I Can’t Feel My Feet

There is a lot of talk, and some considerable action, around the ideas of artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR). 

AI has to do with a machine learning how to think like a human, getting smarter,learning to problem solve, and learning how to respond to situations. Think about the supercomputers that can beat chess champions, or the masters of the game Go. We used to think that anything that was cutting edge and had anything peripherally to do with computers was mysterious, wonderful, artificial, and at least a step or two above our pay grade. Not so anymore, as even things like optical character recognition (OCR) can be performed with simple software that I keep in my pocket on my iPhone. 

The central tenet of AI is of course that human thought, reasoning and decision making can be so precisely known and mapped that a computer can simulate us perfectly, even to the degree that we can’t tell if we are interacting with a very intelligent machine or another of our own kind. (See Ex Machina, an entertaining but disturbing film, and Turing Test

I have just started using an Amazon Echo, interacting with me in real time as Alexa. (Thanks, Greer) Embodied as a small, black cylinder sitting on a side table in my living room, Alexa is always on, always listening for her name. I can wake her and ask her for the current weather, how long my commute will be this morning given any traffic delays, or what is on my schedule in two weeks on this date. I can ask her to play some smooth jazz from Spotify, as she is doing now as I write this. I can ask her to read my audiobook to me. I have over three hundred audiobooks in my collection, but she knows which one I’ve most recently been listening to and exactly where in the book I was last, whether I was listening on iPhone or iPad. She knows where I live, which restaurants I’d probably like to have dinner at tonight, and where the best local coffee shops are. She can order things for me, research topics that I have a question about, or discuss quantum physics. 

Did I mention that she does this without my ever being physically near her at all? I can do all the things I mentioned above, or have Alexa do them, without ever touching her. I can call her name anywhere in my home, and because of a directional microphone system, she can hear me even if the music is playing loudly. She has a pretty good USB enabled speaker system that can even play things from my iPhone or iPad if I like. 

Is Alexa smart? Is she intelligent? Yes, and no. She is already a whiz-bang assistant, but I had to tell her what I wanted, what I was interested in,where I live, etc for her to carry out her functions. Do I care that she is always listening, prepared to respond at the mention of her name? Do I think that Jeff Bezos has a direct line to my living room and my life. Of course not. Is she my  favorite tech tool? No, that spot has been occupied by my iPhone for the last decade and is not likely to change any time soon. If Echo and Alexa keep getting better, might she be in the top two? Very likely. 

Listen to this episode of the Maccast for more in formation about AI, Alexa and where things are headed with our eventual robot overlords. It will either leave you tremendously excited or scared to death. I’ll leave you to guess which way I roll. 

How about augmented reality or AR?

The premise here is that we each live in and move through a real world. (That could be another blogpost in itself couldn’t it?) We see what is in our direct vision or hear what is aurally available to us, and the like. AR takes that world and layers other stuff on top of it, like information about what you are seeing, your exact GPS coordinates, or what is coming your way next, so that you can better process what is going on around you. AR supposedly makes your reality better, but you can see how it might detract as well. 

Do you remember seeing some of those movies that have the characters walking down a busy city street, and how information, sales, ads and other things popped up in their field of vision, as if floating out in front of them? This is AR. Its purpose is not to change your reality in a strict sense, but to make it more useful to you. 

Now, some people are extremely hesitant about this technology, even feeling quite paranoid that giving up information about themselves that is then filtered and sorted and processed by a machine and fed back to them in an albeit useful way is too intrusive. They feel that their lives are private, that no one needs to know their comings and goings and buying patterns and tastes. I disagree. As long as I decide how to integrate this system into my own life, as long as I have some modicum of control over how it actually plays out in my day to day life, I say bring it on! 

When I am traveling, I can now take the time to get out my iPhone, open the Starbucks app, search for stores in the area, and even order ahead so that I can stop, run in and pick up my completed order, and be on my way. That is way cool. How much cooler will it be one day when a combination of AI/AR can tell me and show me via a heads up display in my car that the next Starbucks is the last one for fifty miles and that I should probably stop to augment my caffeine levels? Not only that, but it will offer to order ahead for me, my usual of course, leaving a little room for cream in the venti Americano. (Not because I like cream in my coffee, but because the baristas always fill the cup so full that it tends to slosh around in the car) I have no problem at all with technology working with me to make my life easier, more fluid and more fun. 

Still paranoid about all this? You’ve been watching too many Terminator movies. 

Lastly, what about virtual reality or VR

VR is different from both AI and AR in that its mission is to take you and plop you smack dab in the middle of another world. In the past, this might have involved your sitting in front of a large box and a literally sticking your head into it to physically and mentally immerse yourself in this new world. Nowadays, with the advent of Occulus Rift and HTC Vive, one may simply put on a giant honking bulky headset (yes, boys and girls, this is progress) and be on Mars on in the cockpit of a jet or in an otherworldly landscape. VR is like Calgon. It takes you away. (I don’t recommend wearing a headset in the bathtub.)

I have listened this week to a few podcasters describe their recent trip to Facebook headquarters and their experiences with expensive, high-end VR rigs. It’s like listening to teenagers describe their first acid trip. Really. How cool it was, and how, like, man, “I couldn’t feel my legs!” The reason for this? VR reprograms and remaps your brain, if just for a little while. Its visual feast and upside down gravities and haptic feedback and other interface components trick your brain into thinking that the world you are experiencing with the headset, whatever it might be, is now the new, real world for you. This is sometimes so unsettling that users get upset  and nauseated and throw up. It takes them several minutes to regain the use of arms and hands when they leave the simulation. Are we having fun yet? 

Now, I’m all over the AI and AR stuff. The VR side of this?  Not so much. Granted, I’ve never been a hardcore gamer (I still  haven’t finished the first installment of Monument Valley on my iPhone, and a its a fabulous game). As I mentioned, it can make you queasy and physically sick. It’s disorienting and frightening at times. Sounds too much like work to me. It’s also tremendously expensive.  I got my Echo for much less than a hundred bucks, but a top notch VR rig including a powerful enough computer to drive it, the headset, and everything else could easily run you between $5000-$10,000. Uh, no thank you. 

The bottom line? Bob Dylan was right. 

This stuff is already here and working pretty darn well even in beta form. It can be fun, challenging, helpful, frustrating, expensive, exasperating, and exhilarating. 

It’s only going to get better, more available to the masses, and more affordable. One day,  having computers assist us through our days will be as easy and as acceptable as programming a machine to make our morning coffee is now. 

Read about it. Try it out with something like an Echo. It’s fun. It won’t hurt you or ruin your life. Really. 

Thanks for reading. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my iPad just informed me that  I missed a call from John Connor. 

Something about his mother Sarah. 

This blog post is terminated. 

But, I’ll be back. 

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