After an extended absence, I’m pleased to bring boydfuturist back in a new format. Like many other bloggers, I struggle with finding a nice balance between content and regular publishing; the more in depth the post, the more time it takes to write something worth reading. The amount of time that it takes me to come up with a lengthy, thoughtful post would work great for adding to a technology site that has multiple contributors, but makes it difficult to sustain a regular publishing schedule when I’m the only author. Up until now I’ve had something of a dual online identity; here at boydfuturist I’d publish lengthy thoughts on technology, legal issues, and transhumanism generally and on my personal Facebook account I’d publish links or short comments to a handful of technology articles every day. Sometimes it feels like I’m spamming my friends with links and quick comments about tech articles.
It occurs to me that these two problems can solve each other. On on hand, I have too little content and on the other, too much. So, for the new year, I’m going to try posting multiple times per week in a digest format; the most interesting articles I’ve read during the last day or few days along with some short commentary. Since I push through boydfuturist updates to Facebook, this should reduce my Facebook posts to once per day (plus the non-tech stuff I post) and dramatically increase my posts here. When inspiration strikes me, I’ll post more lengthy updates on here as well. Best of all, this will give me (and my readers) a searchable index of articles for later access.
I was on the road for the holidays yesterday, so I didn’t get a chance to read many articles. Here’s a few from this morning:
TechEBlog has a great article about the world’s first gaming laptop. Of course, many of us have gamed on laptops before (I use my Gateway for small stuff right now) but the hardware packed by this little guy is truly impressive. It’s certainly not the cheapest option, but if you really must be the 1337est dude(ette) on the net, this laptop should provide a lag-free experience. People who really know their Hollywood geek roots might appreciate that this Razer Blade shares a name with two of the characters from Hackers, who undoubtedly would have loved to have this piece of equipment.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has demonstrated that it’s possible to genetically engineer mosquitoes such that they’re immune to malaria. As the article says, roughly 800,000 people per year, many of them children in Africa, die from malaria each year. This is another great example bleeding edge of technology helping to cure problems, and not just for the wealthy.
Finally, Gizmodo pushes through an article that I (as perpetually terrified dental patient) really appreciate: University of Missouri affiliated scientists have created a plasma toothbrush that is supposed to painlessly clean cavities in roughly 30 seconds, and improves the surface for the filling that goes in afterward. With some luck, by 2013 going to the dentist for routine cleanings and (the hopefully rarer) cavity fillings will be a much less traumatic experience.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
Just a quick admin message to say that, despite the long hiatus from posting, more content will be forthcoming. I’ve been hard at work writing a substantial paper arguing for a unified legal definition of “personhood” that I will share once I work through the publishing process. Finals are also forthcoming, which means I’ll be scarce anyway.
In the meantime, if you’d like to follow me on Facebook (where I frequently post interesting articles that I find, but don’t comment on as in-depth as here) please feel free. Please let me know you’re coming from here when you send the invite.
Either way, I expect a new boydfuturist post before the end of the year, and a more regular publishing schedule once the new year commences. I’ll be starting new classes in HIPPA Privacy and Energy Law, both of which, I imagine, will have tie-ins to the usual group of topics I chat about here.
Happy Holidays to those that celebrate them (whichever they may be), and the usual well-wishes if you don’t!
One demarcating line between sentient creatures and non-sentient creatures is the ability to use language, or otherwise communicate, with other members of the same species. Dolphins, ants, bats, and dogs (among others) all seem to be able to communicate within their own species, and they obviously don’t any human language to communicate. Thus far, only Koko the gorilla has been able to communicate directly with humans using a language that both understand (with apologies to owners of expressive pets.)
Now, researchers at the University of Queensland have created robots that are, themselves, independently creating a unique language. Finding human words too complicated for the efficient transfer of information, the robots now generate a random sequence of sounds to name a new place, then share that sequence with other robots to allow those robots to find the same place. Because each robot travels independently, they each make up their own random name for a place, and when two robots have both come to the same place but given it a different name, they seem to essentially negotiate with each other until they agree on a common name. Robot A, having traveled to some place, can tell Robot B (who has not been to that place) about that place: Robot B can then tell Robot C about the place that Robot A went to, even though Robot B has not been there. The ability of a robot to talk about places that that robot has not been to (indeed, they seem to be able to speculate about places that no robot has been to) seems like an important step toward more robust consciousness.
Considering that we don’t have a perfect explanation of how language maps onto representations of the world for humans, recreating a similar experience within robots also allows for realistic hope that we could create a sentient robot without fully understanding how our own sentience works. There is danger in that as well, because we don’t have a proven method of recognizing consciousness researchers might inadvertently destroy a sentient creature (or a great many) without realizing what they’ve done. Hopefully we can create such a reliable test quickly, or barring that, that sentient robots are more forgiving than people have a tendency to be.
