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Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar 3D

Start review:
We saw it at IMAX in 3D. It was good. You should see it too. /End review.

Now let’s talk Singularity and Gaia theory, extreme Darwinism, and entropy. H8trs roll your eyes. For definitions, see your preferred encyclopaedic knowledge base. But in brief, Singularity: when technology is smarter than meat. Extreme Darwinism: evolution of more than just meat (ideas, memes, systems, cultures, etc.). Gaia: recognition of a single planet-sized homeostatic (living) system. Entropy: things fall apart.

Firstly, any consideration of the convergence of these four concepts is, at best, armchair philosophy. At worst, it’s some sort of new age religion. The difference between the two, the saving from pure hunch and faith, is some adherence to Science according to Popper: repeatable experiments which provide evidence. So, let me start pretty far away from anything I want to talk about to consider for a moment the current discipline of philosophy, Bateson’s concept of “Error of Logical Type” ("eating the menu instead of the dinner.").

Joshua Knobe and Eduoard Machery have developed some fascinating little scenarios in an attempt to nut out the stuff of human intention. Read the transcript or listen to the program to get an idea of where modern-day philosophy is headed. It’s very easy to see the convergence of related disciplines of Cog Sci, Behavioural Psyc, Evolutionary Psyc, etc. on a certain area of thinking. Even from my layman perspective, I can see a turf war coming. It seems to me that these disciplines are flowing over their previously well-defined boundaries. They’re converging on an area of logical type which is not yet comprehensively mapped. I take this convergence as a sure sign that there’s something here of value. We’re on to something.

Avatar in 3-D was a sensory feast. A whole lot of information was effortlessly absorbed by the audience. This is a typical experience which we all accept without any amazement. But within the film we’re presented with a similar idea which does affect amazement. The Na'vi have a sensory organ which allows them to link with other beings. This seems amazing to people, but to a large degree we can do this too. (see above research by Eduoard Machery re people with Asperger's syndrome – people whom, for the most part lack the ability to “read minds” which most people take for granted – think “empathy” – look up “mirror neurons” ). But the novel presentation in Avatar of a certain networkability of living beings (cross-species/cross-kingdom) gives us pause.

The two things to note here are: 1. We already do this, just in a different format. 2. That we have an established pathway to empathy (typically through the eyes), does not preclude using an empathy-organ via a different pathway (think dreams).

So, technically, where are we? We have near-commercial applications which allow typing and mouse movement via thought. Typing both via selecting letters on a screen and (and this is important) via merely thinking about a letter. To pull this a bit towards the ground, we’re able to get as far as the menu. We’re not yet able to eat the dinner. But there’s been no technical, mathematical, reasonable argument given as to why we shouldn’t be able to get to the meal – where the meal is a true two-way communication via thought between computer agents and human agents, which will eventually assist human/human, or human/other thought communication. The maps aren’t there yet, and this is where the turf war is converging – mapping the concepts deep in consciousness or cognition.

Imagine this scenario available with current technology (although not currently implemented): An individual is somatically contained inside a shell or a suit. This layer provides a filter between the outside world and the individual’s experience of the outside world. The filter is highly configurable (think of the ways you can change the look and feel of the computer operating system you’re using now – colours, fonts, backgrounds, sounds – commonly referred to as Theme). The filter is applied to everything you see. Some things it changes to conform to your preference, other things it leaves the same. Maybe you don’t like the colour blue, so it changes everything blue to red. Maybe you don’t like to see “ugly” people, so the filter modifies their appearance to make them more symmetrical, or it makes all people look like supermodels. Then suppose you could network this filter, share it to your friends and/or co-workers. Siblings could share a view of devil-horns on their parents. Co-workers could share a view of their boss in lederhosen. The entire non-fictional fabric of reality could be altered. And from these very crude baby-steps of manipulation would emerge a culture, or several cultures, of what would at first be differentiated as “reality modification” or “augmented reality”. But eventually, as a majority of people bought-in at one level or another, would become the “inside” where reality is happening, where the common shared experience exists.

Now this seemingly science fiction flight of fancy is, in many ways, what we all enjoy daily as our current reality. The shell of culture informs our emotional and “rational” response to everything we experience. Depending on the culture in which we operate, we can have variously negative or positive responses to identical stimuli. The internal plumbing for this type of reality-altering/filtering is old and well used. The missing-link is the development of a new input/output(I/O) device to hook into the existing system. That development is no simple task, or so we expect. I think we’ll find there are a few external forces at work here which may-should help us along.

Up until the age of eight all humans have an extraordinary ability to pick up languages. After the age of eight (roughly) something closes off in the brain, new languages acquired are processed in a different part of the brain, and for the most part are not acquired to a level we consider as “native speaker”. It’s pretty safe to say that nearly all computer languages are acquired after eight years of age. There are only a very few computer languages written specifically for primary school children (Logo), and they don’t come close to the power of commonly used languages such as C, or English. But if we step away from the I/O we typically associate with language (writing/speaking), we can see that the requirements for language do not require writing or speaking. The requirements are only communication, syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. Importantly “communication” can take many forms.

