Archive for December, 2017

If light were faster

Monday, December 11th, 2017

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the speed of light — or more accurately, the maximum velocity that information can travel in a vacuum — were much faster. Let’s say it was a thousand times faster. In that case light would be able to travel the diameter of our Earth’s orbit around the Sun not in 1000 seconds, but in a single second.

Suppose further that somehow this difference did not alter gravity, chemistry, biology, or the various other physical properties that govern our lives at terrestrial scale. I realize that this may be inconsistent with the laws of physics as we know them, but go with me here.

What effect would that change in the speed of light have on our daily lives? For example, if terrestrial telecommunications systems could effectively be instantaneous, would things be radically different?

In particular, what effect would that possibility of instantaneous communication have on our world’s economy, on its culture? What effect would it have on our lives in general?

The New Guilded Age

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

The forthcoming change in U.S. Federal Tax policy has a number of interesting qualities. I am using the word “interesting” in its most general sense, perhaps as one might say (for example), “Isn’t it interesting how a giant meteor destroyed all life on that planet.”

One interesting result of the new tax structure will be the disparity in the way it treats wage earners and independent contractors. An employee and an independent contractor performing the same job, at the same salary, will soon find themselves in very different situations: The income tax paid by the salaried employee will increase significantly, whereas the tax paid by the independent contractor will decrease significantly.

Federal monetary policy is a strong influencer on the economy, so let’s look at the kind of market forces we are talking about here. There will now be a strong tax incentive for people to work as independent contractors, rather than as salaried employees.

Also, companies may start to look more like agencies, farming out work to independent contractors rather than maintaining an official salaried staff. Companies that follow such a policy will look more attractive to workers, because of the tax advantages they will offer.

Independent contractors in any given field will likely begin to organize into professional Guilds, just as they started to do in Europe a millennium ago. The very fabric of our economy may mutate into something else entirely.

It will the dawn of a New Guilded Age!

Paleo DNA digital data storage

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

One of the other topics Richard Bonneau mentioned in his talk was the recent rapid advance in storing digital information within DNA. The latest methods of encoding digital information within DNA are vastly more space and energy efficient than silicon based storage, although they are still quite expensive. However, costs are expected to drop precipitously within the next ten years.

A single gram of DNA can store about 215 million gigabytes of digital data. The stored information can be retrieved with extremely high accuracy, and the DNA strands themselves can remain stable for tens of thousands of years.

Also, when such information is embedded into the gene sequence of living bacteria, the bacteria will reproduce it naturally in the course of binary fission. In this way, the digital data can be preserved essentially forever.

While I was listening to him talk about this, I began to wonder whether this has been done before. It is theoretically possible that a highly intelligent species evolved on our planet millions of years ago, and then became extinct for whatever reason.

Members of that species might have wished to pass the legacy of their knowledge down to future species, but only after that future species was sufficiently advanced to be able to handle such knowledge. What better way to do so then to encode their wisdom in DNA sequences?

For all we know, there might be bacteria around today that contain enormous wisdom, handed down to us from millions of years ago. If so, it may be centuries before we ourselves have advanced to the point where we can recognize and decode that information.

That is, of course, assuming we ourselves don’t become extinct first.

Mutation-resistant code

Friday, December 8th, 2017

I heard an interesting lecture today by Richard Bonneau about his work using machine learning to analyze genetic codes and also to understand interactions between the proteins they express. He said many fascinating things, and my head is still reeling from all of the exciting ideas and possibilities.

But one thing in particular struck me, from my perspective as somebody who programs computers. He talked about the rich multiple interconnections between different parts of how our biology functions at the molecular and cellular level.

The redundancies built into the interactions between these various components creates a very robust system. One effect of this is that our genetic code is remarkably resistant to damage.

In other words, the great majority of gene mutations turn out to be harmless. Thinking of the cybernetic equivalent, imagine that your computer program was modified by somebody flipping random bits in its binary image.

How many bits would need to flip before the program stopped working? In most cases, even one bit would suffice to crash the program.

