Expert Breakfast Report for August 16th 2023: Prof. Tobias Langlotz, School of Computing, Dept of Information Science.

As an incorrigible technophile, I have seldom been as excited by an Expert Breakfast talk as this - with a light-hearted readily understandable, approach Prof. Langlotz talked about some pretty advanced topics based on his extensive and varied experience, with some well-informed comments on the future of work, and how it will affect everyone.

Toilet Rolls and Early Years.

Prof. Langlotz commented that this was his first time giving a talk like this, but noted that he had been given “a bit of instruction” (host Sam might have called it suggestions), and that he wanted the session to be as informal as possible, with him responding to questions. “Or we can just enjoy the silence! . . . I can talk about anything . . . If you ask me to talk 60 minutes about toilet rolls, I can do it! . . . you can ask about research . . . I’ve worked in companies quite a lot . . . ask about academic (matters) - my wife is also an Academic .  .  . or we can just talk about politics, and so on.”

Describing himself as a ‘computer nerd’, he explained that his research at Otago involved specialising in human-computer interactions, specifically Augmented Reality, at the School of Computing. This is an entity just one week old formed by the amalgamation of Information Science and Computer Science Departments.

Prof. Langlotz and Host Sam Burden — Image by: John Cross

Born in East Germany, then under Soviet control, he undertook a Master’s degree at Bauhaus University, Weimar, where there was a strong emphasis on art and technology. In Germany, one did not take the B.Sc. - Master’s route, but registered for a Diploma, which went straight on to a Master’s degree. (Even now, while B.Sc.s are the norm in Germany, this would virtually always be followed by a Master’s degree. His Master’s was followed by a Ph.D. at Graz University of Technology, the oldest science and technology research and educational institute in Austria. Ph.D.s in most non-English speaking countries take a long time. Tobias completed his in 6 years, “which is considered fast.” The last year he was not in a great hurry to finish, because his girlfriend started after him. “I had to wait for her, but then, as she was going full-speed, she overtook me and finished first!” He went from Graz to become a lecturer at Otago in 2014.

Prior to that he had research stays in Japan over about two and a half years, at Osaka and Tokyo, a substantial stay at Lancaster University in the UK, two months in Denmark, and six months at Canterbury University.

Augmented Reality v. Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is generally defined as completely replacing one’s surroundings, while Augmented Reality superimposes some virtual content onto real content. In one rather nice example of Augmented Reality, Prof. Langlotz talked about spectacles being developed (‘They are rather large at the moment’), which would make it seem that the wearer was watching you - as indeed they may well be - while at the same time watching a soccer match on tiny screens!

A Ph.D for Ph.D’s Sake (and Promotion Prospects!)

In answering a question about his academic progress, Tobias told us he was being perfectly honest, that when he undertook a Ph.D. his main motivation was based to an extent on a Ph.D. being a very different thing from here in many European countries, in that it becomes part of your title. “In Germany, when you are met such a person on the street, it would be very impolite not to address them as ‘Herr Doktor, Professor’. Also I was really worried that at some point in my career I would run into the problem that I might not get the job that I want.” - Faced with two intellectually equal candidates, one with a Ph.D.and the other without, there would be a strong tendency in Germany (and elsewhere) to appoint the one with the higher qualification.

Ethics, and Changing Perspectives

Prof. Langlotz considered a question about technology being able to carry out all work currently done by people. Initially commenting that only those developing and maintaining the technology would not be replaced in the distant future, he revised that to include even those. He outlined some of the research he is involved in which includes human trials, mentioning among others research into the prevention of strokes and introducing technology into prisons, noting that ethical approval has to be obtained for these studies.

He also made the point that, in ten or fifteen years time, members would be looking at new things coming along and thinking “Back in our day we just had social networking, and that was cool, but this looks really weird!”

Prof. Langlotz Early Work

Initially he was very interested in graphics. “I am a very visual guy. I’m always interested when there is something to see.” At the time he was working in this area, there was a general feeling that projectors were going to be significant, that everyone would have a projector on their mobile phone. Projectors generally project on to a flat, white surface. His first work was on how to project on to other types of surface such as a curtain, resulting in a company being set up to commercialise the work - and this company, for which he worked for two years, is still in existence. Nowadays they make equipment for use on stage, rather than for home use. Tobias showed us a video demonstrating the stage technique, as used by an electronic musician. He also worked on projecting on to holograms, a tricky problem because they are on transparent media. It was solved by making the hologram medium alternately transparent and ‘milky’, the changes being performed very rapidly. In the fraction of time the medium was non-transparent, they could be projected on to, and the unaided eye could not distinguish the transparency changes, so the projection effect was achieved.

When he left having finished his Master’s degree, he had published 5 research papers and had three patents to his name. Unusual in Germany, but not so unusual at the University he was at.

