This final entry in the series on interesting moments in science and technology features reflections from Paul Showler, Gerrit Scheepers, and Christy Tidwell on a wide range of topics: emotion detection technology, a method to provide easier access to clean water, and a scheme to farm hippos in the US. (For more thoughts on interesting science and technology from STS faculty, see previous posts on technologies of communication and technologies of destruction.)
In this second entry in our series asking STS faculty to reflect on moments in science and technology that they find particularly interesting or meaningful (read the first entry here), Lilias Jones Jarding, Joshua Houy, and Frank Van Nuys address technologies of destruction and violence. Some – like nuclear weapons – are directed at humans; others – like coyote-getters – at nonhumans. All, however, have their limits.
This is the beginning of a short series in which several STS faculty share elements of science and technology that they find intriguing or meaningful. This opening post features reflections from Evan Thomas, Erica Haugtvedt, and Olivia Burgess on communication technologies. Their choices highlight both the ways we connect with each other and the role that technology plays in that connection.
By John Dreyer
When I was in my early teens I bought Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise. This book was just a technical manual for Star Trek and, as a young fan, I was pretty happy. One aspect the authors addressed was eating on board a future starship using a replicator. Essentially a 3D food printer, the replicator could make anything you desired. The author even included a menu of choice dishes. This book is only one place where food in science fiction is addressed. From the cornbread in Aliens to the generic-looking dinner in 2001: A Space Odyssey that David Bowmen grabs while it’s still too hot, food has had a place in storytelling.
But what about real space exploration? Do astronauts get Yankee Pot Roast? Space food has had a long developmental arc, often supplemented by industry, that seeks to put nutritious and tasty food at the fingertips of astronauts and, later, consumers.
The first food in space was carried by Yuri Gagarin. His meal was two tubes of pureed meat and a tube of chocolate sauce. For the designers of the meal, there was a question if he could actually eat and digest in zero gravity. In his first American orbital flight, John Glenn consumed a tube of applesauce, which he claimed to have enjoyed. Tube foods are not exactly appetizing, and nutrition in space was still in its infancy. There were also questions of taste and texture. As NASA began to work towards Apollo and the moon landing, it was realized that better food was necessary.
By Christy Tidwell
On Valentine’s Day, talk of love and romance is everywhere. Some people celebrate it and some avoid it. Still others would like to celebrate but are separated from their loved ones. Long-distance relationships are hard, after all, so what if technology could help diminish that distance? Sure, we have phone calls, FaceTime, even emails or letters (if you’re particularly old-fashioned). But these methods of connection don’t include touch.
Lovotics, a multidisciplinary research project proposed by Dr. Hooman Samani of the University of Plymouth (UK), proposes to change this. It includes several applications:
- Kissenger, a pair of robots designed to transfer a kiss over distance. Here, “the system takes the form of an artificial mouth that provides the convincing properties of the real kiss.”
- Mini-Surrogate, a project to use miniature robots “as small cute, believable and acceptable surrogates of humans for telecommunication.” They are meant to “foster the illusion of presence.”
- XOXO, a system that builds on Kissenger but also includes a “wearable hug reproducing jacket.”
It sounds like a potentially nice idea to help with long-distance relationships. When I raised this with students in my Humanities & Technology class last semester, however, they found it more disturbing than promising. Check out the video for the Kissenger for more detail.
For me, these ideas come with more questions than answers. How important is physical proximity for a meaningful relationship? What elements of touch are most important? Can those elements be replicated by something other-than-human? Even – what new relationships between human and nonhuman might be possible in the future?
I don’t have answers to these questions; in fact, I don’t think there is one right answer to them. But we should probably be asking them before we start creating technological solutions to problems that we don’t fully understand. Will having kissing robots lead to serious harm? Probably not. Will they help? We won’t know unless we ask questions about human emotions and psychology, bringing humanities and social sciences knowledge to bear on technological possibility.
By Evan Thomas
I often teach a general education Humanities course (HUM 200, officially titled Connections: Humanities and Technology) on the topic of “Automatic Art.” As a Humanities class, we study representative elements from the entire range of arts and letters:
- we study the Hockney-Falco hypothesis that primitive optical cameras were used in the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age;
- we study dark fantasies about computerized composition in Gulliver’s Travels;
- we study attempts to express pure mathematics in music from Bach to Conlon Nancarrow to black MIDI;
- we study the productivity-based philosophy Taylorism alongside the utopian Constructivist designers who embraced it.
Those are representative examples of the coursework – but what is “Automatic Art”? The term doesn’t actually have much reality outside of my course. (Frustrated students will often turn to the surrealist technique of Automatic Writing, which does exist, but has little bearing on the collection of objects we study.) I like to tell students that “automatic art” is equivalent to “taking the human out of art,” but what does that actually mean?
By Christy Tidwell
Today marks the end of the first week back to class for South Dakota Mines, and the STS faculty are hard at work in their classes and enjoying meeting students! We are teaching classes on Environmental Ethics & STEM (HUM 250 with me), Computers in Society (HUM 375 with Dr. Erica Haugtvedt), E-sports (HUM 376 with Dr. John Dreyer), History and Philosophy of Science (PHIL 335 with Dr. Michael Hudgens), Terror & Horror (ENGL 392 with Dr. Laura Kremmel), and Licit and Illicit Drugs (SOC 411 with Dr. Kayla Pritchard) – plus many others! As this list of courses indicates, STS covers a lot of ground. It needs to, given its promise to study science, technology, and society, and there are countless ways to approach the field and the topics it includes.
In addition to Environmental Ethics & STEM (mentioned above), I am also teaching Connections: Humanities & Technology (HUM 200) this semester, which is a great illustration of what the STS major is all about. Since the course description and title are pretty broad, I’ve narrowed things down to focus on the following big questions:
1. How do we communicate with each other?
2. How do we design and build the places we live?
In response to these questions we will explore communication technologies from paper and books to social media, film, and robots, and we will consider urban design issues like curb cuts and plumbing, historical and contemporary ideas about what a home looks like, and what the city of the future could look like.
By Christy Tidwell
To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?
Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:
Red flags the reason for pretty flags.
Ribbons of flags
And wearing material
Reason for wearing material.
Can you give me the regions.
The regions and the land.
The regions and wheels.
All wheels are perfect.
Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.
By Christy Tidwell and Matthew Bumbach
After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.
Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?
Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.
CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?
MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.
The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.
I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.