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The Mauitian Chronicles - Edge 2009

Jan. 1st, 2009

01:26 am - Edge 2009

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This year's Edge question essays offer a wonderful collection of predictions for what game changing scientific and technical advances we expect to see in the coming decades. It's great that so many futurist ideas are entering the mainstream. My contribution is below. (Being able to post an essay to Edge isn't something I would have predicted for myself two years ago. My life still feels surreal.) Thanks to friends on the sifter list for last minute edits. And happy new year!

Changes in the Changers

Human beings have an amazingly flexible sense of self. If we don a pair of high resolution goggles showing the point of view from another body, with feedback and control, we perceive ourselves to be that body. As we use rudimentary or complex tools, these quickly become familiar extensions of our bodies and minds. This flexibility, and our indefatigable drive to learn, invent, have fun, and seek new adventure, will lead us down future paths that will dramatically alter human experience and our very nature.

Because we adapt so quickly, the changes will feel gradual. In the next few years solid state memory will replace hard drives, removing the mechanical barrier to miniaturization of our computational gadgetry. Battery size remains as a barrier to progress, but this will improve, along with increased efficiency of our electronics, and we will live with pervasive computational presence. Privacy will vanish. People will record and share their sensorium feeds with the world, and the world will share experiences. Every physical location will be geo-tagged with an overlay of information. Cities will become more pleasant as the internal combustion engine is replaced with silent electric vehicles that don't belch toxic fumes. We'll be drawn in to the ever evolving and persistently available conversations among our social networks. Primitive EEG's will be replaced by magnetoencephalography and functional MRI backed by the computational power to recognize our active thought patterns and translate them to transmittable words, images, and actions. Our friends and family who wish it, and our entire external and internal world, will be reachable with our thoughts. This augmentation will change what it means to be human. Many people will turn away from their meat existence, to virtual worlds, which they will fill with meaning — spending time working on science, virtual constructions, socializing, or just playing games. And we humans will create others like us, but not.

Synthetic intelligence will arrive, but slowly, and it will be different enough that many won't acknowledge it for what it is. People used to think a computer mastering chess, voice recognition, and automated driving would signal the arrival of artificial intelligence. But these milestones have been achieved, and we now consider them the result of brute force computation and clever coding rather than bellwethers of synthetic intelligence. Similarly, computers are just becoming able to play the game of Go at the dan level, and will soon surpass the best human players. They will pass Turing's test. But this synthetic intelligence, however adaptable, is inhuman and foreign, and many people won't accept it as more than number crunching and good programming. A more interesting sign that synthetic intelligence has arrived will be when captchas and reverse Turing tests appear that exclude humans. The computers will have a good laugh about that. If it doesn't happen earlier, this level of AI will arrive once computers achieve the computational power to run real-time simulations of an entire human brain. Shortly after that, we will no longer be the game changers. But by then, humans may have significantly altered themselves through direct biological manipulation.

The change I expect to see that will most affect human existence will come from biohacking: purposefully altering genomes, tissue engineering, and other advances in biology. Humans are haphazardly assembled biological machines. Our DNA was written by monkeys banging away at... not typewriters, but each other, for millions of years. Imagine how quickly life will transform when DNA and biochemistry are altered with thoughtful intent. Nanotechnology already exists as the machinery within our own biological cells; we're just now learning how these machines work, and how to control them. Pharmaceuticals will be customized to match our personal genome. We're going to be designing and growing organisms to suit our purposes. These organisms will sequester carbon, process raw material, and eventually repair and replace our own bodies.

It may not happen within my lifetime, but the biggest game change will be the ultimate synthesis of computation and biology. Biotech will eventually allow our brains to be scanned at a level sufficient to preserve our memories and reproduce our consciousness when uploaded to a more efficient computational substrate. At this point our mind may be copied, and, if desired, embedded and connected to the somatic helms of designed biological forms. We will become branching selves, following many different paths at once for the adventure, the fun, and the love of it. Life in the real world presents extremely rich experiences, and uploaded intelligences in virtual worlds will come outside where they can fly as a falcon, sprint as a cheetah, love, play, or even just breath — with superhuman consciousness, no lag, and infinite bandwidth. People will dance with nature, in all its possible forms. And we'll kitesurf.

Kitesurfing, you see, is a hell of a lot of fun — and kites are the future of sailing. Even though the sport is only a few years old and kite design is not yet mature, kitesurfers have recently broken the world sailing speed record, reaching over 50 knots. Many in the sailing world are resisting the change, and disputing the record, but kites provide efficient power and lift, and the speed gap will only grow as technology improves. Kitesurfing is a challenging dynamic balance of powerful natural forces. It feels wonderful; and it gets even more fun in waves.

