Theater twice

Today I saw two different performances of the same play. First, I went to the matinee, and then I went back in the evening.

Unlike a movie, no two performances of a play are exactly the same. A subtle shift in timing and emphasis can create very different experiences from one performance to the next.

There’s just something so amazing about seeing something that is not exactly like anything anyone has ever seen before or will ever see again. There’s really nothing like live theater.


For some reason today I found myself thinking about a parallel between The Simpsons and Interview with the Vampire. Admittedly an odd choice for parallels, but there you have it.

To me, one of the most affecting moments in the film adaptation of Interview the Vampire is when Kirsten Dunst, playing the eternally 10-year-old vampire Claudia, cuts off her hair in defiance. An old soul trapped for all time in a child’s body, she is tired of being adored by everyone but taken seriously by no one.

To her horror, when she wakes up the next morning, her long hair is back exactly the way it was. She realizes in that moment that she cannot escape her fate.

Then there is the moment in one episode of The Simpsons when Homer is preparing to go on a romantic date with Marge. In front of the bathroom mirror, he shaves off his five o’clock shadow — the only time we’ve ever seen him without it.

Homer rubs his chin appreciatively, and says to his reflection, with great self-satisfaction, “Smooth as a baby’s bottom!” A few short seconds later, his five o’clock shadow pops back on his face, fully formed.

One moment is tragic, the other comic, and the two fictional worlds could not be more different. And yet, in dramatic terms, they are exactly the same moment.

Which is awesome.

In praise of deadlines

Since I’ve started Widget Wednesdays, my productivity has definitely gone up. Committing to posting a program a week has been good for me.

I find that days before each Wednesday, I find myself wondering what I might post next. I begin exploring possibilities in my mind, and inevitably a story starts to take shape.

It’s really all about committing to a deadline. I know that it’s an artificial deadline, but even artificial deadlines can be very productive.

Widget Wednesdays #17

I’ve been working on a graphics project that involves letting people make freehand drawings and then turning those drawings into various shapes. In order to test the core algorithm and explain it to my students, I implemented a very simple stand-along version of it.

The goal was to make the simplest possible version of the algorithm, so that the whole thing consists of only a few hundred lines of Javascript code. That way the students can easily look through the code to understand the algorithm without wading through thousands of lines of code within some larger software program.

The algorithm doesn’t care what set of drawings it recognizes, but this evening, for simplicity, I decided to make a little test case that consists of only the capital English letters.

One cool thing is that it recognizes your letter whether you draw it forward, backward, upside down or mirror flipped, and it will morph even a crude drawing into a nice looking letter.

You can try it for yourself here.

Future subjective time

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we are having this discussion after the Technological Singularity. Taking my usual optimistic point of view, the version of the Technological Singularity that I envision is one in which we humans can upload our minds into cyberspace, and from there we all get to live forever (if we want to), while treating ourselves to yummy software upgrades, as we happily ride the wave of Moore’s Law.

So I’m not talking about some evil A.I. wiping us out. Rather, I’m talking about us replacing ourselves with ourselves, as a species that might be called Humans 2.0.

In this scenario, what will be our subjective experience of a second of time? After all, the laws of physics are now being simulated, so one second of subjective time is no longer constrained to correspond to an objective physical constant.

Instead, should we choose to, we can calibrate a subjective human second of experience to be whatever is convenient. We might, for example, choose to set one subjective human second to what we now think of as a millisecond. I don’t know why we would do that — maybe for reasons that have to do with power conservation — but we could.

Or maybe we will go the other way, setting one subjective human second to 1000 physical seconds. That will have the advantage of giving that big simulation in the Cloud more time to calculate our collective mental process.

If you think of it this way, maybe one way we can effectively accelerate Moore’s Law (and thereby giving ourselves yummy mental power-ups) is by gradually slowing down our subjective time. In the long run, a single second in Human 2.0 time might end up taking longer and longer.

Eventually it might stretch out to years, or even centuries. But we won’t notice.

At least not for another few billion years. Then we will notice.

A great day for invention

April 25 has historically been a great day for invention. On this day in history, Watson and Crick published the landmark research paper that described the double helical structure of DNA.

Also on April 25, Bell Telephone demonstrated the first practical solar cell. And on another April 25, the first U.S. patent was granted for an integrated circuit.

And it also was on an April 25 that a submarine, for the first time, managed to travel all the way around the Earth underwater. And on yet another April 25, for the first time ever, a human-made object wandered out of our Solar System to enter into the great beyond.

To me, all of this makes April 25 a very auspicious day for human invention. I would like to think that on some future April 25, somebody who is reading this will invent something profound and beautiful.

Arts and crafts

Most of my projects focus on software. Occasionally I dabble in hardware, making stuff with microprocessors, little cameras, batteries and various sorts of exotic connectors.

But today’s project is purely arts and crafts. My main materials are things like fabric, velcro, and scissors, and it’s all about getting things to work in the physical world.

I have to say, compared with the other two realms, this is very very satisfying. I should really do more of these projects.

Direct brain interface and future language

I realize that meaningful non-trivial person-to-perosn communication via direct brain interface is still quite a ways off. Still, it’s interesting to think about what will change after that technological milestone is achieved.

One thing that makes this tricky is that it is unclear exactly what to expect from DBI. Presumably communication will continue to include grammatically constructed sentences.

But will those sentences consist of words as we now know them? Or will we have a kind of enhanced language, in which we can directly transmit the images in our minds?

Rather than say the word “elephant”, perhaps I will show you a particular elephant. I will still be using language — constructing sentences to convey meaning — but the building blocks of language might mutate.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it seems like a useful conversation to begin. At the very least, I hope I have started to paint a picture in your mind.

Thinking about thinking

I participated in a TV shoot today, which was great fun. It was a science show, and we mostly talked about math.

But we also got to talk about a lot of topics related to math. And some of those topics had less to do with math itself than with what it means to be human.

After all, so far as we know, humans are the only beings on our planet who think about mathematical questions. We eagerly grapple with questions of infinity, even as these bodies of ours remain trapped within a finite reality.

Thinking about thinking, I realize how fortunate we are. Even though we are stuck within this Earthly plane, we have these incredible minds that are free to roam through boundless infinities, unfettered by the chains of mortal existence.

All the smarts of a doorknob

I read an article in the New York times this week about OpenAI’s GPT-3 — a supercomputer specifically designed to learn, without explicitly being told how, to write proper English prose.

By using a very practical form of A.I. technique called Convolutional Neural Nets (CNNs), and after training on extremely massive quantities of human prose, the program can answer all sorts questions sensibly in what looks like very cogent English.

Which is all well and good. The problem I had was with the sensational way that the article was written.

Steven Johnson, who is himself a very good writer, gave the story a persistently sensational slant. He interviewed one expert after another, and all of them said the same thing: This is not at all an example of intelligence in the human sense.

It is, rather, extremely advanced mimicry. The computer has absolutely no self-awareness or consciousness. It is simply processing data.

But that would not have made for as fun a story. So we are introduced to the tantalizing “possibility” that we are witnessing the emergence of intelligence.

But in fact we are not. CNNs, while very useful, are not in any sense sentient beings. In human terms, they have all the smarts of a doorknob.

Which could have been made crystal clear in the article, for the benefit of non-expert readers. But I guess that wouldn’t have made for as fun a story.