Sunday, June 26, 2011

Milestones leading up to the Good Singularity?

I have long held that our present American Civil War (no less than that) is a three-sided affair. There is a quiet majority who still believe in things like pragmatic problem-solving, grand ambition, chipping away at old-bad habits while pursuing technological progress and – above all – courteously negotiating in good faith, instead of raging at our neighbors and our institutions, portraying them as monsters. This majority is presently beleaguered from all sides. Both Left and Right seem bent on crushing any remnant of the old optimistic, can-do spirit that built the nation and an amazing civilization.

All right, I admit that one of those two wings happens to be, at-present, far worse, more dangerous and profoundly more insane; but the other is no less poisonous in its underlying cynicism and suspicion of can-do enthusiasm. 

Hence, what are we to do… those of us who think that: 
(1) past efforts at self-improvement actually worked… and hence... 
(2) more efforts at vigorous self-improvement should be high on our agenda?* 

The solution? To keep on plugging away! To persevere. Continue fighting to make our kids and their kids better than us, the way our parents and grandparents tried to do that -- and succeeded -- with us.

By proudly endeavoring to make the next generation both more ethical and vastly more scientifically/technological powerful – because only that combination can save the world.

With me so far?  Then let’s look for examples of our side in this civil war… or rather, our center… fighting back:

== A Manufacturing Renaissance? ==

“We’ve launched an all-hands-on-deck effort between our brightest academic minds, some of our boldest business leaders and our most dedicated public servants from science and technology agencies, all with one big goal, and that is a renaissance of American manufacturing,” President Obama said in remarks at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, a high-technology facility adjacent to a rusted factory symbolic of the area’s industrial past, Mr. Obama said federal agencies would invest more than $500 million to seed the initiative. Of that, $70 million is to go to robotics projects. 

I was already aboard the effort to spark a new Manufacturing renaissance. A year ago, I was asked by the Metals Service Center Institute to create a comic book set 20 years from now that discusses the many reasons for US industrial decline... and how it might come back. Have a look at Tinkerers!  

Quoted near the end: "One of the biggest challenges we face as a Nation is the decline in our ability to make things." - Dr. Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA. (DARPA is investing $1 billion in alternative design and production methods, enabling new generations of modular, networked, "seamless," and democratized manufacturing.  In our pragmatic civilization, we need to remember that individuals and self-made teams are the long-term solution creators… but our government, the one we own, will be key to empowering, stimulating, playing a vital role.


WhyJohnnySpeaking of empowering… Computerworld Magazine examined the strange disappearance of any useful programming language from modern personal computers, a topic that I launched with my much-discussed Salon article “Why Johnny Can’t Code.”  It’s a subject of great importance, since without a reliable common “lingua franca” language that all students share, teachers and textbooks cannot do what was routine in the 1980s… assign simple, twelve-line programs to their kids, introducing them to the very “basic” notions. Like the fact that human-written symbols propel math-fueled lines of code that command every single pixel that they ever see!

People arguing over “which introductory language is best (e.g. Python vs Perl etc) miss the entire point and are wasting everybody’s time.  The lack of any shared, simple language on ALL computers has crippled the ability of educators to reach the millions of kids who own computers right now. Kids who could be computer tinkerers, the way their parents were.  Any shared language… any at all… would empower educators and students, so long as using it involves as few steps as possible. Anything that requires downloading, instructions or procedure-teaching will lose 95% of students.

My original article sure stirred up a storm! And now I am pleased to say this problem was solved – somewhat - by a person it inspired. Drop by QuiteBasic – a complete turn-key BASIC system that a kid can start typing-into the instant the window opens, showing both graphics and results sections, as well.  Totally intuitive.  Suddenly, via the web, every BASIC assignment in all those old textbooks can come alive!

KurzweilSingularityCoverA perfect solution?  Heck no! By all means start a grass-roots campaign to persuade Apple and Microsoft etc to agree on a turnkey educational, compact and simple introductory language to offer on all PCs! Make it Python, Perl, whatever. Just do it.  But till then, at least quitebasic offers a glimpse of that old can-do spirit.

