Sunday, November 20, 2005

An introduction to mind uploading

I want to quickly bring everyone up to date on the subject. First, the facts:

  1. Humans are complex machines.
  2. Our minds are complex computers running complex programs.

This isn't really open to debate any longer and the only valid philosophical viewpoint is the one that takes the above into the account. To get comfortable with these ideas it helps to have at least some idea about molecular biology and the neurophysiology. There is nothing mysterious at the basic level down there - the complexity is in the interactions.

Our life is essentially just proteins being built according to a large collection of "IF THEN" instructions written in our DNA. Our metabolism and our behaviour is just a long sequence of chemical equations going on in our bodies. When we move a finger, this happens because an electro-chemical signal came to the muscle cells from a particular brain neuron. The interactions between neurons is just proteins being synthesized, randomly moved around, being stuck with other proteins, reacting or not reacting, etc. There are no mysterious quantum effects, it's just very complex chemistry.

To come to grips with this it helps to know that there are already some simple viruses that we understand down to the smallest detail (down to the atom). When you get to the bottom of things, there is no soul or anything, it's just atoms. It also helps to know a bit about the neurophysiology (read Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter) to start to realise that all our behavior is programmed.

Now that we have the facts, here is the conclusion:

We can simulate the brain or the whole human organism and the simulation will run just as well as the real thing. The implementation is irrelevant, the interactions of two hydrogen atoms in two proteins do not possess any special significance. What matters is the program, because the program is all there is. The underlying computing substrate can be anything.

Some people may be uncomfortable with that, but there is simply no evidence against that. We already can simulate neurons and as far as we know the simulations work just as well as real neurons. There are also reasons to think that our simulation doesn't need to be accurate down to the single neuron, because our brain evolved to be resistant to the loss of neurons.

This is also important - our brains have no grand design, they are just highly evolved structures of organic molecules. It's not hand-written software code, where changing one bit can destroy a program - it's a genetically (in both senses) evolved mess that was functional from the very beginning when it was just a single neuron 3 billion years ago or so. Our brain has evolved to have parts added or removed, we can't break it by carefully tweaking and replacing real neurons with simulated ones is not going to break everything (once we get over a certain accuracy threshold).

With the feasibility of uploading covered, let's get to the mechanics.

The simpliest "brute-force" approach is to simulate every neuron and neural connection as it is. For that you scan a brain, either invasivly by slicing it and scanning each slice, or noninvasively by a combination of scanning methods (positron tomography, infrared scanning and other techniques which we don't have yet). Then you launch a full simulation of the neural system on a supercomputer. Once you get bugs worked out, it is guaranteed to work. It can even run slower than the real brain (if you don't have another processing power yet), but the great thing is that it's very easy to make it go faster - just add more hardware.

There is also an inefficient method, which is good for one thing - to persuade stubborn uninformed humans that uploading is indeed possible. The method is typically used in (perhaps not surprisingly) thought experiments. :) It works like this: you take one neuron and simulate it down to the single atomic interaction. You then replace the real neuron with the chemo-electro-mechanical device that runs the simulation or gets the results of the simulation from the outside computer. You connect that artificial neuron with other neurons properly. Is the person whose brain we are working on the same person? Obviously yes, because even if that artificial neuron went haywire, the brain could handle it - it has been know to handle an iron rod going right through it. But since the artificial neuron works just as well, the brain would work just as well. Now we replace all neurons one by one with the artificial ones. Does that person stop being himself? Obviously not, because there are no important functional changes (all neurons still work the same way) and there is no discontinuity. Of course, I am jumping over lots of steps here (most authors spend pages dwelling on this possibility), but I hope you get the idea. In the end we essentially have a computer (or a bunch of computers) running the mind and the person is still himself.

By the way, all the "controversial" questions of is the copy still you are rubbish. The copy is a copy, which in case of software is indistinguishable from the original. These questions are nonsensical. People in the future would be happily forking themselves and happily destroy the copies, once they've done their job, sometimes incorporating parts of copies into the main process. Our notions of human/mind/individuality/etc will have to accomodate the future fractal world. There won't be neither only one you, nor several of you, there will be a non-integer quantity of you that is constantly changing depending on the needs of the moment.

The real technological way to do the uploading (after the brute force and ignoring the thought experiment) will be to connect existing brain with electronic chips for virtual reality, for thought control of devices in the material world, of our cybernetic implants, etc. Then mind upgrades will be added into the mix, including vision pre-processors (in the form of optical nerve upgrades), perfect memory extensions, etc. These will be doing some one function very well and would be possible before we have perfect understanding of the brain. Soon it will become possible to take parts of the brain and replace them with equivalents (and we neither have to do the whole brain at once, nor work on the level of individual neurons). Obviously, many of these additional parts will not be based on natural human intelligence, but will be programmed. In other words, we will have parts of artificial intelligence in ourselves. This compatibility will come handy when we are finally merging with AIs later in this story.

But the big thing here is that we aren't just replacing the neurons or inserting chips, we are removing the mind from its substrate. It no longer is location- and substrate-dependent. You can have that optical upgrade run on a PDA or on the Internet in a distributed way. You can have that perfect memory backed up online on a distributed network or on a server in secure location. This way you already have "partial uploads". This is what complexity is about. People will not keep their brain in a jar, they will not keep it on their head. Parts of people will run in different ways. People may have partly robotic bodies, with some of the intelligence (required to operate them) will run on computers in those bodies. People will have parts of their personalities still in parts of their original brain and some parts of them will be running in microchips. These people will not be facing "total conversion", they will just be normal people adapting to new opportunities. There won't be a single right way to upload, this will happen gradually and the process will be shaped by free choices, by market forces and by brain health research.

After we are running these partial (or full) uploads for some time, we will get mature advanced nanotech — i.e. very small (not just built on nano level, but designed on the nano level, i.e. every atom is in its optimal place and nothing is wasted in design) and self-replicating nanobots. At that point the favourite uploading procedure would be to get a nanobot to each neuron and then either 1) study the neuron, consume it and stay in its place, acting just like it or 2) study the neuron and send the data to the central computer. If the first way is used, we get a nanotech brain that can effortlessly be converted to an uploaded mind (the difference being that uploaded brain doesn't have to run inside the skull - it can be distributed). If the second brain is used, you have the brain intact and can either destroy it or keep running (then you get two persons, which wouldn't really be a problem, as I told before).

With all that flexibility the question of substrate will become pretty meaningless. With computing power as cheap (essentially free and unlimited) as it will be then, our minds will run wherether it is optimal and we won't care that much about the choice. We won't be a civilization of brains in vats, we will be totally ok with being "executed" anywhere, even more comfortable than we are with moving around in the meatspace. We will also be fine about parts of our minds not being neural simulations, but software written in FORTRAN. :) Since we are just programs not only it doesn't matter what they are ran on, but also how exactly they are written. Those parts of code (such as our susceptibility to optical illusions) that aren't perfect can be rewritten. Of course, where you can rewrite one bit, you can rewrite anything. And this will totally eliminate the distinction between AIs and humans, because we will all be part AIs and the actual percentage of our humanness will become irrelevant. Now, it's actually possible that strong (human-level) AI will become possible before full uploading is possible. It is also possible that it's simplier to design strong AI from scratch, without basing it on human minds. In that case the Singularity (see below) may actually happen (not sure how likely it is) before full uploading (which may complicate things).

