Holy Crap

In The India Road, the spy Pêro da Covilhã is struck by a notion, while on his mission to the East:

He had by now realized that India was split into two faiths, Islam and Hinduism, with a clear divide from north to south. Unsurprisingly, there were tensions at the interface.

Like an ocean front, or like falling in love, he reflected. Many leagues of calm, then suddenly, excitement, uproar, and revolution.

But it was those points of tension that made him come alive. And he saw the picture clearly now. It was through that gap that the Perfect Prince must drive his wedge.

Pêro, ou Pedro, as he would be called nowadays, is in love, and he knows that it has upended his whole life. It doesn’t help that his lover happens to be the wife of the Count of Guimarães, Governor of Tangier. With a few licks of his Stratocaster, Clapton puts the whole issue into perspective.

Like Pêro, I have a particular love for gradients. The variance is interesting, the mean is boring. So today I’m taking you into a world which is getting ever closer, the frontal system where men and machines meet, and then meld.

Humans think in a strictly Cartesian fashion, and we consequently suck at making, believing, and acting on disruptive predictions. One example should suffice.

On Oct. 9th, 1903, the New York Times wrote that

The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years.

That was the day that Wilbur and Orville Wright began building an airplane. It flew on Dec. 17th, 1903, barely two months later.

It is also what makes Jules Verne so remarkable in his capacity for correctly predicting the unpredictable. Since then, brilliant men like Isaac Asimov have been writing for decades about the fusion between man and machine, the sci-fi world of cyborgs and automatons. And now it’s here.

Perhaps it’s the wonderful mystery of life that has attracted humans to develop robotic images of themselves, Although the story actually starts with a duck, or more specifically with a defecating duck. Now there’s nothing unusual about a duck having a dump. A little smelly perhaps, but not earth-shaking. Duck dung can be used productively, as it is for instance in Southeast Asia to grow a supplementary crop of shrimp. Hold that thought when you next nibble at a prawn cocktail.

Combination crops such as rice and tilapia are part of the agri-aqua system in SE Asia, based on a philosophy of re-use. At a meeting in Beijing four years ago, a Chinese professor told me about his experiments growing scallop and sea cucumber together. I knew sea cucumber was the most expensive seafood product in China, closely followed by abalone.

The penile-shaped holothurian is regarded as an aphrodisiac. For a nation where mention of sex is taboo, and even public kissing is severely frowned upon, the Chinese do seem particularly concerned with sexual performance. When I asked the professor what the sea cucumber ate, his deadpan reply was: scallop feces.

A blueprint for Vaucanson's crapping quacker, as envisioned by a XIXth century inventor.

The duck in question was invented by a French fellow called Jacques Vaucanson, in the XVIIIth century. He described the bird as being able to… stretch and take corn out of a man’s hand, swallow, digest, and discharge the remains through ‘the usual passage.’ I find the arrows in the figure above particularly helpful, lest there be any doubt in your mind about the direction of flow.

Of the various abilities of the automaton, is was the capacity to digest food, and subsequently do Number Two, that made the duck’s name.

The dog and pony act (which featured two other more prosaic robots, a piper and a flautist) was a huge success, featuring in exhibitions in Paris and elsewhere, on display to a fascinated audience prepared to pay a handsome admission fee. M. Vaucanson did very well out of his mechanical fowl. Foul play was discovered only decades later―the duck did not digest, it was in fact permanently constipated. The quacker stored the corn in a hidden compartment, and a timer mechanism triggered the delivery of the subsequent ‘present’ from the cloaca.

My high school avian biology being now somewhat rusty, I performed a quick check on that ‘c’ word. I vaguely recalled that the cloaca was a one-size-fits-all operation, used for urine, feces, and sperm. In my high school days I used to illegally frequent a pub in Stratford-upon-Avon called The Dirty Duck, which with hindsight seems aptly named. What they didn’t teach me at school is that bird sex goes by the romantic name of a cloacal kiss. Pretty crappy stuff, if you ask me!

But duck sex is far more interesting (perhaps in the TMI sense of the word, but that’s why you come here). This wonderful site, where the movies are not for the faint-hearted, tells all. I’ve edited and abridged, but not much. It’s just far too good.

Male ducks are among the few birds with a penis. And this is no ordinary phallus. Most of the time it is retracted, inside out, into his cloaca. When erect, a duck penis is shaped like a corkscrew, spiraling up to 20 centimeters in length. Yet before copulation, the male will not have the benefit of an erection. Instead, he will seize upon a female for sex and, in what biologists call eversion, extend his penis – in a counter-clockwise route – into her reproductive tract. The extension happens fast, less than a half second in some ducks. It is a feat biologists at Yale University describe in some wild research as ‘explosive eversion.’

