Sunday, October 22, 2006

Third Millennium Problem-Solving: My Speech at Google - Part One

I just returned from a trip - accompanied by renowned UCSD tech artist Sheldon Brown - to visit some top people and companies in the Bay Area, offering and swapping cool ideas. We’re now back home with our families. But it was a fun road trip.

exorariumFirst stop, we spent a day with Will Wright (master of "the Sims") and Kim his impressive partner/colleague, discussing, among other things, our Exorarium Project and how it might relate to their exciting to game Spore. (It's fantastic. Get ready for a quantum leap in gaming.)

A relevant aside: “Games get serious: If you think video games are child's play, meet the growing community of scientists, policy makers, and game developers who beg to differ.” Our exorarium offers the educational framing that other games need.

We also visited the Long Now Foundation and were shown (by my “ArchiTechs” co-star Zander Rose) pieces of the epochal Clock of the Long Now, slowly taking shape -- a project of amazing beauty and artistic uselessness... and also toured the wonderful Computer Museum in Mountain View (guided by curator Chris Garcia). A true temple of our renaissance. See both of these Bay Area shrines... on the same day, if you can. What fun.


Biggest stop was to give a company-wide Tech Talk for Google.

First off, Google is every bit as impressive and exciting as you've heard. A wonderful campus where pampered employees (associates) work hard at innovating a new era, between lavish free meals in a dozen terrific onsite restaurants. Scooters and toys and juice bars everywhere. The nineties still live!

We met with my friend Larry Brilliant, head of Google.org, the philanthropy wing of the enterprise, and his senior advisor Gregory Miller. They have fascinating plans to explore new horizons and break paradigms in world-changing investment. (See Larry talk about Bird Flu and Pandemics; learn and be scared!)

Also spent time with my putative cousin, Sergey Brin. No, I won't describe that encounter in any detail, though some parts were hilarious and the whole thing was great fun. I came away encouraged and optimistic. As long as we generate and invest in guys like this, the Enlightenment is still in business.

GoogleTalkTogether Sheldon & I presented “Third Millennium Problem Solving: Visualization as A Core Element of Problem Solving. A video/podcast is up. But be warned. I come across as altogether too bashful and shy. (Note: I did the lion’s share of presenting at Google, and Sheldon presented more to Will Wright, for reasons that will be obvious.)

Key point from the talk: ever since the 1400s, each century in the West has been shaken almost to the core by new technologies that transformed three things - vision, memory and attention - providing human beings with augmented powers that then triggered crises of confidence.

For example, the first wave of transformation began when printing presses, glass lenses and perspective dramatically expanded what we could know, see and perceive. Later prosthetics like mass education, libraries, telecommunications and databases all took this process farther, expanding our natural gifts of vision, memory and attention by orders of magnitude, until today people are used to seeing, knowing, and perceiving vastly more than their ancestors might have imagined.

Or desired! With every new ratchet of progress, fearful voices called for a halt. Distrusting the ability of the masses to cope. Calling it hubris and folly for mankind to pick up powers that had been reserved to gods.

Fortunately, we lucked out, on each of those earlier occasions, because the masses refused to be cowed. Instead (amid ruction and violence and chaos) we in the West gradually-but-relentlessly chose individual empowerment.

--A trend toward dispersal of authority.
--Reciprocal accountability.
--Democratization of vision, memory and attention.

Yada.
You know the theme, because I rant it endlessly.

We are the unlikely products of a series of improbably good choices. Choices that fostered all of the emergent properties of markets and science and democracy and such, allowing us to experiment (at long last) with a system other than dreary/predictable feudalism.

Moreover, it is the job of this generation to keep faith with the experiment.

A side question: If the powers of God are attainable technologically - deus ex machina - then might that have been intended, all along? Perhaps with a thought that we’ll have work to do? Maybe helping to finish the labor of Creation? A theological point that stands in diametric opposition to The Book of Revelations But more on that another time.

In any event, the story of the last 600 years can be distilled to a basic lesson.

Problems that are provoked by new powers of perception can never be solved by cowardice.

Under conditions of crisis, one option stands clear.

Our best and realistic hope tends to be... us.

Next: the Google talk veers into practical matters. What “Tools of Discourse” are desperately missing from the internet?

28 comments:

Nate said...