All of these predicted changes are extrapolations from the seeds of present science and technology; the biggest surprises will come from what can't be extrapolated. It is uncertain how many of these changes will happen within our lifetimes, because that timescale is a dependent variable, and life is uncertain. It is both incredibly tragic and fantastically inspiring that our generation may be the last to die of old age. If extending our lives eludes us, cryonics exists as a stopgap gamble — Pascal's wager for singularitarians, with an uncertain future preferable to a certain lack of one. And if I'm wrong about these predictions, death will mean I'll never know.


[User Picture]
Date:January 1st, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
You wrote a beautiful piece, thank you. Let me nevertheless express a certain degree of skepticism and sadness that I felt when I read it.

Your main premise seems to be that humans are free to choose any technologically feasible path, that the main intention of an individual is to get some harmless fun, and that all technologically possible things will happen. I must say I have a much more somber view of the psychology of a human individual, and consequently of the future of our world and of the humanity as a whole.

Humanity as a whole has no semblance of purpose or plan in the development of the society or in the development of technology. Let's concentrate on technology for now. Technology, in my view, has been developed mostly as a byproduct of human greed, desire for power over others, and other such counter-productive drives. These emotional drives seem to be incompatible with your idyllic picture of the world, unless you have something else in mind when you say that "people will dance with nature in all its possible forms".

Some examples: We wouldn't have fast internet and terabyte disk space today if not for the desire of the telecom/TV/entertainment industry to dominate the information market, which lead to the widespread downloading of streaming or static video/audio content.

Speech recognition -- surely an important AI problem -- is being worked on at literally a handful of research labs and companies -- many more are developing software for more effective advertising, streaming video, and such things.

Programming languages widely used today are pitiful in their expressive power. I am happy I am not a programmer because the work of a programmer is such a horrible drudge, squashing bug after bug only to discover that the manager will have your entire project scrapped tomorrow.

It is nevertheless possible that beautiful virtual worlds can be made with this kind of software technology. What will actually happen in these worlds is quite another matter. Have you visited "Second Life"? It's a playground for meaningless chatter, imitated violence, imitated sex, advertising, and marketing of superficiality of every possible kind. You can choose your appearance between ugly, more ugly, and very ugly -- I have not seen a good-looking person there (although landscapes look great). I do not want to live in such a virtual world.

In my view the most important advance to come in the 21st century is an advance in popular psychology. People need to realize that they live in a world created by their emotions, and that they have control over it. People need to find a true purpose and orientation in life. So far people are mostly failing at this, as they have always been. It might be possible to reprogram our DNAs to get rid of unwanted features of the body; it would be much more difficult to reprogram our brains to get rid of the junk accumulated throughout the millenia of the primitive existence. For all our advances in AI we are no closer to a 'thinking machine' because we still have no clue what 'thinking' consists of.

I believe that the humanity is now developing an abyss between "techno-creators" and "techno-consumers," that is, between a minority of people who know how things work and the majority who only consume but are getting more and more deeply confused about what's going on in technology. The minority of specialists cannot survive in this society without devoting their efforts towards serving the needs of the majority of consumers -- rather than towards solving the technological problems of creating the super-virtual-universe of your imagination. To rectify this, I think at least 60% of the population needs to study quantum electronics and chemistry, computer programming, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering, with all the ancillary mathematics -- in order to realize your dreamworld. Not only the population is not really interested in learning this, but also there are no resources for teaching and researching this on such massive scale.
[User Picture]
Date:January 1st, 2009 12:35 pm (UTC)
(my comment was too long, splitting)
Progress will come but slowly and but as an accidental byproduct of some new Bill Gates' economic empire. You surely remember the pitiful support for the internet in the early versions of DOS/Windows. Internet connections of millions of individual users to free web sites via the TCP/IP protocol over dial-up was something definitely not planned by the Redmond guys. Those were the days of paid Internet sites where you had a choice between the virtual worlds of AOL, CompuServe, and MSN, each with its own advertising and news. These days are gone; we are now living in the Google era, firmly entrenched in the model of advertising-sponsored "free" Internet.

None of this could be envisioned if you extrapolated the previous technology (BITnet/email/ftp/usenet). None of this current state of affairs makes sense to me, but this is the reality driven by the psychology of our people.

Maybe my skepticism is a bit overdone. I wish you good kitesurfing in the years to come.
[User Picture]
Date:January 1st, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this.

I too am skeptical of the perfect futurist world, though I feel like my comments would take hours to write.

One thing I would note is that Garrett himself offers up a possible monkey wrench to the development of all of his future world, but without acknowledging it at all:

All of these predicted changes are extrapolations from the seeds of present science and technology; the biggest surprises will come from what can't be extrapolated.

