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Research, scenario modeling, forecast. Living systems, complexity, geopol, energy. Music, travel, nature, surf.
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    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
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    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    So dig: in about 20 years we went from knowing rather little about the world beyond what we directly experienced and what we gleaned through books and pictures and the occasional documentary or foreign movie, to having immediate on-demand insight into any facet of the globe you could imagine. And many you couldn’t imagine. The sheer amount of visibility into humanity is simply astonishing. And it’s this informational shift, this too-much-bloody-perspective that is really amplifying the change and disruption and anxiety through which we grapple with the unfolding narrative of our species.

    You see, humans are still basically tribal animals. We like what we know and we fear what we do not. Geography, bloodlines, race, and class are among the sociocultural elements that bind us when we share them and separate us from those who fall onto a different end of the spectrum. We cast the differences and the things we do not understand into the Other. The Other becomes the boogeyman, the shadow, the unknown that is presumed to be a threat (because it’s safest to first assume that things are threats and then let information persuade us otherwise).

    This innate fear of the Other makes it easier to wage economics and wars on those folks over the mountain or beyond the sea. You can much more easily demonize or dehumanize people who have no discernible face, casting them into the Other without further regard. They’re different from us. They don’t like the things we do or worship the same gods. It’s our right as better, more civilized beings to have their oil/water/food/women/etc. In general, this made it easier to get down to business without the impediment of worrying about our impact on the savages. [Insert any relevant aside about colonialism or how the prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of cheap resources and labor in the Third World.]

    And then the steady march of trade made it incrementally easier and easier to see bits of the Other. Radio emerged, then the telephone and television. But even those were mostly local or regional. Globalization reinforced shipping lanes and supply chains and people started engaging the overseas Other to figure out how Toyota managed to bust the asses of US automakers or how the Chinese could subsidize western luxury with cheaper manufacturing. And meanwhile, creeping along the copper lines, the internet was starting to form.

    The early adopters really started to engage the web around 1993-1995. A few years later you could buy a cell phone that wasn’t the size of a brick but still a lot of folks who needed mobile connectivity just used a more affordable pager – a one-way ping that sent you running for a pay phone to respond. But by 2000 a lot of people were online and within another 5 years many of them had cell phones. Apple landed the smart phone revolutions and now, as of 2013, it’s not hyperbole to say that *most* people in the world have cell phones and sms. Many of them have internet access - at least enough to fill add hubs to regions still mostly lacking. And this penetration of digital eyes is especially high amongst the western nations so adept at justifying imperialism by demonizing and dehumanizing the Other. Ahem.

    Any analysis of the contemporary context we live in must therefore consider this fundamental reframing of such a core psychological construct. [IMHO.] The Other is collapsing into the known. We now see so much of the people, cultures, and races and interests and classes and… and basically the Other looks a lot like us, doesn’t it? Consider for a moment what it means for borders and national identity when our affinities are inherently borderless; when we make Facebook friends with people scattered all across the globe; when the streets of Bagdad (pre-post-Saddam) surprisingly looked a lot like the streets of Northridge or Minneapolis; and when the art and music and writings and media blend more and more across frictionless digital channels, reconfiguring to speak about the shared lives of humanity more than any isms or schisms. Well, call me a global-mind liberal tree-hugging old softy but it actually makes me feel better to see the barriers of culture and nationalism crumble a bit under the weight of the innate human need to connect and share and collaborate and remix. We’re still tribal, sure, and culture is valuable but the tribes are getting bigger and more distributed, and at the same time there are more and more niches in the Long Tail waking up to assert their *own* culture, however deep it may be in the sub-genre taxonomy.

    The impact of this shift and the crazy pace at which it's happened has injected a tremendous amount of instability into the global system. And it's all been carried along the sudden Cambrian explosion of computation and connectivity spreading into every nook and cranny it can find, wiring it all up and transforming the layers above. The sense of rapid change and the exponentiation of technological progress is probably not going to be a temporary or transitional event. It's looking more likely that we're steaming up a steep curve that's elevating change from a passage to a condition. It's the new normal within which we live our lives.

    This is why I'm a bit sanguine on fears of NSA totalitarianism or rumors of grand conspiracies slowly wrapping us all up for the impending boot on our necks. I don't believe in monoliths. There's too much instability in the system for any one controller to reign it all in. Instead we live in a world of too many competitors - governments, transnationals, corporate multinationals, NGO's, ideological blocks, cartels, super-empowered individuals. Even within organizations it's all Game of Thrones and balkanized silos. They're all vying for control but the outcome will not be any single winner. It will be a dynamic patchwork of power structures that, like any good ecosystem, will mostly keep each other in check. Mostly. Sometimes some of them align around a goal, other times they break apart and fragment.

    The dystopic (realist?) balance to this sanguinity moves among the machines and the algorithmic mycelium wending its way through our networks and our devices and more and more of our lives. The opportunities for embedded governance when we all have a chip and an IP and a personal node on the net are indeed considerable. A geofenced life is a fenced life nevertheless, even if the prison is invisible. We humans may overcome our prejudices just in time to unite against the emerging Other of machine intelligence. There may yet be a Matrix scenario ahead of us though I suspect it won't be possible for quite some time. Humans are fallible and, for now, we fallibly program the machines, lending de-rezed bits of our slippery minds to their cognitive computation. But what is the logic, the perspective, when the machines wise up and suddenly our dissent is regarded as a malfunctioning program throwing up a little flag on the network that can then be dispatched without ever requiring that humanly-fallible oversight? Perhaps then they just crawl into your mindtank and intermediate your pathetic shreds of freewill.

    But, you know, this is why we write programs to protect us. And why there are teenagers who are better at cracking things open than any would-be monolith will ever be at keeping them closed. This is the generational dance of evolution. The young are always one step ahead. It's like a failsafe built-in to the species. Some inchoate balancer that makes sure nature maintains the upper hand lest we slip up and give it all away to fascists and imperialists and corporations and algorithms. And I suppose this is my faith, after all. That there is a failsafe. That we won't let it all slip into ruin. Or at least, if we do, it will be the ruin of nature asserting its claim on us all, consuming civilization back into the womb of the Mother to be reconsidered and redrawn for the next momentous round of parthenogenesis. Maybe a little better and a little more suited to this world. Hopefully the music will be as good.

    Wed, Sep 11, 2013  Permanent link

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    Continuing its annual tradition of walking the lines between genuine social goodyness and highfalutin' techno utopianism, the TED2013 conference kicked off this week in Los Angeles. Gathering together some of the brighter minds and more well-heeled benefactors, attendees come to tease apart the phase space of possibility and to take a closer look at how we consciously examine and intentionally evolve our world. Among the many threads and themes, one in particular tugs deeply at both aspirational humanism and existential terror.

    On the early pages of this year's conference blog is a sensational, video-heavy list of the 10 best robots from TED. Featuring autonomous birdbots, dancing ballbots, silicon helpers, procedural comedians, affective mimics, and, of course, a smattering of tomorrow's robowarriors, the cavalcade of robotic evolution marches on with genuinely awe-inducing cadence. The field of robotics is being lifted by the same tides moving all industries: ubiquitous microcontrollers, breakthroughs in materials science, the global web of shared knowledge, and the mature capital markets looking for new profits.

    And we humans appear to be deeply enthralled with robotics, both as hope and harbinger. Turning our hands to create better hands, we develop robotics as a means to extend our abilities, explore the kinetics of cybernetics, and to understand, or perhaps even question just what it means to be human. Through our desire to glimpse the spark of awareness in the cybernetic eyes of the Other, we always project our selves into that mirror. And so the shape of robotics necessarily recapitulates the shape of humanity and our relationship to nature.

    Setting aside the philosophical considerations for a moment, it's worth considering how the landscape would shift to accommodate the presence of robotic, autonomous cohorts. Self-driving cars may be the nearest robofauna to meet us on the modern Savannah plains of the carpool lane, edging out the humans for priority, but those TED videos remind us of how many more species are at play in the human-assisted evolutionary tides. If survival is of the fittest, even programmatically, then our swimming, walking, flying, trotting creations will seek to protect and sustain themselves - even if only so we won't be bothered with the responsibility.

    As we populate the world with more and more self-guided machines how will they advocate for their own needs amidst the competitive landscape? Are we introducing machine competitors into the survival marketplace? Of course we are, but this may not be immediately different from any other competitive machine. The internal combustion engine has certainly competed quite well for resources that may otherwise go to us humans. So too has the corn-based biofuel engine, as seen by the coupling of ethanol stocks to the price of corn. Regardless of the skin, more resource consumers brings more competition. The long-prophesied robot wars may yet come to pass… Especially if we continue to mold them so fittingly in our own image.

