March 25th, 2009 by Edward Miller

robots + pirates = fun | Mirka23
robots + pirates = fun | Mirka23
The elite capitalist class has undergone numerous makeovers in the past century. From the Organization Man of the 50s, to the Yuppies of the 80s, to the Bobos of the dot-com era. A combination of structural changes and cultural pendulum swings have produced these makeovers.

For instance, as those who were immersed in the counterculture of the 70s made their way into the corporate ranks, they brought with them many of the anti-establishment values, and became the bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos, as David Brooks calls them. People like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs.

IEET fellow Douglas Rushkoff’s documentary, The Merchants of Cool, shows in great detail how corporate marketing executives are constantly looking for the next trendy thing, no matter how anti-establishment, in order to sell it back to the youth culture which conceived it.

A result of this process has been the emergence of the hipster subculture, the so-called dead end of Western civilization. Hipsters consciously take any and all cultural or political icons, strip them of their meaning, and appropriate them for purposes of self-glamorization. The more ironic and contradictory the better.

While hipsters are only one segment of this new generation, sometimes called Millenials, they are perhaps the most revealing. At first glance, it is a scary thought to extrapolate the consequences of this new generation entering the highest ranks of society. Yet, Millenials have an ethos which holds the promise of a better world: the belief that knowledge should be free.

This is the first generation to grow up with the Internet. Less than 5% believe that music “piracy” should be illegal. They spend staggering amounts of time on the computer and mobile communication devices, surfing social networks and wikis, gaming, texting, filesharing, blogging, making youtube videos, and building the new participatory panopticon.

They were extremely coddled. In our automated world, the traditional Work Ethic just seems silly to them. They never experienced a World War or a Cold War. Wars only happen on television. In this media and marketing-saturated society, where meaning is sucked from every noble pursuit within nanoseconds, this new generation has adapted by becoming functionally insane. ADD and constant sarcasm are practically coping mechanisms.

It is no wonder, then, why their entertainment choices include trolling, LOLcats, the Daily Show, South Park, and ridiculous sarcastic wikis. Yet, they are not nihilists. Beneath all this lies a belief in classical liberal ideals which is at least as sincere as that of previous generations, if not moreso.

The problem is that for as long as they can remember, all the institutions which they were told to look up to have only given them reasons to be cynical. Instead of honest journalism, we have demagogues. Instead of corner grocers, we have sterile megastores. Elections aren’t won, but stolen… not that it matters. Politics became a series of sex scandals. Religion too, only in a far more sinister sense. The economy is in crisis, but the Millenials are not surprised.

So Millenials aren’t exactly going to be receptive to allegations by megacorporations that they are pirates as they see the RIAA and MPAA launch a legal crusade against grandmothers everywhere. They aren’t going to place much faith in corporate culture as they watch AIG, Bear Stearns, Bernie Madoff, Jim Cramer, and the whole circus self-immolate.

As The Pirate Bay has become more popular, and as the Pirate Party grows in numbers throughout Europe, I think many are questioning who the real pirates are. At the University of Chicago, a new, and highly popular, class about pirates has been created. Indeed, one of the subjects will be Bernard Madoff.

What an opportune time for Open Source to surge ahead. The increasing maturity of open source software has won over many holdouts, and the recession has driven many towards open source software to cut costs. Yet, software is merely the vanguard of the immense Open Source movement. There are countless projects in the fields of music, art, food, electronics, beer, automobiles, sanitation, tractors, you name it.

If there is one thing which Millenials were born for, it is participation in the digital commons. Of course, the merchants of cool will take every opportunity to further commodify the Hacker Ethic, as we have seen with companies which promote Open Source business models and MAKE Magazine. This will create a new breed of hacker capitalists in the mold of Mark Shuttleworth and Jimmy Wales, who will replace the yuppies and bobos who are currently in power. This melding with capitalism isn’t likely to seriously endanger the movement, considering the incorruptible nature of copyleft licenses.

However, we musn’t underestimate the backlash which is likely to ensue. Monopolies are able to extract their high profit margins via the creation of artificial scarcities. This requires keeping knowledge secret, and is fundamentally at odds with the hacker ethic. I think it is likely that a sort of reverse piracy may occur in which corporations steal hacker innovations. However, this will require a means of evading legal restrictions.

Enter Peter Thiel and other techno-capitalist utopians who wish to build colonies in the ocean. This is known as the seasteading movement. Now, most of them may have peaceful, if kooky, intentions. My fear is that this could set the stage for corporations or other authoritarian entities to set up such colonies, and like the pirates they are, take to the seas. Since Google has already begun construction of a floating datacenter, it isn’t incredibly unrealistic to suggest that a company could be completely headquartered at sea.