== And while we’re talking progress toward the Singularity ==

The Technological Singularity – a quasi mythical apotheosis that some foresee in our near, or very-near, future. A transition when our skill, knowledge and immense computing power increase exponentially to enable true Artificial Intelligence and humans are transformed into... well... godlike beings.  Can we even begin to imagine what life would look like after this?

Listen to Ray Kurzweil speak on The Coming Singularity -- and how the exponential growth of information technology will revolutionize human civilization… and your future.

What is the Technological Singularity? An excellent article by Joel Falconer, on The Next Web, cites futurist Ray Kurzweil on the coming Singularity, along with my warning about iffy far-range forecasting: "How can models created within an earlier, cruder system, properly simulate & predict the behavior of a later, vastly more complex system?" 

singularityIf you want an even broader perspective, try my noted introduction to the whole topic: “Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism about the Human Future.” For there are dangers along the way, one being Renunciation  -- as a fraction of the population rejects science and technology as a means toward progress.

How about portrayals in fiction? I mean, other than clichés about mega-AI gone berserk, trying to flatten us? Now, from a writer's perspective, the Singularity presents a problem. One can write stories leading up to the Singularity, about problems like rebellious AI, or about heroic techies paving the way to bright horizons. But how do you write a tale set AFTER the singularity has happened – the good version – and we’ve all become gods? Heh. Never dare me! That's the topic of my novella, Stones of Significance.
Ah, but not all techies think the Singularity will be cool.  One chilling scenario: serving our new machine Overlords: Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak,  speculates that humans may become pets for our new robot overlords: "We're already creating the superior beings, I think we lost the battle to the machines long ago. We're going to become the pets, the dogs of the house."

== Singularity related miscellany! ==

Creeply… but probably helpful… new teaching tool! Do you want to play the violin, but can't be bothered to learn how? Then strap on this electric finger stimulator called PossessedHand that makes your fingers move with no input from your own brain.  Developed by scientists at Tokyo University in conjunction with Sony, hand consists of a pair of wrist bands that deliver mild electrical stimuli directly to the muscles that control your fingers, something normally done by your own brain. 
Or do Cyborgs already walk among us? "Cyborg is your grandma with a hearing aid, her replacement hip, and anyone who runs around with one of those Bluetooth in-ear headsets," says Kosta Grammatis, an enginner with the EyeBorg Project. 

Author Michael Choroset, in the World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet, envisions a seamless interface of humans with machines in the near future. Wearable computers, implanted chips, neural interfaces and prosthetic limbs will be common occurrences. But will this lead to a world wide mind -- a type of collective consciousness?
And how do we distinguish Mind vs. Machine? In The Atlantic, Brian Christian describes his experience participating in the annual Turing Test, given each year by the AI community, which confers the Loebner Prize on the winner. A panel of judges poses questions to unseen answerers – one computer, one human, and attempts to discern which is which, in essence looking for the Most Human Computer. Christian, however, won the Most Human Human award.

In The Significance of Watson, Ray Kurzweil discusses the significance of IBM's Watson computer  -- and how this relates to the Turing Test.

Hive Mind: Mimicking the collective behavior of ants and bees is one approach to modeling artificial intelligence. Groups of ants are good at solving problems, i.e. finding the shortest route to a food source. Computer algorithms based upon this type of swarm intelligence have proved useful, particularly in solving logistics problems. 

Finally, how would we begin to define a universal intelligence  -- and how to apply it to humans, animals, machines or even extraterrestrials we may encounter?  

== How to Manage a Flood of Information ==

In the last decade, a tsunami of data and information has been created by twenty-first century science, which has become generating huge databases: the human genome, astronomical sky surveys, environmental monitoring of earth's ecosystems, the Large Hadron Collider, to name a few. James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, discusses how we can avoid drowning in this sea of data, and begin to make sense of the world.

Kevin Kelly discusses his book: What Technology Wants “We are moving from being people of the book….to people of the screen.” These screens will track your eye movements on the screen, noting where you focus your attention, and adapting to you. Our books will soon be looking back at us. 

