Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Project Natal, Minority Report, and Holodecks

Last year I blogged about computer-human interfaces where I mentioned Emotiv system's neuroheadset which is a headset that allows you to control things just by thinking about them.

Today I saw Peter Miller's post on Project Natal as a possible controller for Second Life, which inspired me to write my own post.

Microsoft revealed Project Natal at E3 2009. It is a new interface which will enable users to control and interact with the Xbox 360 without the need to touch a game controller; through gestures, and spoken commands. Being introduced by Steven Spielberg I immediately thought of how a device such as this could be used to create a minority report type interface (he directed the movie - based on a short story by Philip K. Dick).

Johnny Chung Lee, now a researcher at microsoft, known for his work with Wii controllers, said in his recent blog post "We would all love to one day have our own personal holodeck. This is a pretty measurable step in that direction."

I thought more than that. If you combine Project Natal with Emotiv's neuroheadset you could create an amazing interface - full body motion plus thought control - really post-human type interaction. The only thing missing would be sensory feedback.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Teaching Science and Science Fiction

Science and the Imagination at ORU

Mark Hall (Professor of English at ORU) and I have now finished our fourth year teaching Science and the Imagination, an interdisciplinary honors class on science, science fiction, and the relationship between them. When we developed the class, we compiled a list of the all-time best science fiction books (and by best I mean our favourites). We then each selected six books for the class. We vetoed one of each other’s books, leaving ten for the class reading list. I vetoed his The Left Hand of Darkness by LeGuin and he vetoed my Foundation by Asimov.

We ended up replacing Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson with Black on Black by K.D. Wentworth - a local science fiction author who graciously visits with our class every year – giving invaluable advice on “writing science fiction.”

We also have our students study science fiction in other mediums including short stories, radio, and films; research the science concepts used as plot devices in the books - including listening to my (and some guest speakers) riveting (at least to me) lessons on such science topics as space travel, cloning, relativity, quantum mechanics, M-theory, neural prosthetics, warp drives, time-travel, life, the universe, and everything; and as a capstone to the class, write their own hard science fiction short story based on a recent Nature or Science article of their own choosing.

One of the short stories we read is Microbe by Joan Slonczewski. Joan, as well as being a hard science fiction author, is a biologist at Kenyon College in Ohio. She also graciously talks to our class in Second Life, talking about a variety of topics including amongst other things: biology in science fiction (triplex dna), feminism in science fiction, Christianity in science fiction, and how to incorporate science as a plot device in writing hard science fiction. Her talks always end too quickly for me.

The second time we taught the class, we surveyed our class and asked them to rank the books “in order of preference.” The results are interesting, with Ender’s Game being the clear student favourite (average ranking in parentheses – low being best):

1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (2.00)

2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (3.83)

3. 1984 by George Orwell (4.50)

4. Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis (4.83)

5. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (5.33)

6. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (5.58)

7. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. (6.50)

8. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (7.17)

9. Black on Black by K.D. Wentworth (7.27)

10. The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter (7.92)

Last year, we changed the survey a little and asked students to rank according to both enjoyment and relevance on a scale of 1-5 (high being best). The results are much the same with the ‘hard’ science fiction books (such as The Time Machine, Jurassic Park, and The Time Ships) doing a little better due to high ‘relevance’ scores.





Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card




The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein




The Time Machine by H.G. Wells




1984 by George Orwell




Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton




Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis




A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.




The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter




Earth Abides by George R. Stewart




Black on Black by K.D. Wentworth




This last year we changed ALL the books for the class, bringing in The Left Hand of Darkness and Foundation as well as others we thought were complimentary to our original selections. This year’s survey results again have Orson Scott Card at the top of the list. A little satisfaction was gained by seeing The Left Hand of Darkness at the bottom of the list, though I must admit I have developed a new appreciation for the work (and the author) after listening to Mark’s lectures.





Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card




Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury




Foundation by Isaac Asimov




The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton




Make Room! Make Room! By Harry Harrison




The Road by Cormac McCarthy




Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke




The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells




Stars Over Stars by K.D. Wentworth




The Left hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin




If you’re looking for something to read, some of the books from our class are freely available for you to read online, they are all excellent:

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Microbe by Joan Slonczewski

Black on Black by K.D. Wentworth

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Doing more harm than good

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports on a new Obama administration focus supporting and furthering the use of corn produced ethanol as a bio-fuel.

The Obama administration on Tuesday will step up efforts to increase the availability of ethanol at filling stations and to speed up subsidies to struggling biofuel producers.

