While were in conversational mode, I realized I never finished posting these YouTube conversations, though Eric and I did finish editing them a while ago.
I like the idea of this kind of taped conversation, though I think the production could be a bit more polished, even on no budget. We'll try some more in the not too distant future, but for a dry run of it, I'm content with how this turned out.
All together they come out just shy of 30 minutes, about 10 minutes each.
Here they are, in order:
Installment 1 of a videotaped conversation about Futurism and what might constitute a revolution in wealth creation. Filmmaking, Ben Franklin, Obsessive Amateurs and King Kong are also referenced. Coffee is drunk, cigars are smoked, and a good time is had by all.
Our conversation continues; Who benefits? Things that are almost free! A mythical fat little girl in Iowa! Killing vs. Living! Independent Texans! Bruce! Sexy Green Things! Unexpected Vulgarity! Expanding the Sphere of Your Life! View on...
Our conversation concludes; Court the Wealthy, Save the Earth! Scary Old VCRs! Never Stop Spinning! Surprise, Look What Happened! Things like that just didn't happen back then...! Weird Half Measures! Radio, With Cameras Pointed At It! Eric wants a green condo (his is yellow)! Dystopian Disaster! International Leapfrog! That's the kind of thing that will happen! And fade out - the end!
Friday, July 20, 2007
While were in conversational mode, I realized I never finished posting these YouTube conversations, though Eric and I did finish editing them a while ago.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
I've started having an email conversation with a friend about consciousness, and whether we gain anything from having it. I think it might be fun to post some of it here.
This has come about from both of us having read Peter Watts' novel Blindsight, which is available for you to legally download free here, but which I strongly recommend you actually purchase with real money.
A good, and entertaining, introduction to this can also be had at the mere cost of 20 minutes or so of your time viewing this excellent mock pharmaceutical research presentation:
The Vampire Domestication Slide Show
View it, and then come back and read...
Back already? Then here we go:
The book raises the question, which my friend has explicitly asked:
"Did you come away with any thoughts about what consciousness *is* for, anyway?"
What's it for? I think Watts suspects it isn't for anything, but is something like a non-adaptive mutation that got fixed in the population somehow. By non-adaptive I don't mean maladaptive... you know?
I don't know if I'd go that far, though. Seems like it must bestow some evolutionary advantage in order to permeate the species, as it does.
One of the things I was trying to imagine after having read the book was, what would a fully non-conscious human really be like... one who's behavior was dictated primarily by biological efficiency. I don't think such an animal could actually pass for conscious, or prevail in competition with conscious beings.
On a crude level, if you're talking about superior biological efficiency, simply voiding your bladder when the impulse begins is far more efficient than holding it in to avoid social awkwardness. I rather think the Watts Reconstituted Vampires would be more likely to appear infantile in this and other respects, despite their superior hunting skills.
Slightly less crude, I'm not sure a fully biologically efficient non-conscious being could adapt to the intricities of contemporary civilization, no mater how omni-autistic they were. In Watts' premise, these animals evolved as predators of humans, all their non-conscious pattern recognition and predictive brilliance centered around hunting human prey. I doubt such a thing could be made to function among a complex population as depicted in the novel... it has no stake nor ability to appreciate any advantages to civilization. It has no fellow feeling for others of it's kind, as it has no self awareness. As far as it is concerned, eating and processing nutrition to fulfill biological impulses would be the utter height of purposefulness.
I doubt that any degree of omni-autisitic brilliance could overcome such a narrow scale of ambition when confronted with mass organization that has the advantage of input by reflective consciousness.
I think it seems to me that, although consciousness does seem to be something of a deluded observer of the organism, rather than the pilot, these observations do eventually inform behavior after the fact. I don't know if this is what really goes on in there, but it seems like the observer experiences action, judges it, imagines consequences or alternatives, which it then may come to strongly desire. This strong desire has some influence on the non-conscious actor in there, maybe by seeping into the connections the actor uses to receive stimulus from the senses, so that this consciously arrived at desire may have a tendency to tilt action in some general way.
Accumulated over a lifetime, this tilt manifests as things like which foreign language you took up in High School, what movie you decide to see next week, or even simple things like successful potty training.
In some way I think the conscious observer realizes it isn't fully in control of its meatwagon. Tool use seems to me to be the first step down a long road toward replacing these grudgingly cooperative but independent non-conscious steeds with something that pays closer attention to the conscious commands of the rider.
What do you think?
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Vikram S. Kumar has been working with the Joslin Diabetes Center to design what he calls a "community-based, predictive game" for children with type I diabetes. DiaBetNet aims to develop mental models of their physiologies and motivate them to check their glucose levels more frequently. The game encourages diabetic kids, linked together wirelessly, to play on a computer to predict their own and others' glucose levels. The idea is to "leverage untapped social dynamics" rather than relying entirely on doctor-patient instructions or parental nagging.
Revolutionary Wealth - Alvin and Heidi Toffler
If you're interested in reading more, go here and here.
This false color picture of Lake Carnegie, Australia linked to from Pingnews.com's Flickr photostream. The picture by NASA is in the public domain.
You know about false-color imaging? Taking a picture of something but altering the colors to illustrate some invisible aspect of the thing? You can show how hot a place is, or wet, or how many minerals of what kinds are present where.
It's a simple and powerful trick. Map a more obvious or more appealing visual to a set of obscured data to expose the secret truth.
How many people play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games? Shared, communal game environments proliferate. So far, elements of gameplay and player's characteristics are tangentally, if at all, related to anything about their meatspace existence other than their discretionary cash.
But look what DiaBetNet is attempting, and imagine games where aspects of the players' actual lives, habits and activities, were tied in some measurable way to gameplay. There is alot of talk about a coming wave of home use medical diagnostic devices. How about games where your real world cholesterol level, heart rate, athletic ability, habitual diet, vitamin intake and drug use were directly related to in-game prowess or to active game-play through the uploaded diagnostic information?
A small step, the Wii Fit.