All books will be linked together, with hyper-links of the sort I envisioned in my novel, Earth. Reading will be more of a shared, communal activity. The shift will continue toward accessing rather than owning information, as we live ever more in a flux of real-time streaming data.

Google looks to your previous queries (and the clicks that follow) and refines its search results accordingly...

...Such selectivity may eventually trap us inside our own “information cocoons,” as the legal scholar Cass Sunstein put it in his 2001 book 2.0. He posited that this could be one of the Internet’s most pernicious effects on the public sphere. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, Eli Pariser’s important new inquiry into the dangers of excessive personalization, advances a similar argument. 

But while Sunstein worried that citizens would deliberately use technology to over-customize what they read, Pariser, the board president of the political advocacy group, worries that technology companies are already silently doing this for us. As a result, he writes, “personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”..."

Very entertaining and informative... and the last five minutes are scarier n’ shit! Jesse Schell’s mind-blowing talk on the future of games (from DICE 2010)... describing how game design invades the real world... is just astounding. Especially the creepy/inspiring worrisome last five minutes.  Someone turn this into a sci fi story!  (Actually, some eerily parallel things were already in my new novel, EXISTENCE. You’ll see! In 2012.)

Enough to keep you busy a while?  Hey, I am finally finishing a great Big Brin Book… a novel more sprawling and ambitious than EARTH … entitles EXISTENCE.  Back to work.

* Ponder my statement about "self-improvement" in the second paragraph. The Left despises phrase #1 and the Right hates #2. Think about it. That fact encapsulates our problem. Especially for those of us who believe that #1 leads directly to #2.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sousveillance: A New Era for Police Accountability


Police are waging a futile war against camera-toting citizens.

In several states, you can be arrested for filming cops on duty, even in a public place. With cameras growing ever smaller, conflicts are going to arise more often and there can only be one outcome. Police are just going to have to get used to it -- much as I forecast in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom (1997).

Citizens of the future will be armed... with cameras.

One recent incident: “After a horrific shootout on the streets of Miami, Narces Benoit and his girlfriend witnessed the finale: police firing a barrage of rounds into a man's car. Narces recorded it. The police smashed his phone. But first? He stuck the SD memory card into his mouth and saved the footage.”

And then there's the story of Emily Good, who stood on her front lawn in Rochester recording police searching a man's car for drugs (none were found). Police responded that they didn't feel safe with her behind them...and ordered her to go inside her house. She did not comply, continued filming, and was arrested. Recording police is not illegal in New York, and she made no threatening moves. They declared that she was "anti-police" as a rationale. Watch the video.

And another horrific example. “Woman could get 15 years for recording cops after one of them allegedly assaulted her.”

I’ve been writing about this for decades. Some prescient passages in The Transparent Society, describe exactly this kind of tension, between citizens armed with new tools of vision and accountability, and tens of thousands of cops who - from day to day - see themselves as doing a harsh, difficult and under-appreciated job. Look, I appreciate it. Not only the skill and professionalism that has played a big part in decreased crime rates ion the United States, but also the daily fight that every officer must wage, to maintain that professionalism, under circumstances that might send any of us into uncontrollable rage.

We all carry hormonal and neuronal and psychological baggage from the million year Stone Age... and ten thousand years of urban life in which the king’s thugs patrolled the streets without having to think twice before slinging their truncheons at the heads of punks.

Well, sorry. We’re asking more of you, now. It is our civilization. Ours. And if you don’t think you can operate under the new rules, might I suggest another profession?

In fact, the glass is far more than half full. The men and women in most modern American police forces are adapting to the the new standards of behavior. Clenching their teeth and calling “sir” even the most outrageously abusive drunks. I am proud to know some of these folks. Moreover, I can understand why they might worry about that one time they lose their cool, coming back to haunt them, because some putz on the nearby street corner decides to record that momentary lapse on a cell cam.

I sympathize. I do. Yet I refuse to accept the assertion that good cops need “privacy” to perform their jobs. It doesn’t wash. It is a ridiculous argument, aimed at achieving convenience and evasion of accountability, and we will not allow it.  

