Worms in space

Automatic poetry pt. 2

Urine interface update

I can’t believe I just typed that headline. But actually, I do have an update to that item I posted a few days ago — about the MIT urinal that allows you to use your flow of urine as a track-pad-like computer controller.

Today, some sources inside the Media Lab told me an amusing story about that project. See the photos on the project site — one of which I reprinted below, in my original posting? Well, the students took those pictures early one recent morning. They hooked up their female friend with a prosthetic penis, loaded it with water, and wheeled their urinal contraption into an empty classroom. They figured it was so early in the morning that no one would disturb them.

So they’re happily running their demo, and taking video stills and pictures of their friend peeing in the urinal, when in walks none other than Marvin Minsky — artificial-intelligence pioneer and co-founder of the Media Lab. Even better, he’s got an entire classful of students with him.

“Precisely what the hell are you doing?” Minsky asks, as he takes in the spectacle of a young blonde woman controlling a squealing-hamster video-game via a fake penis.

You really have to feel a bit sorry for him. The Media Lab does a lot of phenomenally interesting research, but recently, some funders have been wondering precisely why they’re paying money to potentially kooky projects (like, say, a “self aware kitchen” — which includes research into smell-o-vision.) With the tech meltdown, the Media Lab has felt the financial pinch, and has had to postpone the construction of its new building. Running into grad students with strap-ons is probably the last thing Minsky needs for his blood pressure.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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