Lectures on your iPod

For those who want to tune into something more serious than music, iTunes has something new: podcasts of TU Delft lectures. Since last Tuesday, the TU is officially on iTunes U.

Professor Hans van Dijk hasn’t got much time for an interview. He’s about to give a lecture about water management. A very special lecture: one that is not confined between the walls of an auditorium, but rather is accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world. From now on all his lectures will be accessible on iTunes U, a section of Apple’s digital media store reserved for educational material from universities.

“A lecture for a world public? Yes it is indeed”, the head of the Sanitary Engineering section (Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences) says, laughing. “But in our experience only incidentally do people from abroad look at them. They’re mostly watched by students who are at home while we give the lecture. And students watch them again just before an exam.” So explains the professor, who has been working with open access software for a while now.

Although Van Dijk doesn’t think the number of his listeners will explode, he only sees advantages in joining iTunes U. “Our discipline, water management, is very internationally oriented”, he says. “Making our lectures more accessible is good PR. It may attract students and it can attract attention from water companies who want to collaborate with us. And what’s more, it doesn’t cost us any more energy. We just do it and then wait and see what will happen. I think it’s fun.”

TU Delft and the Open University are the first universities in the Netherlands to make their lectures freely available via iTunes U. The move puts the two universities in league with other internationally renowned institutions, like Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, UC Berkeley and MIT, which also publish there.

About eighty lectures on water management are now accessible on iTunes U. “They had been streamed on internet before on Collegerama [the TU platform for online lectures and symposia, ed.]”, Rob Speekenbrink, of TU Delft’s marketing and communication department, explains.

An important difference between Collegerama and iTunes U is that the former streams the lectures, so in order to see them you need to be online all the time, whereas with iTunes U, you can now download lectures as podcasts and watch them whenever you want on your iPod or laptop. You can also subscribe to a stream, so that iTunes will automatically download the lectures.

Speekenbrink hopes that teachers throughout the university will embrace iTunes U. “Many teachers are not convinced that by making their lectures freely accessible their lectures will improve in quality”, he says. “I think they will become better, because experts around the world can comment on them. I guess many teachers aren’t very familiar with this new phenomenon. And maybe they find it scary.”

Something that might be a bit scary as well is that once podcasted, a lecture is out in the open. If it is streamed, however, teachers can easily remove it from the internet. And then there is the problem of copyright. Speekenbrink: “Teachers often use images in PowerPoint presentations that can’t be distributed freely because of copyrights. That can be problematic for podcasts.”

And last but not least: isn’t it a shame that if you want to access a podcast on something other than a computer, the easiest way to do this is by using a device from Apple – an iPhone or an iPod (or in the near future an iPad)? “We don’t want to depend on one brand”, Speekenbrink replies. “We hope that other multimedia portals will be developed so that you can also watch the lectures on the Google Android and other smart phones that are not iPhones.”

On a balmy Tuesday evening at a lecture organized by Studium Generale, Dr David Levy, the renowned artificial intelligence researcher, introduced a group of curious TU Delft students to a rather bizarre idea: we can all look forward to ‘Love, Sex and Marriage with Robots’ by the year 2050. While the prospect of having sex with a machine may seem a bit extreme, Levy believes such relationships are inevitable, given the unreliability of social norms and our collective love for technology – not to mention the popularity of inflatable sex dolls among certain segments of present day society.
The trend of human interaction with computers has moved from the impersonal to the personal; moreover, the rate of social change today is rapid. The trend of changes in marriage and sex are so drastic, Levy argues, that it’s easy to see that human–robot love is only a few decades away. All this is explicit in society’s current reaction to such ‘sexbots’, as he calls them.
Levy recently received his PhD from the University of Maastricht on the subject of human-robot relationships. Although the response to Levy’s study on sexbots has varied from outlandish shock to curiosity about function, the most common reaction has been: ‘Where can I get one?’
Levy admits that while at first, the public reaction to sex with robots will probably be one of outrage, he believes that “once a story like ‘I had sex with a robot, and it was great!’ appears someplace like Cosmo magazine, many people will jump on the bandwagon,” and such relationships will be considered normal by 2050.
Research psychologists identify ten reasons why human beings fall in love, ranging from appearance to personal appeal, and they can all be simulated in today’s robots. Moreover, recent developments in robot appearance and abilities have made it possible to have robots made to order. Levy cites something called ‘Artificial-Emotion Technology’, which can induce human-like emotions in robots. With this technology, he predicts that robots can be designed to like what you like, develop abilities that you want in your partner or lover. Robots can even be programmed to modify themselves to your tastes: if you like Beethoven, for example, the robot can be programmed to like it too, and even play snippets of music during conversations!
But what about social acceptance? If today’s society has trouble with homosexuality, how will it cope with a new species altogether? Remember the popularity of robotic toys and pets, like Tamagotchi, Furby and Aibo? Evidently, human beings can, and do, develop affection for non-human beings and electronics. There is for example a section of society today that is most comfortable with their laptops, finding them more sympathetic than human beings. Also, the social perception of marriage has morphed drastically over the years. The same goes for social attitudes towards sex, Levy says, while discussing the trends in sex technologies, the state-of-the-art of which has evolved from the steam-driven vibrators invented in 1869, to today’s expensive, human-like sex dolls, which can imitate arousal. It is from the successful induction and social acceptance of such artificial sexual substitutes today that Levy derives his conviction in the inevitability of future sexbot-human relationships.
A study Levy quotes reveals why there could well be a market for sexbots. The study found that 40% of men today have difficultly hitting it off with a partner of choice. Additionally, people want variety in sex, and want it with no complications. In this scenario, Levy believes sexbots will be a huge commercial hit. Sexbots will have moving parts, conversation (speech synthesis), artificial emotions and personality. But how expensive will the sexbots be? Initially, expensive, at around €10,000 per sexbot. But, as with all electronics, Levy believes the price will come down quickly.
Levy’s prediction of human-like robots with emotions and personality raises many ethical questions. What is the social impact of being able to turn off your husband or wife with a switch? What are the legal issues involved? Will robots have rights? Clearly, there are still many complex social, psychological and technological issues that must be addressed before man and sexbot can really mate.
Levy’s PhD thesis, ‘Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners’, foresees a time when robots are so human-like our falling in love and engaging in intimate relationships with robots is no longer a question of if this will happen, but when. It may sound a little weird now, Levy concedes, “but love and sex with robots are inevitable.”

Editor Redactie

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