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  Quick Links for 2007-11-23  
Posted 2007-11-23 by Tony Walsh
  Quick Links for 2007-11-14  
Posted 2007-11-14 by Tony Walsh
  Chatterbots Evolve in ‘Second Life’  
Posted 2007-07-01 by Tony Walsh
Chatterbots Evolve in ‘Second Life’
Image credit: Gary Hayes.
Distinguishing between a Second Life avatar controlled by a person and one controlled by scripts has always been easy. The Second Life suite of tools doesn't come equipped with realistic non-user characters. As a result, "bots" have resembled cubist paintings and have conveyed limited intelligence--a fair comparison between bots and human-controlled avatars hasn't really been possible, as the latter seem so much more lifelike. This becomes a problem when you'd like to build a hotel, for example, and your staff look like they've been made out of Lego bricks, or if you've constructed a fantasy castle and its king's ability to communicate is on par with the village idiot.

One of the chief advances in Second Life technology--the ability for the virtual world to request data from the web--facilitated the return of the classic A.L.I.C.E. chatterbot, which powers the SL Chatbot project. Combine this with a more recent Second Life advancement--the advent of "sculpties"--and bots are capable of taking a much more believable form. It's also possible (but inefficient) to rig a user avatar to run on autopilot, leveraging chatterbot tech.

Continue reading: Chatterbots Evolve in ‘Second Life’
  Cyveillance Sends Me a Nastygram  
Posted 2006-11-07 by Tony Walsh
I just received a hilarious nastygram from Cyveillance, a self-described "internet monitoring agency" that can't tell its ass from a hole in the ground. Cyveillance's robots believe I require the authorization of Nintendo of America Inc. in order to discuss trademarked Nintendo properties. The robots also believe that Clickable Culture is a sexually-explicit web site. The robots are wrong: I don't require any corporation's permission to criticize or satirize its intellectual property, and, obviously, this blog is not sexually-explicit. Not even the post cited in the complaint is sexually-explicit.

Nice try, Cyveillance, but you haven't done a thing to protect Nintendo's brand. If anything, you've raised awareness of the object of your complaint. Your overzealous and misguided request doesn't just make you look bad, it makes Nintendo look bad by association. It's one thing to shoot yourself in the foot, but why take your client down with you?

As I wrote last year, Cyveillance is under the impression its system is infallible. As shown by its system's inability to detect my mockery, and with the automated delivery of its misguided nastygram, the company has demonstrated that its system is as deeply flawed as I'd guessed. Never send a robot to do a human's job, you knuckleheads. Following is the full text of the message. Note that the company hasn't actually accused me of infringement, but the language was constructed to suggest I've committed a serious transgression.

Continue reading: Cyveillance Sends Me a Nastygram
  Armed Robot to Patrol Korean Border  
Posted 2006-09-29 by Tony Walsh
South Korea unleashed its very own battlemech yesterday, intended to hunt down and "supress" North Koreans at the border and eventually become part of the army's regular forces. Reported capabilities include:
  • Detect humans at distances of up to 2km
  • Armed with machine gun and rubber bullet weapon.
  • Identify an enemy at distances up to 10m through a password. ["You have ten seconds to comply!"]
  • Sensor-activated alarm systems and closed-circuit TV cameras
It remains to be seen if the robots will be a more cost-effective alternative to humans in the long run.

If it ever gets to the point where both sides are using robots, the Koreans might as well put the hardware away and settle their differences through video game simulations of robot armies fighting over accurately-modeled terrain. If one side could easily overpower the other in the simulated war, why bother to conduct a real one? Game over, man--and without spilling an ocean of blood.
  LEGO Storms ‘Second Life’  
Posted 2006-07-15 by Tony Walsh
LEGO's Mindstorms robots will be making their Second Life debut in coordination with a live event being held in San Francisco next Thursday. A joint effort between Linden Lab, the Electric Sheep Company, and Flashpoint PR, the event will be held simultaneously at Wired Magazine's headquarters, and on the island of Supernova in Second Life on July 20th at 3:00 PM Pacific Time. Live video of Wired staff members shilling Mindstorms will be piped into Second Life, where residents can display robot-themed works created with virtual Mindstorms LEGO pieces. But why would anyone build with LEGO in Second Life?

