Reviews

Merging Man and Machine: 'NOVA ScienceNOW: What Will the Future Be Like?'

Wall-E gives a more vivid and thought-provoking picture of the future than this NOVA scienceNOW program.


NOVA scienceNOW: What Will the Future Be Like?

Director: Chris Schmidt, Terri Randall, Joshua Seftel
Cast: David Pogue
Distributor: PBS
Rated: N/A
Release date: 2013-01-05
Amazon

With an overly dramatic host (David Pogue), dated examples, no bonus features, and shoddy production, this NOVA DVD about the future surprisingly seems like it’s from the past. Despite promising an exciting exploration of humanoid robots, mind-reading machines, augmented reality, and the scientific potential of video games, NOVA scienceNOW: What Will the Future Be Like? misleadingly provides a rather dull 60-minute program that doesn’t talk about the future so much as the recent.

The overarching theme, while not explicitly summed up in anything even remotely resembling a conclusion, is the merger of man and machine: living with, wearing, and even implanting technology. Rather than presenting commentary from a range of specialists to produce a productive dialogue, the program highlights only a handful of distinct research projects, all dealing with advances in technology, but not necessarily the future of those technologies. These projects are presented as cutting-edge science, but really offer nothing all that novel to educated viewers, a large constituent of NOVA’s audience.

The majority of the program deals with robotics, especially the construction of humanoid robots. The claim here is that, in the future, robots will be welcomed into our homes, performing our dangerous or unsavory tasks. In order to function in human spaces, these machines will therefore have to conform to our physicality--C-3POs instead of R2-D2s. Constructing bipedal robots is extremely difficult, though, as mankind’s innate sense of balance is not explicitly programmable, and must actually be taught to robots through reinforcement learning.

Moving beyond simply living with machines, the benefits of wearable robots are exhibited in a series of predictable demonstrations. In particular, the HULC exoskeleton assists in carrying a great deal of weight, so Pogue gradually dons and weighs notoriously heavy firefighter gear piece by piece to demonstrate. Inspirational in the hope it gives for paraplegics, this research, while still in the early stages, is not based on a new idea. Experiments with powered exoskeletons date back many decades, and one such apparatus was even featured in an episode of Glee back in 2010.

Presented as “mind-reading machines”, the projects exhibited next are nowhere near as impressive as this title implies. A headset that reads brainwaves via the scalp, for example, is admittedly rudimentary, easily getting “confused”. Another way of combatting paralysis involving directly implanting sensors on the brain to control robotic armatures suffers from inaccuracy and necessitates extensive practice. So the attractive but unsupportable concept of mind reading quickly digresses into brain mapping, despite the centuries-long history of research in such functional specialization. Again, Pogue jumps in, as a computer identifies the simple objects on his mind based solely on brain activity. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Here’s the catch: the computer picks between only two functionally disparate objects--better than a 50/50 chance.

The “augmented reality” segment quickly digresses into a discussion of smartphone apps and integrating technology into day-to-day-life -- something we are already intimately familiar with. The big new project presented is none other than Google Glass, the smartphone-in-a-headset that has been all over the news, so, once again, nothing new here. Even the work with holograms (painfully pronounced “hoe-low-grams” by Pogue) is shown to be primitive, displaying pixellated images on a visor rather than the Star Warsian projection we all envision.

This NOVA special then tangentially spotlights Adrien Treuille’s science-based video games such as Foldit and EteRNA (released 5 and 3 years ago, respectively). These games harness the brain power of their thousands of players to make real scientific discoveries about proteins and RNA. Although offering a refreshing approbation of video games as opposed to their typical condemnation, this segment really expresses nothing about the future other than a hope for wider recognition of the benefits of video games.

A concern about the potentially negative effects of technological advancement is, however, conspicuously lacking. Any valid dissenting arguments are omitted, and only a couple vague comments from MIT’s Sherry Turkle represent this viewpoint, with such sweeping and sententious statements as “it’s pushing us against a moral imperative,” expressing a concern for the “integrity of the body, integrity of the mind.” Promptly dismissing this side of the argument by merely acknowledging the need for “guidelines,” the focus swiftly shifts to the educational activities of robotics clubs.

“What Will the Future Be Like?” doesn’t answer its own question. Highlighting technologies that, in this fast-paced world, are no longer on the cutting edge and making very few actual predictions about the future, this NOVA program is unremarkable. Most of the supposedly fascinating information is likely to already be known by the viewer, and the contentious nature of technological progress is only minimally addressed, a serious rhetorical flaw. Wall-E gives a more vivid and thought-provoking picture of the future than this NOVA scienceNOW program, which only predicts that humanoid robots will be better at soccer than the 2050 World Cup champions.

2

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image