If robots can create and share their unique language, they will soon be able to transfer that information across vast distances much more quickly. Scientists in the UK have broken a single laser information transmission record by transferring data at an astounding 26 terabytes per second. That’s roughly 700 DVDs, or 400 million phone calls, every second. Japanese researchers have used a multi-laser setup to transfer data at an even more amazing 109 terabytes per second. Confirming some of what Kurzweil has been saying, data transmission rates, according to researchers, are nearly doubling every 18 months. That means in about six years we should be able to transfer nearly 400 terabytes per second on a single laser using mathematical algorithms to encode and decode data. My fuzzy math says that’s about the data encoded in 10,000 DVDs transferred via single laser every second – at that rate much more complicated things like virtual reality ought to be transferable quickly enough to create decent representations of the ‘real world’ without too much lag (or stuttering, as the computer attempts to display the graphical information.)
Both discoveries are impressive in their own right, but the combination of technologies means that robots can potentially begin to create their own language and then transfer that information to other robots at incredible speeds. Moreover, there is little reason why language needs to be tied exclusively to location – robots should be able to use their language to describe anything in the world, and then transfer that information to other robots who can speak about the thing describes without ever having directly experienced it – not at all unlike what people can do.
Better, as computer components miniaturize and become integrated with people, we too ought to be able to take advantage of the data transmission rates. Of course, a biological brain could never process that much information that quickly, but with some mechanical augmentation we might well be able to translate the optical signals into chemical reactions that the brain can understand.
As a formatting note, I’m going to move to a once-a-week publishing schedule. Although today is Saturday, I expect to publish on “Futurist Fridays” from now on.
First, a brilliant (aren’t they all) TED talk by Dr. Fineberg, who explains some of the potential right around the corner for genetic rewriting. Interestingly, I think the question that he repeatedly asks is also the answer to critics who suggest that there will be an enormous (and bloody) opposition to superhumans (or transhumans, or whatever your preferred term is): “If the technology existed to allow you to live another 100 years, wouldn’t you want to?”
For me, the answer is clearly yes. Moreover, I don’t see many other people saying no. In a modern context, there are groups who refuse medical treatment (and other technological progress) for moral or religious reasons: the Amish are the most explicit example, but many other people refuse blood transfusions, medical treatment, or choose not to get an abortion because the science doesn’t align with their morals or religious views. Except for abortion, the protests are largely silent and don’t get in the way of the rest of us getting out transfusions or treatment. Hardly anyone protests people wearing eyeglasses, or taking insulin, or even getting brain-to-computer implants that allow victims of various full body paralysis disorders to communicate. It seems to me that the main reason for that is that everyone (or substantially everyone) at the end of the day -wants- to live longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives. And science, through genetic coding and mechanical augmentation, lets us do that.
Note, however, the eugenics undertones in his talk: In this sense I think the ideas in my earlier post remain plausible when genetic coding is restricted to diseases for the unborn (though Dr. Fineberg doesn’t necessarily agree that we should do that) or at least when adults can rewrite their own code ‘on the fly’ while alive (that is, code changes aren’t limited to the developing human but can be performed on already alive people.)It is, to be fair, a fine ethical line and one upon which reasonable people can disagree.
Dr. Fineberg’s talk is below, though I encourage you to visit TED to see other brilliant (but not necessarily futurist) talks.
Second, Science Daily comes through with an article explaining how carbon nanotubes might be used to create synthetic synapses; the building blocks of brains. Two things about this article jump out at me. First, the timeline. In 2006 people at USC started wondering if we might create a synthetic brain. Five years later, they’ve created artificial synapses. That’s a pretty quick turnaround, even by today’s standards. Second, the numbers. According to the article the human brain has something on the order of 100 Billion neurons, and each neuron is comprised of some 10,000 synapses. By my fuzzy math, that means we’d need something on the order of 1 Quadrillion (10^15) carbon nanotubes to recreate the structure of the human brain. I hope we can make these in big batches!
Finally, a little shameless self-promotion. Although I have a ‘going public’ post, as of today I’m officially branching out through social media groups. So, if you’re new here, I encourage you to leave your thoughts and, if you enjoy what you read, share with your friends.
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At 3:38 PM on April 16th, 2011, boydfuturist woke up.
Perhaps not, but it is when I decided to go public. Through this site I intend to offer commentary and thoughts about emerging technology, transhumanism, and legal holdings relating to the same.
Thank you for joining me.
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