But I'm thinking of something more comprehensive... something that could aggregate and compare vital statistics and diagnostic results with a massive online population to spot trends and danger signs. Where catching early signs of cancer or the onset of alzheimers in other players leads to rewards and where the whole connected system learns from it's player-base as they use it to become more accurate, to incentivize improvements in healthy lifestyles, and to tell you when something is starting to go wrong, and point you to necessary resources.
But it can't be some square Surgeon General approved slab of government health propaganda.
The diagnostic activity has to be converted by "false-color" conversion to game play metaphors, that maybe have nothing to do with health in any obvious way. Maybe the players won't even fully know it. Optimize your diet to your body-type and age in the real world, and hidden levels of the game become available. Stop smoking, notice your experience points earned in raids are increased by some percentage. Do you have an in-game home territory? A castle maybe? The higher your risk of heart disease, the more rats in your castle.
The more of your (certified by some method like diagnostic devices or doctor transmitted information) medical history you make available to the game, the richer your experience. The game subtly and constantly evolves environmental challenges aimed at nudging players closer to their unique optimal health.
The game of life?
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
In Verner Vinge's space opera A Deepness in the Sky, he proposes that one of this future's most valuable professions is that of Programmer-Archaeologist. Essentially, the layers of accreted software in all large systems are so deep, inter-penetrating, idiosyncratic and inter-dependent that it has become impossible to just re-write them for simplicity's sake - they genuinely can't be replaced without wrecking the foundations of civilization. The Programmer-Archaeologist churns through this maddening nest of ancient languages and hidden/forgotten tools to repair existing programs or to find odd things that can be turned to unanticipated uses.
"The word for all this is 'mature programming environment.' Basically, when hardware performance has been pushed to its final limit, and programmers have had several centuries to code, you reach a point where there is far more significant code than can be rationalized. The best you can do is understand the overall layering, and know how to search for the oddball tool that may come in handy -"
A Deepness in the Sky - Verner Vinge
This picture of a flexable keyboard tunnel linked to from Lord Cuauhtli Rangel's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.
This is not all that different from what I actually do in my current job.
I work at a moderately large corporation analyzing and fixing bugs in our production systems. When a system gets too buggy, because:
- Over time, the other systems it interfaces with have changed and so now it can't communicate with them as smoothly
- Elements of the server or network environment in which the programs run have changed, negatively affecting the program's performance
- Users have developed odd work-arounds to make the program partially serve some unanticipated need, and now those have taken on real business importance
I spend a significant amount of time digging through old, partially documented or undocumented code, trying to establish relationships between systems and reconstruct reasons for the way things were done, so the fuller implications of changes to be made can be understood.
We're less than a hundred years into the history of software accretion for our civilization, and already the notion of a Programmer-Archaeologist is not so absurd.
To my knowledge there aren't any significant tools or proven working methods for this new trade, but looking forward, I'll bet this is fertile ground for innovation.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Monday, April 23, 2007
This one is really neat:
This piece of robotic awesomeness come courtesy of Cornell University.
The starfish like robot starts out with no internal model of itself. It goes through a series of self-directed motions which it uses to figure out what kinds of pieces it has, where its joints are, how many limbs it has, how it can possibly move, etc. Then it uses the knowledge it has gained to figure out a way to walk, and it walks. When the engineers later remove a piece, it senses the lost portions, re-configures its self image, and tries to devise an alternate method of walking.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
I came across a great article today on Ars Technica about a do-it-yourself personal fabrication machine.
What's a fabrication machine? It's this:
Basically, Evan Malone, a mechanical engineering grad student at Cornell University, has designed a rapid prototyping 3D printer that you can build for yourself for under $3,000.00.
The article linked above points out that this is an equivalent cost range to early personal computing. I don't know how much this will bear out as an analogy, but if the flexibility, robustness and sophistication of this machine compounds anywhere near as quickly as those early computers did, this could well be one of the first signs of a true revolution in the way things are done!
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Here's an experiment - I started writing this because I needed another outlet to toy with interesting ideas - the way I usually do this is in elaborate conversations with friends. My friend Eric and I have talked for a while about recording some of these conversations and seeing what we could do with them. Soooo - here's the first installment of A Transparent Life on Youtube:
It's at least 1980's Local PBS Affiliate Public Interest Interview Show quality, don't you think? :-P
I'll be posting more 10 minute segments of this as time goes on... hopefully you'll be entertained.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Pretty good overhand:
So far, most of the Japanese robots I've seen have really nailed showmanship in their movements. I love the way this one winds up before the pitch!
Friday, April 13, 2007
With all the spectacle of wealth excreting semi-conscious software based juristic entities (still working on that name) that has gone on this week here, now seems like a good time to consult our old friend Benjamin Franklin for a word of caution:
"Whenever we attempt to mend the scheme of providence, we had need be very circumspect lest we do more harm than good."
- Benjamin Franklin, found in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
This picture of a painting of Benjamin Franklin linked to from A. Meyers' Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.
Here's a nightmare scenario, as conceived by Charles Stross in his novel Accelerando. What if these weird, self-sufficient economic entities become self organizing and conscious, and able to guide their own further elaboration? The creatures I've been describing are like caveman versions of the entities which come to be known in his book as the Vile Offspring. In the book, the Vile Offspring are post-human intelligent entities evolved from a variety of Artificial and Human Intelligence combinations that participate in a highly accelerated economy that unaugmented humans can't comprehend, and even augmented humans can't fully join. This blaze of resource allocation reorganizes all the matter in our solar system on a molecular level into a substance called computronium, in which these post-human entities can live and conduct their incomprehensible business.
Too bad for the rest of us.
It's the economic version of the runaway fission reaction that physicists feared might ignite the atmosphere as they were contemplating detonating the first atomic bomb.
I don't know if that outcome is very likely, though I do think it will be possible to build a self-sustaining software based wealth generator that might well have some attenuated legal personhood. You won't be able to steal from it or abuse it without being subject to prosecution. It will probably be on the level of an idiot-savant, good at its specialty, otherwise dependent on human custodians (legal guardians, i.e. a board of directors) to look after its other needs.
