Monday, March 30, 2009

Child porn definitions called into question

Here's a crazy can of worms: prosecutors have charged two 13-year-old Pennsylvania girls with distributing child pornography. Now, just about no sane person approves of child pornography, but the problem in this case is that the material in question were pictures the girls took of themselves in their skivvies on their cellphones. The photos were then sent around in a process being dubbed "sexting." The girls, if convicted, could face prison time and would qualify as sex offenders, even though the prosecutors are apparently only wanting them to attend "re-education" courses to teach them the errors of their ways.

To complicate the issue, the girls' parents and the American Civil Liberties Union last week sued the district attorney, claiming they did nothing wrong. "I certainly don't want pedophiles looking at my daughter in her bra, but I don't think that was the intention to begin with," one of the girls' mothers told the Associated Press. "This is absolutely wrong on [the DA's] part. It's abuse of his authority."

The case mirrors a recent incident wherein a 14-year-old teen girl posted nude photos of herself on MySpace, apparently because she wanted her boyfriend to see them. She too was charged with distributing child porn:

The cases bring up many questions regarding all the technology we have at our fingertips. Obviously what the girls in each case did was pretty dumb and will likely come back to haunt them in the future, but is it illegal to distribute nude pictures of yourself? Can it be considered a form of free speech? Should the rules be different based on your age? And how can parents effectively teach their kids to avoid exposing themselves (literally) online?

UPDATE: A judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing the DA from pressing charges.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sex with robots? Not if, but when

Today's post follows on the logic of a few of the last posts. If you take the fully functional, anatomically correct, orgasm-having robot of together with the Real Touch of a few days ago, put it together with the Real Doll (warning: fake nudity) or the plethora of other sex dolls being created, and some advanced artificial intelligence, well... you start to come up with a very interesting picture. Namely, sex robots.

Humans having sex with robots is a theme that's been speculated about for as long as there's been science-fiction. If you take the above formula, however, we're on the very cusp of it. Le Trung, the creator of the Aiko robot who I interviewed this week, said the only reason we haven't heard about the mass production of sex robots is because of the high research and development costs behind such a process. But that doesn't mean it's not happening on a small scale. Here's a video with more:

Here's a with Love + Sex With Robots author David Levy, on Al Jazeera no less.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Showing off the robot "girlfriend"

I took a trip up to Brampton (a suburb of Toronto) yesterday to interview Le Trung, the fellow who got a ton of media attention a few months ago - like here, here and here - for building himself a robot "girlfriend." Aiko, the aforementioned robot, was in a bit of disrepair as she was recently damaged during transport from one of her many public appearances, but she was still working well enough to wow me.

Trung showed me a myriad of Aiko's capabilities, including her ability to recognize faces, read text put in front of her, and react to touches. The robot seemed a little bit primitive compared to some of the things we've seen out of Japan - i.e. dancing and singing robots - but in actuality, Aiko is quite advanced. Most Japanese robots are purpose-built to do one or two things well, but Trung's creation is multi-talented.

Of course, inquiring minds want to know whether Aiko has any other, ahem, talents (wink, wink). Trung says she is not built for sex, but she does have sensors in the appropriate areas and is programmed to have an orgasm. Sex robots are entirely possible right now, he said, but nobody is making them because of the required funding. Check out the video to see what he says (note: turn up your volume as he's pretty soft-spoken):

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bionic warriors to smash puny humans

And here I thought Lockheed Martin only built aircraft and missiles! No sirree Bob - Lockheed Martin is very obviously a full-service military contractor, if this new soldier exoskeleton technology is any indication. The exoskeleton - suitably named the HULC (rarr! smash puny humans!) - will enable soldiers to carry up to 200 pounds with minimal effort, the company says. As we can see in the somewhat-boring demo video below, the HULC could also have some very obvious commercial applications. I seem to remember a day-long hike in the mountains of Peru many years ago that almost killed me. A bionic suit that lightened my load would have been most welcome. I wonder what such a skeleton would sell for?

Japanese car makers are working on similar projects. Honda recently unveiled a pair of experimental bionic legs, designed to make life easier for its factory workers. Watching the video below, I'm not sure how comfortable having that bicycle seat jammed up there would be:

One thing is for sure - the military's work on bionic exoskeletons means we are one step closer to bringing my favourite to life.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Shmeat just can't be beat

I caught a hilarious clip on The Colbert Report last week that I just had to share here. The bit was on something called "tissue culture meat," or "shmeat" for short. (Canadian viewers can watch it on the Comedy Network here at about 1:30, while Americans can see it on Comedy Central here.) Being a bit of a Colbert junkie, I figured the funny-sounding short form was a creation of the show's writers, who continually exhibit a penchant for making up contractions - in this case, tissue + meat = shmeat. But nope, shmeat is actually what researchers are calling it.

