Category Archives: technology

What constraints are needed to prevent AI from becoming a dystopian threat to humanity?

It is, of course, wise and beneficial to peer ahead for potential dangers and problems — one of the central tasks of high-end science fiction. Alas, detecting that a danger lurks is easier than prescribing solutions to prevent it.

aiTake the plausibility of malignant Artificial Intelligence, remarked-upon recently by luminaries ranging from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk to Francis Fukuyama (Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution). Some warn that the arrival of sapient, or super- sapient machinery may bring an end to our species – or at least its relevance on the cosmic stage – a potentiality evoked in many a lurid Hollywood film.

Nick Bostrom takes an in-depth look at the future of augmented human and a revolution in machine intelligence in his recent book — Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies — charting possible hazards, failure modes and spectacular benefits as machines match and then exceed our human levels of intelligence.

Taking middle ground, SpaceX/Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk has joined with Y-Combinator founder Sam Altman to establish Open AI, an endeavor that aims to keep artificial intelligence research – and its products – accountable by maximizing transparency and accountability.

41f-0srzitl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Indeed, my own novels contain some dire warnings about failure modes with our new, cybernetic children. For other chilling scenarios of AI gone wrong, sample science fiction scenarios such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Daniel Wilson’s Roboapocalypse, William Hertling’s Avogradro Corp, Ramez Naam’s Nexus, James Hogan’s The Two Faces of Tomorrow. And of course, a multitude of Sci Fi films and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, or The Transformers depict dark future scenarios.

== What can we do? ==

Considering the dangers of AI, there is a tendency to offer the same prescriptions, over and over again:

1) Renunciation: we must step back from innovation in AI (or other problematic tech). This might work in a despotism… indeed, 99%+ of human societies were highly conservative and skeptical of “innovation.” (Except when it came to weaponry.) Our own civilization is tempted by renunciation, especially at the more radical political wings. But it seems doubtful we’ll choose that path without be driven to it by some awful trauma.

41rrkrcwwvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_2) Tight regulation. There are proposals to closely monitor bio, nano and cyber developments so that they – for example – only use a restricted range of raw materials that can be cut off, thus staunching any runaway reproduction. In certain areas – like nano – there’s a real opportunity, here. Again though, in the most general sense this won’t happen short of trauma.

3) Fierce internal programming: limiting the number of times a nanomachine may reproduce, for example. Or imbuing robotic minds with Isaac Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics.”  Good luck forcing companies and nations to put in the effort required. And in the end, smart AIs will still become lawyers. See Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barat.

All of these approaches suffer severe flaws for one reason above all others. Because they ignore nature, which has been down these paths before.  Nature has suffered runaway reproduction disasters, driven by too-successful life forms, many times.  And yet, Earth’s ecosystems recovered.  They did it by utilizing a process that applies negative feedback, damping down runaway effects and bringing balance back again.  It is the same fundamental process that enabled modern economies to be so productive of new products and services while eliminating a lot of (not all) bad side effects.

It is called Competition.

If you fear a super smart, Skynet level AI getting too clever for us and running out of control, then give it rivals who are just as smart but who have a vested interest in preventing any one AI entity from becoming a would-be God.

norvigSure, defining “vested interest” is tricky. Cheating and collusion will be tempting. But this – precisely – is how the American Founders used constitutional checks and balances to prevent runaway power grabs by our own leaders, achieving the feat across several generations for the first time in the history of varied human civilizations. It is how companies prevent market warping monopoly, that is when markets are truly kept flat-open-fair.

Alas, this is a possibility almost never portrayed in Hollywood sci fi – except on the brilliant show Person of Interest – wherein equally brilliant computers stymie each other and this competition winds up saving humanity.

== A more positive future ==

DisputationArenasArrowCoverThe answer is not fewer AI.  It is to have more of them!  But innovating incentives to make sure they are independent of one another, relatively equal, and motivated to hold each other accountable.  A difficult situation to set up!  But we have some experience, already, in our five great competitive arenas: markets, democracy, science, courts and sports.

Perhaps it is time yet again to look at Adam Smith… who despised monopolists and lords and oligarchs far more than he derided socialists.  Kings and lords were the “powerful dystopian AI” beings in 99%+ of human societies. A trap that we escaped only by widening the playing field and keeping all those arenas of competition flat-open-fair.  So that no one pool of power can ever dominate.  (And yes, let me reiterate that I know the objection! Oligarchs are always conniving to regain feudal power. So?our job is to stop them, so that the creative dance of flat-open-fair competition can continue.

The core truth about this approach is that it has already worked.  Never perfectly, but well-enough to stave off monolithic overlordship for more than two centuries. With the odds always against us, we’ve managed to do this – barely – time and again.  It is a dance that can work.

We do know for certain that nothing else ever has stymied power-grabbing monoliths. And to be clear about this — nothing else can even theoretically work to control super-intelligent AIs.

Secrecy is the underlying mistake that makes every innovation go wrong, such as in Michael Crichton novels and films! If AI happens in the open, then errors and flaws may be discovered in time… perhaps by other, wary AIs!

(Excerpted from a book in progress… this question was one I answered over on Quora)


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Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

Singularity-word-cloudIn Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes, “The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don’t like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don’t like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don’t like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs.” See what the proponents of these words mean by them…

…and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.

==Progress toward AI?== 

Baby X, a 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter day by day. Researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand interact with the simulated toddler, reading, teaching, smiling, playing games, even singing into the computer’s microphone and webcam. The blonde youngster mimics facial expressions, laughs, reads words, even cries when he is left alone.

1400832509352“An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively “teaching” the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction,” writes Becket Mufson, in the Creators Project.

This is precisely the sixth approach to developing AI that is least discussed by “experts” in the field… and that I have long believed to be essential, in several ways. Above all, by raising them as our children – even fostering them to homes in small robot bodies – we will gain many crucial advantages – that I lay out (somewhat) in Existence.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s Robo Brain is currently learning from the internet — downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format, accessible to ‘helper’ robots who will function in our factories, homes, and offices. “If a robot encounters a situation it hasn’t seen before it can query Robo Brain in the cloud,” said one researcher. Follow its progress on the Robobrain website.

Meet Jibo, advertised as “the world’s first family robot.” Kinda creepy but attractive too…

Asimov-three-laws-roboticsEver hear of “neuromorphic architecture?” Silicon chip design that uses transistors — (5 billion of them in the latest IBM chip) – to create analogues of the nonlinear response patterns of biological neurons. The latest version, from IBM, is called “True North” and it is simply spectacular. Its prodigious pattern recognition capabilities are only matched by its stunning (by four orders of magnitude(!)) power efficiency. This is where Moore’s Law, augmented by new neuronal and parallelism software, may truly start delivering.

Now… How to keep what we produce sane? And where on the chip – pray tell – do the Three Laws reside?

Ah, well… I have explored the implications (yin and yang) of the Asimovian laws in my sequel which tied up Isaac’s universe – Foundation’s Triumph. Meanwhile, serious minds are grappling with the problem of “how to keep them loyal.” For example…

==Creating Superintelligence==

bostrom-superintelligenceNick Bostrom has published the book “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies,” that is well-reviewed by Andrew Leonard in Salon.