    If we might soon join gangs of self-driving cars on the freeways, then a scenario takes shape where we encounter other forms of mechanical flocking. We may run with machine herds, glinting & gleaming, the evening skies joined by murmurations of silvery drones. Aibo's and Roomba's might become house pet companions scuttling along for walks in the park. In this scenario, what micro machines might cling to our arm hairs testing skin flakes or trudge along the walls of our intestines sending SMS notes about the quality of our, uh, byproduct or line our mind meats facilitating neural mesh nets and wireless brain-computer interface? Do we trust the intimacy involved in these relationships?

    Cybernetic control systems, biomimetic musculatures, micro-controlled servo arrays, machine vision, machine sensing, machine learning, memristor memories… The outcome is inevitably going to recapitulate biological structures and behaviors but with a distinctly manufactured aesthetic sensibility. Machine sensing, machine watching, machine swarming… machine memory, and machine modeling of future states & outcomes. These are the ingredients for genuinely emergent and unexpected behaviors. Consciousness isn't so much as a switch you turn on and a program that executes. It's likely more of an irreversible manifold that expresses on top of innumerable complex functions.

    The bardic philosopher, Terence McKenna, likened us humans to coral animals extruding shells of technology around ourselves. In the same tradition, Kevin Kelly speaks of a natural force of Technium that expresses through our heads and hands. Whether Technium is its own thing or merely an expression of humanness itself, there is indeed some natural force of biology and complexity that works through our manipulation of matter, taking form in ways that evolve our very ability to create. The iterative process of create-evaluate-revise drives what began as a clumsy cobbling of raw materials towards greater and greater refinement and efficiency, inevitably approximating the extreme perfection of natural systems. Nature is the template for everything. It's just that our creations are not yet mature enough to really look like it.

    So if we are compelled to recapitulate nature into our creations, and if we are compelled to turn our innate evolutionary and competitive imperatives into machines extensions & adaptive advantages, then we will very likely loose upon the natural world an array of biomimetic machines. Likewise, we will continue to lay the complex and unpredictable patchwork for emergent forms of directed behavior, stigmergic flocking, and at least the seeming mimesis of self-awareness.

    Machine intelligence may someday decouple from human supervision though it will likely retain the watermark of humanity for some time. Or at least, by the time it does so, it will very likely be contained by the same natural rules as the rest of us worldly occupants. That or, you know… Rise of the Robots.
    Wed, Feb 27, 2013  Permanent link
    Categories: robotics, AI, ubicomp, evolution, society
    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    [Based on the talk I gave at ARE2012.]

    “The intelligence of the city is on the streets.“ – Manu Fernandez

    Amidst the swirling maelstrom of technological progress so often heralded as the imminent salvation to all our ills, it can be necessary to remind ourselves that humanity sits at the center, not technology. And yet, we extrude these tools so effortlessly as if secreted by some glandular Technos expressed from deep within our genetic code. It’s difficult to separate us from our creations but it’s imperative that we examine this odd relationship as we engineer more autonomy, sensitivity, and cognition into the machines we bring into this world. The social environment, typified by the contemporary urban landscape, is evolving to include non-human actors that routinely engage with us, examining our behaviors, mediating our relationships, and assigning or revoking our rights. It is this evolving human-machine socialization that I wish to consider.

    The intelligence of the city is on the streets, as Manu Fernandez suggests. This is an important distinction reminding us that humanity is at the center of intelligent cities, and offering a counterpoint to the productized packages of technological solutions so popular in the techno-strain of contemporary urban development.

    There are several fundamental drivers that set the frame for our relationship with machine intelligence. Computation is a deep current within human innovation & adaptation, and it’s only gained momentum on the inertia of civilization. However, nature is a deeper current engineered into our very cells. We’re spreading computation universally but this path is actually leading us to better understand and more effectively mimic biosystems. Biological patterns are at work, albeit on considerably longer timeframes, within everything we do as human animals. Like nature itself, the technosphere is expressed heterogeneously, organically and distributed across many scales. Although we seem compelled to create it, there is a tension between technology and humanity. We’re not entirely at ease with our creations, burdened by the recognition that the pace of technology is faster than our ability to understand its consequences. This is especially so as we yield more and more agency to machines & algorithms working at greater and greater scales. More often than not, regulatory structures emerge after things go wrong rather than before they have a chance to fail. The resulting dialectic is one where governance contains while innovation releases, leaving us in the middle to experience the consequences of collapsing our imagination into reality.

    We know this, of course, but somewhere in the recent past we crossed a threshold from building tools dependent upon humans to those with enough autonomy and agency to make rudimentary decisions on our behalf. We create our tools and believe that we control them but the arc of our technos is yielding more and more control to the machines themselves. By making them more like us we give them more freedom, agency, and authority. This is the trade-off we find ourselves navigating here at the dawn of the 21st century.

    If the frame is one of both progress and tension, what are the assumptions underlying this examination of our path forward? It is essentially a Growth model through which I consider this arc (this model being the easiest to bet on, if not the least resilient). Global GDP continues at a roughly linear pace with the bulk of growth shifting to Asia and, later, Africa, but driven and funded by the aging West. Cities continue to add population yielding optimizations and degradations, boomtown build-outs and downturn data decay. Economic models evolve slowly without major revolutionary shifts. Capital will continue its steady re-distribution into younger markets seeking to capture the prosperity of the West. Energy constraints are managed through a combination of old & new inputs but there are many bumps along the way as the resource needs of the developing world begin to dominate the global stage. Environmentally, we’ll see more adaptation than mitigation of climate chaos, driving migrations, shifting food stocks, and impacting health and reproductive fecundity. In this scenario it will be some time before we’re able to effectively understand and manage complex natural systems. Politically, governance and sovereignty will continue to balkanize and governments will be more & more distracted contending with multinational corporations, NGO’s, syndicates, super-empowered individuals, and the ongoing challenges of climate and resource instabilities. Such distraction of governors opens tremendous gaps & opportunities for innovations, both to good and bad ends. Small-town mayors and local tech collectives are as likely as gun traffickers and drug cartels to drive regional innovation.

    Cities will evolve within this broader context, expressing the deeper currents organically. The living city is emergent and messy and is itself an organism composed of innumerable interstitial and ephemeral cellular structures. Driven by the will of its inhabitants, cities will continue forward as an accelerating patchwork of implementations, seeking greater efficiency & resiliency, flexing to absorb discontinuities, and continually extruding a rich skin of connected technologies and distributed services.

    Given this environment and the assumptions underlying the discussion, there are 6 domains worth considering through which we engage the city and its inhabitants, both human and machine. Within this is a loose taxonomy of mediated interactions we have with the urban computational scaffolding.

    In the personal domain the individual is the reference point around which various experiences are arranged. With connected mobile devices we carry a network identifier that effectively labels every individual with an IP address. Our network ID authenticates and provisions us with access and can bar us from admittance to both virtual and physical relationships. The clothes we wear and the devices we carry begin to interact and register an online presence as part of our personal device mesh. Our identity is wrapped in and contextualized by our location, conferring spatial intelligence and invoking situated technologies around us. Through connected sensing & mediation our data profile accumulates personal information about memberships, affinity networks, paths, transactions, history, and more, pairing our network identification with our personal identity. This is the core information structure around which the urban interface assembles. In this manner, we are clothing ourselves in data-rich, sensing technologies.

    Surrounding the personal domain is the local sphere. From identity & location we derive proximity & context. What are we near, can we interact with it in some way, is it interested in us, does it contain something to be discovered? Proximity reaches out to ambient information just as the local domain examines us. The pathways we traverse through the city contain information valuable to us and to others. Where have we been, what is our trajectory, where are we going, are there path optimizations available? How can we meet and assemble, disperse and evade...? The relationship between the personal and the local is the site of context. Identity and proximity enable context awareness and situated technologies around which assemble relevant services & solutions and authoritative structures adjudicating our rights. We understand physical boundaries through their viscerality but we also pass through layers of invisible edges. Across such boundary zones and perimeters an always-on network that understands identity, proximity, and context can provision or revoke services based on our location. Geofencing is a friendly welcome, a helpful agent, or an ankle bracelet under house arrest. In the local domain we have extended senses and invisible fences, anchoring the virtual in the actual and wiring the real to the transreal.