While I am a proponent of alternative/renewable fuels, including cellulosic ethanol, we now know that corn derived ethanol causes more environmental problems than it solves. Apart from the fact that with current farming practices it takes more energy to produce than it creates! Growing corn also causes other environmental issues. One that is close to my heart, is the increased fertilizer run-off pollution when farmers raise corn over other crops. To maintain corn yields, farmers are having to use more and more fertilizer, which corn just doesn’t absorb very well. The environmental damage this causes shows up in the rivers and oceans resulting in increases in red-tides and dead zones. To me this is just an environmental disaster. I’m not even going to get into the whole “food vs. fuel” discussion.

Red-Tide Exhibit on ACS Island

For an administration that claims “It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” [Quoted from when Obama lifted Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research – we can argue whether this was about science later. Bush’s ban was clearly politically motivated – but he made no bones about it.] this corn based ethanol policy strikes me as a purely political move – and not one based on science.

The WSJ article got me going because I’m still upset about Obama’s administration basically killing the nuclear industry – another political move – a move which caused NEI President Marvin Fertel to state:

With all due respect to the president and Secretary Chu, I doubt they've looked at the science at all; they've made it a political decision," he said. "I can respect a political decision; it's not a scientific decision.

I agree with Fertel. If you’re going to make such decisions, be man enough to own up to the real reasons and not obfuscate the issues by invoking the magic word – science.

Friday, May 16, 2008


A new study by Nortel found that approximately "16% of the global information workforce already 'Hyperconnected,' more significantly, another 36% will be joining them soon!"

By hyperconnected, they mean people who are constantly on their cell phones, texting, twittering, facebooking, blogging, emailing, etc. The hyperconnected are the type of people who "frequently override the little notifier app. that checks [their email] once a minute because an e-mail could have arrived in the intervening 60 seconds." Quote from a recent Time article.

Of course Science Fiction predicted this type of thing way before it actually became possible and usually in a chilling way. If you haven't read The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (yes the guy who wrote A Room with a View and Howard's End but we can forgive him for that), then take a few minutes to do so now. You'll understand why this story has become so relevant in recent years. This is required reading for my Science and Science Fiction students.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Computer - Human Interfaces

There are some really cool input devices out now. No longer are we restricted by a keyboard or even a mouse (I'm too young to remember punch cards but I do remember when mice came out). These range from the everyday tangible iPhone interface to novel game controllers like those for the Wii and guitar hero. What has caught my attention recently are controllers that use thought instead of touch or even voice. For example here is a game controller by Emotiv

In the short term future it is hoped that neural interfaces will be able to control artificial limbs and robotic braces via thought. Actually, this has already been done. For example see this video of a bionic arm.

Here's a video of a monkey making a robot walk via thought.

There has even been an experiment that shows that you can tell what someone is looking at just by reading their brain waves.

The next step would be for non-invasive two-way communication. Where you could not only control someting via thought but also receive feedback. For example if you were playing Halo or just wandering around Second Life wouldn't it be cool if you could feel the rocket launcher you were holding or smell the flowers you just created. A recent Sony patent has proposed a way to do exactly that.

Thursday, August 30, 2007


In the 1957 short story "The Fly" by George Langelaan a brilliant scientist Andre Delambre invents a teleportation machine where he can teleport objects from a disintegrator to a reintegrator. When he tries to teleport himself, his body parts get mixed up with that of a fly that was with him in the disintegrator pod. He emerges with the head and claw of a fly, while the fly ends up with his shrunken head.

There has been two classic movies based upon this story. The 1958 movie keeps the idea of the scientist (played by Al Hedison) switching heads with the fly but the 1986 re-make took the idea further by mixing the scientist (Seth Brundle played by Jeff Goldblum) and the fly at the genetic level to create a new organism - Brundlefly.

Inserting genes from one species into the DNA of another has been accomplished many times by scientists, we call it genetic engineering. For example there is a genetically modified tomato that contains pig genes - the Pigmato. Such gene insertion happens naturally too and is known as lateral gene transfer but it was thought to only occur between bacteria. However, scientists at the University of Rochester have now found instances of natural lateral gene transfer between a parasite wolbachia and fruitflies - wolbachiafly.

Such natural genetic engineering means that scientists can now incorporate both vertical and lateral gene transfer processes into the theory of evolution. Lateral gene transfer can help explain problems in inferring phylogenetic (evolutionary) trees based on the sequence of one gene.

Friday, August 17, 2007

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

An August 10, 2007 paper from the New Journal of Physics titled "From plasma crystals and helical structures towards inorganic living matter," presents computer models that suggest that plasma in stars or in interstellar space may self-organize into DNA-like helical structures and may exhibit properties that we normally associate with life.

Is it as Dr. McCoy used to tell Captain Kirk "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it?" I don't think so, though it does raise the question of what is life?

Life made from plasma is not a new idea in science nor science fiction. Such exotic forms of life have been considered in science before. In science fiction there are many books where humans not only encounter life within stars but intelligent life. See for example, Sundiver, by David Brin.