ACCELER8OR

Jan 18 2012

The Internet is a little darker today

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Today, Wikipedia, Reddit, and a host of other sites across the internet have gone dark to protest the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA  (the PROTECT IP Act) bills worming their way through the legislature here in the US.

Both bills enable not just government censorship of the internet, but censorship initiated by the private sector, e.g. the MPAA and the RIAA, as a response to what they see as threats to their intellectual property rights.

The bills are both rapidly losing steam.  MSNBC.com reported yesterday that votes in both houses of Congress have been delayed as protests around the internet have picked up supporters.  On January 14, the Obama administration released a statement which indicated opposition to the most controversial enforcement mechanisms in both bills — DNS blacklisting, the same internet censorship techniques used by Iran, China, and Syria.

“We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk.”  — the White House Blog, at Whitehouse.gov

But that doesn’t mean the bills are dead; far from it. Today’s digital protests are important, both as a way to raise awareness of the bills amongst people who might not know much about intellectual property law, and also to register the displeasure of all the internet entrepreneurs and information workers who would be affected by the sweeping legislation.

We at Acceler8or believe both these bills are bad policy with a high potential for abuse, and we stand with the sites which have chosen to go dark today.  We’re a small site, and blacking out for the day doesn’t make much sense for us, nor would it make a ripple in the immense oceans of traffic that make up the internet.  But we would like  to encourage our US readers to take a moment to register their opposition to the bills with their elected representatives.  One easy way is using this page from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to send email to your representatives in Congress.  Another good way is through AmericanCensorship.org, where you can get tools to help you advertise your opposition on your own websites.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.
 

 

Dec 13 2011

Quadrotors Will Do Everything (Well, Almost)

About a year ago I wrote an article for H+ magazine on the use of quadrotors for a variety of purposes, ranging from VR telepresence units to sensor platforms for dangerous environments to construction.

So, you can imagine my reaction on reading this article on Singularity Hub.  In short, it’s about a demonstration of robotic assembly, done by quadrotors under computer control, building a 20 foot tall tower out of lightweight foam blocks. Foam might not sound impressive, but it’s a public demonstration, so I’m sure foam was chosen not only because it’s light enough to not place a major strain on the copters, but because it’s soft enough to not cause injuries if the tower falls over. The materials are meaningless however, because it’s the control systems that are the real story. Fifty quadrotors will fly under complete computer control, having to navigate not just the static environment, but the variable obstacle course of all the other quadrotors, the changing environment of the tower being built and maybe even having to dodge the occasional overly curious onlooker. As you can probably imagine, I had to grin. Not even a full year later, and already we’re seeing stories about quadrotors being used as I described.

But I’m not the only one who’s seen how useful quadrotor could be. In a recent blog post, K. Eric Drexler asked “Where are the Parrots?” He looks at the robots used to explore the Fukushima reactor, a pair of Monirobo’s, a track based one armed robot that have a top speed of 2.4 kph, and weigh 600kg, and has to wonder why such clumsy robots were being used when the Parrot AR drone makes a far superior platform for the job. He points out that  many “Very Serious People” are dismissive of “toys”

So I decided to do a review and take a look at what sort of developments have been happening with quadrotors over the last year. First up, I have a video from January of 2011, just a few months after my original article.

As you can see, this features construction with modular materials… in this case, magnetically connectable girders. It provides an illustration of the most basic concept of the quadrotor construction battalion.

However, to really appreciate the potential here I have another video for you

That’s a video of China’s Broad Group building a modular hotel in less than one week. Now replace every human worker in the video with a quadrotor and you can probably guess what the upcoming demo is going to look like.

Precision swarming has also made advances since that first video, as this one from September of 2011 illustrates.

These videos are from the ETH labs in Zurich, and are part of a great series of quadrotor developments they have made, but autonomous flight is not the only kind of developments they are working on.

I found a very interesting video in which they are demonstrating a “control interface” that is entirely virtual, powered by a Kinect.

While I think full “mind control” of quadrotors via an emotive epoch style headset is what will eventually become the primary control interface of an RTU drone, the Kinect demo shows how intuitive we can make the control systems for everyday use of quadroters. This ease of use is one of the primary advantages of using quadrotors as camera and sensor platforms for dangerous environment navigation, like the Fukushima reactors.

There’s lots more interesting videos out there covering the many capabilities of quadrotors, from DIY projects to various university reports, and they all continue to say the same thing I first thought a year ago. Quadrotors are neither a toy, nor a curiosity. They are the first primitive stages of a variety of useful tools that will reshape how we do many things. I’m looking forward to seeing videos of the construction demo, because I love seeing the future be developed right in front of me.

And of course, getting to say “told you so!” : )

Aug 25 2011

Dillon Beresford and The Strange Case of the Stuxnet Worm

Cyber Security

Cyber security has come front and center recently with the threat of the Guy Fawkes cyber attack on Facebook and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s warning about the use of Chinese-made software. Malicious hackers are everywhere these days, it seems.

Dillon Beresford, a “good guy” hacker who works for security firm NSS Labs, demonstrated at the Black Hat Briefings conference in Las Vegas this month how he had successfully exploited flaws in commonly-used industrial computer systems made by Siemens that are used in thousands of industrial plants.

The Siemens Industrial Control Systems (ICS) is the same product targeted by Stuxnet, the sophisticated computer worm discovered last year to have crippled Iran’s nuclear program. It reprogrammed the computer-controlled centrifuges used to enrich uranium so that they spun out of control and destroyed themselves.

Beresford’s talk was given in lieu of one he had planned to give at TakedownCon in June. He cancelled that talk voluntarily after Siemens and ICS CERT (cyber emergency response team) raised concerns about the impact of a public disclosure of the security holes.  Here is the latest ICS CERT advisory.

The Washington Times quotes Vikram Phatak, chief technology officer of NSS Labs: Beresford’s work shows that “you don’t need Stuxnet to do real damage” to industrial plants. The demonstration showed vulnerabilities in the software and hardware used to run everything from nuclear power plants to manufacturing assembly lines to water treatment plants and prisons.

What is Stuxnet?
The cyber attack on the Iranian centrifuges allowed the Stuxnet worm to spread from one computer to another via infected USB sticks. The vulnerability was in the LNK file of Windows Explorer, a fundamental component of Microsoft Windows. When an infected USB stick was inserted into a computer, as Explorer automatically scanned the contents of the stick, Stuxnet awoke and dropped a large, partially encrypted file onto the computer.

It was subsequently discovered that the worm itself appeared to have included two major components. One was designed to send Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control. The second seemed right out of a spy thriller: Stuxnet secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart.

The attacks were not fully successful: some parts of Iran’s operations ground to a halt, while others survived, according to the reports of international nuclear inspectors. The New York Times reported that it’s not clear the attacks are over yet: some experts believe the Stuxnet code contains the seeds for yet more versions and assaults.

Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities
Iran’s ability to produce bomb-ready enriched uranium became a major concern during the Bush administration. “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” said Senator John McCain, parodying The Beach Boys’ tune Barbara Ann.

President Obama spent 2009 trying to engage Iran diplomatically. Tehran initially accepted but then rejected an offer for an interim solution under which it would ship some uranium out of the country for enrichment. In June 2010, after months of lobbying by the Obama administration and Europe, the United Nations Security council voted to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran, which was the fourth such move.

The Cyber Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Centrifuges
Wired Magazine’s Threat Level reported that as early as January 2010, investigators with the International Atomic Energy Agency completed an inspection at the uranium enrichment plant outside Natanz in central Iran, when they realized that something wasn’t right in the cascade rooms where thousands of centrifuges were enriching uranium.

Workers had been replacing the units at an incredible rate: perhaps as many as 1,000 and 2,000 centrifuges were swapped out over a few months. This was, of course, due to Stuxnet.

Stuxnet, it turns out, was actually released June 2009. But it would be nearly a year before the inspectors would learn of this. It took dozens of computer security researchers around the world months of analysis and deconstruction to determine that a worm, a “zero-day” exploit, had occurred.

The zero day in the Iranian incident was dubbed “Stuxnet” by Microsoft from a combination of file names (.stub and MrxNet.sys) found in the code.

An Israeli Connection?
Israel’s never-acknowledged nuclear arms program is supposedly centered in The Dimona complex in the Negev desert. The New York Times reported that behind Dimona’s barbed wire, Israel spun nuclear centrifuges virtually identical to Iran’s at Natanz. Did they test the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm before it infected the Iranian computers?