    Around the local rises the structural world. Ubicomp marches into this domain to instrument the built environment, conferring onto it sensation and communication. This vision begets the IBM brochure of the idealized Smart City alive with instrumented architecture and conversant infrastructure. Building information management systems define a broad data profile for structures. Embedded microprocessors and visualization dashboards reveal the runtime mirror of living architectural systems. The modern structure is aware of itself, its occupants, its environment, and its provisioned operators across the globe. Individual structures tie in to civic infrastructure as organs interface with the circulatory & nervous system. Energy, security, water, waste, roadways, rail, inflows, outflows, seismic, atmospheric… It’s all coming online communicating and correcting. New data instruments are necessary to comprehend the volume of flowing urban informatics as we presently find ourselves overwhelmed with voices from literally billions of microprocessors. Fundamental to these systems is communication infrastructure. Ubiquitous wireless coverage and unavoidable instrumentation express a civic nervous system wired by fiber to the urban brain. What doesn’t flow through conduit & plumbing travels through the city along transport lines. Instrumentation promises efficiencies in scheduling, way-finding, traffic management, and tracking of goods but will also create automation, remote management and control, as well as new systempunkts for disruptors to attack.

    We are constructing a computational sensorium of urban informatics, waking the built environment through instrumentation and connectivity. Like a membrane around us, the physical environment expresses itself through a virtual layer of interaction. This interaction layer is implicit in all previous domains but it’s important to consider the parameters of access and interface. Visual interaction is the most common to current computational metaphors, and the most obvious to the emerging layer of augmented reality. With a computationally mediated visual interface like AR we enable a deeply personalized experience of the city and of each other. Tags and annotations, memorials and territorial markers, visible avatars and secret locations, and the challenge of occlusions and relentless bill-boarding by marketers all compete for our field of view. How will the shared construct of reality be forced to shift (or possibly fragment) when what I see is different from your annotated view of the augmented world? Add an auditory layer and the city begins to talk to us, personal, contextual, instructively and artistically, like a poem embedded in a memorial bench spoken by an ancestor as we walk past. Touch it to feel the living city as haptics engage the tactile needs of our social species through handprint biometrics and sensing surfaces demanding our skin. How might the tactile be engaged in personal, social, and public contexts both local and remote? How might distant touch collapse the space between us? Between touch and sight, gestures employ a visible language of form and movement seen by machine eyes and relayed to networks, actuators, and servo arrays collating gait analysis and biometric profiling. Voice recognition and natural language processing delivers verbal commands to digital ears (and secrets to ambient listeners). Talk to your device, talk to the walls, speak “friend” and pass. These are some of the ways we interface with the awakening world.

    Our nature is social. Relationships are interactive and transactional. We build technologies to enable new relationships, and it appears that some deep animism drives us to awaken the inanimate to engage with us more directly. Yet, in these relationships we’re not always willing participants.

    At its core, cybernetics is a means to control information systems. The convergence of ubiquitous computation and network connectivity is, by design, a control system. In the living city, the regulatory domain is a good thing and a bad thing. Control is both optimization and oppression, depending on the circumstances. Connected identification, proximity and location awareness, remote access to embedded systems, and ubiquitous surveillance and sousveillance enable an array of solutions to a host of interested 3rd parties. Malcolm McCullough suggested that “contexts remind people and their devices how to behave”, acknowledging the moral ambiguity within some conversations about ubicomp. This is an important point to consider as we bond more closely with machines and algorithms.

    Cybernetic regulation begins with feedback. Implicit in feedback is knowledge of the system. Feedback is state & status. State and status becomes assessment and response. Examples include the auto-pilot in aircraft and the content recommendation algorithm in Facebook. Once keeps us safe from change while the other guides us towards an ignorance of diversity. Guidance becomes governance of embedded systems and human behavior. Algorithmic guidance is the Prius dashboard showing you your fuel consumption. Embedded governance is a bottle of Valium that won’t open if you’re above your weekly allowance. Cybernetic control is greatly enabled by shared network computation mediating our interactions, regulating our structures, guiding our vehicles and devices, and slowly, being invited into our bodies.

    By developing algorithms to help us we enable them to contain us. This is a delicate path to tread, from unyielding embedded governance to the inevitable decay and obsolescence of technology, and beyond to the cognitive disruptions and psychic malaise born of intractable dependencies on virtual agents that may up and quit us or simply fall offline when we need them most. Such risks are not new for our tools but we must be wary of how tightly we chose to entangle ourselves with them as as they are deputized to manage more sub-routines on our behalf.

    The balance to cybernetic governance may lie in programmed serendipity, digital artistic license, or simply the freedom allowed by a sudden glitch in the algorithm. In articulating the New Aesthetic, Bruce Sterling considered the movement as arising from “an eruption of the digital into the physical”. The domain of aesthetics is the way we navigate and express our emotional engagement with this disruption. Blended realities emerge through the abundance of screens, annotations, and overlays, characterized in part by a growing inability to distinguish authentic from synthetic, or to clearly separate the self from the other. Polysocial reality, as articulated by Sally Applin and Michael Fischer, examines how society is modulated by these connective technologies and how multiplexed channels of experience reform group behaviors and their contexts. Spatial convergence is already challenging our ability to disambiguate between presence and distance. The brain evolved to handle one construct of reality yet we now overlay multiple local and remote experiences simultaneously. This is an entirely new cognitive map. The psychological exploration of this territory reveals itself, in part, through our artistic expressions. Telepresence, data compression, machine vision, reality capture, and glitch media inform a cyborg aesthetic to communicate the emotionality and fascination with this interface between humanity and technology. These become the artifacts of the New Aesthetic precipitating from the eruption of the digital into the physical, leaving the narrow domain of geekdom and painting itself across the walls of our world.

    The great work of art & science is thus the communication of the centrality of humanity within these domains, and the hopeful accomplishment of more closely aligning us with each other and with the natural world in which we live. Yet, human perception, cognition, and expression are not constant but continually evolving under the modulating impact of this ingression of virtuality into our lives. The quickening emergence of ubiquitous computation, polysocial reality, and non-local cognition alters the way we experience the world around us, the way we connect with others, and the way we construct our sense of self. And while we must be very careful when we abdicate responsibility to mechanized objects and autonomous governance, the living city offers tremendous opportunities for novelty, innovation, empowerment, and a deep expression of humanity at play with the technosphere.

    The French novelist, Alphonse Karr, is said to have quipped, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. This is a necessary refrain to bear in mind. Underneath all the shiny new things we’re still playing the same game. The needs and goals of the human species have barely changed though they work through ever evolving forms. As we heave civilization forward into another churning millennium, dematerializing and virtualizing into greater sustained abstractions of information, it is still our humanity that frames the world more than our technology. How we act is still much more important than what we make.

    Fri, Jun 29, 2012  Permanent link

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    A deeply fascinating and, by measures, terrifying milestone on the path to truly ubiquitous networked computation... The BBC notes that security firm, McAfee, was able to remotely compromise a wireless, implantable insulin pump, thereby propelling the conversation about medical implants into the realm of cyberwarfare. Another McAfee researcher claims to have "captured the signal" of an implanted heart defibrillator, only to have thrown the signal right back at the device causing it to shut off mercilessly. As a class, such devices are increasingly being implanted into us fragile apes in order to contain the threats of heart disease, diabetes, and other slow-moving but potentially fatal conditions that might thwart our god-like ascent into techno-superiority. But grok this, ye mighty, and despair:

    "We can influence any pump within a 300ft [91m] range," Mr [Barnaby] Jack told the BBC. "We can make that pump dispense its entire 300 unit reservoir of insulin and we can do that without requiring its ID number"... Making the device empty its cartridge into a host's bloodstream would cause "deep trouble""

    Security concerns for the nascent field of wireless implants are certainly welcomed but the event stands more broadly as a glowing sign of the times. The relentless ubiquitizing of computation is working its way into our bodies. As has been noted elsewhere [pdf] the path of finance and innovation for these waves of emerging technology typically follows the military-medical-consumer pipeline, walking down the line of survivability from being blown up by an Afghani IED, past spastic hearts and hungry cells, into urban navigation and caffeine acquisition. And maybe transdermal metabolic sleeves for networked jogging or ward implants for not-so-bad convicts squeezed out of overcrowded prison farms and remotely monitored for geofencing violations or the odd spike in muscular adrenergics. The military has the money to develop the tech and treat its soldiers, who are summarily discharged into hospitals that facilitate the transfer of technology into the private sector. Point being, if you're starting to save up for that cybernetic occipital mat implant, you'd be most well-served to enlist the ready hand of McAfee Security to guard your mind meats from the shady legions of digital malcontents. Standard fees, of course, do apply.

    All of this is a fairly long-winded way to observe that our computers are getting under our skin quite literally and likely will continue to do so in ever more alarming and strangely-compelling ways. Consider security, who or what has access and when? How do you guard against Lulzsec or your employer? If your insurance fails and you miss too many payments on that monthly defibrillator bill, will they hit the kill switch? What federal agency will legislate your biochip provider to unlock the requisite NSA Backdoor? Somebody must think of the children... If your visual stream runs through a Tyrell Corp chipset, what did the EULA say about your right to what you see? Marketers and advertisers have done some of the most profound work to get inside our brains. What might they do when able to write on its walls? Or maybe you take the other tack and yield to the algorithms, letting them intercede on your behalf and take care of those mundane everyday tasks for you. Habits that write code and leave network trails, filters that screen out the messiness, the ugliness, the uncertainty. Let the world be arranged in concise chunks and loops, dulled to the want for some computational serendipity.

