Tag Archives: futurism

The Exciting/Distressing World Of AI-Generated Art

Whenever I talk about artificial intelligence, I often talk about the possibilities and potential it has for the near and distant future. I admit I sometimes to a bit overboard with the speculation and the hyperbole. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear already, I am not an expert. I do not consider myself exceptionally smart or well-informed on this topic. I just find it very interesting and quite tantalizing, given how much I’ve seen computer technology evolve over the course of my lifetime.

However, in talking about artificial intelligence, I rarely get a chance to talk about some actual tools and products powered by AI that we can use today. That’s just the nature of technology like this. It takes a while to develop and refine. It also takes a while to actually create a usable product with it that don’t require a Masters Degree in computer programming.

But this past year has seen the rise of a new type of AI-powered product that is making its presence felt. It’s called AI-Generated art and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s art entirely created by an artificial intelligence that uses massive amounts of data on art, shapes, and design to craft artwork based solely on text suggestions.

It’s not entirely new. For a number of years now, there have been AI systems that can essentially create photo-realistic depictions of people who don’t exist. That, alone, is an impressive feat and one that has some distressing implications for those worried about fake IDs, identity theft, or catfishing. However, these new AI-Generated art programs have the potential to do so much more.

While the mechanisms behind it are very complex, the interface itself is very simple. A user just enters a brief description of what kind of artwork they want. Then, the program processes that and crunches the data. Finally, it generates an image. Sometimes, it takes a few seconds. Sometimes, it takes a bit longer, especially if the prompt is more elaborate. If you want to see a good example of what it can create, just check out the brief, but hilarious skit John Oliver did. Just don’t watch it while eating cabbage.

Aside from the inherent comedy gold that can be mined from this technology, just take a step back and consider the larger implications of these tools. These are prompts being entered by people who probably don’t have much in terms of art skills. And as John Oliver noted, some are being entered by people who aren’t entirely sober. While the images they generate don’t exactly look like masterpieces or anything someone would mistake for photo-realism, it’s still remarkable they’re as good as they are.

In seeing some of this art, it actually reminds me somewhat of early video game consoles that began rendering 3D graphics. I’m old enough to remember the somewhat clunky transition between 2D to 3D graphics. Just look at early Playstation games or games like Super Mario 64. They weren’t exactly polished, but they were a step in that direction.

Now, compare that to a typical game on the Playstation 5. In the span of just 20 years, the graphics and renderings have become so realistic that they’re navigating uncanny valley territory. With that in mind, imagine what these AI-generating art programs will do with that kind of refinement. I don’t know if it’ll take 20 years or longer, but it does create some tantalizing possibilities.

Ordinary people could conjure detailed, photo-realistic backgrounds for games, portraits, or stock art.

Ordinary people could conjure elaborate scenes and illustrations for stories they wish to tell.

Ordinary people could create artistic depictions of elaborate fantasies, including the sexy kind.

This is especially intriguing for someone like me because, as I’ve noted in the past, I cannot draw worth a damn. I have practically no skills when it comes to creating visual artwork, be it with a pencil or a computer program. I’ve never had that skill. I’ve tried many times in the past do develop those skills. I’ve never succeeded. I’ve always been better with writing and words. And I’ve been perfectly content with that.

Now, this technology gives someone like me an opportunity to craft images to go along with my words. It opens the possibility that I could one day write a story, sexy or non-sexy, and supplement it with real, vivid depictions of the characters and scenes. That is definitely something I want to pursue. I have experimented a bit with the AI art programs, but they’re still someone limited. I won’t be incorporating them into my sexy short stories anytime soon.

But if these programs continue to improve, then it’s only a matter of time before I craft a story in that manner. Honestly, that really does excite me, more so than a lot of the promising news surrounding artificial intelligence. I understand there are aspects to the technology that may never happen or just won’t be happening within my lifetime. But these AI art programs are real. They exist now and they’re going to be refined, like most emerging technology. It remains to be seen how fast they’ll achieve a higher quality, but I will certainly be watching it closely.

If you want, you can even test these programs out yourself. This site lists 10 sites you can go to right now, but these are the sites I recommend.

Dall-E 2

Artbreeder

DeepAI

StarryAI

Please note that most of these services are limited and none allow anyone to create images that are overly pornographic or outright illegal. However, you can still create some legitimately good images, which you can save and use in whatever way you please. I’m already hoping to use some for my YouTube channel.

But even though this technology is especially intriguing to people like me with no art skills, I don’t deny it has actual artists very concerned. There has already been one instance where an AI-generated artwork won an art contest, which the real artists did not appreciate. It’s not just that an AI like this won without putting in the effort an artist usually would. In many cases, these programs used art other artists had created to refine its code. Over time, these programs could conceivably put those same artists out of work.

I can totally understand that concern. Who would hire a talented, but expensive artists to create images if they could just use an AI program to create it in seconds and for free? Do you really think big companies like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Universal wouldn’t fire their entire art team if they could get the same results for a fraction of the cost? They’re billion-dollar profit-driven companies. You know they would.

Even if this technology doesn’t completely replace real-life artists, it’s still essentially doing most of the work. On some level, it dehumanizes the artistic process, even more so than a camera. A camera can only render the image in front of it. These programs could conceivably conjure images that nobody has ever seen or imagined, a feat that once belonged solely to artists.

What does that mean for the future of artists?

What does that mean for the future of art?

I don’t claim to know the answers. I’m not even sure how to speculate on something like this. Again, I have no art skills with respect to drawing or creating images from scratch. I’m the kind of person who will embrace this technology more than most, so I’m going to be somewhat bias in that regard.

But artists and governments are starting to take notice. China has already made waves by attempting to ban AI-generated media that isn’t appropriately marked. While that may temper some trends in this field, it’s not going to stop it. There’s just too much to be gained at this point. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back.

It’s sure to cause more issues, especially as the technology becomes more refined. It probably won’t be long before a major problem occurs because someone used AI-generated art in some nefarious way. Some are already trying, but they can only achieve so much, given the limits of technology.

That will eventually change. If you’re reading this, you’re likely to see some AI-generated artwork that you’ll mistake for something real. At that point, even concerns about deep fakes will be minor in comparison. Only time will tell.

