Gone (to a )Digital (planet) 28 March

As I walked into studio C21 this afternoon for the first Digital Planet I heard Gareth over the talkback muttering “don’t say Go Digital… don’t say Go Digital” to himself.

And he didn’t. We managed the whole show without inadvertently referring to the old name, and instead luxuriated in the extra two and a half-minutes of time we now have available in our new 1530 slot – we get to go to the top of the hour, minus two and a half minutes for the news at the start of the show.

We kicked off by looking to the far technological future with Pete Cochrane, a well-known UK futurologist who used to be head of research at the largest UK telco, BT, and now has his own consultancy firm and a regular column on the Silicon.com news site.

http://www.cochrane.org.uk/

I’ve heard Peter in full-on techno-utopian mode, and was pleased to discover that he was being slightly more tempered in his predictions today.  He reckons that within twenty years we will have effectively unlimited storage capacities so that, for example, it will be feasible to store every movie every produced on a device the size of today’s MP3 players.

Why you’d want to do this when the network will be fast and pervasive enough to let you watch a library copy didn’t seem to bother him, and I suppose as an illustrative example of what we could store it is quite powerful.

But he touched on one area that really intrigued me, pointing out that even today’s laptops have the processing capability of a small mammal – in terms of connections and speed – but are unutterably stupid and rigid. This is because they have no sensory capabilities and no adaptability. My laptop does what it is told, has no way of sensing the world or engaging with it, and no way of learning or changing in response to what it senses.

Some years ago (in 1986, in fact) Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores wrote a book called Understanding Computers and Cognition which discussed theory of mind and artificial intelligence in these terms, arguing that it is not the brain that thinks, nor is it just the nervous system, but that a whole organism is embedded in its environment through sensors (sense organs) and effectors (muscles, limbs), and that any model of intellgence must work from this starting point.

http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=5245

Giving our computers senses may well be one of the more exciting projects that we will undertake in the next decade, and the results could be astonishing.

Of course the computers won’t be running on silcon circuits shuffling electrons around. They aren’t very adaptable for a start, but there’s also a problem that we’re hitting real physical limits in the size of the components, and reaching the point where quantum uncertainties about the location of a single electron could affect the results of a computation.

This isn’t good, as Schrodinger’s cat will tell you.

Our next interview was with Jagdeep Singh, CEO of Infinera, who are heavily into photonics, or the art of calculating with light instead of electricity.

http://www.infinera.com/news/05_03_04.html

Infinera have developed photonic integrated circuits which combine many elements which are normally separate, like lasers, modulators and muliiplexors, into one chip. This makes light-based data transmission within devices a lot more affordable and doable, and could greatly increase the processing capacity of computers and phones.

The next step is to get the photons to do the calculation, and even to exploit the quantum effects by creating computational devices which work by creating what is called a ‘superposition’ and then watching as it collapsed. It’s like doing the same calculation simultaneously in different universes and getting to choose the one that complets.

Qubits and quantum computers are still very theoretical, though there is some research that seems to show they can be made to work. However we all have digital devices around us every day, and are increasingly dependent on them.

As part of a regular feature on ‘the technology top three’ we sent a reporter out on the streets of London to ask people about their favourite ‘digital thingies’ – I didn’t choose the name – and played a selection of them on air.  They ranged from the expected, like an MP3 player or a mobile phone, to the thought-provoking – a toaster is, after all, binary  – to the slightly ridiculous. What’s ‘digital’ about a hair-straightener expect that you hold it between your fingers?

And mine?  My wireless router, my dad’s hearing aid and my mum’s pacemaker  – all digital, all important in different ways.

I have what’s called a ‘lazy eye’. My left eye does not focus properly, and so I rely more than most people on only one. It’s not too bad, and I have good stereo vision, but for some people it can be a major issue.

Normal treatment is to use an eye patch to block the good eye for several months during childhood when brain pathways are being established. As a result the lazy eye is forced to get into shape, and when the patch is taken off both eyes will, it is hoped, work together.

It’s not a great solution. Apart from the social stigma of the patch, it may just result in the two eyes working independently and cause double vision and poor depth perception.

A team at Nottingham University in England has discovered that playing a computer game in which the images to each eye are separately controlled, so that the weak eye can be forced to do more work spotting obstacles or finding routes, is very effective at encouraging both eyes to work. Their initial research seems to show one hour of game-playing is as good as 400 hours of patch wearing.

We talked to Richard Eastgate, who created the game system, about this – and there’s more at
http://www.virart.nott.ac.uk/ibit/

We finished off with a report about a well-known online game that has nothing to do with lazy eyes but seems to show the creative potential of programmable environments. Sodaplay was created by Ed Burton, and it allows you to log in and design virtual creatures that then interact and evolve.  It’s an example of ‘creative software’, and very cool with it.

Sodaplay isn’t really like anything else, so it’s worth going to have a look yourself rather than reading what I have to say about it.

http://www.sodaplay.com/

And that was it for the first Digital Planet. Maybe a bit too quantum for Julian, but we enjoyed it. It’s available to download from the BBC News website – click on technology – or via iTunes Music Store or other podcast directories.

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