Tools of discourse missing on the Internet? The piece of scratch paper. Seriously, there's been so many times I wished I could just grab a piece of paper and sketch something for somebody. And yeah, you can do the same thing with MSPaint, then upload it somewhere and give them the link, but that's usually an order of magnitude more time than it takes IRL. There might be a proprietary kind of software out there that does it, but I've yet to find it, or at least one that does it well.

At least over the Internet. In the classes I'm taking back at college, they have this fancy setup of a pressure sensitive board and a projector hooked into a computer, press on the board and it acts like a touchscreen for the mouse. And the most common use for this is duplicating the whiteboards right next to the computer board, which seems fairly redundant. I can think of a bunch of awesome uses for them, though.

The biggest hurdle with any kind of computer technology is the interface, and the big "white board" is good. But there's a lot of stuff that could be good, but is held back by the interface. The best tech for communications are invisible or nearly so. The emphasis should be on the communication, not how it's sent.

And two other strands of thought, one: Spore is one of the things that might make me shell out the cash for upgrading my computer and two: I wish I were smart enough to work at Google.

Stefan Jones said...

I look forward to checking out the video . . . when I'm more awake!

Two of my friends work at Google. They are very well taken care of indeed, but I don't think "pampered" is the right word. The perks come at the price of very long hours!

* * *

DB's notes above echo some things that Marshall McLuhan wrote about human adaptation to progress in Understanding Media:

"Education is ideally civil defense against media fall-out. Yet Western man has had, so far, no education or equipment for meeting any of the new media on their own terms. Literate man is not only numb and vague in the presence of film or photo, but he itensifies his ineptness by a defensive arrogance and condescension to 'pop kulch' and 'mass entertainment.' It was in this spirit of bulldog opacity that the scholastic philosophers failed to meet the challenges of the printed book in the sixteenth century. The vested interests of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been bypassed and engulfed by the new media."

Dimly grasping the Internet age:

"Paradoxically, automation makes liberal education mandatory. The electric age of servomechanisms suddenly releases men from the mechanical and specialist servitude of the preceding machine age. As the machine and the motorcar released the horse and projected it onto the plane of entertainment, so does automation with men. We are suddenly threatened with a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society . . . Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge, nomadic as never before, informed as never before, free from fragmentary specialism as never before -- but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, interrelating every human experience."

David Brin said...

wow

Rocky said...

Here's something of interest. I recently met a young man named Jason Liszkiewicz who founded Re-Configure.org, a new effort at opening the intelligence community, making intelligence transparent. He's also proposing a Citizen's Intelligence Network. Sound familiar? Check it out!

Naum said...

Tools of discourse missing on the Internet? The piece of scratch paper. Seriously, there's been so many times I wished I could just grab a piece of paper and sketch something for somebody. And yeah, you can do the same thing with MSPaint, then upload it somewhere and give them the link, but that's usually an order of magnitude more time than it takes IRL. There might be a proprietary kind of software out there that does it, but I've yet to find it, or at least one that does it well.

If browser support ever fully embraces SVG graphics, then this will be really easy. Well, at least the sharing part -- the current state of hardware makes this usable only with mouse (for most people), not as easy as a pencil to use for sure...

The tools of discourse on the internet are evolving... ...it is sad that they're still crude, but keep in mind, while there are loftier ambitions desirous of something superior, it has to be (a) simple to use -- i.e., this blogger software might be crude, but it offers simple clickity-click publishing capability to millions who only have the prerequisite of knowing how to use a web browser and (b) be ubiquitous and available (F/OSS) enough to spread across the net. Net folk get used to a certain mode and then anything that goes against that grain has a tough uphill climb...

David Brin said...

Rocky, the Re-Configure.org site is fun and on-target and exactly in the spirit of what I have been talking about for years, especially in my speech at Google. Empowerment of citizens can be the only possible solution. Alas, I don’t perceive such things being anywhere near “viral” enough to actually take off on their own. That is, unless a zillionaire realizes that civilization depends utterly upon this transformation, and decides to help sponsor it.

A problem is that the money follows the 90% of online synchronous visitors who are kids without any interest in discourse, beyond ROFL. I am NOT dismissive of that. By all means, let 90% engage in ROFL! My plaint is that the other 10% are ACTIVELY PREVENTED from engaging in meaningful discourse, by interfaces that are far worse than even Nate and Naum perceive. (Though the founders of Wikipedia appear to realize; “discourse” is about much more than just expressing yourself (as I am doing now.)

It is about accountability.

Which is why I applaud the Re-Configure.org site. I also have suggestions. (Will someone please pass these forward to Jason Liszkiewicz
?)

