Above you'll find a fascinating one hour overview of the current state-of-the-art of robotics technology, with some of the world leaders in this endeavour giving five minute summaries of their work, then sitting down to discuss the issues involved.
- Russ Tedrake - Director, Center for Robotics, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab
- Sangbae Kim - MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
- Mick Mountz - Founder, Kiva Systems
- Gill Pratt - Program Manager, DARPA Robotics Challenge, DARPA Defense Sciences
- Marc Raibert - Founder, Boston Dynamics
- Radhika Nagpal - Self-organizing Systems Research and Robotics Group, Harvard University
That by itself is meaty enough. But why stop there, when we can take a closer look at the specifics of these projects? Step through them all, examining to what degree they're driving us towards utopia or oblivion; or both at the same time. Pausing occasionally to take a look at related issues during our journey across the robotic landscape of the present and near-future.
We start then with the latest video of MIT's Cheetah, in full, showing off its LIDAR vision upgrades that enable it to quickly identify and jump over obstacles:
And here we have the Chinese clone of Boston Dynamics' Big Dog:
Robotics technology has reached the point now where we are rapidly progressing beyond our simple mechanistic visions to far more complex horizons, and using nature as a guidebook to travel there. That is the essence of biomimicry, and Sangbae Kim's talk in particular demonstrates that pathway.
As has been the case with so much of technological progress, the principle sponsors and early adaptors are military. They have the big funding grants, and the long term vision.
Here's your literal metaphor for the relationship between technology and war made 'flesh': Cujo - a robotic "pack mule" that automatically follows wherever this
One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.
The future reality of artificial intelligence seemed to edge a little closer this week with the news that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak - along with 1000 researchers - had put their name to an open letter calling for a ban on AI in robotic warfare systems. Meanwhile, in TV and movies we’ve seen an influx of AI-themed stories such as Person of Interest, Her, the upcoming Westworld, and now the science fiction film Ex Machina.
In Ex Machina, we join Caleb, a young coder at a Google-like search engine company (‘Bluebook’) as he finds out that he has won a competition to spend a week with the genius CEO of the company, Nathan (who wrote the company’s search algorithm as a 13-year-old wunderkind). On arriving at the reclusive CEO's sprawling, wilderness estate, Caleb discovers that he has been recruited to test perhaps the greatest technological development of all time: the creation of an artificial intelligence, embodied in a humanoid robot named Ava.
If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods.
However, as the week progresses Caleb finds himself to be as much of a test subject as Ava, as he is watched on closed circuit monitors while interacting with this non-human intelligence - and as Nathan’s darker side emerges, Caleb is left wondering how much of what he is experiencing is manipulation, and how much is the truth.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, author of The Beach and the pen behind the movie scripts for the apocalyptic sci-fi movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Ex Machina is a wonderful meditation on one of the great philosophical questions: what is consciousness/self-awareness, and are we even capable of judging it in anyone but ourselves (in Descartes words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, as the limit of our knowledge on consciousness). As such a couple of thought experiments related to consciousness are mentioned during the movie, such as the Turing Test, and the Knowledge Argument, aka ‘Mary in the Black and White Room’ - this latter in particular almost serves as a template for the script itself.
Here's the trailer:
The very small cast (basically just 4 actors, only 3 of whom have speaking roles - Caleb, Nathan and Ava) and one location may have been partly decided upon for budgeting reasons (though the elegant design and special effects certainly weren’t skimped on), but in truth these elements provide the power of Ex Machina, enhancing the feeling of close personal interaction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ intelligence, and also projecting the feeling of imprisonment upon the viewer themselves.
Because as much as Ex Machina is about what it is to be a conscious being, the storyline goes a level deeper to ask what it is to have ‘free will’, but be subjugated. And whether Garland meant it to or not, the film riffs on overarching themes of male dominance and women as objects: ‘artificial’ beings created by a male ‘god’, kept imprisoned and repressed, and used for sexual gratification (although to be fair, Nathan notes that in adding a vagina to a robot, he also added ‘pleasure circuits’ for the artificial consciousness to experience).