“Risks that are especially difficult to control have three characteristics: autonomy, self-replication and self-modification. Infectious diseases have these characteristics, and have killed more people than any other class of events, including war. Some computer malware has these characteristics, and can do a lot of damage…

“But microbes and malware cannot intelligently self-modify, so countermeasures can catch up. A superintelligent system [as outlined by Bostrom would be much harder to control if it were able to intelligently self-modify.” writes Bostrom.

Nick Bostrom makes a persuasive case that the future impact of AI is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced. Instead of passively drifting, we need to steer a course. Still, his litany of “be careful what you wish for” parables is taken straight from the pages of a century of science fictional “what-if” scenarios. Geeky sci fi archivists need to be present, during the programming, to point out: “you may want to rephrase that… cause way back in 1947 Leigh Brackett showed that it could be misconstrued as…”

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.” Interesting article! In fact the mystery of the First Great Renaissance… the burst of human creativity around 45,000 years ago… is discussed in EXISTENCE!

But — if I may mention it — the real correlation with this notion… that sexual selection resulted in gentler, more “feminized” males, was presaged by this paper of mine… Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution.

==Developing Brains==

EMPATHYResearcher Talma Hendler has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. Parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts. Very cogent and thought provoking.

This interesting article in Wired explores how movies exploit both of these networks to make you identify with the characters. Only the manipulation is now going scientific!

And veering a bit… When did modern humans arrive in Europe, and by how much did they overlap with our fading cousins, the Neandertals? New studies suggest it all happened earlier than most had assumed, perhaps around …45,000 years ago.

Now throw in…. Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development.


==and organs==

Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory to form a replacement thymus, a vital organ of the immune system.

By deciphering the detailed gene expressions by which a lizard regrows its tail, scientists hope to re-ignite regrowth processes in mammals like us, that have been dormant for 200 million years. Both of these stories are straight from my story “Chrysalis” in this month’s ANALOG!


Scientists report using laser light in ultrafast pulses to control the quantum state of electrons contained inside nanoscale defects located in a diamond, and also observe changes in that electron over a period of time. The findings could be an important milestone on the road to quantum computing.

SCIENCE-TECHNOLOGYAnother team has devised a way to make microscopes magnify 20 times more than usual. This magnification allows scientists to see and identify substances and matter as minuscule as or even smaller than a virus.

Direct synthesis of ammonia from air and water? At low temperatures and pressures? If this membrane method can bypass the usual harsh processes, the news can be significant for liberating poor farmers everywhere to make their own fertilizer.

Looks plausible… if amazing! A transparent luminescent solar concentrator developed in Michigan can be used to cover anything that has a flat, clear surface. Visible light passes through. But organic molecules absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight such as ultraviolet and near infrared, guiding those packets to the edge of the solar panel, where thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it into energy. Fascinating… another potential game changer.

Stanford scientists develop water splitter that runs on ordinary AAA battery.

How to tell if a Chelyabinsk style meteorite came from an asteroid? Here’s the basic rule of thumb. “The speed of whatever collides with Earth’s atmosphere depends on its orbit, which in turn depends on its source. The impactor’s entry at 19 km/s means that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not from a ballistically launched missile, whose speed is less than 11.2 km/s; a short-period comet, with an average speed of 35 km/s; or a long-period comet with an average speed of 55 km/s. As investigators began retracing the path of the meteor that blazed across the sky, their reconstructed orbit bore out that provenance.”  

Oh, anything much faster than 60 kps either fall naturally from outside the solar system… or was accelerated by someone with boojum powers and maybe ill intent!

what-if-munroeRecommended: what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of the brilliant xkcd).

Researchers from UC San Diego’s structural engineering department are using drones to capture unique views of the earthquake damage to Napa’s historic landmarks. Our own Falko Kuester explains how this new tech is helping.

And finally:

Don’t bogart that puffer, my friend. Dolphins pass around a puffer fish — apparently to get high off its toxins. After a few chomps, you no longer give a fugu.


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Media Challenge FAA Drone Ban — and drones conveying beauty?

MEDIA-DRONE-BANDrones have already been used on several occasions in the US to document the news. Last week, a storm chaser in Arkansas used a drone to record the havoc wrought by a tornado. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been very slow to adopt rules for private and corporate drone use and has taken a draconian zero-tolerance policy on its interim ban on almost all such uses. Now, a number of media companies, including The New York Times and The Associated Press, accused the Federal Aviation Authority of violating the First Amendment.

Is this a difficult problem? Sure! Just imagine a future city scape abuzz with irritating mechanical vultures — delivery owls and snoopy eye-spies, swooping about, colliding with buildings and each other and power lines, causing blackouts and raining shattered, glowing parts on all below… at minimum city use should involve devices capable of situational awareness and detection of collision hazards and minimum separation rules. But dig it – we will only get there if the experiments can proceed in a few cities to see what really happens!

Start with Houston. They don’t give a darn anyway….

== Drones, androids and robots bring you the news! ==

ROBOTS-NEWSWill human journalists become obsolete? I participated in an online (HuffPost) panel discussion about the latest trend… robotizing the news media.  Here are just a few examples of the trend.

Japan Unveils  It’s First Android Newscaster. Not exactly uncanny, yet.  But they’re busy. With an expected 7% drop in population, their interest in automation is very high.

AP Will Use Robots to Write Some Business Stories.   – 4000 robo stories in the time it takes human writers to do 300.

Shades of Max Headroom! The following couch discussion of this is… fluffy and made me want to replace the panel with robots!  Another News Outlet Is Using Robots To Write Stories

Apparently most sports stories have come to us this way for several years.  (I suspect decades, even generations.)

== And more drones…  ==

Drones… everywhere!  Illustrating what has sometimes been called Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law… that cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile faster than ML. Now… watch how the flying cams are getting far more rugged, using a simple gimbal in a cage approach!  Watchbirds here we come, yippee.

Oh, but see the very end of this blog for one of the best links you’ll ever click, brought to you by a drone.

== The insurrectionary recourse? ==

citizen-uprisingAll the ructions and revolutions overseas raise an earnest question: could it happen here? Dialing in closer: is it still even theoretically possible for a mass citizen uprising to topple the government of the modern, western state? Mr. Harry Bentham makes an earnest effort and raises a few interesting points in “Does Modern Tech Render the 2nd Amendment Redundant?

Alas, his appraisal winds up being rather shallow, simply reiterating his arm-waved and evidence-free assertion that a mass uprising, armed with civilian rifles, could naturally and easily overcome forces of the modern state. Mr. Bentham leaves aside any discussion that:

– Any mass civil ruction will likely feature as many armed civilian “tories” as “rebels.”

– Local police have lately been heavily up-armed to close to military levels. Their loyalties in a crisis would complicate matters.

Jefferson-rifle   – Everything depends upon the morale and attitudes of the troops. If they retain strong connectivity and identification with the populace, they will be unreliable instruments of repression.

