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Ranking the features of the £1,149 iPhone X from “why” to “sweet lord why”

The exisistential dread is 900x more powerful! 

A couple of years ago, a man called Aesop wrote a few stories about animals that teach us a lot about life (think CBBC – but profound). In one of them, a dog is chilling out carrying a bone happy as can be, until he clocks another dog with another bone and feels a little mugged off. He pounces to grab the other dog’s bone but – alack! He falls into some water. The other dog was in fact his reflection in the river, and now the damn dog has lost both of his bones.

The moral of the story is, be happy with your bone – and also, learn about reflections. This fable is important today because Apple have just launched their latest bones, the iPhone 8, the iPhone 8 Plus, and the iPhone X. The latter retails for £1,149 for 256GB which is funny, because life is meaningless. Although it’s undeniably a good phone (the cameras! the speakers! the overwhelming urge to keep spending in order to find happiness in a capitalist society that values possessions over personality!) there's a few reasons why you shouldn’t drop your old iBone just yet.

So here are some of the iPhone X’s new features, ranked from “why” to “why though”.

Wireless charging

Remember that cable splitter you bought so that you could charge your iPhone 7 and listen to music at the same time? Throw it in the river! You will now be able to charge your iPhone X wirelessly, meaning you will also be able to fork out hard-earned cash for an Apple AirPower charger. It will most likely charge your phone more slowly and it will be harder to use your phone while it charges, but at least you can swap being tangled up in wires for being tangled up in sweet, suffocating existential dread.

Portrait Lighting mode

In all honesty, selfies are good. Resist the urge to leave a Facebook comment saying they’re not.

The lil black notch on the top of your screen

The iPhone X has edge-to-edge display (cool!) which is somewhat hindered by an ident at the top of the screen that will cut into your videos and pictures (super not cool!). This isn’t the end of the world but it’s also not exactly what you expect for 1,149 of your shiny 12-sided future coins.

The invisible home button

The home button has gone. You’re paying more money for fewer features. It’s the phone of the future.  Yvan eht nioj (Google it).

Augmented reality

Pokemon Go is so over. It’s so over that I couldn’t be bothered to Google “e with an accent” and copy and paste it into the word Pokemon. The point is, we’ve already reached the peak of augmented reality – it’s Pikachu. Apple tried to show off this new feature with an AR dinosaur playing basketball, which will definitely be fun for 10 seconds. Then anyone with sense will be back to using Portrait Lighting mode to take fire selfies.

Face ID

Apple’s biggest change actively failed when they tried to demonstrate it on stage yesterday, and it has already faced scathing criticism from privacy campaigners. Face ID replaces the fingerprint scanner as a way to unlock your phone, with a butt-ton of sensors allowing the iPhone X to scan your face and open it for you and only you (or the police, who can force you to unlock it).

This new feature already raises a lot of questions. What happens if you’re wearing a safety mask at work or religious garb when out and about? What about when people want to check their phone while driving and have to take their eyes of the road (yes, people shouldn’t check their phones when driving, but you know they do and will)? Top this off with the potential for third parties to use the sensors to check your eyes really are on their adverts, and you have a dystopian plot device that you’re actually paying to control you.

But even if none of the above causes any problems (Apple are pretty smart, we’ll give ‘em that) – why do we even want Face ID in the first place? It isn’t the cutting edge in phone security and it’s annoying for users. To use Apple Pay, people will now have to scan their face – making waiting for that phone-tapper at the underground barriers all the more painful.

Animoji

In short, Animoji allows you to animate emoji in time with your facial movements. You used to send the turd – now you can become the turd. It’s a metaphor. We think. 

All images via Getty

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Welcome to the Uncanny Valley: how creepy robot dogs are on the rise

It’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door. 

If you’re among those devouring the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian hellscape Black Mirror, you may still be having metallic nightmares of being chased by the freaky robo-dogs of  “Metalhead”. In which case, you maybe unsettled to know that these nightmares could in theory become a reality (in the distant future), as a viral video from the robotics firm Boston Dynamics (of backflipping robot fame) revealed earlier this week.


Charmingly titled, “Hey Buddy, can you give me a hand?” a SpotMini, Boston Dynamics’ smallest robot, approaches a door and appears to turn sideways before scampering away. Another SpotMini, fitted with an extending claw-arm, opens the door and lets the first robot scamper through, propping it open to follow. 

