Friday, July 20, 2012

Smile! You're the Candid Camera!

Now you can hear with your teeth.  If you need to.   

It’s not for everyone, of course.  But entrepreneurs in medical science have devised a gadget for those who are deaf in only one ear, or “single-side deaf.”    

Aptly named the “SoundBite,” it’s comprised of two transmitters; the one you wear in your deaf ear picks up sound signals on that side and sends them to pre-wired molars on the other side.  Then the molars use the second transmitter to forward the sound signals through the bones in your skull to your hearing ear.  Weird, but miraculous.   

And it gives an entirely new meaning to ‘Radiohead.’ 

I’m a little hung up on how it works if someone knocks on the door on your left and you hear it from the window on your right.  Or what if there’s signal interference from, say, SETI?   

But hey, my grandma’s knee predicted the weather.  I always knew when to bundle up, so who am I to argue?    

I’m not surprised at this latest invention.  After all, it wasn’t that long ago when we saw pictures of lab rats with ears growing out of their backs.  No, not rat ears.  Human ears.  Lab techs cultivated ears for future use in little peripatetic plantations, like rootless, itinerant Christmas tree farms.  Ewww.  

But it’s all for the good.  Burn victims and anyone doing a few rounds with Mike Tyson could benefit. 

It was only a matter of time before other body parts were re-purposed in today’s “green” climate. 

We have more teeth than we need anyway, so why not rethink the whole mastication thing?  Shift it all to the front, rodent style, and set aside a few back teeth and those canines for a quiet day, if you get my meaning.  The Tooth Fairy will have to reinvent himself, but the world’s changing, man.  Adapt or die.   

Horticultural grafts have had us harvesting peaches from apple trees for decades.  The internet is rife with videos of momma dogs raising baby squirrels.  It’s no wonder we accept these kinds of “cross pollination” as routine.   

But carry it to its logical extreme and next thing you know we’ve got Sodom and Gonorrhea.  No, wait…I didn’t mean that.  Spell check is messing with me.  I meant that Biblical thing.  You know - the foundation of Las Vegas?  Sloth and Greed!?  No – Sparkle and Flash!?  Oh forget it. 

I’m ambivalent, that’s all.  

OK look, at my age, I’m all for it, this new-fangled angle on body parts.  Repurpose a tooth?  Sign me up!  Reuse bone marrow?  I’m there.  Refurbish the ragged, the weary, the long-in-the-tooth?  Oh yeah, count me in.   

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see recycled.  Robert Redford.  Like American Pickers with an eye for treasures heaped up in a hoarder’s back bedroom, new age scavengers could pick him up for a song.  Take him back to the shop; sand him down with #3 grit; rub in a honey glaze and finish him off with a coat of satin sealant.  Hollywood could still get a lot of use out of him.  But no!  We’re all too ready to cast off the classics.  

Instead, we have Wayne Newton.  A cautionary tale of misguided science and misspent technology.   

You can see why I’m torn. 

Just watch.  Now that Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp have crossed the threshold from fresh and plump on their way to shriveled and mossy, like so many Marlon Brando’s, they’ll wind up on a Tinsel Town junk pile when they could be aged like a single malt scotch.   

I’m not a Luddite, really.  I love the gadgets and apps.  I’m young.  I’m hip, or hep, or sick or cool.  Whatever.  Heck, I’ll go bionic when the time comes.  Or piecemeal me.  I’m good with it. 

In fact, in the spirit of progress, I offer these visionary suggestions for advances on the dental front.  Why not put our network where our mouth is?  We could link our teeth to Facebook and chatter away.  We can update our status while whitening.  

And why stop there?  Mount MP3 players, digital cameras, Angry Birds apps and home monitoring systems all around the grille. 

We’ll call it a Swiss Army mouth.  Say cheese!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Birthday Wishes for Dr. Frankenstein

In our ongoing efforts to keep you apprised of significant events that might otherwise elude your attention, we alert you to the 100th celebration of the birth of Dr. Alan Turing, known in esoteric circles as the Father of Artificial Intelligence. 

A brilliant code cracker in World War II, Turing later addressed the problem of artificial intelligence.  As you well know if you’ve ever cursed your bank’s voicemail system or defied your GPS, artificial intelligence (AI), defined as the “intelligence of machines,” can be problematic.  

The problem with AI is that it’s stupid.   

But I’m getting ahead of myself.   

Of course, computers appear clever.  They can reason, deduce, problem solve, plan, learn, process natural language, perceive their environment, move and manipulate it, practice social interaction, even create.  But then so can an army of ants; and they have just as much personality. 

OK, ants can’t process natural language.  If only they could!  Instead of laying down a barrier of Agent Orange in the kitchen, we’d issue verbal threats to keep them out of the pantry.  “Be gone insects!” 

My first boyfriend was artificially intelligent.  At least that’s what my mom thought.  He was a twin and we often double-dated with his brother.  Since I lived closer than his brother’s girlfriend, they would pick me up first, and oddly, they’d both come to the door.   

When my mom saw them bounding up the sidewalk she’d announce their arrival by saying, “Here comes the wit.”  Took me a long time to get it. 

Dr. Turing proposed an experiment which became known as…wait for it…the Turing Test.  An attempt to define the standard for a machine to be called "intelligent," the Turing test declares that a computer can "think" when, through written conversation, a human interrogator cannot tell it apart from a human being.  Can a computer fool a person into thinking it’s a person too?  

