January 2010

Visionary

  • Maja Matarić photographed by Eric Ogden
  • Tim and Kevin Clegg photographed by Eric Ogden
  • Peter Gleick photographed by Eric Ogden
  • Peter Saville photographed by Donald Christie
  • Ares Rosakis photographed by Eric Ogden

In our fast-food, ADD culture, lots of people are labeled visionaries. Truth is, there aren’t that many of them. A genuine visionary is an alchemist, able to synthesize existing information, technology and philosophy and ignite them with a spark of radical genius. It is someone who has the perception to see past entrenched, received ideas about what is possible and conjure revolutionary concepts. In short, it is a person with the power, acumen and artistry to change our world.

RoboCare


Roboticist Maja Matarić foresees a kinder, gentler A.I.

Maja Matarić, robotics, visionary Photo by Eric Ogden

Having kids made Maja Matarić a different kind of mother of invention. The University of Southern California professor of computer science, neuroscience and pediatrics heads a team at the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems, developing creatures with the raison d’être of helping people with special needs—be it someone with Alzheimer’s, a victim of stroke or a child with autism.

“People ask, What are the implications of your work? I want to be able to answer that for my kids,” says the forty­something scientist with a ready laugh. “I want to be able to tell them not only what I do but why I do it. The why can’t just be, ‘because that’s what the Department of Defense funds.’ There has to be a greater purpose.”

In a lab that seems to be some hybrid of a CSI-type headquarters and the bits and parts of a TV repair shop, Matarić and her grad students create squat, cheerful little devices that resemble something along the lines of R2-D2 of Star Wars fame. Made small so as not to intimidate their human users, Matarić’s prototypes both instruct and encourage. People do occupational and rehabilitative exercises that are, she says, “boring, repetitive and yet vital” to recovery or regaining some functioning—or, as in the case with autism, building a foundation for future learning.

Unlike researchers in Japan, who are working to design robots that can lift a con­va­lescing person and, say, help him or her to the bathroom, Mata­rić’s team purposefully builds robots that are weak and bottom heavy so they’re hard to tip over. “They can pick up a piece of paper, and that’s about it. If something can pick you up, it can hurt you if it screws up. My robot can’t pick you up, but it also can’t harm you. That is a realm I’m happy to stay in, because in terms of impact, in my lifetime, this we can do.”

She says creating therapeutic robots wasn’t on her mind when she began studying computer science and artificial intelligence as a graduate student at MIT. “I was interested in how we could take this idea of biologically inspired systems and actually make them capable of some kind of thinking,” says the Belgrade-born Matarić (who came to this country when she was 16). Her first creation was a robot called Toto, which could navigate rabbit warrens of office cubicles like a rat in a maze. “I didn’t think about any kind of helpful applications at the time, other than having the thing go around and water plants.”

But an interest in neuroscience led her to investigate how the brain’s pathways impact stroke patients. “At a certain point, you realize, Oh my goodness, there are so many people who could use some help.”

Matarić disagrees with critics who argue robots are dehumanizing, if not downright dangerous, and that humans should do these altruistic jobs. She sees her machines not as replacements for human care but as helpmates in an overburdened health-care system.

“It is hard to convey to people who have not looked at the nation’s demographics that, yes, it would be great if people did this work, but there are not enough people to meet the coming demand,” says Matarić, her accent becoming more pronounced as she emphasizes her words.

Last year, she was one of three robotics experts invited to speak before the Congressional Robotics Caucus. Even she was “sobered up” when faced with the ramifications of meeting the anticipated costs of caring for aging baby boomers. “We are talking billions,” she notes.

Matarić imagines that one day her robots will cost about as much as a personal computer—and be as widely available. For now, she searches for funding to do the types of clinical trials needed before her robots can be available for a mass market. She suspects a not so subliminal fear of HAL-type evil entities makes finding money for this particular research a challenge.

“What is the image of a robot? Usually it’s something from a doomsday movie,” she says. “Even my own son said, ‘I don’t like robots—robots are bad!’ I kept telling him, ‘Honey, Mommy makes robots to help people.’ Now he’s got it, but it took a while.”     —Samantha Dunn

As the Word Turns


The Clegg brothers of Americhip believe in truly moving stories

tim kevin clegg, video in print, visionary Photo by Eric Ogden

If this very article about “video in print”—VIP for short—had one of the actual devices, you’d not only be reading these words, but embedded in the page would be a screen about the size of the one on your cell phone. It would start playing a video the second you opened the page. You would see for yourself the palm trees swaying next to the blocky office building of Ameri­chip, the L.A. company that created this technology, and see the smiling face of Kevin Clegg, the company’s president.

