Archive for the ‘Science and Technology’ Category

Enter the Idoru

In my uncompleted (and probably unlamented) Masters Thesis, I talk a lot about Avatars and digital identity. One of the critical questions I raised was what happens at the point where Avatars start beating the Turing test. What happens when you meet someone online, someone that has a presence and a face and a personality, but they turn out not to be a person at all, but a piece of software.

I want to introduce you to someone. She’s 16 years old, 5’2″ tall, and a worrying slight 93 pounds. She’s got a two and a half octave range and likes singing dance and pop tunes. Oh, and she’s pure virtual. Her name is Hatsune Miku:

You’d think being a clever fiction wrought in software would be an impact to a pop diva’s career, but it hasn’t stopped Hatsune from earning a huge fanbase (as seen in the video). This legion includes some diehard fankids that love her so much that they’ll send death threats to writers for even the smallest of perceived slights. Apparently pointing out that Hatsune Miku’s schoolgirl getup is a wee bit on the revealing side is a capital offense.

Let me walk that one back by you. There are people in the world who love a piece of software so much that they’re willing to threaten death to a real live human being for pointing out that said software is depicted as wearing fetish-y schoolgirl clothes.

So what happens when an Avatar passes the Turing Test?

Now I’m not suggesting that Hatsune Miku could pass the proper Turing test by tricking an interlocuter into thinking she was human. But she’s done something close enough by tricking some of her fans into thinking that she has honor that is worthy of defending. By murder (or at least by death threats) if necessary.

I would like to submit that when Avatars do start passing the Turing test, we’ll see a lot more of this. Once software (and robots for that matter) walk out the far side of the Uncanny Valley, weird shit’s gonna start happening in the human psyche. Human beings are intensely social and not terribly picky about how we defend our “in group.” Once that “in group” starts including virtual members, well, shit’s gonna get a little weird. And let’s face it, once digital beings start tricking our neural circuits into recognizing them as “One of Us”, then those digital beings will start ending up in families, friend circles, romantic relationships, etc.

As a matter of fact, we’re starting to see all of that happening now already. (Cf: A man marries an avatar. Or a resort where gamers can spend a weekend with their virtual girlfriends [see the video below]. More generally see most of the bleeding edge parts of Otaku culture)

But Hitsune Miku represents the first time an Avatar has been parlayed into a public persona. And even though she’s very clearly not flesh-and-blood, she has enough of the important parts of a human personality to trick some of those who are open to it. And trick them well enough that they take real umbrage when someone insults her. Even to the point of sending death threats.

All of which makes more pressing and (I think) more interesting the question of what happens when something like Hitsune Miku does pass the Turing test and, in doing so, makes the mental leap from being something to being someone.

Once again, welcome to the future.

Updated: Apparently I have an aphasia or something, because there were some major homophone issues in the first version of this post. Updated after proof-reading by the wonderful and talented Ann.

Why I’m a Techno-Utopian, Part n of a Series

Why I support nuclear power:

…one kilogram of coal can power a light bulb for four days, one kilogram of methane for six days and one kilogram of the carbon-free uranium for a remarkable 140 years.


The whole article is well worth a read, and makes a compelling case that turning off lights for Earth Hour misses the point entirely. We should be celebrating our technological achievement, rather than spending an hour shivering contritely in the dark.

Admittedly, the author’s preaching to my particular choir, but I think it’s a very clear articulation of why technology matters and should be celebrated.

Kurzweil on Watson

Here’s an interesting article by Mad Prophet (whether he’s mostly mad or mostly prophet depends on your personal view point) Ray Kurzweil on Watson, the Jeopardy-playing Computer. One bone of contention, Kurzweil says that “I do expect the type of natural language processing we see in Watson to show up in search engines and other knowledge retrieval systems over the next five years.”

The problem is that his prediction as stated would be about 8-years behind the curve. Next IT has been doing Watson-level language recognition in publicly available systems for years. Domain-specific language, sure, but then again that’s all they need to do. Are we five years away from general-purpose Watson-level language parsing in search engines or information retrieval systems? Possibly, but I doubt it’s that long.

Welcome to the future folks!

Disclaimer: I’m a former employee of Next IT.

Things Are Better Than You Think, Part 1: Global Health Is Drastically Improving

Hans Rosling gives a 200-year overview of the history of 200 countries with respect to life expectancy and per capita GDP. Pay particular attention to the massive booms of wealth and health after World War II:

The entire global population today are living longer, healthier lives. And while there are significant disparities in wealth and health those disparities are extremely misleading. Every single one of the countries Rosling measures are better off today than they were 200 years ago. Most are much better, and even those with the smallest levels of improvement have seen their life expectancy almost double. Most of the poorest countries have seen real (and, one hopes, lasting) improvements to their economic positions as well.

But what’s really interesting about this chart from a healthy perspective is how flat it starts out and how flat it ends up. 200 years ago, where you lived didn’t appreciably influence how long you lived. Now, no matter where you live, your expected lifespan has increased by somewhere between 100% and 200%. Sure, where you live matters a lot more now than it did two centuries ago, but regardless of what nation or continent you’re born in, you’re still living a lot longer.

Another way to frame this is by looking at the much larger trend. (Note: These are numbers I used for a paper I wrote years ago, and I can no longer find my original source for them.)