His Ph.D. included work on Augmented Reality. It was at this time that mobile phones became ‘smart’ phones. Prof. Langlotz demonstrated on video a clip of a soccer player apparently practising on a team photo on a table. “We were the first group to do that, where you point your mobile phone on everything, and then you see your additional content. It was Qualcomm - one of the biggest chip makers for mobile phones. For every mobile phone, on average, $30 of what you pay goes to Qualcomm. They either own the patents, . . . or they produce the chips. They invested a lot of money in Augmented Reality - and they paid for my Ph.D.”

Using another application he helped develop, you point your mobile phone camera at a view, and a label appears telling you what it is. The idea was that people would visit a place, point the camera at an object or building, and click on it (they used small pens) and place a label. Then other people using that app could see what they were looking at just by raising their phone and pointing it to see the labels superimposed on the object.

Another project took extracts from video, and he showed us a skateboarder example. In this the skateboarder only was extracted from the movie. He was then able to return to the skateboarding site with his camera, which had footage of the isolated skateboarder in it in such a way that they could be superimposed them on the scene, enabling some striking effects. “That’s my favourite project, by the way.” For his Ph.D. he did many other projects.

Otago University Projects - Computational Spectacles and Virtual Travel

Since coming to Otago he has three large projects under way. One of these is on developing glasses to help people with sight problems such as colour-blindness, tunnel vision, etc., the difference between classic spectacles and this work is that these are computer controlled. They therefore have the potential to achieve considerably more than traditional lenses, including such conditions as autism and attention deficit disorder.

A second project was concerned with making things more coherent than they actually are, though Prof. Langlotz did not go into any detail about this one.

Selected Current Projects — Image by: John Cross

The third concerns virtual travel. “When I came here my Grandma was too old to sit in a plane for 24 hours. But I always had the idea that she could go on virtual travel with me. So, if I go hiking, she is feeling that she is really hiking with me. “ The concept is that she would put on a headset, and he would have a camera with the technology that allows her to freely look around no matter where the camera is pointed. “It’s almost like she is sitting on my shoulder.” While this work is already in a reasonably advanced stage, “we want to do much more.”

Asked what he thought about what the Meta company (formerly Facebook) was doing, Prof Langlotz expressed doubts about their business model, “Although they are by far the best paying company out there. . . I think the general idea of connecting people - which is also something I’m working on - really has a lot of potential.” He described this as him putting on a pair of glasses and being able to see someone, even though they are not actually in the room. Similarly, the other person would be able to to see him, and they would be able to converse almost as though they had eye contact. This would have many applications, for instance one can see the office of the future would be very interested in such technology. “Do I believe in it? - Yes. Do I want it in the hands of a company that makes all of its money by selling your private data? - No!”

He went on to say that the term ‘Metaverse’ being used by Meta was originally coined in a Science Fiction story [“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, contact me if you want to read it - Ed.], which describes a dystopian world from which people ‘escape’ by using digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world. “I don’t want that world . . I have a bit of a dilemma. If the (Meta) company is unsuccessful, that is bad for my discipline, because then they will say ‘This whole thing is not successful’ . . .Don’t get me wrong, they’re very smart people. I have many friends working for this company"

Sensation and Virtual Reality, and Robot Cafés

Asked whether he thought sensation might be included in virtual reality, Tobias described using VR equipment 15 years ago in which he had ‘detected’ smells that were not there “olfactory augmentation”, and many companies are working on tactile (haptic), augmentation. As an example he mentioned a jacket, looking like a perfectly ordinary jacket, through which your mother can express that she is missing you by pressing a button on her phone giving you the sensation of being hugged.

Technology is clearly able to create undesirable, even evil, things, but: “Do I think that there are many, many, many, many really cool applications - absolutely!” In passing he mentioned how effective they can be in the treatment of phobias, for example. He also talked about Robot Cafés in Japan, which he had encountered while there. “I was close to tears,” he told us. (These cafés are not to be confused with another type of robot café, where human waiters dress as robots). In these cafés, customers are served by robots which are controlled by people known as pilots. These may be quadriplegics, or others unable to be waiters themselves, who can only interact with the world using perhaps an eye or their tongue. They might only be able to do this for an hour or so because it is so physically demanding, but are excited by it as perhaps their only chance to be in full control. [Company co-founder and CEO, Kentaro Yoshifuji, got the idea to design remote-controlled robot avatars after his own experience of being bed-ridden in hospital for the greater part of three years. - Ed.)

