Tag Archives: tech

The Metaverse: What It Is, Why It Matters, And Why You Should Be Concerned About FaceBook’s Plans For It

So what is “the metaverse,” exactly? | Ars Technica

There was a time, not too long ago, when if you said words like “email,” “texting,” “hashtag,” and “internet” to most people, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. I am old enough to remember when the internet was only a fringe interest, known only to computer nerds and tech gurus.

Yes, that makes me feel older than I wish it did, but that helps illustrate my point.

Now, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t know what the internet was or what a hashtag entailed. These have all become parts of our lives, for better and for worse. Checking our email and texting our friends is just part of everyday life now. Most don’t even give it a second thought.

It should give us all pause in the sense that we don’t always know when some new technology or trend becomes that integral with our lives. We usually don’t realize it until many years after we’ve embraced it to such an extent that life before it seems strange by comparison.

At this very moment, we may be at such a state with an emerging technology called the metaverse. You’ve probably heard of it, if only in passing. The recent news surrounding FaceBook’s pending name change is at the heart of it, but who can honestly say they know what it is or why it matter?

I certainly won’t claim to be an expert on the metaverse. I am not the most qualified to explain it to most ordinary people. However, as someone who does follow this kind of tech news closer than most, I think it’s worth discussing. I also feel like the concept of the “metaverse” is in a similar position that we saw with the early internet.

In terms of basics, the metaverse is basically a more ambitious form of virtual reality. It’s not quite on the level of “The Matrix,” but it’s a lot more varied than a standard model of the Oculus Rift. It’s not just for playing games or creating elaborate avatars for ourselves. This is supposed to be something more personal.

According to an article in NPR, the metaverse is described as this.

Think of it as the internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of — instead of just looking at on a screen. Essentially, it’s a world of endless, interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play, using virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphone apps or other devices.

It also will incorporate other aspects of online life such as shopping and social media, according to Victoria Petrock, an analyst who follows emerging technologies.

That may not seem too revolutionary at the moment. Then again, you probably could’ve said the same thing about email and texting back in 1994. It’s so new and poorly understood that most people don’t see the appeal or the potential, but I personally believe the metaverse represents an evolution of the internet, as we know it.

I also believe we should be very concerned that FaceBook, of all companies, is trying to be at the forefront of it all. To say that FaceBook has a credibility problem would be like saying a sewage plant has an odor problem.

In many respects, I don’t blame FaceBook for investing in the metaverse. Like every tech company, they’re looking to the future. They’re seeking the next big thing that they can develop, dominate, and monetize to the utmost. It doesn’t matter that they’re already a billion-dollar company. There are many more billions to be made in the metaverse, if not trillions.

If anything, the potential of that market intensified in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this crisis, we all learned just how critical it is to stay connected to the internet. It wasn’t just a form of entertainment anymore. It became vital to continue working and going to school. Many even realized just how much they could get done from home with nothing except a computer and an internet connection.

With the metaverse, we could potentially do even more. One of the big limitations that the pandemic also revealed is the inherent limitations of a screen. While applications like Zoom and FaceTime allowed us to interact, it was still so impersonal. It didn’t have the same impact of being in someone’s physical presence.

The same limitations go beyond work and school. Even though we do a lot of shopping online these days, there are times when we can’t do everything we would usually do in a store. I can personally attest that buying a good pair of shoes or a dress shirt online can be a gamble. Even when you think you got the right size, it doesn’t always fit when you get it.

The metaverse could help change that. It could help us explore the internet in ways that go beyond a typical screen. It could help us create Zoom meetings that feel more like gatherings around a conference table. It could make shopping feel more like browsing a physical space, complete with more personalized selections.

It could even make for more engaging entertainment. Instead of just staring at a screen and watching a game play out, we could actually feel like we’re present and play a larger part of what happens.

Yes, that will likely include porn.

Yes, that will likely cause discomfort, distress, and all sorts of other issues that will get certain prudish crowds fired up.

No, that won’t stop the metaverse from evolving.

In the beginning, it probably won’t feel like that much an upgrade over how we interact with the internet at the moment. Chances are it’ll probably start off looking like something akin to “Second Life,” a game where people create and interact in their own virtual world. It’s a big idea, but it still looks like a game.

That will change as the interface and computing power improve. At some point, it’ll get to a point where going into the metaverse won’t feel at all like a game. The imagery and graphics could ultimately get so life-like that it’ll be hard to distinguish from the real thing. Going to a store in the metaverse could appear no different than going to a mall, at least from your brain’s perspective.