Through a tiny speaker attached to the page, you would hear him reassure that while video may have killed the radio star, it won’t do the same to print. “Fact is, people still like to have something to hold in their hands—they like words,” says Clegg. “Print is not dead. Boring, just-lay-there print may be dead, but exciting, interactive print is just getting started.”

VIP launched amid fanfare last August in special issues of Entertainment Weekly circulated in L.A. and New York, where Pepsi and CBS used it in an advertising insert touting the cola and providing trailers of the network’s fall lineup. The cardboard-thick insert might have been bulky, but that didn’t seem to block the attention VIP generated. Clegg says the morning the magazine dropped, he had some 70 phone messages before he even got to the office.

And the interest isn’t waning. Ameri­chip has offices on four continents and a manufacturing leg in China. Clegg has had queries about the technology from places as far-flung as Bosnia. He believes the reason is that while VIP was first focused on the big-money arena of advertising, its potential goes far beyond that.

In its current incarnation, VIP has lilliputian lithium batteries that can run about 90 minutes’ worth of video and be recharged with a mini USB plug. That means the device allows for information to be updated with a simple download off a PC. Future versions look to be thinner and feature WiFi.

Imagine textbooks updated with current research without having to replace the entire book, notations from your pharmacist right on a prescription label or being able to hear and see the person you’re reading about in an article. And forget about the gibberish in instruction manuals. Clegg says the VIP chip could do away with the bane of technical writers—DTUs, an affectionate label meaning “difficult to understand.” A video embedded in a manual could show how those stupid bookshelves are supposed to be put together.

Kevin Clegg’s brother, Tim, is CEO of Americhip. A holder of numerous patents, Tim started a business in the late ’80s, selling audio and lighted promotional products out of his apartment in Houston. He invented a flashing button people could wear, a novelty item that attracted the attention of big businesses like McDonald’s, as well as movie studios ever eager to find the newest sizzle for media junkets. He formed Clegg Industries and began doing so much business with studios he moved to L.A. Brothers Kevin and John (now vice president of sales) soon followed him west, and Clegg Industries evolved into Americhip in 2001.

Kevin Clegg says VIP is just the latest element of the company’s attempt to invent print products—anything from children’s pop-up books to musical greeting cards to scent-stripped ad inserts—that use all five senses to convey a message. They call it multisensorized.

So, will video in print stunt literacy? Does scent on a page inhibit imagination? He is pragmatic regarding the implications of hybrid media. “People today have grown up expecting their senses to be engaged,” he says. In essence, we are evolving into an era where this inte­grated experience will be the norm rather than the exception.

“A lot of stories compare VIP to the Harry Potter newspaper,” says Clegg, referring to the novel’s magical Daily Prophet, in which photos leap off the page. Technology still has a ways to go before producing paper-thin screens that are economically viable for mass use, he predicts. “It’ll be a while before anything like that is possible.”

What Clegg doesn’t say is “impossible.”    —Samantha Dunn

Finite Possibilities


For Peter Gleick, the solution to our water problems is closer than we think

Peter Gleick, water issues, visionary Photo by Eric Ogden

It’s time to quit going with the flow, says H2O expert Peter Gleick, congressional testifier, MacArthur “genius award” winner and cofounder and president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a think tank on all issues related to freshwater.

“We the planet and we the people are coming up against real, unbreakable limits to the amount of water we can use—not only for environmental and ecological reasons but for economic and political ones,” says Gleick, named by Wired as one of the 15 people Obama needs to listen to for our future. “What I call the ‘hard path’—what we did in the 20th century to build infrastructure that allowed us to use more water—brought enormous benefits, but I really believe we are at the limit.”

Gleick, fiftyish and lanky as a stork, isn’t a pessimist, however. In his view, it is not too late to choose a “soft path,” one that focuses on water efficiency and smart management to meet the demands of both humans and ecosystems: “We have two options. We can do less—which is deprivation—or we can do what we are already doing, just with less water. That is efficiency.”