Another key question raised by Ex Machina is one which we may have to answer fairly soon: at what point does an AI transition from being an object - a piece of technology - to being an entity, with associated rights. Nathan is most certainly an asshole, but from one point of view (AI as a technological object) all he is doing is modifying and upgrading machines.
From the other point of view (AI as an autonomous consciousness deserving of its own rights) he is basically exploiting and, to an extent, ‘killing off’ conscious entities. It was quite interesting (and shocking) to me how easily I abandoned any human ‘allegiance’ while watching this film, and sided with the machine intelligence - to the extent that I was happily expecting a crime to be committed against a technology genius, for the ‘crime’ of upgrading his machines.
The movie certainly doesn’t break a lot of new ground, with its roots in the archetypal Frankenstein story. Ava at times seems a century-old echo of Maria from Metropolis, and any fan of Bladerunner will probably also see similarities to both the physicality of ’pleasure-model’ Pris and the elegant intelligence of Rachael throughout Ex Machina. And when Caleb gets so far down the rabbit-hole that he starts wondering if he also is a robot - with implanted memories, fooled into believing he is human - we cannot help but see some of Deckard. (Even Nathan’s use of the massive data behind search engine queries as the basis for creating the machine-intelligence of Ava was foreshadowed by the TV show Person of Interest.)
Where Ex Machina hits the mark is in the afore-mentioned personal (and at times, claustrophobic) nature of the film, ably assisted by a fantastic ambient soundtrack (co-created by former Portishead member Geoff Barrow ). Garland’s debut in the directing chair is an impressive one, subtly keeping the viewer in close contact with the actors’ thoughts, often through facial expression alone, as well as capable of creating some highly memorable moments (one surreal dance scene could be straight out of a Kubrick movie...see below). Ex Machina is a slow burn, which is perfect for an exploration of what it is to be ‘human’ - but if you like ‘splodey action stuff, this movie may not be for you. If you’re a deep thinker about consciousness and artificial intelligence, you’ll likely love it.
Garland doesn’t dumb things down, showing good taste in the exposition and putting his trust in the intelligence of viewers. For example, at one point where Nathan is lying, in your head you know Ava has analysed his micro gestures and knows he is lying, but a less confident film-maker might have had her explicitly say “Lie” (the way in which she responsed to half-truths earlier in the film when interacting with Caleb). Instead, Garland just has her give a little half-smile, and the viewer knows what this means.
Nathan too, while quite obviously the antagonist of the story, is still fleshed out as a real person rather than a cartoon villain....we're intrigued by him and what makes him tick beneath that dominating, alpha-male geek persona. His heavy drinking perhaps may be a clue that the things he is doing are having an impact on his soul.
The only part of the film where I noticed overt exposition was when Nathan asked Caleb to tell him what the Turing Test means - but this was probably a key enough point to warrant it, and it was done smoothly (Nathan doesn’t need to be educated; he asks Caleb to be sure Caleb understands).
Ex Machina is superbly cast, with top-shelf performances from the few actors involved: Oscar Isaac embodies the intellectually superior, alpha-male tech-bro Nathan, while Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb portrays the flipside - a compassionate, deep thinker, with an inner strength. Sonoya Mizuno was given a tough job with the line-less Kyoko, but does an excellent job in mixing subservience with her sporadic threatening coldness. And Alicia Vikander is stunning as Ava - the perfect match of a new AI's fierce intelligence mixed with a newborn innocence, brought to life with nice subtle touches through her movements and speech patterns to only *just* give the slightest hint that the character is something other than human.
There may be some who will argue that certain elements of the plot reinforce negative tropes concerning both women and artificial intelligence. This may be a warranted to an extent - however, to go in the opposite direction at these times may well have stereotyped women and AI even more so. Sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Overall Ex Machina is a beautifully designed, shot and acted film, on a fascinating topic that is certainly in the spotlight at this point in history. Highly recommended.