Currently, if corporations want to influence governments, they need lobbyists. Seasteading could allow them to cut out the middlemen, and become corporatocracies. Talk about vertical integration! They could then proceed to use the methods of scientific management to exact control upon every aspect of life, and reduce their employees to something lower than serfs. This idea actually isn’t new. It would just be a floating, 21st century Pullman Town.

While I don’t think this will become a primary mode of social organization, considering the reproductive fitness of open source models, I wish I could say that such a dystopian scenario is unlikely to happen at all.

Luckily, if the techno-capitalists haven’t already lost most of their money to Madoff, it seems the economic climate in general will make it unlikely for such capital-intensive endeavors to succeed in the near future.

It is true that seasteading could offer some opportunities to hackers. The Pirate Bay had at one point tried to purchase SeaLand for the purpose of evading legal restrictions, and obviously not all seasteading would be inherently bad. Yet, the risks far outweigh the opportunities. We have more than we need within our current social systems to create open source communities from the ground up.

Now is a superb time for all you hackers, tinkerers, hobbyists, and DIYers to kick it into full gear. The political and economic cards are in our favor. Let’s make the most of it!

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March 23rd, 2009 by Edward Miller

Nobody is a bigger supporter of energy efficiency than I am. Yet, it is urgent we understand that it is not a solution to our climate crisis.

What is the efficiency paradox?

The proposition was first put forward by William Stanley Jevons in his 1865 book The Coal Question. In it, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Source: Wikipedia

Why is it that coal consumption soared after the efficiency improved? From an economic perspective, this should be perfectly obvious: as the efficiency of the coal engine increases, it becomes a cheaper option and is thus used at an increased rate.

Europe at Night | Planetary Visions Ltd
Europe at Night | Planetary Visions Ltd
The same is true with gasoline engines. The more efficient they become, the more likely it is that people will continue to use them. Even if the entire developed world spent tons of money to convert to electric cars and alternative energy, this would only make gasoline an even more viable option for countries which are still developing.

This summer, Tata Motors is releasing a $2,000 car in India called the Nano. It has taken a century for internal combustion automobiles to mature to a point where they can be produced at such low cost. The internal combustion engine is unhindered by patents and has been mass produced for almost 100 years. New electric engines are unlikely to hit that price point in the foreseeable future, and thus the fastest growing parts of the world are highly unlikely to choose them in an unregulated marketplace.

Energy efficiency will also decrease the price gap between the raising of livestock and the growing of plants. Considering the worst contributor of greenhouse gases is actually the livestock industry, this does not bode well for our planet.

Granted, in certain markets people’s habits do not greatly change as a result of efficiency gains. Hybrid car owners do not drive much more than regular motorists, and people who buy more efficient refrigerators are unlikely to use it more wastefully. Yet, the overall number of these machines purchased would likely increase and still cause any efficiency gains to evaporate.

If climate change is likely to cause significant problems for our civilization in the next century, we cannot expect the free market to correct the problem. If measures are not put in place to improve the competitiveness of carbon-neutral technologies, then drastic measures such as geo-engineering are inevitable.

The risks, moral hazards, and political implications brought forth by geo-engineering are going to be challenging indeed. Considering the overwhelming evidence pointing to humanity’s dangerous impact on the environment, we better prepare for this sooner rather than later. Geo-engineering must move closer to the center of the debate on climate change.

Other longer term options such as space colonization should also be considered. Interestingly, learning to live sustainably is a prerequisite for space colonization. Permaculture, recycling, vertical farming, energy efficiency, and the creation of harmonious ecosystems are key to living in space. NASA has known this for some time now, and it is time we start treating our situation here on Earth with as much foresight. Sustainability is key no matter what course we take.

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December 28th, 2008 by Edward Miller

Virtual Reality (VR) has advanced to incredible heights. For those who haven’t kept up with the gaming scene, the newest game renowned for impressive graphics is Fallout 3. Of course, graphics aren’t all that matters to gamers, which is why another one of the hottest games on the block right now is Spore, which looks very cartoonish.

Nevertheless, consistent advances in both graphics software and hardware have been propelling ever more realistic graphics into our homes. Movies and gaming were the vanguard for realistic graphics. In only a couple decades we went from Pong to Fallout 3. Yet, we still haven’t ditched the joystick, mouse, and keyboard.