It won’t just stop at appearing lifelike, either. Add in more advanced interfaces, like the ones being developed by Neuralink, and there may come a time when going to the metaverse will feel like going into “The Matrix.” Within that virtual space, what we could ultimately do would only be limited by our computing power and network connection.

The possibilities are tantalizing.

However, keep in mind that much of these possibilities will be developed, packaged, and sold by FaceBook. This is already a company we know engages in shady business dealings, to say the least. We also know they’re not exactly careful with our private information. The idea of them being in control of this new virtual world should be concerning to everyone.

Thankfully, they’re not the only ones seeking to develop the metaverse. Other major tech companies are already making investments in creating this new virtual space. Will that be enough to ensure FaceBook and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t the undisputed overlords of the virtual world? I don’t know, but I hope there’s some semblance of balance in that world. As much as I’d like to explore that world, I’d be quite hesitant if doing so meant entrusting the integrity of the metaverse to a company like FaceBook.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, Neuralink, technology

Recent Advances In Nuclear Fusion (And Why We Should Cheer Them On)

Nuclear fusion: Building a star on Earth is hard, which is why we need  better materials

There a great many technological advancements that are touted as “game changing” or “revolutionary,” but very few end up delivering on that promise. I still remember all the hype surrounding the Segway and the Virtual Boy.

Granted, these might have been just a byproduct of market hype, but there was a genuine belief that this technology would revolutionize the world. It just didn’t pan out.

I know I’ve discussed a number of technological advances that are very likely to deliver on that hype. I still believe that artificial intelligence, brain computer interfaces, and human enhancement will be true game changers for the future of humanity.

However, there’s one technology that I haven’t really touched on. Arguably, it’s the most needed technology in the world right now. It wouldn’t just revolutionize the world as we know it. It might literally save it.

That technology is nuclear fusion.

Now, there’s a reason I haven’t talked about it much, aside from it not being in any particular area of expertise for me. Nuclear fusion doesn’t exactly have a lot of sexy implications like AI or human enhancement. It also has a bit of a bad reputation among those who speculate about the future.

The running joke is that nuclear fusion is 30 years away and always will be.

If you’re not laughing, don’t worry. It’s not a very good joke and it’s not the least bit funny in the grand scheme of things. That’s because nuclear fusion, if we could get it to work on a large scale, would effectively solve the world’s energy problems. It would largely eliminate the need for oil, coal, natural gas, and most other forms of energy.

If it sounds too good to be true, then you’re starting to get the joke. However, this is no magical fantasy power source on par with Dilithium Crystals. Fusion power is very real. We feel it every day. It’s what powers the sun. It’s what powers all the stars we see in the night sky.

Most people who passed high school physics know what fusion is. Basically, you take a bunch of hydrogen atoms, the most abundant element in the universe, and fuse them together under tremendous pressure and heat. The end result is helium, the second most abundant energy in the universe, and a whole lot of energy.

Unlike nuclear fission, which splits larger atoms into smaller atoms, this form of power doesn’t rely on heavy radioactive elements. As such, it produces next to no waste or greenhouse emissions. It also allows us to use seawater as fuel, since all you need is hydrogen. As a power source, it is as close to perfect as you can get.

Naturally, countless engineers and scientists have spent years trying to make fusion a viable power source. For decades, it was promised to be the ultimate solution to our energy needs. However, no matter how many times someone said viable fusion was close, it never came to be. That’s where its reputation as always being 30 years away came from.

On top of that, fusion research has had a few famous frauds. The whole failure of cold fusion was not a good look for the industry. I suspect that affair convinced too many people that we would never have fusion.

Now, there are some legitimate engineering and scientific reasons for why fusion has been so difficult. Again, I’m not an expert and I’m not qualified to explain those reasons. I’ll just say that it often comes back to making a fusion reaction self-sustaining and containing the massive heat required to keep that reaction going.

These are not challenges that require us to break the laws of physics. These are mostly engineering challenges that require study, refinement, and new materials. In the same way you can’t expect blacksmith’s from the 17th century to make a modern car, you can’t expect our current engineers to make a fusion reactor without the necessary components.

Despite what jokes and skeptics may say, we have made real progress. Very recently, an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that utilized high energy lasers set a new energy record. That may not mean much to the average person and it certainly doesn’t mean that fusion has been perfected. It just means we’re getting closer to that magical break-even point.

That’s the point where the energy we get out of the fusion reaction is greater than what we put into it. To date, plenty of labs have created nuclear fusion reactions. They just take way more energy than they give off. Over the years, that difference has gotten smaller and smaller. Once it crosses that break-even point, then we have fusion and that will be a game-changer.