These and other factors were discussed in my own treatment on this issue — The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth — where I appraise whether modern westerners — and Americans in particular — still retain an “insurrectionary recourse.”

And why attachment to that ideal is THE driver behind the refusal of the Gun Lobby to consider even modest compromises.


Fireworks== Finally… drones and sheer beauty 

I cannot recall when last an item of media so delighted me. I am… for once… speechless. Though proud to live in …
oh, just click this. Full screen. 

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Brilliant innovators – hopeful signs

First a reminder that two of my TED style talks are up. THE FUTURE IS HERE Science meets Science Fiction Imagination, Inspiration and Invention was a lavish event last May in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Here’s a link to my talk: Otherness: will we supply our own new diversity? (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare!)

Also “Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be “Mad as Hell?” My talk at TEDxUCSD finally offers a public version of this disturbing notion I’ve been discussing for years — that an unseen addiction is destroying our civilization.  (Follow along with the slides on Slideshare! )

== Innovation will save us ==

Dean-kamen-slingshot-waterYou cynics out there had better not read this article about one of the heroes of our age, Dean Kamen, whose new water-distillation machines may provide healthy supplies to hundreds of millions of needy people, slashing disease rates and even preventing war. Kamen’s knack for making money while attacking “impossible problems” goes way back. His FIRST Robotics League has made nerdy inventiveness cool and high-status and fun on thousands of high school campuses. Guys like him — and Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others — prove that it’s not about left-vs-right. It is about deciding to be confident problem solvers, helping us all to win the positive sum games.

What was the federal government’s role in starting the shale-gas revolution? There is much ado in the press over the arrival (long expected by some of us) of cheap natural gas and renewed supplies of domestic petroleum, developed inside North America. The prospect of U.S. and Canadian energy independence is shaking up political dynamics all over the globe and (among other effects) helping to fuel a new renaissance in American manufacturing.

What seems bizarre is how this has become a crowing point for the Right. The Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal regularly runs opinion pieces that criticize federal efforts to advance energy technologies and their commercialization… and completely ignore the past federal role in research and stimulation and infrastructure, that made the shale boom possible. See this piece in Physics Today. Can you spell h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y?

The gas industry itself has spoken on behalf of federal research efforts. “The DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it,” said Mitchell Energy’s former vice president Dan Steward. “You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

== Inheritance of acquired… nervousness? ==

My colleagues Greg Bear and Mark Anderson have been among those who for years have suggested that Darwinian puritanism blinds us to certain ways that Lamarck might have been at least a little bit right. That some acquired characteristics can be passed to the next generation. Now comes experimental validation of their suspicion… in a way that many of us always knew in our gut. That trauma can get passed down the generations.

FEAR-PARENTSSee this report: Can We Inherit Fear From Our Parents? In a laboratory experiment, traumatized mice appeared to mature normally. It was only when researchers subjected them to behavioral tests that differences became apparent. The traumatised mice appeared to be reckless, wandering into bright, open spaces that mice usually avoid. Yet they also appeared to be depressed. When placed in a tank of water they gave up and floated instead of trying to swim to safety. 

“When males from the traumatised litters fathered offspring, their pups displayed similar abnormal behaviour even though they had never experienced trauma. The pups’ insulin and blood glucose levels were also lower than in normal mice – a symptom of early life stress. The offspring seemed to have inherited the effects of their fathers’ trauma. Furthermore, the next generation, that is the grandchildren of the original stressed mice, also showed abnormal behaviours. How could trauma be transmitted down the generations?

“The researchers analysed the traumatised fathers’ brain tissue, specifically in a region called the hippocampus, where memories are formed. They noticed larger than normal quantities of tiny RNA molecules called microRNA. Like tiny switches, these molecules are known to turn the activity of genes on or off.

“An abundance of this microRNA was also detected in the traumatised fathers’ sperm and in the brain tissue of their offspring. Could it be that the microRNA was somehow imprinted with the experience of the trauma, transmitting the memory to the offspring? To answer this, the researchers extracted the microRNA from the sperm of traumatised mice and injected it into embryos. The pups that developed from these embryos displayed the same behavioural and metabolic abnormalities as the traumatised fathers, while pups injected with RNA from un-traumatised fathers did not. It was strong support for the hypothesis that the sperm RNA was transmitting the experience of trauma.”

== More science ==

Thorne-Zytkow-neutron-starA red supergiant that contains, in its bowels, a neutron star? The existence of such an object was first proposed by (my friend) Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Anna Zytkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK. Now there is a strong candidate to be an observed Thorne-Zytkow object. Amazing.

Goodbye High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). Conspiracy theorists have accused the program of doing everything from mind control to global communications jamming. Now bulldozers await as the research program (on interesting things, not mind control) wraps up.

Exobiologists surveyed more than 1,000 planets for planet density, temperature, substrate (liquid, solid or gas), chemistry, distance from its central star and age. They developed and computed the Biological Complexity Index (BCI) suggesting 1 to 2 percent of the planets showed a BCI rating higher than Europa, a moon of Jupiter thought to have a subsurface global ocean that may harbor forms of life. With about 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the BCI yields 100 million plausible planets. At a glance, it seems a shallow conclusion, in part because Kepler results skew heavily toward massive planets orbiting close to their stars. And because Europa-style moons have no need for a Goldilocks Zone and hence may be pervasive.

Neuroscientists have suspected for some time that the brain has some capacity to direct the manufacturing of new neurons. Now generative neurons that stimulate stem cell production of more neurons have been found.

See the “raptor” two legged robot that can speed faster than a man.

TheGapIn The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a “definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose.” Says Ray Kurzweil: “Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.”

Let Phil Plait show you (and explain) the stunning and strange surface of Saturn’s moon, Phoebe.

== Amazing, if true. ==

HP’s new computer technology can manage 160 petabytes of data in a mere 250 nanoseconds.

‘There is something about the brains of high-IQ individuals that prevents them from quickly seeing large, background-like motions.’ Very interesting re differences in brain function. Interesting grist for deep pondering… or else (as I’ve seen)… we’ll see this used by dogmatists proclaiming “see? Smart people must be stupid!”

Papyrus-plant-bookA fascinating article in Salon, from the book Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars” by John Gaudet, describes how the papyrus plant gave ancient Egyptians the ability to make boats and use their water world.

Finally, a glimpse at male-female vocabulary differences showing we still have a way to go.




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Everything leaks – get used to it.  Use it. Also: is Skynet coming?

== Will Wall Street give us Terminator? Others weigh in ==

AGI-artificial-general-intelligence A few years ago, I posed a chilling hypothesis, that AGI — or “artificial general intelligence” that’s equivalent or superior to human — might “evolve-by-surprise,” perhaps even suddenly, out of advanced computational systems. And yes, that’s the garish-Hollywood “Skynet” scenario leading to Terminator.

Only I suggested a twist — that it would not be military or government or university computers that generate a form of intelligence, feral and self-interested and indifferent to human values. Rather, that a dangerous AI might emerge out of the sophisticated programs being developed by Wall Street firms, to help them game (many might say cheat) our economic system.

