Another day, another set of expansive keynotes.
John McCarthy, father of LISP, a giant in artificial intelligence, gave a sit-down high-level talk about Elephant 2000, a proposed programming language intended for transaction processing and electronic data interchange. He described Elephant in terms of its ability to capture “speech acts,” which I’ll define roughly as words that lead to actions. (One of McCarthy’s examples: “I now pronounce you man and wife.”) McCarthy said these words “create obligations.” They’re promises, questions, requests, etc. As anyone who has read the code to programs I’ve written (many of which include the words “hello” and “world” in the title) will know that I’m no expert. If anyone in the ETech audience can do an ace job of explaining the most provocative line in McCarthy’s talk, “ascribing beliefs to thermostats is like adding 0 and 1 to the number system,” I’ll send you a free O’Reilly book of my choice.
Steve Cousins of Willow Garage proposed an open source platform for personal robots. Those personal robots would perform useful activities, and he showed some very enjoyable film clips of humanoid robots performing basic tasks such as picking up a living room. And Willow Garage is balancing its philosophical and business imperatives:The company is privately funded and “focused on impact before the return of capital…The goal is to produce 10 robots and make them available to researchers so we can all be on a common platform.”
Kathy Sierra, who ran an inspiring storyboarding tutorial on Monday, told us how to kick ass. Her talk was not merely a paean to mastery, but also a brisk walk through recent neuroscience to “show that the difference between world-class and average is not about natural talent.” The research, she said, reveals “that most common thread separating world-class and average is the ability to put in the time, to focus, concentrate, and practice.” Expertise, she noted, is not so much about what you know, but what you do. She showed how mirror neurons let us run similations of another persons bran inside our brain — but she emphasized that the quality of simulation depends on experience. There’s still only one way to get to Carnegie Hall.
Finally, Peter Semmelhack, CEO and founder of Bug Labs, talked about community electronics, a term intended to turn the tradition term “consumer electronics” on its head. He posited a long tail of gadgets. Today, there are relatively few devices, marketed to millions. In the future, he’s hoping for millions of devices targeted for the few. To develop these niche devices and custom gadgets, Bug is building a hardware innovation platform that goes from idea through functional spec, all the way to manufacturing. It’s not the only way, Semmelhack noted, but it’s the way Bug is trying to make it happen.
And now to the breakout sessions: Why are there always two I want to go to scheduled at the same time?