Friday, May 05, 2006

Sputnik versus the DARPA Grand Challenge

You know, back in the fifties, Sputnik motivated an entire generation of strapping young men to go into rocket science and technology. Here's a description from NASA archives: "The inner turmoil that Hagen felt on "Sputnik Night," as 4-5 October has come to be called, reverberated through the American public in the days that followed. Two generations after the event, words do not easily convey the American reaction to the Soviet satellite. The only appropriate characterization that begins to capture the mood on 5 October involves the use of the word hysteria. A collective mental turmoil and soul-searching followed, as American society thrashed around for the answers to Hagen's questions. Almost immediately, two phrases entered the American lexicon to define time, "pre-Sputnik" and "post-Sputnik." The other phrase that soon replaced earlier definitions of time was "Space Age." With the launch of Sputnik 1, the Space Age had been born and the world would be different ever after. " If you put the hysteria aside though, there was a pure rush - a touch - of power. The power of technology, "to boldly go where no..." oops, sorry. My husband watched the DARPA Grand Challenge for a while with my son tonight. "His eyes were huge," he said. He didn't understand all of these engineers, all of these robotics experts, all of these men driving these wierd robots into the desert so that they exploded. Ahem. Can we just have a minute of silence while we think about what the next generation will develop into? OK, I admit that I was raised (during my seminal pre-teen years) to the tune of the National Lampoon, so haughty, left-wing pseudo-intellectual gutter humor pervades my psyche. Hey, what can I say. But while Sputnik seemed to be a thin-lipped bloodless Drive to Conquer, the DARPA Grand Challenge seems to be modeled a bit on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Behind the wheel of a huge red convertible, with the tires filled up 40% too much, careening around freeway exits in big swoopy circles... cackling. Does anybody other than me notice the inherent whimsey in the DARPA Grand Challenge? My favorite, of course, was the first one. How far did everyone get? Like 50 feet out? What a hoot. At any rate, this is what our kids are seeing about technology today. Now tekkies have always had fun. (My favorite uncle adored Edmund Scientific.) Nobody's disputing that. I guess that it's just really neat to get a widespread audience being able to see the fun. And what new technology can do. Me, I'm really curious about how this stuff is processed by your ordinary technology-loving five year old. What's it going to come out as? The mind boggles.


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