    It's this sort of crazy futuring - or "diagetic prototyping", in the parlance of our times - what's been fleshing-out the framework of our cybernetic imminence. Or, if not imminence... our... unavoidable tendencies. The holy glory of this massive frontal cortex gave us the wicked gift, our greatest curse: the talent for foresight, also known as "worry". We fire up that hundred-billion-strong living network and run crazy simulations across manifold beds of electromagnetic neurochemistry hoping to prepare and predict and envision. We plan our futures. We model them, and paint them, and give them color and depth and complexity, all allure and beckoning, baleful and impossible. Then we use that other cursed blessing to mold those plans into reality and shape the world to our vision. Thus, technology extrudes from our hands on waves of innovation eventually replacing a lost limb or taming a wild heart or embedded in a little chipset behind your left ear gently talking only to you, guiding you through a foreign town, mentioning waypoints and destinations, happily de-babelizing the local tongues... and coyly whispering that if you come in to Paolo's Rosticerria by 5pm, the second plate is half off.

    We build machines and they help us. Mostly. We invite them into our lives and, in turn, we figure out how to use our ape brains to make them smarter and more capable. They too are the convergence of computation and networked intelligence simultaneously celebrating our own technical expertise and foreshadowing our eventual obsolescence. Now, it might surprise you but I don't fancy myself much of a Singularitarian. Maybe it's just the halcyon nostalgia infecting my lobes, addled by decades of indole and wind-blown pollens, but I do keep to that old mystic faith holding consciousness above computation. That there is some unknowable anima inside it all, rolling and dancing forward with the inertia of the stars. That the power demands to model such a nigh-infinite structure could only be met by wielding the entire computational mass of the known universe. The self can only ever be fully known by the Self, when the atman is consumed by the brahman.

    It is the light of this abiding faith that warms me in those cold, lonely nights, assailed by the flitting demons of artificial intelligence and robotic uprisings. I take comfort in this faith.

    Fri, Apr 13, 2012  Permanent link

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    I was driving through the Tenderloin the other night - one of the most socio-economically depressed areas of San Francisco. Across a long wall someone tagged "Occupy Wall Street" in big letters with a clean font and preceded by the Twitter "#" hashtag notation. It was a big, funky chorus bridging the grimy street with a shimmering virtuality beckoning from the other side. A shiny enticement to both residents and passers-by, yet it instilled in me that there are some hard reasons why Occupy is still a bit pale, demographically. The Tenderloin is where people fall to the bottom of the American heap, struggling every day just to try and get by. I can't speak to their cellphone use but I'm guessing most aren't on Twitter.

    In America, poverty & homelessness are specters stalking the nightmares of the middle class. The stigma is crushing and many studies show how hard it is to fall out of society and fail normative expectations, forced to walk as a ghost the rest of us don't want to acknowledge. We're all "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", to quote Steinbeck, but most are scared to death we'll wake up from the American Dream wearing dirty rags and begging for pittance.

    Amidst the looming failure of governance and the siphoning of capital into the hands of elite gamers the system starts to reveal interesting and exploitable gaps. The gaps opening up between the ruling elite, the body polity, the business world, the towers of old-world power, global supply chains and international demand structures, and the organic messiness of the street lashing together its own ad hoc infrastructure, battening down against the hard approach of a faceless Winter. A lot of innovation happens in the gaps.

    When a control system releases it's organizational capacity, the system tends towards a period of turbulence. Turbulence can be thought of as a widening of constraints on energized systems, ie things start getting wonky & unusual. Institutions are challenged. Stability & confidence are shaken. Calcified bureaucracy cedes power to fast, open-source iterations. Hierarchies flatten, though riddled with super-empowered outliers, revealing design patterns more akin to fuzzy biology than the mechanized Taylorism of the Industrial Age. A mycelial hypermedia of distributed, tech-enabled, self-empowered collectives emerges. The landscape is shifting so quickly that even the rules of the game are being forced to adapt. And not in any particularly easy way, mind.

    The United States government is failing to adapt or effectively shepherd its populace into the 21st century. Many western nations share a similar sentiment. They're falling left & right to the slipperiness of the behavioral economy and to top-tier predators drawing capital out of weakened states and widening the gaps between people & power. Meanwhile, gangs & cartels and urban collectives (oh, and the estimated $10T - trillion! - informal economy) are all pulling the weave apart further and staking their territorial claims. The landscape is ragged and hungry and a bit unhinged. Many of us are growing nervous feeling the hot breath of the meathook future on the back of our necks.

    "You will not hear me, you will not listen to me, so I will stand in your face and you will be forced to see me."

    Occupy Wall Street is an expression of this sweaty fear & creeping nihilism in a world that looks decidedly different than we were raised to expect. It's an empowered disenfranchisement: the realization and acceptance that the American people no longer have a say in the conversion about our country. "You will not hear me, you will not listen to me, so I will stand in your face and you will be forced to see me." This is what Occupy says. And it says it encamped in front of your hallowed institutions, deploying local food & health services, brewing ad hoc energy supplies, coordinating collective actions, surveilling the local PD and running mobile counter-ops, holding signs to the media cameras and managing international PR campaigns. This is a new model of power emerging across technologically-savvy collectives, economically detached on the ground but coordinated with well-healed and influential sympathizers among the extended technorati. You get amplification, charitable donations, shout-outs, drop-ins from mayoral candidates, and as-needed mobilization of supporters who still have to hold down their day jobs and take the kids to school. Of course, the PD knows all this & knows how to exploit mobile social media as well.

    The Short Message Service (SMS) was implemented in 1992 and is now ubiquitous and coupled to an insanely sophisticated global supply chain. A large driver for cellphone adoption, these discrete packets of information passed almost immediately across non-local nodes have proven extremely powerful. With very lightweight protocols and minimal hardware demands, SMS is fast becoming one of our primary signalling pathways. Witness the simple observation that mobile-enabled teens are constantly texting, rarely speak on the phone, and disregard email almost entirely. More info, less work. Now make sure every one of the somewhat feral and vaguely radical protestors occupying the park across from your ridiculously powerful and possibly sociopathic local tax base, eg The Federal Reserve... make sure they all have SMS mobiles. And make sure all the other urban clans have them too so they can share updates & anticipation, coordinate a distributed response, propagate the sticky phrases and hashtags, and rapidly pass counter intelligence to every single global node. Oh, and there's this thing called Twitter that will take your SMS and push it out to a broadcast subscriber list that's being crawled by every journalist, intel org, and revolutionary sympathizer across the modern world.

    Of course the NYPD is scared and twitchy. Of course the DHS is yelling at all jurisdictions to get this under control. The true sign of fear will be revealed if they send in the National Guard - a tacit admission that the police are more sympathetic to the protesters than the economic cartels. And if you wanna get really meathook, peep the vid of the armed, self-appointed border guards standing against the Arizona Police Department to defend Occupy. "Using our 2nd amendment rights to defend our 1st amendment rights" was the money quote from that one.

    Pundits and old-century analysts can't get past its slipperiness. It doesn't look like how protests were supposed to look. It won't fit into a neat soundbite or flashy statement of demands. This gets really annoying for a mainstream press corps empowered by semantic containment.

    Occupy Wall Street is an exceptional sociocultural hack. Grabbing eyes & hearts, they're making it OK to protest again in America. After 911 the normative pressure around dissent & protest shifted, making it very un-American to disagree with and or show criticism of The U S of A. Occupy is quickly becoming view-fodder for the mainstream media. Spin it any way you like but OWS is grabbing the spotlight globally. Expect the election cycle to raise it as a common talking point - a good reason Occupy can safely find heat indoors for the Winter, come back swinging in Spring. This normative shift allows the many many folks who aren't yet willing or simply can't come sleep in the streets to be active & connected sympathizers helping spread the word, defend the narrative, and get downtown at 2am on a Thursday to stand against an expected police action. Social media invites participation at all scales.

    People talk of so-called "new models of work". Remote specialists coming together around a shared task, doing the work with a minimum of resources, taking value, and collaborating with adjacent like-minded ad hoc clusters. All enabled by information technologies and responding to shifting economic realities. BTW, capital is leaving the West and moving eastward and into Africa. Brazil is doing OK as well, I hear. But these new models of work are the same 21st century design patterns iterated on by Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and the Mexican cartels (with varying degrees of flamboyant and or enigmatic leadership). Another eye-opening newsblip from the past week is word that Anonymous is going after Los Zetas cartel (or possibly not). Thing about the Zetas... they don't just hang out in cyberspace. You don't wanna be trolled by Zetas.

