NPCs on the Holodeck

Let’s fast forward to a time when technology has advanced to the point where we can share a fully immersive virtual world. We can walk around — or fly around — at will, pick up objects, have eye contact with each other, and all the while feel perfectly comfortable hanging out together in that physically plausible alternate space.

Now suppose that we decide it would be fun to populate that space with virtual beings — what in computer parlance are called “non-player characters”, or NPCs. What do you suppose they will be like?

In particular, will they be as photo-realistic as we can make them? Will they be indistinguishable from us humans in every way — or at least, indistinguishable from the avatars of ourselves and each other in this shared world?

Or will they be deliberately stylized, marking them as a separate species, much as in earlier times we would stylize animated characters such as Bugs Bunny or Woody the Cowboy?

I’m not sure it’s a question of what is possible. It might be more of a question of what we really want from these characters, and how we prefer to think of them.


Today New York City is covered in snow
Flights are all cancelled, there’s nowhere to go.
The few people out are all bundled up good,
Some stores haven’t closed up — but maybe they should.
You just never know what the weather will bring.
What can I say? Happy first day of Spring!


This evening a fellow film geek and I were comparing notes on the fact that Scarlett Johansson has become the go-to representative of the trans-human in American cinema.

In Her, she plays an artificial intelligence program that evolves beyond the comprehension of mere humans. In Lucy, she plays a down-and-out drug courier who evolves beyond the comprehension of mere humans.

Leaving aside the intriguing parallel between AI and drug mule (maybe somebody will one day make a film about an artificial intelligence program that becomes a down-and-out drug courier), there are questions here that touch on the limits of human intelligence — or at least on the limits of the intelligence of Hollywood screenwriters.

In particular, my friend was a little bit dismayed by the plot arc of Lucy. “She continues to evolve,” he said, “turning into successfully more powerful beings throughout the film, until finally she evolves in to a USB stick.”

I was sympathetic. Films often disappoint us, leading us on with fascinating premises, only to deliver crass and predictable Hollywood endings. Yet we continue to go to the movies, taking our seats in the darkened theater, buying our popcorn and Raisinets, hoping against hope that the next cinematic offering will meet our bright expectations.

“In a way it’s kind of poetic,” I said, hoping to make him feel better. “After all, at the end of Her, it is we humans who are the USB sticks.”

Reality shift

At dinner this evening a friend and I were discussing the way reality seems to stop and then start again when you go to sleep and then wake up the next morning. And it occurred to us that there is no way to know, for sure, that the reality you wake up to is exactly the same one that existed when you went to bed.

After all, memory is notoriously slippery. We have all had the experience of being quite sure we remember something a certain way, only to be proven wrong by the facts. So it stands to reason that if reality shifts while we sleep, our memories of reality would shift right along with it.

Have you ever gotten the sense that something is slightly off? Perhaps that a person at work doesn’t seem quite right? Well, maybe that person didn’t even exist in your reality the night before. Maybe you are just experiencing an incomplete shift between worlds, a trace of the slightly different world you had left behind the moment your head hit the pillow.

If this is true, then there might not be much we can do about it. This text you are reading might not even exist when you wake up tomorrow morning. Or if you are reading it the next day, perhaps it didn’t exist the day before. How would you know?

Truth, reality, dreams and illusion. There are mysteries here, between the world of what was, and the world of what is about to be.

Something to sleep on, anyway.


I had to reschedule a meeting with a colleague, and so sent him an email suggesting some times on a Thursday afternoon. I know my colleague is pretty busy at work, so I didn’t know whether my suggested times would work for him. But I hoped that with a little luck, our schedules might mesh.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the answer I got back:

I should be soapmaking in the afternoon.

I was utterly charmed by this response. Here we are, all of us, running around like crazy, going to committee meetings, supervising student research, writing grant proposals. Finally somebody bucks the tide and just takes an afternoon off, in the middle of the week, to do something wonderfully old fashioned and artisanal.

I was trying to imagine the exact scenario. Is this a project he and his wife or kids are doing together? Is it a form of meditation? Perhaps there is a backstory involving a transformative trip to some exotic country, and a desire to embrace its cultural associations in his everyday life.

I had about a million thoughts like this. But mostly I felt admiration for the guts of this guy, to simply step out of the system, buck our collective workaholic tradition, and do something truly refreshing.

So I suggested other times for our meeting, and got back the following reply:

Soapmaking!!!!! my smart phone is gone crazy!! I thought I wrote that I was free Thursday afternoon after 2pm.

