Tag Archives: technology

Birding With Technology

One of the interesting bits about moving a significant distance is that all the wildlife changes. For example, while I like rabbits, I’m not exactly mourning the loss of them and their destruction of the vegetable garden. (Don’t worry; the voles and ground squirrels are picking up the slack.) The most dramatic has been the birds. There are a friggin’ lot of them, okay?

A few mainstays of California are familiar from the old place: we have no shortage of turkey vultures and mourning doves, and egrets pass over us daily. Most of them, though, are a big ???. I have a 1983 copy of Golden’s Birds of North America. Usually, that’s enough. With only a couple drawings of each bird, sorted by scientific family, and a description of less than fifty words, though, it has its limitations. It didn’t give me any help in identifying the midsize, brown and yellow bird making a loud, distinctive warble throughout the day.

This is when I fall in love with modern information technology all over again. I looked through a lot of bird guide sites, local and general. I ended up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have an app–doesn’t everyone? It’s a free bird identification app. I gave it my zip code, plus estimates of the bird’s size, main colors, and the date and area I saw it. It gave me a short list of half a dozen possibilities.

Western MeadowlarkIt’s a Western Meadowlark. It gave me pictures, a description, and a map of its territory. The app even played clips of its distinctive song. It took longer to download the app than it did to identify my bird. Which I can tell it–“Yes, That’s My Bird”–and it sends the information to its database for improved future results.

While I was at it, I discovered what the weird black birds with sideways tails had been over summer. Great-tailed grackles. Do you know what a grackle is? I damn well didn’t. Noisy goofballs, as it turns out. The book says they aren’t this far west, but there they were, and the app agrees. Grackle.

It’s trivial, being able to identify a bird like this. Neither my safety nor my sustenance depends on a familiarity with local wildlife. It’s satisfying, though, in the way all knowledge is. Where there had been an annoying blank space, there is now a name, a picture, maps, data. I could have taken photos to my local Audubon Society, I suppose. Consulted more books at the library. Visited a natural history museum, perhaps. With the internet, though, it’s the matter of an afternoon at home. Identifying birds is as simple and satisfying as any game app I have on my tablet.

Sort of makes me want to sing too.


History Preserved By Us All

Oh my gosh, I’m still not over how cool this is. The University of Iowa Libraries has tons of primary source materials in need of transcription–everything from letters and diaries to recipes from cookbooks. And they’ve set up a project that allows the public to help.

DIY History

The DIY History project allows anyone to submit transcriptions of handwritten pages. You can also review existing transcriptions to double-check accuracy and fill in any gaps you can make out that others couldn’t. They don’t require registration or special software or anything. You can contribute to the preservation of historical documents during the last five minutes of your lunch break or while commercial interruption #368 runs during your favorite show.

There’s more! You can look over existing pages, even if they’ve been finished already. This is a history geek’s treasure trove (not to mention a writer’s delight). Primary sources all over the place. Random letters between average citizens. Hundreds of cake recipes. All made fully searchable by the digitization + transcription process.

Due to a recent surge in interest (gotta love when cool stuff gets reblogged by the right people), they’ve sort of…run out of things for people to transcribe. So they’re busy digitizing more documents for the next round. If you go there and don’t find anything in need of work, check back. In the meantime, read through some of the finished pages for a glimpse into everyday history.

Spreading the Love

This isn’t the only library with such a program. They’ve shared the code used for the system so that other library collections can be preserved and shared in the same way. There are links to other projects here, some of which have lots of work left to do as well.

Here’s the most exciting bit, as far as I’m concerned: University of Iowa is doing science fiction fanzines next. The only disappointing part is that it will be restricted to a small group of volunteer subscribers. Due to issues of copyright and so on, they won’t make the whole mess of images available to the public. I’m not sure whose soul I have to sell to get in as a transcriber, but man, I would be tempted.

The combination of technological advances, history geekery, and the rise of crowdsourcing everything makes this one of the coolest projects I’ve heard of in a while.


Processing Power: Improving Our AI Friends

Popular Science just ran an article about the next generation of virtual assistants, such as Siri and Cortana. The idea is that, going forward, virtual assistants might become more useful if they exchange portability for power. Instead of living in our smart phones and tablets, they could live in desktop computers. What does this mean for the development of AI going forward? What does this mean to me, someone who can’t stop crying about robot friends?

There are basically three categories of what I broadly think of as “robots and cousins.” This ranges from Roomba robotic vacuums to Siri to projects like Bina48. The categories are for what they specialize in.

What They Can Do

Robots can vacuum, explore other planets, and carry huge loads. These ones often have simple native intelligences or may simply be remotely controlled. Big Dog acts as a pack animal, for example, with military applications. Their appearances are focused on function, rather than aesthetics. A boost in intelligence for these kids is not an especially well-placed power up.

How They Look

There are some goddamn eerie robotic heads out there. And yes, they tend just to be heads. Bust-style androids are being made who can mimic human emotion with startlingly expressive faces. (Nonhuman mimics do exist, like the companion fur seal pup, but they are far less elaborate.) Though they sometimes fall into the uncanny valley, these bots are the most like what we think of as sci-fi robots: looking and acting like humans with something very different under their skin.

How Well They Think

Ah, now here’s the interesting bit, the “and cousins” part of my statement. Most of the more advanced artificial intelligences aren’t robots at all. They don’t have mobile bodies intended to carry out expression or labor. They’re just an attempt to duplicate our clever brain bits. From chat bots who try their hand at talk therapy to Siri rebuffing her users’ unwanted advances, artificial intelligences are a thing. They’re just not all that bright yet.

So what if we took them out of our phones and gave them more robust processing abilities? Going even farther, what if we gave them dedicated systems, taking them off our computers entirely? What if, say, we start stringing those three categories together? Huge strides are being made in each one, but specialization has meant that none of them really embody that ideal science fictional droid. Maybe that ideal is getting closer.

One last idea, before I stop crying about this for a while: our phones, tablets, and desktops are all networking with each other more and more. Bluetooth connections link more and more of our technology. We have smart phones, smart cars, and smart houses.

So how about an AI with more than one brain and more than one avatar? How about a robotic collective, a shared intelligence spread out across multiple physical forms for maximum physical ability? What would happen if we built someone like that?