Indeed, more money is being poured into AI research by Goldman-Sachs alone than by the top five academic centers, put together, and all of it helping to engender systems with a central ethos of predatory opportunism and parasitic amorality.Oh, and did I mention it’s all in secret?  The perfect Michael Crichton scenario.

Barrat-Final-INvention Now comes a book by documentary filmmaker James Barrat — Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era — reviewed here on the ThinkAdvisor site — Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan? — in which Barrat discusses a scenario sketched out by Alexander Wissner-Gross, a scientist-engineer with affiliations at Harvard and MIT, that seems remarkably similar to mine. Opines Wissner-Gross:

“If you follow the money, finance has a decent shot at being the primordial ooze out of which AGI emerges.”

Barrat elaborates: : “In other words, there are huge financial incentives for your algorithm to be self-aware—to know exactly what it is and model the world around it.”

The article is well-worth a look, though it leaves out the grand context — that “emergent-evolving” AGI make up only one category out of six different general varieties of pathways that might lead to AI. To be honest, I don’t consider it to be the most likely.

But that has not bearing on what we — as a civilization — should be doing, which is taking reasonable precautions. Looking ahead and pondering win-win ways that we can move forward while evading the most obviously stupid mistakes.

Secret schemes of moohlah masters — that’s no recipe for wisdom. Far better to do it all in the light.

== Everything leaks ==

Heartbleed: Yes It’s Really That Bad.  So says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Heartbleed exploits a critical flaw in OpenSSL, which is used to secure hundreds of thousands of websites including major sites like Instagram, Yahoo, and Google. This article in WIRED also suggests that you can redouble your danger by rushing to trust fly by night third parties offering to fix the flaw… and meanwhile, “big boys” of industry aren’t offering general solutions, only patches to their own affected systems.

The crux? (1) change your passwords on sites where financial or other vital info is dealt-with, then gradually work your way through the rest, as each site offers you assurances. (2) try not to have the passwords be the same. (3) help ignite political pressure for the whole world of online password security to have a rapid-response component (not dominance) offered by a neutral agency… one that is totally transparent, neutral and separate from all law or espionage “companies.” And…

Everything-leaks…and (4) might I ask if you’ve noticed that this kind of event happens about twice a year? And it has been that way since the 1980s? Each of the events a scandal in its own right… hackers grab half a million Target card numbers… or Microsoft springs a leak… or Goldman Sachs… or Equifax… or Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange and Edward Snowden rip off veils of government secrecy… and pundits howl and the public quakes and no one ever seems to draw the correct conclusion —

that everything eventually leaks! And that maybe the entire password/secrecy model is inherently flawed. Or that there is another, different model that is inherently far more robust, that has only ever been mentioned in a few places, so far.

Here is one of those places.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers remain a vital part of reciprocal accountability. I would like to see expanded protections that simultaneously expand reciprocal accountability and citizen sousveillance… while allowing our intitutions to function in orderly ways.

Whistle-blower-lawsNow this announcement that the Project of Government Oversight (POGO) install SecureDrop… a new way for whistle blowers to deposit information anonymously and shielded from authorities trying to root out leakers. As author of The Transparent Society, I sometimes surprise folks by straddling this issue and pointing out that the needs of the bureaucracy should not be discounted completely! Or by reflex. Whistle blowing falls across a very wide spectrum and if we are sophisticated citizens we will admit that the revealers of heinous-illegal plots deserve more protection than mewling attention junkies.

Still, there is a real role to be played by those pushing the envelope. Read more about Pogo here.

Then again… Facebook can now listen in on your activities with a new audio recognition feature for its mobile app that can turn on smartphones’ microphones to “hear” what songs or television shows are playing in the background. Sounds cool… um, not.

== Brandeis the Seer ==

The famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928)To , by Justice Louis Brandeis, is a vital mirror to hold up to our times. Take the most famous part of eloquent dissent, regarding a seminal wiretapping case:

Brandeis-criminal-law-olmstead“Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher,” Brandeis concluded. “For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means — to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal — would bring terrible retribution.”

Which brings us to Andrew O’Hehir’s article on Salon, recently, using Brandeis as a foil to discuss – and denounce – some recent polemics against Edward Snowden and his journalist outlet, Glenn Greenwald. To be honest, I found O’Hehir tendentious and sanctimonious, but there were some cogent moments that made the article worthwhile, especially when he shone some light on the incredible prescience Brandeis showed, in his 1928 dissent:

“If Brandeis does not literally predict the invention of the Internet and widespread electronic surveillance, he comes pretty close,” for Brandeis wrote, “The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wire-tapping …Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.” Brandeis even speculated that psychiatrists of the future may be able to read people’s “unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions” as evidence. O’Hehir notes, “…as far as I know we haven’t reached that dystopian nightmare yet. (But if that’s the big final revelation from the Snowden-Greenwald trove of purloined NSA secrets, you read it here first.)”

== Transparency media ==

Anyone care to review this for us? Post-Privacy and Democracy: Can there be Moral and Democratic Development in a Totally Transparent Society? by Patrick Held. It provides arguments why the end of privacy or at least secrecy might be inevitable given our individual demand for technology.

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Will improved “vision” make us even better than we are?

Oculus-VRFacebook’s acquisition of the Oculus company shows that big players are starting to take Augmented Reality (AR) glasses seriously — leading the 22 year old daughter of a friend to comment “that stuff looks really lame.”

Ah, but the question of whether something “looks lame” is partly a matter of implementation… recall what the first cell phones were like? In the future you will be at an extreme disadvantage without access to augmented reality tools. These do not have to be worn all the time. But to refuse them entirely will be considered pretentious… like a person of our age loudly announcing “I refuse to own a cell phone!”

Still, we face a difficult transition period — perhaps 15 years — when the proper rules and procedures for AR will be worked out. Consider the lawsuits, when people who are distracted by images inside their eyewear, step off the curb in front of moving cars! In my novel Existence I predict what some of those rules and procedures might turn out to be. For example, requiring that dangerous objects and curbs and nearby persons be outlined in “collision-avoidance yellow. In the meantime, many lawyers will do well.

That is one reason why Google deliberately designed its “Glass” product to be les than full-AR — offset from the central cone of forward vision. The data that it presents do not cover the field of view needed for walking and safety. Google is happy to let smaller companies do those experiments… and deal with the legal transitions.

Tor-Farley-existenceIn Existence, I contemplated what Occulus and Glass may look like, more than a decade from now. One illustration (by Patrick Farley) shows a reporter with cyb-active hair… sensors at the tips of stalks that can rise up and look around, giving her the view of a very tall person and providing awareness of things going on behind her.

