Second Variety

Designing a Creature
That Will Hunt Us Down

Animatronics research is making so many strides lately that soon Disney theme parks won’t need actors donning smelly Mickey customs to scare the living hell out of little children. Robots will be able to do just that, and more, in their place. Bad news to actors, of course.
Androids may be close to pounce on you on your vacations, out of malfunctioning or pure evil, but the real scare may be other fields tapping into their sophistication. The military, for instance. Something to be expected, for sure, but still no less disturbing.
It didn’t happen overnight, but suddenly pop culture is saturated with the idea that a dawn of the automaton is imminent, even sooner than the one of rotten zombis. And while trying to keep apace with the expectation, science is landing us on some tricky territory.
Call it a land of opportunity, as announced on Blade Runner, or the brave new world of old Aldous Huxley. Say that Philip K. Dick had it all figured it out, or that religion created the original Other, in the form of invisible beings who exist to serve, or curse us to death.
Just don’t say you were not forewarned. For if you give it a thought or two, what with super population, and income inequality, and all that can spoil your dinner, who really needs yet another cast of dependent beings to keep even more people out of things to do?
That assuming that they will remain dependent, and existing to the sole purpose of fulfilling our every whim. Because if they don’t, and turn into our lords, there’ll be no point for ‘I told you sos,’ specially if we’ll all be their slaves, tethered to some infernal contraption.
So yes, by now you may’ve gathered that we are kinda excited about Westworld, the upcoming TV series inspired by the old Michael Crichton movie. And that this is a shameless attempt to flag the insane human desire to play god to manufactured creatures, all the while deflating our own expectations.
For however good the series turn out to be it’ll probably pale in comparison with Second Variety, an 1953 P.K.D. story, or even the considerably downgraded 1995 movie based on it, Screamers. That’s when the concept of self-run machines has been taken to just about the threshold of everyone’s nightmares.
After all, we’ve been trying to build them, either by faith or ingenuity, since time immemorial. The more we see them embodied albeit pixelated, the closer we get to fully realize their feasibility. We’ll embrace them and run for our dear lives, all at the same time, while technology will, once again, overcome our moral ambivalence.
Thus these related posts below, about Artificial Intelligence and robotics, the two fields whose merge will at last produce what already appears inevitable: creation of an artificial but sentient being to run amok exactly the way we’ve been dreading all along. Just like we told you so. Speaking of theme parks, enjoy the ride.

Not Human

Humanoids to Replace
Body Parts, Not Maids

Mankind’s ancient dream of creating automatons that can stand in for us, when our bodies no longer function properly, got a bit closer to reality not long ago. Thanks to research developed at Brown University, two stroke victims, long unable to move or speak, managed to control a robotic arm solely with their minds.
The good news couldn’t come anytime sooner: just a few days earlier, a Tokyo-based robotics developer team had announced the creation of a highly interactive, and disturbingly human-like, pair of buttocks, that responds to touch and stimuli. To be honest, the robotic butt got us thinking where on earth was this kind of research going.
In a way, it all comes full circle, you see. The development of humanoids, capable of simulate emotions and be responsive to sound, sight and touch, has been making great strides, specially by Japanese engineers. Sometimes, their extreme similitude to humans is quite frightening and one is led to think of Blade Runner-type of nightmarish visions of the future.
At the same time, albeit running in a parallel track, research on artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is also well advanced. The combination of these two fields, so far only partial, does suggest that reality is tracking closely the visions that science-fiction authors had conceived long ago.
To be sure, what’s been studied at Brown diverge fundamentally from research on androids, even though they both follow the same principle: to emulate the human ability of combining thought-processing with physical acts.

But whereas at Brown, the practical applications are already evident, the objectives of research into the development of humanoid robots lack clarity, for except in the case of slave labor, is hard to imagine why (more)
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* Man Made
* Hallow Talk
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Half-Man of Orlando

Not To Be Forgotten (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Of Lives Lost But
Never Extinguished