Now a bit about when this is going to happen. The key factors here is 1) our ability to run the simulation and 2) the ability to scan the brain structure. Ray Kurzweil wrote about that in details, with extrapolations and explanations. The main important point is that our ability to scan is rapidly improving, our ability to manufacture small objects is improving (we are moving towards nanotech) and the speed of our computers is improving as well. There are really no chances that this progress will stop or will noticeably slow down. Nanotech and fast enough computers will come around 2020-2030. Of course, it can happen sooner or faster - we can't be 100% sure about the date until it actually arrives, but all evidence points to about that time. But it's pretty certain that it will happen before 2100. And it probably won't happen until at least 2015.

Now what will this all lead to. Of course, the society will change a lot. How exactly will it change is a very big topic and we still haven't figured it out. One thing is certain - the change will be radical. The biggest consequence of uploading (or strong AI, if it happens earlier) is the ability to accelerate the progress by 1) is the ability to increase speed and scale of thinking (you can make the uploaded mind or AI perform faster just by adding hardware). This leads to a rapid increase in the number of thought/second in the world, which accelerates research (by that time, obviously, all experiements will be easier to do in simulation as well, so you aren't tied to reality in any way). This will allow to quickly invent better nanotech and faster computers, which in turn leads to faster thinking. And it just so happens that the laws of physics allow for computers that are many orders of magnitude more powerful (per unit of volume) than the human brain. And we will be able to get to that point very quickly, because the faster we think the faster we invent even faster computers and the faster we think. We can become millions of millions of times "smarter" (though it may be not entirely correct to assume that smartness is linearly dependent on thinking speed) and we may get there in just a few years.

This even is called TechnologicalSingularity and it's a very big deal. In fact, you are almost certainly unable to fully comprehend how profoundly hugely important that event is. You should read Staring into the Singularity to even be able to begin to start to comprehend it.

Well, I hope you are impressed. And remember, this is going to happen relatively soon. Better tell everyone.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pirates suffer from lost profits, nobody to sue

Confiscation of disks isn't the biggest problem...

Making profits in the Internet Age is tough. Only yesterday we lamented the horse-and-buggy business models of music labels and movie studios. But today even the pirates, who temporarily gained the edge in the darwinian business struggle are in danger. Commersant, a Russian business daily, reports that the Internet is depriving Moscow pirates of potential profits. For the first time in 7 years the sales of pirated media dropped. According to Moscow government, 812 stores sell more than 850,000 software disks each month, grossing about 68-85 mln. rubles in monthly sales, down from 130 mln. rubles in January. Sales of pirated MP3s dropped even more — almost by 60%. Only the sales of DVD collections with 3-8 films recorded on each disk are still stable, though experts do not expect this to last long.

The reason for this? Well, it's isn't the War on Russian Piracy waged by the US Congress or the feeble attacks by local anti-piracy organisations. It's the Internet, the great destroyer of business models. According to the experts of commission for safety of information market, pirates have suffered from competition from online downloads, as the number of broadband subscribers in Moscow increased 115% over the last year and has reached 540,000 households.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Future of Genetic Engineering (2005-2030)

"How neat it would be to have genetic engineering treatments to get extra eyes, fur or tentacles?", asked Conan K. Woods on wta-talk.

I am normally not psychologically comfortable to speculate too much, chiefly because I feel (perhaps wrongly) that everything was already said by someone more competent (e.g. by one of the book authors such as Kurzweil, Naam, etc.) and I will be just stating obvious. But perhaps this is due to me having read only a few of the transhumanist books. :)

Anyway, without further ado, this is how I think genetic engineering will unfold in the next 25 years.

The foretaste of things to come

First (now-2015) we will see more and more smart drugs, i.e. drugs increasingly designed based on understanding on how genes and proteins work and not just random hit-and-miss experiments with organic molecules. It will become increasingly possible to regulate the human metabolism using the THIRD way (i.e. not neural or hormonal, but artificial drug-induced way). Things like Viagra, working drugs for losing (not gaining) weight, nootropic drugs, etc.

Then (2015-2025) we are going to see first health-related genetic modifications. As e.g. Naam describes in his book, there are several ways to modify ourselves - inject the protein (drug - see above), add the DNA into the cell (noninsertional vectors) or into the nucleus (insertional). By that time we will strongly feel the fallout from the Human Genome project, understanding a signficant part of the complex genetic chemistry. First we are going to change the DNA to fix the health defects, removing bad genes or fixing them.

At the same time we will have genetic treatments in competitive sport (Olympics) to enhance the strength, endurance, etc. Some say that first such treatments are already being used. Each next Olympics will have more and more and by 2016 a very large portion of athletes will be using some form of genetic enhancement.

Ossur bionic leg (video)

By that time (mid-2010s) we will have some cyborgisation in healthy humans going on. Chips for interacting with the electronic environment, some enhanced senses (e.g. cochlear implants for healthy people). Enhancement surgery will be growing in popularity (things like LASIK, muscle surgery, lots of cosmetic surgery and a bit more advanced stuff). The "traditional" body modification techniques will be gradually improving. Everything that is cool today will be already passe and retro. Hard to predict these things, since they are irrational and random to a large extent like all fashion is. But one may speculate about subdermal displays, limited neuro-electronic connectivity (i.e. "implanted remotes"). Disabled people will have their artificial hands, legs, eyes and stuff in increasing numbers. But we still won't see genetically modified people with tentacles, except in a few freaks, like the leet body modders today (however, even those would probably opt for surgery + drugs, not full-scale GE).

Real-time avatar face modification (video)

Starting from about 2015 we will spend more and more time in both virtual and augmented reality. We will be more and more comfortable with modifying our appearance in arbitrary ways, spending time in animal bodies (even though only virtually), etc.

By, say, 2020 we (at least the early adopters, not luddites) will be controlling our metabolism artificially a lot (using a combination of implanted automatic smart drug-release devices and genetic therapies). There will be a few cases when humans will be enhanced significally changing their genetic code, when this can be done in a very safe manner and without side effects (this might come from one of the sports modifications). The parents will have great freedom in defining the DNA code of their kids to get rid of all bad stuff and ensure that good stuff is there, but no fins or fur yet. We will also have many artificial parts and will spend a lot of time in virtual worlds.

The onset of extensive genetic engineering

Around 2020-2025 we will see the spread of biotechnologies to the general population. We will also have desktop fabrication labs by then (and robots), some pretty useful (but not fully mature) nanotech (to compliment the biotech that we are talking about). We will have some good AI (but not human-level), so a lot of R&D will be possible to do using existing software. Software methodologies will be more advanced than today, so ordinary people will be able to get digital designs for a bio-lab, assemble it using their (may be not personally owned) desktop fab lab, get the information databases with genetic and other biological information and synthesise the DNA.

There are likely to be some regulatory issues by than. Both scaremongers and responsible scientists/politicians will demand some control mechanisms and some will definitely be established, but we can also expect bio-hackers (and pirates) to emerge. There will obviously be a gradient - if some people are doing legit body-modifications (like people in tattoo/piercing parlors today), they can add a bit of illicit modifications, provide access to illegal drugs (controlled substances) without prescriptions (like offshore Internet pharmacies today), etc. This may end up looking a little bit like the cyberpunk predictions (e.g. traditional Gibsonesque cyberpunk).

