rene Mon, Mar 24, 2008
Downloading Wikipedia into robots may turn out to be less absurd than it sounds. In the Seattle library is a special department for the handicapped where methods are explored to make books accessible for deaf people by converting regular letters into Braille dots which are instantly embossed on printing paper. A librarian also pointed proudly at a Kurzweil reading machine developed in 1976, which turns written words into synthesized speech by way of a flatbed scanner. It reminded me how Ray Kurzweil built exceptional keyboard synthesizers accurately reproducing the sounds of acoustic instruments as early as 1983. From there he went on to create artificially intelligent software for his “Cybernetic Poet” which helps users write poetry and song lyrics, to be followed by his Cyber Artist and pattern recognition software that served as a stock market prognosticator. All this eventually led to his embrace of the Singularity as the defining moment when machines are supposed to surpass human intelligence. Even though I have also been very influenced by the audio (and visual) sampling metaphor as an introduction into our current ways of recombinant information processing, I’m personally more interested in the meeting point where the artificial and the organic intersect while reflecting on each other. As opposed to Kurzweil’s technocratic approach which happens to be rather cold and devoid of sensuality, I love robots the way the Japanese do, mocking our humanity in an endearing way. I love the early versions of synthesizers that allowed musicians to blow into a hose connected to their keyboards to introduce human breath into their impersonal saxophone samples. I'm a fan of the techno-timbre of Daft Punk’s Vocoder voices, and the virtual/physical simulations of the Wii interface. I enjoy putting my scanned signature on computer-generated documents, and am astonished every time a computer animator dials in the artificial gravity that rules the behavior of a CG animated character. When we still watched films on VHS, my thumb developed a peculiar reflex trying in vain to push the fast forward button of an imaginary remote to skip boring scenes of the movie unspooling in the theater's projection room. As a result of the relentless linearity of the experience I increasingly turned away from the cinema, and for similar reasons I am now reading far less books than I used to because I cannot search their printed pages. But perhaps we can have it all. In the past there have been various unique contraptions that aspired to be reading machines, and Philips has made a lot of headway with the development of its electronic paper. Also, at some point there will undoubtedly be interfaces that may allow our eyes to relate to visual information as intimately as the auditory input of our earphones. The truth is that at this point I couldn’t possibly sustain my intellectual curiosity without books, but I will never again be the captive reader I once was. So as far as I’m concerned I would try an intellectually savvy robot anytime. I’m sure it’ll be a lot more fun to engage with an educated robot than listening to books on my iPod in the car, especially since, as an added benefit, my man-made passenger will give me access to the carpool lane.