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Best of the Web

All hail Google’s robot army

All hail Google’s robot army

(Science Photo Library)

Our pick of the week from the web, including robots on every street and the twelve products that have changed the world in the last two decades.

Google’s robot army
Illah Nourbakhsh | New Yorker | 18 December 2013

Google “has a vision of truly dexterous, autonomous robots that can walk on sidewalks, carry packages, and push strollers. While Amazon is busy optimising delivery logistics, Google bots could roboticise every Amazon competitor, from Target to Safeway.” Society needs social and legal codes to govern everyday robot behaviour – and fast. “There is no moral compass governing the arc of robot innovation.”

The culture that gave birth to the personal computer
Walter Isaacson | Medium | 17 December 2013

Steve Jobs's biographer offers for comment “a rough draft” of part of his next book on “the innovators of the digital age”. The section is largely about Stewart Brand, “a countercultural entrepreneur in a deeply technocratic mould”, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who bridged the hippie and hacker worlds in the Bay Area of the late 1960s, and foresaw personal computers as “tools of liberation”.

Top products in two decades
Walter Mossberg | Wall Street Journal | 17 December 2013

After 22 years as WSJ’s lead tech reviewer, Mossberg signs off his last column with a list of the 12 products he thinks did most to change the world in that time. Five are from Apple. Most are fairly uncontentious – Netscape, Palm Pilot, Windows 95, Google search etc. But nice to see the Newton honoured. A more questionable choice is the MacBook Air, arguably a stylistic progression rather than a step-change.

The brains of animals
Amit Majmudar | Kenyon Review | 14 December 2013

Human brains, like human genes, largely overlap with those of other animals. The differences are at the margins, and in developmental emphasis. “Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability. A human with an elephant’s hippocampus would end up like Funes the Memorious in the story by Borges; a human with a dog’s olfactory bulb would become a Vermeer of scent.”

Full of interesting strangers
Michael Lopp | Rands In Repose | 12 December 2013

How to design the perfect tech conference badge, and why it matters. “A well-designed badge provides useful at-a-glance information. When you walk up to an interesting stranger, you don’t really want to spend more than a half a second staring at their badge. In half a second you’re only going to grok one piece of information, so badge crafters need to make that most important information ginormous.”

The age of the product manager
David Auerbach | Slate | 11 December 2013

Marissa Mayer is a product manager at heart, not a CEO – and that’s good for Yahoo. She knows how things get done. Her skills come “from working in the trenches, not in the boardrooms”. It’s the Apple model, as opposed to the Microsoft model. “The big top-down visions extolled in the vertical corporate model are cheap. The devil is in the details, as the last ten years of Steve Ballmer’s mission statements should prove.”

The boy whose brain could unlock autism
Maia Szalavitz | Matter | 11 December 2013

Neuroscientist studies his own autistic son. “You know how powerless you feel. You have this child with autism and you, even as a neuroscientist, don’t know what to do.” His theory: autism derives from cognitive excess, not deficit. “Autistic people take in too much and learn too fast. While they may appear bereft of emotion, they are actually overwhelmed not only by their own emotions, but by the emotions of others.”

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