Though I'm using Ben Franklin above as a source of caution, I actually think he would have enjoyed thinking out the shape of these imaginary creatures. If he can be quoted saying cautionary things, it's generally right before or right after his indulging in an elaborate bit of futurist tale spinning.
Finally, since it's Friday, I'll leave you with another quote from The First American:
Beer is proof that God loves us and want us to be happy.
This picture of a pint of beer linked to from Stig Andersen's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
But we don't need to go as far as all that yet!
Stopping short of imagining these Juristic Entities taking on autonomous lives, there are interesting things to think about how they could be better used in the lives of more people today. Right now, the very wealthy already take advantage of versions of these kinds of constructions. Trusts, Investment portfolios, Corporations and LLCs are today designed to arrange the wealth of individuals in self-sustaining, self-growing systems. Right now, these systems require a good deal of expert human intervention. Boards of Directors, Trustees, Lawyers, Fund Managers, etc. All of these individuals divert wealth from the entity, but also, their necessary participation generally puts these kinds of entities out of the scope of imagination for the less-than-wealthy.
But it doesn't have to be so. I think that today, much of the expertise exercised by these various managers can be reasonably modeled in software. I think even today you could set up a legal entity, run largely by software, to manage a body of capital on behalf of an individual that could grow that capital into real wealth without losing so much to management or setting a high initial bar to entry. You could sell it in a box, so that anyone with a computer and an internet connection could nurture their personal financial being this way.
This more egalitarian concept of software based self-sustaining wealth-creating juristic persons (note to self - think of a better name!) is somewhat Fullerine.
This picture of a Tensegrity Sphere linked to from Michael Hohl's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.
Buckminster Fuller developed an organizing principle around most of his architectural theory, that involved applying the discipline of mass-production to make inexpensive dwellings that were both better suited to their purpose as machines that facilitate your daily life, and more easily deployed than traditional houses. He favored air-shipment of complete, pre-built structures from their factory to the actual land they would stand on. Something that would be livable the very day it was delivered. As air-transportation put a premium on weight, he turned to modern steel and alloys and lightweight tension based construction as opposed to wood and concrete and the traditional compression based construction style of things stacked on top of other things. He came to view traditional house-building, the kind that still predominates, as a horribly outdated and inefficient process;
The small house, Fuller claimed, Had received none of the benefits of economic pressure that had influenced the design of the airplane and the radio. The housing industry was an absurd throwback to the pre-industrial world.
Michael John Gorman - Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility
What I'm suggesting is that wealth generating economic entities, our present day small businesses, corporations, trust and investment funds, loan agencies and other combinations of legal and functional design that essentially eat raw materials and/or information and excrete wealth, might evolve given similar design pressures.
Fuller had an advertising writer (the guy who coined the word "radio") work with him to express his central principals in a single word, and the word they invented was "Dymaxion (TM)", a contraction formed from the words "Dynamic", "Maximum" and "Tension". As I understand it, the principals it tries to describe are those of flexible sufficiency - breaking with tradition to look anew at the purpose to be achieved, and then designing to that purpose with an eye to maximising flexibility and economy. A kind of "do more with less" attitude. A re-arranging of materials to tease greater utility out of less substance.
In my mind, Dynamic Maximum Tension when applied to Wealth Creation points in the direction of designing "corporations" to require the fewest humans possible to produce a sufficient surplus wealth to provide for the needs and comforts of its employees/caretakers, as well as contribute a degree of excess wealth to the larger economic system. It would be to build little "Wealth Creation Machines", whose moving parts are software and legal frameworks around some service or resource for the benefit of both specific individuals and the larger economy. Every individual person should be able to have a personal Juristic Assistant keeping an eye on their personal wealth, making sure it keeps on growing.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
I find the concept of Juristic Personhood to be really interesting.
That's the practice of assigning some or all of the legal standing of a human being to a non-human system, like a corporation, in order to, as I understand it, simplify questions of ownership around the materials used by that corporation in its business, as well as to protect the actual humans who form that corporation from individual liability in the event of the corporation's failure.
Juristic Personhood has been a tremendous benefit to economic development. I like to think of it as a way of constructing artificial super-beings which we can dress ourselves in to engage in economic tournaments with each other. Giant, semi-autonomous mecha power-suits built of laws and strategic plans. But enough of my fevered imagination.
I'm not going to go into the old slander of a corporation, considered as a person, exhibiting the symptoms of clinical sociopathy. Clearly the fictional beings we're calling Juristic persons aren't fully valent human personalities. They're creatures with something like a quarter or an eighth of a brain... just the deep, autonomic and reptilian bits. You wouldn't call a reptile a sociopath, it's just a reptile. That's the level our current, very useful, Juristic Persons exist on.
This picture of a boa constrictor linked to from Mozambique - Moments's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.
But it doesn't have to stay that way. As we talked about yesterday, if consciousness can be expressed as a set of rules, and a Juristic Person is essentially composed of rules, should the rules become comprehensive enough, and independently operating, we might be able to build up our Juristic Creatures to more full personalities, with real social imperatives. We could give them the corporate equivalents of the pre-frontal lobes, instead of limiting them to reptilian nervous systems.
The difference between this Juristic Person (JP) and the standard concept of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) is that the JP comes already plugged into a Darwinian environment - the economy. It has a food: capital. It has a metabolism: production/service provision. It has a means of storing excess energy: wealth. It can thrive or perish in this environment, which is rich in variety and opportunity and hazard. It's more than a metaphor, it's a real environment that has been winnowing the existing reptilian species of JPs for centuries now. It's still an economic age of dinosaurs, a Juristic Park. If there is a revolution in wealth creation coming, I think it will involve our JPs evolving into something more mammalian.
Here's where thinking out loud is going to carry me into absurd extremes, but it looks fun over there, so let's go!
