Back to the Future Reality

HILL VALLEY, 21 October, 2015 — Today Marty McFly arrived in that alternate future reality where the Cubs win the World Series and hoverboards work over any surface (except water, of course). Back to the Future Part II came out in 1989, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee began sketching out his vision for what we now know as the World Wide Web.

Four years later we had Mosaic, the first really practical web browser. For the first time, a significant number of people were exposed to the Web as a reality. Many were wondering what exactly it was good for, and whether it was going to catch on.

Of course it was harder in 1993 to see the Web as the globe-spanning medium we now take for granted. Such a radical level of transformation required people to build Web-based content and software, and other people to use that content and software. That kind of ecosystem takes time to develop and grow.

The Web grew quite steadily for the next 14 years. Then in 2007 came a major disruptive leap: Apple launched the iPhone. For the first time, consumers could put the Web in their pocket and take it with them everywhere. We now take this reality for granted.

I think we are now, in 2015, about to enter the Mosaic stage of Virtual Reality. The technology itself has existed for many years, but in spring of 2016 it will for the first time become widely available to consumers (via competing platforms from Facebook, Valve, SONY and others). Its close cousin, see-through 3D Augmented Reality, will launch soon thereafter, from Microsoft, Google and others.

Many people are asking what VR will be good for. Assuming a rate of evolution analogous to the one from Mosaic to iPhone, the answer to that will become very clear over the next 14 years, more or less. Between now and then applications for VR and AR will continue to grow and develop. People will come to rely on personal and professional applications of VR/AR that nobody today has even thought of.

Then sometime around 2030, VR will get its iPhone: People will just pop in their cyber-contact lenses (which will also double as cameras). Immersive Virtual Reality and see-through Augmented Reality will become one and the same technology, and people will begin to take that reality for granted.

And that reality will come to seem quite normal. Until around 2040, when neural implants get their Mosaic. I can’t even imagine what reality will be like after around 2055, when neural implants get their iPhone, a full century after lightning struck the courthouse clock in Hill Valley.

Awesome evening

This evening I am seated directly beneath the blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History. This is perhaps, to my inner seven year old, the most exalted of all Manhattan locations. The evening is a celebration of science, of progress, of the inexorable power of curiosity.

But then it all goes weird, and that’s good.

The first after dinner speaker is Brian Greene, the string theorist and popularizer of string theory. He is here to tear down the edifice of CP Snow’s two cultures, although, oddly, he never once mentions CP Snow by name.

I’ve met Brian a few times through the years, and he’s seemed like a nice and level-headed fellow. But not tonight. Tonight Brian is on fire. His talk is an interpretive dance, a poem acted out with both body and words. The length of his pauses after every preposition would make Christopher Walken weep with jealousy.

I have never seen anything quite like this performance. In his impassioned defense of science, he becomes a living work of art, his body thrusting this way and that, his hands passionately sculpting the empty air.

I find myself getting lost in the rhythm of his movements, the words merely adornment to this great string theoretic dance. It is the dance of the universe, and Brian Greene is its prophet.

And then something completely different.

The closing speaker is Alan Alda. Many of you know Alan from his days as Hawkeye Pierce in the television adaptation of M*A*S*H. But this is not that Alan Alda.

This isn’t even the next Alan Alda after that, the one who became the go-to spokesperson for science around 10 or 15 years ago, like a sort of Carl Sagan without the Ph.D.

No, this is Alan Alda your grandfather, the old guy with a million stories to tell, and all the time in the world to tell them. Like the one about that time, all those years ago, when your grandmother and I — this would have been before the war — were having lunch in Sammy’s Deli, back when it was really kosher (not like these kids today), and they ran out of pickles. Pickles! Would you believe it? Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

This goes on for several hours (or about 30 minutes if you’re going strictly by clock time), and it is utterly charming. Alan Alda is the granddad you never had, the old geezer with those endless stories that still have the power to make your parents roll their eyes.

