technology

Rocket Launches via Augmented Reality

On May 11 it looked like conditions would finally be favorable for the launch of SpaceX's Bangabandhu Satellite-1 mission. The Bangabandhu-1 is the first geostationary communications satellite for Bangladesh.

As time approached for the launch, I thought I would hunt for a good app to let me follow launch status. (There's not much point in running out to the beach to watch a launch until the likelihood of launch looks pretty good!) I only had a few minutes to spare before the scheduled launch time. By sheer luck I discovered a fantastic app, dubbed "321 Launch."

321 Launch is sponsored by Florida Today and USA Today newspapers. Several cool things struck me as I downloaded the app and opened it. First, you can set up an augmented reality simulation of the launch on any flat surface. I chose to set it up on the floor of our oceanside balcony. By aiming my phone in the right direction, I could walk around a replica of the launch pad and the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket, zoom in on different features of the rocket and the pad, watch it launch (as it were) from our deck, and then watch a model of the rocket climb (as it were) into the air in front of my face. (Being a fairly cloudy day, this was just about the best way to follow the action.) Meanwhile, I had live video feeds from cameras on the first stage of the rocket (the booster) as well as the second stage of the rocket. Once the booster separated, I could follow it's descent. And if that wasn't impressive enough, I could switch to a mode that showed me the rocket's trajectory through the sky, and the path of descent of the booster, in 3D, from where I was standing, about 25 miles south of Cape Canaveral. Of course the video feed from the droneship showed me when the booster had landed.

If you're a space buff, or a technology geek, or you just want to give your kids or your students a fascinating experience, download this app and watch for the next launch. It's the next best thing to watching a launch in Florida. (Even if you're in Florida.)

The Slippery Slope to a Totalitarian Singularity: A Review of Dave Eggers' "The Circle"

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The notion of a singularity, as popularized by Ray Kurzweil, refers to an accelerating process of technologies building upon one another until we reach a point where we cannot humanly understand or control the outcome. This usually refers to an "explosion" of intelligence, facilitated by computers, that greatly surpasses what humans possess.

Dave Eggers' novel The Circle depicts a world, uncomfortably similar to our own, which rapidly, and with good intentions, is headed toward a singularity of knowledge that precludes, and even outlaws, privacy. This is a world where the tools for gathering and manipulating information become increasingly powerful, causing an "explosion" of control that threatens to eradicate the concept of the "individual."

The main character in this story, a young woman named Mae, is a new employee of a Silicon Valley company known as the Circle. The Circle is a company with a global reach whose pioneering vision is to improve society through the gleaning and analysis of information so everyone can make better decisions on anything from a personal level to an international level. Anyone who has visited some of the large companies in Silicon Valley will easily recognize in the Circle the excitement and energy that flows through a campus of idealistic young people working on the edge of technology in a lucrative industry, where the barriers between personal and professional life blur and disappear as all sorts of perks help feed the employees the emotional energy they need to pour into their work.

Mae had hardly begun her first day at work in the Circle when I realized where her future was headed. Employee indoctrination in the Circle mirrors that of a cult. Like any cult, you enter the cult by being sponsored. You are presented with grand visions of the future, rewarded for working to bring about that future, and threatened with ostracism or excommunication for failing to adhere to and promote the purpose of the cult. You are shepherded into the cult, gain recognition within the cult, and come to adopt the cult's values as your own. In the Circle, the personal need for privacy becomes subsumed by the greater good of sharing. "Sharing is Caring" and "Privacy is Theft" are recurring mantras.

Mae's weakness -- the tragic flaw of many who wind up in cults -- is a need for validation. Eggers suggests that the need for validation is the weakness of many who worship the consumption of information and social media. In the end we face the danger -- symbolized in The Circle by a shark -- of being consumed by both the information and social media we thought to consume. The Circle comes as a fable, a warning that the power that comes with tools for gleaning and analyzing information on a massive scale puts us on a slippery slope which -- if we're not careful -- could carry us, even with all the right motives, into a totalitarian future where an individual's needs are deemed insignificant compared to the needs of society.