So the Turing test boils down to texting.  And so far, the computer always loses apparently because it persists in distinguishing between ‘your’ and ‘you’re,’ a feat humans cannot master.  Incongruously, these results explain less about a computer’s ability to think than about human behavior, for instance all those robotic young people stalled in mid-step, staring at their Smartphones, zombie-like, their thumbs jumping around the screens mechanically.  

Yes, AI is unsettling all on its own.  But just stir in a dose of science fiction and it becomes sinister.  Visionary writers capitalize on our innate fears and distrust with some ridiculously scary scenarios that don’t seem that far from feasible.  In sci-fi horror flicks, machines don’t just want to be human; they succeed, at least by Turing’s test.  We’re fooled, we’re lulled, and then we’re in trouble.  Think Hal.  No!  Think Ash, the Science Officer onboard the commercial spaceship Nostromo.  His dispassionate machine self, housed in a human-seeming body chats up Sigourney Weaver and then allows the Alien through the airlock!    

Not to pass up a lucrative opportunity, I myself am working on a screenplay scarier still for its Spielbergian normalcy - think Pinocchio all grown up.  Sure, he’s a sweet little puppet.  He only wants to be a “real boy.”  What harm could there possibly be?  But next thing you know he moves back home, sleeps on the couch and eats all guacamole.  

Turing suggested that rather than building a program that simulates an adult mind, it would be better to simulate a child's mind and then subject it to a course of education.  Good luck with that.  Considering the mandates of No Child Left Behind coupled with abysmal educational funding, we can only expect a class of oversized automatons playing computer games all day and speaking in code.  LOL.  OMG!  Wait!  Stop! 

There you have it.  The trouble isn’t with the machines; it’s with us humans.  We always go too far.  We’re not satisfied with a robot that bumps around pretending to vacuum the floors.  No, we’ve got to have a perfect thing that will solve all our dysfunction.  An impeccable man.  A faultless woman.  Everyone else doing just what we want, cheerfully.  Next we’re shopping for our ideal mate in the eHarmony boutique at the Outer Limits Mall. 

Lovely concept.  Faulty execution every time. 

Happy Birthday to you, Dr. Turing.        

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Universe Explained, and You're Welcome

So Anderson Cooper is gay.  Republicans want to repeal the newly validated healthcare law.  The Olympics are imminent.  And oh yeah, they found a God particle. 

A ‘God particle’!?  What’s a God particle, for Heaven’s sake?  Why it’s the long-sought-after Higgs boson.  Oh, of course!  The Higgs boson!  Why didn’t you just say so? 

For the layman, and other ignorant schmos like me, the Higgs boson, dubbed the "God particle," is a key piece in the scientific puzzle that seeks to explain the origin of the universe.  Duh! 

The Higgs boson appeared 13.7 billion years ago in the chaos of the Big Bang and turned the flying debris into galaxies, stars and planets.  Or so the theory goes. 

Physicists around the globe have spent decades with little wrinkles in their foreheads - not to mention billions of dollars in their hunt for an actual God particle - a tiny thingy that makes universes out of flying flotsam.  And now, scientists working at the world's largest atom smasher say they have proof of the existence of just such a, uh, thingy. 

Before you file this in the Who Cares Category, consider the implications:  According to a broad scientific consensus, the formal discovery of the God particle constitutes the greatest advance in knowledge of the universe since E=MCx2 (I can’t get my computer to make that little superscript 2 signifying ‘squared,’ but surely you’re familiar.)   

Proof of the Higgs boson is being hailed as a key to confirming the standard model of physics that explains what gives mass to matter and, by extension, how the universe was formed.  Thank God and his particle. 

Unable to resist the urge to clarify a concept that mainstream media has ranked alongside new apps offering GPS for hikers, Rutgers University physicist Matt Strassler told Reuters that without the God particle, "nothing like human beings, or the earth we live on, could exist."  

But… the fact that we do exist here on the planet sort of proves we could be here, to me at least.  But then I’ve always been easy to please.  For scientists, the particle’s existence has been only hypothetical, in spite of the fact that they themselves were standing around in laboratories, wearing white coats with pocket protectors that couldn’t exist without the flippin’ thing in the first place.   

We’re orbiting a conundrum.  It’s a cosmic chicken and egg.  And I thought working in public schools was maddening. 

In an interview with National Public Radio, physicist Joseph Lykken of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago explained the difficulty in tracking down the particle.  "It exists for a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second, or something like that, and then falls apart into other particles."   

Oh I see.  Like the attention span of a Labrador retriever.  Got it.  Thank you.  

I’m not going to be the one to break it to all these eggheads, but there is another question on the edge of its seat, waiting for the confetti to hit the ground.  If you’ve just popped your champagne’s cork, you might want to avert your eyes. 

Where’d the God particle come from? 

It seems obvious to me, but as mentioned above, I’m on a simpler plane than these guys.  On the other hand, maybe I’m more of like mind with Albert Einstein than my husband would ever admit.  In describing his ‘cosmic religion,’ Einstein spoke of a "miraculous order which manifests itself in all of nature as well as in the world of ideas."  

Yeah, go on.  Preach to me Albert. 

"…I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature,” he said.  “God is a mystery.  But a comprehensible mystery.  There are not laws without a lawgiver.” 

That’s what I’m talkin’ about!  Who better to create Mr. Higgs’s boson?  Or maybe what better?  I’ll grant the lab geeks that much. 

But Albert is more quotable than I am.  He maintained that "even though…religion and science… are clearly marked off from each other" there are "strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies, as aspirations for truth derive from the religious sphere."   

For Einstein, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." 

Go Albert!  You rock.