Nature

[box]This post originally appeared on the FTMF.info planning blog.[/box]

In this post, let’s explore the link between the twin worlds of microbiology and creative thought, drawing inspiration from three brilliant scientific discoveries. Labcoats on, people!

1. Sponges

If a sea sponge (phylum porifera) is forced through a sieve to disintegrate it down to its cellular level, those cells, if left alone, will recombine into a sponge again:

Lesson: some ideas only make sense as a whole – passing them through a ‘sieve test’ can reveal whether they were ever meant to be, while others may naturally merge together.

2. Slime Molds

A single-celled slime mold (physarum polycephalum) can solve mazes, mimic the layout of man-made transportation networks and choose the healthiest food from a diverse menu – and all this without a brain or nervous system:

Lesson: deploy resources efficiently – really smart solutions often arise naturally, yet knowing what’s best still requires lots of prior research. But hey, if a slime mold can do it…

3. Artificial Jellyfish

Scientists have created an artificial jellyfish using silicone and muscle cells from a rat’s heart. The synthetic creature, dubbed a medusoid, looks like a flower with eight petals. When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart:

Lesson: even the most difficult concept can be somehow ‘brought to life’ – be it in a new context, through the addition of a couple of key ingredients, or sheer appliance of science!

Pachanga Boys: Time

Had to share this stunning track, discovered via a recent Future Disco show. It’s the sort of music that just lets the mind unfold, encouraging some really powerful comments and imagery to spill out onto the pages of YouTube:

this track changed my life, this is like reborn feeling.
Im shaking and flying all the time.
I can cry and laugh at the same time.
I wonna listen to this song on the moment I die.
You spin my inner universe….thank you forever

i dont know what to do now it has finished

160 quid on discogs to buy. sounds good to me. i wont be playing it tho, il be framing it and putting it up on the wall and buying the mp3 to play. 300 copies in the whole world of this beauty. one of the finest tracks i will ever hear.

omg at :45 i knew i was in for a ride but DAMN

it’s 6am, and the sun is just starting to peak it’s head. the engine is purring on my white ferrarri 355 cabrio. the wind blowing through my hair, relaxed and loose from a night of dancing. i inhale on my last muratti cigarette. as the smoke fills my lungs my brain sharpens and i remember the name of the girl sitting next to me. it’s a fifteen minute drive back to the villa but i wish it could last forever. pure bliss. pachanga, boys. pachanga.

I was trying to make an awesome comment but it’s impossible. Nothing can describe the beauty of this track.

Cattaneo played this song at the end of moonpark last April 14th, and sudenly, without warning, some of my friends and myself looked at eachother, stop dancing and started hugging eachother, some of us even couldn’t help crying, it was a moment I’ll always remember, time stopped, we were there, we were happy, life had a meaning.
Thanks Pachanga boys. Thanks.

13 Tools to Promote Divergent Thinking

New ideas can come from anywhere, but are often hardest to find when you’re actually looking for them. However, I believe it’s possible to jumpstart your brain, even under pressure, by applying yourself to a bit of divergent thinking:

Divergent thinking typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion. Many possible solutions are explored in a short amount of time, and unexpected connections are drawn. After the process of divergent thinking has been completed, ideas and information are organized and structured using convergent thinking.

Wikipedia

So to help anyone out there who may be stuck for ideas, here’s my list of divergent thought helpers:

  1. Stumbleupon – highly recommended: tell it your interests and hit ‘stumble’ to be sent to a random site
  2. Buzzfeed – hit the randomize button in the top right corner (occasionally NSFW) to see something usually quite cool
  3. Mystery Seeker – type something in the search box and receive a set of google results for a totally different subject
  4. The Wiki Game – start in one place on wikipedia, and try to end up in another, while seeing loads of content on the way
  5. We Heart It – inspiring and high-quality imagery, often captioned, and with decent search functionality
  6. We Feel Fine – an emotional search tool, potentially good for scanning & visualising need states
  7. Popurls – see the freshest stories from a range of great online sources, with customisation options
  8. Newsmap – a visualisation of the latest news, powered by google (quite old but potentially interesting)
  9. Thesaurus.net – high quality thesaurus dictionary: search synonyms, antonyms, rhymes, quotes and idioms
  10. Visual Thesaurus – see the associated meanings between concepts – worth paying for
  11. Bing Visual Search – search the web visually in an intuitive, exploratory way
  12. oSkope – discover images, videos and products related to a search query
  13. TouchGraph SEO – see the links between topics and websites

Finally, and it may take more time for ideas to emerge this way, but TED really is an amazing resource for this kind of thing. I recently attended TEDxObserver, after which my head was swimming with ideas.