The crux of Gleick’s soft path is in the rethinking: “How do we grow more food with less water? How do we make more semiconductors with less water? How do we clean our clothing and our dishes and flush our toilets with less water? All of that is critical.”

The focus on efficiency brings to an individual level a complex global conundrum. “It means we are all responsible for solving our water problems. We can’t look to engineers to build more dams and close our eyes to everything else. It’s hard, because that is not the way we were brought up as a society.”

Gleick developed his deep love for the environment growing up in...New York City.

Fish out of water? Not so fast. “You’d think there are few cities that have less connection to the environment than New York, but that’s not true,” says Gleick, showing his knack for looking at things differently. Back in the day, while Gleick’s brother and sister—author James Gleick and editor Elizabeth Gleick—did whatever New York kids do for fun on weekends, middle child Peter was off exploring the flora and fauna of Central Park.

That interest in the natural world continued as Gleick received degrees at Yale and Berkeley, writing his dissertation on “how water and climate change are linked and will affect things like water, food, health, forestry, ecosystems.” And this was years before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought these issues to the fore.

He got a postdoctoral grant to study global conflict vis-à-vis natural resources—and it clinched his conviction that water, not oil, is more likely to be our serious long-term concern. National security, public policy and climate change, he says, all “lead to the water’s edge.”

To Gleick, California’s water woes mirror those everywhere on the planet, and how we solve them—or don’t—will likewise send ripples. He views the water legislation that was passed last fall—calling for intricate policy changes and asking voters to okay a massive $11.1 billion bond—as an example: “After a year-long debate, the legislature now knows more about water than any previous one since the 1960s. But it’s not good enough to solve our water problems.”

The good news is we have the technology to solve them. It’s as easy—and challenging—as conservation, efficiency and community-level involvement. “You want to have the Star Trek transporter and travel faster than the speed of light? You have to invent something we don’t know how to do. You want to solve our water problems? That we can do.” Community-scale infrastructure—local purification and waste treatment, for instance—has the potential to save billions of gallons over the centralized methods currently in use.

But do we have the will?

“The failure to do this has been a failure to choose to do this—to make the commitment as individuals, as a nation, as a world,” says Gleick. “In every field, we are being asked to look inward. That is an important part of what can be a sustainable future.”    —Samantha Dunn

Designs on a City


Peter Saville believes how we think about L.A. can change what it becomes

peter saville, designer, urban planning, manchester, visionary Photo by Donald Christie

Sharply intelligent, extraordinarily articulate and undeniably charming, Englishman Peter Saville is one of the world’s most influential thinkers in design. Since the 1970s, he has impacted the way we approach everything from album covers to ad campaigns. Now he is changing the way we think about cities.

Saville first came to L.A. in the early ’90s for a short residency at Whittle Communications’ Channel One. Last spring, he was back, speaking at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills about his current work as creative director for the once maligned city of Manchester, a post he has held since the position’s creation in 2004. Manchester City Council CEO Sir Howard Bernstein saw the role a design visionary could play in their burg’s creative regeneration, unlocking and optimizing the brand of a place that was once the flower of England’s industrial revolution but in later years had decayed.

Now based in London, Saville sees the role he plays for his Man­chester hometown as a political one, where he operates as a “roving agent who intervenes to identify opportunities where values can be expressed.”

One of his most brilliant contributions is the rebranding of Manchester as the Original Modern City, making the connection to the city’s gritty industrial past while looking forward to its place as a center for culture and media. To wit, the launch of the Manchester International Festival in 2007— a biennial celebration of origi­nal commissioned artworks. It has done wonders for the local economy, much as Frank Gehry’s museum sparked the rebirth of Bilbao.

Saville first won acclaim for his work with Factory Records, the independent music label he cofounded with Tony Wilson. Recognizing the album cover as art, Saville blurred the boundaries between art, design and product when he created the now iconic cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures in 1979. With an abstract scientific image resembling a seismograph reading placed against an austere dark background, the album made no mention of the name of the album or the band.

Saville made the tran­sition to fashion, directing campaigns for Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Dior and Stella McCartney.

What does all this have to do with Los Angeles? Quite a lot, it turns out. He developed a strong affection for L.A. while living at the Sunset Marquis in 1991 and creating the onscreen graphics for Channel One.

“David Neuman [of Disney TV and now Current Media] gave me the opportunity to work here,” he says, “and Tom Solomon was the first gallerist anywhere to place my work in the context of art. In L.A., I found an acknowledgment and openness to my work.”

