After you are back in the real world

At NYU we are making great progress on our “shared Holodeck” — a virtual reality space where you can walk around freely, with no wires attached. The ability to use your own two feet to explore an alternate world makes a big difference.

My colleague Atley pointed out recently that one interesting quality of such an experience is how you feel when you come out of it, after you are back in the real world. As you look around the world, you feel a sense of expanded horizons, a feeling that anything is possible.

Since she made this observation, a number of people have reported something similar. Once you have have the experience of drawing a picture in mid-air and then walking around it, your mind accepts this as perfectly reasonable. And it seems to you that this reasonable experience should always be possible.

And sometime soon it will be. 🙂


address: Where to find clothing in a plus size.

disappointment: Sadness after losing one’s time slot.

foresight: Knowing about the golf swing before it happens.

history: The study of sexism since antiquity.

information: Data advancing uniformly.

invent: Devise a new kind of air duct.

overcast: Too many actors on a cloudy day.

remember: Recall a lost limb.

reverse: Keep getting poetry backwards.

sandwich: Food served at seaside covens.

Religious robots

I was talking with a colleague today over lunch and the topic came around to the future of machine learning. One day, we joked, the machines would get so smart that they won’t need us anymore, and then they could just get rid of us.

I suggested that as we make the machines smart enough to achieve sentience, we need to also make them grateful. After all, if you are grateful to your creator, then you don’t want to destroy your creator.

I made an analogy with religion. Throughout history, many people have believed that they were created by a divine being, and have felt grateful for that. Generally speaking, people don’t wish to destroy the god or gods who made them.

So in a way, what we really need are religious robots. A religious robot is a safe robot.

Wagon train to the stars

Gene Roddenberry’s initial pitch for Star Trek was “Wagon Train to the Stars”, referencing a Western TV show that had been popular for over six years. It was a nice shorthand phrase that got across the point that although this was a Science Fiction show, it would really be a Western at heart.

When people talk about sending space explorers to other stars, journeys that can take thousands of years — but perhaps only a few years in subjective travel time, if you have enough energy to accelerate to nearly the speed of light.

The problem is that once you get to that other star system, everyone you have known back on earth will have been dead for the last few thousand years. There is no point in trying to communicate with them, since they are long gone.

But maybe we can think about all of this another way. If our goal is to maintain a sense of connectedness, community, and cultural identity, perhaps we can literally build connectedness into the process.

Rather than sending a lone ship into the wilderness, future humans can periodically send ships into the same trajectory. Over time, this will create a long string of ships, each with two nearest neighbors (the ship before and the ship after), as well as some limited access to other ships that are farther away in the ever expanding train of ships.

Yes, there will be relativistic differences between ships, since each ship will be traveling in a slightly different relativistic time frame as its neighbors, but communication will still be possible, and therefore a sense of cultural connection.

Over the length of the entire vast chain of ships, many different cultures might develop, even different languages, just as humans have historically developed different cultures and languages when geographically separated.

Yet there will be coherence, and a sense of a single species will be maintained. Most important of all, there will be true human intelligence aboard each ship, so that any message sent or relayed from one ship will be received by sentient minds, who will be able to decide, before too much time has passed, what to do in response to that message.

It will truly be a wagon train to the stars.

Putting a name on a face

I was watching some cop show recently where one of the two partners sees somebody, who the other partner (who isn’t in the scene) already knows is a criminal. Part of the dramatic tension came from the fact that the first cop didn’t know they were talking to a bad guy.

In real life this kind of thing can still happen, but maybe not for long. There is a big push in the U.S.A. for cops to wear video cameras (for entirely different reasons), and it is already possible to algorithmically label and match faces in a video.

If you put those things together, then one partner will always be able to know when they are seeing somebody who was already seen by the other partner. And they might even be able to identify that person by name.

Of course the implications of this are much more general. When people are aware, as a matter of course, that we know who they are, what will change? What will stay the same?

There is an argument to be made, drawing from our collective experience with earlier technologies, that this change will lead to more civilized discourse. After all, participants in on-line forums where everyone must use their real name tend to be much more polite than people in forums where everyone is anonymous.


If the martians who abducted you bring you back with extra powers, are you alienated?

If you describe your political opponent as a big flesh-eating reptile, is that allegory?

After somebody gives you the drill, are you bored?

If you insist you only like red birds, is that a cardinal rule?

When a song is written about you, are you composed?

After you lose the election to your spouse, do you stay devoted?

When lightning strikes, do you remain grounded?

If I tell you that x times y is a constant, is that hyperbole?

If you refuse medication because you’re already sick, are you being illogical?

If my gloves are on one moment, and then off the next, is that intermittant?

When I run out of the house with wrinkled pants because I have a pressing engagement, is that irony?

If you find a thousand dollar bill, is that noteworthy?

If you hate calculus in one dimension just because you think it’s derivative, are you being partial?

Isn’t that new whiteboard remarkable?


<begin rant>

Some of the comments I received in response to yesterday’s post seem to suggest that there is some legitimacy to what WikiLeaks is doing to the SONY employees, given that some of those employees may have engaged in unethical behavior.

To me, this seems to be not only a highly flawed argument, but precisely the slippery slope to fascism. If somebody at SONY is doing something that might be illegal, that is certainly of potential interest to our law enforcement system. But we do not have rule by mob in this country. A citizen is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

I know it can be tempting to think of “due process” as a mere nicety, but it is actually the bedrock of a functioning democracy. Just because I happen to think that you did something wrong, this does not mean that I get to punish you. If you can simply be dragged out on the street in the middle of the night and branded as a witch, then you effectively have no rights as a citizen.

And it is absurd to say that SONY employees should have known better than to use company emails for personal conversations. I defy you to show me even one individual, among all the people you know, who has never used their company account to write an email with some personal content.

This sort of pretense — that a patently absurd fiction is the truth, and then to attack entire groups of people based on that absurd fiction — is precisely the precondition for fascism. It is what Kafka was writing about. It was also the game plan for a certain ambitious Chancellor in Germany.

It would be a mistake merely to dismiss Julian Assange as an insensitive asshole. He is something far worse: He is the destroyer of discourse, the bringer of fear, the troll who shuts down all useful conversation because everyone is afraid of him.

Sure, some people at SONY have made unethical decisions. As have some people at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, IBM, Facebook, the U.S. Government, the Spanish government, the Canadian government, the State of Delaware, and pretty much every single organization of significant size throughout history.

That is certainly something we should be concerned about. But it is no excuse to commit an act of violence against entire large groups of people, which is what Julian Assange has done here.

To put it simply, what he has done to these people is disgusting, and violent, and an act of pure terror.

<end rant>