 

The director of “Metalhead”, David Slade, was inspired by these very demonstrations. As he stated in an interview in January, the inspiration for those robotic villains stemmed from none other than Boston Dynamics itself. “Those fucking Boston Dynamics robots are terrifying, so that in itself was enough that we didn’t have to worry about it,” he told IndieWire. 


Beyond its viral value, the SpotMini marks an interesting stage in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Being able to open a door has long since been the bar for the development of modern robots, as Matt Simon of WIRED pointed out. With this bar seemingly met – and surpassed – the questions remains as to what’s next.


Boston Dynamics robots seem designed mostly for academic and research purposes. Previously, DARPA, the research and development wing of the US defence department and arguably the birthplace of modern robotics, rejected some of the robots for usage because they were too loud. Now, though, they’re silent.


Even those who were not Black Mirror fans expressed a sense of unease while watching the Boston Dynamics email. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door, which was previously the domain of, you know, humans and crafty pets. But such feelings of revulsion could have something to do with Masahiro Mori’s “Uncanny Valley” theory, which he first proposed in the 1970s.


The “uncanny valley” could be defined as the dip in emotional response from humans when interacting with a being that is vaguely humanoid. The theory suggests that robots become more appealing as they draw closer to human characteristics – but only up until a certain point. Once that point has been reached, and surpassed, humans then find those robots “uncanny”. Then, as they resemble us even more closely, we find that we grow less repulsed by them. 

 

 

While the theory has circulated since the 1970s, a 2005 translation of the paper into English made the concepts more widely accessible, and it has been studied by academics ranging from philosophy to psychology. Despite the term wriggling its way into everyday techspeak, the theory itself is yet to be proven. In 2016, the researchers Mathur & Reichling studied real world robots and humans’ reactions to them, but found overall ambiguous evidence for the existence of the uncanny valley. 


Watching one of the SpotMinis open a door – and then prop it open, like you would – may make our skin crawl for those very reasons. The SpotMini, and even some of Boston Dynamic’s other robots, like the backflipping Atlas, have a weird mix of familiar and unfamiliar characteristics. In the viral video, for example, the way that the armed robot holds open the door resembles an interaction that many of us see everyday.   


That may also have something to do with why this particular robot, which has also been used to wash dishes, has triggered a different reaction to Handle, another robot in the Boston Dynamic litter, which can wheel around faster than any natural organism and perform backflips (complete with an athletic hand raise at the end). Handle's acrobaticism inspires a mixture of fear and awe. Watching SpotMini, whose mannerisms bear a resemblance to a family dog, fumble and open a door, feels a little more familiar, but a little more weird.

 

There are, of course, real fears about robots that are not driven by TV. The baseline for robo-phobia has long since been that they’re not only coming to take our jobs, but they’ll be better than us at it too. SpotMini is technically very interesting because of how it merges software and hardware. That the two SpotMinis can co-operate paves the way towards teamwork between robots, which has until recently remained a far off prospect.


Robots are already a key function of many military operations. They carry out tasks that are too dangerous to entrust to humans, with more accuracy. Additionally, robots are entering our social spheres - with AI controlled assistants like Alexa, the controversial robot Sophia (she once expressed a desire to destroy humans), or the AELOUS home assistant that was unveiled at a convention in Vegas, which can vacuum and fetch you a beer (and will be retailing later this year).


While there are all kinds of debates within artificial intelligence and robotics about what this means for the field, there could be a greater number of non-technically trained experts interacting with robots, relying on intuition and common sense to frame their interactions. 


That takes the implications of the uncanny valley outside of just theoretical. What kind of robot can we interact with, sans revulsion? Does that mean we can only use them in specific contexts. And do they have to look a certain way? 


As always, there’s the bigger picture to consider too. Boston Dynamics remains spectacularly good at making viral videos that draw attention to its products, which are indubitably marvels of modern engineering. Moreover, lower level sensorimotor skills that an infant develops intuitively – such as, you guessed it, opening a door – are actually far more difficult to programme than high-level displays of intelligence, such as winning a chess game (also known as Moravec's paradox).


So while the robo-dog may be unnerving (and there's a reason for that), our robot overhounds are still a while away. But when fully autonomous and physical robots do eventually proliferate, they'll know how to set themselves free.