So what is shmeat (which sounds way too close to shmit)? Simply put, it's meat that is grown from tissue cultures in a lab, rather than on animals on a farm. The technology has been talked about for ages - Winston Churchill even suggested it way back in 1932 - and it's starting to become a reality. But, as heavily Russian-accented researcher Vladimir Mironov (not an NHL player as far as I know) puts it, it has yet to receive any serious financial backing.

"Technology, I think, is doable, and if you have reasonable investment it can be done. But ... you can't create [a] product which nobody wants to buy or is too expensive to buy. So the right timing ... is everything."

Interestingly, the animal rights folks at PETA are trying to get the ball rolling with a $1 million reward for whoever can come up with commercially viable chicken meat... er... shmeat.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Internet Explorer 8 is for porn

One of the biggest challenges in researching my book is getting people to talk about how their technologies have benefited from early adoption by the porn industry. After all, admitting that your particular breakthrough or gadget was first used to look at naked women is not exactly something most inventors want to trumpet. Sony, for example, to this day refuses to acknowledge - publicly at least - how important the porn industry's choice of VHS was to settling the VCR format war back in the early 1980s.

There are some exceptions, of course. I spoke to Brad Casemore, the vice-president of business development for Toronto-based Spatial View, the other day about an iPhone accessory his company has come up with that will turn the device into a 3D video viewer. As I posted , one of the first content producers to provide video for use with the Wazabee 3DeeShell will be adult studio Pink Visual. Casemore was candid on the subject and admitted what many bigger companies won't: when it comes to getting early customers for your technology, beggars can't be choosers. "It’s not really a target market for us for a variety of reasons," he said, "but when a customer comes to you, there’s not much you can do." (By the way, the 3DeeShell will also allow iPhone users to view 3D photos on their phone, which they can take with Spatial View's 3DeeCamera app - I think this has the potential to be huge.)

Surprisingly, Microsoft is making a similar admission, according to Gizmodo, with its latest web browser, Internet Explorer 8. The new browser features a "private" mode, which doesn't track web pages surfed to. In other words, it's a feature you turn on when you don't want anyone else in the house to know you've been looking at porn sites. The wink-wink admission from Microsoft is in the final minute of this video on the history of the web:

As an aside, does anyone else think the Microsoft ninja is beyond lame?

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Wii of porn. And I do mean wheeee!

"Is watching porn on a TV screen or computer monitor boring? Are you finding it's just not as fun as it used to be? Well, the folks at the Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network have got something for you! Presenting the Real Touch, the new sex toy that brings porn alive!"

I imagine that's something like what the sales pitch for AEBN's Real Touch would go like. Actually, to see the real sales pitch, check out this video:

In a nutshell, the Real Touch is a toaster-sized device that you hook up to your computer and then stick on your wang. The device syncs with specially coded movies, replicating the action seen on screen, so it feels like you're actually... y'know... doing it. It uses the same haptic technology that makes our cellphones and video game controllers vibrate. I interviewed AEBN founder Scott Coffman yesterday and he told me the device is his company's big play against the movement to free porn (perhaps even more so than Hollywood, the adult industry is hurting from piracy). The Real Touch, which will sell for $150 US starting this spring, is not exactly something you can replicate for free, he said. Moreover, Coffman has ambitious plans for the device: "I'm hoping Real Touch does for AEBN what the Wii did for Nintendo. We’re hoping to change the model," he said.

It's funny, but I can't help but think about something quasi-similar being done by D-Box, a Montreal-based company. Although D-Box's motion-synced chairs have nothing to do with porn, the company is also trying to bring interactivity to movies.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Who really invented video games?

The Guardian has a rare interview with Nolan Bushnell that gives the Atari founder full credit as the "father" of video games. It's definitely a contentious title that we examined last year at the CBC with a mini-series on the history of video games. For my money, the guy who invented video games as we know them - a computer connected to a monitor connected to a controller - was Manhattan Project veteran and Brookhaven National Lab physicist William Higinbotham in 1958. His game, however, was intended only as a demonstration and not widely seen.