Female ducks, in order to ward off forced copulations from undesirable males, have evolved a response to this screwy sex. Their reproductive tracts are convoluted, spiraling in the opposite direction of the male’s penis and outfitted with various cul-de-sacs. When the female is receptive to a particular male, the contours of her tract present no barrier to fertilization; her posture, with her body prone and her tail lifted high, exposes her cloaca and allows for ready fertilization. But when confronted with a forced copulation, a female duck may assume no such receptive posture. Her countervailing reproductive tract has evolved to prevent unwanted fertilization, a literal and genetic dead end to the male’s aggressive behavior.

But how can a biologist test this theory of twisted duck sex? Yale researchers employed duck sex toys. They encouraged males to perform explosive eversion into bong-like glass tubes twisted into different shapes.

By now you’re wondering if we’re ever going to get out of duck bodily functions today, but come on! duck sex toys? It was worth it. And if anyone has a good screw in the animal kingdom, it’s the quacker, not us. But that cul-de-sac thing? I thought the human female was devious, but ladies, the duckette takes the cake.

Maybe it’s because robotics is now deeply involved in warfare that we hear so little about it. Gone are the days of dust robots, vacuuming your house and replacing Filipino maids. The game changers are companies like IRobot, created in 1990 by three MIT scientists. They produced PackBot, a robot used in Iraq to disassemble improvised explosive devices, or IED. In some ways, robots and drones are the Western equivalent of suicide bombers, willingly sacrificed on the (paradoxical) front lines of assymetric wars.

In the 1991 Gulf War, the US airforce flew one unmanned autonomous vehicle. One UAV, one drone. There was plenty of smart stuff in that war, but it was more on the missile side. The first time the world heard about smart bombs. The link to the global positioning system, which you use every day in your car GPS, or even to find your way in an unfamiliar town using your smartphone, came in the mid-nineties. After that, the relationship between man, airplane, and bomb, would never again be the same.

By the year 2010, the Pentagon’s budget mandated that one third of all aircraft deployed behind enemy lines would be unmanned. A Predator drone is not cheap, it’ll set you back around five million dollars. But that’s slightly over one percent of the cost of an F-22, the US airforce’s latest fighter jet. And the Predator’s sensors can read a license plate from two miles up. Through clouds or smoke. And then launch a Hellfire missile at it.

Over 2005-2006, Predators flew over two thousand missions in Iraq, and carried out over two hundred raids. From one UAV in 1991, the fleet grew to less than ten before nine-eleven, then to one hundred eighty in 2007. There are plans for one hundred fifty more over the current years.

Senator Warner was the driving force behind the requirement that by 2015 one third of US ground combat vehicles should be unmanned. In the future, when the United States wants to fight wars, it will throw money at the enemy, not people.

In parallel, real cyborgs are appearing. In his fascinating book ‘Wired For War’ author P.W. Singer tells the story of a professor at the UK’s Reading University who used a chip implant in his arm to move a robotic arm. Some of these achievements are now on TV documentaries, but they always have a kind of sci-fi tint. Except the ‘fi’ bit is no longer.

In 2001, a young American became quadriplegic after a stabbing, and in despair he used computer technology to implant a chip in his brain. In three days, Matthew Nagle, paralysed from the neck down, could use the electromagnetic waves generated by thought to control a computer mouse. He’s able to do far more now.

A chip implant from BrainGate, and you can short-circuit your synapses.

The technology behind it all is called BrainGate, developed by Brown University and a company called Cyberkinetics. The team wants to allow people with spinal cord injury to be able to feed themselves by operating robotic arms through their brainwaves within the next five years. The military, on the other hand, with DARPA, the inventors of the internet, at the forefront, sees a wonderful cyborg opportunity. If you can use thought to control machinery, you have a huge advantage over the opposition, who relies on the human arm and leg as effectors. Synapses are slow.

Can you see telepathy just round the corner, or is this all a dream?

According to Singer, a buzzword in the defense industry is that ‘if it takes more than two clicks to get the information, you’re wasting your time.’ Unsurprisingly, the thought interface becomes particularly appealing, but it is still some way off the battlefield.

In the meantime, war interfaces are based around the PlayStation and Xbox, both of which were a mainstay of the adolescent experience of the young men and women that currently join the US armed forces.

And there you were worrying your kids spend too much time playing video games.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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One Response to “Holy Crap”

  1. Euro Vision « The India Road Says:

    […] For reasons that I can’t quite fathom, a recent book by MIchael Lewis, which stems from a series of articles in Vanity Fair, makes a link between the scatological character of Germans and the European crisis. I’m not sure about the connection, and the author has drawn a fair bit of flak for his trouble, but there are some fecal tales mentioned that make for interesting reading. Shit does represent a strong image, one which has endured since the time of Man. Children are completely obsessed with it. And not only kids, witness the success of the defecating duck. […]

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