Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Narrow Vision

This may sound conceited, but I've always found engineers to be not very bright. I'm reminded of the old dialogue that goes something like this:

Biochem Major #1: "I'm not doing so well in my classes. I'm afraid I may flunk out!"
Biochem Major #2: "Well, don't worry. You can always become a doctor".

I suspect a similar conversation occurs among physicists. "Don't worry. You can always become an engineer". In other words, there are elites, and then there are elites.

There is the fundamental cultural stereotype: lack of a personality, no social skills, boring, no spelling skills, no language skills, doesn't work well in groups... you know, a Republican.

And then, of course, there's the classic engineer joke, that goes...

Q: "How can you tell when an engineer is an extrovert?"
A: "When he talks to you, he looks down at your shoes."

Attributes I would include, from personal experience, would be: closet autocrat, plodding, authoritarian, rote-learner, limited imagination, relies on textbook solutions, not very playful, appalling lack of curiosity, poor planner, rigid, brittle thinker, possesses inability to tell the difference between 'complex' and 'complicated' (i.e. overengineers things, i.e. generally makes the solution 10 times more complicated than it needs to be), overly fond of "Red X" diagnoses (i.e. finger pointing diagnostic method,  i.e. "Well, there's your problem. Right there!"), and, most tellingly, is possessed of a limited and narrow vision when it comes to anticipating and recognizing future problems, opportunities, and applications. You know... a Republican.

Is this unfair? Probably, but so what? I've actually only encountered perhaps two or three engineers who did not fit comfortably in that mold. One is my older brother, and the other is, or was, the director of the Large Neutron Source at Argonne National Laboratories. The problem with them is, both of them have extensive physics backgrounds and have worked around too many physicists.

So... what?  I came across a classic engineering type demonstrating a narrow vision with a piece called "Thoughts on the Kinect hacks and iPad hacks". His point is that apparently open source versions of the controlling software are a waste of time because 1) they probably cannot be monetized, and 2) the "pros"  already have well written and structured games for Kinect on the Xbox.

Okay, let me back up a bit. What the heck is Kinect? Actually, I'm not that familiar with it as I don't play video games, but basically, it is a motion and gesture capture, face and voice recognition system that allows people to play video games using their bodies as the controller. Ah, well, here, just view the embeddence:

The little Kinect box has cameras and microphones and lasers in it that can direct the action in the video game. The real thing, the important thing here, is the software that can interpret people. A protocol that can convert our speech, facial and body gestures, nonverbal posture, you name it, into zeroes and ones.

So, back to our bonehead engineer. I think that, with 1) he expresses a symptom of the fucked-up Libertarian disease. Why explore something if you won't make any money at it? In other words, if it's not self-serving, it's not worth the effort.

More importantly, he seems to think that the one and only purpose of Kinect is to play video games. What a narrow vision. My understanding is the whole point of creating an open-source software is not to explore the many applications with respect to video games, but to explore PERIOD.

What can be done with this stuff? Right off the top of my head, in the same way that I talked about the real (big money) market for exo-skeleton mobile armor, is to help people with disabilities. Or new art forms, new interactive visual or sculptural forms or for dance. A super cheap motion capture to open up CGI TV shows and motion pictures. A way to produce anthology shows with nothing but a green screen and actors, and your prop budget is confined to the time and electricity and brain power to do things on a PC or a Mac. Space exploration. Remote surgery. Remote piloting. Remote anything.

I expect I'm not even close to the out of left field applications on this.