The Face Of The Future: Matrix Machines [MT123]

David Noel
Ben Franklin Centre for Theoretical Research
PO Box 27, Subiaco, WA 6008, Australia.

The best way to predict the Future is to invent it
-- Dennis Gabor

Tomorrow is Almost Here

This is not a suite of articles about predictions. Nevertheless, there are three particular developments looming which I believe will have marked effects on human society in the years to come, and which are particularly appropriate for examination here. They are all what might be regarded as technological developments, but they are ones which work with the basic stuff of MT, they can be looked on as infocap/synenergy processors. I will call them Matrix Machines.

One such machine is already familiar to most of us -- the computer. Modern computers are essentially information processors, they already have a myriad of uses, only some of which involve the sort of arithmetic operations which gave the machines their name. Computers have already been mentioned frequently in this suite of articles, they are already a part of our world.

The three machines we will be looking at are not a flight of fancy, they are all already here. But at present they are at only the very earliest stages of their development, although some have a considerable history in fiction. We will look at each in turn, seeing what they can do now and extrapolating their potentials into what they may do in the future.

Matrix Machine 1 -- The Detailer

Scenario 1.
It was time for harvest, but the great harvesting machines remained parked silent and rusting in their sheds. Instead, out onto the fields moved a huge swarm of detailers, intent on their task like a colony of soldier ants moving through the jungle.

The detailers were of varying shapes and sizes, each being fitted out with the handlers and movers appropriate for their roles in the day's activities. Some had legs, others wheels. But all were small, all weighed less than 5 kilograms. All had their own tiny 'brains', but all were linked together electronically as part of a greater composite machine, the Harvester.

At least, 'The Harvester' was what the composite machine called itself that day. Earlier in the season, using different programs, it had called itself 'The Ground Preparer', 'The Seed Setter', and 'The Pest Remover' at different times.

"Clever little critturs", mused Farmer Jones, looking up from his screengate into the State Agricultural Development Network. "It wasn't so long ago I would have had to have been out in the fields myself all day, driving that tractor. Now the detailers do the job, handling each grain individually, rejecting the bad ones. And they slip through the plants so light and quiet, leaving everything just right for the next job".

So the detailers are robots -- but robots with a difference. Less than substitute human beings, more than programmed machines, the detailers are closer to the components of a termite colony, the parts of a greater whole.

They may appear anywhere. In Ray Bradbury's story And There Shall Come Soft Rains, the detailers are house-cleaning robots, scurrying round, cleaning, polishing, picking up particles of rubbish. No matter that the humans are long gone.

The essence of detailers is that they are many and small, working together as a composite, and able to handle objects individually rather than in bulk. I suspect that they will give a whole new feel to the objects they are applied to. Set to paint a house, for example, the result may be too bland, too perfect, for current human tastes. There could be a move to program some degree of randomness or purposeful imperfection in their work.

Detailers may also alter matters to an extent representing a difference in kind, rather than degree. They may, for example, be able to keep a house completely free of all sorts of bugs. Most would see this as a desirable thing, and it may be, but there could be a down side. Some bugs may be beneficial in an unrealized way, and the problems of children raised in a sterile environment, when they need to enter the wider world, are well known.

Matrix Machine 2 -- The Waldo

Scenario 2.
It was panic time at the Antarctic base. Johnson's accident had been a particularly gruesome one. Dr Mills, the Station's resident physician, had left for the Outstation on an emergency two days earlier, and was now cut off by a blizzard.

Johnson might live -- just. But unless a skilled microsurgical team was available, to sew back on his hands and feet, he would be a hopeless cripple. And there was the dread possibility that his head injury might involve a blood clot in his brain.

The Communications Team swung into action, and almost half a world away, Sir Joshua Wills Sweet, the prominent microsurgeon, was aroused from his slumbers in London. Dr Wilson Chang in Los Angeles and Dr Manuel Garcia Ramis in Ecuador were still awake when called, watching television. And Betty Theodopoulos in Australia and Blanche Kingi in New Zealand were already on duty at their local hospitals.

Each of the medical team climbed into their suits, ready for another gruelling day. Out from the sterile cubicles around the sides of the Antarctic base operating theatre they came, each in their assigned waldo. Quickly the team swung into action, cutting, sewing, and even gluing poor Johnson back together.

Hours into the work, and overcome with fatigue, Wilson Chang signed out and was replaced in situ, or rather in suit, by Joshua M'Tombe in Pretoria. Things were going well, but the blood clot problem was beginning to look serious. Time to call on Olga Vernadskaya in Minsk.

Deftly M'Tombe took out Olga's assigned microwaldo, and injected her into a vein. With her experience and competence, and using the simulated route display in her suit, she was able to reach the blood clot site in Johnson's brain in under a minute. Unhooking the slicer on her suit, she carved up the clot and put the pieces into the sack on her back. A few minutes later she was back at the temporary exit valve on Johnson's arm.

