Category Archives: Nerdy ruminations

A tour de Fry of technology evolution

There are many things to say about Stephen Fry, but enough is to show this video, filmed at Nokia Bell Labs, explaining, amongst other things, the origin of microchips, the power of exponential growth, the adventure and consequences of performance and functionality evolution. I am beginning to think that “the apogee, the acme, the summit of human intelligence” might actually be Stephen himself:

(Of course, the most impressive feat is his easy banter on hard questions after the talk itself. Quotes like: “[and] who is to program any kind of moral [into computers ]… If [the computer] dives into the data lake and learns to swim, which is essentially what machine learning is, it’s just diving in and learning to swim, it may pick up some very unpleasant sewage.”)

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Science fiction and the future

I am on the editorial board of ACM Ubiquity – and we are in the middle of a discussion of whether science fiction authors get things right or not, and whether science fiction is a useful predictor of the future. I must admit I am not a huge fan of science fiction – definitely not films, which tend to contain way too many scenes of people in tights staring at screens. But I do have some affinity for the more intellectual variety which tries to say something about our time by taking a single element of it and magnifying it.

So herewith, a list of technology-based science fiction short stories available on the web, a bit of fantasy in a world where worrying about the future impact of technology is becoming a public sport:

  • The machine stops by E. M. Forster is a classic about what happens when we make ourselves completely dependent on a (largely invisible) technology. Something to think about when you sit surfing and video conferencing  in your home office. First published in 1909, which is more than impressive.
  • The second variety by Philip K. Dick is about what happens when we develop self-organizing weapons systems – a future where warrior drones take over. Written as an extension of the cold war, but in a time where you can deliver a hand grenade with a drone bought for almost nothing at Amazon and remote-controlled wars initially may seem bloodless it behooves us to think ahead.
  • Jipi and the paranoid chip is a brilliant short story by Neal Stephenson – the only science-fiction author I read regularly (though much of what he writes is more historic/technothrillers than science fiction per se). The Jipi story is about what happens when technologies develop a sense of self and self preservation.
  • Captive audience by Ann Warren Griffith is perhaps not as well written as the others, but still: It is a about a society where we are not allowed not to watch commercials. And that should be scary enough for anyone bone tired of alle the intrusive ads popping up everywhere we go.

There is another one I would have liked to have on the list, but I can’t remember the title or the author. It is about a man living in a world where durable products are not allowed – everything breaks down after a certain time so that the economy is maintained because everyone has to buy new things all the time. The man is trying to smuggle home a wooden stool made for his wife, but has trouble with a crumbling infrastructure and the wrapping paper dissolving unless he gets home soon enough…

The reassembler

James May – Captain Slow, the butt of many Top Gear jokes about nerds and pedants – has a fantastic little show called The Reassembler, where he takes some product that has been taken apart into little pieces, and puts it together again. It works surprisingly well, especially when he goes off on tangents about corporate history, kids waiting for their birthdays to come, and whether something is a bolt or a screw.

Slow television, nerd style.

Here is one example, you can find others on Youtube:

Singularity redux

From Danny Hillis: The Pattern on the Stone, which I am currently reading hunting for simple explanations of technological things:

Because computers can do some things that seem very much like human thinking, people often worry that they are threatening our unique position as rational beings, and there are some who seek reassurance in mathematical proofs of the limits of computers. There have been analogous controversies in human history. It was once considered important that the Earth be at the center of the universe, and our imagined position at the center was emblematic of our worth. The discovery that we occupied no central position – that  our planet was just one of a number of planets in orbit around the Sun – was deeply disturbing to many people at the time, and the philosophical implications of astronomy became a topic of heated debate. A similar controversy arose over evolutionary theory, which also appeared as a threat to humankind’s uniqueness. At the root of these earlier philosophical rises was a misplaced judgment of the source of human worth. I am convinced that most of the current philosophical discussions about the limits of computers are based on a similar misjudgment.

And that, I think, is one way to think about the future and intelligence, natural and artificial. Works for me, for now. No idea, of course, whether this still is Danny’s position, but I rather think it is.

Friday futuristic reading

I am not a big fan of science fiction – way too many people in tights staring at big screens – but I do like the more intellectual variety where the author tries to say something about today’s world, often by taking a single aspect of it and expanding it. So here is a short list of technology-based short stories, freely available on the interwebs, a bit of reading for anyone who feel they live in a world where the technology is taking over more and more:

  • The machine stops by E. M. Forster is the classic on what happens when we make ourselves totally dependent on mediating technology. Something to think about when you surf and Skype from your home office. Written in 1909, which is more than impressive.
  • The second variety by Philip K. Dick details a future with self-organizing weapon systems, a future where the drones take over. Written during the Cold War, but in a time where warfare is increasingly remote and apparently bloodless there is reason to think about how to enforce the “laws of robotics“.
  • Jipi and the paranoid chip is a brilliant short story by Neal Stephenson, the only sci-fi writer I read regularly (though much of what he writes is historic techno fiction, perhaps fantasy, and not sci-fi per se). It is about what happens if technology becomes self-aware.
  • Captive audience by Ann Warren Griffith is perhaps not as well written, but I like the idea: What happens in a society where we are no longer allowed to block advertising, where AdBlock Plus is theft.

There is another short story I would have liked to include, but i can’t remember the title or author. I think it was about a society where everything is designed with planned obsolescence, where a man is trying to smuggle home an artisanal (and hence, sustainable) wooden bench, but has issues with various products, including the gift wrap, which decays rapidly once it has reached its “best before” time stamp…

And with that, back to something more work-related. Have a great weekend!

The Facebook method of dealing with complexity

Computer systems used to be weak, so we had to make their world simple and standardized. They now can handle almost endless complexity—but we still need to understand how to make the world simple, so we don’t risk burdening the majority of users with the needless complexity of the few. One way of doing this is to adopt Facebook’s approach of “Yes, No and It’s Complicated.”

Read the rest of the essay at ACM Ubiquity’s blog.

An oratory masterclass

“We no longer think the world will be saved by politics and rock’n roll. We now believe it will be saved by the life of mind.” “…playing gracefully with ideas.”

Watch this. If nothing else, study Stephen Fry’s technique.

Unfortunately, I own a lawnmover. Oh well.

(There is a Q&A session as well, available as separate videos.)