Until then, non-artistically inclined people like me can start contemplating what thoughts and ideas we can one day make real.

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Putting Recent News About A Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough In (Balanced) Perspective

As a general rule-of-thumb, you should never take news of a “scientific breakthrough” at face value. It’s not that the science is flawed or that the media reporting it are uninformed or misguided. It’s just incomplete. The rhetoric rarely matches the results, nor does it fully grasp the implications.

To some extent, that’s unavoidable. People who actually do science rarely use terms like “breakthrough” or “revolutionary.” Despite what popular media might depict, science doesn’t make giant leaps like that. It usually makes gradual steps full of small, but meaningful advances. It rarely makes for attention-grabbing headlines, but that’s how most scientific progress is made. It’s like building a house brick-by-brick. One brick alone is not a breakthrough. It’s the totality of the structure that garner’s the most vlaue.

When it comes to any news on nuclear fusion, it helps to be even more restrained. I’ve been following tech news for most of my life. During that time, I’ve seen plenty of articles and news releases from mainstream sources claiming some major breakthrough. Some give the impression that we’re just a few years away from using fusion to power starships to Mars. That’s a very flawed, very uniformed perspective.

In that same mold, I’ve also seen plenty of news articles saying nuclear fusion is an impossible dream that nobody will see in their lifetime. There’s a common refrain among these skeptics. They’ll often say something along the lines of “Nuclear fusion is 30 years away and always will be.” It’s a very cynical, very narrow-minded understanding of the issue. It also paints a flawed perspective of where we actually are in the science.

With those two perspectives in mind, how do we make sense of the latest news purporting a fusion breakthrough? In case you haven’t heard, the news came courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is not some fringe company or organization. This is something they’ve been working on for decades and this was a big moment for them, according to the Financial Times.

FT: Fusion energy breakthrough by US scientists boosts clean power hopes

US government scientists have made a breakthrough in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time, according to three people with knowledge of preliminary results from a recent experiment.

Physicists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no group had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes — a milestone known as net energy gain or target gain, which would help prove the process could provide a reliable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.

The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s biggest laser, had achieved net energy gain in a fusion experiment in the past two weeks, the people said.

Although many scientists believe fusion power stations are still decades away, the technology’s potential is hard to ignore. Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste and a small cup of the hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.

The US breakthrough comes as the world wrestles with high energy prices and the need to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels to stop average global temperatures reaching dangerous levels.

Now, compared to other news about “breakthroughs” from mainstream media, this is fairly balanced in that it doesn’t make too many bold claims. It makes clear that commercial fusion power stations are still decades away. But that was never the point of this experiment, nor is it the purpose of the article.

The most important detail from this news is the results the scientists produced. For the first time, a nuclear fusion reactor achieved a net energy gain. That means the generator put out more energy than was put into it. Specifically, the experiment produced an excess of 1.37 megajoules of energy, which amounted to approximately 70 percent more than the energy that was put into the reactor.

That is major news.

That is an achievement worth celebrating.

Because to date, plenty of laboratories throughout the world had achieved fusion. That’s not some act of scientific magic on par with anti-gravity or perpetual motion. The issue with fusion has never been about the physics. It has always been an engineering and logistic challenge, more so than fission ever was.

Creating fusion only requires a few ingredients. You need lots of heat, some hydrogen, and a way to confine it all in a structure. The big challenge that has been taking so many years has been to do all this in a way that generates more power than what goes into it. That’s something no other reactor has achieved until this experiment.

Now, it has been done.

We now know it’s possible to create a nuclear fusion reaction that generates more energy than what goes into it.

This is akin to the first ever cell phone call, which occurred in 1973. And it wasn’t until 1983, a full decade later, that the first commercial cell phone went on the market. That first phone was not very good and nowhere near as efficient as the cheapest phone you can get today. But it did work and it did get the ball rolling on the market.

That’s not to say that fusion will follow a similar timeline, but that comparison helps give perspective to where we’re at right now. Just getting a new technology to work is one thing. Making it a commercial product on some level takes time because the technology requires greater refinement, investment, and engineering.

But that process can only start after someone proves that it is technically possible. Fusion did not have that until this news. On top of that, investment in nuclear fusion has never been very high, compared to other technologies. In fact, it has only been in the past couple of years that more public and private investment has flowed in to developing nuclear fusion. So, that old joke about fusion always being 30 years away was missing a key detail. Any technology is going to develop slowly if there isn’t sufficient investment.

Now that one lab has succeeded in showing that a net energy gain is possible with fusion, others can follow. Hopefully, it inspires even more investment. With those investments will come more refinements and efficiencies. If those efforts are sustained, fusion doesn’t just become possible. It becomes inevitable.

The past couple decades have seen one too many price spikes in oil and other fossil fuels. Recent geopolitical conflicts have only shown just how vital it is for us to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And our energy demands are only going to keep going up in the coming years. Add on top of that all the environmental concerns surrounding fossil fuels and the urgency for nuclear fusion has never been greater.

We’re still not going to see fusion plants popping up tomorrow, next year, or the year after that. But with this news, we’ve taken a critical first step. And many of those reading this will likely live to see the day when fusion energy powers their homes. That’s something worth looking forward to.

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Thought Experiment: What Major Decisions Would You Trust An Artificial Intelligence To Make For You?

The following is a video from my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. This video is a thought experiment about artificial intelligence, the choices we make, and how much (or how little) we’ll delegate such choices in the future. Enjoy!

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Jack's World, psychology, technology, YouTube

My (Non-Expert) Proposal For Automation And Greater Human Prosperity

62% say robots can be more productive than human workers —V1 study

I’m not an expert on much. I don’t consider myself exceptionally smart on matters that don’t involve superhero comics, NFL football stats, and quality romance stories. I make that disclaimer because I don’t want to give the impression that I know more than I know.

That kind of perspective is important, especially if you’re going to talk about complicated issues with not-so-clear solutions. I’ve attempted to talk about some of those issues on this site, some being much more complicated than others. I don’t claim to have shed new light on a subject or changed a few minds, but I like to think I still contributed something.