Technology will not allow it. For -- according to “Brin’s Corollary to Moore’s Law” -- the cameras will get smaller, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile every year.

So figures of authority might as well get used to it now.

== A World Watching ==

This is the new world. It will be watching -- assume it at any given moment.

And I promise you this... juries and citizen review boards will bear in mind that we're all human. When you suffer that inevitable, occasional, not-too-awful over-reaction, there will often be a second chance. We're human too and we want our cities patrolled.

When all of this equilibrates, we will have to make some allowances for good people, caught making a rare mistake.

But what’s the alternative? Are you really going to try to push this "never record us" lunacy? Do you really want the law to deny us the only recourse that a citizen has ever had, against bullying and abuse of power? Really? The only thing that we have on our side?

It is called the Truth. And if you fear it, then we do not want you as our hired protector.

We are changing the rules. And from now on, only adults need apply.

For Follow-up see:

You Have The Right To Record Police -- a look at recent court rulings on this important topic.

and The Transparency Amendment: The Under-Appreciated Sixth -- which examines the legal basis for our right to look back.

More: collected articles on Issues of Transparency.

== Finally, a Few Announcements ==

Living lasers?” Way back in 1980, my first novel Sundiver proposed that living matter might be made to produce laser emissions. Scientists had already used organic dye as a laser amplification material. It seemed plausible (to me) that life could take the next steps, excitation and cavity reflection. All right, it's more than just a few steps to creatures with laser-shooting eyes! Still, three decades later, my forecast is coming true. Two Massachusetts scientists report having caused laser activity inside living cells. The photos are amazing. One for the predictions registry! (Someone please register it!)

Want kids to win the future? Turn them into Makers -- and Sci Fi Fans. I attended the recent Maker Faire and gave a keynote, then toured this “Woodstock for nerds” with my son. Highly recommended!

Want to hear some good audio sci fi? One of my stories - A Professor at Harvard - dramatized for a podcast on StarShipSofa. Others can be found on my website.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

My Top Choices in Science-Oriented WebComics

Looking for distraction? We all need a break from time to time.

Where can you turn for a bit of lighter side of science online?

It's elemental: Here's a look at some of the best, totally nerdy, science-oriented online comics.

Listed in no particular order, this is only a sampling of the phenomenal  and insightful work being posted online by a new generation of talented web artists.


Xkcd: A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math and Language by Randall Munroe, is probably the most widely known. A cast of stick figures addresses topics ranging from science research to philosophy to relationships and the absurdity of daily life. The illustration to the left mocks Frank Drake's infamous Drake Equation, which attempts to calculate the number of 'intelligent' extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. I've spent quite a bit of time dissecting Drake equation... but that's another topic.

phd Comics: Piled Higher and Deeper: an ongoing chronicle of the life (or lack thereof) in Academia. This comic focuses on the complications of modern scientific research, and the difficulties of graduate school. Written and drawn by Jorge Cham. The selected comic shown charts the perennial ups and downs of graduate student motivation. I recall spending a lot of time on the down side of that graph...

Strange Quark Comics by Dalin S. Durfee, featuring Dr. Ingenio, his nerdly son and assorted nerdy grad students. An insightful look at the everyday quandaries of life in the laboratory, from someone who's obviously been there.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner Sometimes about science and research, but more generally about God, superheroes, dating, the meaning of life…and much more. The cartoon to the left questions how nuggets of scientific research are translated into the media frenzy of the real world. I've gotten many a laugh out of the unexpected punch lines and spot-on insight from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Lab Bratz This cartoon offers geeky science humor focusing on laboratory mishaps and disasters waiting to happen, with a cast of hapless professors, frazzled lab managers and sleep-deprived graduate students. Written by Ed Dunphy. Drawn by Helber Soares.

Tree Lobsters! You can’t prove they don’t exist! by Steve DeGroof.   The illustrations are consistently and incongruously of (guess what?) red lobsters sitting in trees. The humor is in the captions and conversation - of the inexplicably wise tree lobsters. One comic read: 'For a good time call 6.02 x 10 23 Ask for Avogadro.' Tree Lobsters takes on big topics such as Creationism: one lobster asks, “So you think the universe was created by this invisible space pickle? “ A second lobster answers, “Our intelligent pickle theory is just as valid as your ‘scientific theories’” To which the first responds, “Well, if the pickle created everything, what created the pickle?”