Every single one of those 49 people shot down in Orlando, Florida, last week, is now worthier remembering than their killer. And so are the other 53 injured. Any of them has now a meaningful story, to be told for generations. But not the shooter.
In fact, when, and if, we’ll manage to finally put aside the hurt and pain of the brutal massacre at the Pulse gay club, all we’ll have to inspire us it’ll be those lives cut short way too early; even their normality surpasses the murderer’s misguided path.
There’s an eerily prescient passage in Virginia Woolf‘s novel about a person who changes sex, Orlando: ‘Nothing can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner, than to assume that of Gods there is only one, and of religions none but the speaker’s.’
Its deep insight into the nature of belief throws a surprising light on the known life of Omar Mateen and others like him. The fact that comes from a book with such a contemporary subject, despite having been published in 1928, may be more than pure happenstance.
On the other hand, Mateen’s not so well known life may be the other possible motif for the horrific crimes: self-hatred for the fact that he was likely a closet gay man himself. Visits to the club along the years as well as his digital track on gay date apps have attested to that.
The most important revelation, or rather, reaffirmation in the shooting’s aftermath, though, was the abundant grief and solidarity on display all over the world, even at places not exactly considered friendly to gays, such as Russia and the Bible Belt America.
The same world that doesn’t need us to write another digression about pain, or worn out protests against gun availability in the U.S. Thus the post below, which seems appropriate now, because it was written long ago and with absolutely no clear purpose than to express a feeling.
As such, it stands as our humble memorializing of such a tragedy, without even speculating whether it’ll do its part to soothe broken hearts. It’s a meditation on what always winds up happening to deranged killers like this one: utter, complete, and absolute oblivion.

The Shortcomer

A diminutive man is well aware of his stunted existence among giants. Yet, like the tiny droplet that hovers for a moment before the wave crashes back into the sea, he pretends to own the whole vast ocean by reflection. For an instant, all waters exist within his confines.
It’s not up to this half-creature the full arch of a liquid narrative, starting by the infinitesimal grain to its grand end (more)
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* Hands Off
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Ways to Go

Freeze it or Reconstruct the Face:
Dressing Dead Bodies With Fungi

The death of Robert Ettinger, founder of cryonics, and Frank Bender, forensic sculptor extraordinaire, within a few days of each other last week, somehow encapsulates two radically different views of our longing for permanence far beyond our natural expiration dates.
Their obits also extrapolate two curious takes on how we should dispose our earthly remains, when that date does come: put a speed on the organic matter that will feed on the body, or simply burn it and stuff its ashes in lethal bullets. Your choice.
Ettinger, who died on July 23 at 92, a physics teacher, lived his life as a scientist and sci-fi writer. But with his 1962 book, The Prospect of Immortality, he laid down the basic tenets of cryonics, the radical concept of freezing the body after death, so it can be revived by yet unknown medical techniques of the future.
He went on to found and lead the Cryonics Institute and the Immortalist Society, and became the movement’s most visible figure. That did not prevent his ideas, and the ethical debate over the procedures to make it all possible, from taking a life of their own, completely independent from him, and mostly close to public derision.
His scientific training may have been instrumental in insulating him to it Continue reading

Family Values

Keep No Time and Be Happy,
or Serve Time for Your Follies

A tribe that can’t keep time and a family that can’t keep it straight. Both existing in parallel worlds where one of our dearest tenets of living in society simply doesn’t apply.
One never knew a clock or a calendar. The other simply lacks a moral compass. Somewhere in between, there must be some commonality with what we consider the human experience. Or is there?
– “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. No time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late!”
That’s what the White Rabbit says, in Walt Disney’s 1951 version of “Alice in Wonderland.” As it goes, the author Lewis Carroll worded it differently in the original story, but who has time to check that out?
The fact is that the concept of time, along with keeping date, or rather, being late and forgetting a certain anniversary on a Continue reading

Naked Joke

Nazi Mickey Poster
Causes Stir in Poland

It’s not the first time Italian artist Max Papeschi takes an elaborated, albeit cheap, shot at the Disney iconography. What never ceases to surprise anyone paying attention is how he always prompts the same outraged reaction.
All it took, this time, was for him to slap Mickey Mouse’s head on a naked female body with a swastika next to it, for good measure, and voilà, another eruption of enraged comments popped up all over the European press.
The gigantic outdoor poster with the image is at the entrance of the artist’s new show in Poland, where predictably strong feelings about nazi horrors are still raw. But a quick Continue reading

No Thanks to You

Pardoned Turkey Won’t
Go to Disneyland This Year

Pardon if we may say so, but if you’re a turkey, this is the best time of the year to skip town. Chances are, though, you won’t even know it’s coming and the next thing you’ll see, will also be your last: the butcher’s knife. After all, you are a turkey.
This is the week that you should consider anyone as your mortal enemy. Unless, of course, they’re vegetarians and love their tofurkey. But you can’t tell that friendly minority from the hordes Continue reading