To that end, I’d like to make another contribution to a subject I’ve also touched on before. In the past, I’ve highlighted both emerging and potential issues associated with the development of artificial intelligence, including the sexy kind. I’ve also highlighted the issues we may face in a future where so much traditional work has been automated.

Now, in wake of a global pandemic that revealed just how much we can get done at home, I suspect that trend will accelerate. I also expect that trend to bring many problems, not the least of which involve people struggling to find the kind of good-paying blue collar jobs that have helped people rise out of poverty.

Turning back the clock or just trying to ban automation at a certain point is not a viable solution. There’s just no way to enforce that in the long term and it’ll only get more difficult once artificial intelligence gets to a point where it can match the capabilities of an ordinary human. At some point, we’ll have to adapt and that includes changing how we live, work, and play.

The living and playing part have their own set of unique challenges, but I think the work aspect is more pressing. When most people express concerns about automation and AI, they revolve largely around the economic impact and understandably so.

Historically, people have had to work in order to earn money or resources to survive. Whether you’re on a farm in the 10th century or in a city in the 20th, this dynamic has remained fairly constant.

Automation, especially once supplemented by artificial intelligence, will likely upend that dynamic completely. It’s entirely possible that, at some point this century, we’ll develop machines that can do practically all the work humans have had to do in order to survive.

That work includes, but isn’t limited to, farming our food, mining raw materials, producing our goods, maintaining our streets, protecting our homes, and even governing our society. Since machines never tire and are prone to fewer errors, what other jobs will there be? I don’t doubt there will be jobs, but what form will they take? More importantly, will they pay enough to large swaths of people?

I don’t claim to know the answer, but I suspect they won’t. The dynamics of labor markets just can’t function when the machines are capable of doing so much more work than large swaths of people. Even if those people don’t work, they’re still going to need money and resources. How will they go about getting it?

Answering this question has often led to discussions about a universal basic income, which has actually become a more viable policy position in recent years. I’ve even touched on it a bit as well and while I think it’s a great idea, I think there’s also room for some supplementary policies.

For that reason, I’d like to submit one of those policies that could be implemented with or without universal basic income. I call it the Individual Automation Matching Dividend, or IMAD short. This policy would work like this.

  • All adult citizens within the borders of the country will have a piece of identifying information, such as a social security number, voter ID number, or driver’s license number, turned into a special digital token.
  • That token will be ascribed to a machine/robot/android that is currently active and conducting work that had been done by humans at some point in the past, be it manual labor, service roles, or something of that sort.
  • The productivity and wages of work done by these machines will be indexed to a minimum annual salary of approximately $78,000 in 2021, which will be adjusted for inflation on a yearly basis.
  • Any work done by these machines that exceed the value of that salary will be diverted to a national welfare fund to provide extra support for those who were sick, disabled, or otherwise in need of resources beyond that of a healthy adult.
  • No citizen will be ascribed more machines than any other and any machine ascribed to them that is lost, damaged, or obsolete will be replaced in kind by the state.

I apologize if some of what I just described is confusing. I tried to write this out like a lawyer or someone proposing a new policy to a future government. For those who don’t care for legalize, here’s IMAD in a nutshell.

Once you become an adult, you get your own perfect worker robot. That robot may take many forms, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say it’s an android in the mold of those we saw in the “I, Robot” movie. They can work without rest, do everything a healthy adult can do, and have roughly equal to greater intelligence.

You’re given this robot by the government to basically act as your work avatar. So, instead of you going out to work every day to earn a living, this robot does it for you. The work that robot does will be compensated, but the money will go to you. Basically, you get paid for the work your android does. It’s more a dividend than a wage.

Remember, since the robot doesn’t age or get tired, it can work 24/7/365. In principle, you won’t even have to meet it. It just works all day and all night on whatever job requires labor, be it construction, assembly, shipping, farming, cooking, etc. You just get all the money, up to about $78,000 a year.

Now, why did I choose $78,000? I didn’t pick that out of thin air. That’s a figure ripped straight from a real-world case study from a company that started paying all employees a minimum of $70,000 a year back in 2015. The idea was that previous studies had shown that when people make more money beyond a certain point, their happiness doesn’t increase. This company just took that idea and ran with it.

The results, by and large, were overwhelmingly positive. With that kind of money, people could create more comfortable lives. They could buy homes, start families, plan for retirement, and make investments. It makes sense. When people have this kind of money to work with, they have the resources they need to create prosperous lives.

The idea behind IMAD is to mirror that by leveraging the added productivity afforded by automation. It’s not some large blanket package of money like a universal basic income. It starts with an individual, acknowledges the work that they have historically provided for a society, and supplements that with technology.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect proposal. I’m not even saying it’s smart. For one, it assumes that one human-like android is enough and that we can control the artificial intelligence necessary for them to operate on a large scale. That’s still an ongoing issue. I’m sure there are plenty more problems I haven’t thought of, but that’s exactly why I’m sharing it.

Surviving a future with intelligent machines is going to be challenging enough. However, we can’t just stop at survival. We want to prosper. We want to live, love, and build better futures for ourselves and our loved ones. Technology like automation and AI can help us get there, but only if we use it wisely. It’s a big if, but one that’s worth working towards.

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Self-Driving Cars Are Already Saving Drunk Drivers: The Promise And The Implications

Self-Driving Cars: Everything You Need to Know | Kelley Blue Book

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10,497 people died in traffic accidents caused by drunk driving in 2016 alone. That accounted for 28 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the United States. A non-insignificant chunk of those deaths were children. Even if you’re not good at math, you know that is not a trivial figure.

There’s also a good chance you know someone who has been hurt or worse because of a drunk driver. This sort of thing is personal for me because one of my cousins was killed by a drunk driver many years ago. He wasn’t even drinking. He was just unlucky enough to be in the back seat of the car at the time.

It’s an issue that has existed for as long as cars. It’s also an issue that policy makers and car manufacturers have tried to address through awareness programs and safety features. However, these measures can only do so much. So long as human beings are drinking and driving cars, this will be an issue.

That dynamic will likely change considerably when self-driving cars enter the picture. To some extent, they’re already making an impact. You can buy a car today that has some measure of self-driving features. They’re still not fully autonomous, but we’ve taken the first critical steps. From here on it, it’s just a matter of refinement.