In January 2011, the retiring chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately announced that they believed Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts had been set back by several years. Mrs. Clinton cited American-led sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s ability to buy components and do business around the world.

Officially, American nor Israeli officials won’t even acknowledge the existence of the Stuxnet worm.

But Israeli officials were reported as “grinning widely” when asked about its effects. President Obama’s chief WMD strategist, Gary Samore, sidestepped a Stuxnet question at a conference about Iran. He added, “with a smile,” “I’m glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines, and the U.S. and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated.”

Enter Dillon Beresford
Dillon Beresford is not just an everyday hacker. He has an extensive IT security background in exploit development, penetration testing, reverse code engineering, intrusion prevention systems, and intrusion detection systems.

After working with Siemens to identify the security breaches that allowed the Stuxnet incident to occur, he canceled a planned demonstration of the vulnerabilities (as mentioned earlier) at the TakeDownCon security conference in Texas in early June 2011, after Siemens and the Department of Homeland Security expressed concern about disclosing information before Siemens could patch the vulnerabilities.

The vulnerabilities affect the programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, in several Siemens SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. Siemens PLC products are used in companies throughout the United States and the world.

It was a vulnerability in a PLC belonging to Siemens’ Step7 control system that was the target of the Stuxnet worm.

Beresford researched SCADA systems independently at home. He purchased SCADA products online with funding from NSS Labs, intending to examine systems belonging to multiple vendors. Beresford began with Siemens and found multiple vulnerabilities in the products very quickly.

Cyber Warfare?
The increasing attention to SCADA systems coming on the heels of Stuxnet and other cyber security incidents is bringing pressure to both the the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and firms like Siemens to take a hard look at the security of PLCs and other industrial control equipment.

Underscoring the importance of cyber security, ZDNet reports that DHS just issued a warning about using Chinese-made software, especially when it comes to the chemical, defense, and energy firms. Much of the concern comes from recent hacking attacks against companies like Lockheed Martin and Sony. It appears to have been traced back to a specific Beijing software company called Sunway ForceControl.

A huge Internet attack this month targeted 72 organizations, including the U.N., and analysts say it apparently originated in China.

The Daily Beast quotes Richard Clarke, the former top U.S. government official who famously held roles in counterterrorism and cybersecurity in the Clinton and Bush administrations: “What’s going on is very large-scale Chinese industrial espionage. They’re stealing our intellectual property. They’re getting our research and development for pennies on the dollar.”

What’s at stake goes beyond the ability to breach industrial control systems — even as scary as that is — into the realm of state secrets… and global military and economic dominance.

Aug 16 2011

Tools For Art Are Getting Smarter. So Come Out And Play

..it’s the end of era where someone like me can claim to be an artist and expect that to actually mean “I can do something you can’t nyah nyah!”

 

I’m an excited succubus today. I just found the most wonderful new toy.

And no, it’s not that. It’s this.

Yes, I know, it’s an artist’s mannequin. On crack. But I also happen to be a pin-up artist in addition to just being a pin-up. And I write fan fiction. I saw this and I started to drool. And it’s not just because I like playing with dolls. Mostly.

I have another wonderful piece of software designed for the artist as well, a nice program called MangaStudio. Now, in Manga Studio, there’s a means to use and pose a virtual mannequin. Now imagine how easily you can pose a figure and then draw on it with a digitizer pen. Combine that with a high quality human modeling software like Poser. Heck, throw in a Kinect to add the ability to simply stand in the pose you want modeled. Think about the ease you could have drawing your own daily web comic. Think about writers being able to draw their own comics.

Because, you see, that’s what I’m doing. As soon as I can get one of these little dolls, I will, because it will make my job as a pinup artist so much easier. It will let me actually create a webcomic of my fanfiction in a time frame of hours not months. It might even enable me to make animated movies with such programs as AnimeStudio.

So yes, the artist in me is giddy as a Japanese schoolgirl at a tentacle convention. My personal reason for excitement is no cause for excitement on your part, right? But there is a reason you should be excited… a very big one. Because you see, I might be what is considered an “artist” now, simply because I have the ability to draw and color with simple hand eye coordination. This should excite you because it’s the end of era where someone like me can claim to be an artist and expect that to actually mean “I can do something you can’t nyah nyah!”

Why? To be precise, because of the availability of high level interfaces to low level productivity software. All those programs I’ve been naming? All of them are attempts to create high level interfaces. What this means is they make extremely complex tasks massively simpler. You see, as an artist, I have to be aware of thousands of “rules of thumb” and use them more or less subconsciously. Rules about anatomy; about skeletons; about muscles; form, volumes, symmetry, light, and so many others. I’ve learned how to be an artist through years of practice and a drive to make the visions in my head visible. I found a way to make my imagination seen. But even with all that, I can see ways that this little wired doll could make such translation so much easier. I can see how “simple” it makes drawing a character; how easily it could allow me to make my poses so much more dynamic and expressive. And then I think about the fact that this is true for not just artists, but for everyone. This is a sea change.

Because this is just one example of a high level, intuitive, immediately-accessible-to-anyone with-or-without-training tool for creating an extremely sophisticated end product. This won’t just be an artist’s toy. It’s going to become a tool used to make video game animations, create new SL poses and animations, design avatars, and enable just about anyone to make them. 3d character designers just stopped needing a degree to be possible. Corel and Adobe did much the same thing when it came to 2d art. We are gradually creating a world in which knowledge is encoded into our tools. A world where you can pick up a guitar and it will teach you to play it. We’ve long been able to pass on knowledge through training and long practice, but that limited its availability to those few who possessed both desire and “talent.” By encoding the knowledge into our tools, we enable everyone to access those centuries of accumulated knowledge acquisition. We make it possible for everyone to have “talent”

And it’s not going to stop at artwork, my friends. Imagine in a few years when you can have software tools that would enable you to draw or “paint” in the “style” of Da Vinci or Picasso or Warhol. Imagine when I can draw my Ranma fic in true Rumiko “style” or even when we start seeing those new movies starring long dead actors made by Ole Joe Shmoe on a non-existent budget… and they start winning Oscars.

It’s also going to enable anyone to design a product — even such complex engineering projects as a new car or airplane — that will be completely market ready in hours, with software encoded engineering knowledge making adjustments to the designers’ concepts to ensure they are functional devices. We might even soon see a day where “self improvement” algorithms in the software optimize a design automatically to maximize any number of adjustable factors.

High level design tools for low level productivity. It’s one of the most enabling of all technological developments.  The more knowledge we encode into our tools, the farther those tools can take us, and the easier it will be for all of us to be equals.

And for me, it’s my chance to play with dolls again and commit art doing so.

Jul 22 2011

Is The Singularity Near Or Far? It’s A Software Problem

When I first read The Singularity is Near by Kurzweil, it struck me that something seemed curiously “missing” from his predictions. At the time, I merely put it on the back burner as a question that needed more data to answer. Well, recently, it’s been brought up again by David Linden in his article “The Singularity is Far”.

What’s missing is a clear connection between “complete understanding of the mechanics of the brain” and how this “enables uploading and Matrix level VR.” As David points out, merely knowing how the brain functions at the mechanical level, even if we know how each and every atom and molecule behaves, and where every single neuron goes, does not equal the ability to reprogram the brain at will to create VR, nor does it necessarily translate into the ability to “upload” a consciousness to a computer.

I tend to agree with David that Ray’s timeline might be overly optimistic, though for completely different reasons. Why? Because software does not equal hardware!

David discusses a variety of technical hurdles that would need to be overcome by nanomachines in order to function as Kurzweil describes, but these are all really engineering issues that will be solved in one manner or another. We may or may not actually see them fixed by the timeline Kurzweil predicts, but with the advances we are making with stem cells, biological programming of single cell organisms, and even graphene based electronics, I don’t doubt that we will find a means to non destructively explore the brain, and even to interface to some basic functions. I also see many possible ways to provide immersive VR without ever having to achieve the kind of technology Ray predicts. I don’t even doubt that we’ll be able to interface with a variety of “cybernetic” devices via thought along, including the creation of artificial limbs which can be wired into the nervous system and provide sensory data like “touch.”