I’m not really sure which of the two speakers I like the best. They are both utterly strange and delightful, mostly because they somehow manage to completely subvert the program. Not because of anything they say, but by virtue of the sheer charisma of their insane styles of presentation.

All in all, it’s an awesome evening.

Beyond VR games

Today I tried a demo on the SONY Morpheus VR game system. It was thrilling and fun and completely absorbing. I was playing a computer game, and I was also completely inside the game, surrounded on all sides by its exciting and fast paced world.

Yet there was something about it that was not at all different from my prior experience playing computer games. Fundamentally, it wasn’t about VR as something new, but rather VR as an extension of something completely familiar.

When you are playing a computer game and you find yourself, say, racing down a highway with bad guys all around, your mind pretty much goes with it. You give yourself over to the game’s world.

This is the “Magic Circle” contract: The actor on stage is Hamlet, the words on paper are Lizzie Bennet, the 30 foot tall face projected on a flat surface is Indiana Jones. We know none of it is real, but we agree to suspend our disbelief while we are inside the magic circle. We leave reality behind for the duration.

As I was playing a thrilling chase game with the SONY Morpheus (which really is a fabulous system), I was still sitting in a chair, experiencing essentially the same kind of game experience I had experienced in other computer games. Just in a more immersive way.

This is quite different from our research, and the research of our collaborators, in which participants wearing VR headsets literally walk around in physical space, voting with their feet as they experience another world. I suspect that this difference — the fact that your physical body is literally committing to the choices you make — creates an experience beyond VR itself.

The SONY Morpheus does a fantastic job of creating a vivid and fully realized game world. I think what we are after is something different: A way to create a vivid and fully realized new reality.

Essentially human

Computers are able to do more and more things that in former times were thought to be the sole province of human minds. Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov way back in 1997, and since then the trend has continued, as the rising tide of Moore’s law claims an ever wider swath of computational challenges.

It looks as though driving cars is going to be taken over by computers pretty soon, and computers are still getting faster. And that leads to an interesting question: What sorts of things remain essentially human, in the sense that they remain definitively outside the grasp of artificial computation?

Is some list being compiled somewhere of firmly inimitable human mental capabilities? I would guess that such a list is being compiled by somebody somewhere, but I am not sure where to begin to look.

Any suggestions how to search for it? Or maybe that’s a job for an AI. 🙂

Something new

Today I am trying something completely new. I am writing this blog post entirely by dictating it into my phone.

I know this is not all that profound, but it does raise some interesting questions in my mind. For example, am I the same person, exactly, when I type and when I speak?

And if I am not precisely the same person, in the sense that there is some other part of my mind being represented, will there be an even more radical change in who that person is, in that future when people will express themselves through direct brain interfaces?

Anyway, something to think about, through thoughts which may be coming out of my mind, but which may never have come out of my fingertips.

Some magic new kind of coffee

There are long stretches of time when I feel that I am not getting much done. I feel guilty, beseiged, even slightly bewildered. Then there are the other times. Right now I am going through one of those other times.

Lately it feels as though I’ve been drinking some magic new kind of coffee. When I’m not answering emails, I’m programming, or cleaning up our lab, or arranging new collaborations, or setting up a new computer, or trying a new experiment. Suddenly the whole crazy whirlwind is making sense.

I know that these periods don’t last, and I really should enjoy it while I can. It feels like one giant bout of spring cleaning, except that the thing I’m cleaning is my life.

There are many theories why something like this sort of thing happens. I suspect that in this particular case, it’s because I’m feeling happy. 🙂

Silly high art

I just saw an excellent concert version of The Pirates of Penzance at City Center. I have lost count of how many times I have seen this Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece, but every time is a fresh revelation.

One thing that struck me this time is how much their work joins together two things that are often kept far apart in today’s society: Silliness and high art. We certainly have room for both, but they rarely get anywhere near each other.

There is plenty of goofy fun to be had in post-millennial pop culture, from Zoolander to Bridesmaids, and everything in between. But as soon as you get to “high art”, things usually go all serious — even things that are supposed to be funny.