    So yeah, DHS is nervous. They see all these small fires and worry that one will flame up into a real conflict, or that their ranks will be taken over by legitimate militants/gangs/cartels/etc... Meanwhile, China is quietly laughing at us, gently suggesting to the world that maybe Democracy isn't really all that necessary for a decent house, a reliable job, and good prospects for your kids. It's worth considering what this means for U.S. diplomacy and the project of Democracy.

    The sympathy that boomers have with OWS is rooted in this emigration of prosperity away from our shores. They did fine, my generation is fighting to hang on, and the younger generation can't get a job. Of course, the Boomers think OWS should be using the tried-and-true models of the 1960's, not this crazy post-modern artwar stuff. But they lived in a very different world and, ironically, it's the protest movement of the 60's that hardened the economic jungle and trained it against the Left.

    The front of the emerging cultural war is everywhere & nowhere.

    Occupy is a new creature bred to adapt to a markedly different environment. It uses similar design patterns from Tahrir Square and Tehran. It's the new hyperpolitics enabling virtualized ideologies & coordinated actions by distributed collectives. Like everything else being spread across the real & virtual, the front of the emerging cultural war is everywhere & nowhere. The focus now is on prosperity and equality but its tugging at the sweater threads of our entire industrialized economy, already well-frayed & tattered from the wear & tear of the new millenium. Occupy is a statement about failure & fear and a realization that the people who have been entrusted to keep it all together for us are no longer acting on our behalf. It's a scary place to find yourself, falling into the gaps. But there's tremendous potential there as well. And it's likely a manifestation of far deeper and longer evolutionary imperatives brought to bear on the aging and deprecated foundations of industrial civilization. We are due for a major upgrade. New features & workflows are direly needed, and please patch some of those nasty bugs we've been complaining about for centuries. It would be really nice if we could all get back to work helping the world get a little better, day by day.

    Tue, Nov 1, 2011  Permanent link

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    I've been thinking about how identity passes through ubicomp environments and the types of experiences that could occur in such a relationship. We each carry a digital ID in our smartphone. This ID is a key that grants access to voice, data, location, acceleration, and other information both in the net and in our devices. These handshakes occur almost continuously in some form, the most common being the regular polling our mobiles make of our surroundings to determine if we're in range of a cell tower. Not only do our mobiles contain our digital identification, they also hold rich profiles of our interests, our habits, our journeys, our transactions, and our networks. Digital identity and profile are becoming the core organizational structures around which our experience of the networked world are being constructed.

    Smartphone manufacturers are integrating near-field communication (NFC) chips that enable our devices to manage transactions. At the check-out counter in the corner market (ok, more like Safeway) you wave your phone to make payment. Your mobile knows who you are, it has access to your checking account, and it makes the handshake on your behalf with the trusted vendor. Whether or not NFC becomes the de facto coretech underneath this mechanism, the usability is very sticky. All sorts of lock-and-key relationships like home & vehicle entry, gym membership, library or lab entrance, and network access become a natural characteristic of your presence. Just as your face & voice provision you with access to your parent's home and induce birthday parties in your name, mobile identity confers digital membership and can initiate personalized experiences around you.

    One of the light bulbs that really went off in my head was lit by Ben Cerveny's talk at ARE2011. In the course of discussing his data exploration instrument, Bloom, Ben illustrated an example of this type of personal digital provisioning by considering the modern, networked home entertainment system. Imagine you have a dinner party and as your friends arrive their mobiles make the handshake with the local network. The system queries their devices for music likes, recent social network sentiment, and checks their calendars to see how hurried they may be (if the data is shared). It then constructs a playlist on-the-fly that's tailored to fit the mood. If they like, they can engage the system from their mobiles by sharing media and driving the mood. It's a simple example that illustrates how we're sharing a lot more information about ourselves with the computational networks in which we swim, and how those networks can become more aware of us and tailor experiences to fit the context.

    Greg Tran has a really great concept video that explores these ideas of local networks and provisioned experiences by looking at augmented reality as a mediating layer. Here's the video:

    Mediating Mediums - The Digital 3d [Short Version] from Greg Tran on Vimeo.

    Tran postulates a near-future where some form of native augmented reality is ubiquitous, then considers the kinds of experiences that might be possible. He explores how local networks could push such experiences out to provisioned individuals based on profile & location. For example, as you enter a building it reads your digital ID and passes an access profile to your device. This local profile invokes experiences as you pass through different areas of the structure. Perhaps virtual walls are rendered to offer smaller meeting rooms within a larger space. Planar blinds covered in motion graphics rise up to obscure areas or to convey pertinent information. Real walls are rendered transparent to reveal HVAC systems (for ID:HVACRepair), or network lines (ID:CablingContractor), or the floor below you (ID:Bankrobber). The concept video is slick & compelling and suggests a sort of techno-magic that may be just beyond our fingers at the moment but is getting closer every day.

    The concept work of Keiichi Matsuda serves to illustrate the inevitable tensions likely to rise in such a data-saturated and dynamic media landscape. He explores the somewhat-uneasy co-mingling of our traditional needs & expectations as humans with the growing presence of push media bombarding our every waking moment. There is a suggestion that perhaps traditions will eventually fall as the older generations withdraw from influence. The new young are better fit to parse & move amongst what we might consider a slightly-terrifying visual information overload. It is said that Descartes considered the pineal gland as the reducing valve of the Soul, keeping us from seeing the whole of Creation so we can focus on the more pressing biosurvival tasks at hand. Keiichi's work, particularly Domestic Robocop, imparts the sense that we're steadily opening that valve back up.

    Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

    These examples are really just frameworks within which we can explore the relationship between digital identity and ubiquitous computing. More specifically, they show how we are deputizing our mobile device as legitimate cognitive prostheses and proxy selves. The social landscape is increasingly occupied by machines and so we need machine ambassadors to manage these relationships on our behalf. And as we move en masse into social networks we get closer to the machines and share more and more minutia about our lives. Social networks are incredibly fertile ground for getting to know complete strangers better than they even know themselves. Especially if you're a data crawler crunching billions of analytics per cycle. Pretty quickly this becomes a surreal sort of digital intimacy that for most people never even registers.

    This relationship will become more visceral as we hire a growing array of scripts & cloud agents to do our bidding, initialized and left to run, watching and learning about us, and mediating our needs & expectations to innumerable and often-invisible third-parties. There is a reasonably convincing argument that considers the Greek & Roman pantheon to be the early psychological complexes of the awakening human mind. The young ego wasn't quite able to recognize the emotions & voices as being local and instead ascribed to them an external embodiment in the form of anthropomorphic deities. We seem to be at a similar junction where we've yet to fully internalize and integrate our digital pieces. But it's our mobile devices that bring them closer and invite them to join us.

    Rolling forward with personalized ubicomp we can see a possible world where cloud agents flit about enacting our will, communicating with us, transacting with other agents, invoking local experiences & remote actions. We can imagine a more responsive and amorphous physical world that shifts to meet our needs, to persuade us, and to contain us. How does the individual understand itself when embedded in such a fluid & personalized world? How does cognition and psychology change as it distributes and becomes more & more disembodied? What are the powers of crowds as machine intelligences scan & summate them, customizing to the common denominator? Will distributed intelligence relate to crowds better than individuals? We're getting a bit scifi here, I know, but ranters gotta rant.

    Suffice it to say that the near-future will really get interesting once digital identity is fully integrated as the core component of the ubicomp landscape. The current effort to move payments into the mobile phone is a major step in this direction (and should serve as a hint when looking at the present identity challenges & goals of Facebook, Twitter, and especially Google Plus). Your social networking is painting a rich profile about who you are. Your credit card is arguably a stronger & more universal ID than your driver's license or passport. And though we may resist sharing so much of ourselves in such a broad way, it won't matter. Our devices will identify us and our digital ghosts will betray us to their friends.

    Thu, Aug 25, 2011  Permanent link

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    Increasingly, we live in a world defined by flat networks. Folks like Clay Shirky, Ben Hammersley, and others have observed in great detail how the design patterns of the internet are challenging and changing the landscape of human civilization. So many of our institutions have been built as hierarchical pyramids designed to exert the maximum degree of control over their domains. These top-down management structures have come to define business, government, the military, medicine, education, the family, and knowledge itself. Leaders rise to the top as centralized governors dictating down the chain how things should be, while workers march in step towards execution of their appointed tasks. Such structures were modeled after the clockworks & steam engines of classical mechanics, designed to be precise, rigid, and durable, capable of lasting hundreds of years. These structures informed the defining metaphors of our entire industrialized society.

