Visions of the future

March 28th, 2023

As a homework assignment I asked my students to describe their vision for the VR/XR future. I told them to stick with possible realities (so no time travel or matter transducers or transporter beams).

The results were quite varied, and in some cases very thoughtful and original. But what struck me was that the students who described a bright utopian future and the students who warned of a dark dystopia to come were describing very similar things.

The features of these possible futures — virtual travel, direct brain interfaces, ubiquitous AR — were quite similar. Yet some students saw these things as means to new opportunities for creativity and self-expression, whereas others saw them as harbingers of inevitable societal decay.

Maybe all of them are right.

New powers

March 27th, 2023

Let’s take a long view on generative AI. When we have fully mastered how to use generative AI for self-expression, we will be able to create all sorts of creatures, objects, movies and simulated worlds just by talking and gesturing.

And we will do these things in the course of our casual conversations with one another.

The future won’t be “AI is replacing us.” Rather, it will be us having new powers of real-time creation that we will all come to take for granted.

And that isn’t so bad, is it?

Gordon Moore

March 26th, 2023

I learned today that Gordon Moore passed away this past Friday. He was 94.

There are not many people who are true visionaries. In addition to all his many other accomplishments, the brilliant insight of Moore’s Law was itself one of the great achievements of computer science.

There are people who say that Moore’s Law will soon be coming to an end. But I don’t believe it.

Human ingenuity is an amazing and under-appreciated resource. As long as there are more elements left in the periodic table, somebody will find a way to use them to make computers faster and more powerful.

Proposal deadline

March 25th, 2023

A group of us are working on a very large proposal together. We have been working on it for quite a while, and now the deadline is approaching.

Everybody has been putting a lot of effort into it over these last months. But now that we are in the final week, it is amazing how much more focus everyone has. I am reminded of my favorite quote of Samuel Johnson:

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’

Group mind 1.0

March 24th, 2023

This week I made of little example of 2D computer graphics built with Croquet, which makes it easy to create multi-player experiences. Some of my colleagues at NYU have played with it together, and it was fascinating to watch, in real time, their evolving “group mind”.

The thing I wrote is extremely simple — it’s not even a game. It’s just a toy that lets people move colored boxes around together. But it’s a start.

You can play with it here.

When software almost works

March 23rd, 2023

One of the most maddening moments in software development is when something almost works. That is, it works about 95% of the time, but somewhere in there is a little gotcha.

It’s one thing if everything just breaks down and falls apart. At least then you know where you stand.

But when there is just one nagging little bug, you really have no idea. You might find it in the next five minutes, or it might end up lurking in there for years — or maybe forever.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

Shiny new toy

March 22nd, 2023

I have started working with the wonderful Croquet software library. It lets me easily write a computer program that supports lots of people playing simultaneously in the same sandbox (things like multi-player games), without all of the fidgety extra programming that you usually need to do to support that.

I am having loads and loads of fun with it, and in my head I think of it as my shiny new toy, just like the toys I used to get when I was five years old. And that makes me very happy.

Pass / fail

March 21st, 2023

A colleague asked me how I was doing this morning. I think it was really a social reflex on his part. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me to go into any sort of detail.

But in the moment, it occurred to me that “how are you doing” comes down, in essence, to a sort of pass / fail test. If you are here at all, alive on this planet, then you always have the possibility of doing well.

I told my colleague about these thoughts. “In essence,” I continued, “we are all trying to pass as long as possible, and to hold off that ultimate moment when we fail.” He agreed completely.

But then we realized that this is where the language breaks down. When you hear that somebody has passed, it means that they have actually failed.

Redemption spectrum

March 20th, 2023

I’ve noticed that TV shows fall on a spectrum of redemption. At the start of each series, the show runners seem to establish a clear point of “redeemability” for the characters. And that quality remains fairly consistent throughout the run.

For example, the characters on Seinfeld are completely incapable of self-improvement. Nobody ever seems to learn from their mistakes. The comedy comes from the endless loop of self-absorbed narcissism that the four main characters share.

At quite a different point in the spectrum is The Big Bang Theory. The characters are very flawed, it is true, but they are, for the most part, quite capable of growth and redemption. Even Sheldon.

Compare, for example, the final episodes of those two shows. Each is, in a sense, a summing up of everything that came before.

The punchline at the very last episode of Seinfeld is that these characters are completely hopeless, and utterly incapable of doing better. The message at the very last episode of The Big Bang Theory is precisely the opposite.

In both cases, we are not surprised. We have been prepared for years for those respective endings from the very beginning.

Of course this spectrum forms a continuum. Frasier, for example, seems to fall exactly in the middle.

Dancing in the aisles

March 19th, 2023

Building on the comments from yesterday’s post, suppose they were to reissue The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the future, and add some as yet uninvented new technologies. We might get a very different experience of this beloved classic.

You might literally have the experience of Tim Curry and Richard O’Brien and Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf dancing in the aisles. You could even have your very own personal interaction with them.

Would this be a better experience than the original? Would it raise red flags, much as colorization did in its day?

Would we be subverting the intent of Richard O’Brien’s offbeat masterpiece? Or would he embrace this advance as being exactly in the spirit of the live show that he created first?

I guess we could ask him.