Even though it might be years before self-driving cars are common, they’re already making an impact and it’s not just in terms of sheer novelty. Very recently, a Tesla Model S, which has an autopilot feature, did something cars of old could never do.

It saved a drunk driver who passed out behind the wheel, which likely saved or prevented serious injuries to others around him. Here are the details, according to the site, Telsarati.

Teslarati: Tesla Autopilot prevents drunk driver from making a fatal mistake

As explained by the Eastern Police District on its official Twitter account, a 24-year-old Tesla owner ended up passing out while driving his Model S. Fortunately for the driver, the vehicle’s Autopilot system was activated, which allowed the Model S to stay in its lane without causing trouble to other drivers.

Upon detecting that its driver was unresponsive, the vehicle eventually came to a stop and engaged its hazards. The man was later attended to by emergency services. No one was injured in the incident.

The police noted that the Tesla driver, who was found unconscious in the Model S, was evidently drunk, though he denied that he was driving. Video evidence showing the Tesla owner passed out in the driver’s seat have been shared online, however. The police stated that necessary tests have been taken, and that the Tesla owner’s driver’s license has been temporarily suspended. A case has also been filed against the driver.

Such an incident could have easily been a lot worse. It is very easy for drunk drivers to harm themselves, after all, but what’s even worse is that they could very easily harm other people just as easily. These scenarios would likely not be as prevalent if vehicles are capable of safely stopping on their own once their human drivers are incapacitated.

The bolded text represents the most relevant details. Without these features, this incident could’ve played out like so many other drunk driving tragedies. A drunk driver passing out behind the wheel would’ve, at the very least, led to the car going off-road and crashing, thus resulting in significant injury. At worst, the driver could’ve hit another car, thus compounding the tragedy.

However, thanks to these emerging systems, that didn’t happen. The safeguards in the car worked. The only real harm done involve a hangover and a DUI. Compared to the alternative, that’s far more preferable.

We should not understate the importance of this development. Think back to that 10,497 figure from 2016. Thanks to the autopilot system in that Tesla, the figure for 2021 will be at least one less. It doesn’t eliminate the tragedy of drunk driving all at once, but it’s a start and an important one, at that.

Driving is inherently dangerous, but a lot of that danger comes from the people behind the wheel and not the machines themselves. Anything operated by a human is prone to human error. An autonomous system, even if it isn’t a full-fledged artificial intelligence, can and will mitigate those errors.

That’s not to say those same autopilot systems aren’t prone to error. They certainly are, but remember that this technology is still very new. The first cell phones couldn’t send an email or reliably play streaming video. That took time, energy, and better hardware.

At this very moment, car companies and tech companies are putting in all that work. There is a lot of potential profit in refining this technology. However, I would point out that you can’t put a price on human life and, as it stands, thousands will continue to die every year because of traffic accidents, especially drunk driving. This one incident might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still one tragedy averted, one accident prevented, and at least one life saved. For anyone who knows the pain of losing a loved one to drunk driving, that’s worth celebrating.

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The Promise, Perils, And Potential Of Elon Musk’s New Tesla Worker Robots

Tesla Promised a Robot. Was It Just a Recruiting Pitch? | WIRED

We’ve all had jobs that are laborious, boring, and repetitive. In fact, for most of human history, those were pretty much the only jobs there were. If you didn’t spend 12 hours a day in a field or factory, doing the same thing again and again, you didn’t have what you needed to survive. Only royalty and the wealthy got to enjoy leisure of any kind.

These days, those types of jobs are still there. Even though we live in an age of increasing automation, there are still plenty of jobs that are hard, repetitive, and draining. Anyone who works in an Amazon warehouse can attest to this.

I have some personal experience with those jobs. I once worked a job at a fast-food restaurant that probably could’ve been done by a trained monkey. I hated it and wouldn’t want my children having to do that kind of work. The fact that many people still have to work these jobs to make endsmeat is tragic.

The prospect of eliminating these jobs with technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence has always been intriguing. I’ve written about it before, both the artificial intelligent aspect of it and the social implications. Unlike other ideas about the future or future technology, this is one trend that’s already happening. Automation is a real thing and it’s not stopping anytime soon.

However, Elon Musk is once again looking to make another massive leap and enrich himself even more in the process. In addition to working on electric cars, commercial space flight, brain/computer interfaces, and flamethrowers, he now wants to create a legion of humanoid robot workers.

Basically, he wants to create the robots in “I, Robot,” minus the part where they go haywire and try to kill everyone. I wish I could say that was a joke, but we already have killer drones, so I think that would be in poor taste.

Musk made an official announcement of this effort on behalf of Tesla. Below is an excerpt of the story, courtesy of The Verge.

The Verge: Elon Musk says Tesla is working on humanoid robots

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his company is working on a humanoid robot and that it will build a prototype “sometime next year.” The humanoid robot will leverage Tesla’s experience with automated machines in its factories, as well as some of the hardware and software that powers the company’s Autopilot driver assistance software.

Musk, who has spoken repeatedly about his fears of runaway artificial intelligence, said the Tesla Bot is “intended to be friendly,” but that the company is designing the machine at a “mechanical level” so that “you can run away from it, and most likely overpower it.” It will be five feet, eight inches tall, weigh 125 pounds, and have a screen for a face. The code name for the bot inside the company is “Optimus,” he said.

The robots will be designed to handle “tasks that are unsafe, repetitive or boring,” the company’s website reads, but little else, at least at first. (There, the bot is simply called “Tesla Bot.”) “I think essentially in the future, physical work will be a choice, if you want to do it you can,” Musk said.

Musk revealed drawings of the robot near the tail end of his company’s “AI Day” event, where it showcased some of the artificial intelligence and supercomputer technologies that it’s working on with the goal of one day powering self-driving cars. The company also had a mannequin version on the stage, which wasn’t working.

Now, before I continue, I want to make a quick disclaimer. I am not about to gush over Elon Musk and anoint him the bringer of a new techno-utopia. He might be one of the world’s richest human beings, but even he has limitations. I know I’ve gushed over Elon Musk in the past, but I’ve since tempered some of my attitudes.

