Tag: artificial intelligence

PITB Reviews: ‘The Peripheral’ Is A Refreshingly Original Science Fiction Thriller

Amazon’s newest big-budget prestige drama, The Peripheral, imagines a near future when technology has become even more deeply embedded in every day life.

Flynne Fisher (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a young woman who lives in North Carolina’s rural Blue Ridge Mountains, works in a 3D print shop by day and plays virtual reality games by night.

The story is set a decade from now in 2032, and while Flynne’s brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), plays startlingly realistic VR games for fun, Flynne plays them for money. Although Burton is a former United States Marine Corps infantryman and war veteran, his sister is the superior player when it comes to video games, and she’s so good that well-heeled players across the world pay her to carry them through high-difficulty levels.

If that seems fanciful, consider that it already happens in real life: some people fork over big bucks to highly skilled players who can help them win in multiplayer video games like Fortnite, or run them through the most challenging missions in online role playing games to get coveted in-game gear.

Flynne’s side hustle allows her to afford expensive medication for her sickly mother. Apparently in 2032, Democrats and Republicans are still squabbling over how to pass meaningful prescription drug reforms while remaining in the good graces of the corporate behemoths who finance their campaigns. Some things never change.

When a Colombian company called Milagros Coldiron offers Flynne a hefty chunk of change to beta test their newest game — and the incredibly immersive new headset it comes with — Flynne thinks she’s just taking a lucrative but routine job, one that will help pay for her mom’s meds for at least a few weeks.

What she doesn’t know is that her life is going to change drastically the moment she steps into the newest form of virtual reality, revealing things about her world and herself that she never imagined.

The Peripheral
Jack Reynor as Burton Fisher and Charlotte Riley as Aelita West in The Peripheral.

There’s so much more to the story, and in fact we’ve barely scratched the surface, but The Peripheral is the kind of show best appreciated by knowing as little as possible going in.

The ambitious new series is based on a 2014 novel by technoprophet William Gibson of Neuromancer fame. Gibson envisioned the concept of cyberspace in 1981, more than a decade before the first mass market commercial dial-up services were available.

At the time, the idea of exploring almost photorealistic worlds in virtual reality was a radical new idea, and it took more than 35 years for technology to catch up by making it feasible. (We’re still not quite there yet. VR tech has improved by leaps and bounds, and we’re beginning to see the first deeply immersive VR games, but Mark Zuckerberg’s much-hyped version of the metaverse, for example, has fallen flat and been pilloried by press and players alike.)

By choosing to adapt Gibson’s work, Amazon has dipped into the largely untouched world of literary science fiction.

While the science fiction of movies and TV has been treading the same worn ground and returning to the same tired concepts for decades, SF novels are a rich source of astonishingly inventive big ideas, from the existential stories of Liu Cixin (The Three Body Problem) to the galaxy-spanning space opera of the late, great Iain M. Banks, to the gothic horror-tinged, wildly imaginative universe of Revelation Space by Welsh astrophysicist Alastair Reynolds.

Indeed, Netflix is developing a series based on The Three Body Problem, with Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss taking the helm. Amazon has acquired the rights to Banks’ first Culture novel, and Netflix’s highly-praised anthology series Love, Death + Robots adapted two of Reynolds’ short stories as episodes.

Finally we’ve moved beyond the Alien clones, Star Wars sequels, prequels, spinoffs and crossovers, as well as the unfulfilling JJ Abrams mystery box offerings that have made up the bulk of live action science fiction on the big and small screens.

There are no candy-colored light swords in The Peripheral, nor are there spandex-clad superheroes or franchise installments designed with merchandise sales in mind. Instead, we get a story for adults, one that gives the audience a lot to think about while also holding a mirror up to our own world, as the best science fiction always does.

After all, technology changes but people don’t. Human nature is a constant. What we do with our shiny new toys says a lot about us as a species and civilization.

Although The Peripheral begins with the comparatively low-stakes world of virtual reality, its scope rapidly expands until, by the end of the first episode, it becomes clear the show is asking its audience to grapple with existential questions about humanity and our future.

