Thursday, May 15, 2008

The man in the machine

Rex Jameson bikes and swims regularly, and plays tennis and skis when time allows. But the 5-foot-11, 180-pound software engineer is lucky if he presses 200 pounds — that is, until he steps into an "exoskeleton" of aluminum and electronics that multiplies his strength and endurance as many as 20 times. ...

Jameson — who works for robotics firm Sarcos Inc. in Salt Lake City, which is under contract with the U.S. Army — is helping assess the 150-pound suit's viability for the soldiers of tomorrow. The suit works by sensing every movement the wearer makes and almost instantly amplifying it.

We learn from the Associated Press article that the exoskeleton faces many problems whose solutions may not be found for decades. There is, of course the problem of batteries. "Jameson was tethered to power cords during his demonstration because the current battery lasts just 30 minutes."

And then again the Army might simply wire up the fast microprocessors and sensors which are the interface of the exoskeleton to control semi-autonomous remote robots run by internal combustion or say -- hey, why not? -- nuclear energy. Jameson describes what it's like to live in someone else's body.

"It feels less agile than it is," Jameson said. "Because of the way the control laws work, it's ever so slightly slower than I am. And because we are so in tune with our bodies' responses, this tiny delay initially made me tense."

Now, he's used to it.

"I can regain my balance naturally after stumbling — something I discovered completely by accident."

Learning was easy, he said.

"It takes no special training, beyond learning to relax and trust the robot," he said.

But maybe it's never the robot. It's always the man. The brain behind the hand, and the hand behind the claw. And if so, what lies behind the brain, what value systems inform it, may be the most crucial thing of all.

Perhaps one of the most pernicious legacies of Marxism was the axiom that all consciousness was driven by material circumstances; that a man's job defined his beliefs. If the determinant of a worker's or bourgeois consciousness depended on current employment then changing employment would alter the man. That made things drastically simple, so that the Year Zero and the New Soviet Man both became achievable social engineering goals.

This reductionist view of humanity meant that beliefs were unimportant. It relegated them to the category of byproduct. Those who were addicted to chatter could entertain themselves with post-modernism or "faith traditions" which were more or less harmless hobbies so long as the Bratsk Station and the Magnetogorsk industrial complexes were built. Today social engineers have updated versions of Magnetogorsk but the relationship between social projects and consciousness is still the same: the former determining the latter.

But if the early 21st century is any guide, these Marxist axioms have proven not only wrong, but inverted. Ideas, values and culture, far from being the passive byproducts of matter are the principle shapers of our material environment. And even though we are ordered by multiculturalists to regard belief as irrelevant, it isn't. Social engineers may redouble their efforts to mold consciousness with public programs; but they pass the thing in itself by. And that's ironic, because the mind and the human spirit are the fundamental creative force in the world. The problem with designing a viable exoskeletons is the power source. And there is more than one kind. And that is the man in the machine.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger eggplant said...

On the subject of exoskeletons: A couple days ago I saw "Ironman" with my son. A very cool movie! Some of the politics was a bit repellant but overall I give it the Eggplant Seal of Approval.

I should mention that I had to turn the engineering part of my brain off while watching this flick (almost always need to do this with science fiction flicks).

I kept asking myself:

"Where is he storing the propellant that enables him to go whizzing around at Mach-8?"

5/15/2008 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

"Truth," "Justice," and People for the American Way.

5/15/2008 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger luagha said...

Read your comics, silly. :)
He has 'repulsors' that are fed from the 'power generator' in his chest. He doesn't need to spray any propellant.

They just push.

5/15/2008 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm going to drive up to Pennsylvania and see Iron man with my brother on Monday. Last night I sang tenor with the VA National Medical Chorale & Symphany Orchestra at Catholic University's Basilica.
An impressive inner sanctuary. The images on the ceilings in the sanctuary are awesome. But the main chapel was built before architects began to think about how sound moved around inside buildings. We had to sing forte all the time or our voices would just be swallowed.

There are no big broad screens to project moving images and words that are the hallmark of modern churches.

We sang a mix of national & service anthems, popular & spiritual tunes, to an audience of military & diplomats. It was a free concert in memory veterans. Its good to sing. But this not a concert I would have gone to as a spectator.

5/15/2008 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger eggplant said...

Luagha said:

"He has 'repulsors' that are fed from the 'power generator' in his chest. He doesn't need to spray any propellant."

Maybe in the comic book version but in the movie he had flames coming out of his feet. Also, he didn't have any inlets so his propulsion wasn't air breathing.

Yes, I know, analysing the physics of a comic book character is stupid. Again, turn off the higher order functions of your brain and you'll love "Ironman".

5/15/2008 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

Trying to address your full post...

So one thing we conclude, at least since Marxism has been so totally discredited, is that we don't really know for sure why some societies work and others don't. The US, being one of the functional societies, is appropriate for emulation. But beyond that, we need to recognize that this modern mania for "change" is perhaps unwarranted and definitely incautious. Just what are people talking about when they call for change? I'm suspicious that it's just an opening for the old Marxist ideas to re-penetrate.

What is it that makes us work so well? I have my ideas. The drive to build working exoskeletons and the confident swagger of the film industry are part of it, or maybe just a symptom of it. Flexibility. Curiousity. Willingness to push the envelope in many ways. Our values, or maybe our mix of values, represent the secret recipe. I don't think it has much to do with resources, or native talent, or theft from minority groups. Countries who get on the right track blossom very quickly. And some countries who have everything fail to thrive. It's the system of values, protocols, cultural norms that matters.