Abstruse Goose: a cartoon about math, science and geek culture. One of my favorites is: How Scientists see the world, shown to the left. Does an understanding of the equations underlying light make a sunset less beautiful? Or, did Newton "unweave the rainbow" by reducing it to a prism, as Keats contended? The tools of science, from the first microscope to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes have so vastly expanded our ability to perceive the universe in all its breathtaking beauty. Nostalgic simplicity junkies preach that esthetics should be devoid of either curiosity or understanding. Might as well say that it isn't for human beings.

Girl Genius, offers the marvels of gorgeously detailed steampunk technology, set in an alternate-history where mad scientists rule the world. It follows the adventures of the flamboyant and brilliant girl genius, Agatha Heterodyne, in the city of Mechanicsburg. This beautifully drawn comic, by Phil and Kajo Foglio, has twice won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.

Schlock Mercenary, The Comic Space Opera, by Howard Taylor This science fiction strip, nominated twice for a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story, is set in a distant future that has achieved faster-than-light travel and artificial intelligence, and made contact with aliens. It follows a band of space-faring mercenaries as they travel through wormgates, loosely following a handbook of rules, "The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries." A vivid exploration of far-out futuristic technologies and their implications for humanity -- and lots of fun!

Scenes from a Multiverse: A colorful (in more ways than one) comic about life in an ordinary Multiverse, by Jonathan Rosenberg. One recent strip, set in the "Psychcloaked debris belt of the Third Foundation," depicts an alien who claims, “Using my brand-new science of neurofuturism, I can predict overall historical trends of the multiverse for the next ten thousand years!” He describes a series of disasters, finishing with, “After that it’s mostly apocalypses and bank holidays. Not very interesting.” Har!

Electric Sheep & Apocamon: The Final Judgement, by my friend, the talented Patrick Farley. Apocamon is an insightful and hilarious look at the Book of Revelation. (It also makes clear just what it is that some on the far right pray to see happen.)

But this is only the tip of Farley's iceberg. He is an amazing artist and the one taking on the deepest issues. His "Spiders" online graphic novel has been seriously studied at the Pentagon, to try and understand how citizens might get involved in defense, if we enter a transparent society.

Sci-ənce! is a wonderful new webcomic (with insightful commentary) that addresses the difference between science and pseudoscience, with a constant reminder to bring a sense of skepticism to our search for knowledge, The sample shown here mocks the between the build-up and the reality of the big NASA press conference about “microbial extraterrestrial” life. By Maki Naro and Nadir Balan. (Note: This has moved to BoxPlot on the Popular Science website.)

Calamities of Nature, by Tony Piro, provides piercing insight into the scientific mindset, and how science research trickles down to influence the general public. The sample strip pokes fun at scientists for their questionable imagination in naming the wonders of the universe: supernovae, superconductors, supersymmetry...

And Dresden Codak is an award-winning science fictional webcomic written and illustrated by Aaron Diaz, who describes it as a “celebration of science, death and human folly.” Its highly intellectual humor, not for the faint of heart, ranges from physics to philosophy. A beautifully imagined vision that deals with the results of a technological singularity and humanity's role in the cosmos.

So, which of these (or others) do you like best?

Have a laugh or two, or many — and follow some of these talented (and under-appreciated) artists. Support your favorite webartists on the crowd-funded site, Patreon.

Here are a few more suggestions for sci-fi comics:
Space Trawler Pictured to left
Quantum Vibe
We The Robots
The FlowField Unity
The Abominable Charles Christopher
Poisoned Minds S.S.D.D.
People in White Coats
Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures

And finally, a few Math Comics:

Spiked Math Comics
The Twisted Pencil
Brown Sharpie
Oh, You Math!

Continue to Part 2: A Look at Science Fiction Webcomics

or: Part 3: More Science Fiction webcomics