The Peripheral demands its audience’s full attention as it introduces concepts like the parallel universes of M-theory, nanotechnology and the idea that even if matter can’t be shifted between time and space, information in the form of photons can.

Gibson uses these heady concepts in his narrative sandbox, forcing his characters to consider wild concepts like the possibility that there may be infinite versions of themselves existing in infinite branching realities.

How would you react knowing there’s a version of yourself who chose to study classical literature and move to Athens, or a version who became a software programmer, authored a lucrative app and lives in a Manhattan penthouse? Can you imagine having a different wife or husband, or a different child? (Are there realities in which I am not the loyal and loving servant of Buddy? In that case, who is feeding him snacks, and are they doing it promptly?)

Cherise Nuland
T’Nia Miller radiates malice as Cherise Nuland.

Of course, none of this stuff would matter without interesting characters and a compelling narrative. Moretz and Reynor have the chemistry of a real brother and sister in the way they regularly bicker but ultimately love each other. Eli Goree’s Connor is a man of wonderful paradoxes, and T’Nia Miller steals every scene she’s in as the delightfully malicious Cherise Nuland, an antagonist who loves making her enemies squirm while dispensing witticisms in cut glass RP.

For longtime SF fans, there’s another compelling reason to give the series a shot: Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali, best known for his mind-bending 1997 indie film Cube, is an executive producer and directs four of the season’s episodes. Natali is a pro at incorporating heady ideas in ways that enhance his narratives instead of weighing them down.

The first season just concluded, and you can stream all eight episodes on Amazon Prime. Bud and I are already looking forward to The Peripheral’s return.

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Cube writer-director Vincenzo Natali is behind the lens for half of The Peripheral’s episodes.

Is Your Cat In Pain? The Feline Grimace Scale Can Tell You

Although there’s been lots of talk claiming cats don’t have facial expressions humans can parse — or even the muscles to noticeably change expressions — that’s not actually true.

It’s more accurate to say feline facial expressions are far more subtle than their human or even canine equivalents, and it takes an expert — a veterinarian or behaviorist with specialized training — to accurately read them.

This is a brand new frontier for veterinary science, and it’s all thanks to the feline grimace scale, a system developed by researchers at the University of Montreal in 2019. Using video clips of cats in various moods and stages of pain or pain-free expression, the researchers built a system that could reliably determine how a cat is feeling. (You can read more about how they did that here.)

“I call it the Rosetta Stone for interpreting how a cat is feeling,” veterinarian Liz Bales says in a new video at dvm360. “It turns out that very subtle changes in cat’s facial expressions can tell us whether or not they’re in pain. It includes the position of the ears, the opening of the eyes, the expression on the mouth, how the cat is holding its whiskers, and how they’re holding their head.”

Each of the five elements of feline facial expression are scored on a three-point scale, then added up. The result provides an accurate assessment of how a cat feels.

“It’s amazing, and it allows us to interpret feline pain in a way we never could before,” Bales says. “The hard part is, it can be a little bit tricky to learn. It is learnable, but I specialize in this and I’m still struggling to get it right every single time.”

Despite the challenge, she says, it’s well worth learning.

“The applications of this are so far and wide, and I think as the technology grows and it becomes easier and easier to use the grimace scale, the more exciting it’s going to be.”

Thanks to an app named Tably, cat servants don’t have to know how to read the most subtle feline facial expressions anymore. By running a photo of your cat through the app’s algorithm, Tably can read your cat’s expression for you.

Tably Bud
Tably gauges cats’ moods in addition to their pain levels. We used the web app to evaluate Buddy last year. Thankfully he was happy!

Bales says she envisions a near future in which pet parents monitor their cats’ health and mood daily, and the scale becomes the standard for end-of-life care. With a “validated, consistent way to measure pain, we can look into more pain drugs for cats, what’s working, what isn’t.”