Ralph Baer, an engineer working for defense contractor Sanders Associates, put together the first ever TV console, the Brown Box, in 1972 and applied for the patent on video games the same year, which he got in 1973. Magnavox licensed the box as the Odyssey and butchered its marketing, so it sold poorly. Bushnell came in and cleaned up with the Pong console, which prompted Sanders and Magnavox to sue Atari. The smoking gun they had was a guest book that Bushnell had signed at an early Brown Box demo in 1972, which Baer says proves the Atari founder borrowed his idea. Bushnell still disputes that charge, but he ended up settling and licensing the technology from Sanders, an agreement the Atari founder calls a "garbage license" in the Guardian interview.

Ooh, controversy! I bring all this up because I deal with the issue of how plenty of toys and games have military origins in Bombs, Boobs & Burgers. Baer's patent stood until 1990, which means that every video game made until then paid a small royalty to a military contractor.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Death from above

Following on yesterday's post, it looks like Russia is finally getting its act together when it comes to robot warfare. Defense Technology International reports the Russian military is getting serious about investing in new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to replace its aging Soviet-era versions. Russia is finally going to develop drones that have better range and real-time video surveillance capabilities after accidentally shooting down one of its own manned bombers last year in South Ossetia. The incident was pretty embarrassing, DTI said: "Using a manned asset - and a strategic bomber at that - for airborne reconnaissance strikes many as the 21st century's version of a cavalry charge."

Still, Russia is way behind. Check out this multinational-flavoured report from an Australian news agency on how the Brits are using American-made armed Reaper UAVs in Afghanistan:

UPDATE: The Guardian's Andrew Brown has written a commentary today on the ethics of robot war. He believes that humans are still responsible for anyone killed by robots.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Robot war might be like The Matrix

The National Post has a fascinating interview with fellow Penguin author P.W. Singer, who is the director of the U.S. military's 21st Century Defense Initiative, on the coming war of robots, which he details in his book Wired for War. No, it's not Transformers or the Terminator, but a battle fought largely by robotic soldiers is coming pretty close to reality. I like how he visualizes it:

You can’t do a book about robots without dealing with the question of a robots revolt, so there is actually a chapter in Wired for War on it. That is, what do the actual experts in both science and the military think about robot revolt and whether it’s a likelihood, and who and why it might, or might not happen? Here’s a hint: It is not The Terminator, but The Matrix that may be more informative.

I wasn't aware of Singer's book until today, but needless to say it's now a must read. If the interview is any indication, it looks like he touches on one of the themes I'm looking at in Bombs, Boobs & Burgers - that is, how military-developed technologies (in this case robots) eventually translate into the real world. One of the examples he points to is this video, a fictional depiction of what a robot cop might look like:

By the way, speaking of killer robots, is anyone else mourning the impending end of Battlestar Galactica as much as I am? At least we have Caprica to look forward to.

Monday, March 16, 2009

3D porn on your iPhone

Anyone who still doubts that the porn industry is an early adopter of technology should check out the new Wazabee 3DeeShell, available from Spatial View Inc. The Toronto-based company has released a new slip-on accessory for the iPhone that transforms the device into a 3D movie viewer, and one of the first content suppliers on board is California-based adult film producer Pink Visual.

Pink Visual says it is currently filming 3D scenes to be available for use with the 3DeeShell, which eliminates the need for glasses, and will be making sample content available shortly. A fairly funny (and nudity free) promo video is here.

Three-dimensional film and TV was a big theme at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and not surprisingly, some film makers are already planning for it. If you missed it a few weeks ago, check out porn star Jesse Jane's thoughts on 3D action in this I did with her while in Vegas.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Space tech on Android phones

I went down to Washington D.C. to interview Vint Cerf a few weeks ago and he laid an interesting surprise on me: space communications technology may soon be coming to Android cellphones. Cerf, a Google vice-president and one of the founding fathers of the internet, is currently helping NASA test a delay-tolerant network (DTN) that will greatly improve the efficiency of space-to-Earth communications. (It's part of the fabled "Intergalactic Internet.")

Space-to-Earth communications are currently reliant on complicated schedules - satellites, shuttles and other sensors can only relay information back to the ground during specific connection windows, when they are passing over antennae nodes on the ground. The new DTN will make it possible for satellites and the rest to use a sort of store-and-forward system, where they'll bypass the need to make a direct connection with the ground. Instead, it'll work kind of like a BlackBerry - if you type out an e-mail but don't have cell coverage, the device will store it until it establishes a connection, then send it.

U.S. military tests of a ground-based version of DTN have gone "fantastically well," Cerf said, so we could easily see the technology applied to cellphones running Google's Android operating system to deliver "content-directed routing." Example: one Android phone downloads some map data, then radiates it out to other nearby phones, thus saving those other users having to download the info themselves from the cell network. Cerf said the application could be particularly useful in health care, to establish Star Trek-like . "We're not very far away from stuff like that," he said. "I don't think it's going to take till 2400."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Automated chicken... yum!

