Science fictions

March 5th, 2015

Margaret Atwood has said that “Science Fiction” should more properly be called “Speculative Fiction”, and I tend to agree. My reasoning is that there is a disconnect between the iconography of SF and its true nature.

When we go to see a film like Interstellar, we are treated to checklist of visuals associated with science: Rocket ships, space suits, fancy looking machines, quantum physics, future timelines, black hole singularities, the list goes on.

But when you come out of the theater, you realize you have been treated to pure New Age mysticism. It all has something to do with the power of love to bend time lines and alter the quantum nature of the Universe. Which is all very lovely and inspiring, but really has nothing to do with science.

I mentioned this to a student today, saying that the presence of computers and other high-tech equipment in movie franchises like Star Trek and Iron Man could mislead people into thinking that they are about science. In fact, as far as anyone knows, humans traveling faster than light and inexhaustible power sources worn on one’s chest have no basis at all in reality. Like human time travel, they are pure speculation.

The student was indignant. He argued that these things could be true, and who was I to dictate that we know all there is to know about the Universe.

My counterargument was that Game of Thrones also has some very cool stuff, including flying dragons that breathe fire, contagious ice zombies and witches who give birth to murdering wraiths. Who’s to say that those things are impossible?

But just because they were cooked up in the human imagination, and we haven’t proven that there are no fire breathing dragons, doesn’t mean they are part of any meaningful scientific discourse.

An odd (and also entertaining) thing about most SF movies is that they dress themselves up in the clothing of science, yet actually have nothing to do with the reality of science.

Except of course for Galaxy Quest, which I believe we will one day discover was a documentary. :-)

What’s in a name?

March 4th, 2015

That biopic based on the Bard’s storied life?
I hear that Anne Hathaway’s cast as his wife.

And that film about Jesus? They say that no other
Than Madonna herself will be playing his mother.

For the movie they’re making of “Cocktails for Two”
Spike Jonze, so they say, is directing. Who knew?

The whole Kama Sutra translated? I’m certain
The hero was played by a young Richard Burton.

The world keeps on turning, yet things stay the same
At the end of the day, really, what’s in a name?

Mr. Nimoy

March 3rd, 2015

I wrestled with myself over the title of yesterday’s post. It was, after all, an odd way to pay tribute — honoring a real man by honoring a fictional creation.

So I guess it would be useful to talk about this contradiction, which I also touched on last week. I myself have had some experience with the strange nonlinearity between the reality of one’s creative work and the happenstance of how one’s work is received in the world.

Yesterday I quoted Don McLean, and that was a deliberate choice. You could say he is one of the prime examples of this phenomenon. The man is a great and prolific songwriter, yet he is primarily known for a single song he wrote well over forty years ago.

I think it’s mainly a question of timing. Every once in a while a person with particular talents happens to be standing precisely in the flow of where the culture is moving. That person may produce lots of other wonderful creations, but he or she ends up being associated with one creation in particular.

In the case of Leonard Nimoy, there is no question that he was a top notch and highly versatile actor, as well as a very talented (if somewhat reluctant) film director. Taken as a whole, his body of work showed remarkable diversity and consistent excellence.

Yet if he had not been standing in that particular spot in the cultural conversation, at the precise moment when a bolt of lightning was ready to strike through the center of that conversation, things would have turned out very differently. Yes, he would likely have been greatly respected for his work, but he wouldn’t have become an icon.

And that’s a strange burden to bear. It must be unnerving for Don McLean to get up on that concert stage knowing that a large percentage of the audience are hoping for him to play one particular song from decades ago. Or for Michael Nesmith, another great singer/songwriter, to realize that an entire generation sees him in an iconic role he walked away from nearly a lifetime ago.

Are these burdens or blessings? To Leonard Nimoy, was it more important to assert, over the many decades that followed his most famous role, that “I am Not Spock”, or that “I am Spock”? Both statements were equally true.

I think the important thing is that he always responded to his circumstance with grace and good humor, and that he continued to do great work to the very end of his life. And that, my friends, is the nearest anyone ever really gets to true greatness.

Mr. Spock

March 2nd, 2015

I waited a few days to write about the death of Leonard Nimoy because I wanted it to settle in my mind. The character he brought to such vivid life, who has existed for over half a century (“The Cage” was filmed in 1964), was, in my mind, a literal harbinger of the future.

We take it for granted these days that the powerful movers and shakers of our world are the brainiacs — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others like them — and that a thoughtful and nuanced author like Joss Whedon can write and direct a movie that dominates the box office.