The idea of a remote handling device, actuated by a human connected via telecommunications, goes back at least to 1940, when the American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein published Waldo -- Genius in Orbit.

This story was about about a brilliant character, Waldo, who suffered from a musclewasting disorder which left him with very little strength in his limbs. However, Waldo was a genius, and used this genius to overcome his disability. First he applied his talents to the stock market and the commercial world, and built up massive financial resources.

The story was set at a time when space travel was commonplace, and Waldo was able to use some of his money to set himself up in a space home, a living environment in orbit around the Earth. Under the weightless conditions in orbit, he could now move around freely in spite of his weak muscles.

Of course Waldo was in constant touch with Earth through telecommunications, but he was physically isolated, and needed to be able to handle physical things remotely -- perhaps sign a document, or control a delicate operation in the assembly of one of his inventions. So he devised a pair of gloves, equipped with pressure sensors which could transmit the movements of his fingers to another similar pair of gloves elsewhere, and reproduce the responses back from those gloves to his own fingers. With a suitable television link, it was as if he could see, feel and manipulate an object thousands of kilometres away.

Beginning in the 1950s, these Waldo Gloves, or waldos as they came to be known, started to be constructed in real life. Their first application was in the handling of radioactive materials, and the early models were fairly primitive, mechanically linked rather than electronically, and operated in line of sight.

With improvements in electronics, devices much closer to Heinlein's original concept can be built. A term which is sometimes used for this sort of remote operation by humans is Telepresence. Let us look at just a few possible examples of its use.

Don't Go Down the Mine, Daddy

In MT116 we saw how emphasis on individual health and safety formed a basic part of the rules for running systons. Use of waldos in dangerous occupations like underground mining could completely transform current practices.

Three kilometres deep in the South African gold mines, conditions are both dangerous and extremely unpleasant. Temperatures rise progressively as you go down into the Earth, and cooling the air low enough for humans to work at these depths is an expensive problem. The tremendous rock pressures make gallery collapses an ever-present danger.

If waldos are used instead of in-position people, everything changes. No need to cool the air and test it for breathability, just engineer the remote handlers to cope with whatever is there. If human lives are no longer at stake, safety problems vanish, and loss of equipment through accidents becomes merely a factor in costing, or a pointer to improving ruggedness.

And for the human waldo operators, life becomes far more pleasant. No more long descents into the pit, no need for tightly-scheduled shift changes to keep things running, instead just switch out Bill and switch in Jill. And Bill and Jill don't even have to be at the minesite, after his stint Bill just walks out of his lakeside cabin and gets on with his fishing.

Move Over, Gulliver

So waldos could do jobs too dangerous for humans on the spot. With scaled waldos, made much bigger or smaller than humans, things can be done which are impossible for humans because of their size. A tiny mining waldo, for example, could follow an individual vein of gold along without the need to excavate a human-sized tunnel. And a giant road-making waldo could cut out a new freeway 'manually', using a giant version of a domestic shovel.

There are practical and theoretical limitations to waldo scaling. Overcoming practical limitations is just a matter of engineering development. For example, in making very tiny waldos, there is a practical limit to the accuracy with which an engineer can work. But if a one-tenth scale waldo can be made, that waldo can be used to build another at one-tenth the size again, and so on.

Then there are the theoretical limits. In scaling, underlying units like the size of the wavelength of light are not scaled, and impose a limit on the fineness of detail ('the resolution') with which an object can be scanned. Nevertheless, scaling down to one-thousandth -- a microwaldo 2 millimetres high -- should be theoretically possible.

With scaling up, the limitations are in strengths of materials. Doubling the height of a machine, while keeping all its proportions constant, increases the cross-sectional areas of its components by four times, and its mass or weight by eight times. That is why all large land creatures, like elephants, have relatively thick legs, they have to be thicker to take the weight. It may be that such limitations would keep upward scaling of waldos to less than a factor of a hundred. Even so, seeing a 'man' 200 metres high treading the landscape would still be pretty impressive.

Riding a Bicycle on the Moon

Another theoretical limitation to the use of waldos comes in when the distance at which they are operated becomes large. The limitation is in the speed of light, or more strictly the speed of electromagnetic waves, including radio.

Moving at around 300,000 km/second, light could travel round the equator seven times in a second, so for remote waldos on Earth, the limitation is not serious. If the signals travel via geosynchronous satellites, about 40,000 km out, the delay is perceptible but not serious; you can notice it with some long-distance phone calls.