But in the biological equivalent, you can flip lots of bits and the whole thing continues to run just fine. Which led me to start thinking about the following hypothetical problem:

Could you design a computer program that would be resistant to random mutations? In particular, could you design it so that many bits in its binary image could be randomly flipped, and the program would continue to run?

We can define a program’s “robustness” as the number of bits you would need to flip, on the average, before the program breaks. So how to you make a program robust?

One problem is that it would be very easy to cheat. You could just make a million copies of the program, and then toss out whichever parts of any copies don’t match the corresponding parts of other copies.

So let’s be more specific: Is there a way to minimize the size of a computer program for any given degree of desired robustness?

Write-only memory

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

I know I need to go through all of those boxes of paper in my apartment. Each box is the product of a kind of mental laziness.

Rather than sort through everything, and make difficult choices about what to keep and what to throw away, it’s so much easier just to sweep it all into a large cardboard box. But sooner or later the day of reckoning arrives, and I need to sort through those boxes and make some hard decisions.

I always find this difficult because there is a finality to throwing something away. Once something is gone, it’s gone.

In order to ease the stress of what would otherwise be a mentally taxing task, I’ve decided to upgrade my terminology. I no longer think in terms of throwing things away.

Instead I have opted to draw upon the gentler language of our modern cyber age. What I am really doing, I now know, is moving things into write-only memory.

Reality television

Wednesday, December 6th, 2017

Am I the only person who thinks this is weird timing? Our country is in a current headlong rush toward inward-looking isolationism, handing all influence over the world’s economy to a rival superpower, building systematic extreme economic disparity directly into our tax laws, and celebrating fascism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and white supremacy.

And this is all happening mere months after everybody saw that mini-series adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. Don’t get me wrong — I like Philip K. Dick as much as the next guy. But isn’t this all a bit extreme?

I mean, wasn’t it creepy enough when we were watching this on TV as a fantasy? Do we really need to enact it in real life?

Or is this what that annoying TV show host with the orange hair job actually meant by “reality television”?

Future interior decorating

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

If everyone is wearing mixed reality glasses then, as Vernor Vinge pointed out in his novel Rainbows End, we all get two complementary super-powers: (1) We can collectively see things that are not physically there, and (2) We can collectively not see things that are physically there.

People talk a lot about the first of these powers, but not so much about the second. But let’s imagine for a moment that we are living in a world where everybody is wearing.

While redecorating your home, perhaps you wish to have a nice new vase on your mantle to hold some flowers. Using one finger, you draw in the air above the mantle to specify the contour of the vase, and then you gesture to choose a nice color and pattern for your creation. From that moment on, the vase becomes visible, but not yet tangible, because it is not yet fully developed.

Meanwhile, somewhere nearby a 3D printer gets to work. After it is done, a robot delivers the finished vase to your door. You and your neighbors never see this robot because it doesn’t show up in your wearables.

There are also domestic robots that roam invisibly about your abode as needed, cooking and cleaning, making your bed, and performing various other chores that humans used to do for themselves. One of your domestic robots picks up the delivered item from where the delivery robot dropped it off, removes it from its protective package, and places it in its intended location.

You don’t see any of this. From your perspective, that lovely vase you had already added to your home simply takes on a more substantial appearance, which is how you know that it is ready to hold some lovely flowers.

Haiku from a parallel universe

Monday, December 4th, 2017

If we’d elected
Al Bundy instead of this,
Would it be better?

Future New Yorker cartoon spoiler

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

“On the Holodeck,”
I heard him say, “nobody
Knows you’re a robot.”

Some plastic device on your face

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

At this week’s Exploring Future Reality conference in NYC, I watched an interesting debate. Terence Caulkins warned against a future in which you would walk around wearing some plastic device on your face in order to see an augmented version of the reality around you.

Matt Hartman disagreed. He said that when Terence had first started describing this scenario, he thought it was going to be a positive description. Matt added that he personally thought it would be awesome to be able to wear some sort of device on your face that gives you an enhanced view of your surroundings.

What amazed me about this exchange was that the two gentlemen in question were both enacting the very thing they were debating, apparently without realizing it. Matt was wearing glasses. Terence was not.