Swarming behaviour enlarges brains

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2010

… if you’re a locust, that is. When the droughts make times tough for the normally solitary little critters, they get packed close together, and a sort of insect mob law takes over in response to a flood of serotonin – swarm time! This change to a more risky social lifestyle demands more brain power from the individual locusts, and their brains expand to cope.

Immediate parallels thrown up by my own brain: Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere; Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Putting on an uncritically optimistic technophiliac hat for a moment, might we imagine the increased global socialisation enabled by modern communications networks to provoke some similar expansion of human brain capacity?

We might… but bear in mind the locust’s brain-boost is necessary to cope with a life where fierce resource competition and cannibalism is the norm. Hey presto: a grimly allegorical sf dystopia that writes itself!


Zombiesat!

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2010

The undead really are everywhere at the moment – even up in orbit. Zombiesat is the delightful (and, one assumes, largely unofficial) term for the state of defunct communications satellite Galaxy 15, which has recently stopped responding to control commands, and is now shambling toward the orbits of other (still-functional, and presumably expensive) comsats

… though probably not in search of brains. Even so, if you can’t get a sort of flippant but fun Charlie-Stross-meets-Ben-Bova story out of this one, you’re probably not trying.


Telepresence: virtually as good as being there

Brenda Cooper @ 23-09-2009

This topic – telepresence – started knocking around in my head when I walked into a business meeting almost a year ago in Kirkland, Washington. A wall-sized (literally, exactly, one wall floor to ceiling, side to side) picture showed a room the same shape as the one we stood in. People walked into the room and sat down.

They were in Silicon Valley. Continue reading “Telepresence: virtually as good as being there”


Computers can now lip-read…

Paul Raven @ 21-09-2009

Ronald Reagan. Read his lips.… so watch what you say when the webcam’s plugged in, eh?

A research team from the School of Computing Sciences at UEA compared the performance of a machine-based lip-reading system with that of 19 human lip-readers. They found that the automated system significantly outperformed the human lip-readers – scoring a recognition rate of 80 per cent, compared with only 32 per cent for human viewers on the same task.

Furthermore, they found that machines are able to exploit very simplistic features that represent only the shape of the face, whereas human lip-readers require full video of people speaking.

The study also showed that rather than the traditional approach to lip-reading training, in which viewers are taught to spot key lip-shapes from static (often drawn) images, the dynamics and the full appearance of speech gestures are very important.

Using a new video-based training system, viewers with very limited training significantly improved their ability to lip-read monosyllabic words, which in itself is a very difficult task. It is hoped this research might lead to novel methods of lip-reading training for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Might this be a short-cut around the persistent problem of poor voice-recognition software? Why analyse the sound is you can do a better job by watching the face producing it? [via Technovelgy; image by i_forbes, chosen for an old yet oddly topical cultural reference that I suspect no one under 25 is likely to get]


Europe in 2030: An Optimist Predicts

Tom Marcinko @ 22-07-2009

small worldSo you want an optmistic vision? How about a vision named after Voltaire’s absurdly optimistic hero?

Publishing “Candide’s Garden” in Spielgel Online, Wolfram Eilenberg, who teaches international studies at Indiana University, advances this bracing hypothesis:

Anyone who now wants to talk about the future of Europe must first grasp the fact that we are — at this moment — experiencing a European utopia that has been cultivated for millennia.

The dogma-free, democratic marketplace of ideas, for which Socrates gave his life in Athens, is today a communicative reality in which hundreds of millions of citizens are actively taking part.

Eilenberger, who it turns out is not Dr. Pangloss after all, warns of big changes ahead, but he believes the European Union is well-positioned to weather them. We are entering an age of instant information accompanied by a scarcity of fuel, food, and water.

Put simply, the world will become bigger again.

… Instead of a globalized world economy that crosses continental barriers with ease, we will see continental autarchic zones being formed that will be shaped by the military defense of the basic resources available in each zone. We will thus see the logic of imperial expansion replaced by an aspiration to autarchic inclusion (already the EU strategy). The internal market of each zone will reassume economic primacy. This process does not have to end in war. It could well take an ordered course and lead to a multipolar equilibrium, the stability of which — like that of the Cold War — is guaranteed by an awareness of what military options are not available.

OK, that is sounding a good deal less optimistic. “Does not have to end in war” could mean “may well end that way.” But Eilenberger believes the EU is well positioned to weather these changes:

In cultural terms, Europe is equipped with a plurality of languages that lends itself to innovation as well as a global lingua franca: English (though by 2030 Spanish will be the European Union’s second main language). It is not burdened by any politically effective fundamentalisms, and Europe’s communications and transportation infrastructure leads the world. The thesis of a relative optimum also holds in demographic terms.

As for the USA – well, it’s up to those of us who live there, and our willingness to adapt.

An entire way of life, including the country’s suburban landscapes, will have to be fundamentally restructured. Today it is estimated that this inevitable process of economic and infrastructural renewal — one that will certainly also present new opportunities — will take at least twenty years to complete and, as is already becoming evident, will follow the process of reorientation to internal markets characteristic of autarchic zones. Furthermore, the already irreversible linguistic and cultural Hispanicization of its southern regions means that the United States will face greater integration challenges than will Europe with its smaller Muslim minorities.

Put in more positive terms, the way the United States develops will depend crucially on its readiness to consciously Hispanicize itself and — together with Brazil — to see itself in the long term as the strongest link within a pan-American community.

Which underlines the need to improve our discourse. Europeans, you should hear what our Confederate Party says about you, not to mention about people who speak Spanish. (Oops, is calling Republicans mean names the best way to improve our discourse? Self-criticism to follow. Could just be the reaction of an American with Euro-envy.)

I have no idea whether Eilenberger is right, but it’s a well-thought-out, wide-screen argument that he lays out. We need more of that in science fiction, too.

[Image: JasonRogersFooDogGiraffeBee]


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