1. He should prominently cite www.e-sheep.com/spiders/ as the perfect allegorical illiustration of the “million eyes” approach to using citizens as intelligence resources... and accepting the reciprocal accountability that results.

2. Further resources that could go on a resource/reading page could include my own The Transparent Society and Vernor Vinge’s RAINBOW’S END. Of course, as I said, my talk at Google "Methods of 21st Century Problem-Solving.") is at http://tinyurl.com/yy7yxm

Somebody please track this and tell us if this ever gains some legs? Thanks, Rocky, for sharing it.

----
Stefan, I shared your McLuhan quotes with Sheldon, who replied Thusly:

: I guess we shouldn't be so dismissive of this McLuhan guy.

Anyway - one of the examples that I briefly point to is the movie Videodrome - I love the McLuhanesque character in the movie who is appears in his television interviews on a TV monitor becuase he
"refuses to appear on TV except on TV".

I'll also give you this from a hundred+ years before McLuhan in Hawthorne's in "The House of the Seven Gables"

"Then there is electricity!--the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading ntelligence!" exclaimed Clifford. "Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact--or have I dreamt it--that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?

Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!"


Dang... almost the whole point of my own EARTH!

Stefan Jones said...

It's easy to dismiss McLuhan . . . given that 90% of his books are really strange and possibly clueless thrashing about. But there are some intriguing nuggets amid the dross:

"But all the conservatism in the world does not afford even a token resistance to the ecological sweep of the new electric media. On a moving highway the vehicle that backs up is accelerating in relation to the highway situation. Such would seem to be the ironical status of the cultural reactionary. When the trend is one way his resistance insures a greater speed of change. Control over change would seem to consist in moving not with it but ahead of it."

Or (concluding Understanding Media):

"Since electrical energy is independent of the place or kind of work-operation, it creates patterns of decentralism and diversity in the work to be done. This is a logic that appears plainly enough in the difference between firelight and electric light, for example. Persons grouped around a fire or a candle for warmth and light are less able to persue independent thoughts, or even tasks, than people supplied with electric light. In the same way, the social and educational patterns latent in automation are those of self-employment and artistic autonomy. Panic about automation as a threat of uniformity on a world scale is the projection into the future of mechanical standardization and specialism, which are now past."

Gilmoure said...

Seriously, there's been so many times I wished I could just grab a piece of paper and sketch something for somebody.

I came across an online game (off of Fark.com of all places) that had people logged into a chat room, with a small white board. When it was your turn, you received a dictionary word and had to illustrate it. The system would provide clues a the timer moved on.

Most people's work was the usual jerky stick figures possible with a mouse but you could always tell someone who had a tablet. Some people can do some great 10 second sketches.

Once all monitors are input tools, things will smooth out a lot.

SpeakerToManagers said...

Tablets are the only readily available input device that makes sense for drawing. As someone said, I forget who, "Drawing with a mouse is like drawing with a bar of soap."

The good news is that there are cheap tablets out there that aren't too bad. Browsing the shelves in a discount grocery(!) store a couple of months ago, I found a stack of cheap tablets designed for kids. As they were only $25 each, I bought one, figuring I hadn't lost much if I couldn't get it to work.

The instructions talked about PC installation and, way in the back in the fine print, mentioned that it wouldn't work on a Mac (of course, that's what I have. Well, all these peripherals use much the same hardware; it took about half an hour of googling and following links to find a download for a driver that got the tablet working on my Mac. It acts a little strange out near the edge of the tablet surface, and I haven't figured out how to get it into absolute coordinate mode yet, but, hey, that's not bad for $25.

n8o said...

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/12055360/cover_story_time_to_go_inside_the_worst_congress_ever/print

quote:

From the McCarthy era in the 1950s through the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, no Democratic committee chairman issued a subpoena without either minority consent or a committee vote. In the Clinton years, Republicans chucked that long-standing arrangement and issued more than 1,000 subpoenas to investigate alleged administration and Democratic misconduct, reviewing more than 2 million pages of government documents.

Guess how many subpoenas have been issued to the White House since George Bush took office? Zero -- that's right, zero, the same as the number of open rules debated this year; two fewer than the number of appropriations bills passed on time.

/quote

No mention of actual indictments, but at least someone's talking about this.

