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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"AMouse", a drone, a riot, an insurrection and global environmental collapse

Today offers many interesting developments on the technology front. PhysOrg.com reports that robot researchers have made some surprising progress with their "AMouse," or artificial mouse project. By experimenting with different sensing technologies - including one modeled on mouse whiskers - scientists were able to build robots capable of "feeling" their environment. Most disturbing, the scientists found when they linked up various sensing technologies, the robots exhibited "emergent behavior."
Emergent behaviour is a primary characteristic of life. In biological systems the combination of various data, like touch and sight, reinforces specific neural pathways. These pathways come to dominate and can cause an entity to 'behave' in a specific way.

In one startling outcome an AMouse robot demonstrated what appeared to be emergent behaviour: it developed a homing instinct without any pre-programming of any kind.

"Essentially we put in the sensors and then wire them up through the robots 'brain', its CPU. We just switch it on without giving it instructions of any kind," says Simon Bovet, a Ph.D. student at the University of Zurich. When he threw the switch his robot started moving about the room but always returned to the spot where it began.
Researchers hope that their experiments will help them understand the human brain, where we are to presume, they will resist the desire to program it like they do with their machine subjects. As machines increasingly share more and more life-like attributes, are we to believe that human life will not be significantly devalued in comparison? More likely as the advantages of machines over humans become more clear to elites, as comparisons of human processes to machinery proliferate in the scientific field, and as the differences between humans and machines increasingly blur, human life (or more specifically, non-elite human life) will become increasingly cheap in the eyes of the powers-that-be. Given how carelessly these elites already deal in non-elite human life, this would be a truly disturbing turn of events.

Continuing on the robot front, the World Tribune features a story on the increasing role of unmanned drones in Iraq. Whereas the military initially used drones for surveillance, they have increasingly been used in attack capacities. Armed with hellfire missiles, 20 mm cannons and laser targeting, the use of drones in attacks in Iraq has become "routine." Meanwhile, the Washington Post is reporting on the booming business of building miniature drones. Military uses rank high on the list of priorities, but police agencies also hope to utilize the devices. Honeywell is readying for deployment a small drone that weighs just a few pounds but that cops hope will help them increase their ability to project force in various situations.
San Diego Sheriff’s Department helicopter pilot Sergeant Jon Shellhammer was blown away when he saw video of an air-powered unmanned flying vehicle that can swoop around in tight places.

“I had no idea that this technology was out there or available,” Shellhammer said. “I’ve seen some of the smaller drone aircraft, but it’s considerably larger than this, so something like this … certainly is always welcome, because of the potential life-saving advantages.”
Some of the drones are so small that they can be launched like a slingshot from a hand-held device and can fly for up to 90 minutes. Consider this evaluation of one drone's combat uses:
``The Iraqis came to learn that when they heard the buzz of a Pioneer overhead, all heck would break loose shortly thereafter,'' said Steven Reid, vice president of AAI's unmanned air vehicle systems, ``because these 16-inch rounds would start landing all around them,'' from a U.S. battleship about 60 miles away.
Further enhancements of the capabilities of the police and military to project force (force multipliers, as they call them) will only further enhance our oppression and the level of exploitation that the ruling class can subject us to by reducing our ability to resist. And make no mistake, this is the primary reason behind such research.

This logic also holds for technologies deployed by the private sector. NewScientist.com reports on a new breakthrough in camera technology that allows images to be focused after being taken. They do this by inserting
a sheet of 90,000 lenses, each just 125 micrometres across, between the camera's main lens and the image sensor. The angle of the light rays that strike each microlens is recorded, as well as the amount of light arriving along each ray.
This allows any part of the image to be refocused after the fact, and it also
removes the conventional trade-off between the aperture size, which controls the amount of light that the camera takes in, and the depth of field. If light is low, a larger aperture will let enough light into the camera to form a clear image, but the laws of optics mean that a narrower slice of the world in front of the camera will appear in focus.
This makes the technology a major breakthrough for surveillance cameras, which do most of their recording at night.