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Beyond Human: "Transcendence" and "Lucy"

Speculations regarding the next step in human evolution have abounded since the emergence of science fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As new advances in science and technology have appeared at an accelerating rate in the last fifty years, practitioners of each, as well as writers and philosophers and theologians, have pondered the effect of these advances on human evolution. Some, such as Ray Kurzweil, take this very seriously, treating it with a mixture of extrapolation, excitement, respect, and caution. (Also, see transhumanism.) Others simply approach the topic with entertainment in mind. Two recent movies, "Transcendence" (starring Johnny Depp) and "Lucy" (starring Scarlett Johansson), depict science and technology out of control. Like thousands of other stories, they depict the irresponsible use of power by scientists and technologists. (Hence, the tiresome stereotype of the "evil" scientist.) "Transcendence" focuses on an overworked theme: autonomous computer technology with god-like powers, not necessarily used for good, or what silly humans (!) might consider good. There are parallels to be found in the story of "Lucy." Here, a scientific advance in the field of biochemistry plays a role in accidentally super-charging the brain of an "unwilling volunteer." This person develops god-like powers, not necessarily for good.

In each movie, the main character is transformed into something superhuman, capable of manipulating matter and energy and even (in "Lucy") time. In one movie the superhuman is feared and silly humans attempt to control it. In the other movie, most witnesses are awestruck, and the ones seeking control want the culpable chemical compound for drug trafficking.

The plots of these movies are riddled with scientific and technical holes. For viewers, attaining and maintaining a "willing suspension of disbelief" is difficult. But holes are inevitable in stories like these, where science and technology are extrapolated so far. In "Transcendence," somehow we must map a brain a high level of detail, reverse engineer that mapping to recreate thoughts and memories, and connect the resulting model to the real world in a way that allows the model and the real world to modify each other. In "Lucy," we must accept the notion that we only use a fraction of our brainpower, that using more would be of benefit, that a chemical compound could open all that up, and that this increased brainpower would allow manipulation of one's environment in ways that defy the fundamental laws of physics.

Both stories raise questions of course. If a brain can be reverse-engineered and captured within a computer, would this not amount to a technological Tower of Babel? Let us build an intelligence, we might say, that will display superhuman powers, and we ourselves can become superhuman. And if supercharging a brain can give its owner the ability to manipulate anything at all, would the development of this also not be something from which we would be cast down by our Higher Power? The mind-brain-soul debates will rage into the future, but we might ask, if a brain is replicated electronically, and (by extension) the mind associated with this brain, what happens to the soul? And what effect would there be on the soul if the brain was capable of unlimited power?

In the end, while neither movie really broke new ground, I found both movies entertaining. But I enjoyed "Lucy" more, for the fast pace and suspense, and also because certain scenes reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- one of my favorite movies -- as well as "Altered States," a suspenseful horror story about chemically-induced devolution (vs evolution).

"Orfeo": Science, Music, and the Meaning of Life

OrfeoOrfeo by Richard Powers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited when I learned Richard Powers had published a new novel. I've read his work before and appreciated many things in his stories: figurative language, music, science, and allusions that make you feel like you've accomplished something when you recognize to what the allusion alludes. All of this can be found in Orfeo as well. But ... unlike his other work I've read, this story was not as enjoyable. Far too much time was spent on the music side, and not the science side. And to fully appreciate the role of music in this novel, you would need a pretty darn good education in music, including history, theory, and composition. At times I felt confused by the way the story jumped back and forth between the protagonist's past and present - it is important not to forget what's happening in one timeframe till you can return to that timeframe further along in the story. Finally, while the novel reminded me of concepts put forth by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel Escher Bach An Eternal Golden Braid, I believe Powers could have better leveraged the relationships between science and the arts.

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