Can you suggest any of your own?

The Future of Love

Love is here to stay

Human beings are hard-wired to love. As babies, we rely solely on the love of our parents for our survival. As adults, our instinct to love keeps us producing those babies.

So what is the future for love?
Guest blogger Lindsey Mountford investigates:

Love is a drug.

The state we call the “honeymoon period” is known as being in limerance, and there are specific things going on in our brains (darling, when I look at you my ventral tegmental area lights ups with the power of a thousand suns and my caudate nucleusis floods with enough dopamine and norepinephrine to fill a thousand seas) when this happens.

The pharmaceutical industry will cotton on to this and produce pills to keep the spark of love alive. We already take vitamins, Viagra and Prozac by the bucketload to improve our standard of living, so why ignore this incredibly important aspect of our emotional lives?

If Big Pharma is clever it will market the drug as a health supplement.

Heart Beat
Prescribed Love?

Worried that it’s not ‘real’ love? In the future the lines between what we think of as real, virtual, enhanced or fake will be more blurred anyway. We won’t mind.

Prenuptial agreements will be accompanied by brain scans which will ‘prove’ we’re marrying for love. Marriage counselling could take place in the EEG/fMRI scanner, with new versions of neurofeedback therapy helping us get our relationships back on the right track.

Love is good for your health.

Once we’ve all given up smoking and we eat well and exercise, what’s next on the agenda? We may be seeing NHS leaflets encouraging us to go speed-dating. We may even be prescribed the Love Drug described above.

More likely, we will be offered more education about love, which starts in schools and continues at the GP. It’s happening already. Interpersonal psychotherapy is an evidence-based talking therapy which helps people with relationship skills. The benefits are improved mental and physical health, which last a lifetime. The NHS is already investing more money in IPT, and will continue to do so.

Love is big business.

There are thousands of dating sites out there, catering for more niches than anyone knew existed. (Geek lover? Got a Stashe Passion? Zombie looking for love?) This diversification won’t continue.

The truth is, there are lots of unconscious things going on when we fall in love. We are not always good judges of our own characters (and we can’t help lying in our profiles.) We’re not good judges of characters of others and we often don’t have a good understanding of we should be looking for in a partner that will make us happy.

OKCupid are doing some very interesting things with the data they’re gathering from their millions of members which finally gives us real data about what makes a good match. When Google gets involved, things will get interesting and result in love.google.com

We won’t need to spend several hours writing our profiles trying to sell ourselves.

A Google spider will find all the things we’ve ever written online (On Buzz, Twitter, blog, social network profiles etc.), then text analysis software like Alceste will scan it and suss you out based on:

  • keywords (i.e. I mention ‘books’ a lot on my blog)
  • frequency of keywords (I mention books a LOT)
  • moods (i.e., I complain a lot, especially in the mornings)
  • thought patterns (i.e. I can get overexcited and Tweet a lot)
  • sentence structure, grammar (i.e. I’m an informal writer, but I don’t use three exclamation marks in a paragraph and I don’t write LOL.)

Then Google Love will look at all that juicy data it has about us as individuals:

  • film/TV/music preferences (Lovefilm, Spotify etc.)
  • interests (browsing history)
  • food and household purchases (Tesco clubcard)
  • travelling and going-out habits (Oyster card)
  • sociability (activity levels on social networks)
  • relationship history (on social networks)

Google Love will gather an overwhelming amount of data on millions of people and track the course of their relationships. Using all this knowledge, eventually Google will be able to create a Love algorithm to find the ideal partner for everyone.

The Google Love algorithm will be big and beautiful, and it will work.

Marriage, sex and robots.

Most visions of love in the future involve a lot of casual sex (thank you male sci-fi authors.) As sex becomes safer with improved contraception, people will be doing more of it. Google Love won’t care if you’re unavailable, if your data is there then you can be ‘headhunted’ by a love interest. If you were told you had a 98% chance of falling in love with someone wouldn’t you want to meet them?