Speech recognition was supposed to make keyboards obsolete, but it isn’t as practical as once thought and the technology has been surprisingly stagnant. Yet, more elegant interfaces have been creeping their way into the consumer marketplace; unfortunately, I think infrastructural inertia will prevent movies and gaming from becoming the vanguard for advancement of these technologies.

Porn will be the vanguard, and from there it will make its way into other markets. If you read Wired, you may have come across one of the weirder technological developments of the 21st century: Teledildonics. These machines are basically interactive sex toys which can be activated remotely by a partner over the Internet. Clearly, it is the porn industry which is the most creative and enthusiastic in embracing such new sensory technologies.

When it comes to immersion, the keyboard, mouse, and joystick simply do not cut it. Yet, why would the developers of Spore think it is worth the effort to, say, make an electronic glove that can allow users to feel virtual textures? There is only one industry which is enthusiastic enough to accomplish such a feat.

Before we talk about what’s possible, let’s take a look at some of the interfaces which are already on the market.

What is already here?

Head-mounted Displays

When people think of VR, the first thing they think about is head-mounted displays. These things are really cool. They encompass your entire field of vision and can provide you with the experience of a screen that is hundreds of inches tall for a fraction of the price. Furthermore, they can provide stereoscopic 3D. Remember those 3D goggles you could wear to watch old 3D movies? Well if you have a game and/or a graphics card that is set up for stereoscopic rendering, with today’s graphics, a head-mounted display can give you an experience that will completely knock your socks off.

It is just tricky to find games, software, and/or hardware which support stereoscopic vision. OpenGL has great stereoscopic support, and if you use linux you can get this plugin which will automatically convert all games for you. For Windows users, you just have to hope your game supports it, or if you are lucky find less efficient and badly supported hardware-based stereoscopic drivers.

The best head-mounted display on the market today is eMagin’s Z800. It provides a gyroscope to detect head movement and a stereoscopic OLED display. OLED is a new technology which is superior to LCD in every way. It is thinner, lower power, flexible, brighter, and more responsive. The only limiting feature is the price. Since these things are new, they are still pretty pricey even though they are produced using very conventional means. This visor is a bit old, created back in 2005. Expect the next generation of OLED head-mounted displays to be arriving shortly, and they will likely be half the price and twice the resolution. Though, currently you can pick one up new for $1,200.

Brain-Computer Interfaces

Now this is the future of gaming. There are currently a couple different devices on the market now which can record your brainwaves using electrodes and use them for gaming purposes. Yet, what everyone is looking forward to is Emotiv‘s EPOC headset, which will have much greater functionality. It’s current release date is summer of 2009. It’s target price is only $299 and contains 16 electrodes. Using this data it can detect your facial expressions, emotions, and certain thought processes. It can track your excitement level during a game and can allow you to manipulate objects on the screen using only your mind. Don’t believe me? Check out this video.

We can only speculate about what will be capable in the future with this technology, but clearly we should expect more electrodes and a greater refinement of the whole experience. As we learn more about the brain, we can apply these concepts towards more creating more realistic virtual experiences.

Right now, this technology requires a certain amount of training in order to tailor the device to an individual user’s quirks, much like how speech recognition technology works. I expect this process to be refined over time, and expect more emotions to be detectable. Currently, one can levitate virtual objects purely by thinking of the act of lifting, and the same can be done with rotating, pushing, pulling, and vanishing. It is also possible to change the virtual weather just by thinking about it. I expect more actions to be possible as time goes by.

Eventually, there may come a time when this technology improves the productivity of mainstream computer users. At that point, we may be manipulating data by pure thought. Also, I am confident it is also possible to compose music this way, lowering the barriers to entry into the world of music, and allowing even those with the most modest of musical talent to compose beautiful symphonies. The same could be true of painting, though in a virtual environment it could be much more fun. Imagine painting with clouds or fireworks.

VR Gloves

Those Nintendo Wiis have been selling like hotcakes. Sure they are small and cheap, but the main reason is the Wiimote. It is a small cylindrical handheld controller with a built-in accelerometer that tracks movement. It also uses optical tracking. This allows for the player to swing virtual lightsabers, bowl virtual bowling balls, and so forth.

In the VR world there have been devices like this for awhile, and one of them is the P5. This device is similar to the wii-mote but allows even more precise control since it is a glove and can track the movement of all the fingers. Unfortunately, it uses a clunky optical tracking system rather than a webcam. Nevertheless, it allows for a surprising degree of control. If you wanted, you could even play a virtual piano on a laptop or netbook during a plane trip.