But as Don McLean once said, that’s not how it used to be. American heroes have traditionally been the men who could use their guns and their fists, John Waynes, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas. And this was consistent with America’s identity up to the mid-80s, as the world’s leading industrial power.

But all of that changed with the rise of the modern cyber economy. The center of power shifted from possession of steel mills and automobile factories to the ability to support knowledge workers, to analyze data, to create and manage worlds of pure information.

Mr. Spock represented something very strange in 1966 — the dispassionate intellectual as heroic figure. To a nation raised on G.I. Joe and Superman, this was very nearly a contradiction in terms. Spock’s “super power” was, first and foremost, his ability to reason, to temper emotion with objective truth.

And the personality of that genius was not a bent toward evil, like Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor or Loki, nor the self-centered egotism of Tony Stark, but rather a gentle desire to serve the greater good, to prefer peace rather than war.

When I was young I was one of those brainiac kids. The aggressive one-upmanship that defines so much interaction between children didn’t make much sense to me. I liked to create, to read, to think about possible futures. And of course that made me weird, and sometimes picked on.

Mr. Spock was the first role model in my childhood who really spoke to the person I wanted to be. He wasn’t one of those bumbling absent minded professors played by Fred McMurray or Jerry Lewis, but a true hero, a man of action when needed, but mostly a dignified, thoughtful and steady figure, loyal and forthright, brilliant and insightful, powerful yet touchingly vulnerable.

Half a century on, we are living in an age when humans, in our better moments, are making the most of our most wondrous birthright — these fabulous brains of ours. Many wonderful minds are contributing to an economy that runs on information and cooperation, on discovery and intellect.

For real power comes not from mere armies but from reason and knowledge. Guns and missiles and stone clubs have power only to drag us down into darkness, but enlightened understanding can bring us to a better world.

Of all the figures of my childhood, Mr. Spock most embodied this spirit. I think Leonard Nimoy understood all of this, and that over the years he came to appreciate that being identified with such a powerful symbol of enlightenment and reason was a sacred trust. He lived a good and rich life, and he honored that trust.

He will be missed.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the MoCaps.

March 1st, 2015

I had a great conversation today with a colleague who is designing an app that will turn your iPhone into an augmented reality device in a new and interesting way. Which got me thinking.

Back in 2010 I was very excited about the augmented reality possibilities of phones and tablets. In the last few years I’ve contributed to some technical papers that take those possibilities in various directions. But now I’ve lost my taste for it.

My worry is that the enormous (and very attractive) pull to have a forward thinking interface on an existing consumer device — one with an installed base of many millions of users — could cloud my judgement. I will end up designing for the device, rather than for the inherent possibilities in the ideas themselves.

In a way it’s frustrating to retreat back to an expensive motion capture lab. My students and I know that what we do in that lab can only be experienced by a relatively small number of people. Yet working in such a space frees us to ask not “What can have an impact this year?” but the more primal question: “What can have an impact?”

Being of a practical bent, one of my first instincts in finding myself in a high tech Motion Capture lab is to start to use the lab to figure out ways that I can get rid of the lab. Having a high quality measuring device to know the position and orientation of everything (which is essentially what a MoCap lab is), means that our research group can readily test out lower cost alternatives, knowing that we have the MoCap lab itself as ground truth to tell us how well we are doing.

Yes, ultimately the future must reside in inexpensive hardware — the bicycle of the future, as it were — that will be easily available to all. But sometimes you need to drive a Ferrari to get to the bike shop.

Your virtual body

February 28th, 2015

As long as we will have apparent bodies in our virtual reality meetings and interactions with each other, there may not be any inherent reason that those bodies need to be anything like the ones we have now.

The issue here is not so much about any limitations on the body or the senses, but about potential limitations on the brain. We evolved to be the way we are as a set of functional responses to survival challenges in the physical world. We needed to eat, to procreate, to cooperate with each other, and in response our brains and bodies evolved together successfully (in the sense that our species is still around).

But what happens if you keep the brain pretty much the way it is, but rewrite the body? Surely at some point you will hit limitations on what the brain can handle. Our minds are pretty protean things, capable of learning all sorts of systems, but they still have limitations.

For example, we don’t do very well with a very high number of spatial dimensions (maybe we can handle four, but things start to get seriously wonky starting at about five). We can work out complex logical problems only with effort and training. We suck at probability.

