Archive for the ‘Living in the Future’ Category

The Future of eInk

I honestly believe that eInk is one of the most underrated new technologies of the past couple of decades. It provides thin, cheap displays that are easy on the eyes and render crisp text and images, all while using essentially zero power in a resting state. These properties would make it ideal both for text consumption, as in an ebook reader, but could also be excellent, e.g., for public signage in, say, a public transit station or a convention center where the text doesn’t need to change frequently.

Once color eInk improves in quality, it could also be ideal for decoration, public building signage, etc. Imagine a poster that you could hang on your wall and then change on a whim. Imagine a landlord offering his business renters free, instant signage for their business from the day they moved in.

So I’m a big fan of eInk, and I’m interested to see the various applications as it improves.

So all that being said, watch this video:

There’s a technology here that interests me, but it’s not the eInk. In fact, I think this is a terrible use for eInk. What I’m fascinated by is the physical, one-window-per-app metaphor that the PaperTab team uses. Imagine doing that with a bunch of LCD tablet computers. Tablets have plummeted in price to the point where a tablet with all the features required for the tap-open, hot/warm/cold physical metaphor could probably be priced around $200. You could even have one or two of those tablets be eInk devices something like a modern eBook reader, for reading text, while using capacitive LCD touch screens for movies and interactive UIs.

eInk is an incredibly promising technology, but I doubt it will ever be responsive enough or high definition enough to replace non-ink screens for applications where fast refresh and highly fluid interaction is required.

Aubrey de Grey on the Reasons for Defeating Aging

Dr Aubrey de Grey Humanity Plus summit 2012 Melbourne from Wiggett's Totally Cy Show on Vimeo.

UPDATE 2012.11.25: It looks like the person who hosted this video on Vimeo has restricted embedding. Here’s a direct link to the video on Vimeo.

It’s well established that this house is strongly in favor of working to defeat aging and helping to ensure a long, healthy life for everyone. So strongly in favor, in fact, that I personally have a hard time fathoming the counter-arguments. How anyone can see the suffering, loss, and death caused by aging and still judge it, on balance, to be a good thing is well beyond me.

But such people do exist, which is why I’m very glad that Aubrey de Grey and others like him are working to be popularizers for the idea that aging can be defeated and that such an accomplishment is one of the most important project in which human beings are currently engaged.

In the video above, Dr. de Grey takes a break from describing how he plans to defeat aging and spends an hour articulating some of the important reasons why and answering some of the more common objections. I strongly recommend the talk to skeptics and proponents of anti-aging research. The former might get some answers to their critiques, while the latter will get some good arguments to use next time they find themselves in conversation with a skeptic.

Aubrey de Grey on Regenerative Medicine, Longevity, etc.

It should surprise no constant reader that this blog whole-heartedly longevity research as the most important ongoing human research endeavor. In the video above, Aubrey de Grey gives a good overview of his views on the state of regenerative medicine and the current state of longevity research.

I want to call out one comment he makes about the view that aging is natural and unavoidable. De Grey makes the point that a few hundred years ago, tuberculosis was view the same way. That’s true, but I think there’s a better analogy at hand. In the 14th and 15th century, the Black Death regularly ravaged Europe and Asia. It was natural, of course, and at the time unavoidable. By some it was even viewed as the right and proper vengeance wreaked by God on a wicked species.

We know now that the fearsome (and totally natural) Black Death was really the virulent bacteria Yersinia pestis. Were an outbreak to occur now, it wouldn’t be seen as a horrid curse leveled against mankind, but as a medical curiosity, easily treated with the most trivial of antibiotics. Despite its fearsome lethality and virulence, it’s unlikely that anyone would die from any outbreak in an industrialized nation.

Considered as a collection of pathologies, aging differs mainly in source and tenure from the Black Death. While the Black Death is a bacteria that first entered human history about a millenium ago, aging is a metabolic byproduct that arose millions of years ago with the rise of complex organisms.

It also differs in the scale of carnage. Yersinia pestis, at its most infectious, killed a third of the European populace. Aging-related pathologies continue to kill the majority of people who die in the Western world, including two thirds of all people who die in the US.

Aging is simply the pathological byproducts of metabolism. Regenerative medicine gives us the best hope we have of fixing this degeneration.

Living in the Future: Self-Portrait of a Species Taken from Space

Welcome to the future. Here’s a montage view of our home, taken from one of our number zipping around the planet in a space station.

God Speed, Good Robot

Well, after an earlier last-second (actually last-half-second) abort of SpaceX’s Dragon mission to the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule is away. Reports from Elon Musk via Twitter say that the Falcon 9 booster worked perfectly and that the Dragon capsule has successfully deployed its solar cells.

This mission is an incredibly important milestone for the era of private space flight, as it represents the first instance of a private resupply mission to a manned space installation.

