Mielle Sullivan's Blog Posts

Socially Assistive Robots: The Psychology of Robotic Helpers

November 20 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Technology   Year: 2008   Rating: 3

Socially assistive robots ā€” robots that help care for the disabled, elderly or injured ā€” will be a primary part of the coming robotics revolution, argued Maja Mataric founding director of the USC Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at the Robo Development Conference in Santa Clara on Tuesday.  But because of subtle psychological factors, they need to be carefully designed.

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Space Tourism to Help the Earth by Quantifying Climate Change

October 09 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Environment   Year: 2008   Rating: 8 Hot

I wrote about the unveiling of White Knight Two back in July, and no, it is not yet ferrying billionaires to sub-orbital six minute vacations. But it has just become useful (rather than enviable) to the rest of us.

On September 30th, The International Astronautical Congress announced that Virgin Galactic was partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to measure greenhouse gasses in the upper atmosphere using White Night Two and Space Ship Two. Both crafts will be fitted with atmospheric sensors and will begin gathering data in test flights.

The planes are uniquely suited to help the NOAA for two reasons. The most obvious is that they will go much higher than conventional aircraft. Thus, they can monitor the hard to reach mesosphere and thermosphere. Information about these layers of the atmosphere is vital for scientist to create accurate climate change models. Also, the planes were designed with tubes that channel outside air to internal speed sensors. This feature was added in the design phase in anticipation of scientific work.

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The Eight Biggest Over-reactions to Technology of All-Time

October 07 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Culture   Year: 2008   Rating: 11 Hot

Nothing gets humans up in arms like a new technology. Will it cure our ills and save us from destruction? Or end the world in one cataclysmic Earth-shattering moment? Clearly, no invention has accomplished either, but try telling that to the fanatical, hysterical or just plain irrational among us. Now, with technology advancing at an ever quickening pace, rational thinking is in short supply. Here then, to prove this point, are eight of the biggest freak-out moments in technology history:

Writing Will Make us Forget – Socrates

The written word and the ability to understand it is considered one of the most important developments ever achieved by mankind and a defining step for any civilization.  But not everyone was always a fan. Even that hero of western philosophy, Socrates, once argued that writing would make people lazy and forgetful!

“The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it,” said Socrates, “They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered.”

Sound familiar? It is the same argument that some people nowadays are directing at both Google and the World Wide Web.

Given that pretty much every major advancement subsequent to the birth of writing is built on writing itself (collectively we have advanced much faster through the use of writing) it certainly did anything but make people lazy. Forgetful? Perhaps, on an individual level.  But I sure am glad Plato broke out his quill to write down Socrates’ teachings, lest I couldn’t “remember” to complain about him now.

Get Out of the Way, Here Comes the Train!

Reportedly, when the Lumiere Brothers showed their films for the first time at the Grand Cafe in Paris in 1895, audience members ran out of the room in a panic. Why? To avoid being hit by the image of a train pulling into a station!

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Learning from the LHC or: How I Stopped Worrying and Started Loving the Collider!

September 29 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Social Issues   Year: General   Rating: 6 Hot

Inspired, in part, by Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

People are expressing some pretty melodramatic and, dare I say, silly reactions to the Large Hadron Collider. Every time I turn around, there’s a new headline about the LHC. Several papers have labelled it The God Machine, and some misinformed bloggers have dubbed it the Doomsday Machine. Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho filed their famous lawsuit against the collider because it might cause the end of the world. And of course, my personal favorite, this guy.

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The Future of Google: Golden City of Innovation or Corporate Black Hole?

September 19 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Business & Work   Year: General   Rating: 9 Hot

Google has been the Golden City of Silicon Valley and indeed the whole world wide web for the past several years.  The savvy start-up that grew from a garage in Menlo Park to one of the biggest companies in the world in less than a decade is not only a business wunderkind, but a cultural icon whose name has become a verb for finding information on the Internet. Yet as Google’s rise to fame attests, the Internet is a fast and fickle place where a good new idea can change everything.

