GamelaTron: The Robot Gamelan Orchestra

This is, I have to admit, pretty cool [hat tip to Marginal Revolution]. Here's more on the actual workings of the thing, complete with audio and video streaming.

What Zemi17 and LEMUR (the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots) have achieved is a great piece of installation art and I like the actual music a great deal. As longtime fan of Balinese gamelan (and a lot of the Western art music is has inspired), however, I find Gamelatron, well... a bit too clean. Unlike, say, Conlon Nancarrow's works for player piano, Gamelatron doesn't really seem to exploit the fact that it is a machine performance. Instead, its aesthetic is more like that of a traditional mechanical music box: A smooth, pretty emulation of traditional performance.

Gamelan played by human beings, by contrast, is first and foremost a collective, communal art form: A 'warts and all' aesthetic that suppresses egoistic virtuosity. So, I suppose, what's missing from Gamelatron is precisely what I most value about gamelan. What a Luddite thing to say...

AI Out of Control?

To date there has been a only surprisingly small handful of cases where serious collective reflection about the hazards of a new technology--and attempts to regulate it--have actually preceded the development of that technology. Nuclear technology is one (debatable) example. Recombinant DNA technology is another (though, of course, rDNA is a broad term covering not just one but a number of different technologies). One of the storied events in the history of biotechnology is an example of this sort of reflection-in-advance: The 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. At the time, rDNA research was brand new. The first use of restriction enzymes to cut specific DNA sites had been demonstrated barely two years before. Stanley Cohen of Stanford and Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco (who would later go on to found Genetech) had just applied for a patent on basic techniques of rDNA technology. The Asilomar conference was intended to draw up guidelines for the safe containment of rDNA experiments, to curtail certain lines of potentially harmful research and to raise public public awareness about the risks and benefits of genetic biotechnology. While it did to give rise to any changes in law (at least not directly), it was direct impetus behind the NIH "Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant DNA Molecules" that, with occasional amendments, has effectively regulated academic biotechnology research in the U.S. ever since. And, certainly, it succeed in raising public awareness.

Recently the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence has, it seems, tried to follow in the footsteps of the 1975 conference by staging another conference at Asilomar, this one devoted to the dangers of autnomous technological systems powered by AI (such as predator drones, medical robosts that intereact directly with patients, etc.). Chief among those dangers is the possibility that, precisely because they are designed to act autonomously, such systems may escpape human control and so any damage that they might inflict might become extremely difficult to stop. Some the specific exmaples discussed in the NYT piece--such as the use of AI in data mining and the use of speech synethesis to impersonate and defraud--really do seem to me to be quite significant. Especialy so since the relevant technologies are already pretty highly developed and widely diffused.

We'll see what becomes of "Asilomar II" when the report from the conference is released later this year. Perhaps, like the orginal, it will motivate reseach funding agencies to adopt new guidelines. (Though, frankly, I wouldn't bet on it.)

[BTW, for people who are into this sort of thing, AI Topics hosts a really pretty useful collection articles on AI ethics. Very much worth a look]

Assorted Links

U.S National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Witheld Data on Driving and Cell Phone Use -- The supposed rationale seems much more bizarre now than it may have done under the Bush administration. [NYT]

Microsoft Embraces Open Source ?!? -- Less than meets the eye. But still. [The Register]

Lars Ulrich: "Being right about Napster doesn't mean that much to me. I don't find any particular glory in being proved right about it" -- Sure. That explains why you spent so much time, money and effort on killing it. [The Register]

Economic Value of the Space Program: "From 1962 to 1972, when the last Apollo mission landed on the moon, space-related activities got 59% of [U.S.] nondefense government R&D spending." [OBM, via Marginal Revolution]

The use/mention distinction at work: Judge Finds for Google In British Libel Case [NYT]

A Quaint, But Ultimately Ridiculous, Technology Story

As the New York Times reports today, state governments in Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey and elsewhere have begun to distribute terminals to farmers who sell at farmers markets, finally enabling people to make purchases there (of, let's assume, healthier, better for the environment, etc. food) using Food Stamp debits.

Great. Really. But, at least to my mind, this really shows the advantages of the (historically) Canadian solution to the poverty problem: Give disadvantaged people money. That's accepted everywhere without any need for wireless terminals or additional government programs.

Yes, I know. One of the main supposed virtues of the U.S. Food Stamps program is that it prevents people from taking state support that could have gone to food and diverting it instead to cigarettes, drugs, booze, lottery tickets and other bad things. (And, of course, viewed from the other side, it helps to insure low-income people against the necessity of having to choose other living costs, like rent, over nutrition.) But, while I really am happy that some U.S. citizens will now be able to use Food Stamps at farmers markets, I can't help but note that all of the expenditure for these sexy new technology programs could have instead been used to increase Food Stamps benefits. Just saying...

Film Piracy and Mobile Phones

Cory Doctrow writes in The Guardian this week about how some movie theatres have begun to confiscate mobile phones from their patrons, supposedly as a way to combat piracy. Doctrow's main focus is on the terrible threat to privacy posed by this practice: Who knows what's happening to your phone while it's in the custody of the theatre owners? Some theatre employee could be going through your contact list, viewing your photos, looking through your data, listening to your voice mail, or even (and this is fairly plausible, given the available online market) cloning your phone's SIM.

While I've yet to see any theatres doing this myself, these are all very real privacy risks, especially given that theatre owners apparently haven't yet developed any policies about how they will secure confiscated phones. If the practice continues, no doubt some guidelines sooner or later will be supplied by case law. But still, I can't seriously see myself surrendering my phone to some teenage usher at the local cineplex. If this became the norm, it simply would provide me with with one more reason not to bother going to the movies.

So far so good. But the other main focus of Doctorow's piece (and some of the online discussion that it has generated) strikes me as pretty much completely specious. In a nutshell, the claim is that cam recording of feature films isn't really that big of a deal and that cam recording using cell phones is essentially a non-existent problem. According to Doctrow, the real action, the real threat to the movie industry, comes from screeners and other illegal pre-release distribution of films.

Well, yes and no. If you go onto a typical bitorrent site, I reckon that the majority of titles you'll see are DVD rips--that's to say, copies ripped from commercial DVDs. Amongst the pre-release or 'in theatres now' content, there is, it's true, a pretty obvious preference hierarchy. The best quality (and so most desirable) torrents are screeners. But there are still plenty of 'cam' (i.e., recording on camcorder) titles. And, I'd submit, there always will be so long as the cultural logic of Hollywood holds sway. Having seen the latest blockbuster is a positional good: It's value at least partly consists in having been the first person you know to have seen the film. (Of course, the same goes for having seen the latest cool independent release or art house film, probably even more so.) So, as long as 'seeing it while it's hot' (or as Roland Barthes might have said, while it's 'receivable') remains part of a film's value, there will be a pretty straightforward algorithm driving the behavious of file sharers: Is a screener copy available? If yes, grab that. If not, then there will be at least some demand for a cam copy. And, inevitably, almost ineluctably, someone will fill that demand.

Out of Work Robots

Well, of course. (Hat Tip to Devin) What else would you expect in the midst of a general economic downturn? At least they don't claim unemployment insurance. Though, on the other hand, being, well...robots, presumably it's not the case that they are all that upset about being unemployed.

Despite the gloom in the article, however, I'm pretty confident that this is, at most, a temporary setback. The Japanese, being seemingly culturally obsessed with all things robotic, may have over-invested. But I still reckon we'll be, um, welcoming robots into our lives soon enough.