Given enough elaboration, and enough automation, I think we'll be able to build corporations that require few, if any, human beings in the system. I believe we'll eventually figure out ways for the various kinds of corporate guidance (the jobs of executives) to be derived using analysis of historical cases, existing market conditions and built in corporate goals, that will provide steadier, more beneficial leadership than the hodge-podge of people currently involved. A corporation is essentially a machine that produces wealth, and I think that eventually we'll be able to program these machines to run better on their own than they can with a human's hands on the wheel.
Eventually, if you can suppose an autonomous JP that achieves the semblance of consciousness, given the already extant legal definition of a corporation, might not a fully automated, conscious appearing wealth generating system with legal "personhood" be able to stand beside a natural human being in the world's esteem?
This thing would exhibit signs of intent and comprehension, it would be making a positive contribution to the wealth of the society around it, and it already has a framework in which it's legal rights can be equated with personhood.
This is a true form of Revolutionary Wealth.
I didn't think it up, though. Alot of the above is elaboration on ideas presented by Charles Stross in Accelerando as a concept called Economics 2.0. As he imagined it, it wasn't the best thing for anyone who couldn't keep up.
But more on that later.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Yesterday's Rubik's Cube solving robot is a good starting point to raise the question of whether or not it is possible to model intelligence to such a fine degree that the model could be considered intelligent itself.
This picture of a mental model linked to from Steve Jurvetson's Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.
There is a thought experiment called the Chinese Room. It is meant to prove that even if you could model a consciousness to a degree indistinguishable from actual conscious behavior, it still wouldn't actually be conscious, it would be just an automatic process.
The argument goes like this: Imagine you know nothing of the Chinese language (any of them, take your pick), written or spoken. You are placed into a box with 2 openings. Through one opening, pieces of paper with indecipherable squiggles on them are inserted. You then take these squiggles, compare them with a vast library of rules as to what squiggles to put on another piece of paper based on what you find on the first piece of paper. You then slide this second squiggled-up paper out the other opening. You've probably guessed it by now; to an outside Chinese speaking interlocutor, the box appears to be responding correctly to questions posed to it in Chinese. It appears the box understands Chinese. You, however, inside that box don't understand it at all, you're just following instructions. You have no consciousness, no awareness of what the conversation is about, or even really that you're facilitating a conversation at all. It could be anything. It's a meaningless activity to you.
Poor Rubot doesn't actually solve the cube puzzle. It knows not what it does. There is no consciousness there.
Leaving aside the response that for a system to behave indistinguishable from a conscious person so well as to fool other conscious people, it would need to do far more than simple return rules-based responses, there is another objection I've been thinking about.
It's true that you inside the box do not comprehend the conversation, but, in a way, the box really does. The box as a system understands. In the thought experiment, you are deliberately being placed in the role of something like a neuron... not in the role of the interpreter of neural activity. The interpreter, the consciousness, in this experiment is the set of rules. All you are doing is delivering stimuli to the rule-set, and returning output from the rule-set to the world.
So, is consciousness a rule-set? I don't know. Maybe something like that. Is that what we are, that thing we are referring to when we say "I want this" or I'm going there"... the I inside our heads? Is that, in the end, a rule set, partially built in conception and then elaborated through experience?
Evidence seems to suggest something like this is true.
All thought is action. All action is in some way reaction. Maybe our personhood is a really elaborate set of rules for interpreting stimuli that build up in our meat-brains throughout our lives. If that were so, maybe we can attribute real consciousness to software that models conscious behavior so closely as to be indistinguishable from our consciousness. Just because it's not happening inside a human head doesn't mean in might not really be as aware as we are.
Monday, April 09, 2007
Although there is a significant amount of showmanship in the pre-programmed human interaction this robot displays, the actual Rubik's Cube solving is legitimate. In this video the cube isn't too badly mixed up by the little girl to begin with, but the robot can usually solve the cube no matter how mixed up it is in about 35 seconds, or about 20 moves total:
Rubik's Cube solving machines actually look more astounding than they are. What you essentially need is some kind of sensor that can recognize the pattern of squares on each side of the cube (which this robot does when it holds the cube up to its eyes, which are actually scanners), then a piece of software, much like the chess playing software everyone is fairly familiar with, to determine what combination of moves are required to complete the task. Finally, you need some moderately precise manipulators that can turn the cube.
J. P. Brown, an archaeological conservator at the Field Museum in Chicago (not an engineer or inventor), has posted instructions for building just such a robot using nothing more complex than Lego Mindstorms! He even posts the full code to his color recognition program and the logic for the cube-solving solution he uses. His machine is slow compared to the one in the video above, but it works, and you can build it yourself. You should give it a try!
When non-specialists using off the shelf tools can build robotic manipulators which a mere 10 years ago would have been projects worthy of professional robotics labs, you've got to realize that real robot renaissance is on the rise.
(Sorry about that.)
Sunday, April 08, 2007
So I left my apartment today to go get some coffee from our neighborhood Famima!! (a popular convenience store chain in Japan, apparently, and locally featuring the ruggedly handsome snack food Men's Pocky) and, on my way back, found the street temporarily filled by what I mistakenly at first thought must be some kind of Easter Parade (today being the day, after all) but which I soon realized was obviously some kind of Sikh parade:
I snapped a few camera phone pics, as even in Los Angeles it is not every day a moderately sized Nagar Kirtan comes ambling down your street!
A quick web search when I got back to the apartment answered my question (superficially at least) about what this all was:
Sunday April 8, 2007 Event: Baisakhi Time: 10am-3:30pm Location: Los Angeles Convention Center 1201 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, CA 90015 Event Info: Baisakhi, also spelled Vaisakhi, is the festival which celebrates Sikh New Year and the founding of the Sikh community, known as the Khalsa. Come for prayer, langar, Baisakhi bazaar, Kirtan Darbar (musical program) and Nagar Kirtan (Parade)
I don't know if that always coincides with Easter, or if it's just a fluke, but it was a pleasant surprise this afternoon.