In a recent interview with Mad Money host Jim Cramer, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google can avoid the flat-line in growth that eventually plagued it’s high tech giant predecessors IBM & Microsoft.  Google will accomplish this, Schmidt says, through increasingly targeted advertising, breaking into new businesses and keeping to the mantra of not being “evil.”

Is this a realistic forecast? Can its very size and success be a detriment to Google’s innovation? Can it really conquer new markets?  Though the company’s stock has consistently outperformed expectations and grew an impressive 26% last quarter, there are some tell-tale signs that Google’s empire is not immune to the forces of time or economics.

Innovation by Acquisition: By Schmidt’s own admission, Google will need to innovate at a high rate to remain competitive.  The company has released several products in the last few years including Gmail, Google Earth, Google Docs (which I am using to type this article), Google Calendar, Knol, and most recently its web browser Chrome.  But much, if not the bulk, of the company’s innovation has been generated through acquisitions.  While many of the purchases have been a big boon for Google, i.e. DoubleClick is estimated to have brought in $90 million dollars for Google last year, several of the innovative companies acquired have mysteriously entered the ever widening Google black hole.  Jaiku, a twitter-like micro-blogging company was purchased in October of 2007  and is still closed to new users. GrandCentral a site the allows you integrate all your phone numbers and voicemail boxes into one account, accessible from the web, had a markedly similar fate. Even Blogger, once the king of blogs, has withered from lack of development and upgrading since being acquired. It now seems doomed to forever live in the shadow of it’s successors Wordpress and Movable Type. 

A quick look at this comprehensive list of Google’s acquisitions reveals many great ideas that either are dead in the black hole, being developed by Google, or in use but just not being promoted. It’s hard to say which, but considering how old some of these acquisitions are and how quickly the Internet world moves, even in the best case scenario of “development” Google is proving it simply hasn’t been able integrate and develop it’s acquisitions quickly enough.

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Revised Thoughts on the Demise of Death

September 05 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Health & Medicine   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

A follow-up to last week’s Demise of Death

My post last week on the Demise of Death received so many thought provoking comments that I feel compelled to further the discussion in another post. The new information and perspectives contained in the the comments have transformed the way I intend to approach parts of the debate.  With such a fertile discussion ground, I felt I would be remiss if I did not give attention and thanks to several of the eloquently expressed ideas.

Here’s the point-by-point update:

Nanotech & Biotech Will Not Necessarily End Death: That death may remain even if aging is cured was a point raised by a few of the commentors.  If our bodies did not deteriorate into death, fatal accidents, acts of violence etc. could still bring about mortality.  I realize that my rationale for thinking we may be able to conquer death altogether was somewhat obscure in my first post.  One theory proposed by futurists and transhumanists, is that to truly conquer aging, we will not be able to rely merely on stem cells, genetic therapies and drugs. 

These treatments can, the theory argues, only go so far to combat cellular deterioration.  If we are to truly end, and not merely delay aging, we would eventually have to develop nanobots capable of precisely repairing cells.  My own logic followed that if we are able to create effective cellular-repair nanobots, we will have mastered nanotechnology and it will serve a number of other functions beyond cellular repair. 

Prolific poster Dick Pelletier has pointed out a few times that if nanobot technology were mastered, we could, in theory, surround ourselves in a sort of thin nanobot shield that could, in theory, protect us from violence and accident.  Perhaps I have taken this rationale too far. It does not logically follow that by ending aging we will necessarily end death by accident or violence, but I think it is at least a reasonable possibility.

Taking Control of Your Fate Opens Pandora’s Box: Let us consider my original conjecture is incorrect and that we will be able to bring an end to aging, but not death by accident or violence.  If this becomes true, we will, in effect be gaining a greatly extended life at the expense of knowing that death will certainly come either by violence, violent accident or suicide.  I cannot help but think these are all troubling ends. 

Admittedly, most deaths now are troubling.  Death by disease and aging is most often the end of a long, painful, degrading, messy battle.  But, at present, we can at least hope to be one of the lucky few to die comfortably, unknowingly in their sleep.  This hope will be eliminated if aging is defeated. 