“A cat in pain looks like a resting cat to most people, but now we have this tool,” Bales says. “And I think as the tool evolves and we give cats a way to really speak for themselves through this Rosetta Stone of the grimace scale, then the more we understand that we can do for them, the more we’re going to do for them.”

We wrote about the feline grimace scale and Tably last year, and noted it had a lot of promise for veterinarians and us cat servants. At the time Tably was in beta and had a web app that allowed anyone to use the technology.

Unfortunately the web app seems to have disappeared, and the app is now available only to iOS users. Since we switched from an iPhone to Android, we can’t access Tably for the time being. (Let’s hope an Android version is forthcoming.) But if you have an Apple device, the app is definitely worth checking out.

Bud and Becky
“You go, girlfriend!”

SpaceCat, Baby Bud and Mister Meowster: New from Buddy Comics!

The Buddy Comics empire expands with two new titles and a new installment of The Adventures of Baby Bud.

We meet Mister Meowster, the most legendary feline investigator of his neighborhood, who’s called upon to use his Sherlockian skills in search of missing mice. In 11-Dimensional Hyperspace, SpaceCat tunnels to the next iteration of reality in her starship. Finally, Baby Buddy contends with a dark chapter from the past, when there was a shortage of the very stuff of life.

All covers created via natural language AI and pixlr.

Mister Meowster is the greatest detective for at least three blocks.

SpaceCat tunnels through 11-dimensional hyperspace to reach the next stack in the braneworld! M-theory enthusiasts and cat lovers won’t be able to put this down!

Before the Great Turkey Shortage of 2021, there was the Great Turkey Shortage of 2015. In Chapter 6, we visit that grim chapter in in Buddy’s life, when he was forced to eat chicken.

‘Why I Took 50,000 Pictures Of My Cats Pooping’

When Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, posed the heady question “Can machines think?”, he inspired generations of computer scientists, philosophers, physicists and regular people to imagine the emergence of silicon-based consciousness, with humanity taking the godlike step of creating a new form of life.

And when science fiction writer Philip K. Dick wrote his seminal 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — the story that would eventually become Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Bladerunner — he wondered what makes us human, and whether an artificial being could possess a soul.

It’s safe to say neither of those techno-prophets were thinking of fledgling AI algorithms, representing the first small steps toward true machine-substrate intelligence, announcing themselves and their usefulness to the world by helping us watch felis catus take a shit.

And yet that’s what the inventors of the LuluPet litter box designed an AI to do, and it’s what software engineer and Youtuber Estefannie did for her cat, Teddy, who’s got a bit of a plastic-eating problem.

“The veterinarian couldn’t tell me how much plastic he ate, and it would cost me over $3,000 [to find out]. So I didn’t do it,” Estefannie explains in a new video. “Instead, the vet gave me the option of watching him go to the bathroom. If he poops and there’s no plastic in his intestines, then he won’t die, and he might actually love me back.”

Estefannie casually described how she wrote a python script, set up a camera and motion sensor, and rigged it to take photos of Teddy doing his business. But, she explained, there was “a tiny problem”: Luna the Cat, aka her cat’s cat.

“This is Luna, this is technically not my cat, this is Teddy-Bear’s cat, and she uses the same litter box as Teddy,” she explained.

For that, she’d need more than a script. She’d have to build a machine learning algorithm to gorge itself on data, cataloguing tens of thousands of photos of Teddy and Luna along with sensory information from the litter box itself, to learn to reliably determine which cat was using the loo.

So Estefannie decided it was a good opportunity to “completely remodel” Teddy’s “bathroom,” including a compartment that would hide the bespoke system monitoring his bowel movements. The system includes sensors, cameras and lights to capture still images of Teddy dropping deuces in infrared, and a live thermal imaging feed of the little guy doing his business. (Teddy’s luxurious new bedroom turned out to be too dark for conventional cameras, thus the pivot to infrared.)

From there, Estefannie manually calculated how long Teddy’s number ones and twos took, and cross-referenced that information with photo timestamps to help determine the exact nature of Teddy’s calls of nature.

catpoopinggui
The future! (Note: This is our cheesy photoshopped interpretation, not Estefannie’s actual stool monitoring interface.)