David Brin said...

n80, that's fierce stuff. Especially when you add that:

1) the Clinton-bashing witch hunt continued well into the Bush Administration, with John Ashcroft (Bush's Atty General) diverting FBI etc resources into searching through Executive branch filing cabinets, looking (fruitlessly) for an indictable smoking gun. A diversion that only ended with the terror attacks of 9/11.

2) the net result of all these vendetta probes was the biggest bust of expectations on American history. We were promised a tsunami of indictments and convictions of the "most corrupt administration in US history."

But after frenzied searches amounting to more than a billion dollars, the GOP-led pursuit led to absolutely ZERO indictments of even a single Clinton official for even one act of malfeasance in the actual performance of official duties, A fact of staggering imprt, implying - no, proving - that Clinton's administration was, in fact, the LEAST corrupt in US history.

3) the change in suppoena process (not consulting the minority party) also displayed towering arrogance or else short-sightedness... an assumption that the tables will never again be turned. Of course, this will all come home to roost if the People are not thwarted in "kicking the bums out" this election.

Watch and listen as they start whining about the "politics of vendetta and blame-casting and personal destruction" after submitting us to this playground nastiness for twelve relentless years.

(I am already hearing this from some!)

Personally, I do not want to go back to the old ways -- issuing few subpoenas without the minority's approval... or at least consultation.

The reform that I want (see:
http://www.davidbrin.com/contract.html)
is to give the minority party PERMANENT access to a hundred subpoenas per year. So that no president will ever again get the cushy, free ride that this one has had. If the dems do this, they will PROVE they are the grownups in the room.

Even as they turn to cleaning out the monsters and bullies and thieves....

Woozle said...

Internet whiteboard

I haven't had much occasion to use it, but it seems to be reasonably responsive.

TC said...

Dr. Brin said, A theological point that stands in diametric opposition to The Book of Revelations But more on that another time.

Based on the popular interpretation (the one most often preached), you’re right. I’m not convinced it’s the right interpretation, though. When I studied theology, eschatology (the study of the theology of the end times) was one of my areas of focus.

As a quick aside, do you know how long it’s been since I was able to use the word “eschatology?” It just doesn’t come up often when you’re discussing how to implement a set of Java classes or an Oracle schema! One of the reasons I like reading this blog...

Anyway, the Book of Revelations is less about the end times and more about Rome’s persecution of the early Church under emperors like Nero. Even still, at the time the New Testament was being written, there was still an expectation that the second coming/end times was going to be a near term event. As time passed and time didn’t end, that expectation was replaced by a more nuanced understanding of the end times. I think the explanation I favor right now is that each one of us individually experiences our end time at the moment of death when we get welcomed home.

That’s not a terribly popular view among some sects. After all, which gives folks the greater neural-chemical rush: “Stop your sinning or you’re burn for eternity in hell” or “love one another as the He loved you so you can be welcomed home?” The former’s more popular (almost pervasive). But the latter appeals to the dad in me; positive reinforcement is the better choice.

Dr. Brin also said, If the powers of God are attainable technologically - deus ex machina - then might that have been intended, all along? Perhaps with a thought that we’ll have work to do? Maybe helping to finish the labor of Creation?

I think that’s exactly what’s happening. You’re a dad, right? Don’t you want your kids to learn, become self-reliant, make good choices, and leave the world better than when they found it? Looking at how far we’ve come, what kind of destiny must be waiting for us -- assuming we choose to follow it?

That’s the kind of thing Aquinas was on to when he realized that between faith and reason, there’s no conflict. Aristotle was right. Plato was wrong.

And I’m way oversimplifying things. So, the short version is that I think you had a good insight there.

Brother Doug said...

(A side question: If the powers of God are attainable technologically - deus ex machina - then might that have been intended, all along? Perhaps with a thought that we’ll have work to do? Maybe helping to finish the labor of Creation? A theological point that stands in diametric opposition to The Book of Revelations But more on that another time.)

I agree with TC. I don’t think that is necessarily so, as long as you view the story as a parable. My sect of Christianity has as its aim to become anointed by the Christ spirit and so take on the aspect of God. In fact according to the official theology its already been happening since the dawn of the enlightenment in 1747. Of course none of them imagined that it might take the technological aspect that Kurswald proposes. The problem is that too many fundamentalists take the whole thing literally, and all of Christianity gets painted with a broad brush. I could talk about that for hours but will save it for later.

I want to say I wish I could have been there at Google it sounds fascinating.

David Brin said...

