Final Entry of 2012

Well, the world didn’t end (which is good, otherwise my end of world prediction would have been totally wrong).

I haven’t posted much this year. In fact, i think personal blog entries are in decline across the board. While there are some people who still write entries almost daily or at least weekly, i’m definitely not one of them. Social networking sites (ala Facebook) have pretty much supplanted the day-to-day electronic “hey, check this out”, and “ooh, i’m feeling…”, or “guess what just happened” posts.

But even so, i’ll continue to keep my blog around and i will even post to it occasionally, but mostly it’ll be for longer items or summaries of lots of littler items. If you want the day to day minutia check out my Facebook, Google+, or Twitter pages.

Here’s a great article i wanted to share. It just goes to show that we’re living in the future. It lists 12 things that happened in 2012 that could have come out of some sci-fi movies from 15-20 years ago. And these are all things that really happened this year!

I grouped these all together because they have a common theme: the merging of technology and biology in some way.

  • A Cyborg Competes Against Able-Bodied Athletes at the Olympics
  • Researchers Create a Robot With Legs That Can Run Faster Than any Human
  • Scientists Enhance the Intelligence of Primates with a Chip
  • The World’s First Cybernetic Hate Crime Occurs at a McDonalds in France
  • A Paralyzed Woman Controls a Robotic Arm Using Only Her Mind
  • Scientists Create an Artificial Retina
  • Researchers Create the First Complete Computer Model of a Living Organism
  • A Child Attends School By Sending a Robot in His Place

Forget about who’s on drugs, now it’s all about what does it mean to be human – how many implants are too many before you can’t compete? Will everyone need implants to stay competitive in high-end sporting competitions? Will that bleed over into everyday life? Job discrimination ala Gattaca if you aren’t genetically enhanced?

If we can make outselves smarter, why not chimps. Or dogs, or cats, or mice? Will they eventually be at the point where they can compete for jobs, demand rights, own property, or even publish scientific papers? And if we can do it on a chip, why bother with bioligy anyway – let’s just do it all in silicone. It’s more durable and takes less resources. Maybe we start with a chip, combine with cybernetic implants, and eventually move on to full-on brain uploads in the cloud!

When will it get to the point where new laws need to be enacted? People always fear those who are different. But maybe eventually “unenhanced humans” will be the oddballs and they’ll be the ones discrimiated against.

Doctors Communicate With a Man in a Coma
Maybe some implants will help and eventually he can control a cyborg body with just his mind.

NASA Starts to Work on a Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive
This is a serious attempt with actual NASA engineers using real (and according to them, plausible) math to achieve faster-than-life travel.

The Earth Experiences its First True Superstorm
Well, maybe not the first, but certainly the first in modern history.

The First Successful Commercial Cargo Delivery to Space Goes Off Without a Hitch
Who needs big government anymore? Maybe we will finally get to take that 2 week vacation to the moon someday (soon-ish).

The First Large-Scale Geoengineering Project is Detected Off Canada’s West Coast
This sounds like a James Bond super-villian storyline.

Self-Driving Cars Become Legal in Several States
It’ll be a while before people are ready to let the car drive itself, but every year the cars get smarter and have more features. Back-up collision detection, anti-lock breaks, off-road steering correction, self-park mode, enhanced HUD’s with relevant traffic/weather information. Slowly but inexorably they’re all moving towards self-driving with humans as simply passengers along for the ride.

Fish vs Robots

Do Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Babylon 5, Red Dwarf, V, and even War of the Worlds have it all wrong? If we or other aliens were to travel into space and go to other worlds, would we really be living inside of spaceships that attempt to mimic our native environment?

The following article (provocatively titled ‘Biological Intelligence is Only a Transitory Phenomenon’) suggests that the answer is no. And not just no, but “hell no, that’s just stupid, what are you thinking?” Here are some quotes from the article to give you a flavor of what they’re talking about:

any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe … If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.

The two scientists compared that approach [i.e. spacesuits and space ships] to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land.” They felt that humans should be willing to partially adapt to the environment to which they would be traveling. … “Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space,

So, are they right? Is it a silly idea to think that we want to go somewhere (let’s say Mars for arguments sake) that we aren’t adapted to, without changing outselves? Suppose we could alter our physical selves with gene thereapy, cyborg implents, etc.. so that we could live on Mars without a big bubble and/or terraforming the planet. Is that a better way to go? Or should we build the portable fish tank to take with us as we explore the cosmos? I can see arguments on both sides.