As for the Facebook purchase, Mark Zuckerberg in a conference said “Oculus and VR have the potential to change the way we play, work, and communicate.” And that social networks today are about “sharing moments.” but in the future it will be about “sharing experiences”. We’ve heard those promises for 20 years. For gaming, I see the potential, but to communicate or to engage in a social network, is there really a need/desire for a deep immersion? Alas, there are basic reasons why the Web — and Facebook in particular — have not enhanced discourse or truth or negotiation or any adult activities at all. I explain those reasons here:

Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competitiveness for Society’s Benefit

Unfortunately, that paper is too “scholarly” to be influential. It merely gets to the underlying core of why the Internet has never achieved its potential as a problem-solving system. Alas.

== Other Authors ==

Naam-dystopiaIn Can We Avoid a Surveillance State Dystopia? Ramez Naam, the brilliant author of the novels Nexus and Crux as well as the nonfiction The Infinite Resource, offers his own view on the NSA Imbroglio and our chances of staving off the Big Brother scenarios, achieving instead an open world of freedom and accountability: “And every organization in the world must now be on notice – everything it does may eventually become known.”

(Flash news! Ramez is on the list, nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in science fiction.  Congratulations Ramez!  And all the other nominees.)

All right then, where is the “end of history” promised by Francis Fukayama, after the fall of the Berlin Wall? The purported rush of the entire world to embrace liberal democracy? That did seem to be the way momentum was heading, in the Clinton era, but the 21st Century became a lot rougher — a more cynical and dogmatic era. Take this assessment from Freedom House in What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy?

wrong-democracyThe progress seen in the late 20th century has stalled in the 21st. Even though around 40% of the world’s population, more people than ever before, live in countries that will hold free and fair elections this year, democracy’s global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse. Freedom House reckons that 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which global freedom declined, and that its forward march peaked around the beginning of the century. Between 1980 and 2000 the cause of democracy experienced only a few setbacks, but since 2000 there have been many. And democracy’s problems run deeper than mere numbers suggest. Many nominal democracies have slid towards autocracy, maintaining the outward appearance of democracy through elections, but without the rights and institutions that are equally important aspects of a functioning democratic system…. Faith in democracy flares up in moments of triumph, such as the overthrow of unpopular regimes in Cairo or Kiev, only to sputter out once again.”

It’s a thought-provoking article… though to clarify, not all futurists were sanguine that this transition would be easy. In 1985 I predicted both the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the rise of a militant macho resistance to tech-modernist ways — either a Latin or Hindi or (most-likely) Muslim rejection of the West’s prescription how to live. And that crises of oligarchy and propaganda and dogma always threaten traditions of pragmatic, good-natured and science-based negotiation.

Still, the article offers hope: “At the same time, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths. Being able to install alternative leaders offering alternative policies makes democracies better than autocracies at finding creative solutions to problems and rising to existential challenges, though they often take a while to zigzag to the right policies.”

The trick is not to let ourselves be tricked into cynicism – like the “Tytler Calumny” lie that democracies are inherently weak… or the idiot-plot message in most Hollywood films, preaching that institutions always fail and citizenship is futile.

demonize-opponentsYour neighbors are not all sheep. Your political opponents are not all evil or fools. Try talking to those you despise. They are your fellow citizens. And together, we are not lesser than any “greatest generation.”

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Are “rights of way” key to better mega-cities? Plus science news!


My talk at TEDx San Diego-2013 — What’s Next? The Horizon of our Dreams —  is now posted for viewing by all.  It was very popular, but challenging for the smart audience, as I took them on a rapid tour of human history, society, evolution… and our galactic destiny… all in  12 minutes!

Rumors abound that Elon is dickering for Apple to buy or collaborate with Tesla Motors and — of course — create the “iCar.”

iCar-Tinkerers copySounds cool…

…though my only real comment is this illustration from my 2010 graphic novel about American industry called TINKERERS.



== Aggressive help to vitalize “mega-cities.” ==

Here is a fascinating article about the dilemma of megacities… and some innovative new, technological approaches that might help make them livable: Our Fragile Emerging Megacities: A Focus on Resilience, by Kevin C. Desouza.

Megacities-resilienceRiffing off of this piece, I have long believed that one key, seldom-mentioned aspect for saving megacities is the problem and opportunity of rights-of-way (RoW).  Any of these megacities could be vitalized by a process that — at first sight — will seem brutal, but that does not have to be.  It is the demolition of — and rebuilding upon — a 200 meter wide corridor extending from the port, to the urban center, then out to the industrial parks and airport and then countryside.

Within this razed band, every major, revitalizing service can then be inserted at very low cost, using simple trenching methods: utilities, sewer systems, water, underground metros and a grand boulevard.  There would also be room for new-innovative services like pneumatic tube delivery of goods, eliminating much of the truck traffic that clogs streets.

Atop the easily-trenched service corridors might not only be a grand boulevard but also farmers markets, booth-bazaars and a slim but beautiful urban park… that incidentally would allow cheap and trivial access to utilities for repair or upgrade, a terrible design problem in most legacy cities.  The land on both sides would skyrocket in usability and value, for more than a kilometer in both directions, a linear approach to urban development that worked so well along Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles.

Rights-of-way-mega-citiesThe efficiency of this system would bring huge returns to investors, despite having to carefully allow for: (1) dealing with corrupt governments and (2) setting aside 1/3 ownership rights in the new commercial frontages to the original inhabitants who were uprooted.  Indeed, the biggest challenge, requiring great care, would be acting covertly in advance to secretly discover and document every person living along the RoW — even in slums and favelas — and vesting them in their shares before local elites get a chance to interfere or cheat… and then providing housing for the displaced until fill-in is completed.

Sorry, but I’ve been thinking about this for decades, developing  details, waiting for some “I want to change the world” billionaire to come to me for my list of ways to both re-shape tomorrow for the better… and get even richer doing it. This particular one would seem an opportunity of almost transcendent importance, requiring deep pockets and even deeper guts.

But some zillionaire could change the world, and get every penny back, ten-fold.

== About… us… ==

The Evolution of Fairness through Spite:  A study done by philosophers Patrick Forber of Tufts University and Rory Smead of Northwestern University, suggests fairness in societies evolves out of a fear of spite from others, rather than due to an increase in altruism.  Interesting how this resonates with both my short story “The Giving Plague” (free online) and this contrarian perspective on whether altruism might pervade the universe, as some fervently believe.

outrageIs this related?  A major study has found quite significant correlations between Internet trolling behavior and general personality nastiness.  Specifically, trolls score highly in personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

Internet trolls (who are frequently anonymous) have a polarizing effect on audiences, leading to politicization, rather than deeper understanding of scientific topics. This puts a strong incentive on the rest of us to explore potential alternatives to pure, accountability-free anonymity.  Proposals for sheltered pseudonymity are on the table, which could provide all the benefits of anonymity — freedom to explore and reduce inhibitions/fears — without making malignancy outcome-free.

Only a fraction of trolls self-identify — the focus of this study. But a majority believe that their passion is always and inherently justified, an indignant state that they return to, far too readily and frequently to be anything other than an epiphenomenon of addiction. See my article: An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology.

Ah… but then there are the relatives of trolls… wargs.  War-fighters And Gossip Spreaders. They move in packs, leaving scorched earth. And they feel no need for anonymity.