When all the data is collected, Estefannie’s custom scripts sends it to an external server, which analyzes the images from each of Teddy’s bathroom visits and renders a verdict on what he’s doing in there.

Finally, Estefannie gets an alert on her smartphone when one of the cats steps into the litterbox, allowing her the option of watching a live feed and, uh, logging all the particulars. The software determines if a number two was successful, and keeps detailed records so Teddy’s human servant can see aberrations over time.

“So now I definitely know when Teddy-Bear is not pooping and needs to go to the hospital,” she said.

I am not making this up.

For her part, Estefannie says she’s not worried about a technological singularity scenario in which angry or insulted machines, newly conscious, exact revenge on humans who made them do unsavory tasks.

“Did I make an AI whose only purpose in life is to watch my cats poop?” Estefannie asked, barely keeping a straight face. “Mmmhmm. Will it come after me when the machines rise? No! Ewww!”

Entrepreneurial Cat Introduces ‘SmartHuman’ Feeding System

NEW YORK — Life is full of unpleasantness, like being able to see the bottom of your bowl. But what if someone told you he could fix that?

Enter Buddy the Cat’s SmartHuman Feeding System™, a device that harnesses the power of AI and cutting-edge hardware to make sure you never see the bottom of your bowl again.

SmartHuman was designed with weight sensors and an AI-enabled camera system to determine when the food in your bowl is getting low. If the on-board algorithms detect low levels of kibble, SmartHuman sends a text to your servant every 15 seconds until the device registers fresh kibble in the bowl.

Cat-Food-Bowl-Logic-PIn

And if the unthinkable should happen and you really are subjected to the horrific sight of the bottom of your bowl, SmartHuman’s built-in klaxon and emergency lights guarantee your human servants won’t have a second’s peace until they do what they’re supposed to and promptly refill your bowl. The system even requires the human to issue an apology before the sound and lights subside.

“I haven’t had to meow in annoyance or raise a paw once since I got the SmartHuman system,” raved Def the Defenestrator, a popular catfluencer with more than 240,000 followers on Meower. “The threat of getting bombarded with 110-decibel alerts to refill my bowl is enough to make my human servant get off her lazy behind and make sure my bowl is refilled before there’s a problem.”

The SmartHuman’s inventor has a background in feline teleportation and string cheese theory, but was prompted to design his device when he saw the bottom of his dry food bowl twice in as many months.

“I was literally starving,” Buddy said, adding that his “lazy human servant made me wait four minutes and 13 seconds before he refilled my bowl” during the second incident.

Vowing never to go hungry again, the entrepawneur built the first SmartHuman prototype in his garage, using a Raspberry Pi and a digital scale he ordered off Amazon.

He brought his idea to Shark Tank in late 2021 and successfully pitched Mr. Wonderful, who bought a 15 percent stake in SmartHuman™ in exchange for a $150,000 investment. The product entered production earlier this summer and is now available in stores and online.

“Cats love the SmartHuman™, but humans? Not so much,” Buddy the Cat admitted.

Mr. Wonderful
Mr. Wonderful (Kevin O’Leary) outbid fellow Sharks Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran and Laurie Greiner to partner with Buddy the Cat and invest in SmartHuman™.

Not one to rest on his laurels, the inventive feline said he’s working on a software update that will make the device compatible with wet food as well. In early beta testing, SmartHuman successfully prompted humans to feed wet food to their feline masters on time. Wet Mode includes a new feature as well: If the wet food remains untouched after a three-minute timer elapses, SmartHuman sends another text to the human, informing them the food isn’t satisfactory and should be replaced with another meal.

“Humans are stupid, and they don’t understand when we meow to them in complaint because we don’t feel like eating tuna or whatever on a given night when we’d prefer turkey,” Buddy said. “When this update goes live, cats will be able to enjoy meals of their choosing, every time.”