Average life expectancy in Europe in 1000AD: ~25 years.
Average life expectancy in Europe in 1900AD: ~45 years.
Average life expectancy in Europe in 2000AD: ~75 years.

We made bigger gains to life expectancy in the past century than we did in the 900 years before that.

But it’s not just life expectancy that’s getting better, but health, too. People aren’t just living longer, they’re living better. One of the drivers of life expectancy is simply that we can treat or cure more illnesses, including some very severe ones for which we only recently have developed treatments. One of the great success stories of the latter part of the 20th century was cancer. Many historical studies that tracked cancer mortality rates found them improving (in some cases dramatically) throughout last 50 or so years.

Take, for instance, mortality rates in children from all forms of cancer. A statistical review by the National Cancer Institute found major impovements in long-term (5-year) survival rates amongst children diagnosed with cancer. Summation from

“…the 5-year survival rates for all childhood cancers combined increased from 58.1 percent in 1975–77 to 79.6 percent in 1996–2003 (2). This improvement in survival rates is due to significant advances in treatment, resulting in a cure or long-term remission for a substantial proportion of children with cancer.”

In just over 20 years, the rate of survival from all forms of childhood cancer rose over 20%.

Similar improvements in mortality rate have been made in just the past 20 years in breast cancer patients. Between 1990 and 2007, mortality rates fell by about 2.2% per year

Even more impressive than these stunning improvements in mortality rate are the number of diseases that we’ve effectively cured and some even eliminated. Remember polio? Chances are, if you live outside of Africa, you don’t. Even in Africa it has become so rare that many countries go years without any confirmed cases. Polio crippled and killed children for centuries before we ingenious apes decided we’d had enough of its shit and essentially wiped it out of existence. I say essentially because there are still a few cases around the world every year, mostly in the Third World.

Our response as H. Sapiens? Mobilize 290,000 people to immunize children all over Africa. Because when it comes to eradicating an age-old enemy, we don’t stop at “good enough.” It won’t be too much longer before no child in the world will suffer the ravages of polio ever again.

But it’s not enough that we’re living longer, more disease-free lives. We’re almost universally better fed, too. Famine has essentially been eradicated in the developed world. In the rest of the world, we’re trying very hard to bring about a post-hunger age. And you know what? We’re doing pretty damn well.

Slight tangent: if there was someone in the 20th century who had saved upwards of a billion lives, how famous do you think that person would be? Would he be “giant, solid-gold statues in every city on Earth” famous? Maybe just “universally showered in gifts and praise” famous? How about even just “get his/her name in high school textbooks” famous?

Turns out that saving one billion lives doesn’t earn you much acclaim at all. By show of hands, how many in the audience are familiar with the name Norman Borlaug? (To be fair, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970).

Borlaug’s work on weather- and pest-resistant wheat, as well as his propagation of modern agricultural techniques, has probably saved hundreds of millions of lives in Central and South America and hundreds of millions more in the Indo-Pakistani Subcontinent. Famine has plagued human beings since before we were human beings. And Borlaug dealt the first really big blow against it since some wise-ass in prehistory said “hey guys, what if we just put the seeds in the ground ourselves?”

So there you have it. Here, a decade into the 21st century, we are living between 100% and 200% longer than people just 200 years ago. We’re dying from diseases at a lower rate, including some diseases that we can now cure or even eradicate. Finally, we’ve made huge strides against one of the all-time great historical causes of death and illness: famine. Thanks to genetic engineering, modern agricultural techniques, and better land-management processes, hunger is on the decline, even as our population continues to grow.

In other words, things are better than you think, and they’re just getting better.

Dear Physics,

Please marry me, you sexy, sexy beast.


Aubrey de Grey on Aging

Aubrey de Grey's Beard

Pictured: Aubrey de Grey's beard, with Aubrey de Grey in the background.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of Aubrey de Grey, and not just because the man has the sweetest beard in science. He’s also brilliant researcher, theorist, and presenter on the topics of radical life extension and negligible senescence. The video below is a great one-hour intro to his work. It doesn’t get terribly technical, and it does an excellent job of presenting the goals, current status, and potential benefits of de Grey’s research.

I was particularly interested in the Singularity-like argument he made with regards to life expectancy. While I do consider myself a Transhumanist, I’ve always thought the odds of the Singularity are vanishingly small. And even if something like the Singularity does happen, the odds of it looking anything like what its proponents claim are even smaller. All that being said, de Grey makes an interesting Singularity-style argument with his idea of Longevity Escape Velocity. A similar, much more naive, argument that I’ve heard goes like this:

In 1000 CE, life expectancy in the West was about 25 years.
In 1900 CE, life expectancy in the West was about 45 years.
In 2000 CE, life expectancy in the West was about 75 years.
Therefore, we’ve made more progress in the last century than we did in the 900 years preceding it.
Therefore, clinical immortality is just around the corner.

It’s perhaps a compelling argument, but not a particularly strong one. De Grey’s argument has the advantage of providing a plausible mechanism for this escape velocity (the development and iterative improvement of anti-senescent treatments) and provides a strong scientific grounding for why that mechanism is achievable.

In short, I think that if anyone is going to accomplish the (very noble) goal of putting an end to the deleterious effects of aging, I think that Aubrey de Grey is the most plausible candidate we have.

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Magic Blue Smoke

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1.) Carry out your own dead.
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