Monday, March 26, 2007

Robot of the Week: Layered X

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

Robot of the Week - Robot Monkey Cyborg Special

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

The Rising Tide that Floats all Boats

Another of the more actually revolutionary wealth creation ideas in Charles Stross' Accelerando is the early career of the character Manfred Macx:

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

Robot of the Week: Robot Hottie!

I'm in love:

And, coming next week... the Robot Monkey Cyborg Special! For real. You'll love it!

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.