Another treasure sent in by Stefan:

http://billmon.org/archives/002871.html

Please, please go look. Whether you cry for our country or break out in hysterical giggles (I came close to both) you'll agree it says a lot.

-----
So, not many comments about my actual Google talk? Did anybody actually log in and watch? I guess I am a bit much to take in large doses. Sigh.

waparius said...

I liked the Google speech. The addition of yelling and gesticulation turned your rants from just educational to true infotainment. :)

Rob Perkins said...

I started to watch, but this day job thing got in my way.

The billmon thing caused neither laughter nor tears. It's far too easy to catch someone with a funny face.

Frank said...

The Google talk was excellent. I put it up on reddit.

I'm gonna have to watch the parts by Mr. Sheldon again though. I didn't entirely understand what he was talking about.

Frank said...

Oops, I meant of course Mr. Sheldon Brown...

Anonymous said...

On topic:
The sketch pad/scratch paper concept seems natural to me -- it's easy to send words now...why not images?

I'd say the best bet is to convince the Wikimedia Foundation to set up a "Doodle" applet that creates a new Scalable Vector Graphic in the Wikimedia Commons. Click a new "Doodle" button on a Wiki edit form and the Doodle applet pops up (ugh, but I don't see a clean alternative, and at least it's a forewarnable intentional UI element). Draw something, title it, and save it, and the new window closes, with the existing one inserting the wiki tag to embed the graphic in what you were working on. This might be even more useful on talk pages than on main-namespace pages...also in Wikibooks. It can be refined with time, adding tools to do things like graph TeX-subset-formatted math in certain constraints and other stuff. Expert features, of course, that most won't use, but will be welcome for the people using the math-related areas. Or, maybe, on-the-fly graphing for that type of use instead of producing a static .svg?

(If the user cancels the doodling, including manually closing the window without saving, nothing gets inserted into the original edit box, of course. That should in fact be automatic.)

Somewhat off-topic, but on the more general topic (there is one?) of this blog, I think this undermining of the independent press is far more dangerous and disturbing that has been commented on thus far. (Worth noting is how little mainstream media exposure it's had. Even the blogosphere didn't bring it to my attention until today!)

http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/37/9592

I think the standard should clearly be "all paid programming should be clearly marked as such in all media, clearly separated from non-paid programming, and its provenance indicated". An ad "for" a product by a competing product's manufacturer should be hard to confuse with an ad for the product by its own manufacturer, for example, too! This extends to the Internet. "Organic" search engine links should never ever accept paid promotion; sponsored links can occur but separately and marked as such, as they seem to with Google. They should identify the company sponsoring the link -- there's already been a trademark lawsuit over one company buying another's brand name as an Adword and then using the link to badmouth the product. Shock sites will undoubtedly be next -- if that hasn't happened already. After all, the logical next step after Googlebombing "miserable failure" to "George Bush" and whitehouse.gov is to make "George Bush" sponsored links go to whitehouse.com, or hello.jpg ... ;)

This also applies to those evil, evil sites that use Adsense-type bidding and ranking schemes not to provide separate "Ads by goooogle!" in a clearly delineated box of "sponsored links", but to "salt" the actual content with bogus links. This seems to be growing more widespread. (I'm aware that spyware on the browser's computer can also do this, and frequently does. Which is equally evil.) It's probably a copyright-infringement lawsuit waiting to happen, too, since I get the feeling the authors of the content might not like the unauthorized added irrelevant links (often on random occurrences of computer-related technical words, such as "CPU"). These links are deceptive, irrelevant, and useless to the user, unlike the adwords boxes which are often relevant and useful, just because of the whole "salting" thing. And they are confirmedly applied to third-party content, such as user-submitted forum posts and suchlike, at many of these sites. (If a major blog host did this, it could torch off the world's first class action copyright infringement lawsuit -- bloggers whose creative commons noncommercial or noderivs licenses were violated. Actually, doesn't any variation involving "attribution" outlaw misattributing a deriv as the original? You could get rich if Blogspot did this!)

As a final note, there are interesting implications in a recent sci-fi novel, Lady of Mazes (not by Brin), involving everything from technology to emergent systems and some futuristic models of democracy (most with unintended bad side-effects!) ... yes, there are posthumans in it, as well as a twisty bendy plot and "architectures of control" bent to surprising (and benign!) purposes. Don't let the endorsement by the Romantic Times confuse you into thinking it's fluff, or "heaving bosoms in outer space", or suchlike. (The cover art alone should suggest there's more interest in it than that, though!) (It's now available in paperback, for those for whom expense is a serious obstacle.)