I’m aware that Musk has a reputation of overpromising and failing to deliver. The article even points that out. I’m also aware that Musk, like many billionaires, has done some shady things in the past. You really can’t get as rich and successful as him without being an asshole to some extent.

At the same time, you cannot overlook the man’s success. He didn’t invent the electric car any more than Steve Jobs invented the personal computer or the smartphone. He just took existing technology, combined it into a new product, and successfully marketed it in a way no other human being had done to that point. He was so good at it that he became even richer than he already was.

Like it or not, he succeeded. He thinks big and tries to deliver. Even when he fails, he gets people to push the envelope. He underestimated just how difficult it was to create a self-driving car. I have a feeling he’ll do the same with these robots.

However, I also think that he will do more than anyone to speed up the ongoing trends in automation. Like I said before, this is not some new, fanciful technology. Robots exist. They already work in factories, doing work that used to be done by humans. They aren’t humanoid, but that’s because they’re limited to just a single task.

These humanoid robots will offer something different. They’ll be able to perform a wider ranger of tasks. The robots that make cares can’t be reconfigured to make something else. These Tesla bots could at least begin that process. Even if it’s flawed and unsuccessful at first, that’s still progress. Pretty much all technological advances are like that in the beginning.

His timing here might actually be just right. In recent years, companies like Boston Dynamics have shown off just how capable robots have become. They’re no T-1000, but they’re getting to a point where they can walk, run, lift, and jump as well as an ordinary human. With some refinement, they’ll be able to do even more.

Just like he did with the electric car, Musk could create the first true fleet of robot workers. They wouldn’t be able to replace every human working a laborious job, but they would be able to take the place of some. At a time when there’s a growing labor shortage, there’s definitely going to be a market for that sort of thing.

Personally, I don’t think Musk is going to be able to deliver functional robot workers as quickly as he claims. However, I do think he’ll get the ball rolling for a new industry. He’ll demonstrate that this technology is possible and there’s a growing market for it. In the same way other companies have started making electric cars, they’ll also start making robot workers.

Even if he only succeeds in part, though, that does raise some major concerns. Stories about workers being exploited aren’t difficult to find and the COVID-19 pandemic only made those stories more relevant. I don’t doubt for a second that if companies could replace their workforce with robots and get the same production, they would do so in a heartbeat.

I suspect that some are already cheering Musk on behind the scenes. Those same people probably won’t give much thought to the larger implications of a robot workforce. The prospect of a large population of people who aren’t working, have no job prospects, and are unable to earn a proper living does not bode well for society.

While people like Musk have advocated for a universal basic income of sorts, the politics behind that are messy to say the least. Given how politics rarely seems to keep up with technology, it’s unreasonable to expect it to be ready for a robot workforce that does all the laborious jobs that people used to do. It’s definitely cause for concern. In that sense, perhaps it’s a good thing that what Musk seeks to do probably won’t work exceptionally well, at least at first. However, even if he fails, it’s only a matter of time and engineering before someone else succeeds. At that point, we won’t be able to avoid the larger implications.

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Why Amazon Accepting Bitcoin Would Be A Game Changer (And Why They Might NOT Do It)

Jeff Bezos Directs Amazon to Accept Bitcoin and Other Popular  Cryptocurrencies: Report – Bitcoin News

In all the years I’ve been browsing the internet, I’ve never seen something so divisive or so disruptive as cryptocurrencies. Yes, that includes both video games and internet porn. Crypto’s impact has been that profound. That impact is likely to continue in unexpected ways for years to come.

However, there is still plenty of uncertainty and confusion surrounding cryptocurrencies. I recently had dinner with my parents and my mother asked me to explain it to her. I tried. I’m pretty sure I failed. I tried to simply frame it as digital money, but that didn’t even come close to explaining what cryptocurrency is, how it works, and why it has become such a huge industry.

There are far smarter people than me who can explain what cryptocurrencies are and how they work. This video here does a decent job of explaining it to beginners who aren’t particularly tech savvy.

While I’ve been following the rise, fall, revival, and growth of cryptocurrencies for years, I didn’t actually buy any until very recently. I even wrote about my experience, which ended up being somewhat mundane. It was no different than using an ATM.

That’s somewhat illustrative of where cryptocurrencies are right now. Buying currencies like Bitcoin has never been easier. You can download any number of wallets for free on your phone. If you don’t want to link your bank account to it, then finding an ATM like I did is very easy.

If you have any spare change lying around, you can turn it into Bitcoin. That’s where we’re at now with cryptocurrencies.

The harder part at the moment is actually spending Bitcoins. While you can find numerous online merchants who take Bitcoins, you can’t exactly use them to pay your bills, buy your groceries, or just purchase something on a whim. That’s one of the biggest barriers to cryptocurrencies in general. Using it is more cumbersome than regular cash. That’s why most see Bitcoin as an investment asset rather than a usable currency.

That could change very soon, however. The reason for that change could come from the largest retail entity on this planet, Amazon. If ever there was a company that could completely change the way we see and use cryptocurrencies, it’s this one. It may ultimately make Jeff Bezos even richer than he already is, but let’s table that concern for a moment.

This isn’t just me speculating. There was a recent rumor among the business world that Amazon was looking to start accepting Bitcoins as a payment method. While Amazon ultimately shot down that rumor, they did not say they would never accept Bitcoins.

In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s only a matter of time before Amazon starts accepting cryptocurrencies in some capacity. There’s just too much money to be made from doing so and Amazon, like all big businesses, is always looking to grow. This would be one way of doing that and it’s impossible to overstate the larger impact that would have.

For one, it would send shockwaves through all currency markets, crypto and otherwise, more so than a million tweets by Elon Musk. Suddenly, this asset isn’t just an investment vehicle anymore. It’s a form of money with an actual use.

Amazon is already the biggest retailer in the world. It’s also becoming one of the largest grocery chains. It still has some competition, mostly through companies like Walmart. None of them accept Bitcoin yet, but you can be reasonably certain that as soon as one of them takes that leap, the others will follow.

Beyond just being a novel payment method, Amazon accepting Bitcoins could have a far broader change. One of the main driving forces behind the development of cryptocurrencies is that this is money that has no boarders. It doesn’t matter where you are in this world. You could be in America, China, or the middle of Africa. So long as you have an internet connection, you can access this currency.

