Next Generation Movies and Games

August 29, 2009

In one of the books I’m currently reading, author Ray Kurzweil introduces the notion of “Experience Beamers” – people in the future who record their entire sensory input for other people to play back, directly via nerves. It’s like in the movie “Being John Malkovich” – you get the impression that you are in another body but don’t have any control over it. It’s only a paragraph in the book (“The Singularity is Near”), but there’s a lot to be said about it.

It could be a very interesting development. First it would be a novelty for early adopters, with a number of little “clips” to be played back, without much happening. Depending on the complexity of the recording equipment, the next phase would consist of interesting experiences (that few people get to enjoy for various reasons), like skydiving, flying a fighter jet, acrobatics and so on. As both recording and playback technology become more secure and affordable, the first “full immersion movies” would pop up. Inevitably, porn would be a major driving force behind this becoming mainstream – just like with previous formats.
But the movie/television paradigm would also be accompanied by games – in virtual reality. All of those together will probably make a lot of people say goodbye to this world, connect themselves to feeding tubes and vanish into another world where anything is possible.

It will play a big part in a huge controversy about what’s real and what’s desirable. The majority will not want to miss such incredible experiences, but it will also create a lot of confusion. Just like you pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming (does that actually work? I can imagine feeling slight pain in a dream or at least imagining I just felt slight pain…), there will be tests to make sure you are in real reality. The pre-recorded experiences won’t let you do anything on your own, so that’s easy to detect. But virtual reality may become harder and harder to detect, up to a point where you’ll have to interact with your environment in a very specific way to check if you are in a simulation (some things require a lot of computing power, scientific experiments might be a good start). In other words, a feast for paranoid people. The Matrix all over again, just that this time everybody knows the technology is feasible.

Horror movies might prove quite deadly for the viewers, realistic war movies causing actual post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m sure someone will re-create “The Passion of the Christ” so the viewer can prove his faith by being tortured and crucified for a few hours.

On the other side, it might be a great empathy trainer. Documentaries might consist of putting yourself in the place (or body) of someone from another culture for a while. Or an animal! Surely there are many animals with a nervous system to similar to ours that we could tap and process their sensory input. There might even be another short-lived, but strong push for a manned mission to mars where the whole world could experience landing and being there only minutes after the touchdown happened.
Maybe one day the recording machinery could allow us to record and continuously upload our sensory data, making committing crimes a lot harder. Of course, this would also raise some questions regarding privacy…

As with all advances in technology, this will bring some good developments and some bad ones. I’m still looking forward to it.


Making the Jump

August 28, 2009

There is the possibility (or inevitability, if you ask Ray Kurzweil) that one day our minds will be supported by technology rather than biology. Since there is no reason to believe that we are more than complex patterns of interchangeable molecules, there’s nothing wrong with the premise of that idea. A Pattern can consist of anything as long as it looks and behaves in a certain way. And since an artificial brain does not need to be held back by negative emotions, pain and fatigue – why not change the pattern to eliminate those things?

But when I first thought about this, I was a little terrified. There’s no question that I want this – but how will the transformation work? Let’s say you want to go completely virtual – unless you wanted a 50% chance of being left behind in your biological body, watching your lucky clone enjoying immortality, you’d probably want to kill your brain while being unconscious, shortly after it has been scanned. In one moment you’re closing your eyes, the next moment you’re contemplating whether to have your old body stuffed as a memento. But it still doesn’t feel right. The change may be too abrupt, and who knows how much time will pass between the technology becoming “possible” and when it will be “accurate”. Sure, your brain (and therefore your consciousness) can take a lot of damage without getting the impression that there has been a fundamental change to your character. Drink a bit too much alcohol or get hit in the head – you’ll lose a lot of brain cells, and but not too much of “you”. A blackout doesn’t seem to scare people very much, even though it does represent a dent in continuity (and that’s pretty much what I’m afraid of, thinking about transferring my consciousness to an artificial brain).

Luckily, there might be a better way. Instead of one big jump, make it a series of small steps. Use (future) nanobots to replace individual neurons with artificial ones which will have the capability of freezing, saving and uploading their state once they have completely taken over your brain. The transformation could go as fast or as slowly as you want. Going from an artificial brain to a virtual one should be a breeze after that, with no data loss whatsoever.