== Space! and Tech==

A fatwa—an interpretation based on Quranic scripture—issued by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment in the United Arab Emirates, has declared that the Mars One endeavor, to hurry a mission to Mars by making it a one-way attempt at colonization, is too close to suicide to be permitted.

Mars-simulation-arcticHow will humans adapt to space — and cope with the stresses of continuous close contact in a space module? Support the IndieGogo campaign: A One-year Mars Simulation in the Canadian Arctic. Topics explored in Mary Roach’s book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Case of Life in the Void.

Penn State University chemists and engineers have, for the first time, placed tiny synthetic motors inside live human cells in a lab, propelled them with ultrasonic waves, and steered them magnetically.

Google is offering advice to Google-Glass users: don’t be glass-holes.

The Bluetooth Orb is a a Bluetooth finger ring with scrolling display, built in microphone, and the ability to transform between a ring and an earpiece. Early versions wowed audiences and electronics shows… then it vanished! (I have better things in mind, anyway.)

Frequency of random events on xkcd: mesmerizing!

Dangers of … sitting? Regardless of exercise, too much sedentary time is linked to major disability after age 60.

Mottled-transparency== Transparency News ==

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will review plans to build up a trustworthy data protection network in Europe. The challenge is to avoid data passing through the U.S. after revelations of mass NSA spying in Germany and France.

Merkel has been one of the biggest supporters of greater data protection in Europe since the revelations that the U.S. tapped her phone emerged in a Der Spiegel news report in October — based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Hm… I am skeptical it’d work.  But variety is spice.

== Wonders ==

See pictures of swirling tornado-like forms which turned out to be thousands of fish in the midst of a reproductive courtship.

Really interesting… how wolves change rivers.

Human and dog brains both have dedicated ‘voice area.’

And finally… Compost-fueled cars: A hilarious send-up of TED talks, from the Onion!

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Innovations to help us conquer space

I just attended the NASA Innovative and Advance Concepts group (NIAC) symposium at Stanford — (I am on NIAC’s Council of External Advisors) — watching and appraising and questioning terrific presentations about future-potential “game-changing” space technologies.  In four days the recipients of NIAC seed grants, showed us how NASA’s small but strategic investments in exceptional… even risky… technologies might prove valuable — even vital — if given a chance.

NASA-NIACThe presentations, open to the public, were live-streamed and are now archived for your viewing pleasure.

Punctuating the technical talks, our first keynote speaker was Jamie Hyneman, famed producer and co-star of The Mythbusters TV show. He was most inspiring, logical, humble and sensible about seeking the proper balance between play and risk and responsibility… an excellent perspective, very apropos for NIAC.  (During break, Jamie also told me I had been one of his favorite authors, way back when… till the show took all his time and banished reading. Ah well!)

Other keynotes included my friend Peter Norvig, head of research at Google (also hugely inspiring) and SETI Institute chief scientist Seth Shostak, who gave a clever-dynamic speech about how likely it is that “everything will change.” We have our disagreements, but Seth does deliver high octane big-think. There was also an interesting reception and speech by two experts about venture capitalism in space, hosted at SETI institute HQ, of all places.

The talks by NIAC fellows themselves were way-interesting. Several innovators aim to use “tensegrity,” which gives separate roles to tension and compression elements in new kinds of light weight structures.  One group wants to make tensegrity “balls” that can cushion a landing payload, then controllers back on Earth might command the rover to tug-shrink various tension members, in order to roll around.  Another team wants to use tensegrity to make torus space habitats, starting at 10 meters then expanding all the way up to space colonies.  (The use of tensegrity in innovative structures is illustrated in my graphic novel: Tinkerers.)

image-volcanoOther talks were even more amazing. Can we see inside super-dangerous volcanoes like Vesuvius? Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo reasoned that the throat of a volcano could be “x-rayed” with energetic muons produced in cosmic-ray showers. The number of muons passing through the volcano would depend on the density of intervening rock, so measuring the number of muons passing through various parts of the volcano could yield a crude, 3-D view of the interior.  So, can we use this in space? One of the fellows with a NIAC grant showed us even more spectacular potential application… a way to peer inside asteroids!

Then there’s Red Whittaker who has made progress developing a robot that can lower itself (rappel) on a cable into some of the lava tube tunnels that we’re now pretty sure exist on the Moon and Mars, after we’ve spotted some of the “skylight” openings that have caved-open, exposing some of them… potentially ideal places for early human visitors and colonies to inhabit. Those settlers would then supplement the caves with other NIAC innovations! Like with “printed” concrete that uses sulfur to replace water.  Or polymers to bind regolith with water – only the water gets recovered for re-use.

torpor_inducing_transfer_habitatforhumanstasistomarsRobert Hoyt talked about his group’s truss-making “trusselator” … then a biomedical team reported on their scenario for using “torpor” — human hibernation — for spaceflight! (Just don’t leave a crazy AI in charge, while you sleep.) Another bio group has been studying ways to tailor and refine organically-derived useful materials in space. Then… how about combining fusion and fission, maximizing neutron use and getting the best of each for a very high ISP rocket!

Here’s a great one studied by two separate groups… 2-D “landers” that are like sheets of paper and flutter down to planets, needing no complex rockets etc… with printed circuits and instruments! Then we saw an effort to mimic Geoff Landis’s great sci fi story “A Walk in the Sun” by having a rover circumnavigate the poles of Mercury or the Moon, moving just fast enough to stay in twilight, where there’s solar power, but not so much you get scorched. Another team wants to use a base station lander to aim reflected empowering sunlight at its rover. (I actually quite liked that one).

590487main_strekalov_226Or how about balloons that are also telescopes, made from mirroring their spherical bottoms?  Or ultra thin film (and spectacularly broad) telescopes that keep perfect optical shape because their chemically-treated undersides are written-on by a laser? Or using the quantum diffraction of whole atoms to make an orbiting interferometer more than six orders of magnitude more accurate than any other, allowing detection of minute gravity waves? Think that’s weird? There was also a project to use “ghost imaging” to picture things in space that no one can see!  Compared to that, an ideas for a whirling-bola permanently-aloft aircraft and propulsion via photonic thrusters seemed positively mundane… (and I mean that in a good way!)

All along, there was lots of talk of using cubesats, inexpensive and very small satellites and probes that bring costs way down.  Interesting stuff!

And… even more important… examples of our tax dollars (mostly) well and efficiently spent on the seed corn from which future industries might grow.

== Other space news ==

Even if no rogue state attacks with an EMP… the sun eventually will.  We should have been hardening the grid and civilian electronics for 30 years.  Indeed, such hardening would make an attack less tempting and thus less likely.  It is called robustness and should be a core national – and civilization-wide – goal.

For two weeks, humans and a humanoid robot lived in a simulated Martian environment inside a habitat module– in Utah!

Take a kewl tour of just a few spectacular images from Mars.

