likely it is to becomes long-term.
- Memory Retrieval – This is what people mean when they say they have a “good” or “bad” memory. Essentially, we unconsciously bring forth a memory that we have already encoded to the forefront.
This simple diagram is what has been serving scientists as a guide in creating tomorrow’s technologies.
The first studies in memory erasure were conducted in 2007 using the drug propranolol which was given to 19 accident or rape victims. After a week of using the drug, victims were able to recount their experiences with much less signs of physical trauma (i.e. raised heart rate) compared to their placebo peers. While not a complete memory erasure it did allow participants to theoretically weaken the synapses responsible for the memory, leaving them with a hazier memory of the situation.
Another drug, U0126, was given to rats who had developed an association between Sound A, Sound B, and an electric shock. When the drug was given while Sound A was played, the rats did not brace themselves for a shock when Sound A was played later while they still braced for Sound B.
Experiments with electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) were also found to be relatively successful in memory erasure. Participants who were asked to recall a specific memory and then given ECT bursts could not give any details about the memory a day later.
All three of these experiments play on “reconsolidation” which occurs when you retrieve a memory and in the process restrengthen the synapse and all its associations (i.e. tying a memory to feelings of hope or despair). By having participants recall a memory while being given a drug or ECT bursts, scientists are able to selectively de-strengthen the connections for just a single memory. Theoretically, if patients were to continually recieve such treatment for a few weeks or months this would completely erase the memory and all its created associations.
On the flipside, multiple studies have also been conducted on how to implant memories in our heads. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus is the pioneer in this field and conducted the first studies where she convinced 25% of people that they had been lost in a mall as a child by adding it into a recount of their lives as told by their families. Following studies have convinced people that they have choked on food, smashed windows, or hurt themselves with yield of up to 40% in some cases. While all these studies rely completely on a psychological view of memory, they do offer insight into how malleable our own sense of background is.
And just recently, two scientists from MIT have successfully chemically implanted a memory into a mouse using a technique which allowed them to find the particular synapse responsible for fear and manipulate it.
So now that the technology is catching up to the science-fiction, where does that leave us? Well, there are the immediate ethical questions surrounding both memory erasure and implantation which concentrate around the idea of personal identity. Would removing a particularly bad experience, or at the very least dampening it, change the way we view our past? Or would we perhaps forget the lessons that we learned from those particular experiences? The preliminary answers lie in patients who have various forms of dementia. Due to the inability to retrieve certain autobiographical moments, dementia patients tend to respond to certain environmental stimuli differently than they did before, making many believe that memory erasure would have similar effects. But some argue that the point of memory erasure is exactly that – to remove the “bad” memories and return to the way we interacted with the world prior to whatever incident took place.
However, it doesn’t just end there, the implications of public access to memory erasure and implantation are far-reaching. On the positive end, would we be able to reduce diseases such as obesity or addiction by selectively introducing memories that work as negative reinforcement? Or maybe the incidence of violence would go down if we could remove memories that might induce anger?
But looking at the negatives… How would witness tampering rules and regulations change where witnesses could be made to believe that a crime did or did not happen? Or on the flip side, would past exposure to memory manipulation technologies dismiss you as a potential witness? What would become of our own perception of self if we knew that we could constantly change it to make the ideal form of ourselves?
And there’s the obvious question of what happens when such technology becomes state controlled as will soon be the case when DARPA’s “memory erasure” technology continues to grow in the name of curing war-induced PTSD.
Memory manipulation technology is unique in that it’s technological advancements are reaching a point where the science-fiction is meeting reality. Thus, it is up to the upcoming generation to make sure its ethical and wordly implications are taken into account before we end up with a world where everyone’s memories are constantly manufactured and replaced.