Speech Recognition

Speech Recognition is mostly here, it has just been underwhelming as far as productivity is concerned. Our friend Ray Kurzweil was one of the pioneers of this field. It has been great for the blind, and other disabled users, but it hasn’t added much benefit for the rest of us.

Yet, there is huge untapped potential for speech recognition in gaming and VR environments. Imagine casting spells with your voice (“abracadabra”) or engaging in spoken dialogue with NPCs. Of course a simple voice chat setup could potentially be used effectively in multiplayer games with serious role players, but more often it completely ruins the immersion. (“Where’s the Cheetos?!”)

3D Sound

3D sound is already a reality. In fact, speakers are so good these days that even modestly priced ones produce sound indistinguishable from the real thing. Those who have surround sound speakers already know how much better movies can be with sound coming from many directions. In 3D environments, this is even cooler since the sound changes direction as your character does. The computer’s 3D sound software, like OpenAL, does most of the work and is implemented in most games. You don’t need an expensive 7 speaker setup to experience this. Just get a good pair of surround sound headphones and you’re set.

What needs work?

First and foremost, all of this technology must (and will) become cheaper in order for mainstream adoption to occur. This is the only way for these technologies to mature. Yet, even if all of the above technologies were perfectly implemented right now we would still have a few sensory inputs left out to dry. Our senses simply send electrical signals to our brain, and we have always been able to find ways to trick them one way or another.

Taste and Smell Emulation

There has been some development in this area, but as far as I know nothing will be hitting the market soon. This is one area that I expect pornography to pioneer the new technologies. Pheromones, tastes, and smells are a big part of the sexual experience for many. However, I think almost anyone would be interested in tasting virtual cake or smelling virtual roses. We just wouldn’t be willing to pay the big bucks to do so. The users of porn, on the other hand, have reliably shown interest in shelling out the big bucks. Unfortunately, I think there wont be much demand for this until the other senses have been thoroughly emulated and this is the only one remaining.

Touch Emulation

Feeling surfaces and textures in virtual reality is a long-held dream, but only the most basic of systems can currently be bought, and they are ridiculously expensive. It is over $4000 for a deluxe VR haptics glove. That glove combines all the features of the P5 above, but also has the ability to feel pressure when virtual objects are touched.

There is nothing on the market currently that lets you feel textures, but work is under development. For full immersion, such a haptics system would have to be expanded to a full bodysuit, not just a glove. Remember the movie AI? This will be the hardest of all to implement, but I have faith in the determination of the virtual sex industry.

Final Thoughts.

This technology is rapidly approaching a point where the boundaries between the virtual and the real will be demolished forever, and this will present tough ethical challenges to society. It will also produce a whole lot of fun, and may even boost productivity. All of this must be considered. There is a lot to be hopeful about, but it is imperative that we critically examine the the social consequences.

Would this sort of VR positively or negatively impact people’s conception of reality? What effects will it have on children? Will this change the nature of classrooms?

Will this make telecommuting more common? Could this actually reduce the need for transportation, lowering the cost of living and our ecological footprint?

When these sorts of technologies become integrated into something like Second Life, will we ever leave? Will this stifle progress or enhance creativity? I have already given examples of the wealth of new avenues for creativity.

Lawrence Lessig makes the point that John Phillip Sousa bemoaned the 20th century’s abandonment of streetcorner singing and individual creativity, yet Lessig argues the 21st century is lowering the barriers to entry into music and other creative fields. With Creative Commons, online music streaming, file sharing, and open source music software more and more music is being freely produced, shared, and remixed. The 21st century is shaping up to be filled with amateur creativity.

What effects will this have on our social lives and political institutions? There has already been quite a bit of virtual activism, and a whole lot of virtual tyranny.(DRM) Is virtual deviancy acceptable? Only a few quixotic anti-videogame crusaders want to ban virtual violence, but what about virtual pedophilia?

All our values will be challenged, but some may be strengthened. I have already argued that these technologies will actually enhance the viability of monogamy in the short term, though the definition of monogamy itself will likely change given the new customizable nature of our personal reality.

There is great potential for this to actually improve social relationships. The clunkiness of our 2D social networks will become painfully apparent once Augmented Reality and fully immersive VR is commonplace. We will be able to interact with others in a more natural way.

The anonymity inherent in virtual worlds will present new avenues for freedom of expression, but also new avenues for destructive behavior. Trolls are already a problem on the Internet, but imagine 3D trolls. Those of you who play MMORPGs don’t have to imagine this, but as the immersion grows so does the potential for annoying and hurtful behavior. Granted, we will be able to block trolls and customize whatever else we wish, but I think the downsides are already becoming obvious. What sort of spam and scams will these environments make possible? What about virtual rape?

