Life-Long Movies

September 21, 2009

So here’s a little Sci-Fi scenario:

It’s 2050 and the singularity happened. Unenhanced humans still exist, but the earth is becoming more like a “nature reserve” controlled by AIs. Virtual humans are colonizing the solar system – with most of them having long forgotten about the state of the real world. Many choose to work in science and focus on exploration and even more technological development – thus staying informed about the current state of affairs – but the rest tries to create their own worlds inside what was once the internet and is now very much reality for any virtual being. External (real) time isn’t much of a concern anymore if you are a conservative human who resists too big alterations to your neural pattern. With your decision to go purely virtual you might have been one the “bleeding edge” like a decade ago, but nowadays the progressives tend to enhance themselves in ways that make you shiver. And you do, because you also chose to have a “retro” virtual body. Inside “realistic” simulations it looks and feels like a very healthy physical human body. During the last few days (in the real world) it has become overwhelmingly clear that people like you are being kept in another reserve, just like the primitive human on real earth. The progressives have once more decided that they are so much more intelligent than you that you having any unpredictable impact on the world would be unacceptable and thus stuck you in a virtual cage. You get to do almost everything you did before and you continue do benefit from advances in technology, but you don’t get to make any decisions in the real world. If you insist, you’ll probably go into a simulation where it looks like you have power. If you find out the truth, they’ll find a way to change your mind quite literally – although they won’t touch it unless you are really really desperate.

But like most people, you gave in to that higher power. You also get some satisfaction knowing that a good portion of the progressives won’t keep up with the rest and end up in a higher-level reserve. Life isn’t bad – it’s just hard to cope with eternal life when your mind isn’t that all that different from a traditional, physical human. There’s a new form of entertainment that was once all the rage with progressives and has now been handed down like an old toy to a younger sibling. It’s the concept of experiencing entire lifetimes on old earth – completely simulated. It’s not like the usual full-immersion movies or games that take your mind on perfect journeys. It’s a very serious simulation of a life on earth, some time before the singularity. It’s very detailed, very realistic and it uses a good portion of the computation power allocated to your reserve. There are several subscription models that give you limited control over your destiny in the simulation. But all have this in common: you forfeit your memories at the start, your life starts a short time before birth, you get kicked out of the simulation when you die and that’s also the only way to get your old memories back. You experience a life like “modern” humans did for hundreds of thousands of years, only with the privilege of being secretly immortal – the downside being that you don’t really know that during that time.

I know, it sounds a little like The Matrix… but at least there are no “human batteries”.


Invisible Progress I

September 10, 2009

I wonder how mathematicians would feel if a theologian started criticizing their proofs. Since he doesn’t know much more about mathematics than the average religious person – but to whom he is the more trustworthy authority – they might get pretty mad. Even more so considering that he is able to talk in a way that sounds reasonable to most people. I’d still listen to the mathematicians because they are much more likely to know what they are doing.

Now what if a professor of philosophy and history started ranting about a complex, controversial theory spanning multiple branches of science which only in some of its implications for the future touches philosophy? You’d get this.

I know, this is turning into a ad-hominem attack. Just because this person has no certified knowledge of the subject doesn’t mean he isn’t right. Just like you can’t rule out your garbage-man making a good argument concerning hidden variables in quantum physics (especially if he’s like the one from Dilbert), a professor of philosophy could have a good reason to think the singularity is bullshit. But: he got into IEEE Spectrum whereas I doubt that the average forum idiot who argues that 0.999… != 1 would have a chance. Why? Because that is an easy subject, and even if you fail to understand the proofs or why a particular counter-proof is invalid you can be sure that mathematicians are the authority on this subject. With the singularity – not so easy. It concerns a wide spectrum of developments, makes assumptions about what drives these developments, shows a counter-intuitive view of the present and the future and probes into “forbidden” areas like human consciousness. That’s why it’s already very controversial, and why representatives of individual fields feel like they need to comment on it. There is no authority on the subject since there tend to be very few multi-disciplinary scientists in today’s specialized world. So we’ll just listen to anybody with a degree in anything.

Okay, so much for the irrational ranting. Let’s see what the main arguments of the article are:

  1. The technological singularity is too weird / too good to be true and I don’t like the way it is presented. Let’s keep in mind that it is obviously nonsense, shifting the focus to the people supporting it.
  2. Technological progress has not increased. It is even slower than ever, because I have not seen ground-breaking inventions like the car, the plane, electricity, the computer or manned spaceflight in the last few decades. This is how we should measure progress: number of inventions that seem amazing to the average person, have easily understandable applications and do not look too much alike.
  3. Singularitarians extrapolate Moore’s law indefinitely, even though there are physical limits.
  4. Single aspects like communicating directly from brain to brain at rates faster than current speed of thought are infeasible with today’s technology and knowledge.
  5. No (concerning exponential progress in the medical field).
  6. Advances in medical analysis will only bring us more information about diseases we can’t cure.
  7. Positive technological progress is positive and therefore improbable.
  8. No scientist can properly investigate the claims someone made in another field, therefore people are pushing cross-disciplinary phenomena where they can easily add their bad research without anyone being any wiser. This network of misplaced trust is inherently flawed and doomed to fail.

It is sad to see that even “certified intellectuals” resort to mindlessly throwing around concepts just to support their view. The idea of a technological singularity is much older than that article, so there has been some significant amount of discussions already. Most of the presented arguments have been countered a long time ago, so it would have been much more interesting to read responses to the counter-arguments. And the rest is rambling and ranting, presented as arguments.

So apparently all I have to do is mindlessly repeat the answers to those arguments, which is not particularly challenging.