Pro fish tank: We aren’t ourselves anymore if we change. How can we be human and want what humans want if we’re part robot, part martian?

Pro fish tank: We can share all the cool things we have here with those elsewhere (be they aliens or other human visitors). You won’t be able to experience that if you haven’t brought along the right environment.

Pro post-biological: When in Rome …

Pro post-biological: If you change the place you’re going to, you might destroy whatever it was you were going there for in the first place. Disrupt the habitat, kill off the locals (intentional/unintentional), etc..

Pro post-biological: If you adapt to live in the environment you inhabit, you can experience it as it is, not via some proxy.

Pro post-biological: You don’t have to worry about the bubble cracking and all your air leaking away. You also don’t have to worrya bout too much or too little gravity or light, etc..

Pro fish tank: Space ships are cool. So are shelds, lasers, photon torpedos and cloaking devices.

Pro post-biological: Space suits are not comfortable or easy to wear, and they simply will never ever be fashionable.

 

Full article can be found here.

Googleborg

With the recent introduction of Google+, it got me to thinking how much of my life is tied up in Google. I did a quick count of how many Google products and services I use. Would you like to see the list? How does your list compare? Are we worried that Google will use this to ruin our lives at some point? Or is “do no evil” good enough for you to trust them with everything?

Used all the time (multiple times daily, daily)

  • Google search
  • Gmail
  • Chrome browser
  • Google music
  • Google reader
  • Google+
  • Google calendar
  • Google talk
  • Google voice
  • Android OS
  • Google news

Used often (multiple times a week)

  • Google docs
  • Google maps
  • YouTube

Used occasionally

  • Google buzz
  • Google groups
  • Google translate
  • Google bookmarks
  • Picassa
  • Google earth
  • Google alerts

Digital Reputation

courtesy of renjith krishnan (from freedigitalphotos.net)

I was thinking about various news reports that have been coming in about the Japanese earthquake / tsunami / reactor meltdowns and it got me to thinking about how everyone’s sharing videos on facebook and links/news blurbs on twitter. And of course the news networks are doing their thing as well. But with so much information about the event, how can you filter out and just get the good relevant bits?

And at the same time, the neurons in my head jumped over to IBM’s recent achievement of the Watson computer that totally wiped the floor with everyone’s favorite Jeopardy hero, Ken Jennings.

How can you tell what information is good and useful and what information isn’t worth your time? Digital Reputation. Suppose you see two headlines on the newspaper stand. One reads “Green goo found seeping into New York subways”, and another reads “Big glowing red gas cloud spotted over Arizona”. One is in the Washington Post. One is in the National Enquirer. Which are you more likely to believe?

Digital Reputation is a way of adding ‘weight’ to a piece of information based on who (or what entity) reported it. Some people tend to say crazy and outrageous things. Some people just regurgitate everything they hear from their friends on facebook. Others actually report things accurately and non-biased (mostly).

The idea is to assign some type of reputation to a person. We do it naturally ourselves. You’re probably more likely to believe and/or pay attention to something your spouse or best friend says than you are to some random person that showed up as a retweet in your twitter stream. You’re also more likely to believe someone who was actually at or near an event than someone far removed from it.

How can we tell good from bad with such a huge amount of information available? It’s too much for any person to consume. This is where i was thinking about Watson. Could it be modified somehow to read in the millions of tweets and facebook status updates and blog posts and news articles, understand them, determine what’s ‘true’, who said what, and assign people weights based on historical data: “this guy” tends to say accurate and relevant things, whereas “that guy” just regurgitates stuff and adds false commentary. With that, as a user, you could look at someone’s digital reputation and use that as a guide of who to follow. In other words, it can help you filter for good and relevant information.

Which brings up another subject: How important is it to create/nurture/maintain a good digital reputation? Could it have future impact on your job interviews, your marriage prospects, your retirement?

Can we, should we embrace artificial immortality?

I have often half-jokingly talked about “when the singularity arrives and i upload my mind into a new body…”.  Of course, this is nirvana for many of the Singularitarian‘s.  A way to cheat death and live forever.