But G&S defies those categories. The orchestra might be wearing black tie and formal gowns, the musicians might be highly trained serious practitioners of their craft, but nothing really gets in the way of the underlying zaniness.

The premise of a G&H operetta is always borderline insane, the dialog delectably nutty, the song lyrics outrageously nonsensical, yet everything is done with the perfection and sheen that we associate with high opera. The only other places I can think of today where high culture and sheer nuttiness coexist as gracefully are certain scenes within some of the comedies of Shakespeare.

But for sheer head spinning goofiness matched with high art polish, nothing else even comes close to Gilbert and Sullivan. I look forward to seeing The Pirates of Penzance many more times in the years to come. And every time, if you happen to look my way, I suspect you will see that same deliriously happy grin on my face.

An email from the future

I am fascinated by those movies, like Frequency or Looper, where somebody in the future gets somebody in the past to change reality. For example, there’s a scene in Frequency where a person 30 years in the past plants a tree, and suddenly a fully grown tree appears in the here and now.

I had an experience today that felt a bit like that. Our Institute provides wireless mikes so that we can record our classes for any students who might miss the lectures. I noticed at one point that my wireless mike had one dead, its 9V battery having run down. We tried to contact the system administrators, but they had all gone home for the day.

So I sent an email to the system administrator suggesting that in the future, they might want to keep a spare battery in the drawer. I was nearly done with the email when it suddenly occurred to me that this couldn’t be the first time this had happened. “What if,” I asked myself, “the system administrator has already read the email that I’m writing, and has acted on it?”

Whereupon I pulled open the bottom drawer of the podium, and saw a fresh 9V battery, just where I would have suggested they put it. I popped in the new battery, and we went on with the class.

Of course if this had been a real time travel movie, there would be a problem. After all, I never actually sent that email…

Stud bolt

For our VR research this week, we needed to attach one of those fancy Valve/HTC Lighthouse trackers to a flexible ceiling mount. Our ceiling mount and the Lighthouse unit both had a place where you could screw in a 1/4″ bolt.

Now, if either one of them had possessed an actual 1/4″ bolt, it would have been perfect — we could have just screwed the one into the other. But no, both the Lighthouse unit and the ceiling mount were “female” parts. Alas, hardware connections, ever blind to the winds of political change, remain resolutely heterosexual.

So I did a Google search for a bolt that bolts at both ends. And quickly discovered that such a part is called a “stud bolt”. Its specific purpose is to act as an intermediary, so that two female components can be attached to each other.

I love the word “stud bolt”. It’s one of those words that you can sprinkle into your party banter, so that people will realize that you know a thing or two about hardware. Sort of the way medical doctors insist on using words like “distal” and “sagittal” in casual conversation, no matter how often they get blank stares from the laity.

It also seems weird, on a whole different level, that two otherwise perfectly capable female components, obviously destined for each other, cannot get together without a male intermediary. There’s something about the whole transaction that just seems wrong, you know?

On the other hand, it’s not like either of them are having any sort of real functional relationship with that intermediary. True to its name, the stud bolt is good for one thing and one thing only.

Playing the sympathy card

I was thinking today about the phrase “Playing the sympathy card,” and I started wondering. What would things be like if that were an actual card?

Imagine a society more or less like our own, except that people are issued cards, which they can use when they need a certain emotional indulgence. To my thinking, these would be more or less like baseball cards, with a picture on the front and cool stuff printed on the back. Maybe you could buy them in packs.

Some cards would be plentiful and easy to come by. Others would cost you more to play. If you needed some sympathy, you’d play one of your sympathy cards.

Except you wouldn’t want to play it frivolously. Because then you’d run out, and you wouldn’t be able to get any sympathy when you really needed it.

There could be cards for every occasion: victim cards, race cards, ignorance cards, righteous indignation cards and more. You could get away with pretty much anything, if you played your cards right.

Over time, with everyone using them, the true value of each type of card would become known, and this form of emotional exchange would form a currency of sorts. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, if everyone just placed their cards on the table?

Now where did I put that irony card? It was around here somewhere…