For companies like Amazon, that means accessing a customer base that has been traditionally inaccessible. There are over a billion people in this world who have no bank accounts. In some parts of the world, their currency just isn’t usable for companies like Amazon. Converting them to other currencies is already a hassle. Bitcoin could change that.

By accepting Bitcoin, Amazon and other retailers like it have the potential to the entire world in ways that weren’t possible until recently. If they’re going to keep growing, they need those customers and, like it or not, these people need Amazon. Opening more people up to an accessible market can only help get goods to people who need them.

All that being said, I can also understand why Amazon and other large retailers might resist accepting cryptocurrencies. Beyond them just being too loosely regulated, their volatile nature could be a problem for large retailers.

I can attest to that volatility personally. When I bought my first Bitcoins, the price was around $35,000. Then, it shot up to over $60,000 for a while. A few months later, it crashed to the point where it was worth less than my initial investment. It eventually recovered, but that’s a lot of instability for a currency.

That’s something I’m sure Amazon is aware of. By taking Bitcoins as payments, they’re also accepting its wild volatility. All those Bitcoins that paid for all those goods could be worth a thousand dollars one day and worth a fraction of that the next. Even if Bitcoin represents only a small portion of payment, that’s sure to create some anxiety among investors.

Given the current state of the economy and the world, as a whole, I understand why Amazon would hold off on diving into cryptocurrencies. For a large, publicly traded company, anything that makes the stock price or the overall value of its assets less certain might just be too much to handle for now.

It may not happen this year. It may not even happen next year. However, I’m not among those who think all cryptocurrencies are a scam, a scheme, or a fad. These aren’t Pokémon cards or Beanie Babies. This is a valuable tool for the digital world that has the potential to open up exchange with everyone, regardless of where they live.

That tool still needs refinements. Bitcoin certainly has its flaws. That’s beyond dispute. Amazon is aware of those flaws, as well. As they are refined, currencies like Bitcoin will gain more acceptance. Amazon and other big retailers will be part of that process. When that day finally comes, expect a whole new world to emerge. I don’t claim to know what kind of world that’ll be, but I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

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Why We Should Embrace Synthetic Meat (As Soon As Possible)

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If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you drank milk at some point this year. You probably drank a lot more of it when you were a kid. The fact that you’re reading this proves that you didn’t die, as a result. That may not seem like a big deal, but compared to 100 years ago, it counts as a noteworthy feat.

Between 1850 and 1950, approximately a half-million infants died due to diseases contracted by drinking milk. If you do the math, that’s about 5,000 deaths a year, just from drinking milk. Keep in mind, these are children. That’s a lot of death and suffering for drinking one of the most basic substances the animal kingdom.

These days, death by drinking milk is exceedingly rare. Thanks to processes like pasteurization, milk is one of the safest substances you can drink. If anyone does get sick, it’s usually from drinking raw or unpasteurized milk. However, it’s so rare that most people don’t think about it. It’s just a normal part of how we manage our food and nourish ourselves.

I bring up milk because it nicely demonstrates what happens when we apply technology to improve the quality, safety, and abundance of our food. Despite what certain misguided critics may say, many of which probably haven’t experienced extreme starvation, this has been an objective good for humanity, civilization, and the world, as a whole.

Modern medicine and the Green Revolution, championed by the likes of Norman Borlaug, helped give us more efficient ways of producing massive quantities of food. Now, there’s another technological advancement brewing that might end up being more impactful. You’ve probably seen commercials for it already. It has many names, but for now, I’m just going to call it synthetic meat.

It’s almost exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of producing meat through artificial processes, none of which involve the slaughtering of animals. For those concerned about animal welfare and environmental impacts, it’s the ultimate solution. At most, the animals contribute a few cells. The rest is grown in a laboratory. Nobody has to get hurt. Nobody has to go vegan, either.

It seems too good to be true and there are certainly aspects of synthetic meats that are overhyped. However, unlike other advancements like Neuralink or nanobots, this is already an evolving market. The first synthetic burger was made and consumed in 2013. It was the culmination of a long, laborious effort that cost upwards of $300,000.

Those costs soon came down and they came down considerably. By 2017, the cost of that same meat patty was around $11. People have paid much more for expensive caviar. That’s impressive progress for something that’s still a maturing technology with many unresolved challenges. With major fast food companies getting in on the game, the technology is likely to progress even more.

It’s here where I want to make an important point about this technology. Regardless of how you feel about it or why it’s being developed, there’s one aspect to it that’s worth belaboring.

We should embrace synthetic meat.

In fact, we should embrace this technology faster than others because the benefits of doing so will only compound.

I say this as someone who has tried an impossible meat burger. It’s not terrible. I wouldn’t mind eating them regularly if they were the only option available. That said, you can still tell it’s not traditional beef. That’s because this meat isn’t exactly the kind of cultured meat that’s grown in a lab. It’s assembled from plant proteins and various other well-known substances.

Ideally, synthetic meat wouldn’t just be indistinguishable from traditional beef. It would actually be safer than anything you could get naturally. Meat grown in a lab under controlled conditions can ensure it’s free of food-born illnesses, which are still a problem with meat production. It can also more effectively remove harmful byproducts, like trans fats.

In theory, it might also be possible to produce meat with more nutrients. Imagine a burger that’s as healthy as a bowl of kale. Picture a T-bone steak that has the same amount of nutrients as a plate of fresh vegetables. That’s not possible to do through natural means, but in a lab where the meat is cultured at the cellular level, it’s simply a matter of chemistry and palatability.

Meat like that wouldn’t just be good for our collective health. It would be good for both the environment and the economy, two issues that are rarely aligned. Even if you don’t care at all about animal welfare, synthetic meats has the potential to produce more product with less resources. On a planet of over 7.6 billion, that’s not just beneficial. It’s critical.

At the moment, approximately 70 percent of the agricultural land in the world is dedicated to the meat production. In terms of raw energy requirements, meat requires considerably more energy than plants. That includes water consumption, as well. Making meat in its current form requires a lot of resources and with a growing population, the math is working against us.

