technology


After the death of all of it’s polar bears, presumably because being dead is simply a more reasonable and respectable lifestyle choice than being a polar bear in St. Louis, the St. Louis Zoo has decided to make the most retarded decision possible over what to do for their Christmas display. That decision? To replace the dead bears with animatronic facsimiles. Which is to say, robotic polar bears.

Merry Fucking Christmas, Kids.

Really shitty robotic polar bears.

You can tell this is a retarded decision because PETA supports it, and it’s a well known fact that PETA is a front group for the meat industry designed to make every person who has even a semblance of respect for animal rights look like a brain damaged asshole through the consistently ludicrous, offensive and well publicized actions of PETA.

While Gizmodo expressed the completely reasonable concern that the development of a robot bear army is bad news, there is worse to this decision than just it’s implications in the inevitable robot uprising. It will serve as a nightmarish warning to the rest of the zoo’s charges, who will only be able to reasonably conclude that their departed bretheren have been returned to them in a state of horrific un-life, unable even in death to escape the dread clutches of St. Louis.

The folks at Chuck E. Cheese have to be fucking elated at this development though, knowing that they have a whole slew of new business opportunities building shitty robotic versions of actual animals that are too difficult or expensive for small zoos to acquire or keep. Did your rare white tiger get mauled to death by a pair of lions? Why not replace it with a version that costs half as much, never needs medical care or food, and erupts into a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ every hour on the hour?

And why stop at making inroads into crafting zoo animals that can also play the banjo and terrify children? When real polar bears go extinct in ten years, we can just place animatronic bears on ice floes to star in our wildlife films and keep elephant seals in their fucking place.

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The i Phone – it’s not just for making your friends jealous and checking your email on the bus any more. Researchers at MIT have developed an app for everyones favorite handheld that allows users to control an unmanned drone via their very own palm pilot. It’s quite a feat just one year after their colleagues at UC Berkeley managed to control a small fleet of UAVs from an iPhone.

Between simpler methods of controlling the small wonders and more efficient power sources like solar panels and next gen batteries, UAVs are poised to make a jump from indiscriminate killing machine to phenomenally effective intelligence gathering devices that can operate over long ranges at little risk. Imagine if, rather than maybe probably almost killing a Taliban leader in Pakistan after definitely killing their fairly harmless wives, these things could gather intelligence on where he and his cohorts actually were. Imagine a fight against the Taliban that doesn’t involve us tossing Hellfire missiles around pell mell at every possible target.

Doesn’t that sound like a more effective war? Doesn’t that sound like a war that doesn’t give the people we’re fighting for an endless string of reasons to fear us? Doesn’t that sound like a war we could win?

Oh, BBC, you’ve put me in a wicket that is ever so sticky.

On the one hand, I’m as ready as anyone for a serious rethinking of how we use Predators and other UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s particularly important in the latter theater, where civilian casualties caused by drone strikes play a major part in turning public opinion against US and NATO forces. The fact of the matter is that we don’t win the war against the Taliban in the region until we end public perception that we are the enemy, and we don’t end that perception until we stop killing civilians. Because frankly, until we stop killing civilians, we are the enemy to the vast majority of people on the ground in Afghanistan.

Since I’m on record as feeling this way, I couldn’t be happier to hear that Professor Noel Sharkey, who has been talking for years about the need for a reconsideration of whether the new face of modern warfare is a net improvement. For the soldiers who get to control these heavily armed automatons from half a world away, it certainly seems like it. But if we’re unable to distinguish civilian from combatant – a task that’s often difficult enough for a soldier on the ground – then are we really making wars more winnable? Or are we just making the rules a little different?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

Maybe, by their definition, there’s no such thing as a safe weapon. But there’s a clear line between weapons that are ready to be used safely and ones that aren’t. And it’s time for a serious conversation about where UAVs and other robotic weaponry are in that process. Are they highly advanced? No doubt – technology has made undeniable strides from the days when all that robot warriors could do was rock ’em and/or sock ’em. But are they fool proof? Hardly, and when they’re not, the results are disastrous. So yeah, I’m happy that the media is giving the subject some love.