  1. During the past 200 years the present always turned out to be the unbelievable future to people from the past. How a particular prediction makes you feel is not a rational argument and will have absolutely no credibility with supporters or the (rational) undecided.
  2. The reasoning behind why technological progress is accelerating is complex and difficult to prove or refute. I am not going to do that in once sentence and you shouldn’t be using a little anecdote about how you get the impression that today’s inventions are boring and insignificant. However, there are books on the subject (with traceable evidence) and those must be dealt with before dismissing the entire notion.
  3. Nobody is saying that silicon structures will shrink indefinitely. Singularitarians argue that every time one technology reaches its limits, a new one takes over. Like the time vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors. The current paradigm still has a few generations to go and there is a whole bunch of new ones being developed.
  4. Back when computers were used primarily for simple calculations and highly specific tasks nobody would have seen the usefulness of a personal computer capable of then unimaginable numbers of calculations per second. But the price/performance sank drastically and along came the applications. Never make an argument from embedding a future technology in the present world – it just does not make any sense. Especially when dealing with information and communication technologies.
  5. Not really much of an argument.
  6. Diagnostic capabilities will always stay ahead of curative capabilities. You can’t cure what you don’t know. I can see the appeal of not knowing you have an incurable disease until you die, but what exactly is the argument here? That we should stop diagnosing diseases? That we have stopped finding cures for diseases? Whatever the argument is, it begs further evidence (and explanation).
  7. This is more of a recurring theme in the article than an actual argument. I simply don’t know what to do with pure pessimism. “There, there”?
  8. This is interesting, but a very bold claim. Especially because there hasn’t been a real polymath for a long, long time and the argument says that scientists from different fields can only effectively work together (without “just” trusting each other) if they are experts in all fields involved – or at least know enough to spot errors. Since most scientists are experts and many cross-disciplinary projects exist and work even though peer-reviewing is limited to peers (that is – people from your own field of study) – doesn’t that mean that trust-system is good enough? I don’t think scientists blindly trust other scientists. They trust the peer-reviewing system, not individuals. Anyway, very bold claim to make without presenting any evidence whatsoever.

I’d like to dub argument #2 “The Invisible Progress Effect” and study it a little more before making another post about this topic.

Defying Defying Gravity

September 6, 2009

In an earlier post I compared the Sci-Fi-Series Defying Gravity and Virtuality to each other. In short, while there were lots of similarities, I really liked Virtuality better. The pilot make me curious about what comes next (we’ll never know). With Defying Gravity, it’s more a train-wreck type situation. I can’t look away. What makes it especially gruesome is that I really love science fiction! But this series is definitely not about science (although it features a group of scientists on a scientific mission), and the fiction part is pretty much “What would happen if we put a group of juvenile, self-absorbed and increasingly psychotic idiots in a spaceship? Oh, and there is some kind of brain-controlling alien.”, with no actual depth whatsoever. It’s almost funny seeing the “immature nerd” character get scolded for acting like a child – by characters who by no means should be the ones casting the first stone.

Now the latest episode showed almost all the astronauts being immobilized by alien-induced hallucinations. It was (probably unintentionally) hilarious. And not just that, it took some time away from the stupid drama! If this persists in the next episodes, I’ll finally have an excuse for watching this show other than to have something to criticize or to act smug about. Who knows, maybe from now on everybody just runs around the ship, seeing completely different things than the other crew-members, making the spaceship look like an interplanetary loony bin. Now that’s entertainment.

That Rejuvenation Guy with the Beard

September 4, 2009

Aubrey de Grey is an interesting person with some interesting views. What he has to say about evolution and aging is a very important piece of knowledge, for anybody interested in either topic. But every time I see the guy get interviewed, one question pops up: “Why do you look so weird?”. And it always tells me more about the interviewer than the interviewee. A setting where this question seems important enough to be asked is probably not very serious. The other questions/arguments will be along the lines of “But everybody has to die at some point!”, “If longevity was that great, we’d have evolved it by now!” and “So, how much mercury are you using?”. So let’s assume the reason for choosing this particular style is not something trivial like “Fan of a Russian mathematician or 19th century style” or “Doesn’t like shaving or getting a haircut”. What if the reason (or one of the reasons) is being able to quickly judge the person you are talking to? Most people who are really interested in the science behind his project and who are willing to question the inevitability of death will ask many, many questions before (if ever) running out of more interesting topics than beard length. I’m not saying that that’s true every time, but I’m sure a strong correlation exists.

In order to keep this post consistently irrelevant, let’s also speculate about why de Grey seems to be the spokesperson of SENS. It’s probably because he’s one of the founders and because he seems to be an expert on all the topics involved. But that’s a rather boring explanation, so let’s try another one: Maybe the foundation – being completely aware of the controversial nature of their research – decided it was best to put forward somebody who looks and talks like a stereotypical genius. Ever since scientific progress has switched from infrequent but huge breakthroughs to small but steady improvements in all fields, there have been fewer iconic geniuses. If some scientist makes a discovery that can only be properly appreciated by other scientists working on similar problems, the general public doesn’t really care what he/she looks like – or about the discovery for that matter. But if someone claims (soon) to be able to abolish “death by natural causes” and even eventually rejuvenate people – he’ll better look as crazy as his ideas… for him to be taken seriously. See, people need to see some balance between mind and body. If your mind is different, then your body should be too. Would Einstein have been so popular if not for his nutty-professor looks? Among scientists, sure… but the rest of the world? Because there are others, like Feynman. He was a great scientist, a beloved professor and after hearing his lectures or reading his books one can hardly help admiring the guy. But he’s far from being as well-known as Einstein or Stephen Hawking (by the way, I really hope he lives to see the day when there’s a cure for his disease) – probably because there’s nothing special about his appearance.

Anyway, silly theories aside… I sincerely hope de Grey gets all the funding he needs.

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.