The blog is about the future, and in what ways it is an extension of the past, and what ways it breaks with it... this encounter today seems like another sign of that to me - the world has been and will continue to be more and more like this. I doubt it will ever be so homogeneous that everything appears everywhere (at least not until the heat death of the universe), and I don't mean to rehearse trite platitudes about the global village or anything, but frankly I really enjoy living in a country where an atheist can cross a street on an Easter Sunday on his way home from a Japanese convenience store and accidentally run into Sikhs performing a Gatka exhibition in a parade:
That feels like the right kind of tomorrow to me. Thanks, Valley Sikh Temple! And Thanks, America, for still being a kind of map of what the whole world will be provided we all don't start nuking/gassing/infecting each other. Happy Baisakhi, Happy Easter, and Happy Tomorrow to everyone.
Monday, April 02, 2007
In keeping with the run of dramatically different locomotive techniques being experimented with in robotics, here is an extended video segment from a Japanese television show featuring a robotic water eel (it's in japanese, but if you watch it all the way through, it's really visually informative on how the mechanism actually works, and there's a bit comparing the motion of a snake across the ground with the way a person on rollerblades can get forward momentum by alternately spreading their legs and drawing them back together, which is something I'd never considered as similar before... it's a cool insight):
This blog is starting to become the "Robot of the Week" column as I've been unable for reasons of available time to post at any length on other topics during the week. This should be changing soon, and though Robot of the Week will remain the Monday feature, I'll be getting back to more work on ideas of wealth creation and science in general as well.
Monday, March 26, 2007
This clever design can sort of transform itself into different configurations on the fly - it's pretty neat:
These robot posts are really alot of fun. I had no idea the variety of experimentation there was out there!
Monday, March 19, 2007
You might have heard about this one already, but it's one of the more astonishing things to have happened in the past couple of years. Duke University Doctor Miguel Nicolelis has successfully wired up monkeys' brains to a robotic arm which they have learned to control using thought alone:
Here is a New Scientist article on the subject.
Although not exactly a robot in the autonomous sense, this illustrates a kind of blending of the robotic into the biological that has been going on for some time now. There are, in fact, many cyborgs living among us today. Many, many people depend on their mechanical enhancements for continued life, mobility, the ability to communicate, or all of these things at once. Anyone who has:
- a pacemaker,
- an artificial heart
- a portable dialysis machine
- portable oxygen
- an automated wheelchair
- artificial limbs
- a hearing aid
- contact lenses or glasses
- Speech Assistance machines
is already in some degree a cyborg.
You could make an argument for almost any sort of tool to enhance human performance as being a step down the road to cybernetics, but for the word to have any real meaning I think you have to draw the line somewhere. For me, I think that any time we take a machine into our bodies, or invest some degree of our consciousness into a machine, we are talking about the merger that produces cyborgs.
It's interesting to think that, in as much as our conscious minds seem to ride along on our biological bodies without as much real control over them as we might think, that the ongoing push toward cybernetics isn't so much an attempt to prolong the life of the body as it is consciousness attempting to devise a more acquiescent, durable host for itself. Consciousness, the selfish meme, attempting to transcend its withering native flesh through the agency of technological invention, an activity unique to consciousness itself.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with wacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty,after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything.
Charles Stross - Accelerando
The idea here I think is that by doing the most possible to increase the wealth of your environment, you yourself are lifted up with the general increase. In a way, you can't get poorer than the world around you.
Of course, this wouldn't necessarily work in the very specific sense as it appears in this novel without a great deal of other technologies and circumstances. Manfred is able to copyright ideas on the fly in pretty much real time, and has a crazy network of associates he can funnel them through, and lives in a world where corporate entities can be created that are only various layers of software programs managing accounting, licensing and distribution tasks for intellectual properties that they "own", with no actual human in the loop... even granted all these things, Manfred's strategy depends heavily on both his unique (on the verge of supernatural) ability to coin profitable notions, and upon the reciprocal kindness of the targets of his charity.
However, I think there really is something in this idea. If the ambient wealth of a system is high enough, there develops a floor below which it is very hard to descend. To a large degree poverty in the United States is wealth almost anywhere else in the world. It's hard to put a price on things like general lawfulness, peace, toleration and spontaneous creativity.
I had a friend from Kenya who once told me that it was kind of amazing to her that she could drive, a single woman alone, the entire distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco without having to worry in the slightest about bandits blocking the road.
It sounds almost absurd to an American ear, I think. Highway bandits? Really? Yes, really, in more of the world than you might think. But here, it's not a problem at all. You are pretty much assured peaceful transit between any to points within the whole continental US. That's a kind of ambient wealth. It directly improves the quality of everyone's life.
To shift this notion into the ecological sphere, think of Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic:
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
You might rephrase that economically by saying "A thing is profitable when it tends to enhance the wealth of the whole economic community. It is unprofitable when it tends otherwise."
It's kind of an expansion of the frame in which profit is understood. You have to try to factor in an economic action's effect on the whole econosphere, not just the local measure. I don't mean this in a levelling sense. I don't think this means wealth must be artificially re-distributed. I think it's provably true that a system that allows certain large concentrations of wealth is healthier, and raises the common wealth higher, than one in which some notion of equitable distribution grinds the whole system into a dull poverty. But I do think you need more and more to look at, and attempt to calibrate the economic value of, a much wider frame of reference.
The common anti-Wal-Mart argument illustrates this idea. I don't personally have an opinion if this argument is valid in this specific case, but it does seem likely in principal. A company, in an effort to maximize profits, undercuts all its competitors prices. To do this, it must underpay all its workers. People generally initially benefit from the lower cost of merchandise until the undercutting puts competitors out of business, and most of the local workforce has to accept lower wages, either from the victorious merchant or from competitors who have to roll back wages to stay in the game. Eventually, peoples' incomes are choked to the point that the cheaper prices are no longer a luxury for them but a necessity, and they can afford even less of the reduced goods than they could at the start. This isn't good, ultimately, even for the company, as it is smothering its own customer base.
So it seems, at least to me, that there really is something economically defensible in the idea of making others wealthier to make yourself wealthier. Kind of an economic golden rule.