In the real world, LEGO Mindstorms make sense as a plug-and-play, consumer-level robot-creation kit, solving the problem "I can't build a functional robot easily." In Second Life, LEGO Mindstorms don't solve any problem at all. Second Life already has its own building blocks known as "primitives," freely available in a wide variety of morphable shapes. These building blocks can already be used to create complex, programmable 3D objects of nearly any size or shape--including, ironically, the virtual LEGO bricks used to make virtual Mindstorms robots. Second Life is already a solution to the problem "I can't build a functional 3D object easily." Unfortunately for its Second Life marketing effort, LEGO isn't adding any value to the virtual world.
  Brain-Controlled VR System  
Posted 2006-07-07 by Tony Walsh
Real thoughts have been converted into virtual actions thanks to the Brain-Computer Interface Project, reports The Observer's Jo Revill. The project, funded by the UK government and developed by University College London's VECG group, involves electronically reading EEG patterns emitted by the human brain. The patterns are parsed into instructions carried out in a virtual reality environment. According to The Observer, the system has been used to allow a paraplegic to explore a virtual cave by thinking about moving his feet: "'I found it exciting, very exciting,' he said afterwards. 'At first it all felt strange, having the cap on and being asked to think about moving my feet, but gradually I felt as if I was in that world. At one point I completely forgot it was a virtual world and that I was part of this experiment. It was really interesting, and much more enjoyable than I expected.'"

In case you're keeping track of these sorts of things (I certainly am), we've seen: Human brain-controlled robots, monkey cyborgs, subvocalization control systems, brain-operated Pong, and eye-controlled augmented reality. With these sorts of interfaces seemingly becoming less intrusive over time, I wonder if we'll ever have to "jack in" to a Gibsonian cyberspace?
  Physical Avatar Indicates IM Presence  
Posted 2006-06-26 by Tony Walsh
Physical Avatar Indicates IM Presence
London-based design shop Schulze & Webb has created a toy-like physical avatar that is intended to indicate the presence of an instant-messaging buddy. Dubbed the "Availabot," the USB-controlled avatar is flaccid when one's IM buddy is not available to chat, and stands at attention when one's buddy is chat-ready. Furthermore, the little critter is customizable, combining standard and rapidly-prototyped body parts. Thanks to currently-available 3D-ripping software and rapid-prototyping tools, creating out a custom Availabot based on one's virtual world avatar or videogame character shouldn't be too difficult.

Realistically, the Availabot less represents consumer-oriented technology than artist-level technology. Most people have too many IM buddies and too few USB ports to make the Availabot a practical tool.
  Death on the Screen  
Posted 2006-06-02 by Tony Walsh
 delves into the operation of American unmanned air vehicles used in military operations: "In Las Vegas a pilot pulls the trigger. In Iraq a Predator fires its missile."

What is of interest to me in the article is its description of remote-controlled warfare. Telegraph contributor Francis Harris writes "Sitting side by side in dark, air-conditioned cabins, the pilot and sensor operator have to interpret activity in terrain as varied as the deserts and towns of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Surrounded by technological wizardry that includes flight controls, maps and computer screens, it would be easy to drift. Sgt Mac Mackenzie, 41, an Army sensor operator who has served in Northern Ireland and Iraq, said: 'It is not always appreciated that this is what we have to do. You are just staring at the screen. Then suddenly it can go live, you're involved in an engagement, a target appears and everything is turned on its head.'" This transition might be jarring for a 41-year-old, but for the latest generation of gamer kids, remote warfare will be a piece of cake.

Today, the U.S. military is actively recruiting through its America's Army videogame (in some cases targeting kids under the age of 15) and new recruits are generally gamers [source]. Gamers are experts at managing interfaces, adapting to new control systems, and engaging in screen-based killing. In my limited understanding of real warfare, it's desirable to do as much remote killing as possible. The more literal or figurative distance from the kill, the better--not only for the safety of the attacking soldier, but to create a disconnect between pulling the trigger and its end result. Physical distance is one thing, but when a screen is introduced, surely a vast psychological distance is added. Today's young gamers are capable of executing virtual-reality genocide in a matter of hours--will this efficiency suffer when real war is fought through a game interface?

Continue reading: Death on the Screen
  Robot Controlled Via Human Brain Interface  
Posted 2006-05-25 by Tony Walsh
Wired News relays an AP story claiming that Honda has harnessed human brain-juice to facilitate control of a robot: "A person in the MRI machine made a fist, spread his fingers and then made a V sign. Several seconds later, the robotic hand made the same movements. Further research would be needed to decode more complex movements." I'm imagining complex movements would entail crushing someone's ribcage with a spiked titanium claw, but I'm funny that way.

Brain-controlled technology isn't new, but it is cool, in a scary kind of way. In 2006, "subvocalization" technology was used to map brain to jaw to electrodes. In 2004, a man wired to a PC was able to "operate a TV, open e-mail and play Pong with 70% accuracy." In 2003, research monkeys were hard-wired to control a robot and play games. I think it's safe to say that brain-controlled technology is the Holy Grail of the human-computer interaction industry.
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