In 2025-2030 people will start to notice the exponential technological growth. Kids born in 2010 will be getting through their teenage phase (modified using mind-enhancing drugs, but not enough to turn them into obedient zombies). They will probably be the first to use the technology in radical ways. The transplantation industry would be mature by that time, with millions of transplantations performed every year - cloned parts, xenotransplants, artificial organs, etc. Stem cells would also be used to grow new organs (in vitro and in vivo). So it would be quite easy to do heavy cyborg and biological body-mods with little risk (and almost zero risk of serious complications that can't be fixed). As much as I am uncomfortable with that (today), more and more people will be experimenting with heavily modified bodies. Genetic engineering will be used in conjunction with surgery. We will also have the ability to direct body reconstruction - first selective apoptosis, then generation of stem cells and regrowth of the organs/tissues. This will obviously first be used for corrections, but eventually for rebuilding the body for other reasons.

A mermaid (from Cross Genetics)

By that time technologies for genetic engineering will be widespread and accessible. Software products would exist (not in the form of products, but downloadable routines, AI modules) that can be used easily. By 2030 most people will have the ability to design new organisms from scratch and change their own bodies at will. My imagination is betraying me a bit, but when walking (or otherwise moving) on the street (or the future analogue of it) you will see people of different colours (including pink, orange and striped yellow-green), people with fur, people with animated skin, people with various additional parts (combs, spikes, etc.) added for aesthetic reasons, people with various face adjustments ("unnatural" eyes, nose, lips, teeth, etc.), people with parts of them resembling animal parts (feline eyes, etc.).

By that time the society will likely change enough to make these things not only more acceptable, but in a sense expected. Mind-enhancement techniques, significant social changes will mean that there won't be conservative job-places that don't let you come to work with wings and horns. Many people will not be working in the traditional sense, but living life in more creative ways, while the society/nature supplies them with necessities.

The precise nature of the future society in regards to the look of its members will depend on an unpredictable factor - the relative success of different development approaches. It is clear that virtual reality, cyborgisation and genetic engineering will all provide almost unlimited possibilities for human expression. But which of the three methods will be more populat (at certain point) is hard to predict, because it depends on which one will be more advanced, more efficient, safer, cheaper, more available, easier to use, etc. It is likely that all methods will complement each other to some extent, but personally I am not ready to predict with certainty whether the society of 2030 will consist mostly of people inhabiting VR worlds, robots walking the streets or mutated chimeras flying and swimming around...

Well, that was me imagining what the future will be like. Stay tuned (or not) for the visions of life in the world of mature nanotech and life after uploading.

Comments, criticism and discussion obviously welcome.

This text can be edited at the Future Wiki

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Children of the Secret State - North Korea

"Children of the Secret State" (ed2k link) is a propaganda movie made in 2000. The film was mostly likely planned by psyops specialist and is a good example of the information warfare campaign waged against North Korea. But North Korea is not the only victim — we all are the victims too when we are led to believe lies and fabrications. I believe it is useful to train yourself in critical thinking skills and to try to build up some mental defences against manipulation. That's why I wrote this commentary.

This review present an analysis of some of the scenes of the film. My conclusion is that this film is an attempt at manipulating the viewer to believe that North Korea is a horrible place, its leader Kim Jonh Il is evil, his regime is brutal and the economic system has collapsed. But a careful and impartial viewing of the film with a critical eye and constant online doublechecking demonstrates that there is very little in this film that should be believed. In this film no evidence was presented, although the authors tried extremely hard to make it seem as if such evidence was in fact shown. And I have no doubt that most viewers believed that it was.

North Korea pioneers

The film starts with the video of hungry child orphans (still, apparently looking healthy enough) that is going to shock everyone, especially combined with the matter-of-fact narrative. The narrator claims that 3 million people died from hunger. Another claim is made - that UNICEF estimated there are 200000 orphans in the country (BTW, don't trust all statistics about orphans, lies and manipulations are an ever present danger). It's awfully hard to find data on orphans in the US, but it appears to me from what data is available that the number of children without parents as a percentage of general population is about the same in the US - about 1%.

The population of the North Korea is 23 million, BTW, the population growth rate in 2005 was 0.9% (0.38% in South Korea), life expectancy 71.73 years (75.82 in SK) and infant mortality 24 deaths/1000 live births (7 in SK). While we are at it, the literacy rate is 99% (compared with 97.9% in SK). But everyone is still shocked, that's expected, even I am. However, I now start to think what they are trying to say, whether I am being manipulated and how this agrees with other things I know.

OK, we move into the capital. The presenters never ignore a chance to manipulate the viewer. From mentioning the Big Brother to emphasising the censorship. First they are trying to make a ridiculous point by implication. They present the visuals as if the whole capital is essentially fake and everyone else lives in poverty and hunger in secret towns. Well, to begin with, that doesn't make any sense. Why would the North Korean government want that? Do they really care that much about impressing foreign journalists who manage to enter the country despite the apparent restrictions? That doesn't make sense (since they actually try to prevent foreign journalists from visiting).

Pyongyang street

Then every image is twisted as the presenters need. For example, there is no one in the street in the middle of the day, there aren't many other guests in the hotel and there are few cars on the streets. Somehow all this proves that North Korea is bad. But, of course, there is no one in the streets - everyone is working. Then the hotel is empty, because it was designed and built in a different time, but it turned out to be a mistake and there aren't many foreign tourists today. And there aren't many cars, but there is examplanation - cars are too expensive, not very efficient and North Korea is short on fuel.

The fact that the journalists are well fed is somehow a proof of how evil and corrupt the regime is (if they weren't, doubtless they would use this as another proof of the hunger). Supposedly, one can't find such a stark contrast in the US, no way. But filming a dinner in an expensive Manhattan restaurant and some child suffering from hunger (there are millions of those in the US) doesn't enter the minds of the journalists. Then we hear some unsubstantiated claims that all well-fed children rehearsing for the parade are the children of the elite. How do they know it? Of course, the American viewer is unlikely to question the words of the journalists.

I mean, you don't need to go far. Russia is no longer a totalitarian state, but you can find children, who are drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless, orphans, prostitutes and theives. How are isolated facts (even filmed on video) a condemnation of a country? Also, how is it a fault of the government, when the people living in that town/village do not help the kids?

Pyongyang Palace of Pioneers and Children

Then the Children's Palace. Here even the fact that there are apparently some children who are not hungry presented as an evil deed of the Dear Leader. He is told to have "decided to favour these children". I wonder if the journalists have any ideas of why exactly did he make this decision. Does he have anything against those other, hungry children? Does he have an evil plan?

The journalist is near the Chinese border. He is allowed to drive there in a car and he has to exaggerate the dangers. If they spend too much time in one place, they may be interrogated by the police. Well, try to spend too much time in one place next to the Mexican border. I bet you would be interrogated by the police as well. It's illegal to film at the border (like in many other countries), but the brave fighters for freedom managed to do it. Apparently, they filmed some border guards, who appear to be guarding the border. Clearly, that is some evil North Korean plot. Is it possible that they are looking for possible violators, who intend to cross the border illegally? Well, I am sure no civilized nation would ever do such a thing. Certainly not the United States... Well, pardon me my sarcasm, but insinuations are everything. It is possible to film perfectly legitimate activities, but if they are in North Korea, they suddenly become menacing, dark and evil. Such as border guards hiding in bunkers.

Then we get a lie about refugees facing execution after being returned from China to North Korea. There is no evidence, just hearsay. Signs such as "Never help an illegal alien" are presented as something horribly wrong, even though (no sarcasm this time) most countries have some regulations against illegal aliens and helping illegal aliens is a misdemeanour in many countries as well (North Koreans are facing a fine, which, supposedly, is horrible).

We are in China now. The woman buying some foodstuffs who is looking strangely at the foreigner filming her is presented as visual evidence of "paranoia and suspicion" filling the air. Perfectly ordinary images of normal life, combined with a alarming music reinforce the feeling that the air is indeed filled with paranoia. It might be the paranoia of the journalist, however. Then we have one interview, where we are not told anything substantial except that some people died from hunger.