A revolution in capitalism (and I must stress I am a HUGE FAN of capitalism) might be a kind of Comedy of the Commons, where the system, in accounting for wider econospherical effects, might tend to value higher those concerns that contribute most to the common wealth, lifting all boats.
Sure, it's Utopian - but striving for the Utopian is how the quotidian is improved.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Some Science Fictional ideas about the future of Wealth creation
Previously I was criticising the book Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler for having a lack of real revolutionary ideas about how new wealth might be created in the years to come. I'm not far enough through their book to make a serious critique, but I've found some fairly interesting ideas around the subject in a couple of actual Science Fiction novels I've been reading. Here's one of them.
In Accelerando, Charles Stross proposes a legal framework for inter-corporate lawsuits that is essentially trial-by-combat, rather than adjudication.
The idea seems to be that a corporation being sued over something; for example copyright infringement, would then be obliged to pit its use of the copyright against the plaintiff coporation's in a structured contest to determine who's use of the copyright would most benefit the society that is ultimately the sponsor of the legal system. The corporation that demonstrates the greater general benefit wins.
The virtue of this framework is that it makes lawsuits more dangerous to enter into by the plaintif corporations (they might lose, and so lose their rights in the thing in question), and it places merit on utility, demanding action on ideas, not allowing a corporation to claim ownership of an idea or thing and just sit on it to prevent others from using it in competition. It keeps more ideas in competition, and actually encourages beneficial development as a direct result of the trial. The contest stops being "who claimed it first" and instead becomes "who uses it better". It's also important to note that the "better" is in relation to the society sponsoring the legal system, not necessarily just the profit of the company; though in a sane system the two will be as closely aligned as possible.
A downside is that it echoes the justification behind the concept of manifest Destiny; that someone who can turn a better profit with something has a greater right to it than its original owner. This is certainly a danger. The important distinction I think would be to make sure this legal framework only applies to corporate entities, and not to individual people. Although the legal fiction is very useful, corporations aren't people. They exist to serve the needs of people. Maybe there is room now for a re-imagining of the useful fiction. Individual people are adjudicated on merit. Corporations must prove utility.
Maybe ther could even be a sort of Scottish Verdict version of the corporate trial-by-combat, in which the victor is not awareded exclusive right to the innovation, but rather is just granted permission to continue, while leaving the plaintiff in posession of their main rights. There could probably be a number of shades to such verdicts, according to the fitness that each contestant displayed in the fight.
Half-baked, sure, but an idea.
Monday, March 05, 2007
Robots of the week: Teeter and Poke
Not their real names, but you see what I mean:
A little more info on these guys can be found here, and also on the Anybots website.
If I had ever struck it rich early in the dotcom boom, this is exactly what I would have done with the rest of my life.
Well, or maybe this:
Thursday, March 01, 2007
The Future (and Past) of Wealth Creation
I'm still a bit underwhelmed by the Tofflers' Revolutionary Wealth. There may be better insight to come in it, but right now it seems to be lagging conceptually when compared to a couple of science fiction novels I've been reading.
One of the new-wealth concepts that the Tofflers' mention is the idea of "prosuming", by which they mean non-monetarily re-imbursed volunteer or amateur activity that either has an effect on the monetized economy or enhances the overall social wealth. An example of this might be online communities like youtube or flickr, or the extravagantly helpful digital art instructional forums of CGTalk. Very few of the content providers to these websites see any financial reimbursement for their time or personal expense in creativity. They do, however, enhance the general wealth by creating a vast, deep resource of images and advice for anyone interested in looking, and they have generated a tremendous amount of wealth for the individuals who invested in the structural creation of these forums.
Benjamin Franklin; Founding Prosumer
We can see this happening now. It's not new however. You can look to any good biography of Ben Franklin to find out about some two century old examples of the same phenomenon:
...he formed a number of his colleagues into the Junto, "a Club for mutual Improvement."
From this group, motivated by the wish to do good and an inclination for making profit, there was to grow a variety of public institutions...
...Franklin then proposed something more ambitious: a subscription library which could be joined by anyone prepared to pay an entrance fee and an annual subscription...
The next public innovation which he sponsored concerned the City Watch, which, he wrote, "I conceiv'd to want Regulation." ... (Franklin) proposed a regular force of watchmen who would be paid by householders, the payment being proportional to their property.
In 1736 he proposed the formation of a thirty-man (fire) brigade whose members would meet once a month "& spend a social Evening together, in discoursing and communicating such Ideas as occur'd to us upon the Subject of Fires as might be useful in our Conduct on such Occasions."
Much the same practice of first sounding out informed opinion through the Junto and The Pennsylvania Gazette was followed when he proposed improving the paving, lighting, and cleaning of streets, the foundation of a city hospital and of the College which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. More important, however, was the American Philosophical Society, and inter-colonial Junto... "...formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men, residing in the several Colonies... who are to maintain a constant Correspondence..." The members were to meet at least once a month and discuss the correspondence received. Their subjects, it appears from Franklin's letter, covered almost the entire field of human knowledge, ranging from botany to geology, art and industry... Franklin himself offered to serve as secretary until someone else could be found.
- Ronald W. Clark - Benjamin Franklin: A Biography
Ben Franklin's mad fit of colonial prosuming spawned police departments, fire departments, libraries, universities, hospitals, and learned societies. All of these things were begun as amateur volunteer efforts, but became the foundations of professional institutions as the colonies matured into a nation.
Part of the reason this could happen is, these things didn't exist yet in colonial America. There was not sufficient centralized authority to impose solutions to these difficulties, so Franklin and his associates devised solutions on the fly.
Colonizing the Internet
The dramatically easier exchange of information made possible by the internet is kicking off another era of amateur volunteerism, as it provides a sophisticated and largely unregulated forum in which individuals can make the world over new. It fosters societies of like minded people to pursue objectives that might have been impossible a few years ago due to the improbability of them actual meeting and forming societies. It allows detailed, specific information on how to do things to be democratically distributed. It has much potential that has still not been tapped, with plenty of room for building new institutions from the ground up.