Anonymous said...

"If browser support ever fully embraces SVG graphics, then this will be really easy. Well, at least the sharing part -- the current state of hardware makes this usable only with mouse (for most people), not as easy as a pencil to use for sure..."

Browser support for SVG has arrived -- and for every platform. Every platform with decent C compiler and widget-library support, anyway, such that you can compile Firefox for it. I'm pretty sure this is all *nices, including Mac OSX, and Winblows.

As for the user interface, forget (as another poster later suggested) making all monitors touchscreens.

It's the keyboard that needs to change. To a durable, maybe somewhat flexible LCD/touchscreen with some built-in microprocessor smarts (and a piezo clicker to emulate keypress noises, and maybe force-feedback to feel like keys pressing). Normally it shows a standard-issue QWERTY keyboard and behaves as one when poked in the usual places. But there's a clip-on stylus in a groove at the top. Some extra function keys operate the thing's own interface (and software on the mother PC can drive it too, if written to do so). So a few fiddles and you've a DVORAK keyboard. Or all kinds of one-keypress access to accented characters. Polish? Using a standard or making a custom layout, you've got C, W, and Z all within quick and easy reach, and those uselessly rare vowels are banished into a corner.

We can do this now with proper driver software. But not and have the keycaps stay correctly labeled!

And we can't do this: push a function key to the right, and the numpad disappears, to be replaced by the sketchpad. The fine point of the stylus comes into its own when unclipped from its holder and deployed here, where the display and touch-sensitivity have pixel instead of character resolution. The computer reads it as a pointing device input. A tap's a left-click; drawing a line is a drag. Depressing the (actual) right mouse button can deliver a right click to the last place the stylus touched. Something can temporarily swap the stylus's "button role" to right and back to left again. (If idle for long enough it reverts to left by itself, so it's long-term stateless and doesn't confuse people who sit down at a computer they didn't use for a while, or someone else used before them.)

Clever, nuh? An early model may just be a mostly-normal keyboard with a small touch-sensitive LCD screen in place of the numpad, by default acting as a numpad; it will not be overly expensive if they mass-manufactured it with today's technology. Coming advances in OLED/PLED and LCD technology can make the fully-fledged flexboard just as cheap, eventually.

Of course, maybe we'll have "transparent media" soon, like depicted in the movie version of Minority Report. Cheap-to-disposable flexscreen-cum-pendrives that can slot into a computer's interface, have things dragged to or just created on them, then be slid out. Retaining an image (not manipulable, until they have significant onboard processing power, of course). Floppy disks that are actually floppy and that are transparent, so that you can see what's on them. Useful for porting data objects around in an office or similar environment. Just so long as there's some quarantining capability in the host computers, as they'd make an excellent host and vector for viruses otherwise. (Viruses, of course, would be coded to appear totally invisible on the sheet, so as not to raise an alarm at an inconveniently early time too long before detonation.)

For that technology, the software end might best include XML as the data format, and a basic XSLT capability in the floppy to enable it to translate the contents into some form of representation to display. It would be charged by use in a computer and sunlight, of course, and go dim (but retain its data) if deprived of light and computer-use too long. (Flexible, cheap photovoltaics, some of them chemically organic, are in the pipeline too, you know.)

Shame these nifty gadgets would only last a decade or so before being obsoleted by high-resolution eyeglass displays and earphone/whisper2K/throatmike wearables. (And your wristwatch holds the cpu power, swiss army functionality like RFID detector and reprogrammer and anthrax spore detector and the like, and optionally an old-fashioned chronometer display, with most young people preferring to have the time in their HUD instead.) Those for another decade, tops, before virtual reality via TMS headset. That for maybe even less time, before you can just inhabit the computers.

Then we will want to dust off all those crumbling, obsolescent, dubiously-intended things like DRM. Right now, human rights are messed up by letting distant software vendors control our computers and our (copies of their) software and our data. In thirty or forty years, human rights are safeguarded by the very same basic technology -- so that we aren't chattel of the upper crust that owns the hardware we're all implemented on, and retain autonomy and self-determination. Or (more optimistically) as safeguards in the event that malefactors gain physical access to our personally-owned hardware implementations and try to hack or delete us, and to help our partials running on other hardware and our saved backups protect themselves and do their jobs unimpeded...

Then the interface technology will have really disappeared.

