Archive for September, 2010

Attic, part 84

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

The moment their fingers touched, Jenny felt a surge of something — like electricity, but not quite — flow between her and her grandmother. The room started to fade away. She tried to look over at Josh, but it was as though she was seeing him from a great distance. The little dog he was cradling in his arms was somehow, impossibly, huge. Her mind could not make any sense of it.

She turned to find Mr. Symarian. But where their teacher had been, she now saw something — something unspeakable. It was as though her brain could not reconcile the unearthly shape that stood before her. She could feel her mind trying to match it to something, anything, from her experience, and failing utterly.

Jenny quickly looked away, and attempted to turn her gaze back toward her grandmother, but the directions were all wrong. She was somehow staring downward, into a long dark spiraling tunnel. She felt herself start to tumble forward, and then she was falling. Somewhere in the back of her mind she realized she was screaming.

The last thought she had, before losing consciousness, was about how odd it was that her scream didn’t seem to make any sound. No, she decided, just before everything went black, not any sound at all.

Possibly a sound idea

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Now that I have a 3D printer at home, I realize that I can do something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, but never had a good way to do — audio holography. The basic idea is to create a surface with just the right pattern of little bumps and valleys in it (all calculated on a computer, of course). If you design these bumps and valleys just right, the surface acts as an audio hologram.

It works like this: Once you have this surface, you send a pulse of sound that has a very high frequency, say around 300Khz, toward the bumpy surface. At that frequency the wavelength of sound through air is around one millimeter. Because of the little bumps and valleys, the sound reaching the surface bounces off a little sooner in some places (the hills) and a little later in other places (the valleys).

These slight variations kick the reflected sound out of phase in interesting ways. Using computer software, you can arrange the bumps and valleys so that the sound comes back into phase at just the points in space where you want it to.

None of this would be all that interesting to me if there were no way to create a visual display out of this. Fortunately, you can do various optical tricks to convert fine vibrations of air into something that people can see, such as virtual objects that appear to float in mid-air.

The part of all of this that I was always missing was how to create an accurately contoured surface. I knew how to write the computer program to make the right little bumps and valleys, but I didn’t know how to print out the 3D shape in the real world.

Well, now I do. :-)

Of course it will take a more advanced technology to do what we really want — to create an animated audio hologram. That’s the true long term goal, but the technology needed for that is way beyond my budget.

Meanwhile, I can print out one of these audio-holographic plates with my handy dandy 3D printer. And that’s all I need to get started.

Attic, part 83

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Me?” Jenny wasn’t sure she had heard right. “But I hadn’t even been born yet.”

“You are still thinking in temporal terms,” Mr. Symarian explained. “It does not matter when you came into the world, but rather the power that you brought into the world with you when you arrived.”

“Power?” Jenny was still confused.

“He is making rather a muddle of explaining things, isn’t he?” Amelia laughed. “You and I share certain, shall we say, abilities, which appear to be handed down from mother to daughter, always showing up in the second generation. Like me, you have the power to interact with time in quite unorthodox ways. It is this, the power that we share, that brought me to the attention of my dear shadow, and it is this same power that has allowed you to journey here.”

Josh had been idly scratching behind Bruno’s contented ears, but now he spoke up “You knew Jenny was going to come here from the moment she was born?”

“Why yes, of course I knew. When a light is turned on, its rays are cast everywhere. I was glad to at last have a kindred spirit — someone from the world of my childhood who might understand. Yet Jenny’s birth also created a change here. This place became closed in, confined, bounded by the impossibility of seeing beyond this moment — the moment we are sharing now.”

“I’m very sorry about that,” Jenny said.

“Oh, there is really nothing to worry about now — now that you understand what you needed to understand. Here, take my hand.”

Amelia held out her hand. Without quite understanding why, Jenny knew that this was an important moment. Slowly, solemnly, she reached out to clasp her grandmother’s lovely young hand in her own.

Original thinking

Monday, September 27th, 2010

A colleague and I were talking today about originals. The Mona Lisa (La Gioconda to you Europeans) which hangs in the Louvre is an original. That particular organization of molecules, that unique object composed of poplar and paint (and perhaps a bit of human sweat) arranged into those precise brush strokes, exists nowhere else in the world.

Yes, each year it becomes possible to make a better and better reproduction. There was a time when fakes could be detected by even the amateur hobbyist. The paint color or reflectivity might be slightly off, or the brush texture not quite right. Some of the materials used by Leonardo were manufactured by methods no longer in use. The source of the paint ingredients might not be fully known, nor the exact composition of the brushes. The original trove of poplar trees that supplied the panel material itself may no longer exist. It would be quite difficult to replicate all those materials precisely through other means.

