Appearance in the far future

December 17th, 2017

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that in another five years people in many parts of the world will start walking around in public with wearables replacing the phones in their pockets. This means that we will no longer, strictly speaking, be looking at the world around us with our literal human vision, but rather with our vision altered in some way.

People who currently wear glasses or contact lenses (or have had Lasix or cataract surgery) are already used to technological enhancement of their vision, and those people don’t think of themselves as part-human and part-machine. So it’s a good bet that once everyone you know is “wearing”, we will all just seem normal.

I wonder though, as we begin to accept that our enhanced vision can show us anything at all, will we still continue to choose to see each other as literal humans? There is a strong argument that we will not.

After all, our clothing — which hide our literal bodies — generally don’t contain textures to emulate the bits that they are hiding. Rather, the clothes we choose to wear are more likely to deviate from the literal appearance of our naked bodies, in ways designed to flatter and to conceal.

Maybe, years from now, we will choose to create non-literal views of each other that are more direct representations of personality. Eventually, as we walk down the street, we might see each other as a kind of pure energy — a cloud that shows the mood we wish to project, connected to some idealized representation of our face and our hands.

After seeing The Last Jedi

December 16th, 2017

how come scifi films
this year are so much about
Harrison Ford’s kids?

Some weeks are longer than others

December 15th, 2017

Have you ever noticed that some weeks are longer than others?

I know that on one level that statement sounds very strange. After all, every week is 7 days long, or 168 hours, or 10080 minutes, or 604800 seconds.

Those numbers are pretty irrefutable. Yet still, some weeks are longer than others.

This week was a particularly long one for me. Not a bad one, just a long one. I think it’s not that so many things happened, it’s that so many different things happened.

It was the fact that these things happened in different parts of my life, within mutually exclusive worlds that did not know about each other. I think that feeling of doubling or even tripling up on existence is what makes a week seem long.

Not that I’m complaining. I’ve enjoyed traveling along the many the parallel lines that go into making a week such as this one. I just don’t think I could do it every week.

Fortunately, some weeks are shorter than others.

Dimensions of shared VR

December 14th, 2017

Suppose you are in a Virtual Reality experience together with some friends. This can mean many different things.

In our lab’s research, I find it useful to tease apart the different dimensions that characterize such an experience.

One such dimension is that of collocality. Are you physically in the same place as your friends, or are you only virtually co-present? By analogy, having dinner with a friend is an example of collocality. Talking on the phone with that same friend is an example of non-collocality.

A second dimension is that of agency. Are you able to modify the outcome of the experience, or are you merely a passive observer? By analogy, playing a game is an example of having agency. Watching a movie is an example of not having agency.

A third dimension is that of liveness. Are you experiencing a performance that was already created, or are you witnessing a story that is literally being performed as you watch, by a fellow human being. Generally speaking, a social experience (such as a conversation with a friend) is live, whereas a movie is not.

The above three dimensions describe a kind of abstract cube. We have been having fun placing various kinds of experiences within this cube, and understanding the possibilities of VR from that perspective.

Moment of sanity

December 13th, 2017

I am just enjoying this feeling. After such a crazy, hateful and destructive year, there was a nice moment of sanity yesterday in Alabama.

I wonder whether this is a harbinger that the U.S. might finally be ready to find its way back to being a nation of grownups. At the very least, our nation is now officially not in the business of electing Senators who think slavery was a pretty good idea.

Phone drinking

December 12th, 2017

You sometimes hear about “phone sex”, but you don’t usually hear about “phone drinking”. In fact, this may be the first time you’ve ever heard the phrase. I had never heard of it until I thought of it today.

I’m using “phone drinking” to describe the hypothetical practice of calling up a friend and hanging out over the phone while you both gradually get drunk. I do not describe this hypothetical practice in order to recommend it.

Rather, I’m interested in the difference between collocated and non-collocated social interaction. Some things it makes sense to do over the phone. Other things, not so much.

Going out to a bar and having a beer or two is a time-honored way for friends to bond, or to start forging a bond of friendship. And the core of that bonding experience is the establishment of trust. When you and your friend go to a bar for a drink, or do anything together that lowers your defenses, you are essentially building a trust relationship.

And I think our communication technology is still at the point where certain signals needed for building trust require physical presence. In fact, it’s not even clear yet what all of those signals are.

Many and varied physical signals can be involved in assessing the trustfulness of another person. These may include subtleties of head position, eye movement, facial muscles around the eyes, tension in the body and shoulders, timing of one’s gestures and hand movements, resonance of the voice, the smell of one’s skin, and most likely quite a few other factors that nobody has thought of yet.

All of which means that phone drinking is not going to become a thing. At least not yet.

