Sunday, January 23, 2011

One giant leap for robotics

By Steve Rensberry  

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is preparing for at least nine separate launches this year, the next being on Feb. 23 with the launch of the Orbital Sciences Taurus Rocket at Landenberg Air Force Base. On Feb. 24 it plans a launch of the Space Shuttle Discover at Kennedy Space Center after a roll out to the launch pad on Jan. 31. On April 19, Space Shuttle Endeavor is due to launch, followed by the United Launch Alliance Delta II 7320 on June 9, the Space Shuttle Atlantis on June 28, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V on Aug. 5, the ULA Delta II Heavy on Sept. 8,  the ULA Delta II on Oct. 25 and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V on Nov. 25. See: Launch schedule.
   If this alone isn't enough to grab the attention of space enthusiasts like myself, the payload surely is. These range from measuring earth's atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, to the Mars Science Laboratory Mission in November aimed at determining the planet's habitability. September's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission hopes to significantly boost to our understanding of the moon's thermal evolution, and the August Juno mission will send a solar-power spacecraft around Jupiter's poles 33 times, NASA says, in order to further analyze the planet's origins and magnetosphere.
   The first of two missions in February will collect data on the Earth's atmosphere in order to increase our understanding of the Sun's affect on climate, while the second will deliver important items to the International Space Station. The April mission also involves a delivery to the Space Station. Of the two missions in June, the first, called Aquarius, will study heat transport and storage in the ocean. Of particular interest in the study of robotics will be the inclusion on the Feb. 24 STS-133 mission of Robonaut 2.
   The acceleration in robotics research and development that has taken place over the past decade has become increasingly apparent. Some research is no doubt being conducted entirely behind closed doors, such as with the military or with corporate interests that depend on proprietary research and development to boost market share beyond that of their competitors.
   However, as a public entity NASA is significantly more open with most of its projects. In the case of Robonaut 2--a joint project of GM and NASA--its eerily realistic hand dexterity is simply astounding and a key feature of  "the first dexterous humanoid robot" to venture into space.
   "The value of a humanoid over other designs is the ability to use the same workspace and tools - not only does this improve efficiency in the types of tools, but also removes the need for specialized robotic connectors," NASA says on a site dedicated to Robonaut 2.
   In NASA's words: "Advanced technology spans the entire R2 system and includes: optimized overlapping dual arm dexterous workspace, series elastic joint technology, extended finger and thumb travel, miniaturized 6-axis load cells, redundant force sensing, ultra-high speed joint controllers, extreme neck travel, and high resolution camera and IR systems. The dexterity of R2 allows it to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and removes the need for specialized tools just for robots."  See: Robonaut 2
   NASA's promotional team surely deserves some kudos. Robonaut 2 even has his own Facebook page, Flicr account and Twitter profile. The public face of Robonaut 2 will either satiate the public's anthropomorphic thirst or scare those who remain fearful that we are fast approaching the use of real live Robocops. Needless to say, 2011 could very well be a pivotal year leading to even greater and more rapid advances in robotic science.
   Rodney Brooks, then director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay published in the 2002 book The Next Fifty Years (Edited by John Brockman, Random House, Inc., New York). In that essay, entitled The Merger of Flesh and Machines, Brooks raises the question of what effect such incredible advances in science and technology will have on humanity's sense of self.
   Brooks cites Galileo's clash with the church over the earth's place in the cosmos, Charles Darwin's placement of humanity squarely within the confines of the animal kingdom, and research by Francis Crick, James D. Watson and others showing that in terms of genetics humans in fact differed little in the number of genes (sometimes having even less) than yeast, fruit flies, potatoes and many animals. And with each new generalization has come new challenges as to the way in which humanity in general views itself, shrinking our place within the realm of phenomenal reality to a far less centralized position.
   "Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can see signs that the next fifty years promise another such generalization. Our very humanity will feel threatened, and that may well lead to violent wars over what are essentially intellectual and religious ideas," Brooks writes. "We already see the early skirmishes in these wars, and they are not at all pretty. The generalization we are facing is that we humans are machines--and as such, subject to the same technological manipulations we routinely apply to machines."
   Brooks prediction for the coming years--in terms of contrast with earlier watershed changes--is a bold one, prompting him to urge us to "moderate our hubris" if we hope for out children to be around to enjoy it. The entirety of Brooks article, and the book it is published in, is worth the read.
   "We are breaking out of our roles as passive observers of life and the order of things to become manipulators of life and the order of things," Brooks says.
   Note: Photos are courtesy of NASA and do not imply ownership nor endorsement of the website

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The mysterious nature of music