I cannot overstate just how much the world needs that kind of game-changer right now and I’m not just referring to the lingering damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every year, we get increasingly dire reports from the IPCC about the impacts of climate change. Despite what politicians and oil lobbyists say, we’re fueling these impacts with our reliance on fossil fuels.

Fusion, once refined and scaled, could do more than anything to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. It might not eliminate fossil fuels completely, but it will make them far less necessary for all the energy we need in the present and the future. I would even go so far as to say that nuclear fusion might be the only way to adequately power the future we’re trying to build.

That’s why it’s not helpful to make jokes about how fusion is always 30 years away.

Instead, this might be the best possible time to actively cheer on the people working on nuclear fusion. Only one of them needs to succeed at getting to the break-even point. Only one of them needs to succeed at making a viable fusion reactor. At that point, the world will start changing in a profound way.

It won’t happen all at once, but it will be one of the most welcome and overdue advancements in recent memory. I certainly hope that this advancement happens sooner rather than later. If nothing else, it’ll make the world feel less dire so that the other, sexier advances in technology can proceed.

1 Comment

Filed under futurism, technology

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under futurism, psychology, technology

How Should A Robot Look Before You Welcome It Into Your Home?

karalunaria — ok so upon 3 minutes of google it's the mascot...

There was a time when people were skeptical about having a computer in their home. I know because I’m old enough to remember people like that. It wasn’t that they were paranoid about them, although a few certainly were. They just didn’t see the need.

Then, computers became smaller, more affordable, and more useful. They went from being these big, bulky machines that took up an entire corner of a room into being a sleek, decorative piece of hardware that did so much to improve our lives. From information to communications to masturbation, computers revolutionized our lives.

It’s a common trend in technology. When it’s new and undeveloped, people are wary about having it in their homes. Go back several decades and people felt the same way about television. Go back a century and some people were reluctant to allow electricity into their homes. It takes some people longer than others to come around, but they eventually do when the utility is just too great.

This brings me to robots and for once, I’m not referring to sex robots. While they could very well be part of this conversation, I’m going to set that kinky angle to this issue aside. Instead, I’m going to stick to robots in general, specifically the kind with a body and some mechanism for doing work.

We’ve watched in recent years how quickly robotics technology is advancing. A while back, I highlighted a video from Boston Dynamics that showed one of their robots dancing. Even before that, this same company demonstrated a robot that could run and navigate basic obstacles. While it was certainly no Terminator, it was still no Wall-E.

These robots exist. Every year, they’re being improved and refined. Within the next decade, it is likely we’ll have a robot that can move, react, and navigate its surroundings like a human. It may not have human level intelligence, but it will have the body to match our capabilities in every way.

When this day comes, the world will be a very different place. It’ll definitely raises issues regarding robot workers and robot soldiers, but that sort of impact won’t be as direct for most people. The real change will come when we have the ability to have a robot in our homes that can do almost any kind of work a human could do.

By that, I don’t just mean a virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri. We already have those and they’ve already become an increasingly popular feature for many homes. These assistants can help us with shopping lists, music playlists, and schedule reminders. They can’t do the dishes, clean the bathroom, cook our meals, or make our beds.

Having a robot that could do all that would be nice. It would be like having a personal maid and a personal secretary. There’s certainly a market for it and the rise of virtual assistants has already laid the foundation for that market. However, that still raises some important questions.

How should that robot look before you welcome it into your home?

Ignore for a moment the paranoia about a robot turning evil. Assume, for the sake of argument, these robots are as functional as your typical Roomba. They don’t have advanced AI. They’re not sentient or self-aware on the same level as Rosie from “The Jetsons” or Hal 9000. They just these big tools that do all the work you’d expect of a maid, butler, or servant.

Would you welcome that robot into your home if it looked like one of the Boston Dynamics robots?

Would you welcome that robot into your home if it looked completely indistinguishable from humans, like Kara in “Detroit: Become Human?”

Would you want that robot to look only mostly human, but still be distinctly machine, like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation?”

These are all relevant questions if these robots are going to be part of our lives. For some people, a robot that looked too human might be too jarring. It would be difficult to see them and remember they’re just a robot. Some people might be fine with that, especially when sex robots are involved. However, for a robot that’s primarily a helper, that might not be ideal.

For robot servants, it might be more beneficial to everyone if they didn’t look too human. In fact, having a human-like body might even hinder a robots ability to do its job. That’s why most robots you see in factories don’t look human at all. They take the form of whatever helps them do their job.