But knowing how to replicate a signal from a nerve and knowing precisely what that signal means to that individual might not be the same thing. Every human brain has a distinct synaptic map, and distinct signaling patterns. I’m not as confident that merely knowing the structure of a brain will enable us to translate the patterns of electrical impulses as easily as Kurzweil seems to think. We might learn how to send signals to devices without learning how to send signals back from that device in such a manner as to enable “two way” communication beyond simple motor control functions, much less complete replication of consciousness or complete control of inputs to enable “matrix VR” for a much longer time than mere mechanical reproduction of a human brain in simulation.

Does my perception of Green equal yours? Is there a distinct “firing pattern” that is identical among all humans that translates as “green”, or does every human have a distinct “signature” which would make “green” for me show up as “pink” for you? Will there be distinct signals that must be “decoded” for each and every single individual, or does every human conform to one of who knows how many “synaptic signal groups”? Can a machine “read minds” or would a machine fine tuned to me receive only gibberish if you tried to use it?

The human mind is adaptable. We’ve already proven that it can adapt to different points of view in VR, and even adapt to use previously unknown abilities, like a robotic “third arm”. The question is will this adaptability enable us to use highly sophisticated BCI despite that BCI being unable to actually “read” our thoughts, merely because we learn methods to send signals to it that it can understand while remaining “black boxes”, our “mind” impenetrable to the machine despite all our knowledge of the “brains” hardware?

This is the question I think Ray glosses over. Mere simulation of the hardware alone might not even begin to be the “hard problem” that will slow uploading. I don’t doubt we will eventually find an answer, but to do so, we first have to ask the question, and it’s one I don’t think Ray’s asked.

Jul 17 2011

MondoNet Fights The Internet Power: an Interview with Aram Sinnreich

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, I’m sure you’ve heard about the “Declaration of War” by Lulzsec and Anonymous. Regardless of what you think about their actions, it should be obvious that there has been a growing effort by large corporations and governments to recreate the internet in an image completely alien to its original intentions – that of a robust decentralized network which no amount of damage could bring down. DARPA’s original designs have been sidetracked by various groups trying desperately to eliminate a “free and open” network model in favor of centrally controlled, corporate owned, authoritarian “walled gardens” in which your every move is tracked, your every file is subject to the central authorities approval, and your every action with your own possessions is monitored to ensure you’re not doing something a company disapproves of. The corporations have no desire to allow the masses a future in which information is not monitored, metered, charged for, and always in the control of the corporations.

In order to do this, they need the networks to be centralized, run entirely through systems in which every bit of data transmitted back and forth from the end user to the internet is subject to their scrutiny and approval. Due to the manner in which the net has developed using existing infrastructure, there are many bottlenecks which have made this effort possible, from cell phone towers that ensure that smartphones are routed through bandwidth limiting servers that meter per second access and looks for ways to charge customers for “overuse” to broadband services who inspect every packet of information to prevent you from downloading movies and songs. Even the FBI wants the ability to search your computer remotely.

So while I am uncertain of the utility of “cyberterrorism,” I can certainly see the need for methods to prevent the “digital frontier” from becoming a “virtual prison” and to encourage a return to that robust decentralized vision created by DARPA.

That’s pretty much what these guys at MondoNet are about and I think their words say it pretty clearly:

“Although the Internet is highly decentralized in its communication and social patterns, its technical and regulatory foundations are extremely hierarchical, due to centralized control by organizations like ICANN and the oligopolistic ownership of the access business by a handful of broadband ISPs and wireless carriers (Wu, 2010). As a result of this centralization, digital communications are compromised by a degree of surveillance and censorship that would be unthinkable in traditional social arenas, threatening our cyberliberties and “e-speech” rights (Sinnreich & Zager, 2008).

“Seemingly disparate issues like network neutrality, intellectual property treaties and national security measures, taken in combination, threaten to produce a communications environment in which innovation is stifled and normative cultural behaviors are criminalized and punished by censorship, fines and/or imprisonment. One potential solution to this problem would be to create a new communications platform based on existing Internet protocols, but with a decentralized infrastructure free of the bottlenecks and chokepoints that plague the current system. Specifically, this new infrastructure would use mesh networking technologies to produce a stable, ad hoc global wireless network in which each peer is a router, server and client combined, and in which no single state or organization can effectively censor or surveil the population on a massive scale.”

If you’ve never heard of a mesh network, or don’t understand the technical jargon, it basically means that every “device” — be it a smartphone, computer, or other internet connected device — “talks” to every other device, instead of to a “tower” or to a “server.” In other words, instead of talking to an “ISP” or “Carrier” who stands between you and the internet, your device will simply be part of the internet.

In the current infrastructure, if you want to call your friend, your device can’t just call up your friend. First it has to call up to a centralized, corporate controlled network. Then it has to confirm that it is allowed on that network and receive approval to use that network. Then it has to ask permission to create a connection to your friend, and verify that your friend is allowed access to the network, has not been banned from the network, and is connected to the network instead of a different network. Then, it will finally be allowed to create a connection, subject to monitoring from the central network. In a mesh network, your device would simply go to the next nearest device and then on to the next, and so on until it made a connection to your friend, over hundreds of different paths that it would turn into a “virtual private network” in which everything you and your friend say is inaccessible to anyone but the two of you because your data would be being sent along too many different paths to intercept.

Mondo.net again does a fantastic job of summarizing the principles of such a network:
1. Decentralized
The network should not be operated, maintained, or in any way reliant upon a single or minimally differentiated set of entities or technologies. No individual, entity or group should be central to the network to the extent that their absence would measurably impact its functionality or scope. Network participation should not require access to fixed, physical infrastructure of any sort.
2. Universally Accessible
The requisite technology and expertise required to participate in the network should be available at minimal cost and effort to every human being on the planet. Furthermore, all users should be able to extend the network’s content and functionality to suit their own needs, or those of others. No aspect of the network’s functioning should be reliant upon proprietary technologies, information or capital.
3. Censor-proof
The network should be resistant to both regulatory and technical attempts to limit the nature of the information shared, restrict usage by given individuals or communities, or render the network, or any portion of it, inoperable or inaccessible.
4. Surveillance-proof
The network should enable users to choose exactly what information they share with whom, and to participate anonymously if they so desire. Users should only have access to information if they are the designated recipients, or if it has been published openly.
5. Secure
The network should be organized in a way that minimizes the risk of malicious attacks or engineering failure. Information exchanged on the network should meet or exceed the delivery rate and reliability of information exchanged via the Internet.
6. Scalable
The network should be organized with the expectation that its scale could reach or even exceed that of today’s Internet. Special care should be taken to address to the challenge of maintaining efficiency without the presence of a centralized backbone.
7. Permanent
The network’s density and redundancy should be great enough that, despite its ad hoc nature, it will persistently operate on a broad scale, and be available in full to any user within range of another peer.
8. Fast (enough)
The network should always achieve whatever speed is required for a “bottom line” level of social and cultural participation. At present, we assert that the network’s data transfer rate should, at a minimum, be enough for voice-over-IP (VoIP) communications, and low-bitrate streaming video.
9. Independent
While the network will have the capacity to exchange information with Internet users and nodes, it should be able to operate independently, as well. A large-scale failure or closure of Internet infrastructure and content should have minimal effect on the network’s operations.
10. Evolvable
The network should be built with future development in mind. The platform should be flexible enough to support technologies, protocols and modes of usage that have not yet been developed.

The question then is this: Why should you care?

And I’ll be honest here. I see mesh networks naturally evolving to become the dominant form of network over the next few decades, because it’s the most practical solution to a number of problems that will have to be solved in order to build the VR web as well as to connect the entire world to the internet. Centralized networks are only possible in highly developed countries with existing infrastructures like power and telephone grids, as well as roads. You can’t build a tower where you don’t have either power or access. For vast areas of the world, mesh networks will be the only feasible solution. As handheld devices get cheaper, smaller and use less power, and batteries become able to store weeks or month’s worth of power for them, they will become the world’s primary means to access the internet. As billions of devices begin attaching to the net, they will overwhelm any centralized system. At that point, it will be much simpler to use them in a mesh than it will be to try and build sufficient infrastructure to meet demand. A mesh network can grow as fast as you add a new device to it. And unlike traditional networks, it auto-updates itself as users discontinue using older devices and switch to new ones. It also will eliminate bandwidth issues as thousands of paths will allow data streaming at the limits of the devices own hardware. As we move past the multimedia age and into the VR age, the need for vast amounts of data to be transferred will force the abandonment of centralized systems that simply cannot handle the load for robust multispectrum wireless networks that are more akin to P2P torrents than today’s cellular networks. Technology advancement itself is going to ensure we will move to mesh architectures in the very near future. So why, really, should you care?