Anonymous said...

"If browser support ever fully embraces SVG graphics, then this will be really easy. Well, at least the sharing part -- the current state of hardware makes this usable only with mouse (for most people), not as easy as a pencil to use for sure..."

Browser support for SVG has arrived -- and for every platform. Every platform with decent C compiler and widget-library support, anyway, such that you can compile Firefox for it. I'm pretty sure this is all *nices, including Mac OSX, and Winblows.

As for the user interface, forget (as another poster later suggested) making all monitors touchscreens.

It's the keyboard that needs to change. To a durable, maybe somewhat flexible LCD/touchscreen with some built-in microprocessor smarts (and a piezo clicker to emulate keypress noises, and maybe force-feedback to feel like keys pressing). Normally it shows a standard-issue QWERTY keyboard and behaves as one when poked in the usual places. But there's a clip-on stylus in a groove at the top. Some extra function keys operate the thing's own interface (and software on the mother PC can drive it too, if written to do so). So a few fiddles and you've a DVORAK keyboard. Or all kinds of one-keypress access to accented characters. Polish? Using a standard or making a custom layout, you've got C, W, and Z all within quick and easy reach, and those uselessly rare vowels are banished into a corner.

We can do this now with proper driver software. But not and have the keycaps stay correctly labeled!

And we can't do this: push a function key to the right, and the numpad disappears, to be replaced by the sketchpad. The fine point of the stylus comes into its own when unclipped from its holder and deployed here, where the display and touch-sensitivity have pixel instead of character resolution. The computer reads it as a pointing device input. A tap's a left-click; drawing a line is a drag. Depressing the (actual) right mouse button can deliver a right click to the last place the stylus touched. Something can temporarily swap the stylus's "button role" to right and back to left again. (If idle for long enough it reverts to left by itself, so it's long-term stateless and doesn't confuse people who sit down at a computer they didn't use for a while, or someone else used before them.)

Clever, nuh? An early model may just be a mostly-normal keyboard with a small touch-sensitive LCD screen in place of the numpad, by default acting as a numpad; it will not be overly expensive if they mass-manufactured it with today's technology. Coming advances in OLED/PLED and LCD technology can make the fully-fledged flexboard just as cheap, eventually.

Of course, maybe we'll have "transparent media" soon, like depicted in the movie version of Minority Report. Cheap-to-disposable flexscreen-cum-pendrives that can slot into a computer's interface, have things dragged to or just created on them, then be slid out. Retaining an image (not manipulable, until they have significant onboard processing power, of course). Floppy disks that are actually floppy and that are transparent, so that you can see what's on them. Useful for porting data objects around in an office or similar environment. Just so long as there's some quarantining capability in the host computers, as they'd make an excellent host and vector for viruses otherwise. (Viruses, of course, would be coded to appear totally invisible on the sheet, so as not to raise an alarm at an inconveniently early time too long before detonation.)

For that technology, the software end might best include XML as the data format, and a basic XSLT capability in the floppy to enable it to translate the contents into some form of representation to display. It would be charged by use in a computer and sunlight, of course, and go dim (but retain its data) if deprived of light and computer-use too long. (Flexible, cheap photovoltaics, some of them chemically organic, are in the pipeline too, you know.)

Shame these nifty gadgets would only last a decade or so before being obsoleted by high-resolution eyeglass displays and earphone/whisper2K/throatmike wearables. (And your wristwatch holds the cpu power, swiss army functionality like RFID detector and reprogrammer and anthrax spore detector and the like, and optionally an old-fashioned chronometer display, with most young people preferring to have the time in their HUD instead.) Those for another decade, tops, before virtual reality via TMS headset. That for maybe even less time, before you can just inhabit the computers.

Then we will want to dust off all those crumbling, obsolescent, dubiously-intended things like DRM. Right now, human rights are messed up by letting distant software vendors control our computers and our (copies of their) software and our data. In thirty or forty years, human rights are safeguarded by the very same basic technology -- so that we aren't chattel of the upper crust that owns the hardware we're all implemented on, and retain autonomy and self-determination. Or (more optimistically) as safeguards in the event that malefactors gain physical access to our personally-owned hardware implementations and try to hack or delete us, and to help our partials running on other hardware and our saved backups protect themselves and do their jobs unimpeded...

Then the interface technology will have really disappeared.

Anonymous said...

