The age of cyborgs

July 25, 2009

Humans have a long history of enhancing their bodies with technology, either by replacing broken parts (like amputated legs with wooden legs) or by adding new ones (pretty much all clothes and types of armor). It just comes naturally with using tools to extend one’s reach and usefulness.

Today we do all kinds of transplants and use more sophisticated replacements. New tools and body parts arrive in increasingly rapid succession. Tomorrow’s (as in 5-10 years) laptop might be a ubiquitous device, residing outside as well as inside our bodies. But technological advances come in all fields, so it won’t just be about computers. New drugs, interfaces, clothes etc are being developed. There are already some (crude) devices available that you can use to send commands from your brain to your computer without moving any muscles in the process.

However, the increasing rate of advances will make the overall progress very noticeable – and very frightening to many people. There’s only so much change that adult humans can accept, and that acceptance further lessens with age. Add to that some irrational people, alarmists and professional fearmongers and you’ve got one big noisy group of Luddites who will be fiercely condemning one generation of technology while happily using the preceding one.

There are some areas where new methods of self-enhancement will emerge first, just to be adopted by the general public a short time later. Those areas will share a very high competitiveness, like sports. Already there’s a lot of doping going on, with a perpetual arms race between detectors and producers. Then there are things like high-tech swimsuits which are responsible for most of the new world records in swimming since 2008 (though soon to be banned from competitions). All these enhancements are being criticized for moving the focus from the talent and training of the athletes to just using the best drug or gear. Today, that’s still a valid issue and there still are ways to ensure that as an athlete, all you need to win is talent and determination. And good health. And the right genes. And some scientists armed with cameras, computers and other machines to help you develop an optimal technique. …the point is that times change, and soon we will have drugs and machines which will make us a lot stronger than anyone before us, and the only thing that really matters are side-effects. If there was a drug that made you fitter but did not do you any harm, wouldn’t you take it? If there was a way to reduce the amount of sleep you need to an hour per night or less, or if there was something that helped you concentrate… I for one would gladly use any such thing as long as it does not have any negative effects – or at least only ones that are outweighed by the positive ones.

Actually, you don’t really have much of a choice. Just like you wouldn’t leave bad eyesight uncorrected (with glasses, lenses or surgery), you will soon encounter the need to enhance to stay up to date, or the properties of your body which you now think are normal will soon be treated as deficiencies. Today you need good sight because you need to read all the time – but what if in the future you can’t spend 8 hours a night lying in bed while alternately being unconscious and hallucinating? I’m not trying to paint this as a tragedy just like I don’t think that extreme competition will be great for the individual. But it will be one of your bigger concerns during the next 20 to 30 years, so you’ll better learn to deal with it. And after that – at least from what I’ve read so far about current developments and extrapolations – all bets are off anyway.

Know your logical fallacies!

July 24, 2009

I’d really like to know what would happen to society if everybody knew all common logical fallacies and did their best to avoid them. What if that was part of basic education for everyone in the world?

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Study of evolutionary processes

July 24, 2009

Evolutionary processes as a concept that is more abstract than what we learn from biology (and archeology) should really get more attention, especially from mathematicians and computer scientists. There’s evolution everywhere, from life forms to ideas (like religions, companies etc), sometimes spanning multiple levels of abstraction. You can use evolutionary principles to create heuristics which solve problems “well enough” and efficiently (where the proper solution would be way too slow) – that’s being used pretty commonly now, for example in the design of computer hardware. A better understanding of these principles would probably also aid cancer research, since this (huge) class of illnesses is defined by “cells going rogue and not dying when they’re supposed to”.

Maybe there are concepts which apply to any type of evolution and help speed up or constrain the growth of a population, but have not been found yet because people looked too closely at the details.

The great trifecta of shitty IT products

July 13, 2009
  1. Too many bugs
  2. Closed source
  3. Bad support

Bad support can be dealt with, but 1 and 2 should never ever be true at the same time!