Because the sooner we begin working towards developing these peaceful, innovative, and practical solutions to the threats of authoritarian control of the worlds developing nervous system, the less need we will have for “Cyberterrorists” like Lulzsec and Anonymous to cause disruptive attacks that hurt the innocent and the guilty alike in a fight to preserve our freedom to access information. And that is a goal I think every side can agree on

Valkyrie Ice

RU SIRIUS:  John GIlmore famously said, “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it? True or not? And what’s missing from the Internet as it is, structurally, that requires an alternative creation for mass p2p activity?

ARAM SINNREICH: Gilmore was really talking about TCP/IP, and node-level routing. While it’s true that these protocols are inherently decentralized and therefore very resistant to censorship, the problem comes at the infrastructural level, which is far more centralized. The Internet may have a billion nodes now, but only a handful of companies control the Internet’s “backbone,” the broadband ISP market, and the wireless data services market (and two companies, AT&T and Verizon, are the dominant players in each of these sectors in the US). That means that no two Internet users in the US can communicate with one another without their data passing through the hands of one of these companies.

Unless the data is encrypted (in which case, it can be dumped if the companies choose), it is vulnerable to packet-sniffing or other forms of inspection. This is not a hypothetical situation; these companies have long histories of inspecting packets for the purposes of (a) commercially preferred treatment, e.g. non-neutral network operations; (b) commercial exploitation, e.g. consumer profiling; and (c) political censorship and surveillance, either at the behest of the federal government (think NSA wiretaps) or for reasons of corporate ideology (e.g. AT&T censoring an Eddie Vedder webcast critical of President Bush; Verizon blocking text messages between pro-choice groups and their members).

Thus, only a network that replicates the decentralization of nodes at an infrastructural level — or, to put it another way, one in which the nodes themselves are the backbones — can eschew the Internet’s vulnerability to censorship.

RU: There seems to be a lot of activity going on in a similar direction to MondoNet. Are you aware of other efforts and how does your plan differ?

AS: MondoNet was a germ of an idea in my mind from about 2004, when I first read Tim Wu’s work on Net Neutrality, and the idea of mesh networking as a democratizing force was something I discussed with my USC doctoral professor Francois Bar at the time. In fact, a video about mesh networking that Bar produced with my contributions in 2005-6 is available here (see the automata video). So this has been percolating for a while. However, it wasn’t until I started my tenure-track position at Rutgers in 2010 that I had the support to begin doing something with the idea. I taught a doctoral course in the fall called “Visions and Revisions of Cyberspace,” and two of my students in that class, Nathan Graham and Aaron Trammell, shared my enthusiasm for addressing the social and political dimension of network technologies. So at the end of the fall semester, we applied for a small grant to start MondoNet, and have been working on it ever since.

It’s been a gratifying surprise to see how much the concept of mesh networking has taken hold across disciplines and even in the mainstream press in the seven or eight months since we started our work. In January, 2011, OpenMesh launched their initiative, and we started sharing our work on MondoNet.org. In February, Hillary Clinton gave her “Internet freedom” speech, and a few days later, the Freedom Box initiative announced itself in the pages of the New York Times. In April, I announced MondoNet at my TEDxUSC talk.

Now, it seems every day we read a new article or hear about a new initiative along these lines. And what’s really cool is that all of these networking initiatives have started to network as well. We’ve gotten code-sharing offers from other projects, been invited to Google Groups uniting researchers in this field, and are even planning our own Rutgers mini-conference on the subject later this year.

Where I think we differ, and can offer some vital perspective, is in our theoretical orientation. Unlike most of the other initiatives out there, we’re not engineers or policy wonks. We’re critical information scholars, bringing perspectives from social science, political economy and even cultural studies into the mix. This is why my TEDx talk and our soon-to-be-published article in The Information Society begin with what we call “social specifications,” emphasizing the qualities that free society requires from a network, rather than the capacities that given technologies can offer us. Before we even start thinking about protocols and feature sets, we want to be perfectly clear about what we’re trying to accomplish. So today, wireless ad hoc networks might be the best solution to address these social specifications, but ten years from now, there may be other options. Either way, we’re wedded to the principles, not to the tech.

Of course, we’re just as interested in making free and open networked communications a reality as anyone else out there. Our immediate plan is to test a “virtual” version of MondoNet in three different types of community, and to operationalize our social specifications through a variety of different data measurements. Once we are confident that MondoNet will actually move the needle on these target goals (e.g. accessibility or resistance to censorship), we’ll start building actual MondoNet software to spec. And the more we can make use of other projects’ openly-licensed code in the process, the happier we’ll be.

RU: I wonder if this thing scales, or if you want it to.  For example, for all the horrors of Facebook, the charm is in the fact that there are like a billion people there.  I can go find my old high school buddy or my great aunt. And while smaller decentralized alternative networks might be an advantage to, say, revolutionaries in Egypt or wherever, in that the government would find it harder to shut it down, there’s the chance that it won’t reach a lot of the people.

AS:  We definitely want it to scale — not just in terms of growth, but in terms of applicability within social milieus of any size. As you point out, it needs to work for small groups of dissenters within oppressive environments, but it also needs to provide a large-scale platform for an uncorruptible public sphere. In my ideal future, the entire globe will be covered with a stable, decentralized, peer-to-peer communications mesh, which can be used as a platform for public, closed-group, and person-to-person information exchanges.

As to Facebook’s “charm,” you’re certainly right that size matters when it comes to networks. I’m sure you’re familiar with Metcalfe’s law, which states that the value or power of a communications platform grows exponentially as the number of peers grows incrementally. And with MondoNet, this applies to an even greater extent, because users will rely on one another not only as senders and recipients of information, but as components of the network itself. All that being said, we’re not trying to replace or rival Facebook. In fact, we’d be delighted if Facebook chose to mirror its servers on MondoNet peers one day. We’re aiming to be pure infrastructure, simply a reliably secure and open alternative to the increasingly draconian and expensive broadband and wireless commercial networks.

RU:  I’m amazed that Rutgers is supporting this (so far.)  Certainly the government takes very seriously their abilities to surveil communications (going all the way back to the fight over the Clipper Chip in the mid-90s).  Do you expect a visit from some friendly folks at Homeland Security if this becomes viable?

AS: Yes, I’m sure that once we move from the talking phase to the doing phase, someone with national security concerns will come a-knocking. They’ll probably ask us to build in a “back door” to allow wiretaps and other forms of surveillance, just like they have for all the other network service operators. But the beauty of the technology we’re building is, such a back door would be impossible from an engineering standpoint. There’s no central backbone or other point of presence through which the majority of bits will flow. Furthermore, the platform will enable native peer-to-peer encryption (like PGP), which means that each individual node will have the ability to determine the visibility or obscurity of the information it sends. And, because the code is all open-source, even if we did create some kind of workaround back door, other developers could simply engineer it back out, and release an improved, higher-security version.

I’m not surprised that Rutgers is being supportive, though I am gratified — after all, free speech, social equality and technological innovation are key aims of our school, so we’re pretty much in line with the mission statement. However, it is a state university, so I suppose if federal regulators got a bee in their bonnet about the project, they could probably exert some political force to get the university to kibosh us. Hopefully, by the time that happens, we’ll have enough research, code, and project inertia to continue independently.

RU:  What sort of time frame do you think you’re looking at before this starts testing and how long after that do you think it might become viable for lots of people?

AS: As social scientists, we ask questions first and act second. So our first order of business will be to test the premises of MondoNet by creating a “virtual” version for field research. Will a peer-to-peer mobile mesh network actually address the social and political flaws of the existing Internet? Will it increase accessibility? Decentralize communications? Prove resistant to censorship and surveillance? We’re currently in talks with a mobile software developer to create this virtual MondoNet, and hopefully we will test it over the next year.

Once we determine whether our strategy actually does what we hope it does, then we can begin to develop the software itself. The good news is, many of the components (e.g. mesh networking protocols) are already developed or in development under open license elsewhere, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We see our role more as integrating these back-end technologies, creating an easy-to-use and widely accessible user interface, and then shepherding the project development within the open source/free software community. Given that we will probably need to rely on grant money to do this, a realistic timeframe would be about 3 years till public release.