The system of values may be more fragile than we think. Really, who knows? And it behooves us to inspect new value movements very carefully before embracing them. The economic determinism of values cannot begin to explain the diversity of the US. Most of us are fairly sure that certain shared values are good, and we're just as sure that others are bad. Free speech is a plus. Theocratic violence and rigidity are not. It's a big question. How much theocratic nastiness (e.g. Islamic extremism) can we afford to tolerate in our midsts before the key value system begins to weaken? How much cultural dilution by means of illegal immigration is too much?

If it's always the man behind the mechanism, or behind the institution, that matters, are we talking about the "great man" theory of history? The man is rather a representative of the value system. Even Napoleon was the logical extension of the French Revolution.

This is pretty deep philosophizing for starting with a man dressed in an Erector Set, Wretchard. Can you tell us what rogue synapses set you off?

5/15/2008 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Such a development has been foretold in Science Fiction for some decades now.

But what struck me this time is that there appears to be no difference between what tasks a man could do in such a super-suit and what a woman could do.

While in the book “Starship Troopers” both men and women fought side by side in super suits, just think about what this development means in practical terms today. For the foreseeable future there will only be a limited number of the super suits. And since a woman presumably can use one as well as a man, and given the typical “Delta capability” between a woman and a man, why would a commander NOT assign women to operate them, if he had both in his unit? After all, there would be more “force multiplying” that way. So, the women would get the biggest, toughest, most muscle-intense jobs. And then will that in turn influence how those jobs are done or even if they are done?

And, of course, the suit would have to come in pink.

Eggplant: Shaddup! You are ruining one of my favorite movies, “The Rocketeer”

5/15/2008 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

This is pretty deep philosophizing for starting with a man dressed in an Erector Set, Wretchard. Can you tell us what rogue synapses set you off?

It was a post-facto memory by J. Robert Oppenheimer of an epiphany he supposedly had when the A-bomb went off. "I am Shiva, the destroyer of worlds."

And this process has been going on for some time now. Every decade brings a new increase our technical capacity. A-bombs. Lasers. Missiles. Computers. Robots. Exoskeletons. And every corresponding decade we are told that need for valid reasons with which to use our godlike powers is less and less important. Today we don't need reasons. A fad will do. "If it feels good, do it." Let's invade Burma because it's cool. We are the people we've been waiting for.

What happens when you put "the people we've been waiting for" in an Ironman suit? What happens when you put the Daily Kos in charge of policy? Does the man in the machine matter? Or does the machine?

5/15/2008 02:39:00 PM  
Blogger nowonk said...

Wretchard said:

"And every corresponding decade we are told that need for valid reasons with which to use our godlike powers is less and less important."

misguided... many of us, with consciences, have been deterred by self-introspection brought on by this possibility; contrastingly, how many sociopaths have succeeded through no hesitation in doing rotten things...
how much will the digital age affect the learning of right from wrong, when time wasted on a value system is time taken away from moving ahead; in a queer kind of way, how will technology reduce us to supercomputers merely guiding the ship?
when no one will take the time to contemplate the repercussions of impetuous action (lizard brain is prized); but rather, any voicing of necessary constraint is lambasted as judgemental self righteousness - it's easy to be misled that self control is a recessive gene that is no longer apropos; or, perhaps a relic of a time when religion and guilt where necessary as a means to placate the masses...
perhaps, if mankind emerged from the primordial cesspool, the only true measure of one's worth is what one can achieve during his lifetime; the tangible conquests and possessions achieve during a lifetime of frantic grabbing...

but, is this any way to spend your life? does it lead to contentment? is this type of behavior anti-God? does God exist?

as dostoevsky said: "without god everything would be permissible"

nothing is misguided if nothing is wrong...

5/15/2008 04:22:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

I haven't seen the movie yet, but the science beyond Iron Man is not necessarily that bad.

Why Iron Man rather than Steel Guy? Isn't steel stronger than iron? It turns out that if you developed a method for mass producing perfect crystal iron, it would be 4000 times as strong as regular iron.

Where does he get his power? Obviously, he can't carry enough fuel, and he's not even carrying a critical mass of uranium. The answer is beamed power. What you don't see in the movie is the series of solar power satellites orbiting the Earth, beaming power in the form of microwaves.

Repulser rays? Okay, we don't have those yet, but at one time you could "prove" heat rays were impossible because the gun would heat up more than the target. Then somebody invented the laser.

5/15/2008 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

What happens when "the people we've been waiting for" get into a position of power?

A decade or so ago a famous liberal Washington Post columnist awoke one night to find some of the local young people engaging in one of their local traditions. They were taking an uninvited dip in his backyard jacuzzi.

So, this anti-gun liberal picked up a handgun and shot one of them.

Now, the pistol was not his; it belonged to his son, a Secret Service agent, and had been left in his house. But that is what you get when such people come to power.

5/15/2008 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

This thing sounds like an uber-cool alternative to a forklift.

--this rogue synapse brought to you by the forklift that went whipping past as I was reading the post

5/16/2008 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

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5/17/2008 04:32:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

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5/17/2008 04:44:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

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5/17/2008 04:49:00 AM  
Blogger jkftl said...

In 1970 I was connected with GE's exoskeleton project for the military, dubbed HardiMan. The fantastically-complex electrohydraulic machine was completed but never completely debugged. It had scores of movements, all at ten times the operator's input force but with perfect sense of touch (force-feedback).

I actually had my arm in the left arm of the machine, mounted on a test fixture and powered-up. I picked up a pencil easily, but pinched it in half with slight effort.

There was NO computer control; completely analog. Everything was on-chassis, except for the external hydraulic pack and DC power supply.

HardiMan was the pinnacle of electrohydraulics, a technology still used today. The Shuttle's manipulator arm is directly evolved from GE's force-feedback lab.

1970s technology was such fun!

5/20/2008 01:35:00 PM  

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