Innovators, use your powers only for good!?

In his article, Robots Without a Cause, in The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries laments frivolous and consumer-oriented innovations such as 3G cell phones and luxury cars that recognize their owners by fingerprint. His thesis seems to be that there are better, more noble, uses for the brain power of our smartest engineers and scientists. The problem with his argument is that one could easily envision the same argument against the invention of the solid-state transistor at Bell Labs 50+ years ago, after all, the most visible product of this research was tiny, hand held, transistor radios, a consumer item, and who really needs to carry their radio around with them, when the radio on the shelf in the living room works just as well? Of course, the solid-state transistor has transformed our lives, and enabled innumerable useful and important inventions.

To be fair, Jeffries claims he’s not opposed to all innovation, and cites Trevor Baylis’s crank-powered radios as an example of a good invention, because they were designed to bring news, health, and weather information to people off the power grid in the third world. He also cites the wheel, powered flight, and the telephone as important developments about which one could get excited, but surely these things, too, were luxuries at one time.

What Jeffries doesn’t seem to realize is that Baylis’s purposeful, moral invention is an anomaly not because of the frivolous nature of modern westerners, but because it’s very difficult to predict what uses new inventions will be put to, or what new ideas they will generate. The seafloor of technological history is littered with the sunken wrecks of bad gadget ideas. It’s only in hindsight that we see the good ideas that make it to the far shore. Perhaps the fingerprint ID system on the luxury Audi will sink to the bottom too, or maybe the reason it’s a luxury toy is that it’s not yet economical enough for more high-minded uses, like locking handguns so that only their owners can fire them, or locking our computers and data, but someday it will be.

Jeffries spends a sizable chunk of his article railing against 3G phones as an example of a useless, consumeristic luxury gadget. Ironically, this article appeared on the BBC.com today: Picture phones save doctors time. It describes how doctors in Wales use 3G picture phones to consult remotely with orthopedic specialists by sending them pictures of x-rays. The specialist can then recommend treatment over the phone, meaning quicker treatment for the patient. I’d bet that this use was not envisioned by the inventors. Serendipity is the scientist’s (and technologist’s) best friend.

The greater, and more subtle, irony of Jeffries piece, however, is that in railing against consumeristic technological innovation, he uses essentially the same logic that’s often used lately to justify cutting funding for basic scientific research, namely the what’s it good for? argument. If it doesn’t have some immediate useful application, the argument goes, there’s no sense in funding it. In fact, practical applications of basic scientific discoveries often take years after an initial discovery, and are generally built on the interlocking works of several scientists. When Niels Bohr was working on his model of the atom in 1913, who could have predicted that it would lay the foundation for quantum mechanics, which would ultimately lead to the solid-state transistor, integrated circuits, microcomputers, Moore’s Law, etc? Viewed in the eyes of his non-scientific contemporaries, his mathematical model of the hydrogen atom must have seemed deeply arcane, with no practical applications.

No one, not even Stuart Jeffries, can see where the paths of innovation will lead, and engineers have to eat, too. If they can do that by selling picture phones and biometric car door locks to people who want them, more power to them.

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NASA Engineers rediscover kinetic energy

According to these articles at CNN and The New York Times, NASA engineers were apparently astonished to discover that a piece of foam damaged a mock-up shuttle wing when fired at the wing at over 500 miles an hour.

“I thought: `Oh, my God! This is something. This isn’t just a light bounce,’ ” recalled the official, G. Scott Hubbard, the director of the Ames Research Center at NASA and also a member of the independent board investigating the disaster.


He invoked the physics equation that describes the amount of kinetic energy in a moving object, saying, “That’s when it came home to me what 1/2mv2 means.”

Okay, I’m a big believer in empirical science, but if they knew that the foam was going that fast, why were they surprised at how much energy it had? These are rocket scientists! Damn.

Update: fixed broken NYTimes link.

Lessig talks copyrights on CNET

This CNET interview with Larry Lessig provides a great overview of the current struggle to reclaim the public domain. That this cause has such an articulate and reasonable advocate, instead of just yahoos on Slashdot, is a wonderful thing. I think this sums it up:

Tell me why this is an Internet problem. Why should the tech industry care about this, particularly?
…. Before the Internet, long copyright terms sometimes didn’t matter. What were you going to do with a book that was out of print before the Internet? … Now that we have the Internet, we can imagine taking an extraordinary amount of knowledge and culture and making it available on the Internet so that it can be provided for free to schools, to libraries, to other creators. This is a possibility that didn’t exist when Congress originally abolished the requirement that you had to renew your copyright, in 1976. …

The Internet has now made the public domain a million times more valuable. … And we want Congress to reconsider what they’ve done in light of the potential that the Internet creates.

Oh, and if you haven’t yet signed the petition, please do so!

Haystack, a smart information manager?

The Haystack project out of MIT was mentioned on Slashdot today. It’s a new kind of information manager that seems to put all your information, contacts, notes, email, etc, in one place, with new interfaces for viewing it, including multiple overlapping category hierarchies. The Slashdot article mentions the use of AI techniques for indexing, but I can’t find much of it on their website. Still, the idea of a smart PIM is an idea that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while. It seems like there’s a lot of room for current AI techniques to get leverage in this area.

When I first thought of this idea, I called it Personal Google. Basically, you could put any kind of data you want into it. Email, calendar, contacts, web bookmarks, browser cache, RSS feeds, PDF and PostScript papers, maybe even images (though they’re a little harder to deal with), and it provides intelligent free-form searching capability, plus a lot of intelligent browsing. It would provide multiple interfaces to the data, through a modular architecture. Here are some ideas for interfaces:

  • All the standard PIM interfaces.
  • Basic keyword search.
  • Google-esqe find items like this on any item.
  • A hierarchical taxonomy of items, created automatically, through something like COBWEB, maybe augmented by semi-supervised clustering methods, where you can specify that some items do or don’t belong in the same cluster, like Sugato is working on.
  • Indexing or lookup via factored topics or concepts that can be combined in an item, via latent semantic indexing or latent Dirichlet allocation.
  • Search via topographical navigation between document clusters (or topic clusters) using a self-organizing map. Could be cool for images.I think I’d want it to run as a server, so I could get to it from anywhere, and add bookmarks, papers, etc to the database from anywhere. I’d use it as a web homepage. It’s possible that Haystack does some of these things. I haven’t had a chance to download it yet, because they don’t have a Mac version. I’ll get the linux version at some point.

Reclaim the public domain

Larry Lessig has started a petition to Congress asking them to enact the Eldred act, allowing most non-commercially viable works to pass into the public domain. Please sign it!

Update: 4400+ signatures so far as of 7:18 pm. CDT. And I was signature no. 66! (I always was a Mario Lemieux fan)