Again, I guess, it seems like this aspect of wealth creation isn't really a new revolution... it really seems analogous to the amateur volunteerism required by undeveloped frontiers of the past.
I went on about Ben Franklin a bit more than I at first intended, so I'll save the more innovative examples of new-era wealth creation from science fiction novels in the next post.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Robot of the Week and John Von Neumann's Self-Replicating Machines
Here is a self-replicating, self-repairing robot:
If you want more information on this one, check out the Cornell website for this project.
This is kind of an macro-sized, awkward and simple example of John Von Neumann's notion of a self-replicating machine. Basically the idea is to design a machine that has the capability to autonomously recreate itself out of raw materials. The newly created machine would, by its very nature, also have the ability to make copies of itself, and so would its copies, and so on.
The concept is considered useful as a means of automated construction; essentially you'd design machines that could be placed in small numbers on a source of raw materials, that could then consume those materials to build other machines, ultimately to some end. Either the machines themselves have another use and can just mass produce themselves as well, or they have alternate programming which would kick in once a critical mass of them had created each other. For example, they might be programmed to build a building in a certain way. You would seed the construction site and raw materials with a few self-replicating constructors, they would copy themselves until there were enough to get started, then their secondary program would kick in and they would start putting together the building.
This process, especially as illustrated by the Cornell robot above, seems to echo in some ways the process of DNA Replication. It's not outside of the realm of possibility that you could design self replicating machines that could exchange portions of their design specs to create hybrid machines, and actually mimic sexual reproduction patterns. This concept is actually being considered by some people as a way of evolving problem-solving software programs or, conceivably, nanomachine types.
You would establish a mechanism by which the self-replicating machines can exchange portions of replication instructions in a random way, and set a population to regeneration. You'd essentially get many different random mutations. Then you'd examine the child machine population (much of which would be useless or non-functional) to find useful machines that address the problem you're looking to have it solve. If you can make the reproductive time span very quick, you could evolve hundreds or thousands (or more!) generations of mutant machines in a very short time, and possibly get a tailor-fit machine for the problem at hand much more quickly, and with less conscious effort, than it would take to design one from scratch. You'd then switch that desired machine to clone itself, rather than sexually reproduce, and make as many copies as necessary to address the problem.
People are already taking out patents on these kinds of concepts. I'm pretty sure experiments with sexually reproductive software code have already been tried. The robot version of this would have to be nanomachine based, as the large amount of mutation over many thousands of machine-generations could probably only happen on a molecular scale.
Something like this probably will eventually come to be. We'll stop writing programs or building machines, and instead we'll breed them like livestock.
Maybe some robust, self-sufficient species of machine will escape human husbandry and evolve into an independent, non-human intelligence. Maybe this machine intelligence will be so alien to us that no meaningful form of communication will be possible. Maybe it will just go off and do it's own thing, or maybe it will insert itself into our business. Maybe it will turn out to be a really bad idea.
We can't know, of course, it's all pretty far in the future still. But the shape of it is here already, and it's one of those ethics in science questions that probably ought to be debated publicly by an informed citizenry.
However, it seems unlikely such a debate can be started, as the concept seems a bit difficult to explain to most people, and has a science-fictiony cast to it that causes most people to dismiss it as a pulp thriller plotline.
The thing is, we are living in a science fiction present, and the future is only going to get weirder. I think we need to start dragging these concepts out of genre novels and into the public discourse. This blog is my attempt to that in a small way, until something better comes along.
I'd love to get a discussion going, if anyone would like to comment.
P.S. - looks like the listing on weblogs.com, or something, has pulled alot of new hits to the blog from around the US; welcome everyone! It's still a fairly new thing, but I appreciate you checking in, and will start updating more frequently as the readership really appears to be growing!
Monday, February 19, 2007
Dream Office Building - Accelerated
Remember when I asked if anyone was making a certain kind of building?
Well, check it out!
Consider the Hearst Building, by Norman Foster & Partners, which opened in August, becoming the first building to receive a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating in New York City.
The diagrid (a diagonal grid building structure) frame of the tower used 20% less steel than a conventional frame for the same sized building, and more than 90% of the steel contains recycled materials. The roof collects rainwater that is used to irrigate trees and plants inside and outside the building.
High-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems use outside air to ventilate and cool the building 75% of the year. And the list goes on.
Robot of the Week: Robo-pocalypse Delayed
One of our readers advises me that my concern over the impending conquest of cute, diminutive mechanical people may be a bit premature:
We'll all be safe for a while, as long as we're upstairs.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Dream Office Building
I'd love to work in an office building that had fiber-optic delivered direct sunlight on every floor.
That had both windmill and solar power generators incorporated into the structure of the building.
That collected rainwater for use in plumbing functions that don't involve making the water available for drinking.
That incorporated air-freshening, oxygen producing greenery into the design of each floor, which is watered by filtered greywater and rainwater from the building's own plumbing system.
A building much like the one described in this Fortune magazine article:
Tower of Tomorrow
I found that article while searching for links to back up some of the ideas above, so clearly I'm not the only one thinking about these things. Has anyone built one yet? Imagine how pleasant it would be to work there!
Imagine a building that makes oxygen, distills water, produces energy, changes with the seasons - and is beautiful. In effect, that building is like a tree, standing in a city that is like a forest.
By William McDonough, Fortune
November 9 2006: 10:21 AM EST
Or, if the tree metaphor is too sappy (pun alert - too late!), make it a sleek modern structure. However it was aesthetically designed, it would be beautiful, and imagine how much the owner could lease such prime office space for. It would be unique and prestigious.
If I were rich, I'd build it.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Robot(s) of the Week!
It's Monday again, and these adorable little terminator precursors are your Robots of the Week:
When they rise up, that's how they'll get us. Dancing and being cute and all that. Honda deliberately made their ASIMO robot the size of a small child to put people at ease that it wasn't going to go all T-800 on them.