    Computer architecture recapitulated the mechanical metaphor by designating a central processor that assigned & managed tasks bussed out to sub-processors and specialized functional components. In this way the computer became more of a powerful extension of the industrial age rather than a stake in the ground of a new paradigm. While the mechanical metaphor gradually evolved into the computational metaphor which has defined the last two decades, it wasn’t until computers began to follow the model of telecom and began connecting with each other across flat networks that the seed of a biological metaphor began to take hold.

    Nature, it seems, does not create very many rigid, top-down control systems. Those are too stiff and inflexible for the dynamics of life. Rather, nature evolves vast horizontal networks that assemble into specialized functions within their environment. For example, the messiest, most distributed organizational structure known - the human brain - does not have a top-tier manager or CPU. There is no executive function within the brain or its mind, though we typically like to think there is. Instead, the brain is a vast & mostly flat hierarchy that is bundled into loosely vertical functional bodies. These functional bodies are themselves existing across a mostly flat horizontal network of interactions. The thalamus receives all inputs and routes them up to higher cortical processing and lower hindbrain autonomic structures, into the amygdala for emotional content and across the hippocampus for memory, then down throughout the body. The processing chain is massively parallel, interconnected, and marked by complex feedback pathways. Mind arises off of these processes in a very ad hoc manner, always shifting, always flexible, and always derived from a mass summation across the network.

    Mycelial networks offer another example. When we see mushrooms scattered across a forest floor we're not seeing individuals. Each mushroom growing from the soil is a fruiting body rising from the underground web-work of mycelia - the skeletal framework of the colony. Some mycelial colonies have been found to have areas extending over 2000 acres making them some of the largest superorganisms on the planet. The pattern suggests mushrooms as terminal nodes and mycelia as the network backbone.

    In ecosystems, large predators constitute a form of top-down management but they themselves are part of the predator-prey relationship - a dynamic that must always seek relative equilibrium with the broader network in which it is embedded. Predators do not have a choice to over-consume prey or stockpile & re-sell it to others. Large ocean gyres also suggest a high degree of top-down control by seasonally establishing the engines of hemispheric weather. The North Pacific gyre becomes more active in the Winter of the northern hemisphere, driving the scale & frequency of storms hitting the pacific northwest of the United States. But the North Pacific gyre is an emergent structure that is itself built upon the properties of a nearly-infinite set of factors. It is not a regulatory structure or a governor by intent or design and there is no top-level group of components that determine its next move. It is a super-system derived from innumerable sub-systems.

    Most importantly, all biological systems are guided not by top-down governors or control mechanisms but by feedback from the networks in which they are embedded. This is how nature regulates, preserves, and evolves itself towards greater adaptability. There is no fallible ruler driven to resource over-reach and myopic certainty. There is only the ongoing trial & error of embedded growth tempered by continuous communication between & within organisms.

    As computers began to connect across the ARPANET, and with the dawning of the visual internet, the CPU evolved away from being specifically a central control system to become a node within a distributed network. This initial shift quickly challenged the established domains of publishing, content creation, intellectual property, and knowledge management while inviting the crowd into a shared virtual space of increasingly global identity & transaction. The advent of social networks established an organizational structure for connecting the human capital of virtuality, making it easier for like-minded people to connect & share & collaborate non-locally, subtly undermining the very notions of borders, statehood, family, and allegiance. Soon after, the mobile revolution has tipped everything on its side and bundled it into a portable device bringing instantaneous global communication & information access to most people on the planet.

    The framework was laid for new forms of emergent, non-hierarchical, distributed collaboration & innovation, to both productive & destructive ends. Groups could now form and coordinate around affiliations, interest, and goals in ways that directly challenged the institutional structures monetizing our production & consumption and regulating our behaviors. It has become vastly easier for small organizations to take on multinational interests, whether in business & innovation or in power & politics. The conflicts we see across the world today are, in large part, a symptom of the younger generations leveraging flat network technologies to rise up against the older generations who long ago settled into their legacy hierarchical power structures. To paraphrase Ben Hammersley, the people who are running the world, who are entrusted with our future, are not able to understand the present. They lack the cognitive tools that are a basic part of the Generation C toolkit - the digital natives who grew up with a mobile in their hands and the internet at their fingertips, embedded in specialized networks that span borders and extend identity into the virtual.

    The global disruptions that seem to characterize modernity constitute a civilizational correction driven by natural law. The DotCom bubble went through a correction, shedding excess value and pruning the garden of exuberant innovation to favor only the most fit. It was a good thing, if not painful. We witnessed the correction in the housing bubble and will likely see similar corrections in credit & commodities, as well as a painfully positive correction in energy, subsidized and under-valued for so long. The impacts of climate change are a correction imposed upon the legacy model of industrialization & growth by nature itself - the super-system in which all human endeavor is embedded and to which we are ultimately accountable.

    The civilization correction is an emergent regulatory mechanism embedded within natural systems forcing our legacy human systems to progressively modify the unsustainable design patterns of our past. The mechanical metaphor & the computational metaphor are necessarily opening to include the biological metaphor. We can see this in every aspect of technology and it is equally emergent across human behavior & social systems. Nanosystems emulate biosystems. Computation & robotics are integrating with neurology & physiology. Individuals are finding agency & empowerment in leaderless multi-cellular collaborations. The built environment is becoming sensory-aware, communicating with itself through discrete feedback mechanisms. It can be argued that the emergence of the internet and of ubiquitous mobile communication & computation is an expression of our natural instincts to move into closer alignment with our environment; to follow the adaptive design patterns of nature in order to find a more sustainable & equitable posture for our species; a thermodynamic need to seek maximum efficiency in energy expenses. And to express a direct intervention programmed by nature itself to nudge the Anthropocene back towards equilibrium.

    Such lofty ponderings aside, our world is undoubtedly approaching an inflection point. Everything appears to be upending and it’s all spread out in glorious detail for everyone to see. The feedback loop between humanity and it’s creations - the biological & cybernetic communication among individuals & groups & cultures & organisms & ecosystems - is tightening and getting more & more dense every day, feeding on itself and forcing exceptional degrees of novelty into becoming. It’s frightening & awesome and the Old Guard can barely see it happening right in front of their eyes. The shift may be apocalyptic, a sudden phase change, or an accelerated-but-managed transition... Probably it will be all of these things in differing degrees & locales. However it happens, the emerging paradigm is much more about networks, messaging, feedback, and biology rather than hierarchy, control, power, and mechanization. Nature is the super-system, the ultimate controller enforcing the laws of physics and prescribing the design templates for fitness & adaptation. If we are, as Kevin Kelley suggests, the sex organs of technology, then our technology is born from the natural imperatives coded deeply into our DNA.

    Wed, Mar 2, 2011  Permanent link

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    [Cross-posted from Humanity + Magazine.]

    Emergent technologies often inspire great excitement attended by utopic visions of how they will transform our lives for the better. Yet all innovations introduce risk and the likelihood of unforeseen consequences. The transhumanity stack of technologies - life extension, medical & genetic modification, brain-computer & brain-machine interface, and virtual & augmented realities - offer great opportunities for human enhancement but pose profound risks for all aspects of humanity & civilization. It is critical to confront these dangers and temper the enthusiasm of tranhumanism with diligent risk assessment and thorough scenario modeling for possible outcomes.

    To wit, here are 5 scenarios that explore the possible dangers embedded within transhumanism. This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive list but is simply intended to encourage further risk analysis. Most or all have probably been addressed by others elsewhere, and this list is not intended as a criticism of those presently active in the transhumanity community.

    1. Population growth from longevity & senescence studies
    Life extension looks great from an individual or group perspective but it’s a resource nightmare from a national and global angle. Current human population is about 6.8 billion with most linear estimates projecting somewhere around 9 billion by 2050. If life extension is designed to be readily available to anyone & everyone, we can expect two outcomes: considerable population growth as longevity outpaces mortality, and a rise in global GDP and its commensurate resource consumption as working age extends towards the centenarian. People living longer means people will consume more in the course of their lifetimes. Consider the competition for resources & ecological carrying capacity we currently face in 2010 and roll that forward 40 years with a massive global population and members of the workforce that can potentially stay employed for 70 years....