But there are things we do spectacularly well. We can walk and dance and play the guitar. We pick up on incredibly subtle changes in facial expression and body language. We use language.

So how creative can we get before the mind is overwhelmed? How well would our minds accommodate having four arms? A lack of bilateral symmetry? Temporary limbs that appear only where and when we need them?

And what about vision? How well could our brains accommodate the ability to see equally well in all directions? At all locations in the world? At all scales? At different rates of time?

Once you take on the project of reconstructing the body and senses around the question of what the human mind could adapt to, you end up with a vast and fascinating space. It will be, to be sure, a space with some limitations, because the human brain, for all its protean qualities, has limits.

But it will be fun to understand what those limits are, and perhaps even to figure out ways to turn them into strengths, as we evolve our future cyber-bodies. After all, one of the qualities of the human mind is boundless curiosity.


February 27th, 2015

I had several conversations earlier today that turned to the subject of self-righteousness. There is an unfortunate tendency among humans to know that we are right, and to feel it is our sacred mission to fix the error of other peoples’ ways.

The word “sacred” here is important. When we say that something is sacred, we usually believe, quite sincerely, that we are discussing some sort of inherent moral quality. But most of the time we are actually discussing tribalism. Somebody is doing or saying something that we perceive as an assault on our own tribal identity.

And I mean “tribal identity” in the broadest sense. It could refer to our nationality, our religion, our sexual orientation, or our choice of cuisine. Because our preferences in these things are generally the result of something other than purely rational thinking, those preferences are fragile. Since we cannot defend them by logic, we often resort to sanctimony.

It is hard to avoid the escalation from tribal identity to tribal warfare. To do so requires saying “Yes, this is what I believe, yet I respect that you believe something very different.” Cultural tribes, by their very nature, are constructed in a way that makes it difficult to say this.

I would like to think that I belong to the tribe of non-sanctimonious individuals. I aspire to look with respect and understanding at others with whom I disagree, and to accept that life among humans is never simple nor absolute, and that a person with different values from my own is as spiritual, in their way, as I am in mine.

The body electric

February 26th, 2015

The opposite of what I was talking about yesterday is the place I visited this evening. Body Labs offers to scan your body. The resulting scan can then be animated, used for fashion, placed in a computer game or virtual world, and otherwise deployed as a visual proxy for your actual self.

There is an odd quality to the trend represented by this capability, since we have so many associations with the human body that are connected with its inherent physicality. For our body is the thing that grounds our mind to physical truth.

Bodies are earthy — they are our connection to the animal kingdom. Through them we smell, taste, feel pleasure and pain. We use them to dance, to grasp things, have sex, eat food and excrete waste.

Bodies are primal and they are messy. We love them and we hate them, and it is hard to think of our very identities without them.

But as our lives become more computer mediated, our perception of real bodies might be gradually replaced by their electronic simulacra. A virtual body is both more and less than a physical one. It can be idealized. It can exist in many places at once. It can fly and change shape. But it is not, and cannot be, a physical, animal thing.

A body in cyberspace may look, and perhaps one day even feel, exactly the same as a body in the physical world. Yet its meaning, in the most profound sense, is utterly different.

Voting with your pain

February 25th, 2015

I had a long and wide-ranging conversation this last weekend with Esther Dyson, and at some point we got on the topic of where virtual reality might be going, and what its relationship will be to people seeing each other in person.

She made a very interesting point (not surprisingly). When people come to see her, perhaps to ask her to invest in their new venture, they get on a train or an airplane and see her in person.

It would be much easier for them just to get her on the phone, or Skype or talk via Google Hangouts. But they generally don’t do that.

Of course meeting in person has far higher bandwidth. You can pick up on subtle visual, verbal and facial cues when you are actually with somebody that might completely elude you using any currently known electronic means of communication.

But even if we solve those problems, and the future equivalents of the Skype chat become so ultra-high fidelity that they are perceptually indistinguishable from face to face conversation, a crucial difference will remain. The person who is going to see Esther is going to see her.

There are times, when it is important to you, that you choose to put your physical body on a bus or train or airplane, perhaps at the cost of significant physical discomfort. In this way you show, by your very presence, that it really matters. In a sense, you are are voting with your pain.

We only have one physical body, and it is precious to us. Where we choose to place that body, and whom we are with at the time, is a very important statement. Virtual reality, no matter how good it ever gets, is never going to replace that statement.

If only

February 24th, 2015

If only we could
Live forever, would our lives
Be better or worse?