Roxxxy Sex Robot

‘Traditional’ marriage is a crazily outdated concept. In what other area of life would we accept a contract that we sign when we are intoxicated (see ‘Love is a drug’ above) that is binding until death? As life expectancies continue to increase, marriage must have more flexibility. Perhaps similar to a mobile phone contract – minimum of 10 years with a rolling annual contract afterwards.

There’s definitely a place for the robot girlfriend and BritneyBot. The BoyfriendBot version will be sophisticated software only, programmed to send romantic/loving messages and emails throughout the day to satisfy her need to feel adored.

Love is a meme.

That instinct for all-encompassing love from an all-powerful, benevolent, omnipotent being we have as babies never leaves us just because we become adults, so we invented God to fill the gap. For a long time, religious love was seen as True Love.  We evolved to believe we’re the centre of the universe and it’s a heady feeling to be told that God loves us.

But now the philosophers have dug a God-shaped hole in our heads, what replaces it? Look at the popularity of the Twilight Saga to see what is happening already. The fantasy of romantic love and our instinct for religion meet in stories like this, and the result is 85 million books sold worldwide.

Stories about love (seen in films, books, magazines, perfume adverts, family and friends) propagate the love myth and make it stronger. The supernatural love meme will become stronger and more powerful. Vampires aren’t going anywhere.

If music be the food of love, play on.

For your listening pleasure, here is a a collaborative Spotify playlist of love songs.

Thanks for reading! It would be very romantic of you to leave a comment below.
Oh, and do subscribe to be notified of the next entry in this blog series.

On the Potential for Branded Robots

Last year I wrote about these awesome fighting robots from Japan, where  I asked this question:

“I am very interested in at least progressing research into the potential for branded robotics, androids & cybernetics if any readers have thoughts?”

I received an equally awesome response from one Pius Agius, who challenged me on my Western predilection to see robots fighting rather than fulfilling a higher place in society. I reproduce the key lines of our dialogue here:

“Because [the Japanese] accept robots as part of their daily lives more than a majority of those living in the west does not mean we in the so called west cannot build great machines […] We can make better use of our creations than place them in roman like battles. What does that say about us as a civilization?? Let us build machines that can develop and reach their full potential.”

Stunned to have stimulated such a well-considered response, in answer I cited a company that I think are making some great stuff in this field – Festo:

“I think their design-led approach is not only creating some very useful mechanisms, but can potentially change the way we in the West perceive robotics as part of everyday life.”

Check them out if you like – Festo do great stuff.

Meanwhile, I went to see what I could find out about the guy who’d crashed in with his well-considered comment. I found Pius dwelling on the vibrant community pages of Grandroids, a Ning-based social network full of heavyweight discussion on robotics. Members spoke of a ‘Steve Grand’ as the patriarch of their micro-culture. I’m coming back to this…

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up surrounded by members of the Games Industry in Cambridge. My father was Director of Development at Millennium Interactive, which became Cyberlife, then Creature Labs, and then Gameware Development.

The common thread between these companies was a breakthrough series of Artificial Life games called Creatures. Cyberlife was created to commercialise the work of this very same Steve Grand, where together with a team of artists and programmers they went about developing the Creatures series.

Though artificial life simulators are now a well-established genre (Tamagotchi; Sims; EyePet), the series was first to reach critical and commercial acclaim. Players would take on the role of keepers to cutesy ‘Norns’. But these were no ordinary creations, and in the 90’s Creatures was far ahead of its time.

These creatures would learn and grow, each with their own neural network, and were motivated to survive, and eventually breed in order to pass on their digital genotype. They had the ability to adapt and evolve, iterating towards an understanding of and harmony with their environment.

Years later, Steve is well-established as the leading thinker in AI and robotics. As well as mounds of academic submissions, he’d been running a project to build a series of intelligent robots for rent, as crowd pullers in public events and trade shows. His first robot was a five foot tall humanoid female called Grace, I discovered.

Because I’d found myself on his site, and because I know the guy, I thought I’d go to Steve to ask my initial question once more:

Hello Steve,
This is Tom Saunter here, Ian’s son.