On the international front, AsiaTimes.com is hosting an interesting article comparing the Iraqi insurgency to the Vietnamese resistance. The story focuses on Tran Dac Loi, a Vietnamese communist official whose father fought in the American War. Tran points out what he sees as several long-term weaknesses of the Iraqi resistance.
"Our struggle was well organized. We had an address and official contacts, but with Iraq you never know who the resistance is and what their objectives are.

"Sure, the fighters all want the Americans out, but there's no unifying political program... This kind of resistance leads nowhere. Resistance has to have a clear objective. Ours was independence and socialism; not reaction but revolution."
Tran also singles out the ethnic nature of the resistance as another weak point, ripe for exploitation by the Americans. A resistance movement divided on ethnic lines can lead one or more faction to side with the occupier in order to protect their own particular interest, he suggests.
"The absence of a clear political program is in the interest of the US. Then, they [the US] can go above you and pretend like they're solving the problems between you, when really they're lording over you."
Tran also disagrees with part of the insurgency's regular targeting of civilians: "When we fought, we only fought against the ones who fought us. Civilians were never our targets."

As many people know, IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices) have become the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents, and likewise they have become the primary cause of death for American soldiers there. Gary Brecher, otherwise known by his pen name, War Nerd, has written a pretty interesting article this month on IED's and their development in Iraq. For those interested in the evolution of Iraqi insurgent tactics, I also recommend a couple of his past articles: Iraq: Guerrilla Evolution; and, Most Valuable Weapon: the RPG. War Nerd isn't always politically correct, but his regular columns in Exile.ru, a Moscow-based American ex-pat magazine, are almost always fascinating.

Meanwhile, in France, the insurgency led by African and Muslim youth has simmered down, but the political landscape has changed as a result of their actions. Self-righteous - and hypocritical - denunciations of the violence have come from all responsible sectors of the media, government and civil society, and yet the fact remains: in a country in which the real exercise of power over the one's own life and communisty does not exist for many, and in which the influence of power through peaceful or institutional means is largely impossible, riot and violence becomes the only alternative. And what's more, it's often very effective.

Three articles shed some light on the crisis and the results. First is a pretty good article originally printed in the GuardianUK. Entitled, "Riots Are a Class Act - And Often They're the Only Alternative," the piece does a good job of pointing out that, contrary to what the elites say (for obvious reasons), rioting is very often completely justified. This is overall a good piece, although I disagree with the author's proposed solution of a political party for the France's excluded. If political parties ever had any usefulness for the working class that time has long since passed. Another article, "Car Torching a Tradition in France," reflects on the history of car arsons in French political and social life. Finally, in terms of results, there can be little doubt that, whatever the critics may say, the riots have forced onto the agenda issues that most of French society has actively ignored for a long time. And without casting a single vote!

Finally, two fish stories have made the news. First, the IndependentUK reports that "A catastrophic collapse in sea and bird life numbers along America's Northwest Pacific seaboard is raising fears that global warming is beginning to irreparably damage the health of the oceans."

At the same time, also on the West Coast, the Associated Press reports the discovery of "sexually altered fish off the Southern California coast, raising concerns that treated sewage discharged into the ocean contains chemicals that can affect an animal's reproductive system." It seems that while such fish have been discovered in fresh water before, having been polluted in higher proportion, this is the first time that such fish have been discovered in the ocean. The cause: "Nearly a billion gallons of treated sewage are released into the Pacific Ocean every day through three underwater pipelines off Huntington Beach, Playa del Rey and Palos Verdes Peninsula."

As the collapse of the global environment continues unabated, it's perhaps worth taking a quick look to the future courtesy of the UN University's Institute for Environment and Human Security:
UNU says the number of people forced to move by environment-related conditions already approximates and may someday dwarf the number of officially-recognized "persons of concern," recently calculated at 19.2 million. Indeed, Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

"There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena," says UNU-EHS Director Janos Bogardi.
Ever get the feeling that time is running out?


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