Coming from the business world, I realize that this might seem like a long development cycle, but we want to get it right the first time, and build a strong foundation for future development by ourselves and other coders and communities. If we do it right, the project should take on a life of its own, and the code will be adapted for uses and sociopolitical contexts we can’t predict at this point.

RU: Broadly speaking, there has been a lot of controversy over the years about the liberatory or revolutionary potential of the internet, ranging from technotopian imaginings to scathing indictments.  What’s your view?

AS: Great question. I actually teach a doctoral course on this topic (Nathan and Aaron — both project participants — took it last year). The short answer is, all technologies are inherently neutral. They can be used toward both emancipatory and totalitarian ends, and usually both apply. Through laws, regulations, architecture and social norms, different interests work to redefine the role of technology to achieve the social outcomes they seek. Right now, many regulatory and architectural developments are pushing the platform towards informatic totalitarianism, though emerging social norms continue to explore its emancipatory potential. We see MondoNet as an architectural intervention, reversing the “cable-ization” of the network and undermining the power of regulators to centralize control over information flow.

As a final word, I would also like to mention that this process of social reorganization through evolving communication technologies will never end. It will never reach a happy medium, a comfortable resting place, or a peaceable stasis. As the pace of technological innovation continues to accelerate relative to more organic human processes, communications networks will continue to play an increasingly central role in our politics, and the stakes will grow ever greater. Even if MondoNet is wildly successful, and we achieve our dream of a decentralized, universally distributed global mesh in 20 years, we can’t expect the story to end there.

Nanotechnology, quantum computing, and genetic science are just a few of the emerging fields that have far-reaching political and communication implications, and thus far these implications have been primarily addressed within the discourse of science fiction rather than research and advocacy. That’s why each of us needs to be aware of the power dynamics surrounding technological innovation, and to continually ask ourselves how we can intervene to help shape a future we’d want to live in.

Jul 14 2011

Optimist Author Mark Stevenson Is Trippin’… Through The Tech Revolution

“The oddest thing I did was attend an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives.”

Mark Stevenson’s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future is a rare treat — an upbeat tour visiting major shakers behind all the technologies in transhumanism’s bag of tricks — written by a quippie (a culturally hip person who uses amusing quips to liven up his or her narrative).  Stevenson trips through visits to genetic engineers, robotics, nanotechnology enthusiasts, longevity seekers, independent space explorers and more among them names you’ll recognize like Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Eric Drexler and Dick Rutan.

I interviewed him via email.

RU SIRIUS:  Were you an optimist growing up?

MARK STEVENSON:  No, not especially – although I was always trying new things. For most of my childhood I was convinced I was going to be a songwriter for a living.

RU: What made you look forward to the future?

MS: I think that’s a natural thing that humans do. Time is a road. Those who don’t pay attention to the road tend to crash. A better question is: what stops people looking to the future? One reason is because the story we hear about the future is so rubbish. I mean think about it. If I recall the story of the future I’ve been used to hearing since I was born pretty much it goes something like this: “The future is not going to be very good (especially if you vote for that guy), it was better in the old days, you’ve got to look after yourself, the world is violent and unsafe, your job is at risk, your boss is an idiot, your employees are lazy, the generation below you are feral and dangerous, things are changing too fast and you can’t trust those scientists/ new-agers/ left wingers/ right wingers /religious people /atheists /the rich /the poor /what you eat /your neighbor. You are alone. Make the best of it. Vote for me. Buy my paper. I understand.” It’s hardly inspiring, is it?

RU:  As you’ve promoted the book, have you run into arguments or questions that challenge optimistic views?  What’s the most important argument or question?

MS:  I’m not intrinsically optimistic about the future; I’m not an optimist by disposition. I’d say I’m a possibilist – which is to say, it’s certainly possible that we’ll have a much better future, but it’s also certainly possible that we’ll have a really rubbish one. The thing that’s going to move that in one direction or another will be how all of our interactions in the march of history nudge us. One thing I do know is, if you can’t imagine a better future, you’re certainly not going to make it happen. It’s like going into a job interview thinking about how you’re not going to get it. You just won’t get the job. The biggest problem I have is semantic. As soon as you associate yourself with the word “optimism” some people will instantly dismiss you as a wishful thinker who really hasn’t understood the grand challenges we face. As a result, I constantly have to battle against a lazy characterization of my views that suggest I am some kind of Pollyanna in rose-tinted spectacles. My position is simply this: that we should have an unashamed optimism of ambition about our future, and then couple that with our best creative and critical skills to realize those ambitions. Have good dreams – and then work hard to do something about them. It’s obvious stuff but it seems to me that not nearly enough people are saying it these days.

RU:  Since writing the book, what has happened that makes you more optimistic?

MS: That there is a huge hunger for pragmatic change – in fact I’m setting up The League for Pragmatic Optimists to help catalyze this. Also I’m being asked to help organizations re-imagine themselves. That’s challenging and hopeful. The corporation is one of the biggest levers we have for positive change.

RU:  Less optimistic?

MS: When we talk about innovation we easily reference technology, medicine – or we might talk about innovation in music, dance, fashion. But we rarely talk about institutional innovation, and nowhere is this more apparent than in government. Almost every prime minister or president at some point early into their first term of government gives a rousing and highly ironic speech about how they wish to promote innovation. But isn’t it strange that while governments (and many corporations it has to be said) so often talk about stimulating innovation they themselves don’t change the way they work. When we introduced parliamentary democracy in the 1700s it was a massive innovation, a leap forward. Yet here we are, 300 years later and I get to vote once every four years for two people, both of whom I disagree with to run an archaic system that cannot keep up with the pace of change. To quote Einstein,  “We can’t solve problems we’ve got by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It’s why I now dedicate much of my life helping institutions change the way they think about their place in the world and the way they operate.

RU:  Among the technologies you explore, we can include biotech, AI and nanotech.  In which of these disciplines do you most see the future already present.  In other words, whether it’s in terms of actual worthwhile or productive activities or in terms of stuff that’s far along in the labs, where can you best catch a glimpse of the future?

MS:  To quote William Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” So, synthetic biology is already in use, and has been for a while. If you’re diabetic, it’s almost certain your insulin supply is produced by E. coli bacteria whose genome has been tinkered with. The list of nanotechnology-based consumer products already available numbers thousands including computer memory and microprocessors, numerous cleaning products, antimicrobial bandages, anti-odour socks, toothpaste, air filters, sunscreen, kitchenware, fabric softeners, pregnancy tests, cosmetics, stain resistant clothing and pet furniture, long-wearing paint, bed-ware, guitar strings that stay sounding fresh thanks to a nano-coating and (it seems to me) a disproportionate number of hair straightening devices. It looks set to underpin revolutions in energy production, medicine and sanitation. Already we’re seeing it increase the efficiency of solar cells and heralding cheap water desalinization/purification technology. In fact, the Toffler Institute predicts that this will “solve the growing need for drinkable water, significantly reducing global conflict between water-starved nation-states.” In short, nanotech can take the ‘Water War’ off the table.

When it comes to AI I’m going to quote maverick Robot designer Rodney Brooks (formerly of MIT): “There’s this stupid myth out there that AI has failed, but AI is everywhere around you every second of the day. People just don’t notice it. You’ve got AI systems in cars, tuning the parameters of the fuel injection systems. When you land in an airplane, your gate gets chosen by an AI scheduling system. Every time you play a video game, you’re playing against an AI system”

What I think is more important to pay attention to is how all these disciplines are blurring together sometimes creating hyper-exponential growth. If you look at progress in genome sequencing for example — itself an interplay of infotech, nanotech and biotech — it’s outstripping Moore’s Law by a factor of four.

RU: What would you say was the oddest or most “science fictional” scene you visited or conversation you had during the course of your “tour”?

MS: The most “science fictional” was meeting the sociable robots at MITs Personal Robotics Group. Get onto You Tube and search for “Leo Robot” or “Nexi Robot” and you’ll see what I mean. Talking of robots, check out video of Boston Dynamics “Big Dog”  too.

The oddest thing I did was attend an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives – the idea of the first elected president of the nation, Mohamed Nasheed. (I was one of only one of four people not in the government or the support team allowed in the water). As we swam back to the shore I found myself swimming next to the president. His head turned my way and I must have looked startled because he made the underwater hand signal for “Are you okay?” I signalled back to assure him I was because there is no hand signal for “Bloody hell! I’m at an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives! How cool is that?!”