A NASA experiment to seek ultra-low temperatures — as low as 100 pico-degrees Kelvin — will be put aboard the Space Station in order to eliminate the effects of gravity. The hope is to study deep quantum-statistical effects of matter, such as Bose-Einstein condensates.  The NASA research team believes that they will be able to create work in this proposed coldest known location in the universe in intervals of up to 20 seconds and that they may be able to create atomic wave packets that are capable of being seen by the naked eye.

TankFarmCoverNewIn other cool NASA news that gets far-out but plausible… a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” has grown out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor books. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.  (See also my novella, Tank Farm Dynamo.) What is so cool is how this kind of return to the old, confident, can-do spirit is exactly what we need to counter act the swamp of dystopias and same-same hopelessness that currently infests YA fiction. 
Okay, saving the dreamiest for last. It seems that a whole new generation is being awakened to the delightful vision so many of us had, in the 1980s… of artificial colonies in orbit. Sure the recent movie Elysium portrayed a “Stanford Torus” serving as the ultimate enclave-metaphor for class oppression.  (It also had a magical force-field that somehow was useless against incoming ships.) But even in that case, the gorgeous habitat become a source of hope for all humanity.
This dream — which goes back to J.D. Bernal’s marvelous design of 1929 — is being given a kick by some low-scale NASA backing. e should all help re-introduce another generation to this notion, which is the ultimate expression of the confident, assertive, Can-Do Spirit we so desperately need, here on Earth.
Let “we can do it” be the theme for a century that begins this year!

And now… onward!

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The Arrival of Face Recognition Apps… and more transparency news

Face-recognition has reached your smart phone, bringing science fiction closer and also (I expect) a storm of controversy.

NameTag-facial-recognition-appNametag, an upcoming app for Android, iOS, and Google Glass, will allow you to photograph strangers and find out who they are — complete with social networking and online dating profiles. Snap and send a pic to NameTag’s server, where it will compare the photo to millions of online records and return with a name, more photos, and social-media profiles, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where the person (or their friends) might have publicly posted photos of themselves. In the U.S., Nametag will also match the photo against more than 450,000 entries in the National Sex Offender Registry and other criminal databases.

There is already some discussion of the blatant privacy concerns… and one can see why Google has banned this capability (officially) from its very cautious “Glass” endeavor in wearable augmented reality, preferring to let these frontiers be probed by smaller, expendable companies.

Still, expect a huge row over this, along with campaigns to outlaw face-recog on the streets.  As forecast in The Transparent Society (1997) this will be a nexus of confrontation between two very different approaches to preserving privacy and freedom, and you can be sure the “let’s all hide!” reflex will start to win, at first…

…until it becomes clear.  That the “let’s all hide!” approach simply won’t work.  And if it did, we would only empower our new masters.

== Repelling Big Brother ==

Defeat-Big-brotherIn “How to Defeat Big Brother,” on Salon Magazine, Andrew Leonard posits that “In 2013, we learned the terrifying scope of modern surveillance. Now it’s time to fight back.”

In fact, Leonard appears to be among the few who actually get what it’s all about.

“The Panopticon doesn’t work if we watch the watchers back. Knowing exactly how we are being surveilled is the set-up for a prison break,” he writes in a worthy rumination… though alas without proper attribution for who’s been spreading that lonely meme for almost 20 years.

Another fellow who gets it… here’s a link to Professor Arnold Kling’s review of The Transparent Society, revealing genuine depth and perceptiveness.

== The Real Trends toward Transparency ==

Transparency-2013 Open Data and Transparency: A Look back at 2013: Was this the year that “transparency” came into its own? In this year-end review, we learn of progress in some nations, while others cling tenaciously to old, corruption-prone ways.

I described this to the cypherpunks way back in 1996… that encryption could be broken by spies and cops in a plethora of old and new-fashioned ways… such as the different sounds that each of the keys on your keyboard make. By all means, learn and improve your security.  But anyone who calls encryption a panacea is a religious fanatic.

Oh, but it gets much worse.  “Thanks to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, we already knew the NSA played a central role in promoting a flawed formula for generating random numbers, which if used in encryption, essentially gives the spies easy access to computing systems. A piece of RSA software, bSafe, became the most significant vector for the security flaw. The encryption tools which hundreds of millions of people rely on to protect the private information are significantly weaker as a result.”  Now it seems that the NSA bribed the security firm RSA (who deny this, vehemently) to leave the back door to computers all over the world open.

And wow. Reports suggest that the NSA, in collaboration with the CIA and FBI, routinely and secretly intercepts shipping deliveries for laptops or other computer accessories in order to implant bugs before they reach their destinations.  There is only one way to control this.

== On the other hand… ==

ERASABLE-INTERNET SnapChat and the Future of an Erasable Internet: My transparency-related panel interview on NPR’s show “To The Point” (KCRW) on January 3, 2014, started with a discussion of SnapChat – the latest craze among the kids – and whether we are moving to an era when the Internet’s voracious memory can be put on a diet.  Other panelists? Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo recently wrote about the prospect of a more erasable Internet.

Jennifer Golbeck, Director of the Human-Computer Interaction Center at Univ. of Maryland spoke about social networks: Analyzing the Social Web.

big_data_a_revolution_that_will_transform_how_we_live_work_and_think_by_viktor_mayer-schonberger_kenneth_cukier_book_front_cover_dustjacketVictor Mayer-Shoenberger who has written about the dangers of Big Data, warned up both up & downsides. (See his book: Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live,work and think.)

Ah but…  a new application, SnapHack Pro, for sale on the iOS App Store, allows users to log in using their SnapChat credentials and send and receive Snaps. The difference: all images opened and viewed in SnapHack are permanent. Ah well.  And you ever, every believed otherwise?

Dig-it. I wholly approve of this SnapChat innovation is a tool to send self-erasing blips and snaps. As a convenience for sending hair-mussed face-grimaced little fun-stupid things to pals? Terrific! … so long as you never base your safety or future upon it!  

More on SnapChat: is is really as ephemeral as it promises?

== And then it gets weird.  ==

Talking Train Windows: Trains deliver ads directly into your head: The German branch of ad company BBDO has tested a form of bone conduction technology on a train between Munich and North Rhine-Westphalia. When a commuters rest their heads against a window, hoping to catch a few winks before getting to their destination, ads which were previously inaudible suddenly begin playing inside their heads… via bone-sonic induction through the glass.

== Innovations! ==

innovations-2013The Washington Post offers a run-down on ten trends and concepts of 2013 that seemed to have the most staying power for the year ahead. Most of which you saw discussed here.

The Occulus Rift finally brings VR gaming in 3D into our age.  And there are other approaches ripening, such as Technical Illusions.  Notice that both go for the full immersion AR approach, which Google Glass deliberately avoids. And for good reason.  A major corporation does not want to face juries when folks (during the transition decade) step off curbs in front of cars.  Which will happen until some of the adaptations and adjustments that I talk about in both Earth and Existence.

See this taken to the extreme in “NatuLife”, which you can find in my collection, Otherness.

The $100 laptop is so 2010, The $38 tablet is today.  Yes a $38 tablet.