Maybe a perfect robot housekeeper doesn’t look human. Maybe it looks more like a droid from “Star Wars” that has multiple arms, a head with a panoramic camera, and four legs like a dog. Depending on the home its in, it might even need to be able to adjust its height. Such a robot may be good at its task, but would it be too weird and bulky to allow in our homes?

No matter how human they look, these robots would have to appear to us in a way that we’re comfortable being around. We have to be willing to just leave them in our homes for most of the day, possibly with pets and children, and trust that they’ll do what we want them to do. That kind of trust will take time, just as it did with computers.

It may ultimately take longer to welcome a robot into our homes than we did with computers, but once the benefits and utility get to a certain point, it may be too appealing to ignore. I don’t claim to know what typical household robots will look like before then. I just know they’ll have to look a certain way for us to embrace them as part of our world. Naturally, we’ll still probably embrace sex robots sooner, but it won’t stop there. Robots will become a larger part of our lives eventually. They may end up having a greater impact than any new technology since electricity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, robots, technology, Thought Experiment

It’s Official: I Am Ready For Self-Driving (And Self-Parking) Cars

There are a lot of emerging technologies that I genuinely hope I live long enough to see and I’m not just referring to sex robots. I’ve written about how certain technologies could open the door to a bold new world for humanity, as well as a few that could be the end of humanity as we know it.

Some of these advances are farther off than others.

Some are probably so advanced that I won’t live long enough to see them, but hopefully my kids will, if I’m able to have them.

One technology, however, is a lot closer than most realize. That technology is self-driving cars. I’ve talked about them before. It’s fair to say this is not some advanced speculative tech on par with warp drives and light sabres.

There are already working prototypes and advanced testing going on. While it’s far from becoming mainstream and there are real challenges we’ve yet to overcome, this technology is coming. It doesn’t break the rules of physics. It’s just a matter of time, investment, and refinement.

Well, after returning from my vacation this past week, I’m ready to make a larger statement about this technology. I try not to give too many personal opinions when I talk about this sort of thing, but I’m going to make an exception.

I’m very ready to embrace self-driving cars sooner rather than later.

I’m also very ready to embrace cars that can park themselves or just find a decent parking spot to begin with.

Why am I suddenly so eager to support this technology? The reason is simple. My travels this past week have reminded me just how much I dislike long drives on roads with little to know features. It also reminded me what a pain in the ass parking can be whenever I visit a major city like New York.

Just getting to my destination, navigating traffic jams and delays along the way, can be a test in frustration. It can also cause pain in my back from being so focused for extended periods. It can also drain me mentally, so much so that it’s hard to enjoy myself once I get to my destination.

I would absolutely love it if I could just get into a car, enter my destination, lay back, and sleep for most of the way. If I have to be awake, I’d love to use that as an opportunity to write some more sexy short stories or catch up on some shows. That would make me a lot more eager to travel and a lot more willing to go to more distant destinations.

At the same time, parking can be just as big a pain. This past week, I swear I spent a good half-hour just looking for parking and a good long while getting to it. It wasn’t cheap, either. That only compounds the pain.

It didn’t completely ruin my vacation, but it did temper it at times. I feel like everyone would enjoy a life with freer frustrations and self-driving cars can go a long way towards that. Say what you will about the technology or the companies behind it. When it eventually arrives, I’ll be the first to try it. If nothing else, I’ll be happy to just be able to enjoy the open road once again.

Leave a comment

Filed under futurism, Jack Fisher's Insights, 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.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bitcoin, futurism, technology

Thought Experiment: When Does Technology Make Us Non-Human?

The following is a video from my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It explores another thought experiment about technology and how it’s affecting us, as a species. I’ve covered this sort of thing before and the implications. I’m looking to see if there’s an audience for this on my channel. Enjoy!

1 Comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, Jack's World, technology, Thought Experiment, YouTube

Why We Should Treat Our Data As (Valuable) Property

Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.

I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.

Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.

As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.

Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.

The growing value of this data raises some important questions.

Who exactly owns this data?

How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?

Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?

Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?

What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?

These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.

At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.

Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.

However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.

Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.

It’s a difficult question to resolve. It only gets more difficult when you consider laws like the “right to be forgotten.” Many joke that the internet never forgets, but it’s no laughing matter. Peoples’ lives can be ruined, sometimes through no fault of their own. Peoples’ private photos have been hacked and shared without their permission.

In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.

Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.

However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.

Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.

I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.

It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.

While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.

This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.

Leave a comment

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, politics, technology

How Many Streaming Services Can We (Realistically) Have?

It’s official. The streaming wars are on.