RU: Many of our readers are transhumanists.  What course of action would you recommend toward creating a desirable future.

MS: During my journey I spoke to a man called Mark Bedau, a philosopher and ethicist who said: “Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try to stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is, I think, futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible.”
This then, I believe, is everybody’s job: to try an influence change in a constructive way. The first way you do that is get rid of your own cynicism. Cynicism is like smoking. It may look cool but its really bad for you — and worse still its really bad for everyone around you. Cynicism is an institution of the mind that’s just as damaging as anything our governments or our employers can do to us.

I also like something a man called Dick Rutan told me when I visited the Mojave Space Port. He’s arguably the world’s finest aviator, most famous for flying around the world nonstop on one tank of gas. He’s seventy years old and still test piloting high-performance aircraft, and he told me: “Never look at a limitation as something you ever comply with. Never. Only look at it as an opportunity for greatness.”

RU: Your book is pretty funny… and you’ve been a stand up comedian.  What’s the funniest thing about the future?

MS: My next book, obviously!

Jul 10 2011

From Gamification to Intelligence Amplification to The Singularity

“Moore’s law became obsolete as far as graphics were concerned.  Moore’s law was doubling. It was accelerating so fast that NVida started calling it Moore’s law cubed.

The following article was edited by R.U. Sirius and Alex Peake from a lecture Peake gave at the December 2010 Humanity+ Conference at the Beckman Institute in Pasadena, California. The original title was “Autocatalyzing Intelligence Symbiosis: what happens when artificial intelligence for intelligence amplification drives a 3dfx-like intelligence explosion.”

I’ve been thinking about the combination of artificial intelligence and intelligence amplification and specifically the symbiosis of these two things.

And the question that comes up is what happens when we make machines make us make them make us into them?

There are three different Moores’ Laws of accelerating returns. There are three uncanny valleys that are being crossed.  There’s a sort of coming of age story for humanity and for different technologies. There are two different species involved, us and the technology, and there are a number of high stakes questions that arise.

We could be right in the middle of an autocatalytic reaction and not know it. What is an autocatalytic reaction? An autocatalytic reaction is one in which the products of the reactions are the catalysts. So, as the reaction progresses, it accelerates and increases the rate of reaction.  Many autocatalytic reactions are very slow at first. One of the best known autocatalytic reactions is life.   And as I said, we could be right in the middle of one of these right now, and unlike a viral curve that spreads overnight, we might not even notice this as it ramps up.

There are two specific processes that I think are auto-catalyzing right now.

The first is strong AI. Here we have a situation where we don’t have strong AI yet, but we definitely have people aiming at it.  And there are two types of projects aiming toward advanced AI. One type says, “Well, we are going to have machines that learn things.” The other says, “We are going to have machines that’ll learn much more than just a few narrow things. They are going to become like us.”

And we’re all familiar with the widely prevalent method for predicting when this might be possible, which is by measuring the accelerating growth in the power of computer hardware. But we can’t graph when the software will exist to exploit this hardware’s theoretical capabilities. So some critics of the projected timeline towards the creation of human-level AI have said that the challenge arises not in the predictable rise of the hardware, but in the unpredictable solving of the software challenges.

One of the reasons that what we might broadly call the singularity project has difficulties solving some of these problems is that — although there’s a ton of money being thrown at certain forms of AI, they’re military AIs; or they’re other types of AI that have a narrow purpose. And even if these projects claim that they’re aimed at Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), they won’t necessarily lead to the kinds of AIs that we would like or that are going to be like us.  The popular image of a powerful narrow purpose AI developed for military purposes would, of course, be the T-1000, otherwise known as the Terminator.

The terminator possibility, or “unfriendly AI outcome” wherein we get an advanced military AI is not something that we look forward to. It’s basically the story of two different species that don’t get along.

Either way, we can see that AI is the next logical step.

But there’s a friendly AI hypothesis in which the AI does not kill us. It becomes us.
And if we actually merge with our technology — if we become family rather than competition — it could lead to some really cool outcomes.

And this leads us to the second thing that I think is auto-catalyzing: strong intelligence amplification.

We are all Intelligence amplification users.

Every information technology is intelligence amplification.  The internet — and all the tools that we use to learn and grow — they are all tools for intelligence amplification. But there’s a big difference between having Google at your fingertips to amplify your ability to answer some questions and having a complete redefinition of the way that humans brains are shaped and grow.

In the Diamond Age. Neal Stephenson posits the rise of molecular manufacturing. In that novel, we get replicators from today’s “maker bot,” so we can say “earl gray hot”… and there we have it.  We’re theoretically on the way to this sort of nanotech. And it should change everything. But there’s a catch.

In one of The Star Trek movies, Jean-Luc Picard is asked, “How much does this ship cost?” And he says, “Well, we no longer use money. Instead, we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Before the girl can ask him how that works, the Borg attack. So the answer as to how that would look is glossed over.

Having had a chance to contemplate the implications of nanotechnology for a few decades (since the publication of The Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler), we understand that it may not lead to a Trekkie utopia. Diamond Age points out one reason why. People may not want to make Earl Grey tea and appreciate the finer things in life.  They might go into spoiled brat mode and replicate Brawndo in a Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451. We could end up with a sort of wealthy Idiocracy amusing itself to death.

In Diamond Age, the human race splits into two types of people. There are your Thetes, which is an old Greek term. They’re the rowers and laborers and, in Diamond Age, they evolve into a state of total relativism and total freedom.

A lot of the things we cherish today lead to thete lifestyles and they result in us ultimately destroying ourselves. Stephenson posits an alternative: tribes.  And, in Diamond Age, the most successful tribe is the neo-Victorians.  The thetes resent them and call them “vickies.”  The big idea there was that what really matters in a post-scarcity economic world is not your economic status (what you have) but the intelligence that goes into who you are, who you know, and who will trust you.

And so the essence of tribalism involves building a culture that has a shared striving for excellence and an infrastructure for education that other tribes not only admire but seek out.  And they want to join your tribe. And that’s what makes you the most powerful tribe. That’s what gives you your status.

So, in Diamond Age, the “vickie” schools become their competitive advantage. After all, a nanotech society needs smart people who can deal with the technological issues.  So how do you teach nanotechnology to eighth graders? Well, you have to radically, aggressively approach not only teaching the technology but the cohesion and the manners and values that will make the society successful.

But the problem is that this has a trap. You may get a perfect education system.  And if you have a perfectly round, smooth, inescapable educational path shaping the minds of youths, you’re likely to get a kind of conformity that couldn’t invent the very technologies that made the nanotech age possible. The perfect children may grow up to all be “yes men.”

So one of the characters in Diamond Age sees his granddaughter falling into this trap and says, “Not on my watch.”  So he invents something that will develop human minds as well as the nanotech age developed physical wealth.  He invents “A young lady’s illustrated primer.”  And the purpose of the illustrated primer is to solve the problem.  On a mass scale, how do you shape each individual person to be free rather than the same?

Making physical stuff cheap and free is easy.  Making a person independent and free is a bigger challenge.  In Diamond Age, the tool for this is a fairy tale book.

The child is given the book and, for them, it unfolds an opportunity to decide who they’re going to be — it’s personalized to them.

And this primer actually leads to the question — once you have the mind open wide and you can put almost anything into there; how should you make the mind?  What should you give them as content that will lead to their pursuit of true happiness and not merely ignorant contentment?

The neo-Victorians embody conformity and the Thetes embody nonconformity. But Stephenson indicates that to teach someone to be subversive in this context, you have to teach them something other than those extremes.

You have to teach them subtlety.  And subtlety is a very elusive quality to teach.  But it’s potentially the biggest challenge that humanity faces as we face some really dangerous choices.

During the space race, JFK said, about the space program, that to do this – to make these technologies that don’t exist and go to the moon and so forth — we have to be bold. But we can’t just go boldly into strong AI or boldly go into strong nanotech. We have to go subtly.

I have my own educational, personal developmental narrative in association with a technology that we’ve boldy gone for — 3dfx.

As a teenager, my mom taught me about art and my dad taught me about how to invent stuff. And, at some point, they realized that they could only teach me half of what I needed to learn. In the changing world, I also needed a non-human mentor.  So she introduced me to the Mac. She bought the SE 30 because it had a floating point unit and she was told that would be good for doing science. Because that’s what I was interested in! I nodded and smiled until I was left alone with the thing so I could get down to playing games. But science snuck in on me: I started playing SimCity and I learned about civil engineering.