(Apologies for the vagueness throughout the review - just trying to avoid spoilers. Would very much enjoy a discussion of some of the details of the film in the comments section though)
This week the Nature website featured a commentary from Indonesian science journalist Dyna Rochmyaningsih, warning that nationalism, rather than science, may be driving some recent projects in her homeland. One of the projects she mentions is the archaeological work being done at Gunung Padang, with some alleged discoveries that would make Indonesia home to Earth’s oldest discovered civilization (possibly 25,000 years old).
Gunung Padang seems likely to feature in alternative historian Graham Hancock's upcoming book Magicians of the Gods, which will certainly bring these claims to a much wider audience in the West - though we have been discussing it here on the Daily Grail for two years now. In last year's release of our anthology Darklore, Martin J. Clemens wrote an article on the Gunung Padang discovery, and at that time he too warned that "some Indonesian leaders want to establish their country as the birthplace of Asian culture, and they tend to seek out storylines that confirm that bias."
Given the commentary in Nature, I thought it would be worth reproducing Martin's essay in full here at the Grail (excerpted from Darklore Volume 8)
The Ancient Mountain of Light
by Martin J. Clemens
In the science world, much of the research is inaccessible to the layman. If the concepts being studied aren’t orders of magnitude over the heads of the general public, then the means to participate are just not available, whether due to cost or physical location. There are exceptions, however, such as astronomy. In fact, amateur astronomers have been integral to progress in the field, and professional scientists welcome their input, often using their backyard observations as a starting point in the process of discovering some of the most interesting objects and events in the night sky.
Archaeology is sometimes thought of in those same terms, though that really depends on who you ask. Archaeology is the study of human activity in the past, through observation and analysis of the effects of material culture. Essentially, that means that archaeologists look at artefacts and locations and try to determine what those items mean within the context of the particular culture in question. It can be a difficult process, and it requires those who undertake it to be well-read in the humanities, and to have a background in the physical sciences. They must be experts on history, and be conversant in psychology, biology and sometimes physics. But these things aren’t exclusive to archaeologists. Anyone can be well-read on the humanities. Many laymen are experts on history and are conversant in biology and physics. And since almost every archaeological find is ultimately dependent on subjective interpretation, it would seem that the field is more open than some would like to think.
The products of archaeology are not the artefacts and ancient buildings that they study; the product is the information gleaned from those items. The dusty trinkets and buried structures are the tools archaeologists use to measure the impact lost cultures had on their environment, and on the members of their societies. The problem arises when that story, or stories as the case may be, don’t readily betray the secrets of their originators. Even among the so-called experts, agreement is hard to come by, and when those who look in on the golden circle from the outside get into the fray, things can get messy.
In the world of archaeology, there are some basic truths that form the foundation of the study. One of those truths is the general anthropological timeline, which outlines not only the progression of human development, from the early emergence out of Africa, to our spread throughout Asia and Europe and eventually Australia and the Americas. Other foundational elements include the individual demographics and histories of all of the various civilizations that existed between then and now. But that timeline is only a truth in so far as the majority believe it to be…and there are other voices in the crowd.
It has generally been thought that our ancestors began building monuments and structures for ritual purposes at a specific time in our history. That time is roughly 9000 years ago, or in the 7th millennium BCE. The prevailing wisdom of archaeology says that disparate cultures across Europe and Asia began developing the skills necessary to construct long lasting works of art and primitive architecture using stone as a medium around this time. There were probably many failed starts and half-developed projects that never saw the light of day, but of the examples we know about, the oldest are apparently no older than about 7000 years, indicating that it took roughly 2000 years to hone our skills. By about 5000 years ago, we were building sophisticated structures like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and thus our progression from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies with the time and wherewithal to develop a culture of our own was well underway.
One important aspect of the above, is the implied idea that these skills were developed independently by different cultures. Each culture, we’re told, invented, practised and perfected their techniques on their own, with little to no help from other peoples. This is the accepted wisdom.
There are elements of the archaeological record that would seem to disagree however. One of those elements is a megalithic/Neolithic site in the ... Read More »