Monthly Archives: July 2016

Not a Good Robot

This video of trying to negotiate a labyrinth with the Brainport is only very loosely related to the rest of this post, but I still wanted to stick it in.

I went to the Robotics exhibit and IMAX at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This time I went without the Brainport, so I had no intention of writing about it here. But obviously I am, so apparently I found a connection.

In the IMAX, one man said his robot has over 500 senses. That caught my attention. I’ve heard people talk before about humans as having more than 5 senses. I have to admit that I’m inclined to mostly dismiss a lot of that talk. The most common one would be people claiming to sense spirits from dead humans, thank you Bruce Willis and The 6th Sense. Then there are the people who say they feel electromagnetic waves or pesticides in their pears… I don’t want to dismiss what they claim to sense… but I have to admit that I don’t really believe it. All of that being said though, I do like to think that humans have more than 5 senses. In a world where humans only have 5 senses, I’m so often predominantly identified in terms of my sensory deficits. I wind up feeling both inadequate and annoyed that other people have to point out how I’m different or less. But if vision is just one of many senses, then maybe we can stop getting so hung up on it.

It’s interesting to think about senses that go past the traditional 5—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. The first one I think of is the sense of humor. Is that actually a sense? Miriam Webster defines a sense as giving us information about the world around us, and the sense of humor does do that—it tells us when something is ironic or unexpected or incongruent. I’m really grateful to understand the world that way. The sense of proprioception tells us where different parts of the body are with respect to one another and how much we are exerting one part or another in movement. This sense allows us to coordinate our movements and to stay upright. As we walk, it tells us about changes in the ground and how we need to respond. Maybe you could argue this is just a form of the sense of touch, but proprioception originates in areas such as the tendons, muscle spindles, and the fibrous capsules in joints, not the areas we normally associate with other touch. proprioception seems like a pretty significant sense that we take for granted until we lose it or have to consider it, great effort has gone into trying to get robots to develop it. Another sense that comes to mind is pain. You could argue that pain gives information about what is happening inside of us, but I’d say it gives just as much information about how our body is interacting with the world around us. I might even argue that pain with a seemingly internal origin such as fibromyalgia or depression tells us something about interaction with the external world. It’s harder to say that I appreciate that sense, but I know it gives really important information, not having that sense leads to severe injury and death at an early age, so I am grateful for it.

The Robotics Imax and exhibit were fun, because they showed what is currently possible and left you to imagine some of what they might do some day. The Imax left me feeling like robots function much more seamlessly than they did in the exhibit. The movie showed all they’ve managed to teach robots to do, even walk on 2 legs, whereas the exhibit let you actually interact with robots. In the exhibit, there was a set of robots playing soccer, but it was my very inexpert opinion that the goalie robot was coming out from the goal way too far. The other robots didn’t seem to notice this. The robot that was supposed to imitate your facial expression didn’t seem to notice that one of my eyes is always closed. I totally beat the robot that was playing tic tac toe. And Albert is much more responsive and pet-able than the emotional support seal I tried petting. All the same, they are pretty incredible.

Throughout the movie and exhibit, they repeatedly spoke about how robots go through a 3 step process where they sense, plan, and then finally act. So far, I think the area where robots might have humans beat is with their ability to sense. I think I would have a hard time coming up with a list of 500 senses for humans, even if I argue there are more than 5. Humans with our complex and sloppy brains far surpass robots in their ability to plan and act. Robots might out-do humans in one or a small set of tasks, but no robot is anywhere near as versatile and flexible as a human. But think how incredible it would be to be able to sense and integrate the world in 500 different ways.

Sometimes I wonder if the Brainport is a new sense. Sure, you could just argue that it’s the sense of touch being used in a novel way. I don’t know what neural pathways are being used, so I can’t make an argument either way with that information. I can try to make other comparisons though. People do touch or feel things with their mouths, babies being the most common. It could be that babies are just trying out the whole range of a block—Does it taste? Can I eat it? Can I chew on it? Do I feel better when I suck on it? Or maybe there is something else unique we learn about the world when we touch it with our mouths, and it gets socialized out of us. I don’t want to romanticize the Brainport into some sort of mystical, reconnecting with the world kind of thing, I just want to consider the possibilities. The sensations I get from the Brainport do start to turn into something I experience visually, which is also true about the things I touch. This would suggest it is just like all other touch. But it gives me a way to perceive the world as a picture and then touch that, so touch, but in a new way. I’m not sure how to categorize it.