By Steve Rensberry  

   What is music?
   A world beyond time?
   A refuge for the heart in a world of longing and uncertainty?
   A synthesis of mind, body and soul?
   "What is the secret of music's stranger power? Seeking an answer, scientists are piercing together a picture of what happens in the brains of listeners and musicians," reads the subhead to an article by Norman Weinberger entitled Music and the Brain, published by Scientific American in 2004.
   What lies at the heart of music's ubiquitous nature? How exactly does it move us? Weinberger asks.
   His summary findings: "Overall, findings to date indicate that music has a biological basis and that the brain has a functional organization for music. It seems fairly clear, even at this early stage of inquiry, that many brain regions participate in specific aspects of music processing, whether supporting perception (such as apprehending a melody) or evoking emotional reactions. Musicians appear to have additional specializations, particularly hyperdevelopment of some brain structures."
   Associated Press Science Writer Malcolm Ritter looks at another aspect to the issue in the article, Study: Love music? Thank a substance in your brain, which points to new research suggesting one specific reason for humanity's undying and historic attraction to music.
   "Whether it's the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure," Ritter says in regard to the new study.
   That substance, in case you're wondering, is dopamine.
   Real-time brain scans of people as they were listening to music revealed another interesting fact: The effect was immediate and direct.
   "PET scans showed the participants' brains pumped out more dopamine in a region called the striatum when listening to favorite pieces of music than when hearing other pieces. Functional MRI scans showed where and when those releases happened," Ritter says.
  Nevertheless, while recent research gives us a glimpse into the complex effects of music on the human brain, the verdict remains out on a number of fundamental questions, namely: What is music? Does it have meaning? And what exactly is its evolutionary or metaphysical purpose?
   There are a number of theories, but none so far appears to be definitive.

For further study:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is free will nothing but an illusion?

By Steve Rensberry  

 It is commonly believed that upwards of 90 percent of the activity that goes on within the individual human brain stems from unconscious processes, whether for the purpose of interpreting visual or auditory stimuli or for the regulation of such basic things as breathing, eating and memory formation.   
   The observation raises a number of questions. Just how free are we if such a large part of our brain (or mind if you will) lies outside the realm of conscious control? Can a person rightfully be held responsible for behavior which is largely the result of unconscious brain activity? We feel as though the choices we make are done with some degree of conscious volition. But are they really?
   University of California researcher Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) is well know for his work in the early 1970s that was aimed at trying to answer this exact question.  In one instance, Libet's investigation involved an analysis of what are called sensation thresholds, and the accompanying neural activity that goes along with it. As the name suggests, a sensory or sensation threshold is defined on various levels as the precise spot at which any particular stimulus can be detected, recognized, perceived and ultimately  terminated.
   Libet's experiments lead him to an examination of the Bereitschaftspotential, or readiness potential (RP), a measurement of the unconscious neurological activity within the brain's motor cortex prior to conscious action. His experiments made use of a cathode ray oscilloscope, an electrocencephalogram (EEG) monitor, an electromyograph (EMG), and a great deal of meticulous scientific observation.
   The essence of the groundbreaking discovery by Libet and other researchers was that decisions supposedly made by a subject's conscious mind were, on a very fundamental level, preceded by a noticeable build up in unconscious brain activity--in effect nodding in the direction of the decision even before the subject himself became aware of it. The conscious mind appeared almost to play a secondary role in the process of exercising choice. It could veto or alter that choice, but it did not appear to be the primary source.
   Author Fred Alan Wolf writes in The Dreaming Universe:
   "What Libet has found can be said simply, but I doubt if it will be believed simply. It is that our minds operate mostly unconsciously. This means that we make decisions and respond to sensations from the outside world totally unconsciously. We only become conscious of the outside world much later (about half a second later -- a long time on the neural level), after the slings and arrows of our fate have already passed us by or struck us. But then there is an interesting twist: we refer the later moment of conscious awareness back in time to the moment of sensation and out in space to the location of a stimulus even if it is outside our bodies." (Fred Alan Wolf, The Dreaming Universe, Simon and Schuster, 1994).
   Although his experiments suggest a secondary role for the conscious mind in the decision making process, Libet defended the concept of free will.
   "The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiative for voluntary actions as 'bubbling up' in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiative may go forward to an action or which one to veto and abort, with no act appearing," Libet says in an essay entitled Do We Have Free Will? published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.
   Such an interpretation may be harmonious with some ethical and religious views about the primacy of free will and moral responsibility, but Libet has no such sympathy for those who would argue that someone should be held accountable merely for the "urge" to commit a reprehensible act.
   "The mere appearance of an intention to act could not be controlled consciously; only its final consummation in a motor act could be consciously controlled. Therefore, a religious system that castigates an individual for simply having a mental intention or impulse to do something unacceptable, even when this is not acted out, would create a physiologically insurmountable moral and psychological difficulty," Libet says. 
   Indeed, if thoughts alone are enough to render a conviction, then the religious thought police have all the ammunition they need to keep their followers at their knees, the evidence not withstanding.
   We won't solve the free will debate in one article, nor do I think we can get very far without first defining what it is we really mean by "free" and "will."
   You can read more about Benjamin Libet's views and work at Machines Like Us.