But technology will indeed continue to improve. Nano-fabrication will, in not all that many years, be able to replicate everything we can measure — surface texture and reflectance, mass distribution, force compliance, subsurface scattering of light, and a host of other properties. We will eventually be able to analyze and then resynthesize molecules into any arrangement we desire.

In short, technology will allow us to replicate objects so well that copies will be indistinguishable from originals.

And at that point, will we still have the same reverence for the original Mona Lisa? My instinct tells me we will, but I wonder whether my instinct is wrong. After all, I’ve spent my entire life in a world where one cannot make a perfect physical copy of a sixteenth century portrait, and so have you.

But maybe we are wrong. Maybe our sense that the original Mona Lisa has intrinsic value is merely an artifact of the impossibility of making a perfect copy. Suppose a perfect copy could be made — in the sense that the copy was in every way indistinguishable from the original. Would we still have this sense?

I can think of at least one historical precedent. There was a time when there was far more reverence for the Master Tapes in recorded music. It was rightly understood that if something ever happened to those tapes, some essential aspect of the recorded music would be irretrievably lost.

But then a funny thing happened. Digital recording advanced to the point where those tapes could be scanned to a fidelity that was significantly greater than the capabilities of human hearing.

This level of fidelity was not achieved right away. And sure enough, in those early days of lousy digital CD versions, Master Tapes were still revered. But once the aesthetic information they contained was fully digitized, that reference began to fade away. It turned out that it wasn’t the tapes themselves, with their mystical connection to the Beatles, or Hendrix, or some other source of musical genius. It was just the information all the time.

And if we ever manage to completely capture all the aesthetic information embodied by the Mona Lisa (admittedly, a vastly greater amount of information), would we (or, more likely, our descendants) cease to care about, or acknowledge — or even continue to notice — the original object?

Attic, part 82

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Jenny thought a moment. “Clearly I shouldn’t do something that would delete my own existence. Especially because it’s not even clear that you would be happier if I did. So if I’m not here on a mission to save my grandmother from some dire fate, then just what am I doing here?”

“That’s a very good question,” Amelia said. “And I have a very good answer: This was the only way you and I could meet.”

“Why did you two need to meet?” Josh asked.

“I think I can answer that,” Mr. Symarian interjected. “After all, I’m the one who arranged it.”

You?” Jenny said. “But why?”

“Your grandmother and I had an argument some years back,” the teacher continued. “I’m afraid it was a rather strong argument. As a result, the relationship between us was severed.”

“Relationship?” Jenny said.

“In a manner of speaking. But we needn’t dwell on that point.” He cleared his throat hastily. “I warned Amelia that the freedom she believed she was embracing might actually turn out to be a prison.”

“But I misunderstood our dear friend’s intentions.” Amelia said. “I thought he was speaking from jealousy. It turns out his warning had nothing to do with jealousy.”

“Well,” Mr. Symarian smiled, “perhaps a little, but that is rather beside the point. You see, there was an impediment to Amelia and her shadowy friend achieving the happiness they sought.”

“And what was that impediment?” Jenny asked.

“Why Jenny,” he said, “the impediment was you.”

Brain hacking

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

The other day I discussed the possibilities of direct brain interface and cyber-enhancement of the brain/body connection. Today I talk about some of the difficult social and ethical questions that arise when you can hack into the neural interface between brain and body.

In short: if I can have implants in my brain and thereby modify my brain/body connection, then theoretically you could modify my brain/body connection.

Where this gets insidious is when hacking gets involved. Someone might not even realize that their “system” has been hacked into. For example, we make countless decisions every day, from what to purchase to who seems friendly, or seems like dating material. If somebody could modify another person’s mood or state of arousal, without being detected, this could play serious havoc with notions of free will.

Right now the public sphere stops firmly at our brain — people can hack into your computer and find your phone numbers, or even your bank account, but they cannot hack into your mind and find out what you are really thinking. Much of societal function is predicated on our implicit right to put up a false front, whether we are pretending to like somebody because we’re in a business relationship with them, or whether we are politely hiding our political opinion so we can get through a dinner party without incident.

If this last curtain of privacy were torn away, society itself would go through some fairly fundamental changes. An entire new category of legislation and law enforcement could arise, focused on thought privacy management.

Of course there are many opportunities for good things to come out of a richer ability to connect our brains with the world. But as our technological capabilities gradually allow us to travel into this brave new world, we might do well to think about the potential minefields along the way.

Attic, part 81

Friday, September 24th, 2010

“If I understand this right,” Josh said, “if you go back into our world, then from that moment onward the world changes. That’s the deal, right?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly,” Amelia said. “One cannot change the past, but for me it is not the past — it is the present. Or at least the very last `present’ that I experienced directly.”

“And if you come back all those years ago,” Josh continued, “then we won’t exist?”