But one thing I’ve noticed, particularly at dusk, as there is less and less that I can perceive through the Brainport, the world around me will transform into one with lines and shapes and angles and shades from places very distant from Boulder. I’ve started to think of them as the places hidden behind the common façade of a medium size Colorado city. Part of me recognizes they are just a result of my imagination, but this is the first time these imaginations have been triggered, so maybe there is some new stimulus in there. Whatever it is, it’s leading to me experiencing the world differently. I appreciate that.

Not Long to Go

On June 13, I tagged my 3rd and second to last check-in onto a trip to Michigan to visit my brother one last time before he moves to San Francisco. On Sunday night, there was some great blues music at the Chicago Blues Fest. (Yes, I am dropping names, because I feel pretty cool getting to brag that I was there). On Monday morning, I did great on the reading, not bad on the object identification and grabbing, okay on walking along a line, mediocre on the sign identification, and not good on the obstacle avoiding. I guess you can tell where I’ve dedicated most of my attention. I now have 3 more months left with the Brainport, and I’m trying to think of all the things I want to do before I have to give it back.

1. Get coordinated enough to play tic tac toe
2. Look at some simple line drawings of images I love, such as snoopy and a tree
3. Look at sun shining on grass with all the crisscrossing lines of shadow and light
4. Lay on my back, staring at the stars, even if I can’t see anything
5. Go to the planetarium and watch a star show
6. Watch fireworks
7. Walk around the labyrinth at the church across the creek from my home
8. Go for a hike

If you happen to have any more suggestions, or if you want to partake in any of the festivities, let me know.

And just as a follow up note, since it has been a while since I originally started writing this, I’ve done or started a couple of things on my list. On July 4th, I went to Folsom Stadium to watch the fireworks. I can usually see the brightest and biggest ones with my own eye. The past couple years though, I’ve just sat on my porch, listening to the explosions echoing off the foothills and Flatirons. But this time, I held my head still, waiting for patterns to appear on my tongue. At first, it was a bunch of undefined sparkling all over the place, but as I sat there, I started to notice patterns. There still were the big round ones that explode everywhere and then fade away. But there also were the much smaller ones that sort of trickle out of the sky. I’d forgotten about those, because I can’t see them with what light perception I do have. When the large explosions cleared out and I noticed one of those, it felt like finding an Easter egg, a hidden treasure.

I also went for a short hike. It was cloudy, so there were no shadows to create contrast and point out rocks. I need to go back on a sunny day and see what it’s like, although there are not a lot of rocks on this particular trail. I could see the edge of the trail, although I turned around at a point where my right leg suddenly fell off a sharp cliff on the edge of the trail. I have to admit that it startled me enough that I haven’t gone back to try it again.

I’ve also started exploring the church grounds to see if I can even find the labyrinth. I’ve wandered around the parking lot, as well as the sidewalks leading up to the church. As far as I can tell, out back, they have a large patio area with a little bit of grass that quickly leads into the thick vegetation along the creek. I haven’t found the labyrinth yet, but the exploring has helped to fill in large areas that were just blank spaces in my map of my neighborhood. There is a lovely book called All the Light We Cannot See, about a German boy and French girl in the time leading up to and during WW II. The girl is blind and her father, a locksmith, carves intricate maps of where they live so his daughter can learn all the buildings and streets in the neighborhood. I’ve thought of building something like that for myself, although it won’t be nearly as beautiful and intricate as the maps the father makes for his daughter. I was thinking that I could print out maps from Google Earth, making them tactile by paving the roads with a paint that I could feel and putting Lego pieces where buildings are. (Anyone have old Lego sets sitting around?) I would fill in information based on my interactions with the location—that’s the house with the yippy dog, there’s the running water, that house has a trampoline.

I feel some pressure to try everything possible with the Brainport in these last couple months. At the same time, I feel some of the dread or pressure that comes from knowing that I won’t be able to do everything. I don’t like my life when I feel a lot of pressure though, so I’m going to do my best to stay away from that and just enjoy what I have. I’m going to try to think of these as the next couple months, instead of as the last couple months.