Surgery and Radiology in the Future

In answer to a question about the future of technology in surgery, Prof. Langlotz told us that there are now surgical procedures which are purely done by technology. When asked whether there would still be a need for Doctors to oversee such procedures, he first made it clear that it was not an area of his expertise, so he could only offer an opinion. And that was that it would be one of the first areas of work that would see technology exerting a massive impact. “Does it mean that we fully replace people? Probably not . . . A machine can do surgery 24 hours a day . . . has no shake or anything like that. I think it will be at some point . . . . that someone will be there just for the emergency. It’s almost like autonomous driving, where people are supposed to sit and they touch the steering wheel from time to time to show they are not asleep. . . I think it will become like that in your time.”

On the topic of Radiology, after noting that Radiologists were among the highest paid workers in the Health field, Prof. Langlotz told us that computer vision can already detect things in X-rays that are beyond the ability of the human eye. Although people would continue to verify the results and expensive equipment would still be needed, such technology can operate 24 hours a day.

AI Robots Out There . . .

Asked if an AI robot was put out in the street and left to its own devices, how far would it would be able to get, Prof. Langlotz first clarified the questioner meant in the future rather than the present, then replied: ”It will learn all the good and bad traits of humankind. .But it is very far away . . . There is a tendency that we either over- or under-estimate. We say it will be here in 5 years, or ‘Oh, no, it will take 20 years’ and usually the truth lies somewhere in between.”

“You are all in your early twenties, or maybe 19, so your careers will stretch about 45 years. Now think back to what things were like 45 years ago. It was very different. Most people did not have a computer. The universities would have maybe two or three. So now extrapolate to 45 years in the future. Things will be very different. Certainly in the medical field, your job will just change. Machines already do surgery, machines do diagnoses, still to a small extent, but it will become much more. Much, much more. Also my job will change. Education will also be affected.”

Simulation Theory and Is Technology Developing Faster?

Simulation theory is the idea that what we think of as reality is actually an ultra high tech computer simulation. A member asked Tobias what he thought of this. This is a philosophical discussion, he commented, “What is reality? I don’t spend too much time on it. Unless you study Philosophy, I wouldn’t go down that road!“

Asked if he thought new technology was developing faster now that we have technology to assist, his reply was swift and definite: "Oh, no! Oh, no! No. No- " - and went on to say that forty or more years ago it was thought so. Fewer mistakes would be made, computers were getting quicker and there would be more resources. “But not in terms of sustainability of resources as we all know, but in terms of computational resources, they are getting quicker and quicker. The point is that, because of that, we also waste them more. They managed to get people to the moon with less computing power than you have on your mobile phones. And what do you do? You watch Tik-Tok movies . . . Nowadays programmers are much more wasteful, and in many cases educated to be much more wasteful . . . Because of that we are not quicker - because we waste so much . . .It still takes ages to do things.”

What Can You Trust?

In response to a question about what can be trusted in the future, mentioning computer art as one example, Prof. Langlotz asked if members were aware that there are already articles appearing by ‘people’ who do not actually exist, but the articles are written using AI - and was pleased to note that members were indeed aware. “We will see more of those things that are computer-generated.”

Image by: John Cross

He talked about knowing that a robot was a robot, but given that it appears “super-realistic, will I think ‘I know he is a robot, so I won’t compare myself to it’, or will I find him so realistic that I will forget he is a robot. That’s the trust thing . . . I don’t know.” He mentioned that we know actors are digitalised. There are movies made using recreations of old actors. A 3D scan could be made of any of us now in case it could be used later. A big acting career would be rather different to what has been the case. Every field will be affected - “But it will create new jobs. But as for the trust thing, I really don’t know. It’s an interesting one.”

As Time Goes On, Things Are Getting Better - Be Flexible!

"One thing I think is important to say - hopefully I didn’t get too pessimistic. There are a lot of positive things." He asked in an enquiring tone: "So who wants to live in the past?" One member volunteered that he was fascinated by life in the early 1900’s. Prof. Langlotz rephrased his question, noting that fascination was not the same as living at that time. So the question became: "Do you think this is a better time for you to live?" The response was:"Oh, absolutely!"

“Human history over thousands of years is not a straight line, with everything steadily getting better, but over a long period things do get better.” He went on to say that, in case those present felt what he had been saying was depressing, it is not. There will always be ups and owns, and things are changing, but things do get better. He illustrated this with his own life. Growing up in Soviet-controlled East Germany, then had some years of freedom, and now Ukraine “There is always some up and down. But in the long term . . . usually things are improving . . . Jobs will change - and that’s true for all of us . . . We all need to be flexible, regardless of what we do.”

Editors note: We were told when I was starting out many years ago (Oh, alright - 68 years ago!) that jobs would change, that we would not be likely to be doing the same thing through our working lives, as had been the case for our parents. It was certainly true for me, and while it has had its ups and downs, it has been hugely interesting, often exciting, and overall, rewarding. Grasp the opportunities when they arise, and remember the best things in life change very little - friends, family, etc., - Beethoven’s 9th will sound much the same whoever is playing it . . . 

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Posted: Wednesday September 13, 2023