OK, we're back. Here a child repeats to the journalists some hearsay about cannibalism. I don't think this can be considered evidence, but the guy appears to have some very lax journalistic standards. Some child drawings and "a friend told me he saw" are now considered sufficient evidence.

OK, now we are shown some Chinese girl eating some soup. We are told that "these children are well-fed". This time we aren't told that Chinese leaders "decided to favour these children", no, it's implied that there is no hunger in China. But, as a matter of fact, China (the "nice" neighbour of North Korea) is still home to the world's second largest number of undernourished people after India. According to some estimates, all over the world over 1 billion people are chronically undernourished. 20 millions die each year from hunger and its effects (almost the population of North Korea). And yet the US and its venal journalists chose to pick on North Korea. Even though, the United States isn't without its own share of problems... Particularly, 3.5 million people are homeless and 35.9 million people live in poverty. They don't seem to notice the mote in their eye...

It's part three and franly I am tired. It's not easy to consciously withstand attempted psyops. But I can't leave the task unfinished, I will have to endure the lies and deceit for 20 minutes more.

We are shown some positively chubby North Korean children, but the disquieting music somewhat compensates for that. We feel that all is not well. We are shown something which is claimed to be a "ghost town" (shot from the nearby mountain). Then we are informed that "industrial activity has ground to a halt". We are made to think that this isn't an exaggeration, but a statement of fact - this is accompanies by the image of the supposed "ghost town". Of course, simple logic dictates that it's impossible for all industrial activity to stop in a country and even the CIA factbook admits real GDP growth of 1% in 2004. But who needs logic in a times like this? Then we hear an account of a well-dressed "escapee" from the town, who tells us that the town's poor stole the equipement and parts from the factories and sold them... The question of whom did they sell factory equipment in small town in a country with a planned economy is not discussed, perhaps, for the better.

We are shown some more children and told some more stories about hunger.

Then a random guy tells us about growing opium. There are some links online that support this claim, however, they all tend to rely on people who make questionable claims such as "Ninety-nine percent of their factories are not operating"...

OK, we are going to South Korea now. In passing we are told that one in every 100 North Koreans is in prison camps. We are not told that 1 in 142 USA residents is in prison as of 2002. One in a hundred (if accurate at all) doesn't sound that bad now, does it? Anyway, images of capitalism (skyskrapers, well-dressed people, etc.) demonstrate that South Korea is clearly a better place.

Then we hear a story of a former guard, which (if genuine) does make a point. What is happening in the camps, if true, is brutal and horrible. However, no other evidence is presented and it's extremely easy to exaggerate (or downplay) the reality.

Who needs photos when you can draw your evidence?
I am going online to look up some information related to aid. In one place we find that "An estimated 200,000 to two million people died in the famine." Well, that's bad, but that's not 3 million people claimed in the beginning of the program. It does confirm the fact (which no one really doubted) that a large fraction of children ("62 percent of children under the age of seven" in 1998) is chronically malnourished. Thanks to the aid, the "chronic malnutrition has dropped to 21%" by 2002. However, in order to blackmail North Korea over its nuclear program, the US and Japan severely decreased their aid, knowing well what would be the effect of it. The film claims that the US didn't do that.

We are told that North Korea receives more food per capita in aid than any other country. Well, it appears to have received about 30$ per person served per year (in total), which is about average of what WFP does... Other sources, while providing some criticism of North Korea's handling of aid, disagree that it's a deliberate diversion and say that the problems are not as significant.

We see the black market, but the opinion of experts is that this diversion of aid doesn't affect the situation that much.

Again we are shown some children. This time the journalist claims "but children go empty-handed as these pictures reveal". I don't know what these pictures reveal, other than blatant attempts at manipulation. Does he claim that all children are denied food in Korea according to some evil plan? Does he claim that Korean government actively discriminates against children? He is trying to mislead. The footage of children he presents is biased so much as to be almost useless.

Well, the film is over. What can we say? That Discovery, Channel 4 and the journalist are manipulative? Yes. That people are being systematically mislead about North Korea? Certainly. That people in North Korea suffer from hunger? Yes. That Kim Jong Il is evil, his regime is brutal and the economic system has collapsed? That's not so clear. In this film no evidence was presented, although the authors tried extremely hard to make it seem as if such evidence was in fact shown. And I have no doubt that most viewers believed that it was.

See my previous post about North Korea: Remembering the Revolutions

The photos are from a report of a Russian visitor to North Korea, who saw a very different picture while travelling around the country.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

NISTEP 2030 forecast

The Japanese National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) runs a technology foresight project every five years, looking 30 years into the future. The last such exercise was carried out in 2000, producing the report Future Technology in Japan toward the Year 2030 (download).

The 2007-2030 timeline in this report is one of the most methodologically sound.It was produced in a large Delphi study involving several thousand experts. Past NISTEP reports had predictive accuracy of 60-70%.

But the forecast shies away from advanced transhumanist technologies and looks rather traditionalistic and non-controversial (this is not to say these were not included among the original topics, but that they were not considered important by experts and so less attention is paid to them).

  • The report barely makes a passing mention of nanotechnology: only one item — "Practical use of single atom/molecule manipulation techniques as methods for device fabrication and gene manipulation.", scheduled for 2015, is included.
  • Artificial intelligence is apparently ignored. It's mentioned in only one topic: "Development of software (expert systems) capable of completely taking the place of specialist professions such as judges, lawyers and patent attorneys.", is slated for 2025 and is deemed unlikely to ever be realised by 48% of respondents.
  • Brain enhancements are mostly ignored, despite predictions of understanding much of how the brain functions between 2015-2025.
  • Despite listing a plethora of medical advances, the report says nothing about possibilities of life extension, reversal of aging and achiving immortality.

One non-traditional area (although it is much more traditional for the Japanese) that features prominently is robotics.

A forecast that ignores nanotechnology and artificial intelligence — undoubtly the key enabling technologies for human transformation in the coming decades — can not be deemed accurate and is at best extremely misleading.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

My Personal Answers to 15 Global Challenges

My Personal Answers to 15 Global Challenges.

1. How can sustainable development be achieved for all?
By making technological development sustain itself and not rely on frail Earth's ecosystem.

2. How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?
With technologies, such as nanotech, that will be widely available by 2015-2020.

3. How can population growth and resources be brought into balance?
They will never be. Population growth simply won't catch up with the exponentional growth of resources provided by the supertechnologies such as nanotech and AI.

4. How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?
We need to realise that "genuine democracy" is a fiction and that democracy is simply one of the ways to structure the society, worthless by itself. Authoritarian regimes usually have a valid reason to be such.

5. How can policymaking be made more sensitive to global long-term perspectives?
By eschewing democracy of uninformed idiots and encouraging an autocratic government of educated technocrats.

6. How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone?
As a result of people, companies and governments working on this issue. The digital divide is unsustainable and is easy to bridge - all it takes is work.

7. How can ethical market economies be encouraged to help reduce the gap between rich and poor?
By replacing them with planning, taking the profit motive out of the economy and nationalising capitalist enterprises.

8. How can the threat of new and reemerging diseases and immune micro-organisms be reduced?
By spending more on medical and biotech research and controlling big pharma better.

9. How can the capacity to decide be improved as the nature of work and institutions change?
By promoting intelligence, rationalism and science, by destroying the plutocratic elite and by instituting public control of the media.

