Archive for category Technology & Industry


Posted by on Thursday, 24 March, 2016
Robot gruumbles

                      Resentful robot asks “Why?”

Robots have more potential to “do wrong” than most people realize.

Scientists like Stephen Hawking have been warning robot makers lately (Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind – BBC News ) . Hawking (and others) don’t think robotocists fully realize that their robots could become more self aware,  becoming unexpectedly conscious and unpredictable.

The concern is that they could turn against us, perhaps using the communications networks and the power grids to attack humanity.

Maybe  robots will decide we’re in the way or – worse – that we humans are trying to enslave the robot race. It’s not hard to see how a robot might react to that one.

Experts acknowledge that this is theoretically possible but they say we have time. Most of them don’t think we’re anywhere close to self aware “bots”; some don’t think it’s even possible.


But MisterScienceAintSoBad wonders if self awareness is the wrong thing to be worrying about.

Who says robots have to be self aware to be nasty?

What do we know about the inner lives of tarantulas? Or snakes? Is there a “me” in a snake? Does a snake know itself when it looks in a mirror? In fact, why should recognizing yourself (self awareness) matter? Aren’t the most dangerous humans, the ones that are the least self aware? Does a snake have to know about itself to be dangerous?

Robots are way past the point where everything has to be hard coded. Robot designers, like designers of other advanced software based systems, are always going “Damn! I didn’t know it could do that!”

Google Now isn’t even close to conscious.

Siri either.

Both Google Now and Siri  suck at facts like hungry babies. They gorge on facts. They get smarter every day.

So maybe we should be worrying about something else besides if robots can see themselves in a mirror. Maybe that’s missing the point. Maybe we should be worrying about  autonomous robots– the kind that don’t need humans.

Autonomous robots certainly aren’t science fiction. Every day, more robots “cut the umbilical” or, as they like to say when there’s nobody around but other robots, “cut the imbecile”.

Just kidding about the imbecile thing (I think).

We have drones and Mars Rovers that work independently – just occasionally checking in to make sure the boss is around. If a Rhoomba rug cleaner bumps into a chair, it decides on its own which way to go. It doesn’t look at you for guidance. Will some future Rhoomba – one that’s just an ordinary robot without any self awareness features –  decide it’s more logical to push the mess makers out the back door than to perpetually clean up after them?


You’re sure?

Are Rhoomba’s designers sure?

What do you think?

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The drawing is mine.

A Machine Smarter Than Me – Computers That Ignore

Posted by on Friday, 6 March, 2015
Robot's Revenge



Sooner or later, robots will win. They will get all the jobs.

What will be do for money? Will we get weekly checks? From whom?

I wouldn’t worry. Our ever so smart political leaders are probably working out the details.

Aren’t they?

We’ll get to all that in another post.

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Today’s article is about the possibility that robots, even the cute ones with big eyes, could muscle us out entirely. Take aways our jobs? Sure. But, even worse, they could take it all.

Robots one. Humans zero.

Stephen Hawking says we could screw the pooch because we didn’t think things through when we had the chance. He says robots could pass us right by in the brains department. Once they’re smarter than us, the ungrateful little clankers won’t mind chucking us into the excess baggage bin.


Bill Gates agrees with Hawking. Elon Musk agrees with both of them. Musk says artificial intelligence is “summoning the demon”. It’s potentially worse than nuclear weapons. Others who, supposedly, know what they’re talking about – experts in artificial intelligence and such – agree too.


MISTER Science AintSoBad thought he better look into this. So he read up on it – especially stuff by Nick Bostrom (Founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford Martin School). Bostrom, well respected and influential in neuroscience, technology, physics, and philosophy, has written a book. SuperIntelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Bostron’s book is serious and thoughtful.

Here’s the thing.

Bostron says we’re jaded.  There’s been so much crazy talk about computers taking over that we have tuned out.

I’m not sure.  He could be right. You don’t need proof that computers are getting smart, do you? Phones, robots, navigation systems, refrigerators, thermostats. It’s weird how they know what you’re thinking before you do.

They’re just contraptions. They don’t really think. That’s for sure.

For pretty sure, anyway.

Could they develop a “sense of self” and become conscious as these experts warn?

There’s room to worry because the way these things get programmed is changing. The traditional techniques have taken us a long way but AI (Artificial intelligence) researchers have caught on to the idea that you can’t program a machine to be be self aware. They’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked. If there’s any hope of truly cognitive machines, computers have to program themselves to get smarter.

