Zoomorphism has become my favorite new word. It seems that this idea, that animal characteristics can apply to inanimate objects has become the revolutionary idea transforming the way humans think about the robotic sciences. It seems that if we look at how animals do things, it can allow us to figure out machines that can replicate their successes, often which involve less complexity than the humans they will replace. It seems that engineers at EU Automation have been working on this problem and have learned from a BBC series, Spy in the Wild where robots of animals, in this instance, a baby Indian langur monkey, was introduced to a tribe of monkeys and while it was filming the tribe from high in a treetop, the monkey fell and the programmers decided to take the baby robot out of action. While the fact that we can make a robot monkey natural looking enough to fool real monkeys, which is pretty amazing, there were some other things about the event that were concerning. (Notice how the baby robot was “taken out of action”, or retired, like a piece of machinery. I believe the same verbiage was used in Blade Runner, where undesirable replicants were simply retired but I digress.) The thing that impressed me most was the way the other monkeys reacted. They gathered around the robotic baby monkey, mourning the loss and began to hug and console each other supporting each other in their grief. While studying animals may teach us how to create better robots, we can only hope that it might also teach us to be better human beings.
While listening to public radio, my ears perked up when I heard a story about how the first MP3 was created. It seems that in 1987, Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega was the first song that was compressed into what we now know as the current MP3. It seems that to create an MP3 the file is compressed and that some of the audio data is lost in the process. While the current technology seems to give us acceptable losses, there are losses none the less. Ryan Maguire’s Ghost in the MP3 project examines this lost information and presents this lost data as an oddly beautiful piece of music, a sort of phoenix from the ashes. In addition, our cell service is regularly flattened which has the effect of removing the emotion out of the voice we are listening to while supposedly reducing background noise, it also removes some of the emotional content of the voice- possibly one of the few remaining things that we have that computers can not yet replicate.
While these losses may seem insignificant, it reminds me of the poem by Martin Niemoller, “First They Came” how one by one the Nazis purged groups until there was no one left to protest when at last they came for the author, no one was left to hear his protests. What exactly are we compressing, do we know what we loose over the thundering goosestepping of technology. While I like to think we have learned from our mistakes if we wait too long our calls of protest will be devoid of emotion content in the interest of reducing the background noise.