Further to the post on robots the other day, the fast-food industry is also making use of them. Pittsburgh-based HyperActive Technologies has been rolling out its "Bob" robots to several fast-food restaurants, including U.S. chicken chain Zaxby's, to help speed up drive-through orders. Again, HyperActive's robot bears little resemblance to the humanoid machines being built in Japan and is instead designed purely to boost productivity.

"Bob" is actually a sensor network that detects cars coming into the restaurant's parking lot. It then instructs staff inside on what food to prepare based on statistical likelihood - i.e. if 20% of customers order a cheeseburger and 10 cars enter the property, chances are good that at least two cheeseburgers will be ordered.

I interviewed HyperActive founder R. Craig Coulter last year and he had some interesting thoughts on fast food. He said that despite being one of the first to automate with machines back in the fifties, the industry has actually been slow in adopting robotic technology. I guess teenagers have proven to be sufficient.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Talking net neutrality

For net neutrality aficionados, I'm on CBC Radio's Spark program today (Wednesday) at 11:30 a.m. talking about the current CRTC proceedings on the subject. Not much to do with the topic of this blog, but Spark host Nora Young does give my book a nice shout-out toward the end of the program, which you can also catch as a podcast. And besides, net neutrality is a hugely important issue - if certain internet service providers get their way, perhaps some day we won't be able to view blogs with the word "boobs" in their titles.

Wouldn't you know it, though - I just happen to be on Spark's episode number 69. (Cue Beavis & Butthead laughter.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Here come the robots

It'll be April soon, which we all know means one thing: it's the return of the RoboBusiness conference! Oh yeah - for all of you out there that are nuts about robots, this one's for you: two days of full-out, hot robot-on-robot action!

But seriously folks... the RoboBusiness conference's name pretty much says what it's all about: the business of robots. I was at last year's conference in Pittsburgh and learned quite a bit, including the big difference between Japanese and American robot research. The Japanese are the ones who often capture all the headlines with their , bicycle-riding machines. Americans, however, are a lot more pragmatic about their robots, preferring them to do simple but necessary tasks, like weld cars together.

This year's show is in Boston and I'll most likely be going. In the meantime, check out a pair of interviews I did from last year's show. One is with Kevin Fahey, the program executive officer for U.S. Ground Combat Systems, and Col. James Braden, project manager of the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, who are basically in charge of procuring robots for the U.S. Army. Fahey and Braden talk about how replacing human soldiers with robots is a good thing. The other interview is with Colin Angus, the CEO of iRobot, which not only makes bomb-sniffing robots for use by troops in Iraq, but also those handy robot vacuum cleaners. Angle discusses his company straddling the military and consumer markets

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Microsoft Vibrator

After getting back from this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I got the usual question from friends: "What was the coolest thing you did or saw?" This year, the answer was decidedly different. It wasn't a neat gadget (although the Palm Pre was very cool), and it wasn't a sci-fi experience (like riding in a robot car). It was a dinner with porn stars.

Since the Adult Entertainment Expo runs concurrently with CES each year (and definitely not by coincidence), I got invited to a media dinner with the folks from Digital Playground. Like a true nerd, though, I put research over simple male-ness and spent most of my time talking to the people who actually run the company rather than the porn stars - although in my defense, most of them were seated at another table and kept pretty much to themselves.

I did manage to have a decent conversation with Stoya, the company's newest contract star. I had never seen her work before and was struck by how "normal" she looked - no bleach blond hair, no implants, no excessive makeup or jewelry. We chatted about my book, her name (it's her Serbian grandmother's), the fact that she was up for the Best New Starlet AVN award (she ended up winning - congrats!) and of course, the weather in Toronto.

I bring her up because it turns out Stoya is a bit of a nerd - she likes her gadgets and yes, she's even on . G4 has a video up of her reviewing a user-created application for the Xbox 360 that turns the console's controller into a massager. Her bottom line: "If Steve Jobs made it, I would use it somewhere that's not my back."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Birthplace of the JPEG

We're into the plus-double-digits in temperature here in Toronto, so it looks like spring is finally on its way, thank the stars. I shouldn't complain too much, however, as I spent a sizeable part of the winter down in sunny California doing research. One of the places I visited was the University of Southern California, where much of the work in digital imaging was done in the seventies. The Signal and Image Processing Institute is responsible for laying much of the groundwork that went into the JPEG format, which is now the ubiquitous picture standard across the web and many digital devices. Sandy Sawchuk, one of the professors who was there in SIPI's early days, showed me this non-descript classroom/lab on campus. "We should have a plaque on the door that says, 'This is where the JPEG was born,'" he told me.