Time for some thought experiments.  Do i really think this is possible?  If it is (or becomes so in the future), would it be a good thing?  Would i personally want to do it?  The biggest question: Would it really still be you?  It seems like even if your mind was perfectly replicated it would only be a copy.  I suppose as things go, if you did a weekly backup and died, at most, the “real” you who had died couldn’t complain.  Because you’re dead.  And the “copy” you would feel as if they were you (minus the memories of whatever had happened in the intervening week since the backup).

I can certainly see the allure of something like this.  But then if you take some religious and philosophical viewpoints, things get a little fuzzy.  “You can’t copy the soul” someone might say.  So all you have is a soulless robot that thinks, remembers, acts, and might (or might not) look like you.  But isn’t really you. What is the soul?  Is it the sum of all your memories and likes/dislikes?  What if all that is copied exactly?  Is it something more elusive that can’t be copied?  “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter“.

What about this.  I back up my brain.  I then go and kill someone, and then kill myself.  My previous backup kicks in and downloads to a new body.  Is that new “me” responsible for the murder?  “I” didn’t do it.  The “other” me did, right?  What if you run two backups at the same time?  Which one is “you”?  Who has to pay the taxes?  Which ones goes to work?  Which one gets to be with your wife and children?

Of course, a thought that occurs to me is the tower of babel.  This seems like a modern equivalent – man trying to reach out and touch heaven through artificial means.  “let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven … and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen 11: 4, 6).  What do you think?

Kurzweil at Vegas

I meant to post this a while back, but got distracted and forgot about it.

Mid April I went to Vegas for a day to attend a conference for work.  While there, I had the good fortune to be there at the same time that Ray Kurzweil was giving a keynote address!  I gotta say – he’s a very interesting man.  He would just nonchalantly say stuff like “oh ya, i’m working with top pentagon officials on ways to prevent nanobot warfare”.

There were a couple of points he made that i found quite interesting.  While talking on “the educational system crisis”, he basically said that the current method of education by rote memorization of facts is outdated and should be replaced.  “We don’t need to teach facts.  We can carry the sum total of human knowledge on our belts.  We need to participate in exciting projects that make use of that knowledge“.  In other words, don’t just learn about something.  But go out and build something.  Do a class project that demonstrates the knowledge in action.  Seeing something actually physically happen as a result of an abstract idea – that’s where it’s at.  I can completely relate to this.  That’s why i was so fascinated by computers at a young age.  I could type in lines of code on a screen, and then run my program and cause the computer to do something.  I wasn’t just learning about for loops and discreet mathematics for the sake of academia.  I could actually apply it in the real world to make things happen.

After he got done talking about life extension and that how people younger than their mid to late 40’s will see the average human lifespan increase by more than one year per year (effectively letting everyone live forever, barring accidents), the inevitable questions of “what about overpopulation, resource constraints, and being old and decrepit” were asked.  His response was “the same technologies which will extend life will also extend resources.  And we won’t just have life extension, but life expansion“.  In other words, we’ll be able to solve the new problems that come with living longer and longer.

It was really cool to hear him talk.  If i hadn’t been with a group of co-workers, i’d have probably gone up and had him sign a book for me.  Ah well.  Another time, perhaps.  After all, we’ll both be alive for a very long while, right?

Our post human selves

“Yesterday’s posthumanism is today’s boring quotidian [everyday/commonplace].”


In reading an interesting blog post about posthumanism, the author makes several good points. First off, people seem to think of being post human as something where whoever survives the apocalypse will be turned into machine zombies or something. If you stop to think about it, “post human” is something that you can really apply to us today, if viewed from the eyes of people even a century or two ago. I mean, we’ve got these little devices that fit in our pockets that connect us to the sum total of the worlds information at the click of a button. We can travel from one end of the earth to the other in hours. And we can communicate with anyone anywhere instantly (unless you’re on AT&T, then you might drop the call, but hey…) If you’re hard of hearing or have bad eyesight? No problem. Just get a hearing aid or some glasses. If your heart is bad – we can replace that. Lose a leg? Get a new one. Can’t have a baby? Grow one “in vitro”.

Do these things mean we’re no longer human? Should you go without glasses and see the world in a ball of fuzz just so you’re more “pure” somehow? Of course not. And as time moves forward, more and more things will change, and we’ll change along with them, and we’ll still be human. Or, as Jamais Cascio puts it in his article:

We will never be posthuman, because we have always been posthuman.