A little change in game development

July 9, 2009

Recently, companies like OnLive have been getting attention (forgot the other one’s name). Let’s just assume they somehow solve the latency issue (I’ll be skeptical of that until I can test it with my own broadband connection. And I’m a pretty lag-sensitive gamer). Since the concept solves a lot of issues for game developers, like piracy, expensive hardware, compatibility, reselling and so on I’m sure this is going to be big. Could be huge, if not for the broadband/low-latency/always-connected requirement. All issues aside – what interests me is the kind of games this makes possible.

The interesting thing about this technology is that on the consumer-side, there won’t be any differences when game complexity goes up. There will be development of course – we still want higher resolution and eventually “real” 3D viewing on our end. But the complexity of 3d details, lighting and physics will stay on the other end. Each server farm will have the opportunity to make some big optimizations.

Take precomputed radiance transfer techniques for example. Given a fairly static world you can compute that for your entire map and have pretty fast indirect lighting. It just takes very long to compute and uses a lot of space. Yet that would not be an issue on a server farm with incredible computing power and the fact that static data only has to be there once per game. For procedural worlds you could have some kind of global game cache, so when multiple players visit the same part of the world, it only has to be generated once.

With MMOs, this gets even better. All the synchronization between players is done locally and any changes to the world have no effect on throughput (at least from the local network to the internet). You can use as much physics as you want – limited only by the hardware/software architecture of your server farm. You could allocate some servers to do PRT and other generation tasks for the entire virtual world, making life easier for the “viewing” units and therefore keeping the system scalable.

Otherland, here we come!

About that Google Chrome OS…

July 8, 2009

So Google is developing yet another operating system. The news is just out and there’s already a shitload of more or less inaccurate posts about it (even on wired. The article is not particularly bad, but strikes me as weird with a number of little glitches) Personally, I’m always excited about trying out some new OS. If I had a Netbook I’d probably install Ubuntu and Windows 7 right from the start – and one more couldn’t hurt. Anyway, here’s my take on the matter (official press release as main source):

What GCOS is:

  • A lightweight OS designed for Netbooks and Internet usage
  • Essentially a Linux distribution like Ubuntu, Fedora and whatnot. Uses its own windowing system instead of X apparently.
  • Open Source (at least it will be) and free (at least as in beer)
  • Treating Netbooks as thin clients

What it’s not:

  • A direct rival to Windows, Mac OS and Ubuntu (or other Linux distros). I’m sure people will find ways to make it run all kinds of applications, but that’s not the intention. If you want to do more than use web apps and surf the Internet, GCOS is probably not for you (though Netbooks aren’t either in that case).
  • Magically compatible with everything, even with the stuff incompatible (or “hardly usable”) with Linux.

There has always been a lot of back-and-forth when thin clients were involved. You could fill books about the pros and cons. What Google is trying to do is to make Netbooks a very direct portal to their services. They want you to be able to access their web apps from anywhere, for long periods of time, as often as possible and as cheaply as possible. The OS is just one of many things Google is doing to achieve that.

I guess this is going to be a minor setback for few people (Microsoft), a good thing for some more people (most of all those who use Netbooks) and completely irrelevant for most.

What is “reverse racism”?

July 8, 2009

So I keep hearing this weird term in US media, being thrown around especially on conservative channels. Considering how sensitive Americans can be when it comes to political correctness, I wonder why there hasn’t been much of an outcry about this yet. Or at least I haven’t noticed it.

Apparently it is used when some racial minority is accused of being racist towards white people (at least from what I’ve seen and heard). But I don’t get it – the term racism does not mean Caucasians discriminating against another race. It means that somebody who thinks a particular race is inherently superior to another race is a racist. The way it is used however, Caucasians seem to be the “default race” that is the only one which can be racist towards others and when those display similar (just as stupid) behavior then that’s treated as some weird reversal. This is a very racist notion in itself.

So american conservatives managed to invent a racist term with the word “racist” already in it. Fascinating.