But really, BBC – did you have to run Jason Palmer’s excellent story on the matter under the headline ‘Call for debate on killer robots‘?

Oh, sweet God, I am in trouble.

Talking Points Memo has set up Twitter rooms, collecting all the Twitter feeds of elected representatives and political insiders on both sides of the aisle in one easy to find, constantly updating place. So now I don’t have to jump all over, constantly updating the feeds of different politicians to keep up with their antics.

I very well may never sleep again.

Kindle owners beware – that electronic copy of a book you thought you purchased and, thus, owned? Not so much.

As it turns out, the publishers to whom Amazon is so beholden for Kindle content still own the content. That’s why they can decide at a whim to give you back your money and have your copies of books erased from your digital device without notifying you until the deed is already done.

That’s what happened to hundreds of Kindle owners who thought they had purchased safe, legal copies of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Copies of these novels were erased from Kindles under cover of darkness last night. This morning, Amazon sent affected users a form e-mail, noting that there had been a “problem” with their digital copies of the book and crediting their Kindle store accounts, the digital equivalent of a “Had a nice time, call you soon”  note left on the end table by someone slinking out of a one night stand.

The gall of invading peoples privacy  this way aside, Amazon’s caginess on the matter sets a troubling precedent for similar issues in the future, as does their refusal to define just what the “problem” with the books was. Were they riven with typos? Were they illegal copies, and if so what were they doing on the Kindle store in the first place? Were they alternate texts that were never meant to see the light of day – a copy of 1984, for example, that culminates in Winston Smith’s flamethrower rampage through the heart of London?

Why, in other words, is it okay to access and erase user data without notification or permission, but out of bounds to discuss why it was done?

More new images from Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and you can check out the whole spread at their website here. They aren’t as impressive as the last composite of the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy, but for images that still represent rough drafts of the data we can eventually hope to see after the equipment on board the probe is fully calibrated, they’re exceptionally promising.

Though something less than breathtaking aesthetically, these shots do give Herschel a chance to flex it’s analytical muscle. Each image is more than just a still photo of celestial objects like the Cat’s Eye Nebula. The observatory also provides important data on their physical properties and chemical composition by taking photos of objects at specific wavelengths.

A recent Twitter post alluding to failed activities and urgent re-planning aside, calibration on Herschel seems to be going swimmingly, with results so far exceeding researchers expectations. Scientists at the European Space Agency are sanguine that they will have the observatory running at full speed shortly, and hope to have new scientific results courtesy of the data the craft will provide before the end of 2009.

Between headline grabbing tales of plane crashes, South American coup d’ etats and untimely demises of high profile celebrities, it’s understandable that less sexy stories might fall through the cracks. And if there’s anything less sexy to mainstream media than the super fast translation of neurological messages, I’m hard pressed to think of what it would be.

That said, a couple of stories about doing just that managed to sneak in under the radar this week. And while restoring motion to paralyzed individuals might not be the sort of thing that gets CNN’s engine revving, it’s just the sort of thing that makes my heart go all aflutter. I’m a little weird that way, I guess.

Apparently the BSI-TOYOTA Collaboration Center knows just how to get me of a temper. Researchers there have develeoped a wheelchair controlled by the brainwaves of a subject. The wheelchair, which has been in development since 2007, has a 95% accuracy rate in translating brainwaves into simple directional controls like backward, forward, left and right. Even more impressively, it does so in fractions of a second, courtesy of a groundbreaking method of brain-machine interface that separates pertinent brain signals from the ‘white noise’ of EEG readings to analyze brainwave patterns several times faster than conventional methods.

Between this sort of advanced translation and research at the University of Washington that bypasses damaged nerves completely, the prospect of one day restoring limb function to paralyzed individuals has never been more realistic. And as a happy side effect of the technology, bloggers will one day to post updates just by thinking about them. Take that, my future case of carpal tunnel syndrome!

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