That’s the corner that got turned.

That’s what scares the crap out of Hawking and Gates and Musk.

After figuring out that we don’t know what kind of instructions would get computers/robots over the consciousness hump, researchers are trying out new approaches – things that might  lead to consciousness. These systems include genetic algorithms, neural nets, support vector machines, decision trees, and naive Bays.

Bostron says we probably won’t know there’s been a breakthrough until it’s too late. Once computers get close to human intelligence, they aren’t likely to stay at that level very long. They will quickly pass us. The danger is that they might not turn out to be sentimental types. If they don’t see a benefit in serving the human race, they may change course and become a nuisance. Or even worse.

With computers and robots controlling so much of what we depend on, those mischievous little devils could be a very big problem. We need to figure out exactly what we need to include in those computers so that we are reasonably protected against an emerging consciousness. We need to understand our responsibilities as owners of sentient things, as well as how we can insure that those sentient things are happy to work in our (and their) mutual interest.

This is a major undertaking as it requires worldwide cooperation – something that we aren’t very good at.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad suggests that we get on it.


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The drawing is mine.

Dump those dumb headlights. Here’s something better.

Posted by on Sunday, 26 October, 2014
The Amazing New Headlight



If you drive at night, you’re pretty much guaranteed to run into situations where your hand flies up in front of your face.

“Yikes, I can’t SEE!”.

People forget to lower their high beams, giving oncoming drivers a glaring face full of bright light. On a foggy, twisty mountain road, a high beam can be temporarily blinding. If you get down in one piece, it isn’t because of your incredible skill. It is because of your incredible luck.

Night driving is three times as dangerous as driving during the day (The National Council on Highway Safety).

Robert Tamburo (Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute) has an answer. A “smart headlight” which he will be showing off at the European Conference on Computer Vision in Zurich. Sensors in the headlight track cars, drivers,  snow flakes, and rain drops.  The system blocks light that would otherwise shine in your eyes, while lighting up the rest of the roadway. It keeps light from bouncing around on snow/rain particles. Tambur’s headlight uses fast computer processing to model the “road space”. The light doesn’t come from a bulb; instead, it comes from a DLP device with an array of “cells” which work together to make up the beam. The cells are constantly switched on or off to perfectly protect the vision of other drivers and light the road. Along with lots of other stuff that will show up soon, Tamburo “smart headlight” should completely change how we drive.

What does MISTER ScienceAintSoBad think?

ScienceAintSoBad Rating for a smart headlight =  10. To drivers in the near future, today’s cars will seem like “death traps”.

For good  reason .

Self Driving Cars Of The Sea

Posted by on Saturday, 16 August, 2014
Funny cartoon about self driving ship




Self driving cars are already on the roads. In a few years, you’ll own one.  We’re scrambling to get the laws and insurance rules done.

What about ships?

I’m serious.

Remember the Costa Concordia?

It actually hit a rock?

Ships don’t GO that fast. And rocks? They don’t go at all.

Would a computerized pilot get lost in somebody’s baby blue eyes? Would it cruise dangerously close to shore to show off?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think so.

Why can’t we at least do what several  car models already do – the ones that  “grab the wheel” to save you from killing yourself? If it works for cars at 65 mph, it should work for ships at 19 mph.

You would think.

Ship owners would like to go further. They really like the idea of self piloted “ghost” ships.

Without a crew, ships would be smaller and simpler and more fuel efficient. And what’s a ship worth to pirates if there’s no crew?  Would you pay a big ransom for a scow full of tires?

Oskar Levander, VP of Innovation, Marine Engineering, and Technology at Rolls Royce, says we’re ready to do this. Rolls Royce has a simulated system to show off to potential customers; the company (or at least Levander) sees this as inevitable.

Here’s the thing.

It’s a great idea. But ships don’t get smashed against rocks by foolish captains very often.

The big risks are bad weather and propulsion systems that explode, catch fire, or fail, leaving the vessel to founder in the waves. A ship without power is in extreme danger in the middle of the ocean. Robots still aren’t as fast and flexible and reliable as a human in an emergency.

Would an automated pilot be able to respond properly to an oncoming rogue wave? Would it know what to do if the windows got blown out on the side of the ship?