Two slices of pi

My favorite sonnet by Shakespeare does not appear in collections of his sonnets. Rather, it is embedded in a the dialog of Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. Here are the fourteen lines of dialog between the two young lovers, leading up to their first ever kiss:

Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
Romeo: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.

I love the fact that this perfectly rhymed and brilliantly metered Shakespearean sonnet appears as the back-and-forth of two teen lovers. As though they just happened to say these precise words while flirting with each other.

In a somewhat geeky parallel, it would be great to see something similar done with the digits of pi, with one modification: Rather than being an artful construct created by a master playwright, it would be a real back-and-forth, perhaps an email conversation between two real people.

Each person, in their turn, would continue the dialog using as many or as few words as they’d like, with the one constraint that the letter count of each successive word in the conversation would need to equal the corresponding digit of pi.

I wonder how such a discussion, constrained as it would be in word choice, would compare to a non-piemic conversation.

Perhaps it would be better.

How I love a crowd: Esthetics of poetry games and piems

My post yesterday was an example of a piem — a poem in which the number of letters in each successive word equals the corresponding digit of pi. Many people have tried their hand at this highly constrained art form.

Not all piems are very good. In fact, most are very bad. Here’s one I made up just now, to convince you how truly awful a piem can be:

Now I make a rhyme unsublime.
As poetic verse, far worse.

I hope you are convinced. 🙂

One thing that humans can still do much better than machines is decide what humans like or don’t like. It would be interesting to submit a slew of piems to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk — which is actually a human crowd sourcing resource that vaguely masquerades as AI — and put things to a vote.

Rather than focusing on artistry, I think it would be useful simply to focus on clarity. Can a relatively long piem manage to sound like English — to the point where nobody is even thinking of it as a piem?

There should also probably be different categories, based on the number of words. Word count for a piem is a little like age for a marathon runner: The larger the number, the more impressive the feat.

It’s possible that a few really wonderful longer piems would rise above the doggerel. I, for one, would love to read them.

Pi day, 2015

Had a nosh (a slice, precisely)
Of   simple   apple   pie   today.
Joyfully     deploying     fingers,
Observing the pi day ceremony
Just covered my digits with
Pie, ate greedily, and so
Enjoyed infinity.

When responsibilities collide

I’ve been wondering why I was so taken aback yesterday when somebody asked that I remove certain commonly used words from my vocabulary while in his presence. I was worried that I might be overreacting. Why would I care so much about this?

I think I have it figured out now. The problem is that I am not always, or even usually, in the presence of this person in one-on-one situations.

More often we are in a group situation, where I am acting in my capacity as a professor, leading a group of students in research projects. If you’ve ever led a team project, you know it’s not always easy to keep group energy flowing, while simultaneously maintaining a relaxed and supportive atmosphere.

I realize that agreeing to edit myself as requested would require self-consciously picking over my words, in a way that would have nothing to do with the needs of the group. If part of my mind must continually stay focused on something outside of those needs (for example, to use Sally’s analogy, on never saying the word “keyhole”), then I might not be able to do my job properly.

And that’s something I care about very much.

When belief systems collide

Today during a conversation I used a common figure of speech. The person I was talking with then asked me never to use that figure of speech around him, because it offended his beliefs. I’m deliberately not specifying the particular phrase at issue, because I think it is beside the point, given that it was an phrase nearly everyone reading this has used as a matter of course.

He told me that he requests the same thing of everyone, and that it is a question of being considerate.

This little conversational exchange completely changed my view toward him, and I found myself feeling uncomfortable around him. Not because I have any problem with his beliefs (I don’t), but rather because I have a problem with his expectation that other people must pretend to not be themselves when they are around him.

I say this as a vegan who happily sits down to eat with omnivores. And I realize that it is an important part of my belief system that one should not impose one’s own beliefs on others.

So here we have a fundamental clash of beliefs: My acquaintance believes that I should pretend to be someone I am not, out of respect for beliefs that I do not share, whereas I believe that nobody should ever be asked to pretend to be someone they are not.

I haven’t figured out yet what I am going to do about this. It seems too aggressive/excessive to say “Well then, I guess we should stop speaking to each other.” Maybe I can send him an email saying that while I respect his right to believe whatever he believes, I am not willing to make any promises.

I guess, to be accurate, I could tell him that to make such a promise would be a violation of my beliefs.

Not sure. Maybe I’ll sleep on it.