These unpredicted changes could include existential barriers to humanity. We certainly face a multitude of them already! There are varieties of conflicts and collective action problems those pose risks to the utopian vision.

This is my general gripe with what I consider highly overly optimistic futurists -- that they spend too much time pushing the world forward and too little time paying attention to the forces that pull the world apart. I would liken such optimism to the attitude that allowed us to spend ten years in the making of a financial crisis without anyone taking any real leadership to solve the problem.

The problems we face may be getting more complex than the tasks of pushing technology forward. To leave this unmeasured in the equation leaves the predictions meaningless. The real path to the future could diverge from anyone's predictions with startling velocity.
[User Picture]
Date:January 11th, 2009 07:23 am (UTC)
I may be biased due to my cultural history, but although I share many of your opinions on the dark side of human nature, I think many of these "negative" qualities can produce progress in a healthy capitalistic environment. It might be going too far to say "greed is good" -- Gordon Gekko's famous line, lodged firmly in the free wheeling investment era of the 80s, which falls a little flat these days. But I do think human selfishness is a productive characteristic, especially in the right environment.

Why do people make cool stuff? Sometimes it's for the money (which isn't necessarily bad), but it's also usually to gain status among peers -- we're wired for the egoboo. This is the real social economy driving Second Life; it's not the Linden dollars people work for. And it's true most Second Life constructions suck (including mine, but hey, I've only got so much time), but some of the architecture is pretty impressive and the avatars show a lot of creativity. And some people just get an inner satisfaction from making cool stuff.

Now, I may be even more cynical than you. From my point of view, I think a randomly chosen human on this planet has a negative overall impact. I would love to describe this as "mean people suck," but that's not quite right -- it's "median people suck." But I think the economy of scale rescues society, because when someone productive makes something cool, it ends up being good for all of us. So progress is made, and at an increasing rate, because there are ever more positive value people in world -- the freeloaders don't actually weigh them down much. Of course, this only works in a society that's setup to work this way. If there's unchecked environmental pollution, or a corrupt government, then the negative people can leverage their affect on the rest of us and bring everyone down. For the most part, capitalism favors the beneficial and limits the harmful power of the detrimental, which is the main reason I'm for limited government.

I guess the bottom line is, I'm a cynic and an optimist at the same time.
[User Picture]
Date:January 1st, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
This piece is so uplifting and hopeful. (Not that guy's; yours.)
I hope you're right.
Kitesailing sounds like a lot of fun. :3
[User Picture]
Date:January 7th, 2009 12:49 am (UTC)
First I have read it as "computers are just becoming able to play the game of God" and was really scared...
Date:February 26th, 2009 09:10 am (UTC)
...we don a pair of high resolution goggles showing the point of view from another body, with feedback and control, we perceive ourselves to be that body

I would like to start by saying that I am a know nothing. So, please forgive my arrogance as I am about to express my opinion among you fine intellectuals.

This portion of your comment reminds me of something that I have kicked around since I was a child. I remember learning that the atoms that make up my finger tip and atoms of basketball never actually meet. So I am not spinning that basketball on my finger but on the force that our atoms repel one another. I remember thinking as a child if that is true then we never actually touch anything. So why does my brain think it does?

Over the years I have come to refine that question but it remains none the less. I understand it in a more complex way but it's still a nagging question, the answer to which I have to "accept" instead of surrender. The same can be said for all the senses, what is sight without light? Hearing is transmitted by vibration which circles back to the sense of touch again. Taste and smell are more abstractions of the world than the real thing.

No, our brains have fooled us quite well over the eons. So why not embrace the virtual if what we live everyday is also virtual? The idea of the meat puppet is something I think about a lot. I have to come to understand that the meat puppet is as much ourselves as anything. My bet is that even if we leave the meat behind we will bring our need for misery and the need to sweat over the minutia with us. I don't see humans ever living without making our bread by the sweat of our brow, virtual or otherwise.

Reminds me of the horrible Matrix movies, where agent Smith tell Lawrence Fishburn that the first virtual world was perfect but humans rejected it. The moment we can escape into the a virtual world it will be into the virtual version of the girl next door's bed.