Hell, it’s been official for the past several years and 2020 only accelerated it. The battle to dominate digital media in all forms is raging on multiple fronts and while many have their favorites, none can say they’ve won.

It’s Netflix versus Hulu versus Amazon versus Disney versus CBS/Viacom versus YouTube versus whatever other media companies are fighting for every possible eyeball. The stakes are high for consumers and content creators alike. There are billions in profits to be made and plenty of epic, culture-defining content to be made. It’s going to get intense is what I’m saying.

I don’t think I need to remind everyone just how much the streaming market has changed in the past 10 years. Even if you’re still a teenager, chances are you still vaguely remember the days before Netflix and chill. Media back then was movies, TV, and Blu-Ray/DVD collections. I’m not saying it was ideal, but that’s what we had to work with.

Then, Netflix came along and changed everything.

Then, every company and their deep-pocketed subsidiaries tried to catch up.

It hasn’t always been smooth. Some people are still not over “The Officeleaving Netflix. Chances are there will be more upheavals like that as companies fight over who streams what and who has the streaming rights to a particular show or movie. That’s sure to get messy and I’m not smart enough to make sense of it.

However, as this war rages, I think there’s a relevant question worth asking. It’s a question that I’m sure both consumers like me and big media companies like Netflix and Disney ask as well. The answer could depend on how the war plays out.

How many streaming services can the average customer have?

Most people already pay for some form of streaming media. Most people subscribe to some form of pay TV, although that trend is in flux. The days of having all the entertainment you want with a simple cable subscription alongside Netflix is long gone and it’s not coming back.

Now, you have to be very selective and self-aware of what you want.

Do you want access to Disney’s vast library of content?

Do you want access to the library of shows from NBC or CBS?

Do you want access to the content from Warner Brothers, Universal, Dreamworks, Discovery, Cartoon Network, or 20th Century Fox?

You can have some, but you can’t have them all without paying way more than you ever would for cable. Even if you did, could you even watch all those streaming services enough to justify the cost? There are only so many hours in a day and there’s only so much attention we have to give. Even if we dedicated half our day to binging movies and TV, we couldn’t watch it all.

That’s the big limiting factor on streaming. It’s also the biggest obstacle any company faces with respect to their effort in the streaming wars. People can only watch so much and they only have so much they can reasonably spend on a streaming service. There comes a point where, even if the content is appealing, they just can’t justify the cost.

Personally, I have subscriptions to five streaming services. They are as follows:

Netflix

Hulu

Amazon Prime

Disney Plus

HBO Max

Now, it’s worth noting that I got HBO Max through my cable subscription. I’ve subscribed to HBO for years so it’s not something I consciously sought out. With Amazon Prime, I primarily used it for the 2-day shipping instead of streaming media, but I’ve certainly found some quality shows on that platform.

I’m not sure I can justify another subscription beyond this. Once my subscriptions cannot be counted on one hand anymore, I think that’s too much. I just cannot watch enough content to warrant paying extra. I say that knowing companies like Paramount and NBC have just launched their own streaming services.

Even though both networks include shows that I love, I’ve no intention of buying their streaming service. If my cable company offers it for free, like it did with HBO, then that’s great. I’ll certainly watch it, but I’m not paying extra.

I feel like a lot of people are in that boat. If they don’t have a cable subscription, then they’re already trying to save money and paying more for a streaming package just defeats the purpose. If they do have cable, then they’re probably not willing to pay more for something they’re already paying too much for.

It’s a tougher situation and one that I’m sure will get tougher in the coming years. It’s not cheap to run a streaming service. The profit margins can be thin if you don’t have the content. There’s a good chance that some streaming services will either fail or get absorbed into another, like CBS All Access did.

Then, there are the pirates and no, I’m not talking about the ones with eye-patches.

Before Netflix streaming, pirating copyrighted content was already pretty rampant. Since the streaming wars began, there has been an uptick in pirated streaming content. That is also likely to intensify the more fragmented the streaming market becomes. If people are really that unwilling to pay a whole subscription to watch just a single show, they will resort to piracy. It’s still distressingly easy.

That’s why this question matters, both for us and the companies who provide our entertainment. I don’t claim to know how it’ll play out. By the time it settles, there might be another major upheaval in the media to supplant it. Whatever happens, I feel like I’ve reached the limit on the number of streaming subscriptions I have.

That’s just me, though. What about you?

How many streaming services do you have and are you willing to pay for another? Our collective answer could very well change the course of the streaming wars.

2 Comments

Filed under Current Events, human nature, media issues, psychology, technology, television