Congratulations to Elon Musk and the folks at SpaceX. I look forward to an era when such privately-funded missions are the norm, rather than a spectacular first success.

Your Daily Bit of High Futurism

A promo for a proposed underwater hotel:

Dear Dr. Diamandis

God bless you, you crazy crazy, asteroid-mining bastard.

Welcome, once again, to the age of private space-flight, fellow future-dwellers.

Gibson on Wetware

The only really compelling argument I’ve heard against cybernetics (in the let’s-all-stick-circuit-boards-in-our-brain sense of the word) comes from William Gibson. The Cyberpunk luminary makes the case in an essay first printed in the June 19th, 2000 issue of Time magazine. The essay is titled, appropriately enough, “Will We Have Computer Chips In Our Heads?”

[I do not think] that we will one day, as a species, submit to the indignity of the chip. If only because the chip will almost certainly be as quaint an object as the vacuum tube or the slide rule.

From the viewpoint of bioengineering, a silicon chip is a large and rather complex shard of glass. Inserting a silicon chip into the human brain involves a certain irreducible inelegance of scale. It’s scarcely more elegant, relatively, than inserting a steam engine into the same tissue. It may be technically possible, but why should we even want to attempt such a thing?

This is, I think, basically correct. After all, there’s nothing special about silicon. What we transhuman types really want isn’t chips-in-the-brain per se, of course, but the prospect of upgradeable humanity. H+, as it’s sometimes styled. I think Gibson hits at the fundamental fact that modern silicon might very well be the wrong medium for that. I personally think the probable path forward is one that repurposes our own basic materials, whether through genetic engineering or more intricate nano-scale mechanical tinkering.

I’ve typically not been impressed with engineering arguments against direct, nerve-level human-computer interfaces and the chip-in-brain cyberpunk future they make possible. After all, engineering problems have shown themselves to fall pretty handily to human enginuity, especially in the age of modern information technologies. But the basic facts strongly indicate that using modern circuits is, itself an engineering dead-end that will need to be transcended. Circuit-boards, after all, are large, hot, and prone to failure when compared with the brain into which we might want to stick them. (Of those problems, Gibson focuses on the “large”, but I actually think that’s the least of the problems. Modern CPUs get hot enough to boil water unless equipped with sizable heatsinks and good airflow. And who wants to get brain surgery every three to five years when one of their potentially many chips burns out.)

So the problem isn’t one of engineering, then. It’s not just about finding clever ways to wire neurons up with copper leads. It’s not even about the basic problems of figuring out how to cram the chips and connections into our skulls. It’s that our current tools and materials (circuits printed in copper on silicon wafers) aren’t the right ones for the job. We might, with sufficient ingenuity, make them work, but the correct solution is to work on developing the right tools.

Of course, better yet (and the course we’re taking), is to pursue both tracks in parallel. Afterall, cyborgs already walk among us, with magnet-and-electrode ears and video camera eyes. Cybernetic limbs are also making great leaps both figuratively and literally. Of course limbs are more amenable to being improved by modern materials than are brains. In fact, they’ve gotten so good that since 2008, cyborgs are disqualified from the Olympic Games. After all, they have an unfair advantage over us regular H. Sapiens.

Welcome to the future, flesh-bags. We may never get chips in our heads, but one thing is for sure: H+ is well on its way. No matter what materials he’s made out of.

Living in the Future: Robot Playpal Edition

(Video in French, but with explanatory English captions.)

The geniuses at French company HumaRobotics have taught the Nao Robot platform to play Connect Four with a physical board. Now this is an impressive feat in its own right, but in addition, they’ve included error detection and (apparently, though not shown in the video) cheating detection. They’ve also made it possible for the robot to recognize people its played with before.

More information is available from this excellent post at Singularity Hub.

It won’t be many more years before a generation is born for whom playing with robots growing up is an everyday experience. These sorts of robotic playpals are high-tech research gimmicks now, but as the platforms and software mature and we begin to have an actual science and industry of social robotics, expect to see robotic play pals like these hitting the store shelves. (It should go without saying that Connect 4 can be thought of as an arbitrary proof of concept and that even a first generation of robotic play palls would have a huge number of different games in its repertoire.)

Expect, too, the standard industrial phenomena of rapid generational improvement, IP theft / cheap knock offs, a great deal of media hand wringing about what these robots are doing to “the Children”, etc.

Godspeed, Voyager!

This is a momentous time. Our species has thrown our first artifact out of our system and out into the interstaller void. That’s right, the Voyager 1 space craft has left the solar system, having traveled billions of miles from our planet.

Despite our foibles, our species are proving themselves to be incredible artificers. We’ve managed to make an intricate machine and then throw that machine billions of miles into deep space. Meditate on that for a bit and then tell me if that doesn’t somewhat improve your opinion of us as ambitious sapient creatures.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.