10. How can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction?
By disarmanent of the United States, by stopping the exploitation of the third world and by building strong national economies there. Shared values can't do anything if you don't share the bread as well.

11. How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?
By having them do some work more useful than cooking and doing laundry, perhaps?

12. How can transnational organized crime networks be stopped from becoming more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises?
A better question would be how can powerful transnational global enterprises be stopped from becoming more like organized crime networks?

13. How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?
By using solar and fusion power and by severely restricting private ownership of cars, while building better public transport systems.

14. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
By spending more on science, promoting future-oriented thinking, taking public control of all media and starting intensive atheist and rationalist propaganda.

15. How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?
By replacing the plutocratic capitalist society with meritocratic socialist or communist society, so that the leaders are more motivated to work for the benefit of all people.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Connections and Knowledge Web

There is an amazing BBC series Connections by a famous science historian James Burke. The films explore how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events have linked together over the centuries to bring about particular aspects of modern technology. The series (40 films in total) are the most delightful and accessible approach to the history of the world and its' sciences since the Cosmos series.

Then I was researching information about the Connections series online and accidentally stumbled on a link to KnowledgeWeb. I was amazed to learn that such project already exist, because I dreamed about something like it for a long time. I am extremely interested in the development of science and technology (goes in the family, my father's doctoral thesis was done in this field) and was envisioning a tool similar to K-Web for a long time. Now I found it. :) Have to find whether it's actually useful (i.e. if custom content can be added there).

Monday, September 05, 2005

From custom manufacturing to universal assemblers

Using custom manufacturing a Wired journalist with no design experience designed his own an electric guitar in eMachineShop and had the parts printed to spec.

Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, makes a reasonably good case that soon every house will have its own personal fabricator. He has already taken an important step - he has shrunk the personal fabricator down to a single room's worth of off-the-shelf tools, all of which are available right now.

Custom manufacturing in a fabrication lab -

The CBA fabrication labs are already used to produce peculiar one-off individualised devices, such as GPS-enabled tags for sheeps, electrode-driven device to measure the fat content of milk, motion-detector security system to protect a personal diary.

Current precision of cutting (Epilog Legend 24TT) and milling (MDX-20) tools is about 25-50 microns.

Further path:

  • miniaturise all components of a personal fabricator
  • combine it all together into a set of compatible devices
  • add some robotics so that manual labour is not needed for assembly
  • make it use cheap standard raw materials and parts
  • simplify, make more user-friendly, interface with an online library of designs

OK, that doesn't actually sound too far-fetched, but would quickly make the fabricators ubiquitous and extremely useful.

Next steps:

  • continue the minaturisation
  • replace the components one by one with nanotechnology based machines
  • optimise the design of a fabricator to make sure no space/matter is wasted

Tabletop nanofactory

Now you have a nanofactory (vision, 60Mb video). This is already functional nanotechnology and will set off the final stage of the revolution (super-exponential computing power growth and the singularity).

Further steps:

  • break down the nanofactory from a single machine into small parallelised units, each capable of producing small nano-objects to spec
  • make the units as small as possible

Finally, we have a nanoassembler.


Final step:

  • make it possible for this assmbler to make copies of itself

We have a unversal self-reproducing nanoassembler. Finally an end to material scarcity. This would signify final liberation of the man and the control of mind over matter. This is a posthuman level, where turning all dumb matter into smart matter is finally possible.

Nanoassembler making nanocomputers in a nanofactory

Edit this text at Future wiki

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Fake diplomas

Just stumbled today on the site of a genuine looking company (in Russia) that provides fake diplomas and other papers of all kinds. Looks extremely professional and reliable (as far as you can judge it from their site). Call +7 (901) 372-31-14 to order anything from fake diplomas (registered in university's archives) to a passport (domestic or foreign) to Council of the Federation (Russian Senate) Member's certificate.

That's neat. The only hope for preservation of privacy and freedom from totalitarian government surveillance may come from professional criminals (as one can also see from countless sci-fi movies such as Johnny Mnemonic, etc.).

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Magic on TV

I don't usually watch TV, but today I was asked to record a show on a VCR so I was just randomly flipping through the channels while the casette was rewinding. I can't believe our TV has already sank that low...

I can feel their magic power

On the left is a fat Georgian magic healer. In the middle a hippy-like clairvoyant that looks like a horse. And the host on the right. I can't believe that anyone is falling for that shit, but apparently some do, they all looked serious. Unbelievable, now I want to gouge my eyes out. I think I better to go read to ease the pain a bit.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Seeing the world

Australian company Astrovision announced plans to provide real-time satellite video (first of Australia) with resolution down to 250 metres.

"Users [will be] able to select destinations and zoom in to as close as 60 metres and to as far out as 57,000 kilometres. ...Astrovision plans to launch five satellites to provide coverage of the globe over a decade."

Do you know where is this place?

There are already thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) webcams everywhere in the world, providing 24-hour live feeds of what is happening "there". Get the feeling of it with this nice artistic piece - Netlag.

In the future more and more information about the world will be available to us indirectly (i.e. we won't see it with our own eyes) and this information will be multi-facetous, instant, customized and interactive.

In a sense, this is about gradually become omnipresent. Ultimately every human will be able to instantly know everything that is happening anywhere on Earth, know about every raindrop falling, every leaf trembling. Just like gods. Isn't it cool?

Posted to Future Wiki

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Just watched and listened to the Animusic - a video music-driven computer animation. It's a 30-minute video, with seven different animations.

Future Retro

Harmonic Voltage

It's very original, both music and animation are very good. Short clips can be downloaded from the Animusic website. ATi has a real-time version of "Pipe Dream" and the video version. The DVD can also be downloaded from eDonkey network.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Two types of change

While reading one emotional overview of the trends in the ICT market, it dawned on me that the constant change everyone keeps to be talking about for the past few decades is not monolithic.

There are two distinct components in it.

  • One is the squabble between the competitors in the global marketplace. The outsourcing, the competitive threat from emerging markets of China and India, the need to serve the needs of diverse international customers. This kind of stuff. You can no longer be safe, no matter what your business is, and you need to change. But at the core this is essentially a pointless zero-sum game that noone really benefits from. When Walmart forces you to squeeze out every penny from your suppliers, the economy overall suffers (or gains only marginally). When Procter & Gamble introduces another "NEW!!!" shampoo, customers' lives don't really change. Yes, the market economy causes everyone to strive for perfection, but the difference between perfect and the "good enough" is not really worth it.
  • Much more important are the constant technological improvements - the never-ending unstoppable progress of science and technology. This is what makes our lives today so much better than 100 years ago, not competition between global oligopolies. This change benefits not the competition, but from cooperation. Incidentally, this is what will bring us the Singularity and other transhumanist goodness. It doesn't really matter who makes the mobile phone handsets - Nokia or one of its new Chinese rivals, what matters is that overall tehcnologies improve and make better products possible, regardless of who is in charge.
The potential of business innovations isn't zero, but it is often overestimated. Yes, you probably can shave off a few percentage points from your costs using outsourcing, an ISO 9001 quality program, new staff motivation technique, management training in change management or some other snake oil of the day. This may even help you beat your archrival (or, more likely, maintain the status quo). But it will all be forgotten in a decade. The real, long lasting changes and qualitative orders-of-magnitude improvements come from changes in underlying technologies, not business techniques.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Automatic context sensitive search

I just came across an amazing application, Watson from Intellext. This program automatically searches online for content relevant to documents that you are working on. It supports a variety of Internet sources and it seems to be possible to add more. Right now it only supports Microsoft Office programs (Word, Powerpoint, etc.) and only English language, somewhat limiting its usefulness, but when it can be used, it's great.