If light were faster

December 11th, 2017

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the speed of light — or more accurately, the maximum velocity that information can travel in a vacuum — were much faster. Let’s say it was a thousand times faster. In that case light would be able to travel the diameter of our Earth’s orbit around the Sun not in 1000 seconds, but in a single second.

Suppose further that somehow this difference did not alter gravity, chemistry, biology, or the various other physical properties that govern our lives at terrestrial scale. I realize that this may be inconsistent with the laws of physics as we know them, but go with me here.

What effect would that change in the speed of light have on our daily lives? For example, if terrestrial telecommunications systems could effectively be instantaneous, would things be radically different?

In particular, what effect would that possibility of instantaneous communication have on our world’s economy, on its culture? What effect would it have on our lives in general?

The New Guilded Age

December 10th, 2017

The forthcoming change in U.S. Federal Tax policy has a number of interesting qualities. I am using the word “interesting” in its most general sense, perhaps as one might say (for example), “Isn’t it interesting how a giant meteor destroyed all life on that planet.”

One interesting result of the new tax structure will be the disparity in the way it treats wage earners and independent contractors. An employee and an independent contractor performing the same job, at the same salary, will soon find themselves in very different situations: The income tax paid by the salaried employee will increase significantly, whereas the tax paid by the independent contractor will decrease significantly.

Federal monetary policy is a strong influencer on the economy, so let’s look at the kind of market forces we are talking about here. There will now be a strong tax incentive for people to work as independent contractors, rather than as salaried employees.

Also, companies may start to look more like agencies, farming out work to independent contractors rather than maintaining an official salaried staff. Companies that follow such a policy will look more attractive to workers, because of the tax advantages they will offer.

Independent contractors in any given field will likely begin to organize into professional Guilds, just as they started to do in Europe a millennium ago. The very fabric of our economy may mutate into something else entirely.

It will the dawn of a New Guilded Age!

Paleo DNA digital data storage

December 9th, 2017

One of the other topics Richard Bonneau mentioned in his talk was the recent rapid advance in storing digital information within DNA. The latest methods of encoding digital information within DNA are vastly more space and energy efficient than silicon based storage, although they are still quite expensive. However, costs are expected to drop precipitously within the next ten years.

A single gram of DNA can store about 215 million gigabytes of digital data. The stored information can be retrieved with extremely high accuracy, and the DNA strands themselves can remain stable for tens of thousands of years.

Also, when such information is embedded into the gene sequence of living bacteria, the bacteria will reproduce it naturally in the course of binary fission. In this way, the digital data can be preserved essentially forever.

While I was listening to him talk about this, I began to wonder whether this has been done before. It is theoretically possible that a highly intelligent species evolved on our planet millions of years ago, and then became extinct for whatever reason.

Members of that species might have wished to pass the legacy of their knowledge down to future species, but only after that future species was sufficiently advanced to be able to handle such knowledge. What better way to do so then to encode their wisdom in DNA sequences?

For all we know, there might be bacteria around today that contain enormous wisdom, handed down to us from millions of years ago. If so, it may be centuries before we ourselves have advanced to the point where we can recognize and decode that information.

That is, of course, assuming we ourselves don’t become extinct first.

Mutation-resistant code

December 8th, 2017

I heard an interesting lecture today by Richard Bonneau about his work using machine learning to analyze genetic codes and also to understand interactions between the proteins they express. He said many fascinating things, and my head is still reeling from all of the exciting ideas and possibilities.

But one thing in particular struck me, from my perspective as somebody who programs computers. He talked about the rich multiple interconnections between different parts of how our biology functions at the molecular and cellular level.

The redundancies built into the interactions between these various components creates a very robust system. One effect of this is that our genetic code is remarkably resistant to damage.

In other words, the great majority of gene mutations turn out to be harmless. Thinking of the cybernetic equivalent, imagine that your computer program was modified by somebody flipping random bits in its binary image.

How many bits would need to flip before the program stopped working? In most cases, even one bit would suffice to crash the program.

But in the biological equivalent, you can flip lots of bits and the whole thing continues to run just fine. Which led me to start thinking about the following hypothetical problem:

Could you design a computer program that would be resistant to random mutations? In particular, could you design it so that many bits in its binary image could be randomly flipped, and the program would continue to run?

We can define a program’s “robustness” as the number of bits you would need to flip, on the average, before the program breaks. So how to you make a program robust?

One problem is that it would be very easy to cheat. You could just make a million copies of the program, and then toss out whichever parts of any copies don’t match the corresponding parts of other copies.

So let’s be more specific: Is there a way to minimize the size of a computer program for any given degree of desired robustness?