“Posthuman” is a term with more weight than meaning; it’s used variously to describe people with altered genomes, people with implanted machinery, people with lifespans measured in millennia, and a whole host of descriptors that ultimately boil down to “not us, not now.”

But as augmentations move from the pages of a science fiction story to the pages of a catalog, something interesting happens: they lose their power to disturb. They’re no longer the advance forces of the techpocalypse, they’re the latest manifestation of the fashionable, the ubiquitous, and the banal. They’re normal. They’re human.

technologies that we now celebrate or decry as leading to our posthuman future … the technologies of human augmentation will lead to the collapse of society … [but] the spread of the Internet and easy communication will mean that most of us will have heard about these technologies as they develop. By the time they arrive, they’ll already be boring.

Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over the horizon. Always in The Future. When the systems and augmentations we now consider to be posthuman hit the real world, they will have become simply human in scale.

That’s because augmentation – the development of systems and technologies to allow us to do and to be more than what our natural biology would allow – is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Thrown weapons expanded the range of our strength; control of fire allowed us to see in the dark; written words expanded the duration of our memories. If these all sound utterly primitive and unworthy of comment, try to imagine what it would have been like to be without them – and to find yourself competing against others equipped with them. The last hundred thousand years has been the slow history of the process of augmentation.

For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.

Kurzweil predicts the next decade

Solar power on steroids, longer lives, the chance to get rid of obesity once and for all, and portable computing devices that start becoming part of your body rather than being held in your hand.

Everybody’s favorite futurist, Ray Kurzweil has come up with a list of big changes we can expect to see in the coming decade.  If he’s even half-right (and he probably is, based on past performance), it’s shaping up to be some really exciting times.

Just to name a few:

Solar power on steroids, longer lives, the chance to get rid of obesity once and for all, and portable computing devices that start becoming part of your body rather than being held in your hand.

Full Article here

Ghost in the Shell

Here’s an interesting take on uploading our consciousness into something else – another body, a computer, etc.. and why it wouldn’t be us. It might work, but it would always be a copy. We (the original) would still be there.

Human consciousness is irrevocably integrated in our organic components. People have always thought of themselves according to the leading technological systems of the day, and with us that’s computers – but the mind isn’t a program that can be copied out onto upgraded hardware. It’s an emergent effect of a hundred billion neurons, uncountable connections, a bath of chemicals and all sorts of input from our body. Besides, the very word “copy” shows that even if you could do it, you wouldn’t benefit – since the copy can exist at the same time, it has to be someone else.

–Luke McKinney @ The Daily Galaxy

To which i’d have to say – that’s a good point. But if the original you is terminally ill, has age-related dementia, or gets hit by a car one day, wouldn’t it be nice to have a backup somewhere that you could boot up in a new body and carry on?

The testing center

The other day i was having a discussion about technology at work (it tends to happen when you work with a bunch of computer programmers). After a bit the conversation turned to how the world and the people in it are becomming more and more connected. Which lead naturally (or so it seemed at the time) to how it must be getting more and more difficult as the years go by to keep students from “cheating” when they enter the dreaded … testing center. “Back in my day”, the worst thing they had to worry about was someone sneaking in a calculator on their math test. Not so any more. With ever more smart and small phones with the internet at your fingertips it’s got to be even worse. And just wait until implants and neural interfaces come along. What then will you do oh testing gods? Force everyone into a faraday cage?

Well of course the real answer is that the nature of testing needs to change. I mean, seriously. Out in “the real world”, when i have a question that needs answering, i have all sorts of resources at my fingertips. Books, computers, the internet, co-workers. That’s just how the world is. And to make testing so different than the real world kind of invalidates the point of the test, if you ask me. What needs to happen is that testing methods need to change. I had a few classes where you were allowed to take your notes and your books and your calculators (remember, almost nobody had a laptop, and cell-phones were monstrous bricks that actually only did phone calls). In those tests, you either knew how to apply the principles to solve the problem or you didn’t. That’s the right direction. Go to class, learn the basics about how to approach solving whatever problem domain you’re studying, and then when you test, use all the resources you can. (phone a friend anyone?) :)

I wonder if my good friend over at Academic Evolution would agree?