MISTER Science AintSoBad likes techno stuff. It should, in principle, be possible to replace the crew with well designed, redundant systems but labor unions and regulators will be hard to convince.

Maybe that’s a good thing.


Malaysia’s MH370. What makes it so valuable?

Posted by on Tuesday, 15 April, 2014
Funny cartoon about motorcycles

Misplaced confidence


An airplane disappeared with 239 people on board.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad hates to hear stuff like that. If you have any sort of connection to any of the passengers, you have my deepest sympathy.

What a horrible thing!

Crazy too.

The chances of dying in a fire are about 1200 to 1. From a car accident or from  poison, about 1 in 120. From an airplane accident? About 11 million to 1.

In other words, you are safer – much, much safer – in the seat of a stupid airplane than you are sitting in your own living room where you could get caught in a fire or accidentally eat rat poison thinking it was some new candy treat from the lunatic next door. The disappearance of that airplane – of any commercial airliner-  is unthinkable.

When Manilla’s flight MH370 disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, it was a twelve year old Boeing 777.  An airplane like that isn’t cheap but you can pick one up for 40 to 50 million dollars.

Now that it’s (probably) in pieces at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it’s worth a fortune. The airline industry wants it badly. Because airplane accidents are so amazingly rare, this is a remarkable opportunity to learn from an honest to God airplane accident – an extremely rare chance to improve air safety even more. Boeing needs that thing to figure out if there were any issues with design or manufacture. Insurance companies need a look to settle the many interwoven claims against various parties. The airline needs it so it can prove it wasn’t negligent and to improve its own practices. Malaysia and China need to find it for political purposes because so many citizens want to tar and feather certain leaders over the way the accident was (mis)handled. And even the US which wasn’t directly involved (just one US citizen) would like to have a look at those those black boxes and examine key pieces of the wreckage.

It sounds cold to focus on the “worth” of the wreckage. I don’t mean it that way. I really do feel awful about the accident. However, if you’re trying to figure out why so much national treasure and effort is being invested in the search for this wreckage in “the most dangerous place on the planet”, it may help to understand the importance of the secrets hidden within that wreckage.


Will the aircraft be found? Will it ever be possible to deduce exactly what happened?

If you haven’t tuned out by now, you probably know that the search area has been narrowed down. As of this writing, the use of robotic submersibles has just begun. In the opinion of MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, they aren’t exagerating about what a rotten location this is. This area is remote, has indescribably bad weather, and very deep and uncharted water. If the airplane had been lost even a few years ago, it might have been hopeless. This is more like a planetary expedition than sending some soldiers to comb through a wreck somewhere but I think the search will go on until something is found. It’s an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” deal. So much has already been invested, and so much is riding on the results, that I don’t think giving up is on the menu.

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The drawing is mine.


Posted by on Wednesday, 4 December, 2013
Funny cartoon about North Korean tablet computer


 Because of North Korea’s intense web censorship, the tablet has no way of connecting to the internet — relying instead on the country’s state-controlled intranet, which has proved sparse and difficult to access for many reviewers. – Russel Brandon, The Verge


Russel Brandom (The Verge) reports on a new tablet from North Korea.

It’s not all praise. He says the country has a “crushingly oppressive government and comically inept space program”. But he says their new tablet is surprisingly good. It “mostly works” and it doesn’t  lag that much playing Angry Birds.

Hair stands up on the back of my neck.

I tried to imagine how a review of a (completely fictional)  tablet built in a Nazi  death camp might have read. I took a stab at writing one to make my point.

It seemed tasteless. So I let it be.

Russel Brandom gets points. He’s trying to find interesting stuff where nobody else is looking. But this is too creepy. Who uses tablets in North Korea?  A teeny tiny part of the whole  population. They’re the bad guys. The regular people don’t know tablets exist.

Not even the ones who aren’t in a prison colony because a distant relative didn’t suck up enough.

The review says “In a distinctively North Korean touch, the tablet also contains an analog TV receiver and comes pre-loaded with a stock of revolutionary literature, which one reviewer speculated could make it very useful as a research tool. Still, there are drawbacks. The tablet has no way of connecting to the internet — relying instead on the country’s state-controlled intranet, which has proved sparse and difficult to access for many reviewers ”

I bet it has.


Hard to be sure. Russel Brandon might have written with tongue in cheek. Sometimes you try to be funny and nobody gets it.

I’ve screwed that pooch a few times myself.