Say what you want about vegetarians and vegans when they rant about the meat industry. From a math and resources standpoint, they have a point. However, getting rid of meat altogether just isn’t feasible. It tastes too good and it has too many benefits. We can’t make people hate the taste of burgers, but we can improve the processes on how those burgers are made.

Instead of industrial farms where animals are raised in cramped quarters, pumped full of hormones, and raised to be slaughtered, we could have factories that produce only the best quality meat from the best animal cells. It wouldn’t require vast fields or huge quantities of feed. It would just need electricity, cells, and the assorted cellular nutrients.

Perhaps 3D printing advances to a point where specific cuts of meat could be produced the same way we produce specific parts for a car. Aside from producing meat without having to care for than slaughter animals, such a system would be able to increase the overall supply with a smaller overall footprint.

Needing less land to produce meat means more land for environmental preservation or economic development. Farming, both for crops and for meat, is a major contributor to deforestation. Being able to do more with less helps improve how we utilize resources, in general. Even greedy corporations, of which the food industry has plenty, will improve their margins by utilizing this technology.

Increased supply also means cheaper prices and if the taste is indistinguishable from traditional meat, then most people are going to go with it, regardless of how they feel about it. There will still be a market for traditional, farm-raised meats from animals, just as there’s a market for non-GMO foods. However, as we saw with the Green Revolution in the early 20th century, economics tends to win out in the long run.

It’s a promising future for many reasons. There are many more I could list relating to helping the environment, combating starvation, and improving nutrition. Alone, they’re all valid reasons to embrace this technology and seek greater improvements. If I had to pick only one, though, it’s this.

If we don’t develop this technology, then these delicious meats that we love could be exceedingly scarce or prohibitively expensive in the future.

Like I said earlier, the way we currently produce meat is grossly inefficient. At some point, the demand for meat is going to exceed the current system’s capacity to produce it in an economical way. At that point, this delicious food that we take for granted might not be so readily available and the substitutes might not be nearly as appetizing.

The issue becomes even more pressing if we wish to become a space-faring civilization, which will be necessary at some point. If we still want to enjoy burgers, chicken wings, and bacon at that point, we’ll need to know how to make it without the vast fields and facilities we currently use. Otherwise, we might be stuck dining on potatoes like Matt Damon in “The Martian.”

While the situation isn’t currently that urgent, this is one instance where a new technology is the extra push. You don’t have to be a major investor in companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Just go out of your way to try one of these new synthetic meat products. Let the market know that there’s demand for it and the machinations of capitalism will do the rest.

I understand that our inner Ron Swanson will always have a craving for old fashioned burgers, steaks, and bacon. Those things don’t have to go away completely, just as traditional farming hasn’t gone away completely. However, when a particular technology already exists and has so many potential benefits, it’s worth pursuing with extra vigor.

The planet will benefit.

The people will benefit.

The animals will benefit.

Our society, as a whole, will benefit.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, Current Events, Environment, futurism, health, technology

An Artificial Intelligence That Can Debate: The Promise And The Perils

Even in an era as divided and chaotic as this, there’s still a place for reasonable debate on important issues.

Yes, I understand it’s hard to say that with a straight face these days.

Yes, I’ve been to comments sections, Reddit, and 4chan.

Yes, I know how ugly the discourse is right now, but that’s exactly why I’m bringing this up.

In general, people are curious. Even though they cling to cherished beliefs and refuse to change their minds when confronted with evidence, we’re still curious about things that are different. It’s not always honest, but it’s a powerful feeling. Even if you despise those on the other side of the debate, a part of you will still wonder why they hold the opinions they have.

That’s why debate is such a powerful tool. Humans are such a social species by nature. We’re hard-wired to interact, connect, and discuss things with one another, even when we don’t agree. It may frustrate us to no end, as anyone who has debated a creationist can attest. However, the fact we keep doing it is proof, in my opinion, that there’s still value in the process.

Regardless of how you feel about the merit and value of debating, the whole process might become more complicated in the near future. That’s because IBM, the same company behind Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, just created an artificial intelligence that can debate at the same level as a skilled human debater.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece in TechXplore on this new system. It’s not as scary as some of the things we’ve seen from Boston Dynamics lately, but it’s still intriguing.

TechXplore: IBM’s AI debating system able to compete with expert human debaters

IBM has developed an artificial intelligence-based system designed to engage in debates with humans. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team members describe their system and how well it performed when pitted against human opponents. Chris Reed with the University of Dundee has published a News & Views piece in the same journal issue outlining the history and development of AI technology based around the types of logic used in human arguments and the new system developed by IBM.

As Reed notes, debating is a skill humans have been honing for thousands of years. It is generally considered to be a type of discussion in which one or more people attempt to persuade others that their opinion on a topic is right. In this new effort, the team at IBM has created an AI system designed to debate with humans in a live setting. It listens to moderators and opponents and responds in a female voice.

Now, before you get too nervous, it’s worth noting that this AI is far from the kind of advanced artificial intelligence systems I’ve mentioned before. This is not the kind of AI that will become Skynet or Hal 9000, no more so than Watson or AlphaGo. This is a system is very much a narrow AI, as in it’s made to excel at a specific task.

We have AI’s that can beat world class chess players and Jeopardy champions. This AI just happens to excel at debate. However, that has implications that go beyond simply outclassing the best human debaters in the world at the moment. In fact, this is one form of AI that might not need human-level intelligence to incur a major impact.

Take a moment to think about how erratic and inconsistent most debates are. No matter how intelligent or informed you are, it tends to get messy fast. That’s why so many comments sections and Reddit threads devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks. The end result is people becoming more angry and unreasonable, which can have major real-world consequences.

However, what would happen if every debate on any issue included someone who was better than the best debater on the planet? Even if the two people on each side of the debate were dumb and inept, such a presence would have a major impact on the discourse.

That’s because winning a debate has little to do with how well someone knows a particular subject. It also has little to do with how forcefully and clearly someone explains a topic. Again, people who debate creationists know this all too well. Winning a debate doesn’t mean proving your expertise. It means proving the merit of your argument.

An AI that can do that may not convince someone that they’re wrong about something. However, losing a debate tends to have a lasting impact. Just ask any aspiring politician. It can also lead people to question their beliefs, even if they still cling to them. That, alone, can be powerful.