Trouble in Academia

August 26, 2009

I must confess that I know very little of how the scientific process works. But I am getting the feeling that when newspapers die, they should take scientific journals with them. I’ve mentioned before that the process of publishing some selected papers in journals seems antiquated, inefficient and ineffective to someone who grew up in the information age. Of course any new system would have to make sure not to trade accuracy and rationality for popularity (which could favor opinions and crackpot theories), but I’m sure it can be done.

At least it should make sure that something like this couldn’t happen.

Dangerous Information

August 26, 2009

Every now and then I notice somebody arguing against some kind of access to information which, in the wrong hands, will cause bad things to happen. Like news describing some horrible murders or inventive theft schemes, violent video games corrupting children, software exploits posted on the internet…

There’s always that knee-jerk reaction to cut off access to that information. Stop reporting these things, stop children playing video games, stop telling everyone what you’ve found. Now there might be times when this could be sensible – if there was a way to build a bomb which could destroy the world, just using common household items – you’d probably want to keep that secret. But usually it’s not a black-and-white situation and any attempt to cut off access is 1) useless, 2) extremely difficult and 3) besides the point. If there are people who get inspired by crime stories, then they are probably already a problem – and those stories do attract a lot of viewers so you’d have to use force to stop the media from telling them, while doing nothing about the people who already are criminals (just not creative enough). If parents let young children play violent video games, or if older children get their moral compass from those experiences (instead of seeing a game as a game, and having fun), that means there’s already something wrong with that family – and the time and energy campaigning against violence in video games would be better spent in trying to fix the deeper problem. And as for software – well, at some point a hacker will find that exploit as well, and he will not notify the developer so he can fix it.

So if you catch yourself wanting to suppress information or just ban something in general, ask yourself these questions first:

  1. Am I only treating symptoms and missing the root cause?
  2. Will I be causing inconvenience/harm to innocent bystanders?
  3. Is there really a realistic chance of success, or am I just trying to “do something rather than nothing”?

Information can be bad, but just like technological progress, it can’t be stopped (in the long run). As a general rule, we should counter bad things with good things before we even think of using some kind of suppression technique.

Taking the edge off

August 23, 2009

Here’s one concept I have been thinking about lately… I think the phrase “Taking the edge off” may be summing it up nicely.

Getting rid of extremes is always something that should be considered in any situation. Like the economy for example. Not being an economist I’m probably just stating the obvious (or talking nonsense), but I think that radical free-market-proponents are forgetting that even in a system that tends so stabilize itself there can be fluctuations which might not be acceptable. While the economy will always recover from a serious downturn eventually, individuals might not. Or ecological systems – they might very well survive a major catastrophe like a tsunami or something like an asteroid or an ice age on a bigger scale, but that’s not much of a consolation for many individuals.

Taking the edge off of small and big catastrophes is one of the most important jobs of a government. If it manages to find a good balance, it’ll stay out of the way most of the time, while making sure nobody gets hit too hard.

So when I’m hearing outrage over alleged socialism, calls for unchecked capitalism (usually not that direct) or like I already mentioned, free market evangelism – I’m suspecting that someone keeps forgetting that big part of any population is in constant danger of becoming ill without being able to afford health-care, losing their homes or even not having enough to eat.

Progress should raise the standards of living at the lowest level first. If you have to choose between if a millionaire will have a harder time becoming a billionaire or risk thousands of people not having their basic needs satisfied, the answer should be pretty obvious.

Premature Cyborg

August 19, 2009

I’m looking forward to the time when I can interface directly with a portable (cellphone-sized) computer and thus the internet. I don’t want to use a keyboard or mouse for input – though I must admit that at the moment those are still by far the best in their field – and I don’t want to use an external screen for visual output. Information needs to go directly into and out of my brain.

The problem is… I seem to have already started adapting to this new interfacing technology without it having even arrived yet. Instead of properly learning something I just take note that it exists and postpone the information-gathering to the time when I actually need it. I distinguish between things I have to learn to understand and things I have to learn to know. It will be some time before technology can do more than just pave the way or present abstractions to help me understand something. But just knowing something – like how to install Linux, all elements from the periodic table or the symptoms of a disease – today that’s just a click away provided you are connected to the internet or at least to a personal database of some kind. And so are phone numbers, appointments, routes… My memory is already not very good with those. I’ve become very reliant on information technology for everyday tasks. Also, there’s no way back except moving to a third world country or living in a cave, because having a pre-computer-age-memory requires you to pretend to live in a pre-computer-age. But there are times when I am not connected to the internet (due to a bad signal or having no computer around) or need some time searching for information. This is not a very good state to be in – it’s like doing a heart transplant when the new heart has not even arrived yet.
All we can (realistically) do now is focus on keeping our brains active by doing more in terms of understanding concepts and hope that more reliable and immediate ways of acquiring and storing knowledge will arrive soon.