Huh. Weird. The captcha (even when entered correctly) sometimes seems to fail. And sometimes it actually posts anyway. So, sorry for the double post. Please check the software. It has something six-legged and creepy in it somewhere. You didn't leave crumbs or things with the flying-window logo lying about? That attracts bugs you know. :)

David Brin said...

Huh. Post-of-the-day... and we don't even know who wrote it.

Of course I include stuff like this in near future novels. But always nice to get new ideas.

Supposing my patent is not a delusion and actually does make money, I'd use it to create a semi-open design house with sliding scale royalties to amateur contributors of cool concepts according to jury-determined ratios.

There are too many good ideas that never get enough legs. e.g. I could improve cell phones NOW in seven ways.

Matzebrei said...

(Anonymous said...)
On topic:
The sketch pad/scratch paper concept seems natural to me -- it's easy to send words now...why not images?


There are programs to do something like this, most prominently in my mind is Microsoft's OneNote add-on to MS-Office, which lets you plunk in most anything (embedded objects, text, pics, etc.) or even draw (on a tablet-pc) pictures, then save and/or send them wherever.

Nate said...

Well, one of the major uses for the internet scratch paper I totally forgot while I was typing my original post? Using it to edit writing. Like on paper, so you can cross out words, write scribbles in margins, that sort of thing, and still have the original there. I still have a tendency to print things out when I write them and really want to edit them. Because it's so much easier on paper.

And this doesn't have a sketchpad, but every key on this keyboard is a tiny LCD and shows what it's controlling: Optimus Keyboard. (and a review, I'll leave any further info up to your google-fu) Bit expensive at the moment though.

Also, maybe this belongs over at the Star Wars on Trial site, but I found this essay from Warren Ellis's blog, Leaving the Future Behind Us and thought it was interesting. I haven't read the comments thread there so can't vouch for anything about that part of it.

Man, I totally want my glasses to have an internet-enabled HUD.

Nicq MacDonald said...

Nate:

That Ellis article is fantastic, and, I think, correct. Much of the decline in sci-fi isn't because the nerds went away- it's because the promised future is, in many respects, now. That, and there are quite a few more competing genres- computer games, graphic novels, anime, manga, machinima, nerd-friendly TV programming, etc. to compete with the conventional sci-fi novel.

To compete these days, science fiction has to be more literary than it was fifty years ago. By literary, I'm not talking about stuffy postmodernisms, but simply about GOOD WRITING. Why is Stephenson so popular? Because he's got it- the man can write well. It's an insult to call him the "Hacker Hemingway"- he's the Techie Twain. His recent works- Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle- are science fiction in the truest sense- fiction about science.

And perhaps this determines the direction that science fiction needs to go in to stay relevant- it doesn't necessarily have to take place in the future, involve space ships and aliens, etc.- it needs to be about "doing science".

Or, perhaps, we should broaden the whole genre into a category of "speculative fiction", which approaches philosophical issues in general in a rational framework, distinct from fantasy, which doesn't necessarily have to be "rational". Such speculative fiction could engage elements more traditionally handled by fantasy through a rational framework (and I'm not thinking of the ironic humorist approach here- I'm sick of it, such writers never seem to take their ideas sufficiently seriously for my taste) rather than the emotional one typically used by fantasists.

What seems counterproductive here, though, is Brin's attack on all things "romantic"... an attack that seems inquisitorial at times. How is a good cyberpunk novel, like Stephenson's "Snow Crash", not science fiction? What's wrong with a demigod character (especially the fallible, Greek-reminiscent ones of John C. Wright's "The Golden Age")? It also seems to me that Brin's modernist hard sci-fi is lacking for certain genres- I have yet to see a compelling role-playing setting along such lines, for instance- I've even tried to design one; my friends weren't interested in the finished product. Nor were they interested in Blue Planet, the closest commercial setting. Decent hard sci-fi roleplaying also seems to be a missing genre in computer role-playing. In both cases, fantasy, and fantasy with science-fiction tropes (Star Wars, Final Fantasy, etc.) rules the roost.

Oh yes, and, before I forget, a thousand apologies to Dr. Brin for calling him a liar a few months back. Of course, the personality that was in control of me at the time believes that everyone is a liar, including myself, so I wasn't necessarily singling him out.

matthew jones said...

A quick shout-out; I utterly love Blue Planet as a RPG setting. Game mechanics are a little screwy, but the setting is truely lavish and compelling.
Too bad Blue Planet is going out of print. I've been ebaying like mad to finish out my collection of all the core books.