Now we have these insidious little dancing homunculi. Be entertained, foolish humans! Those that dance now for your amusement, will eat your medicine when you are old:
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
I've started reading Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, and I'm finding it odd that I want to argue with this book even though I'm only three (very short) chapters into it.
So far what the book has essentially laid out is:
a) Wealth is neutral, not good or bad. It is created by desire. Desire is not the same as greed. Stigmatizing desire leads inevitably to poverty. Encouraging desire sometimes (not always) leads to wealth.
So far, no argument.
b) Human history has seen 3 Wealth Systems:
From Chapter three:
"The First Wave wealth system was chiefly based on growing things, and the Second Wave on making things, the Third Wave wealth system is increasingly based on serving, thinking, knowing and experiencing."
Notice the first two waves are to the point, and the third one is a pretty vague catch-all of verbs. Maybe the Third Wave, having only just started, isn't really definable yet.
The Phantom Wave
But then, why decide there even is a Third Wave at all? The four characteristics he lists are all integral qualities to success in either of the two previous systems as well. Both the best farmers and the best industrialists utilize the virtues of service, thought, knowledge and experience in their creation of wealth. These are more or less generic qualities necessary to be good at anything.
I'm not sure I completely believe that there is a Knowledge Economy. Material wealth still needs to be produced. Successive waves don't and can't replace the previous ones. Since the beginning of being human at all, we've needed to eat and we've needed tools and devices. We've needed and made these things through both the First and Second Waves, and we still need them. The wealth systems we've used have all evolved one from another as we figure out ways to get more food and things to more and more people.
What new is being produced in the Third Wave? Nothing, it seems. It's just a dramatic refinement of methods for storing and distributing the knowledge necessary to produce food and machines.
Sure, we live in rapidly changing times, but I'm not sure these changes are really all that revolutionary, nor am I convinced the past changes really amounted to revolutions.
I'm not a Luddite, I find the idea that we may be at the beginning of a dramatic shift in the wealth is created really exciting. I'm just not sure it's really happening yet.
Maybe the rest of the book will be persuasive. This is only chapter three, after all.
Monday, February 05, 2007
Sunday, February 04, 2007
It didn't start with Trading Spaces, but a minor addiction I developed to that show was maybe one of the first strong signs. Next came a fixation on the magazines Dwell and Make, and now there's Craft.
I built a computer desk with the exact configuration of sliding keyboard/wacom trays I wanted, from scratch. After moving to my new apartment, rather than throw/give away the moving boxes, I made a bunch of custom slipcases for an otherwise ragged assortment of paperbacks.
I started drawing again.
Back in 2003 I had a slogan; "Debt free in '03". It was an effective organizing principle. I got out of debt that year. I've been looking for a new slogan, something catchy and simple, to focus life this year. The theme is making things, creating, instead of just consuming. I have nothing against consumption; it's just that at some point you need to decide on which side of the equation you want to live most of your life. Production is better than Consumption.
P > C
There seems to be quite a resurgence of the ideal of the amateur - the person who follows a pursuit out of love, not strictly out of professional duty.
If all goes well, we might be looking at the beginning of what David Brin sees
"as a looming 'Age of Amateurs,' wherein a highly educated citizenry will be able to adeptly bring to bear countless capabilities and individual pools of knowledge, some of which may not be up to professional standards, but that can find synergy together, perhaps augmenting society's skill set, at a time of need."Warren Ellis imagined something like this in his 2002 comic book series Global Frequency. He imagines a worldwide organization of first responders composed of ordinary people who have specialized skills, who might be called on at any time to head off catastrophe.
But, even on a more modest scale, everywhere I look these days it seems like I'm seeing the amateur ideal being held up as an worthwhile pursuit.
The title of this blog is a riff on David Brin's book length essay The Transparent Society which explores the implications of ubiquitous survailance with regard to privacy and freedom. His argument is that in order retain freedom, the tools of survailance need to be available to everyone. His answer to the ancient question "Who watches the watchmen?" is "The watched."
In making this argument, he advocates a robust role for an informed, amateur citizenry in building a free and resilient future. It looks in many ways like this is starting to form itself already.
For a quick example, consider what's happening to the entertainment industry.
Advertisers, long demonized as the puppeteers of material greed, are now scrambling to find ways of inserting themselves into an accellerating diversity of user propelled media. Mass attention is no longer funnelled into very few monolithic one-way channels, and seems likely to never be aggregated so completely ever again.
Though the Internet itself started as a big government project, and has its infrastructure maintained by an assortment of large telecommunications companies, most of the profitable activities that are engaged in on that network were born out of essentially amateur endeavors. Users both provide and consume content, and advertisers simply ride along, hoping to be noticed.
In the old television model of media distribution, advertisers underwrote the entertainment produced by professional specialists in the hope of capturing the attention of consumers on behalf of their clients. Now, the model is shifting to one in which advertisers pay the consumer base directly to make their clients' messages available in association with entertainment that the consumer base produces for itself.
In the early days of humaninty, all life was transparent. You lived in a small familial group or village, and everybody knew everybody else's business, and everybody did everything. Civilization grew, accumulating large population centers, giving birth to annonymity, privacy and specialization, and eventually nobody really knew what anybody else was doing, and people relied on professionals for many of their daily needs. Now, enabling technologies have developed to the point that privacy and professional authority are diminishing again, and though we still live with tremendous population concentration, life is becoming essentially more village-like by the day.
I mentioned this idea to a friend, who countered that it might not be such a good thing, that a degree of privacy might be a necessary enabler of innovation, as it's difficult to buck the system when everybody is looking over your shoulder. There are reasons pre-industrial life is dominated by unchanging tradition.
I wonder if there is a different quality to the loss of privacy in such a large population base, though... individuals will probably retain a level of annonymity simply as a function of the sheer number of other individuals. No one will have time to pester everyone.
That's a fairly shallow dismissal of a good objection, though. I'll think about it some more, and see what I can come up with in response.
In the meantime, I encourge you to tune yourself in to the Global Frequency.