Watson gets the keywords from the document and searchs for them, showing the results in a side panel

The results are surprisingly relevant and often very useful

It saves you the hassle of carefully thinking about relevant search queries. The document you are editing becomes one big search query and the results (a few hundred links, usually) come almost instantly. So far I have only tried it on existing documents, but it should be interesting to try to use it while writing a new document, augmenting my knowledge and memory with the power of the Internet. :)

Obviously, in the future automatic context-sensitive search will become much more common. Computers will be presenting us with hints, ideas, reminders, based on what we are doing, reading, talking about. The amount of available data, including our photos, e-mails, posts, conversations, etc. is growing very fast, as well as the amount of relevant information online. In the past it made sense to perform research (originally a literature search, later a google search) before writing a paper or preparing a presentation. But increasingly this becomes redundant and useless, as the amount of useful and relevant information often far exceeds our need in it.

So it makes sense to pay less attention to getting all the information. The computer should just give us something and we will use it. This is how our memory works - we are not trying to produce a perfect recollection of our past actions or of school knowledge that we acquired - we simply use what our subconsciousness gives us. A good illustration to the expected future of search is in Charles Stross's Accelerando, where search agents are running on human exocortices.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


After returning from the Canaima I had about half a day to have a walk around Caracas.

My photos on Flickr:

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Monday, July 25, 2005

Canaima National Park

Then I went to the Canaima National Park, which is most famous for the Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world (almost 1 km high).

My photos on Flickr:

Sunday, July 24, 2005

TransVision 2005

On July 22-24 I was at the TransVision 2005 conference in Caracas, Venezuela. The conference is the main annual transhumanist event. This time it was organised by the Transhumanist Association of Venezuela and the World Future Society Venezuela. The topic was "Towards a New World: Better, Longer and Healthier Lives for Everyone." It was an amazing opportunity to socialise with people, who share transhumanist ideas and are not freaked out by them. A nice change indeed.

My presentation was entitled "Predicting mid-range global futures" and was mainly concerned with mocking futurists for their pathetic attempts at peering into the future. It was a hoot. :) Get it here: TV2005.ppt. I presented before the Closing address by Nick Bostrom, but apparantly managed to make quite an impression on the tired delegates. It wasn't particularly controversial, but it was very direct and sincere at demonstrating why some of the existing "approaches" to predicting future are worthless. It was also quite emotional. :)

The hotel sucked and we couldn't really get out into the city much, since every Venezuelan seemed bent on telling us how dangerous it is in the city. Fortunately, the conference itself was quite interesting, with the majority of the talks being rather good (only 2 or 3 were complete content-free fluff) and there wasn't much free time anyway. Kudos to organisers for pulling it off.


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Getting things Done

Finally, I succumbed to the exploding meme of GtD. I downloaded the book and will definitely start to implement this system in my life. I can already, by the 20th page of the book see how this applies to me, how the problems that I am facing can be probably solved using this methodology and how this is extremely relevant for me today. Was it a mistake to ignore the gtd acronym for several months? I don't know. But right now I seem to have the tools that I need - Note Studio for Palm looks perfectly adequate, in fact, more than adequate. Let's try and see.

Cover and excerpt from "Getting Things Done"

Great, after reading Steve Pavlina's article "Overcoming Procrastination" I realised that my problem with procrastination is caused by the overwhelming scale of the projects due. However, Steve did not offer a good practical solution to that that could be actually used. Neither did many other articles and ideas - a complete and total system was missing. It seems that GtD is exactly such system.

Reading Mapping the Mind and listening to Biology And Human Behavior lectures made me better appreciate the metaphors that David Allen is using. When he talks about RAM in our brain, there are very real and tangible arrays of neurons that are firing in complex patterns, remembering something (what needs to be done) and reminding our conscious selves about it. May be they not so much use the space (after all, I doubt that all those things are stored in working memory), but they use the focus. They constantly activate the central processor area and place themselves in the working memory.

I wonder if my interest in getting OneNote, FreeMind and writing^H^H^H^H^H^H^Htyping things down was caused by the pressure from undone things, the subconscious desire to get them out of my mind... But that's only half of the story, the real deal are the actions - that's what GtD is about. This will certainly help me maintain my social life, keep up with the correspondents, etc.

This is really a great book and a great methodology. It would be an oversimplifcation to say that something is "the key" to it, but the emphasis on defining and choosing appropriate actions at appropriate times is clearly very important.

/me digs deep into "stuff", while following the magic GtD flowcharts.

OK, I spent most of the day implementing the GtD system. First, I was surprised how easily I agreed to make (or pledge to make) significant changes to the way I organise myself. The system seemed extremely logical and as easy to use as possible. Clearly, it takes into account the psychological aspects of how we deal with things and the benefits are there. I processed most of the stuff that was lying around loose, which there wasn't too much of, actually. I created appropriate categories for managing the actions on my Palm and started to populate them. I think I will need to spend some time working on this tomorrow and then on my Moscow trip as well. I hope it will help me actually start doing things.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Spread of meta-knowledge

It's amazing how much meta-knowledge about self-organisation and everything else is available online and how popular it is. 43Folders, Getting Things Done, Personal Wikis (including those running on Palms), Life Hacks, etc. All these techniques are invented, developed and popularised on the scale of a few months, thanks to blogs, wikis, social bookmarks and other social software. Good ideas flourish, get supporters, developers, evangelists, etc. Companies and FLOSS developers quickly roll out software incorporating these methods and soon these new technologies are used by millions. Obviously, such rapid dissemination of new knowledge would have been impossible just 20 years ago without Internet. And yet, we are just getting started. Wonderful times are ahead.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The greenery of Saint-Petersburg

Living in a big city can be really stressful sometimes. Fortunately, Saint-Petersburg has something to combat the stress, namely the great parks, avenues and embarkments.

St. Petersburg is the greenest of Russia's major cities. The statistics are impressive: Over 200 parks and gardens, plus over a thousand tree-lined streets and more than 700 leafy squares; and more than 2,000 hectares of greenery in total - or more than 56 square meters for each of the city's more than 4.5 million inhabitants. (more info)
If one is not confined to the office, spending a few hours with a book (or a PDA) in a park can be really invigorating. My only complaint is the noise pollution from the cars - you can't get away from it.

Mikhajlovsky Park

It's all really close together so I can chose the place that fit my mood best - Summer Garden, Michael Garden, Mars Field, etc.

Mojka river and the Rossi pavilion

Mars Field, Mikhajlovsky Castle in the background

There are also some novel ways to add greenery to the city. On June 22, 2005 ">a grass lawn was created on the Palace square in St. Petersburg, Russia. Called "Grass of life", this is a memorial to the June 22, 1941, the day of the treacherous attack of the Fascist Germany on the Soviet Union. The grass symbolizes the victory of life over death, good over evil, peace over war.

Grass of Life on Palace square

Underneath the grass the square is paved with cobblestones. In the very middle of the grass raises the Alexander's column and in the background is the Winter Palace where the Hermitage is located (more photos).

If only we could do something about those goddamn cars. :(

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Remembering the revolutions

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
--George Santayana

The proletarian revolutions of the 20th century are not myths invented by evil totalitarian oppressors, they are not figments of our imaginations, and neither are they inconsequental riots of illiterate mobs. They are the result of oppressed rising against the oppressors. The motivation was pure and simple, to end the injustice, to create fair societies where people are free from tyranny and live worthy lives.