So, what is the difference between Saville and the kind of culture czar many in the U.S. arts community have been advocating? The answers are money and timing. Our notion of a culture czar is typically framed in nebulous terms of spiritual uplift and artistic currency. Saville’s manner of urban visionary seizes on arts and culture as tools to reinvent a city’s identity and self-image and its long-term economic growth.

And while the similarities between Manchester and L.A. aren’t glaring, there is common ground as both cities reexamine their reason for being. After all, just as Manchester is no longer the industrial heart of Britain, it’s no secret that Hollywood is no longer the world’s only entertainment factory.

This summer—under the aegis of Councilman Tom LaBonge and Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese—a proclamation was signed to promote connections between the two cities.

L.A., long known as a place where it’s easy to reinvent yourself, can learn a lot from a city that is repositioned as a 21st-century leader. Not least, that a design mind as incisive as Saville’s can impact the shape of a metropolis more than any soulless planning policy.

“Los Angeles needs to broaden its cultural gravitas to regain its political gravitas,” Saville says. “If it wants to mean more, it has to do things that mean more.”    —Brooke Hodge

Information Sage


Caltech data master Ares Rosakis just wants to make sense of it all

Ares Rosakis, california institute of technology, visionary Photo by Eric Ogden

“We all deal with this beast called information. We are trying to tame this beast, if you will, to put it to the most use.”

And with that, the bespectacled Ares Rosakis tidily sums up the Information Science and Technology Initiative, a sweeping and complex undertaking by the geniuses at Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology.

To explain the wizardry of IST to those of us lucky just to have passed high school algebra: In this information age, the amount of data, facts—stuff, if you will—has exploded. It is now possible for mankind to measure in nanometers at the subatomic level, trace the vast reaches of the universe in light-years and everything in between—and somewhere, the results of those inquiries are stored.

Rosakis, who oversees the engineering department under which IST falls, explains that at Caltech, they have created the framework to make this varied mass of information accessible to researchers from a wide array of science and humanities backgrounds. The goal is to foster a cross-pollination of ideas around the data in order to build new information-based research and create novel instructional programs that span the academic spectrum.

It sort of sounds like a setup to a punch line: What happens when you put a physicist, a mechanical engineer, a biologist and an economist together with a microresonator and a bazooka? But what comes of this mashup, Rosakis believes, is good for scientists and ultimately good for the rest of us who will reap the benefits of what’s created when great minds meet.

Because of this initiative, Southern California Edison will be able to track energy usage more precisely across the region. Or one day, fire departments might be able to ascertain instantly where an earthquake has hit hardest, enabling them to mount the most effective response. The possibilities are endless.

“It’s impossible to predict all that will eventually come out of this initiative,” says Rosakis. “Who really knows what can happen when all these ideas and expertise rub against one another? Sparks fly.”

The Athens-born professor has a way of breaking things down—literally. His research topics alone would fill this page. He’s Caltech’s chair of engineer­ing and applied science and Theodore von Kármán professor of aeronautics and mechanical engineering, and he holds nine U.S. patents. “I study how things break,” he says.

Those “things” can range from a space-shuttle wing to the earth’s crust. He has spent years working on space structures with the Jet Propulsion Lab, and now he has turned his attention to plate tectonics and the mechanics of seismology. The range of Rosakis’ own career, in fact, is a kind of mirror for what IST offers—expertise radiating out of specialties to help solve global problems.

Other universities sponsor similar programs, but they’ve been largely concentrated around computer science. Caltech, he says, is a perfect breeding ground for an effort with the magnitude of IST because, well, it has to be. “We’re so small when compared with other excellent research universities, like MIT and Stanford. For instance, in engineering, I have 35 professors. MIT has seven times that number. So to compete, we all must cross academic lines. In terms of our student body, we’re about the size of a high school, really.”

As of last fall, IST, begun in 2004, has an official home—the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology. The building itself serves as a metaphor for what is housed within it—open and airy, with few walls to block gathering spaces and dry boards and markers everywhere in case an idea erupts. There’s even an alfresco chalkboard. And while professors still have their offices, the layout invites both light and people. Talk about academic transparency.

Are the glass walls so that great brains can’t squirrel themselves—or their cache of ideas—away? “That’s it!” Rosakis says. You can run, but you can’t hide.”    —Samantha Dunn