When you move out as far as the Moon, about 400,000 km away, that is about the practical limit for 'real-time' waldo operation. Signals take over a second to go from the Earth to the Moon, and the same to come back. It would be possible to dig out minerals with a Moon-based waldo, with the operator on Earth, but he would find the controls very 'sluggish'. Could you ride a bicycle, via a waldo, on the Moon? The balancing problems would be serious -- a tricycle would be easier.

Of course there is a vast opportunity in this area, that of Waldo Tourism. Waldo tourists would be able to swim without danger, deep in the sea, going on as long as they wished. They could excavate sunken ships, pick up the best crayfish, climb the highest mountains. From the MT viewpoint, tourism is one of the most important human activities, involving as it does such a concentrated synenergy flow.

But the Moon is likely to be the limit for the Waldo Tourist. The nearest planets are several light-minutes away. To travel around these, we would need to fall back upon a mechanism which is acceptable, but would still seem rather second-class.

Making Love to Marilyn

Any information which can be transmitted can be recorded. Anything experienced remotely by the operator of a waldo suit could be recorded and played back to them or someone else at another time.

The most obvious use of such a facility is for entertainment or pleasure. In principle, it would be possible to hire a waldo tape of someone walking on the surface of Mars, or making the winning Olympic bobsleigh run, just as people now hire video tapes.

In later development of MT ideas, it would be possible to look more closely at the major role of entertainment in the human-based Matrix. There is no doubt of the reality of this role, and for this reason recorded waldo entertainment 'tapes' are likely to be at the forefront of commercial development of this field. But there are huge vistas of other human activities where waldo tapes could be used, and it is in these where the ultimate impact of the new technology could be greatest.

Matrix Machine 3 -- Virtual Reality

Scenario 3.
Jason Wilsbury sighed. He generally enjoyed his time at Art School, and particularly the Wood Sculpture course he was presently spending most time on, but it was taking him some time to come to grips with the material he was using.

Resignedly he put back on his helmet and gloves, picked up the chisel and went back to work on the huge block of expensive Titapi Rosewood. He laboured on, and late in the morning, when the others were beginning to drift off to lunch, he felt the tingle in his hands which meant he was coming to terms with the wood.

With growing excitement he cut and sawed, feeling the figure come alive in his hands. It was growing full of character, exaggerated and something of a caricature perhaps, but the figure was emerging with a breathtaking power to draw and hold the attention of a passer-by.

And then the inevitable happened. Working at a tricky angle near the neck, he overdid the force behind his hammer blow and the whole thing split in half. The wood was ruined.

Sighing once more, Jason called over his class supervisor. Mr Hansen plugged in his helmet, studied the ruined block of wood for a couple of minutes, then used his override key to wind the block back to where it was before the fatal blow.

"If you had put a rest on the shoulder, and used a power cutter from this sort of angle, it wouldn't have happened, Jason", said Mr Hansen. "You have a go like that now. It was a good job you weren't using real wood, eh, at two thousand dollars a block!".

Jason began to feel good. He knew that the log of his actions recorded by the simulator would be able to cut out a solid good enough to take him easily through the term's exams. And next year, or the year after, his skills would be developed enough for him to work live, on a real block of wood, drawing out the inner figure with an empathy which would never be possessed by a machine.

Virtual reality is already here. Wearing a helmet and pressure-sensitive gloves, you can today enter a world in which your vision and touch response are synthesized and delivered by computer. And you can interact with other real people.

In a recent television program [Reference 5], the presenter showed the stage of commercial development reached by a virtual reality entertainment system. Wearing a helmet, she could see a small helicopter flying around the virtual world set up the system, and if she reached up, she could touch and feel the helicopter with her pressure-sensor gloves.

Taking off the helmet, she was visually back in the studio and could no longer see the virtual helicopter, but she could still reach up and feel it, in mid-air. "An uncanny feeling", she said.

This is an area about to enter a rush of development. It is likely that the huge infocap flows which can be generated by successful new entertainment systems will take this technique through a quantum leap. At first, cruder games will predominate -- fighting opponents with simulated laser guns, for example. Then will come more sophisticated games, such as tennis practice, with a real or a simulated opponent (do you really want to play Simu/John McEnroe, complete with swearing?), then more and more complex applications in amusement, education and training.

Later possible developments form a rich area of speculation and development. An incidental comment to add perspective -- from the MT viewpoint, all types of entertainment, training, education, and perhaps even work, are the same sort of infocap/synenergy entities. The distinctions between them are purely arbitrary.

So those are the three major Matrix Machines. Detailers, small automated devices linked as a composite; Waldos, with which a human can react remotely with a real environment; and Virtual Reality, where a human or humans can interact within simulated environments, including ones with simulated humans.

We can move on now (MT124) to look at another topic -- the 'psychology' of systons.

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(Full list of references at MTRefs)

[5]. Beyond 2000. TV program, Channel 7 Perth, February 5, 1992.

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