And for your smart phone, TellSpec a $250 handheld laser spectrometer will analyze food, scanning for allergens, calories, contaminants in your meal.

Bill-nye-creation-debate A terrific writeup on Bill Nye… formerly “the science guy” and now my colleague and president of The Planetary Society.  And on February 4, the amiable debater against anti-scienceism at the Ohio Creation Museum!

Go get-em Bill.  Stand up for science, enlightenment and triple digit IQs.

And finally….. is government all-bad?  Play DARPA’s web games at Verigames to crowdsource and help find software vulnerabilities. The site’s five games are designed so that when users solve puzzles to advance to the next level of play, they are actually generating mathematical proofs that can identify software flaws that cyberattacks could exploit.  Alas, good-guy agencies like DARPA may suffer for the excesses of certain others that have inveigled their way into game worlds like World of Warcraft for reasons of espionage.

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Is There Such a Thing as Progress?

First a teaser for folks in Arizona:  How do we fit in a universe that’s unveiling itself in confounding ways? Might we share the cosmos with other intelligent beings, or are we alone in the vastness of space? Could the universe be a Matrix-like simulation?

flier-for-savethedateI’ll be giving the Shoemaker Memorial Lecture about “Humanity’s Place in a Very Strange Universe” at Arizona State University’s BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, in Tempe, on Oct. 1 at 7 pm. Free, and open to the public, with a book signing afterward. Click here to RSVP

Next day I’ll speak at ASU’s Center for Science & Imagination: Science Fiction and the Future of Journalism at 1:45 pm; Sign up at EventBrite

== Dare we dream of a world free of poverty by 2030? ==

In this interview, ex imam Ahmed Akkari, one of the main denouncing voices during the 2005 crisis about Denmark Mohammed cartoons, explains how study of enlightenment thinkers lead to reconsidering his stances on freedom of expression and secular societies.

Indeed. We’ve spoken before of the evidence shown by Harvard Prof Steven Pinker that percapita violence rates have been plummeting, (on average) since 1945.  Now… here is yet more news that shatters pat nostrums of both the right and the left.  In April, the Development Committee of the World Bank set the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030.  Sound naive and delusional? Jeffrey Sachs in the NY Times shows a strong case that this goal can (roughly) be met and indeed is being met.

Progress“According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010.”

Sachs shows that “…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are public functions that must align with private market forces.” In other words, the much-maligned Mixed-Approach that we inherited from the Greatest Generation turns out to have been exactly right, all along.  Read this.  It supplements Steven Pinker’s work and shows what we might still accomplish, if vigorous, pragmatic, non-dogmatic ambition and goodwill take hold …  if we thwart the grouches and cynics whose dyspeptic and demoralizing grumbles make them by far the worst enemies of humanity and Planet Earth.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

== And even rougher (deserved) treatment for cynics ==

The always acerbic, clever and sometimes on-target David Wong uses his modernized CRACKED site to deliver some truly eye-opening rants, slapping the reader with wake-up! calls.  In this case, he provides: 7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really Is. Some of them even ones I haven’t mentioned before.

For example: “You can hate the greed and cutthroat competition of capitalism, but before that it was the much-worse feudalism. You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system. You have to give credit to the people who worked hard to make things less bad today.” 

CynicismAnd: “This is why I’ve grown to find cynicism so frustrating — cynicism doesn’t cause inaction. The desire for inaction causes cynicism. And so you fight to defend your cynicism tooth and nail.”

Alas he ignores the MAIN reasons for nostalgic cynicism!

(1) The alluring romanticism of look-backward  worldviews which dominated nearly all human societies, perceiving some lost golden age in the past, instead of a human-built one in our future.

(2) The tendency of the political right to deny that human improvability is possible and urgently necessary and hence worth paying taxes to pursue.

(3) The tendency on the political left to demand lots of (necessary) improvement, but only with chiding, never encouragement, angrily denouncing any admission that lots of progress has already happened, because that admission might “reduce the perceived urgency to improve and do more reform.” (A presumption that is as loony as anything at Fox.

But heck, while you’re at it, check out The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.

This is a frequent theme of mine. One that I will elaborate more upon… next posting.

== Poking at sacred cows ==

This riff attempts to make excuses for Robert E. Lee’s loss at Gettysburg, on cartographic grounds: Lee’s ill-fated combat decisions and ultimate defeat likely stemmed from bad reconnaissance reports, his forces spread too thinly across 7 miles, and an inability to see the more compact and elevated Union forces, according to geographers and cartographers who synthesized old maps, text and data into a digital model of the three-day Pennsylvania battle in 1863. “We know that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was virtually blind at Gettysburg,” Anne Kelly Knowles, a geography professor at Middlebury College, wrote in the article accompanying the interactive map on

There is a problem with that excuse… it is just as easily applicable to almost all of the Union commanders Lee defeated during the previous two years.  The problem was a general one… in several senses of that word.  Hence, applying it to make excuses just for Lee is disingenuous. In fact, Lee collapsed every time he tried to take on the vastly more difficult job of strategic attack that his much derided opponents faced. Generals McDowell, McClellan, Rosecrans, Halleck and so on, had to maneuver vast, invading armies and their supply chains through poorly mapped territory with almost nonexistent communications.  Inevitably, one wing or another became exposed for an aggressive defender to pounce-upon.

Lee’s admitted brilliance was less a factor than historical circumstance and the transient effects of technology in the 1860s. These combined to offer huge advantages to agile and aggressive defense, Lee’s specialty as he recklessly chewed at the flanks of his lumbering opponents.  But at Antietem and Gettysburg, he was the one attempting to coordinate a strategic advance.  And in those cases, Lee’s approach — charge at anything you see that’s blue — was  more crudely ill-conceived and reliant on luck than the advances of Rosecrans, Grant, Sherman, or even Halleck and Pope. Indeed, he was spectacularly fortunate, in both cases, that he did not face an aggressive Lee-type on the Union side. In fact, his lucky stars saved him at both battles.


Some wisdom on reality vs. perception:

DARPA’s next Robotics Challenge. Challengers will deal with a very complex search-and-rescue scenario.

A fascinating look at how dolphins react to mirrors!

Okay this is cool music appreciation:  90 theramins doing Beethoven’s 9th.

Sweet and moving, from SMBC.

And this lovely lecture-tribute-perfomance to Gershwin.

Kewl chance to put your life — and time — in perspective.

And talk about perspective!  A camera strapped to an eagle’s back.

How we survived the sixties I’ll never know. It is the biggest evidence for alien or heavenly intervention.

== Recommended ==

BookQuestionsUCLA Prof Gregory Stock was one of the earliest of the modern wave of scientists promoting what became known as “transhumanism” or improvement of the human species.  Now he has come out with an interesting new “Book of Questions” — which is what the title suggests, a series of posers, puzzlers, and cringe-worthy shit-disturbers… the sort that you raise once-per-evening at a dinner party or discussion group or the work-lunch room, to get some lively passions raised.  Sample some at

== And finally … ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then.  Have a look back via Frank Catalano’s brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

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