“Oh, I suspect you will exist, although your life will probably be altered. And Mr. Symarian here,” she nodded in the direction of their teacher, “will certainly exist. But he doesn’t really count. He is rather outside of such things as time and space.”

“Oh,” Jenny said, “you mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid that you, my dear, are the issue,” Amelia said, “I am sorry to say that your very existence hangs in the balance. After all, your birth was the result of a very particular series of events, as all births are. Remove even one brick and the entire building comes down.”

“And I would think,” Jenny said thoughtfully, “that in this case we’d be talking about more than one brick.”

“Yes,” Amelia said ruefully, “in this case we’d be talking about an entire wall.”

Automatic transmission

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Today I gave a talk in which I discussed the possibilities (once the required technology has become a bit more advanced), that might arise from direct neural interfaces to the brain. I gave the example of Lebron James, the great basketball star.

Generally speaking, there are three components to James’ success: What’s going on in his brain, what his body can do physically, and the connection between the two. A young man his age selected at random could practice with great intensity for years, and thereby become a fairly good basketball player, but it is highly unlikely this randomly selected individual could ever play at the level of Lebron James.

Part of it is the mental game. Maybe our young randomly selected guy could get that part right. And theoretically he might also be able to develop the required muscular strength and endurance. But achieving that third part — the connection between brain and body — could be the hardest part. Lebron James has an extraordinary quickness of reaction time, a precision in the way his brain can command his body to perform, that may very well be beyond the reach of mere training. Very few individuals, even those in top shape, ever acquire such a high performance level in their brain-body connection.

Which reminds me of automobiles. There was a time when, if you drove a car, you could feel the road by gripping the steering wheel. As you turned into a steer, the mechanical system, the rack and the pinion, would transmit the force of tire upon road through the drive shaft up into your hands.

In modern American cars you can still feel that force, but it’s not real. There’s an electric motor in the steering wheel column, programmed to respond to forces exerted by the wheel upon the transmission. An on-board computer calculates what force your hands should feel, if this had been a purely mechanical system, and sends that amount of force to the steering shaft motor.

There are lots of good reasons for doing it this way. For one thing, you can give the driver more highly nuanced feedback than you ever could through a purely mechanical system. And of course, any deficiencies in responsiveness can be fixed in software.

If there were a direct neural tap into my brain — with the proper software to read incoming nerve signals, and to write outgoing nerve signals — one could implement an analogous sort of automatic transmission to remap the response of the body to signals from the brain. With the right cybernetic assist between my brain and the nerves that control my muscles, I might be able to shoot a basket with the precision and speed of Lebron James.

Although I’d probably never look as good in the uniform.

Attic, part 80

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

“I think I see what’s going on here,” Josh said. “From our perspective, you are still at the moment of time when you left our world.”

“Yes,” said Amelia, “I guess from your point of view the situation would look more or less like that.”

“Then why is it you can interact with us, all of these years later?”

“That’s a very good question. In a way, I suppose it’s analogous to talking on a telephone. You can use a phone to have a conversation with someone, even a very rich conversation, but that doesn’t mean you are actually in the same room.”

“So this conversation, you and I sitting on this bed. We’re actually talking to each other on the telephone?” Jenny asked.

Amelia laughed. “I said it was analogous. But in a way, yes. If you take an extremely broad view of the concept of a telephone.”

Josh looked troubled. “And if you exited back into our world through the same door you came in? That would be bad, wouldn’t it.”

“Maybe not for me,” Amelia said, “but it’s not me I’m worried about.”

Morning and evening

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I’m experimenting with a change of pattern. Rather than stay up late working on-line, I’m not doing any work on the computer at night. Instead I’m coming into work early in the morning, before anybody else, to get things done. It’s something I used to do years ago, with great success, but of course it’s all too easy to slip out of such a pattern.

It could just be the newness of it all, but I notice immediately that I’ve gotten an immense amount of work done, well before anyone else has even arrived. There seems to be an element of fearlessness in my mindset first thing in the morning which is relatively lacking at the end of the day.

This is nothing new — many people have experienced this phenomenon. Upon waking up in the morning one’s mind is still uncluttered, and thereby more free to make proactive decisions. Benjamin Franklin even had an aphorism about it.

We are, after all, creatures of instinct, wired for survival. On some deep level our emotions cannot really disambiguate one threat from another, much as our rational mind would like them to. As the day wears on, and one thing after another comes up, alarms start to go off somewhere in our brain, and the natural tendency is to go into a defensive crouch.

Sometimes I wonder whether there isn’t a systematic difference between “morning personality” and “evening personality”. We tell ourselves that the people we know have just one personality, but what if that is merely an illusion? If you always encounteredy someone only in the morning, and I encountered that same person only in the evening, would we, in effect, be getting to know two different people?

Hmm. Maybe I’ll check back again tonight, to see whether I agree with what that guy wrote here this morning. :-)