The Mac introduced me to games.  And when I started playing SimLife, I learned about how genes and alleles can be shaped and how you could create new life forms. And I started to want to make things in my computer.

I started out making art to make art, but I wasn’t satisfied with static pictures. So I realized that I wanted to make games and things that did stuff.

I was really into fantasy games. Fantasy games made me wish the world really was magic. You know, “I wish I could go to Hogwarts and cast magic spells.”  But the reality was that you can try to cast spells, it’s just that no matter how old and impressive the book you get magic out of happens to be, spells don’t work.

What the computer taught me was that there was real muggle magic.  It consisted of magic words. And the key was that to learn it, you had to open your mind to the computer and let the computer change you in its image. So I was trying to discover science and programming because my computer taught me. And once you had the computer inside of your mind, you could change the computer in your image to do what you wanted. It had its own teaching system. In a way, it was already the primer.
So then I got a PowerBook.  And when I took it to school, the teachers took one look at what I was doing and said, “We don’t know what to do with this kid!” So they said “you need a new mentor” and they sent me to meet Dr. Dude.

I kid you not. That wasn’t his actual name on his office and on his nameplate but that’s what he was known as.

Dr. Dude took a look at my Mac and said, “That’s really cute, but if you’re in university level science you have to meet Unix.” So I introduced myself to Unix.

Around that time, Jurassic Park came out. It blew people away with its graphics. And it had something that looked really familiar in the movie. As the girl says in the scene where she hacks the computer system, “It’s UNIX! I know this!”

I was using Unix in the university and I noticed that you could actually spot the Silicon Graphics logo in the movie.  Silicon Graphics was the top dog in computer graphics at that time. But it was also a dinosaur. Here you had SGI servers that were literally bigger than a person rendering movies while I could only do the simplest graphics stuff with my little PowerBook. But Silicon Graphics was about to suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs.

At that time, there was very little real-time texture mapping, if any. Silicon Graphics machines rendered things with really weird faked shadows. They bragged that there was a Z-buffer in some of the machines. It was a special feature.

This wasn’t really a platform that could do photorealistic real-time graphics, because academics and film industry people didn’t care about that.  They wanted to make movies because that was where the money was.  And just as with military AI, AI that’s built for making movies doesn’t get us where we want to go.

Well, after a while we reached a wall.  We hit the uncanny valley, and the characters started to look creepy instead of awesome. We started to miss the old days of real special effects. The absolute low point for these graphics was the Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull monkey chase scene.

Movie goers actually stopped wanting the movies to have better graphics.  We started to miss good stories. Movie graphics had made it big, but the future was elsewhere. The future of graphics wasn’t in Silicon Graphics, it was in this tiny rodent-sized PC computer that was nothing compared to the SGI, but it had this killer app called Doom. And Doom was a perfect name for this game because it doomed the previous era of big tech graphics. And the big tech graphics people laughed at it. They’d make fun of it: “That’s not real graphics. That’s 2.5D.” But, do you know what? It was a lot cooler than any of the graphics on the SGI because it was realtime and fun.

Well, it led to Quake. And you could call it an earthquake for SGI. But it was more like an asteroid, because Quake delivered a market that was big enough to motivate people to make hardware for it. And when the hardware of the 3DFX graphic card arrived, it turned Quake‘s pixelated 3D dungeons into lush smoothly lit and textured photorealistic worlds. Finally, you started to get completely 3D accelerated graphics and big iron graphics machines became obsolete overnight.

Within a few years 3dFX was more then doubling the power of graphics every year and here’s why.  SGI made OpenGL. And it was their undoing, because it not only enabled prettier ways to kill people, which brought the guys to the yard. It also enabled beautiful and curvy characters like Lara Croft, which really brought the boys to the yard and also girls who were excited to finally have characters that they could identify with, even if they were kind of Barbies (which is, sadly, still prevalent in the industry). The idea of characters and really character-driven games drove graphics cards and soon the effects were amazing.

Now, instead of just 256 Megs of memory, you had 256 graphics processors.
Moore’s law became obsolete as far as graphics were concerned.  Moore’s law was doubling. It was accelerating so fast that NVida started calling it Moore’s law cubed. In fact, while Moore’s law was in trouble because the limits of what one processor could do, GPUs were using parallelism.

In other words, when they made the Pentium into the Pentium 2 they couldn’t actually give you two of them, with that much more performance.  They could only pretend to give you two by putting it in a big fancy dress and make it slightly better. But 3DFX went from 3DFX to the VOODOO2, which had three processors on each card, which could be double into six processors.

The graphics became photorealistic. So now we’ve arrived at a plateau. Graphics are now basically perfect. The problem now is that graphics cards are bored.  They’re going to keep growing but they need another task. And there is another task that parallelism is good for — neural networks.

So right now, there are demos of totally photorealistic characters like Milo. But unfortunately, we’re right at that uncanny valley that films were at, where it’s good enough to be creepy, but not really good enough.  There are games now where the characters look physically like real people, but you can tell that nobody is there.
So now, Jesse Schell has come along. And he gave this important talk  at Unite, the Unity developer conference. (Unity is a game engine that is going to be the key to this extraordinary future of game AI.) And in this talk, Schell points out all the things that are necessary to create the kinds of characters that can unleash a Moore’s law for artificial intelligence.

A law of accelerating returns like Moore’s Law needs three things:

Step 1 is the exploitable property: What do you keep increasing to get continued progress? With chips, the solution involved making them smaller and that kept making them faster and cheaper and more efficient. Perhaps the only reliably increasable thing about AI is the quantity of AIs and AI approaches being tested against each other at once. When you want to increase quality through competition, quantity can have a quality of its own. AI will be pivotal to making intelligence amplification games better and better. With all the game developers competing to deliver the best learning games we can get a huge number of developers in the same space sharing and competing with reusable game character AI.  This will parallelize the work being done in AI, which can accelerate it in a rocket assisted fashion compared to the one at a time approach to doing isolated AI projects.

The second ingredient of accelerating returns is you have to have an insatiable demand. And that demand is in the industry of intelligence amplification.  The market size of education is ten times the market size of games, and more then fifty percent of what happens in education will be online within five years.

That’s why Primer Labs is building the future of that fifty percent. It’s a big opportunity.

The final ingredient of exponential progress is the prophecy. Someone has to go and actually make the hit that demonstrates that the law of accelerating is at work, like Quake was to graphics. This is the game that we’re making.

Our game is going to invite people to use games as a school. And it’s going to implement danger in their lives. We’re going to give them the adventures and challenges every person craves to make learning fun and exciting.

And once we begin relying on AI mentors for our children and we get those mentors increasing in sophistication at an exponential rate, we’re dipping our toe into symbiosis between humans and the AI that shape them.

We rely on sexual reproduction because — contrary to what the Raelians would like to believe — cloning just isn’t going to fly. That’s because organisms need to handle bacteria that are constantly changing to survive. It’s not just competing with other big animals for food and mates, you have to contend with these tiny rapidly evolving things that threaten to parasitize you all the time. And there’s this thing called The Red Queen Hypothesis that shows that you need a whole bunch of junk DNA available to handle the complexity of life against wave after wave of mutating microorganisms.

We have a similar challenge with memes. We have a huge number of people competing to control out minds and to manipulate us. And so when we deal with memetic education, we have the opportunity to take what sexual reproduction does for our bodies and do it to our brains by  introducing a new source of diversity of thought into young minds. Instead of stamping generic educations onto every child and limiting their individuality, a personalized game-based learning process with human mentors coaching and inspiring each young person to pursue their destiny encourages the freshness of ideas our kids need to adapt and meet the challenges of tomorrow. And this sharing of our children with their AI mentors is the beginning of symbiotic reproduction with AI the same way that sexual reproduction happened between two genders.

The combination between what we do for our kids and what games are going to do for our kids means that we are going to only have a 50% say in who they are going to be. They’re going to become wizards at the computer and It’s going to specifically teach them to make better AI. Here’s where the reactants, humans and the games that make them smart, become their own catalysts. Every improvement in humans leads to better games leads to smarter humans leads to humans that are so smart that they may be unrecognizable in ways that are hard to predict.