A member of this very network recently commented on my blog, and one Google later I found myself here. With such a vibrant community there’s so much to digest, so I thought I’d go straight to the source…

Part of my job these days is to seek out emerging technologies for advertising purposes, and now that I’ve read about your Grandroids project I am interested to hear your thoughts on how you feel robotics could be of benefit to brands and, in turn, to consumers.

Besides increased traffic to conference booths, what part do you feel your robots might reasonably play when faced with a brief to change the buying behaviours of the general public?

There’s got to be a great piece of research in there.
Do you know anyone who can help me with an answer?

All the best,
Tom

The response, and get ready for it, was this phenomenal piece of prose:

[…] So, um, how might robots like Grace change buying behaviours? God knows! They could certainly have an impact on brand perception, and I suspect that’s a double-edged sword. If the robot is suitably impressive then it improves the company’s image, but if it’s a bit naff then at best it’s just a novelty to draw crowds that the client would then have to secure by other means, and at worst it damages the client’s image.

For instance Asimo has done wonders for Honda’s public image (not in terms of AI, particularly, just general technology), but some other Japanese robots have fared less well, especially those that fall into the Valley of the Uncanny. In other words, they’re lifelike enough to trigger the circuits in our brains that detect things that “aren’t quite right” in other people (signs that we’re being deceived or threatened, say), but they’re not lifelike enough to actually pass the test, so we find them disconcerting. 3D computer games frequently suffer from the same problem, as I’m sure you know, and years ago I predicted that as 3D graphics got better, the demands on intelligent behaviour for game characters would grow intense.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. It was a big factor in our design for Grace, though. We deliberately made her look like a robot and didn’t give her human-like skin, etc. Instead I relied on psychological cues of sexiness and lifelikeness that didn’t risk us falling into the Valley of the Uncanny. My point is, you have to get the psychology right or you won’t produce the positive associations in people’s minds that your client needs. The consumers aren’t necessarily going to be able to articulate these things, so they’ll feel bad without knowing why, and you could damage the brand rather than enhance it. I felt I had enough unique experience in designing artificial lifeforms to stay on the safe side of that boundary, though.

One of the things I was keen to achieve was understatement. There are various companies renting out “robots” as crowd pullers (although really they’re just animatronics or remote controlled) and they go for a big noisy splash – flashing lights, big press releases, comedy routines, etc. I wanted Grace to just sit there at the entrance to a booth and be as much like a normal sales girl as possible. I wanted people to do a double-take and then be intrigued. Let them discover it for themselves. It’s a bit like knowing you’ve just been passed by a really powerful motorcycle because you didn’t hear it coming. I think if you do something like this with a fanfare then people will be primed to find something wrong with it, but if you go for the soft sell then they’ll be supportive and impressed. When I wrote Creatures all those centuries ago, my prime principle was that I shouldn’t try to fool people into thinking norns were alive – I should really try my best to make them alive. If people knew I was being honest and doing my best then they’d be on my side, and I think the same is true here. Undersell the robot and you make their company look good by association, as if there’s a lot more under the hood of their products than they’re letting on.

There are also many other kinds of subliminal association that can work for you or against you depending on the client and your ability to tap into the right psychological triggers. I based the look of Grace on the robots Chris Cunningham designed for the video to go with Bjork’s “All is full of love”, because I think he got a lot of those triggers just right – especially the tension between femininity and technology. It’s a bit like designing the iPod – the right curves and the bits you leave out are so important. And with real robots you have to get the behaviour right too, which is a big subject all by itself. Almost all current robots fail miserably in that regard, especially by being too predictable and not subtle enough.

But I don’t think I’m really answering your question, am I? Sorry. Advertising and marketing aren’t my field (I have quite enough fields without adding any more). I don’t really know of anyone who knows about this stuff. One of our “competitors” in New York has a site where they talk quite a bit about the marketing potential of their remote-controlled “robots”, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the company (so maybe their advice doesn’t work!).

Looks like it’s down to you to figure it out…

There it is then. The planet’s preeminent ALife & robotics academic, whom has been referred to by Richard Dawkins as “the creator of what I think is the nearest approach to artificial life so far”, is leaving it up to us to answer the big questions:

  • What is the potential for branded robots?
  • Will they ever form part of a marketing strategy?
  • Will we ever allow robots a part in everyday life?

And so, I ask again, dear reader, what do you think?

Let me know in the comments.