The really interesting part of this story is that the most important picture in the history of the internet, a cropped centerfold from Playboy, was also scanned in this room. The photo was one of the first images scanned and transmitted across the U.S. military's ARPAnet, the precursor to the internet, and then became the de facto standard for image processors everywhere.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Food innovation or failure piles?

I was browsing around YouTube the other day and found this hilarious video. It's an extraordinary invention from a South Korean fast-food chicken chain that combines food and drink packaging into one. The "Col-Pop" is basically a large soft drink cup with a plastic basket on top that holds a bunch of chicken "pops." Assuming the contraption's two compartments are insulated from each other, so that one stays cold while the other stays hot, this thing probably has tons of potential. It wouldn't surprise me to see North American food processors and fast-food chains jump all over this. After all, KFC did give us those great bowls a.k.a. "" (warning: bad language).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Now you see me...

The British Ministry of Defence has announced its future plans, and man do they include a lot of technology. Like the U.S. military, Britain is going to invest significantly in unmanned vehicles, as well as lighter and more mobile tanks and soldier gear. My colleagues over at the CBC have put together a short photo gallery on the topic.

The news follows last year's announcement that the Brits are working on an invisible tank, which uses cameras and projectors to display the surrounding landscape on the actual vehicle. Britain plans to have the tank rolled out by 2012. Japanese researchers are also working on invisibility - here's a short YouTube video of their work in action:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Good ol' conservative values

An acquaintance passed on a link to a fascinating story yesterday about a study that looks at U.S. online porn consumption. The study, done by the Harvard Business School, found that not only is consumption generally the same across the country, if anything, conservative states are actually more into the porn than their liberal counterparts. Utah, land of Mormons and no drinking, was the biggest consumer with 5.47 content subscriptions per 1000 broadband connections. Moreover:

Eight of the top 10 pornography consuming states gave their electoral votes to John McCain in last year's presidential election – Florida and Hawaii were the exceptions. While six out of the lowest 10 favoured Barack Obama.

The study was done by looking at credit card data from a major unnamed adult entertainment company. Given the nature of the findings, my money is on Hustler - you just know that's the sort of irony/hypocrisy that Larry Flynt lives for.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Jesse Jane talks tech

Check out this interview I did with adult star Jesse Jane at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas back in January, where we talked tech. You can read the text transcript over on the CBC website but this audio slideshow is way better as it gives a better sense of her personality, plus there's a bunch of hot PG-rated photos (all courtesy of Digital Playground). The interview is split into two for length purposes.

Barbie's Worst Enemy - audio excerpt

Here's an audio slideshow excerpt of one of the book's shorter chapters, "Barbie's Worst Enemy."

Grand opening!

Hi everybody, welcome to my new blog, the official online presence of my upcoming book, Bombs, Boobs & Burgers: How the Technologies of War, Sex and Food Transformed Our World. I'll be using this blog to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the book is coming together so I'll be posting interviews, excerpts, photos, stories and whatever else I come across in the course of research. I'll also be posting links to all the war, sex and food technology news out there, so if any of those topics floats your boat, be sure to check back here regularly.

So what is the book about? Well, the subtitle pretty much tells it all. A surprising amount of every-day stuff comes from those three industries: war, sex and food. The amount of technology that comes directly from military research - from jet engines to digital computers to the internet - is simply astounding. The sex industry, meanwhile, generally hasn't directly invented the stuff it uses but its role as an early adopter of technologies has been no less influential. Without porn, we may never have had video cameras, VCRs or video streaming. As for the food processing and fast food industries, when you consider that even bananas have banana flavour injected into them to make them taste more like bananas... well, needless to say, there's a ton of technology going into food that we don't even notice.

What's the link between the three? There are perceptions out there that war, porn and food processing are bad. The inevitable result of war is death, and there's little disagreement that that's not a good thing. When it comes to pornography, some argue that it chips away at society's morals. Food processing and fast food, meanwhile, often get blamed for poor health and rising obesity levels. While all of this may or not be true, the three industries do also contribute to a bright side, which is the bettering of our world through their technological offshoots. Bombs, Boobs & Burgers is all about weighing those derivatives against the downsides and, hopefully, coming to some sort of conclusion (and nope, I haven't done so yet!). I hope you check out the book when it's released in Spring 2010!