Sensory Substitution: What Are We Waiting For?

Instead of trying to build "intelligent machines", why not use all the new information about how the brain works, to augment our senses?

I just started reading On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (creator of the PalmPilot -- andGraffiti if you can remember that).

The book deals with "intelligence": what it is, how it's produced, how to emulate it. It argues, rightfully, that it doesn't make sense to want to make "intelligent" machines without first understanding what "intelligence" actually is.

The brain (the neocortex) is a pattern-analysis machine: it receives patterns from inputs and makes sense of them. But it's entirely versatile: the cortex is not in any way specialized at birth; it becomes specialized because of the way it's wired.

For instance, the region of the brain that receives input from the optical nerves becomes in time an expert at dealing with optical patterns; but if you rewire a rat's nerves at birth, so that vision information arrives in the part of the brain usually used for auditory input, it works just as well.

Reparing damaged senses

This flexibility is being used today to help people with damaged senses: for example, there are machines that let blind people see with their tongues.

But why stop at prosthetics? Why only try to repair / duplicate our existing "senses" (of which, of course, there are many many more than just five)? Instead of sensory substitution, why not start talking of sensory augmentation?

Adding new senses

Wouldn't it be fantastic to have sonar vision (like bats, or dolphins), even if you're not blind? Or for pilots, to feel which way is down?

You wouldn't need to wear those heavy night-vision goggles: just a device somewhere in your body that sends signals (patterns) to your brain through a simple interface; and you wouldn't even need to learn how to use it, because the brain does the pattern-analysis by itself; just send it the patterns and it'll take it from there.

As for the interface, I personally wouldn't mind having a multi-purpose interface built right into my skull, but in the meantime anything will do, really. There are devices that can give people a new sense of orientation by sending compass information to the waist through a vibrating belt.

None of this is new; I'm just wondering what's keeping it to go mainstream -- why we continue to try to build "intelligent assistants" such as SIRI (a dumb secretary) when we could give ourselves superpowers.

Mon, 31 Oct 2011 • permalink

Breaking The Rules

The publication of the authorized biography of Steve Jobs is apparently leading to a "Jobs backlash": it turns out Steve wasn't always a nice guy.

For instance, Slate's Farhad Manjoo is shocked to discover that Steve was sometimes "a jerk": he was rude to people and even parked his licence plate-free Mercedes in handicapped spots! Yet at the same time, Manjoo complains that how he was able to pull off the greatest corporate miracle the world has ever seen will forever remain a mystery.

Umm... Can't part of this mystery be explained by the fact that people who change the world have no problem breaking the rules?

Want to change the world? Learn to break the rules; learn to upset people

If nobody's mad at you, chances are you're not doing anything noteworthy. And if you can't stand people being mad at you, you probably don't have what it takes.

But here's the good news: you can practice being a sociopath. Here's a simple exercise in three steps:

  1. Go to a McDonald's at a crowded hour
  2. Eat your meal at the biggest table you can find, and leave without taking your tray to the trash
  3. At this point, people should stare at you. Stare back.

You'll be surprised how hard this is.

(If you didn't feel any discomfort doing this, congratulations! you're already a sociopath. You should be changing the world instead of reading blogs).

Wed, 26 Oct 2011 • permalink

"Une riche vie de pauvre" sur Kindle

(This post deals with the recent opening of the French Kindle shop and is, therefore, in French; our English programme will resume with our next post).

Kindle est le livre électronique d'Amazon: c'est à la fois un objet, mais aussi une application gratuite, disponible pour PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, etc. On peut donc lire les livres "Kindle" d'Amazon sur n'importe quel écran, sans acheter le Kindle physique.

(Cela dit, le Kindle physique est un objet extraordinaire, le seul qui permette de lire en plein soleil, ce qui est impossible avec une tablette de type "écran brillant" comme l'iPad ou le Galaxy).

Jusqu'à aujourd'hui, l'offre de livres Kindle en français était réduite, parce qu'il n'y avait pas de boutique Kindle France. Jusqu'à aujourd'hui! Car la boutique Kindle France a ouvert ce matin. Sont d'ores et déjà disponibles, en français, 4000 titres gratuits et 35000 titres payants.

Parmi ces titres, les souvenirs de mon grand père, Une riche vie de pauvre, que j'avais publiés sur papier il y a quelques années, et qui sont désormais disponibles en version électronique.


Ce livre original raconte, dans une langue limpide, la prise de conscience d'un petit paysan avant la guerre de 14 qui décide, à six ans, de changer de vie. Il fera des études! Apprenant à lire presque tout seul en gardant les chèvres, en même temps qu'il apprend le français (car on ne parle chez lui que patois), il ira ensuite au collège jusqu'à devenir finalement agrégé des lettres, puis maire et député.

Mais à la fin de sa vie, ce qui intéressait mon grand père, c'était son enfance, si difficile mais si intense, qu'il fait ici revivre merveilleusement, avec ses bonheurs et ses catastrophes, ses espoirs et ses angoisses, ses jeux d'enfants et les folies des grandes personnes.

Ce livre ressemble à un épisode de Columbo: on connaît la fin mais ce qui est intéressant, c'est de savoir comment on y arrive. Et on le relit toujours avec plaisir, parce qu'on est heureux de retrouver ses personnages pittoresques, drôles, terribles et attachants.

Sat, 08 Oct 2011 • permalink