For this review? ScienceAintSoBadRating = 0 .  Enough with North Korea. Let’s get back to Samsung, okay?

( To leave a comment, click “comments” which can be found at the top right of each article just beneath the headline.)

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The drawing is mine.


A Spy Under Your Hood. Your Data And Who’s Going To Get It.

Posted by on Sunday, 24 November, 2013
Humorous cartoon about black boxes in cars

The Car That Knew Too Much


Almost all new cars now have “black box” event recorders. They collect data about the way the vehicle is driven.

Lots of data.

The black boxes were originally placed there to help make life/death decisions about when and how air bags should be deployed based on what’s happening in the car at the time of a crash. But the data can be used for other stuff too.

If there’s an accident and the accident was caused by bad brakes, there’s an opportunity to learn from that. Brakes will get better.

That’s a good thing. But I should warn you. This is a step in the “data wars”.


eSurance offers you you a big discount on premiums. All you have to do is add its gadget to your car.  “Drivesense” uploads the data from your car to its own database and then let’s you review your driving and learn from it. The hitch? Your folks get to review your driving and learn from it too. If things go good – if the gadget shows that you’re the right kind of driver – eSurance will reduce your premiums by up to 30 percent.

Would they use this data to raise your premiums?

Never, they say.

But what if you have an accident? Would eSurance deny a claim based on what is learned from Drivesense?

What do you think?

After an accident, automotive event recorders “lock down” the details of what was happening. I already described how car makers plan to use it to improve future designs.

With a court order, others can get it too. Even though it’s your car, the other party in the accident may be able to use the information from your black box against you.

Some people find that annoying as hell.

What else?


Could automotive event records be used to raise revenue for government? Maybe charge a tax based on miles driven?

Some states are on it. Congress might be too.

I’m serious.

The thinking is that by sticking it to.. scuse me – by taxing miles driven, maybe there’s an opportunity here to make drivers think twice about eco-friendly alternatives. Trains, bicycles, subways.

Did I mention that it might also be an excuse to just plain raise more taxes?


David Shamah (Tel Aviv Tech writing in ZD Net) discusses the biggest plan for all this data. Inter-vehicular connectivity. GM’s vision – and that of others in the industry – is that cars will be part of an enormous public network that swaps data back and forth between vehicles and other infrastructure to prevent accidents and optimize driving efficiency. This could certainly be the data backbone of self driving cars.

Typically, the event recorders are located under the drivers seat. Getting at it is a pain since it’s usually under the carpet. Although I haven’t seen it, I imagine mine with the words PANDORA scrawled across the top.

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The drawing is mine.







The Future Of The Stand-alone Camera

Posted by on Sunday, 10 November, 2013


Funny cartoon of someone using a camera


Your camera. How old is it?

That’s what I figured. Why would you buy a new one? You have your phone, right?

Eric Zeman (Information Week) says things are bad out there. Executives at Canon and Nikon  are walking around looking lost. Their stuff is sensational in every way. Smaller, easier to use, amazing in low light, better connectivity – all at great prices. What are they supposed to do? Give them away as door prizes when you open a bank account?

Meanwhile, you’re snapping away with your Galaxy s4 or your Iphone or your 41 mpixel Nikon Pureview.


Camera companies claim all is well. When the global economy gets better, their sales will pick up.

Graveyard whistling? Would you want  the boss talking down the company’s future?

Here’s the thing.

My digital single lens reflex- what is it – ten years old? – takes great shots. My excellent Galaxy S4 does a good job with its camera and  its camera apps but for fast high resolutions shots – especially in low light – it can’t compete. Hey. I’m just being honest, okay?

When’s the last time I used the Nikon? I’m not sure. Probably not this year. I can’t seem to remember to throw it in the car anymore. I have the phone.

The early arrival of the future messes up some good stuff. It doesn’t make sense to have a daily newspaper anymore. It was so nice to sleep late on Sunday and have the paper spread out all over the bed with the dog rumping around in it while we ate bagels. Google News, my current news source, can’t seem to discriminate between bombastic idiots and real reporters. Maybe “crawlers” can’t tell the difference since they’re looking for links instead of great reporting.

The bummer is that cameras are good things. Smartphones might get that good eventually. But maybe not. Even the best displays are sketchy in bright sunlight and they are clumsy to hold for camera shots. Phone cameras continue to improve but maybe there is a limit to what can be done in such a small package.