It’s appealing, therefore it’s true

August 7, 2009

As a child and a teenager, I believed pretty much whatever I wanted to be true. The thought of death being final and my fate not being watched over by some all-powerful and loving being was simply too scary – so I believed in god. Very early I was able to find evidence for god’s existence – purely philosophical of course. But science was right too, of course… it was like math – you couldn’t just deny it. For some reason it seemed a little boring – so complicated and soulless (I just knew a little popular science and I was interested but unimpressed for the most part). But religion seemed to belong to another reality, since nothing ever seemed to enter this one. The Bible was obviously not meant to be taken as a historical book, so I didn’t. And I knew there were many other religions than Catholicism that seemed to have developed in a similar way but that could not be right if my religion was (or vice versa) – but somehow they were ridiculous (though I always had some kind of respect for Buddhism) and mine wasn’t. But I couldn’t help but differentiate between things that were true and things I wanted to be true. Every time I learned something from science, there was a nice chain of arguments that was anchored in something tangible. If I didn’t believe it, I was free to see for myself – no-one had to convince me. But all I got from religion were non-tangible things that weren’t connected to anything. If I followed these chains, I’d only find myself in an endless loop of circular reasoning. Or even worse, outright contradictions. And I simply hate contradictions.
So I became an agnostic.
But my fear of losing anything – things, loved ones, my life… kept me from thinking rationally for many years. I just tend to be superstitious – it’s like a mental illness.

Letting go of religion to that extent made me look for and cling to other things. I read all sorts of esoteric stuff on the Internet (I was surfing regularly before Y2K) and though I never really ended up believing any of it – the most spiritual thing that ever happened to me were some vivid dreams, but I knew they were dreams – it was very compelling. Or extraterrestrials. Not all of the evidence could be faked or misinterpreted, could it? (I still think that visiting aliens are more probable than the existence of god, that’s not really saying much if you think about it). Yet all those were things that you had to believe in. Sure, some looked science-y and the believers were quite adept at convincing others. But without real evidence or proper scientific methods it was just religion all over again – in the end you had to make one or more leaps of faith. And the problem with that leap is this: On one hand you could land anywhere, on the other hand there’s already someone telling you were to land. Or even worse, there’s a bunch of people saying different things. It’s clear that the “leap of faith” in itself is not a virtue, since it is completely random.

So I finally started listening to the part of me that constantly made me rethink my views, that kept waking me up when I started napping intellectually. I’m sure I’m still far from being a rational, consistent thinker – but I know what to strive for. Because the universe doesn’t care what you want it to be, it just is what it is. If you honestly try to understand it, you’ll see that there are real, tangible things out there that are much more astonishing than anything religion or some stupid pseudoscience was able to come up with. The only problem is that it’s hard. There are counter-intuitive concepts, there is a LOT of math, and there are certain truths that will look very grim from a spiritual point of view.

I seem to have reached the end of my argument here, but let me give you an example of what I was talking about.
The belief that aliens are visiting and have been visiting this planet for thousands of years is very wide-spread and I admit, very appealing. It’s something I’d like to be true, and many people share this feeling. Unfortunately, not only are there much better explanations for most of the so-called evidence (none if it being remains of an alien or alien technology), but the main arguments are total fallacies:

  1. I don’t know how to build X or how these primitive people came up with it, therefore someone more advanced must have helped them.
  2. Since 1. is true and I can’t think of anyone else, it must have been Aliens. The only thing left for speculation is why they did it, not if.

“It was Aliens” would only be an alternative if their existence and involvement here on earth had already been proven without any doubt! It’s absolutely the same mistake that fundamentalist religious people do – they think they can use their belief as a given fact in any argument (famously even if the argument is about the validity of their belief itself). And concerning the “no other alternative” argument – what about time-travelers, parallel universes and the people of Atlantis? Using these people as explanations isn’t better than involving Aliens, but not exactly worse either.
The best explanation remains the simplest one: Human ingenuity, fantasy and weird beliefs gave us some incredible archeological findings.
It’s exactly these three things that also make our present era so exciting, unpredictable and frightening. For that we don’t need Gods and we don’t need Aliens. But we do need rational thinking to survive the next century and wishful thinking alone isn’t helping.