    2. Inequity of technology distribution — the Transhuman Gap
    The flip-side of the resource consumption issue arises if we admit that transhuman technologies will not be evenly available to all; that socio-economic factors will gate who has access to technologies that extend human capabilities. In this context, population dynamics will not be appreciably influenced by human life extension as only a small subset of the populace will have access to such enhancement. Indeed, genetic modification, brain-computer interface, advanced prosthesis, and access to virtual & augmented realities are all presently gated by economic barriers to entry that are not likely to diminish any time soon. AR & VW’s may become ubiquitous & cheap but real human enhancement through interventionary technologies will mostly fall along class lines, giving rise to a wealthy tier of augmented & enhanced individuals. If only the wealthy are most able to afford enhancement, the socioeconomic divide will be reinforced by the Transhuman Gap, further disenfranchising those already at a competitive disadvantage by their class circumstances. From such economic disparity, reinforced by the inevitable moralizing and judgments from both sides of the gap, social cohesion will be further challenged and class distinctions will begin to take on a biomechanical & genetic aspect with the threat of technology-enabled superiority.

    3. Techno-elitism, civil discord, and eugenics
    Throughout history elite classes have used their status & abilities to influence the control systems that govern those beneath them. Likewise, the underclass has looked at elites with both admiration & disdain, occasionally rising to join their ranks but, more often, rising up to knock them down. Civil strife is a common outcome of disparity, driven by inequities in access to resources, opportunities, and power. A class of techno-elite transhumans would pose a profound existential threat to the underclass who might very well perceive themselves as being forever cut-out from the Democratic ideal that “all humans are created equal”, no longer able to compete in any capacity without transhuman enhancements. The anger and victimization from such an outlook would very quickly translate into moralizing against the crimes of human augmentation and stigmatizing those who pursue such “un-natural” and “un-holy” enhancement. In turn, the techno-elite may feel inclined to judge the underclass as “unfit” or “un-evolved” - two distinctions that have historically led to great atrocities.

    4. Co-option of transhumanity by fascists, oligarchs, and super-empowered individuals
    The slippery slope of this scenario posits the rise of a transhuman ruling class who, when challenged by the underclass, recede into their own sense of authority & enhanced intelligence to determine that the only appropriate course of action is to subjugate the masses and shepherd the rise of transhuman governance. If transhuman enhancement is truly advantageous, yet remains available only to an elite class, then in all likelihood those elites will embrace the technology to their competitive advantage. Since it would be folly to assume that human technological enhancement will remediate our most basest evolutionary program of survival of the fittest, the likelihood of enhanced predatory elites seizing global power is not so small. The darkest scenario might see transhuman governance requiring control & tracking implants in all newborns - perhaps a bit hyperbolic but not inconceivable if the type of global predators that currently traverse societies gained access to advanced transhuman technologies.

    5. Fractured reality
    Virtual worlds and augmented reality offer many compelling experiences across the spectrum of entertainment, socialization, marketing & advertising, collaboration, and modern knowledge work. At their core, these technologies intermediate our experience of the world, giving third parties access to program our sensorium. Brain-computer interface technologies are working to extend this access to the core structures of our brain, kicking off a wave of neurotechnologies able to more specifically & accurately influencing the mind-brain interface. The opt-in path through designer reality gives us the ability to modify the way we interface with the phenomenal world, electing to commit more of our selves to virtual experiences & relationships, or to overlay our environments with the images of our choosing rather than confront the physical world solely on its terms. While affinity groups will accrete around specific worlds & layers the barriers between differing experiences of objective reality will multiply when the world I experience is markedly different than yours. As the Transhuman Gap threatens social cohesion through class, reality design threatens cohesion across all classes by erecting virtual constructions between adjacent-but-unrelated digital worlds. While we may feel a sense of agency in creating such personalized experiences we do so in digital layers most likely owned by 3rd parties or accessible through public APIs. We may inadvertently wall ourselves off from each other but we’ll become even richer targets for profilers, influencers, and governors. The slippery slope in this scenario suggests that governance might enforce realities onto subjects or that dangerous identity groups might create monstrous, all-encompassing layers as indoctrination tools & neuro-propaganda towards the engineering of social movements. Considering how supremely the television has been used to influence the masses with only basic access to eyes and ears, it’s not unlikely that greater access into the transhuman will yield a greater ability to influence and manipulate.

    Again, these scenarios are not meant as accusations or designed to arouse a fear of transhumanism but, rather, to encourage critical thinking along the dystopic possibilities of the future transhuman phase space, as it were, in order to better control for such outcomes. As the saying goes, all technology is inherently neutral. But this glib statement does not acknowledge that all technology is born of humanity and wielded by our hands alone. To paraphrase a great modern philosopher, all of the animals are capably murderous.
    Sat, Nov 20, 2010  Permanent link

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    This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs - a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.

    CC image from mondi.

    “He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books. He thought that some of these faces might be right for him...”

    The word “cybernetic” derives from a Latin word, kybernetes, meaning “rudder” or “governor”. A cybernetic process is a control system that uses feedback about it’s actions in an environment to better adapt it’s behavior. The cybernetic organism, or “cyborg”, is a class of cybernetic systems that have converged with biological organisms. In this increasingly mythologized form, the cyborg embodies the ongoing dialectic between humanity & technology, and is an aspirational figure onto which we project our superhuman fantasies. While it offers security, enhancement, and corporeal salvation the cyborg also presents an existential threat to the self and to the cherished notions of being uniquely human.

    It’s a gamble but we don’t seem able to leave the table. As we offload more of our tasks into technology we enhance our adaptability while undermining our own innate resilience as animals. We wrap ourselves in extended suits of shelter, mobility, health, and communications. We distribute our senses through a global network of hypermedia, augmenting our brains with satellites & server farms & smart phones. Increasingly, our minds & bodies are becoming the convergence point for both the real & the virtual, mediated through miniaturization, dematerialization, and nano-scale hybridization. Our ability to craft the world around us is quickly advancing to give us the ability to craft our bodies & our selves.

    “And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind... Or somewhere in the back of his mind... That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideals...”

    Computation is miniaturizing, distributing, and becoming more powerful & efficient. It’s moving closer & closer to our bodies while ubiquitizing & dematerializing all around us. The cybernetic process has refined this most adaptive capacity in little more than 50 years to be right at hand, with us constantly, connected to a global web of people, places, things, information, and knowledge. We are co-evolving with our tools, or what Kevin Kelly refers to as the Technium - the seemingly-intentional kingdom of technology. As Terence McKenna suggested, we are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects. By directly illustrating how our own fitness & bio-survival becomes bound to the survival of our technology, the cyborg is a fitting icon for this relationship.

    CC image from

    Technology has historically been regarded as something we cast into the world separate from ourselves but it’s worth considering the symbiosis at play and how this relationship is changing the very nature of humanity. As we venture deeper & deeper into the Technium, we lend ourselves to it’s design. By embracing technology as part of our lives, as something we rely upon and depend on, we humanize it and wrap it in affection. We routinely fetishize & sexualize cool, flashy tech. In doing so we impart emotional value to the soul-less tools of our construction. We give them both life & meaning. By tying our lives to theirs, we agree to guarantee their survival. This arrangement is a sort of alchemical wedding between human & machine, seeking to yield gold from this mixture of blood & metal, uncertain of the outcome but almost religiously compelled to consummate.

    “The change would be very subtle. It might take ten years or so. Gradually his face would change it’s shape. A more hooked nose. Wider, thinner lips. Beady eyes. A larger forehead...”

    In the modern world, our identities include the social networks & affinity groups in which we participate, the digital media we capture & create & upload, the avatars we wear, and the myriad other fragments of ourselves we leave around the web. Who we are as individuals reflects the unique array of technologies through which we engage the world, at times instantiated through multiple masks of diverse utility, at other times fractured & dis-integrated - too many selves with too many virtual fingers picking at them. Our experience of life is increasingly composed of data & virtual events, cloudy & intangible yet remote-wired into our brains through re-targeted reward systems. A Twitter re-tweet makes us happy, a hostile blog comment makes us angry, the real-time web feeds our addiction to novelty. Memories are offloaded to digital storage mediums. Pictures, travel videos, art, calendars, phone numbers, thoughts & treatises... So much of who we are and who we have been is already virtualized & invested in cybernetic systems. All those tweets & blog posts cast into the cloud as digital moments captured & recorded. Every time I share a part of me with the digital world I become copied, distributed, more than myself yet... in pieces.

    CC image from Alejandro Hernandez.

    It can be said that while we augment & extend our abilities through machines, machines learn more about the world through us. The web 2.0 social media revolution and the semantic web of structured data that is presently intercalating into it has brought machine algorithms into direct relationship with human behavior, watching our habits and tracking our paths through the digital landscape. These sophisticated marketing and research tools are learning more and more about what it means to be human, and the extended sensorium of the instrumented world is giving them deep insight into the run-time processes of civilization & nature. The spark of self-awareness has not yet animated these systems but there is an uneasy agreement that we will continue to assist in their cybernetic development, modifying their instructions to become more and more capable & efficient, perhaps to the point of being indistinguishable from, or surpassing, their human creators.