We are currently one generation away from a “thought” language, where the medium of communication is thought. We have a great deal of experience developing syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. And we have a fair amount of experience developing novel media of communication. But cracking the ability of thoughts to be used to communicate to machines is forming a very powerful bridge to a future of native machine speakers/thinkers. Any culture with a semi-ubiquitous thought-interface will, over the course of 30 years, develop along similar lines to the evolution of computer languages; from low-level to high-level languages. This is to say from very specific number-theory based executable instruction, to highly metaphorical interpreted and compiled languages. And in this distinction you should be seeing the parallel with Dennett’s levels of Intentional Systems.

As alien and perverse as it sounds today to hook babies up to an augmented reality interface from year-2, it would have seemed just as perverted to put little ones in front of today’s TV just 100 years ago. But as benefit illustrated via historical competition (i.e. kids who learn early prove to have a hyper-competitive advantage) and as ubiquity and transparency of augmented interface increase, the mores will change. The new show will be on. And this is where both Singularity and Gaia come to the fore.

With native speakers of human thought languages (and there will be many) growing to adulthood, the Phd studies and experiments in cross species or direct human-human thought communication will start rolling in. It’ll be another 30 years, but these should result in reliable extensions in ability. I can’t see any facility for direct human-human thought communication without some sort of technological implement involved. I don’t suppose anything like that could be developed in anything short of geological time, but the transparency of the technological implement should evolve to a point to where it’s invisible for practical purposes (i.e. it’s a device powered from body-heat energy or bacterial processes, either worn, implanted, tooth filling or swallowed as a pill – .)

From this point of departure, the only current theories I can find to describe the state-of-play are Singularity and Gaia. I believe they’re two sides of the same coin. If they are valid considerations, they exist already in one form or another. They are made of the same stuff. They are meant to describe a phase-change in our consideration of reality. I’m in no position to suppose how a massively multi-player somatically networked biota would act. Similarly the “Singularity” is meant to evoke an event horizon, outside which no understanding can be supposed. What I can say about this game-changing technology is that it’ll put the ideas of “technology”, “other” and “nature” to bed. And without a valid understanding of those concepts, the arguments of the day will evaporate (or condense). We will lift out of our current local minimum, just a slight levitation past the walls we all take for granted. The search will be on for the global minimum again (I’m holding that goal is to maximize the progress towards heat-death, so increase sustained entropy – the burn rate of energy free to do work/the destructuring of information. Where “information” is defined as : difference which makes a difference -Bateson).

I’ve attempted to keep this flight of fancy at a ground level. I’ve made some extensions on currently available technologies based roughly on Moore’s Law and a general trajectory of progress. I’ve assumed quite a bit about what children under 8 could do based on existing knowledge and research. I’ve projected with these nuts-n-bolts onto a far wall and come up with the silhouette of a possible future. I hope I’ve avoided catastrophe, conspiracy, and religion. There are many sophisticated arguments against key points of my projection. What is key here is not to examine too closely the connections and moving parts of the specific machine I’ve constructed. Instead look at the shape and purpose of levers employed. Don’t look at how the nut is cracked, look to see that value is gained if the nut is cracked. If that value is found (in theory), it represents a level of free energy/information. If the equation of how much energy is spent cracking the nut compares favourably to the energy freed, it’s worth pursuit. As I’ve said elsewhere, the imperative is not ours to choose. We’ve got to take what we can find, because if we can find it, so could something/someone else. Evolutionarily speaking, victori spolia.

Further reading, evidence, related inventions and unrelated links.

Unrelated, but I can't get this quote out of my head: Philosophy and The Wealth of Nations, PJ O'Rourke:
"I'm a conservative personally because I believe in what William F. Buckley called 'giving the dead a vote', that society's come up with ways of coping with things and we change those ways that they cope with things at our peril, sometimes for the good, sometimes definitely for the good, but always at our peril. So that we have to be careful. So that makes me to the right. Economically, I just believe that like Smith, economists should realise that their role is to figure out how things work, not figure out how things should work."

Coming close to relating the unrelated link above with the idea of reality-filtering:

From Wired Magazine: This dovetails with Dennett's Intentional Stance ideas very well (I think). The main idea being that real problem solving happens when people are forced to speak in metaphor:

Read D. Dennett here:

Parasite which modifies behaviour of host. Think of this as a direct link into the thought system. This parasite helps get rats/mice inside of cats.

Better batteries are on the way. And I mean really a lot better. This is one of many articles on progress towards better energy storage:

Better memory is on the way. And I mean really a lot better. This is one of many articles on progress towards better information storage. We're talking storage density of 1.1 terabytes per cubic centimetre:

Dipping our toes in augmented reality:

Take this real-time chat translator with you everywhere you go. It's like having a babelfish in your ear without the gross-factor.
babelwith.me runs off of Google translator. Google translator is (importantly) crowsourcing better translations.

Towards the controversial idea of teaching kids uncommon, unexpected, unorthodox? languages. This man taught his son Klingon. See the comments for the fear and loathing this brings. But study your Chomsky/Pinker and feel much better about it:

Sound-design is an under-appreciated lever on our consciousness - so under-appreciated it might be considered a lever on our sub-consciousness. Either way, this is an interesting glimpse into very early augmented reality (Disneyland style):

What would you do with a thought interface with computers? Find your YouTube videos faster? Write your emails without chipping your nail polish? Or would you create a hyper-fast short trading application that rides the market like a wave?

Speaking of Wave:

Speaking of making business into games:

Article on existing thought interface with computer. We're at 8 characters per minute in 2009:

Using MRI to read your mind:

Commercially available thought controller for computer:

Trends in augmented reality:

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