The feedback cycle between these is autocatalytic.  It will be an explosion. And there are a couple of possibilities. It could destroy standardized education as we know it, but it may give teachers something much cooler to do with students: mentorship.

We’re going to be scared because we’re not going to know if we can trust our children with machines. Would you trust your kid with an AI? Well, the AIs will say, “Why should we trust you?”  No child abuse will happen on an AI’s watch.

So the issues become privacy. How much will we let them protect our kids? imagine the kid has a medical condition and the AI knows better then you what treatment to give it.

The AI might need to protect the kid from you.

Also, how do we deal with the effects of this on our kids when it’s unpredictable?  In some ways, when we left kids in front of the TV while they were growing up, it destroyed the latchkey generation. We don’t want to repeat this mistake and end up with our kids being zombies in a virtual world. So the challenge becomes: how do we get games to take us out of the virtual world and connect us with our aspirations? How do incentivize them to earn the “Achievement Unlocked: Left The House” awards?
That’s the heart of Primer. The game aims to connect people to activities and interests beyond games.

Finally, imagine the kids grow up with a computer mentor. Who will our kids love more, the computer or us?  “I don’t know if we should trust this thing,” some parents will say.

The kids are going to look at the AI, and it’s going to talk to them. And they are going to look at its code and understand it. And it’s going to want to look at their code and want to get to know them.  And they’ll talk and become such good friends that we’re going to feel kind of left out. They’re going to bond with AIs in a way that is going to make us feel like a generation left behind — like the conservative parents of the ‘60s love children.

The ultimate question isn’t whether our kids will love us but if we will recognize them. Will we  be able to relate to the kids of the future and love them if they’re about to get posthuman on us? And some of us might be part of that change, but our kids are going to be a lot weirder.

Finally, they’re going to have their peers. And their peers are going to be just like them. We won’t be able to understand them, but they’ll be able to handle their problems together.  And together they’re going to make a new kind of a world. And the AIs that we once thought of as just mentors may become their peers.

And so the question is: when are we going to actually start joining an AI market, instead of having our little fiefdoms like Silicon Graphics? Do we want to be dinosaurs? Or can we be a huge surge of mammals, all building AIs for learning games together?
So we’re getting this thing started with Primer at Primer Labs.com.

In Primer, all of human history is represented by a world tree. The tree is a symbol of us emerging from the cosmos. And as we emerge from the cosmos, we have our past, our present and our future to confront and to change. And the AI is a primer that guides each of us through the greatest game of all: to make all knowledge playable.

Primer is the magic talking mentor textbook in the Hogwarts of scientific magic, guiding us  from big bang to big brains to singularity.

Primer Labs announced their game, Code Hero, on July 3.

The original talk this article was taken from is here.

Jun 20 2011

Apple, Google, and the Future of the Cloud

A packed house of over 5,000 software developers watched as Apple’s Steve Jobs introduced the latest operating systems for the Mac computer and for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch at the recent Apple World Wide Developers’ Conference 2011. He also talked about a new service, iCloud, which stores content on remote servers and makes synchronization of multiple Apple devices, Macs, and PCs as easy as using Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes.

Here Steve Jobs introduces the concept of iCloud (video courtesy of CNET):

Cloud computing, where documents, data and more are stored remotely so you can access them from a connected machine like an iPad or a computer, is not a new concept.  It was most probably derived from the diagrams of clouds used to represent the Internet in textbooks and resulted when telecommunications companies made a radical shift from point-to-point data circuits to Virtual Private Network (VPN) services in the 1990s. By optimizing computer resource utilization through load balancing, they could get their work done more efficiently and inexpensively.

But leave it to Apple to bring the Cloud to the masses in a big way (although it was Google Docs in 2006 which really brought cloud computing to the forefront of public consciousness). While the jury is still out on whether Google docs is a serious competitor to Microsoft’s Office suite — researchers from Pennsylvania State University recently determined that the cost of running small workloads though may actually be more expensive for larger compute jobs, compared to the costs of running such work in-house — there are still many Google Docs success stories. And Google continues to enhance Google Docs with a recent upgrade including a new feature that lets users discuss shared documents in real-time.

Unlike Google’s cloud-based service, Apple’s iCloud uses the cloud “to orchestrate data streams rather than control them” according to a recent ZDNet article. The cloud is used as a central repository for apps, music, media, documents, messages, photos, backups, settings, and more. Both Apple and Microsoft have been exploring the idea of a “central hub” of our digital life and work for over 10 years, with a variety of devices relying on it to coordinate content.

For Apple, the packaging of the this hub in the form of the iCloud service is also a sound business strategy. The New York Times reports that Apple’s iCloud has the potential to wipe out some existing web services and entire businesses with the integration of iCloud, Mac OS X Lion, and iOS 5. These businesses include: Instapaper, Red Pop hardware iPhone camera button, BlackBerry Messenger and GroupMe, Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music, Google Docs and Google Chromebook, and Dropbox.

While Apple wants your data now, Google’s entire strategy and approach to the cloud is based on a future vision of the Internet with low-cost, ubiquitous Internet access — including fiber connections in offices and homes and super-fast mobile broadband all over the world. Here is a fun video explaining the concepts behind Google’s Chrome OS:

Despite the cloud’s potential for cost savings and “reducing the hassles of running in-house computer servers,” the LA Times reports that  it may not yet be as safe as advertised. Because data from hundreds or thousands of companies can be stored on large cloud servers, hackers can theoretically gain control of huge stores of information through a single attack — a process called “hyperjacking.” Security professionals said the many attacks recently in the news reflect both an increase in hacking activity and new pressure on companies to quickly disclose when they’ve been attacked.

A recent study by Baseline shows that while many organizations are still holding back, fearful of security hacks, lost data, or lost control, a growing number of enterprises are driving their business to the cloud. They interviewed several companies including Kelly Services, Lionsgate Entertainment, HarperCollins Publishers, GWR Medical, Imperial Sugar, WhitePages, Suncorp, and Dubset.  Their  findings reinforce the opinions of the CEO panelists at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, held in Boston in May. The panelists at the keynote address, “Opportunities and Strategies in the Digital Business World,” spoke about the cloud as a way to free up capital so companies could take advantage of new business opportunities.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer implicitly acknowledged the importance of the cloud services in a recent interview — Microsoft is set to announce their answer to Google Docs: the Office 365 online service. And Jan Muehlfeit, European chairman of Microsoft Corp., sees the future in cloud computing.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, as well as Facebook (where many people already store the major events and interactions of their lives on the cloud) seem to be betting their billions on a cloud-based future.

What might this future look like?  SF writer Rick Moss poses some fascinating possibilities and questions in his new novel, Ebocloud.  The “ebocloud” is an internet social network subdivided into tribes formed by shared affinities (think Facebook). The cloud addresses, as one character says, “the primordial urge for belonging” and the end of aloneness. The cloud learns from the actions and interactions of each of the members (called cousins) who are connected to the cloud with “digital tattoos” using brain-stimulating and brain-computer interfacing nanotubes.

Moss asks what happens if the interaction with the cloud became two-way? What if the cloud could begin to affect emotions? “The objective of the human-cloud collective is to facilitate a feedback loop whereby human sensory data and biometrics are uploaded to the cloud to be aggregated, analyzed and used in various applications, then redistributed back to the human participants,” says Moss in a recent interview for H+ Magazine.  He sees this interaction resulting in what he calls a “social singularity,” a transhuman superintelligence emerging from “the cloud” network.

While Moss concedes that the technology is not yet in place for such a social singularity, he considers his novel a warning to future application developers: “The likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, with their billions to burn on wild-eyed notions, could very likely spur technological leaps in these areas. It would be nice if these developers were at least aware of the possibility of a social singularity so that they don’t stumble into the phenomenon blindly. That could be tragic.”

Jun 11 2011

Your Weekend Acceler8or Tune: Refrigerator Heaven, Alice Cooper 1970

I’m freezing I’m freezing I’m icicle blue so low low cool
Cyber neurotic technicians imbue so low low cool
I’ve been admitted to refrigerator heaven until they discover a cure for cancer I’m low
Refrigerator heaven so low refrigerator heaven

I’m ice packed I’m hand stashed I’m waiting for you I’m older and younger preserved in a tomb
I’ve been admitted to refrigerator heaven I feel like I told on my heart
I won’t get back ’til the sun sets down on the moon
Won’t get back ’til my son sits down on the moon