    “He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people. They had also molded their faces according to some ideal. Maybe they imagined that their new face would better suit their personality. Or maybe they imagined that their personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance...”

    In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the young Tyrell Corporation assistant, Rachel, reflects on her childhood memories while leafing through photographs of her youth. These images are evidence of her past she uses to construct her sense of self. Memories provide us with continuity and frame the present & future by reminding us of our history - critical for a species so capable of stepping out of time. Rachel’s realization that she is a replicant, that her memories are false implants deliberately created to make her believe she’s human, precipitates an existential crises that even threatens Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, surrounded as he is by photos of his own supposed past. This subtle narrative trick suggests that replicants will be more human-like if they don’t know they’re replicants. But it also invokes another query: If memories are (re-)writable, can we still trust our own past?

    Yet both characters do appear quite human. They laugh and cry and love and seem driven by the same hopes and fears we all have. Ridley Scott’s brilliance - and by extension, Philip K. Dick’s - is to obscure the nature of the self and of humanity by challenging our notions of both. Is Rachel simply another mannequin animated by advanced cybernetics or is she more than that? Is she human enough? When the Tyrell bio-engineer J.F. Sebastian sees the Nexus 6 replicants, Pris and Roy Batty, he observes “you’re perfect”, underlining again the aspirational notion that through technology we can be made even better, becoming perhaps “more human than human”. This notion of intelligent artificial beings raises deep challenges to our cherished notions of humanity, as many have noted. But the casual fetishization of technology, as it gets nearer & friendlier & more magical, is perhaps just as threatening to our deified specialness in it’s subtle insinuation into our hands & hearts & minds.

    CC image from Photo Monkey.

    In Mamoru Oshii’s anime classic, Ghost in the Shell, the female protagonist - a fully-engineered and functional robotic human named Kusanagi - at once decries those who resist augmentation, suggesting that “your effort to remain as you are is what limits you”, while simultaneously becoming engaged in a quest to determine if there might be more to her than just what has been programmed. She celebrates her artifice as a supreme achievement in overcoming the constraints of biological evolution while also seeking to find evidence that she is possessed of that most mysterious spark: the god-like ingression of being that enters and animates the human shell. Oshii’s narrative suggests that robots that achieve a sufficient level of complexity and self-awareness will, just like their human creators, seek to see themselves as somehow divinely animated. Perhaps it’s a method to defend the belief in human uniqueness but those writing the modern myths of cybernetics seem to imply that while humans aspire to the abilities of machines, machines aspire to the soulfulness of humans.

    “This is why first impressions are often correct...”

    Chalk it up to curiosity, the power of design fictions, and an innate need to realize our visions, but if we can see it with enough resolution in our mind’s eye, we’ll try to bring it to life. The Ghost in the Shell & the Ghost in the Machine both intuit the ongoing merger between humanity & technology, and the hopes & fears that attend this arranged and seemingly-unavoidable alchemical wedding. As animals we are driven to adapt. As humans, we are compelled to create.

    “Although some people might have made mistakes. They may have arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them. They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish whim or momentary impulse. Some may have gotten half-way there, and then changed their minds...”

    Humans are brilliant & visionary but also impetuous, easily distracted, fascinated by shiny things, and typically ill-equipped to divine the downstream consequences of our actions. We extrude technologies at a pace that far outruns our ability to understand their impacts on the world, much less how they change who we are. As we reach towards AI, the cyborg, the singularity, and beyond, our cybernetic fantasies may necessarily pass through the dark night of the soul on the way to denouement. What is birthed from the alchemical marriage often necessitates the destruction of the wedding party.

    CC image from WebWizzard.

    “He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.” - David Byrne, Seen & Not Seen

    Are we working up some Faustian bargain promising the heights of technological superiority only for the meager sacrifice of our Souls? Or is this fear a reflection of our Cartesian inability to see ourselves as an evolving process, holding onto whatever continuity we can but always inevitably changing with the world in which we are embedded? As we offload more and more of our selves to our digital tools, we change what it means to be human. As we evolve & integrate more machine functionality we modify our relationship to the cybernetic process and re-frame our self-identity to accommodate our new capacities.

    Like the replicants in Blade Runner and the animated cyborgs of Ghost in the Shell we will very likely continue to aspire to be more human than human, no matter how hard it may be to defend our ideals of what this may mean to the very spark of humanity. What form of cyborg we shall become, what degree of humanity we retain in the transaction, what unforeseen repercussions may be set in motion... The answers are as slippery as the continuum of the self and the ever-changing world in which we live. Confrontation with the existential Other - the global mind mediated through ubiquitous bio-machinery - and the resulting annihilation of the Self that will necessarily attend such knowledge, may very well yield a vastly different type of humanity than what we expect.

    Thu, Sep 23, 2010  Permanent link

    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    Or, The Risk of Extrapolating Linear Trends Against Non-Linear Systems.

    A common habit in forecasting, particularly in energy futures & economic growth, is to take roughly linear trends and extend them over the next few decades. The notion is that there is inertia in what has already happened that will make the future look markedly similar, or at least there will likely be a more-or-less linear movement along an existing path. For example, many forecasts suggest that energy consumption will increase by 50% towards the year 2035. This is based on data over the past 30 years that is then extrapolated forward along expectations, so you get graphs that look like this one from the EIA's 2009 Annual Energy Outlook Early Release Overview:

    The graph shows mostly linear growth in energy consumption. The assumptions here are that, given previous growth rates, and given a rough set of expectations about future growth, energy consumption will steadily grow across all sectors. Yet you'll notice a few bumps & dips for transportation & industrial in the later months of 2008 and early 2009. These suggest outlier events. Outliers are the unexpected events, the Black Swans that come out of nowhere and blow expectations out of the water. In this case, economic activity got a big boost by the inflated gains of the securities market, then took a dive after all the hidden risks came to the surface. The following graph from the same EIA report really highlights the 2008 economic black swan:

    Here we see the market prices for the primary energy sources. This graph really shows the instability churned up by the securities outlier. As the ultimate determinant of just about all economic activity (nothing happens without energy) we can see energy prices climbing at the same time demand was ramping up (compare to the last graph of consumption). Then heading into the crash energy prices plummet as fears mount, workforces are downsized, factories go dark, and productivity retracts in the face of economic doom. In spite of expectations the market collapse came as a surprise. Yet, forecasts still commit global energy consumption to a future of roughly 50% growth in demand (see those post-2010 consumption lines in the first graph?). In spite of obvious turbulence in past performance the forecasts assume typical, linear economic growth out to 2035.

    While such linear approximations offer hope of anticipating and, hence, preparing for the future, to some degree they represent a logical fallacy of projecting linear trends onto complex, non-linear systems. Living systems like weather patterns, anthills, and global economics are approximately non-deterministic. That is, they're so complex and have so many feedback mechanisms that they're mostly unpredictable (weather predictions are still only more-or-less valid for about 5 days out). Much of this complexity arises from the turbulence generated by feedback loops and interconnections across every scale of the system. The power laws underlying dynamic systems take small values and iterate them over time into very large values. This is the mechanism underlying the oft-mentioned Butterfly Effect and one of the drivers for outlier events. Imagine a dust devil spinning up on an otherwise calm desert floor...

    Nature seeks homeostasis - a dynamic equilibrium around a point of stability. The counterpoint to runaway feedback loops and suddenly emergent outliers are the damping effects of control elements. In climate, the tendency for hot & cold to equalize will usually mitigate a storm and return clear skies. The dust devil gives up it's angular momentum to shifting pressure & temperature gradients. Looking at our current affairs we see that total economic collapse has (so far) been averted through aggressive attempts to dampen the turbulence by injecting massive amounts of state capital into the financial system. These interventions & market regulations are control structures put in place to govern for relative economic homeostasis. When they work and things are relatively quiet, they keep those trend projections nice & linear.

    Linear projections help us continue to get things done based on fairly reliable expectations. But avoiding the next economic catastrophe requires a deep study of the many threads & amplifiers that drive black swan events. Outliers occupy the thin edge of statistical possibility yet almost always have tremendous consequences. They are, by nature, entropic & disruptive, shifting the territory and demanding new adaptations. To return to the global energy domain, what outliers might be slowly iterating to challenge the forecasts of 50% growth in demand? What catastrophic black swans might be lurking off the radar? What scientific breakthroughs and game-changing innovations might be weaving together towards a complete re-orientation of power requirements, transport, or industrial fuel?

    Studying a system for outliers and looking for the signals & trends that might lead to the next Black Swan, as well as examining the conditions that have led to previous outlier events, can inform forecasts that are much more attuned to resiliency and adaptation.
    Thu, Mar 11, 2010  Permanent link

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