On an unrelated note, does Agent Smith remind anyone else of Carl Sagan?
Date:March 1st, 2009 12:53 am (UTC)


I'm too damn old to try a kite, but it sure looks like fun.
[User Picture]
Date:March 22nd, 2009 07:04 am (UTC)
nice piece. reminds me of charles stross and/or greg egan.

just to be a bit skeptical. some of what goes on in our body may not be computable or even non-deterministic. to think that we could eventually scan a human brain and simulate it makes for nice fiction (of which i am indeed a fan) but realistically i don't think neuroscience (or perhaps even physics) is at the point where one could even begin to draw up plans for such a device much less guarantee its eventual existence. (i was greatly affected by roger penrose's book the emporer's new mind which has changed my views on this topic very much.)

not that i'm sure it won't happen. on the contrary, i would very much like for it to.
Date:July 28th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
(Link) )))))))) удачи )
[User Picture]
Date:January 8th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
I just discovered your LJ here, and wanted to thank you for doing what you love. It's rare to find people who are able to break out of the mainstream and pursue their dreams, especially in fields so rigid and (internally) politicized as physics. So yeah, thanks, for being an inspiration and proof that the whole universe can be your laboratory. I'm nowhere near your level of expertise or ability, but I do my own research on my own as a freelance scientist (who's been living a similarly nomadic/homeless type life lately) working on furthering the research of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, by using patterns of biology/physics/math as a starting point for seeing patterns in psychological growth.

Also, I've been wondering for a while if this E8 pattern is, at least in part, the wave interference pattern of energy moving through reality? And if so, what shape would reality (space/time) have to be to produce these patterns of interference?

Finally, I'm sure you heard about it already, but I just saw the relevant news yesterday about the Golden ratio being discovered in solid state matter on a nanoscale.
Date:August 14th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)

J/Psi Meson and 8th Dimension?

Totally random - know next to nothing about physics - but some months back the '8th dimension' just popped into my head out of nowhere so I googled it and that is how I found out about your theory (and no, I had never seen nor heard of Buckeroo Bonzai) and in an equally non-logical way I came across the Psi Meson and thought I would just mention it in case it might have some relevance for the further development of your theory.
Date:September 19th, 2010 11:47 pm (UTC)

the appeal of the pure virtual existence is...?

who is so unsatisfied that they'd rather be a part of a cyborg? i'm not saying i'm not curious what it would be like... but if it's at the expense of my real life, i might say no. there's no going back.

i'm also not saying i'm not complacent or not unhappy about certain things in the real world, but what exactly is so appealing about living virtually for the rest of your "life"?

this would not be like playing a videogame, where you press restart or throw in a quarter again and again doing everything to make your player the hero. this would not even be like putting on a virtual world body suit that maps your movements in an artificial world, with other virtual participants. instead, this would be the ultimate trade-in; you are trading your whole existence for a new one, totally incompatible and without comparison to the present life in that you are two totally different creatures. this is a change of kind, not degree. and all this for what? for the mere possibility of experiencing something different? to escape real world problems? and at the even greater risk of deletion by others?

people permanently alter their essence of being all the time, in small ways like traveling or reading, and in big ways like making paradigm shifts and inventing technology. but who actually wants to see the end of humanity as they know it? tell me who is responsible for making this cyborg happen?

are there many people in your life suffering unbearably? what do you bring into your life? what do you shut out?

do people just look at the starving and the imprisoned and decide there is a net unhappiness, and therefore they should QUIT life due to feelings of powerlessness? now that would make some sense to me... for certain pained individuals to want OUT. i have even spent a total of about 3 years working in 3rd world countries, and can empathize a bit with feelings of powerlessness despite hard work. i've also gone through painful psychological experiences that i do not wish for anyone. but then there's people all over the world who engage in unnecessary escapism as a daily routine - through drugs and/or verbal and physical abuse. while i do not have the need to feel powerful through these escapist methods, i can relate to the great pain such people are likely going through, because i have been witness to and affected by their betrayal. i am concerned that it is such troubled people who are the ones who want virtual life, and if it is so, i want them to know that more escapism is not the cure, does not constitute success, and not only do they not grow in the process of being transformed into part of the cyborg, but all of their problems remain unsolved, forever... because they are no longer the creature actually capable of solving their problems. this problem-delete option in no way adds to the collective intelligence of a cyborg, either. it's a socialist team that can no longer ever break into its team members, they have ALL given up. i think this is a tough decision to make, whether or not to upload, even if you are an escapist, especially considering there are so many compassionate people existing in the world that CAN help you with problems.

but that is conjecture. i don't know if this human flaw of tending to escape reality is the cause for people desiring to end humanity as we know it. should escapism actually be the case, and should i have no say in preventing mass upload to a cyborg, i will know that i did my best to help these poor creatures, and that my offspring will have the last natural laugh, heh.

oh somebody please tell me who the hell wants humanity to leave this reality and never come back? how do they live with themselves each day knowing that they'd really truly rather not exist as who they are, but instead as something whose sense of self cannot be compared? who is it exactly that wants to replace our carbon based beings with a silicon based one? and if you think replacement is not the goal of certain individuals, what is the motivation for giving birth to a species exactly? impotence? negative attitude? more sophisticated tools is great. even more tech in my life could be okay. but providing a place for people to quit life? wtf? please respond, i will check this.
Date:January 10th, 2011 05:16 am (UTC)

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Interesting information. Thank you!