These societies were created - the tens of socialist states that arose all around the world, but few of them survive today. Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea. But just as the Soviet Union was unjustly and falsely labeled an evil empire, so are these last bastions of socialism. Now they are members of the Axis of Evil and disgusting false stories are spread about them. Tales of starvation and oppression are told by official imperialist propaganda and corrupt Western media. And of course the general public doesn't care about real facts, but prefers to get the truth nicely packaged and delivered on the evening news.

The reality is different, of course. As anyone, who cares to travel to North Korea or Cuba with open eyes and without prejudice, can see, people there live normal lives and the society cares for everyone, cares more than it does in most of the so called "developed countries". Their economies are weak, but socialism has nothing to do with it. All third world countries are poor because they can't exploit others like imperialist countries do. And history shows that planned economies do just as well or better as capitalist free market ones. Only they do it without flashy advertising, without elaborately packaged goods, without exuberant downtown shops. People simply have guaranteed jobs, free education, free medical care and pensions. They don't have BMW 7-series, though. Must be the inherently inefficient then...

In the meantime, the oppressed people all other the world, the sweatshop workers in Asia, the poor people exploited by multinational monopolies in South America, the unemployed minimum-wage slaves in the US, are all trying to deal with their problems. They are trying to organise, trying to limit the damage the MNCs can do, trying to have stronger labour laws passed, to limit corporations' rights to oppress and control. But for some reason they forget the lessons of the past and are afraid to speak openly (with the exeption of some remaining communist parties in the West) that socialism works, that revolutions are the answer, that totalitarian oppression sooner comes from a capitalist state than from a socialist ones and that democracy is a misleading label, the newspeak tool used to keep people from power.

We shall remember the lessons of the past. Let the deaths of the revolutionaries all over the world not be in vain.

Mars field in St. Petersburg - a monument to Russian revolutionaries

A monument to the revolutionary struggle of the Korean people in P'y┼Ćngyang

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Private Life of Plants

The films by Sir David Attenborough are always amazing. After watching the Life in the Freezer I was hooked. The amazing images of the remote and inhospitable land, the beauty of penguins and other Antarctic creatures, captured on film with an intelligent commentary - the result is something you can't stop watching and can't help but be constantly amazed.

Penguins in Antarctica

A seal swimming under the thick ice.

I am watching The Private Life of Plants and it's fascinating how Sir David can always provide a fresh look at things in our oversaturated by nature documentaries age. I guess, I now need to watch all the "Life" series to get a good feeling and good understanding of what life really is... And then, then I would want to get away from the cities, from my fellow humans, get into wilderness and stay there (not forever, mind you), enjoying the nature, working on a tablet PC, reading books on a Palm. :) I suspect that connecting modern technology with a beautiful natural environment can do wonders to one's motivation and enjoyment of life.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The future interfaces

While computers were getting smaller, one thing was getting bigger - comptuer displays. And no one doubts that it would be helpful to have even larger and higher resolution displays. Switching between applications using either Alt-Tab or Expose is never going to be as effortless as turning the head or just looking around. And to provide more and more real estate, computer displays have been steadily increasing in size and resolution (today more than 75% use 1024x768 and higher resolution) since the day one. So, of course, we will have bigger and better displays in the future, but the growth won't be just incremental — with e-paper, OLEDs, portable projectors, etc. the difference with today is going to be huge. But with a huge display the mouse input simply doesn't cut it anymore. You can't find a cursor on a giant screen, it takes some real effort to drag it across it, etc. A commonly proposed solution is to let the user use the hand. That's what we see in that overhyped movie Minority Report.

A hard to use, stupid and pointless interface from the unimaginative future of Spielberg's Minority Report.

There even is a real-life system currently in development by Raytheon based on the same ideas. Of course, the proponents of this approach forget that it's tiring to hold the hand in front of you for prolonged periods of time. They also rarely explain how exactly people would control the computers using their hands. Using hands to point to things is not energy efficient at all and using gestures a lot would destroy the wrists quickly. Tom Cruise manages to fake controlling the computer, waving expressibly to Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, but that won't work in real life just as easily.

Another problem is that, despite having a team of futurists that included Jaron Lanier and Kevin Kelly, the creators of the film couldn't come up with even a half-decent use case. I simply don't understand why John Anderton needed a 3 meter screen to play back three poor quality video clips. I can do it on a 17" CRT display much better, thank you very much. :)

Of course, this is not to say that big displays are useless or that hands can't be used to control them. But before that can happen we probably need to change the dominant GUI paradigm.

If a big screen is used to display a single (at most a few) object, such as a large map or a video clip, we don't need hands. Projectors work just fine today, controlled from laptops with touchpads. We would need hands only if the "control density" of the computer output (that is the number of possible operations you can do per square metre) drastically increases. If you need to manipulate parts of the output (such as tap a house on a map for more information) or manipulate (move, arrange, sort, etc.) a large number of objects quickly and visually, then hand control starts to make sense.

A much better fictional depiction of this scenario is the VR control room in Zion in the Matrix Reloaded.

Storyboard from the Virtual Control sequence

The concept art created for the Matrix actually makes much more sense than that Minority Report nonsense. In the above image we see different types of information displayed efficiently, because:

  • they occupy the whole available visual field of the operator
  • the size of particular "sheets" corresponds to the amounts of information
  • the 3d stacking is used to organise the "sheets"
  • traditional "physical" controls compliment the 3D display
  • the operator sits in a comfortable chair
  • the hands can rest on something
  • the image quality is much better than what John Anderton had in 2054

The actual shots from the film look even cooler and actually make a huge step forward in terms of usability. If there ever was an uber-sexy GUI, that was it.

Virtual Reality interface in Matrix Revolutions

The key change that we see is that the flat "sheets" are gone. Now the information is availble in separate "chunks", groups of individual elements that can be moved (using a finger to drag them) around a vertical 2D space. This eliminates useless filler and allows the user and the computer to position information much more efficiently. As a result, this removes the problem of stacking (all information is instantly visible) and frees the background for 3-dimensional models of real-world objects, such as hovercrafts, tunnels and cannons. Also, ergonomic split keyboards neatly compliment the on-screen controls.

To effectively use such interfaces, the computer GUI itself needs to be redone from scratch - we need to go even earlier than Alto, all the way to NLS and start from there again. :) The future GUI needs to combine content-based structure with visual structure. We already have content-based structure — lists, menus, etc. But the visual structure is almost absent. One example is the cluttered Windows desktop, where users arrange icons according to their preferences. Another example are toolbars in applications such as Photoshop (but it's tools, not the information, that is arranged). But the most interesting field that is currently emerging are the graph-based interfaces. There aren't many examples yet, but it looks awfully suitable for our future needs. The complexity of managing the growing amounts of information, the complex categorization schemes and the interrelations between different pieces of data.

Some existing examples of this are:

1) Liveplasma service for graphically navigating the world of movies and music; 2) FreeMind mindmapping application for organising information structurally, but navigating it visually too; 3) CmapTools for concept map modelling and collaborative online editing.

Interestingly, the interface in the Matrix can actually serve as an inspiration not only on how we can manage the "chunks of information", but also to how the display itself may work. Why use a 3-metre plasma or an OLED display when you can have a virtual one? And we won't need to plug-in into Matrix in order to get it. Augmented reality may be a partial answer to the challenge of creating large displays, where the controls such as in the Matrix example are overlayed on the real world. Of all technologies capable of creating virtual 3d objects that the user can interact with this one actually looks the most promising. Having glass surfaces, walls and other screens may not be necessary, when we can just hang the virtual objects in front of the user?