Even to me the benefits outweigh the downsides, but it is deeply disturbing to know you will one day kill yourself if you aren’t hit by a bus or murdered first. This is in part what I meant when I wrote that I considered myself a part of nature and do not wish to be removed from the natural process.  Taking your fate out of the hands of nature results in some very difficult decisions.

Accepting Suicide? This idea of death occurring either by chance or choice is tied to another point raised in the comments.  Johnfrink said, “Iā€™m pretty sure if we conquer death eternal life will not be forced on anybody.”  And I am inclined to agree.  It is unlikely that in a future without aging, omniscient police will parole the streets taking into custody all those thinking of ending it all.  But that doesn’t mean suicide will be any more desirable than it is today. 

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My Thoughts on the Demise of Death

August 25 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.

Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies.  When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited.  Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful.  I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating.  But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic.  Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry.  On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive.  Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.

So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable?  I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are.  I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife.  It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much.  As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible.  I also don’t believe I am a Luddite.  I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get.  I love my computer and wonders of the Internet.  I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web.  I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries.  But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.

I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.

The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic

When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical?  I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?”  Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.”  This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful. 

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Future Centers: Prototyping the Office of Tomorrow?

August 22 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

If the Future Centers of Europe—open, comfortable and collaborative hubs were established to encourage groups of people problem-solve, brainstorm and generally think creatively about the future of their companies or organizations. Are they an indicator of changing work attitudes and styles? See for yourself:

It is tempting, at first glance, to think of Future Centers a conference facilities or even classrooms and there is some similarity. However, Future Centers are designed not for people to merely absorb information, but rather to exchange it. They are, as the video above says mind friendly spaces for our new knowledge economy. The philosophy behind future centers is that how people think about problems and how they exchange information is essential to innovation. Future Centers seek to break down barriers of hierarchy and formality to encourage connections and the free exchange of ideas. Sound familiar? It’s the same basic philosophy inherent in the world wide web.

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The Aurora Concept Browser: Is this the Future of the Computing Experience?

August 14 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Technology   Year: General   Rating: 6 Hot

“Welcome to the future, at least one possible future anyway,” announces Mozilla Labs. Along with designers from Adaptive Path, Mozilla has released Auroraā€”a proposal for the visual and design components of what could be the future of, not only web browsing, but of the computing experience in general. In three dramatized videos, users retrieve, manipulate and utilize data with remarkable ease. Devices and computers communicate fluidly with the web and each other, pulling up relevant data quickly to help make plans. They even identify objects in the real world. At times it is hard to tell where the computer ends and the web begins. But is this really the future of computing? How can this all be made possible?

The Aurora concept browser differs from web browsers of today in three obvious ways. First, it incorporates all applications not just those that are connected to the web and thus replaces the desktop. Second, it attempts to make the experience primarily visual rather than textual. Finally, it takes full advantage of what the Semantic Web will hopefully have to offer.

After a few minutes of watching the concept video, you realize that Aurora bears little resemblance to today’s web browsers. For one thing, there is no distinction between applications and websites and there is no time when the web is accessed. Rather, the whole environment is constantly interacting with the web. Strictly speaking, the Aurora concept browser is not a web browser. It is a graphical user interface which anticipates that the web will be THE application and resource of future computing. All applications a computer may have, if they are not connected to the web, will serve only to enhance and facilitate the web experience. In other words, in the future, your desktop, your operating system, all your programs, and your web browser will merge into one user interface that is built around and inside the web.

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Space Exploration and Colonization 2008 - 2040

August 07 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Space   Year: Beyond   Rating: 4

The exploration and colonization of space have long been crucial and exciting aspects of how people envision future civilization. But how will our place in space take shape over the next few decades? Some clear patterns have emerged in near-term space predictions including rapidly expanding space tourism in the next two years, asteroid mining by 2020 and multiple nations with settlements on the moon by 2025. Take a look for yourself:

To view the multiple events in one year, click on the little plus icons at the bottom of the timeline. Many of the events include cool videos. Enjoy!

What do you think is the most exciting thing about the next 30 years of space exploration and colonization?

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