For proof, look no further than the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamously hateful and dogmatic Westboro Baptist Church. She was as locked into her beliefs as anyone could possibly be. She was raised by religious zealots and indoctrinated into strict religious dogma from the time she was a child. She’s not someone whose mind is prone to change.

Then, she got into a discussion with someone on Twitter of all places. That person began a conversation. It started as a nasty debate, but it evolved into something that led her to question her beliefs. Ultimately, she left that hateful and bigoted environment. She’s now an activist against the same religiously motivated hate that she once fostered.

It’s a powerful story, but one that couldn’t have happened without a debate. To date, people have only been able to have those debates with other people. Not everyone is equally skilled. In fact, I would argue most people are woefully unskilled at debating anything and I include myself in that category. I am not good at it, either. I freely admit that.

Now, there’s an AI system that can theoretically win any debate the same way other systems can defeat any chess player. That does hold promise if it can be used to temper the heated rhetoric that has caused real-life hostilities. At the same time, there are reasons for concern.

What side would this system be on?

Moreover, who decides what position these AI systems take?

If no one decides, then how does the AI determine which side on a debate it takes?

These are relevant questions because if you have an AI that can win any debate, then the side it takes really matters. That can be used for good when countering dangerous disinformation, like those from the antivaxx crowd or hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Like any tool, though, it can be weaponized for ill.

I can easily imagine political organizations getting a hold of these systems and trying to use them to benefit their agenda. I can also see some trying to use it to spam message boards, social media, and Reddit threads to derail certain movements or arguments. That’s a powerful tool and we can’t be certain that those using it will use it responsibly. That’s the dilemma with all technology. It can be used for good and for evil. With technology like artificial intelligence, the stakes are a lot higher, as are the perils. This technology may not be as dangerous as a more advanced AI, but it could be a precursor to just how disruptive this technology can be.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, technology

What Keeps Bitcoin From Being A (Bigger) Part Of Our Future

I consider myself an enthusiast of technology. On many occasions, I’ve wildly speculated about emerging technology and expressed unapologetic excitement about certain trends. In general, I have the utmost respect and support for those who share this passion. I don’t always agree with their outlook or speculation, but I get where they’re coming from.

Then, there are Bitcoin enthusiasts. I’ll just come out and say I have mixed feelings about them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to diminish what a remarkable technology Bitcoin is. It is a complicated and, at times, confusing technology. Even the Wikipedia page only does so much to explain what it is, where it came from, and why it matters. That’s not surprising. There was plenty of confusion about the internet too when it first emerged.

While I don’t consider myself an enthusiast, Bitcoin has sparked my curiosity. I do sometimes look into major news stories and developments surrounding the technology. The fact that it has lasted over a decade and made some people legitimate millionaires is proof enough that Bitcoin has real, tangible value. Those who keep saying that Bitcoin is just a fad or will crash are becoming increasingly scarce.

I’m convinced that Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies like it, are here to stay. They’ve proven that they have value in an increasingly digital landscape. As the internet becomes more prevalent and accessible, their role will only grow. That being said, I’m not yet convinced Bitcoin’s role will go beyond a certain point.

Those who say Bitcoin is the future of money are likely talking in hyperbole.

Those who say Bitcoin and the blockchain are the most revolutionary technologies since email are also likely exaggerating.

I don’t doubt for a second that these people believe in what they’re saying. I just haven’t seen enough to warrant that kind of enthusiasm. The issue isn’t as much about the merits of the technology as it is about how it’s being used. I’m not just referring to its role in the illegal drug trade, either.

At the moment, Bitcoin is fairly accessible. If you have a smartphone and an internet connection, you can download a simple wallet for free. If you do a quick search for a Bitcoin ATM, you can purchase Bitcoins with the same ease you would when purchasing a gift card. It’s what you do after that where the issues arise.

What exactly can you buy with Bitcoin that you can’t buy more easily through other means? That’s not me being facetious. This is where I tend to diverge with Bitcoin enthusiasts. I understand that some major ecommerce sites accept Bitcoin, namely Overstock. I’m also aware that more and more retailers are accepting Bitcoin.

However, the only ones taking advantage of that option are those who go out of their way to use Bitcoin. For most people, especially those who aren’t as tech savvy, there just aren’t enough benefits to warrant the extra effort. On top of that, Bitcoin does have some lingering flaws that are hard to work around. Then again, you can say the same thing about traditional money.

None of that even begins to highlight the growing issues associated with mining Bitcoins.

Now, that could change. It’s not a certainty, but it is a possibility. Like any new tech, the issue isn’t always about whether or not it works. Bitcoin clearly works and it’s been working for nearly a decade. It’s whether or not there’s a “killer app” to entice ordinary people to go through the effort of learning about, acquiring, and using Bitcoin.

The problem is that, thanks to incidents like the Silk Road, the primary use of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies like it have been for the purchase of drugs or other illicit services. Regardless of how you feel about the politics surrounding illegal drugs and services, that’s the reputation Bitcoin has. It’s just a way for criminals and their cohorts to operate.

That’s not a killer app. It’s also not sustainable.

In order for Bitcoin to play a bigger part in our future, it needs to have a good, meaningful use. It took cell phones decades to find that. Just being able to make phone calls, remember phone numbers, and occasionally host a game of solitaire wasn’t enough. Other apps like music, video chatting, and cameras had to get into the mix before the public and the market embraced them.

That’s what Bitcoin needs. I don’t claim to know what that entails. I think Bitcoin has to get to a point where using it is as simple as using a credit card or debit card. It also needs a particular use or product that will justify the physical and financial investment. That use also can’t be illegal. It’s no secret that the internet owes much of its early growth to the porn industry, but porn isn’t illegal.

Bitcoin, in my opinion, will need something bigger than porn. It might also need to wait until more parts of the world are connected to broadband internet. Maybe it involves voting, enforcing contracts, or the development of new peer-to-peer networks, such as Open Bazaar. I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to figure it out at the moment.

In the meantime, I’ll certainly keep an eye on Bitcoin. I don’t deny it has its uses in the current world. It’s just too limited right now. Whether it has a large or small role in the future that awaits us remains to be seen.

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