Sousveillance - left or right?

Stephan (blog), I read about sousveillance quite some time ago, but I could never fully understand it. I never doubted that it's ultimately a good technology and that it's already feasible to some extent, I just couldn't see (from all the articles I read) what is it ultimately useful for, beyond pissing off department store clerks and security officers. ;)

Since I didn't have much of an idea of what sousveillance is going to be used for, I couldn't really understand how it fit withing different parts of the political compass. After some deliberation with a cup of tea, though, I got a couple of ideas. This may not make much sense and may be ultimately wrong, but that's how I see it now. This applies mostly to "inverse surveillance" sousveillance.

First, in a liberatrian society (if such can exist) people definitely have it the easiest to justify sousveillance - the individual just has the right to do it and noone should be able to limit his freedom. Liberatrians won't have much use for it, though, since the libertarian government doesn't actually care one way or the other about anything its citizens may record.

People in socialist countries might be luckier. While the critics may remember the tightly controlled xerox machines and limits on free speech, it should be noted that only subversive speech was unwelcome (and of course, spying in secret cities, military bases, etc.). The Soviet government and the soviet society in general welcomed communications and feedback, from wall newspapers to letters to Pravda and the Central Committee. One can't tell that for certain, but I suspect that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would not particularly mind e-mails (even MMSed) with complains and suggestions with photos and videos attached. :)

But still, I can see only a limited use for sousveillance in a socialist state. It looks to my eyes that sousveillance would benefit the most people living in oppressive, but democratic (theocracies and military dictatorships don't qualify) societies. That is, people living in ordinary Western capitalist democratic countries, such as the US or many Western European countries. In these countries there is plenty of material that is:

  1. not widely known
  2. should be filmed and revealed
  3. to some extent covered by the government
  4. accessible to the people
  5. can lead to changes if made public

To look at the sousveillance in general (not just at inverse surveillance), we can consider the deeper differences between libertarians/right and socialists/left (not the only dichotomic division, but let's tackle this first). Very simply put, libertarians consider the individual most important, while socialists consider the society most important. It's obviously a crude simplification, but without the society there is little use for personal recordings, except for the functional (memory aid). The potential of sousveillance is utilized only when we can share the recordings with others, be it through glogging or something else. Obviously, the possibilities are largely untapped at this point, but there must be a lot of ways that the experiences, knowledge, etc. could be shared through this. This application doesn't look very political though, more social and philosophical. Clearly it leads to more openness, tighter social connections, better understanding, etc., just like open communications in general. Sousveillance doesn't so much empower the individual as it strengthens his connections with others. This is clearly something that, for example, Soviet thinkers and artists in 1920s and 1930s would be extatic about. :) So I guess one can make a case that sousveillance is very compatible with leftist ideas.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Soviet Union - Understanding the truth

The lies about Soviet Union are already entrenched in our collective mind. We don't remember what was happening in 1930s and mostly base our judgements on the lies spread later. That's why it's so important to read unbiased historic personal accounts to understand how deep and detestable these lies are.

Two excellent books that are best suited for this are Return From the USSR by Andre Gide (Amazon) and Moscow, 1937 by Lion Feuchtwanger (Amazon). Both these writers were not avid supporters of communism, both were honest and widely respected by their contemporaries, both were invited to Soviet Union and both had the ability to travel around the country and see everything without, not just the facade, without any pressure or control. Both include some criticism (Gide criticises more), but both admit that Soviet Union was a widely successul majestic country populated by truly happy people that loved their country, were happy to work to make it better and sincerely believed that socialism (communism) is the right way to go and saw everyday the most impressive results. They had the reason to be proud of living in the Soviet Union and people all over the world had the reason to look at Soviet Union for hope and inspiration.

It is a simple fact, Soviet Union was the best and the most forward looking country in the world. Sadly, it collapsed under the attacks from outside and from within, but it's still the best model society we ever had and the best way to build a truly free and happy society is to base it on the Soviet model.

For the people by the people - not for dictators, not for the Party, not for the capitalists or for the monarchs anointed by god, but for people. The goal was to build the just, prosperous, happy and free society and everyone shared that goal.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Realism of computer games

As of 2005 we are on the threshold of realism in games. It is finally possible to simulate certain aspects of reality in real time and with sufficient precision to declare it an accurate simulation overall.

For example, the Forza Motorsport racing simulation for Xbox is physically realistic. It is mostly on par with reality, even though it's not indistinguishable yet. To achieve this, programmers from Microsoft Game Studios take into account between 3000 and 10000 variables and simulate all aspects of driving, running the simulation at 240 ticks per second. For Race Against Reality Popular Science asked a veteran gamer and a professional race driver to extensively test drive both real cars and their virtual prototypes. The conclusion was that the game simulation is accurate.

Similar level of realism is available for the flight simulators, again from Microsoft. Some simulators are so realistic that pilots are allowed to log the virtual hours just like the real ones.

However, these simulations are not completely realistic yet. There are still things that can be improved though before we have perfect VR.

  • Graphics aren't perfect yet. One of the bigger problems is lighting and shadowing. To make realistic materials technologies such as RealReflect need to be developed.
  • Sound - there is still no good programmatic sound generation. It's all samples, mostly.
  • Global physics - it's possible to simulate several objects (cars, planes) very accurately, but an all-encompassing simulation is still too complex for the tech we have.
  • Simulation of acceleration, tactile contact and everything else related to physically "being there".
  • AI to make the world come alive

The video-realistic graphics based on general-purpose stable rendering systems (i.e. no more custom-made rendering engines for every new project) will come around 2010-2015. The programmatic sound may be delivered somewhere between 2015 and 2025. Global physics may be done sufficiently well around 2015-2020. The realistic simulations of all senses may come somewhere between 2015 and 2025. Sufficiently good non-human and domain specific human AI (i.e. for an NPC that can realistically perform in a narrowly defined context) may come somewhere about 2015-2020. Good human-level AI (in the context of video games it's a companion that you can interact closely for many hours in a variety of situation, including free-form talking) is a more complex problem and will probably not be achieved until the 2030s.

Still, we have already entered the realm of virtual reality. In some aspects, although not in all, virtual environments are already as good as real ones.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Russian reforms

According to pretty much any conceivable metric, situation in Russia worsened drastically during the 1991-2001. There can be no doubt left whatsoever that life of Russian people, as measured by objective indicators, became much worse. The charts show an unprecedented decline in all spheres of human activity, more devastating than any country has ever suffered.

Health condition of pregnant women, mothers and children
1 - births complicated by anemia, %; 2 - children born sick, %; 3 - mothers with anemia, %

Income inequality

Construction of preschools, thousands of kids accomodated

Consumption of fish and fish products, kg per capita per year

Deep prospecting drilling for chemicals, mineral water and thermal water resources, thousands meters

This destruction of a country was started under the banner of greater economic efficiency, higher incomes, bigger opportunities for people. Economic efficiency, indeed... After the initial shock the destruction continued under the banner of greater freedoms, better democracy, opening the society. How convinient that these things can't be measured and we have to rely on the claims of ardent supporters of the regime to believe that we are in fact getting all these benefits.

And when someone does measure these benefits, we are in for a few surprises too. Corruption Perception Index places Russia 90th, next to Mozambique and Tanzania. In the Index of Economic Freedom it is placed 124th, around Rwanda and Cameroon. And in Human Development Index it is ranked 57th, right next to Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and Antigua and Barbuda. Russian reforms are a crime agains humanity and there can be no justification for what was done to the Soviet people.