On the other hand, smartphones have the huge advantage that they are there when you need them. That’s the thing. But if the sales of real cameras keep going down, won’t they run into “newspaper economics”? The less they sell, the harder it is to make a buck? Then they have to raise their prices to stay in business, right? The higher the price, the less they sell..  like that. An inglorious cycle.

There’s not much we can do. Just stand around and watch it shake out. Even Mister ScienceAintSoBad can’t change the consequences of the technical revolution.

One thing. I can charge up the Nikon and snap a photo of my foot.

It’s something.

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That’s one of my own cartoons.


Posted by on Saturday, 26 October, 2013
Funny cartoon about worms



Science ain’t so bad but – well –  sometimes it’s nothing to rave about.

This is from Professor Fritz Vollrath and colleagues from the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology . Vollrath has been working on silk. Silk is important because it’s so strong. For some industrial and scientific uses there’s nothing better. The problem is that when silkworms are organized into modern “forced reeling” operations they aren’t the most focused of workers. Some days they’re terrific and other days they’re listening to sports radio and breaking their own silk strands which are supposed to roll smoothly onto reels. When silk is being “farmed” from worms they (the worms that is) aren’t inclined to just lay there and watch their silk being drawn away. They pull back and “interfere” with the process, breaking the strands and screwing up the hopes and aspirations of the silk farmers.

Well leave it to science.  Dr. Fritz Vollrath and his team came up with the execrable idea of paralyzing the worms so that they have to lie there all day and night without twitching.

It was a brilliant thought in a Dr. Mengele sort of way.  Production soared and the program became, for the first time, a practical operation. The benefits to our particular (human) race are great. Not only is the quantity of silk increased but new varieties with enhanced properties become possible.

As for the worms? Worms are worms, right? We stick them on hooks, we trod over them with our boots. They’re dumber than dumb and we just don’t worry about stuff like that. Is worrying about worm abuse an absurd idea?

I suppose.

The article is in the journal Biomacromolecule .

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The cartoon is mine and, don’t worry Dr. Vollrath, I know you’re no Dr. Mengele. Just advancing the art of silk farming. But somebody’s got to speak up for the little wiggly ones.



Posted by on Sunday, 20 October, 2013


Cute cartoon about fusion energy


Nuclear fusion is nuclear fission upside down. Instead of splitting the atom into pieces, fusion fuses smaller pieces into a whole. The process liberates a lot of energy.

After fifty years of work on nuclear fusion, not a single Christmas tree gets lit that way. Members of Congress  don’t see the point in spending money on things they can’t brag about on the stump.  They’re even a little wiggly about paying the bill for funerals of soldiers.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad understands the frustration. Years pass with (seemingly) little to show for all the effort. Have we invested too much to back off? Should we? When do we know we’ve got a loser on our hands?

The Director of Fusion Energy at the National Ignition Facility  says people have the wrong idea. Things are going good – at least at his facility which uses “intertial” techniques (lasers instead of magnetics). It did take a long time but what did you expect? This is b-i-g science and, like the  President always says, if it were easy, it would have already been done.

In Journal of Physics and Plasma, John Edwards, an Associate Director, says they are this close to break even.



Break even would mean the process actually produces some energy.  That’s been the  goal all along. Here’s how things stand.  The researchers have the x-ray intensity right; they’re hitting the target right, the target compression is right. Just one problem now – the way the  capsule (that holds hydrogen, deuterium and tritium) disintegrates is still off. They have to work on the timing.  This isn’t the easiest thing in the world do (or else – right – it would have been done). Some intense engineering is needed  on the capsule and the lasers.

The “why bother” part is because fusion sounds so great. A fusion power plant should have no  carbon emissions (no global warming) , no need for fossil fuels, be ultra safe, and not be a worry for nuclear proliferation.  It might be cheap energy too though it’s too early to say.

It’s easy to make fun when all you have to do for a living is make fun.  The scientists working on this stuff didn’t feel so great when they missed their own deadline for “break even” last year. But what-the-hell! The ground did keep getting cut out from under them. Congress didn’t come close to “keeping faith”. Money  was chopped out over and over. Let’s be a little fair. Fusion power isn’t for sure. It’s just one horse. And the race is a long one. But we’re further along than some think. Don’t shoot the project now.

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My drawing above. My fingers in the photo.