Furthermore, what sort of psychological effects will this unlimited power of customization create? We are already experiencing a trend of cyberbalkanization. We tend to view information that already agrees with our viewpoints, and as our choice of media sources grows, intellectually isolated groups of people spring up who from birth have only been exposed to one ideological viewpoint. VR might take this to a whole new and disturbing level. Of course the “good ol days” when there were only a few papers and three news networks to choose from weren’t so great either. Perhaps VR will instead foster a more connected global community based on shared values, and allow all the diverse groups of people to peacefully live out their individual fantasies virtually. Be it religious fundamentalists or pedophiles.

In Neil Postman’s book Technopoly, he convincingly argued that technology changes our values in ways that extend deductively from the function of these tools. It is worthwhile to consider how to keep what is good about our current values as best we can as we move forward.

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April 21st, 2008 by Edward Miller

The controversial animal rights organization known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have temporarily shifted their focus away from photographing nude celebrities to do something truly revolutionary.

As The Meat Ages | Grant Hutchinson
As The Meat Ages | Grant Hutchinson
As anyone who has taken a critical look at the production of animal products knows, the meat industry is horrendous on many levels. Obviously, it causes massive amounts of suffering to animals. The meat industry also wreaks havoc on the environment. To raise and transport the animals takes enormous amounts of land, energy, food, and water, and creates enormous amounts of pollution. A huge portion of the pollution that is creating the climate crisis comes from the CO2, Methane, and Nitrous Oxide created by the meat industry; it is even more damaging than all the automobiles.

The current meat production methods also pose significant risks to human health. The health hazards don’t just come from the much publicized contaminants such as antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and other toxins. As Jared Diamond has shown in his book, Guns Germs and Steel, domesticated animals have been largely responsible for the spread of modern diseases. The looming threat of avian flu, whose predecessor was responsible for more deaths than World War 1, is just one of many examples.

Yet, it cannot be denied that meat provides many nutrients which cannot be acquired through the consumption of plants. Humans have evolved to crave meat, and to dismiss that or suggest otherwise is naive.

Luckily, there is a solution that can solve both these problems: In Vitro Meat. Unfortunately, many have been slow to take up this cause. PETA has finally woken up to its amazing potential. In Vitro Meat can fulfill the human need and desire for animal products without causing wanton harm to animals, the environment, and our health. It involves growing muscle cells and other tissue using the stem cells of animals. It would be a humane and extremely efficient way to produce authentic meat.

Even more profoundly, PETA has decided to create a million dollar prize to the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.” Using prizes is an extremely effective way to promote such a cause, since it draws big publicity and fosters competition. The X Prize is a prominent example of such a tactic, and it has been quite successful.

However, I have one criticism of this prize strategy, especially with the larger prizes. It seems silly to offer such large prizes and let the inventors copyright their inventions as well. It would seem more prudent to only award the money if the inventors agree to release their work into the public domain, to be used freely by all.

That said, I commend PETA for their support of In Vitro Meat, and am glad they are focusing their attention on this crucial issue.

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February 19th, 2008 by Edward Miller

A majority of unskilled jobs are completely unnecessary even with current technology. We are already very much a Robotic Nation; ATM Machines, industrial robots, automated checkouts, e-commerce, computerized help desks, and vending machines have replaced millions of workers. The burden of most unskilled labor can and will be shifted to machines, and the same is true for even a great deal of skilled labor. Yet, currently, it is as if human beings are taking on the role of machines, grinding away day-in and day-out in dead end jobs, all the while, the middle class is shrinking and unemployment is growing. If something isn’t done, there will be some major class warfare.

Leisure is a good thing! Even for our economies it is a good thing. If it wasn’t for the norms and government regulations in our society that produce more leisure time such as weekends, holidays, child labor laws, minimum wage, overtime laws, and so forth, there wouldn’t be nearly as much demand to fuel the enormous industries surrounding music, art, sports, movies, entertainment, etc.

Couple in Hammock | Reuben Maltsberger
Couple in Hammock | Reuben Maltsberger
Unfortunately, we have been infected by the Protestant Ethic meme which sanctifies work. This sort of mentality is prevalent among most of society, from CEOs to workers’ unions. Unions fight for the “right to work” and are deeply fearful of their jobs becoming automated. Ironically, many of the policies they push for make human labor more expensive, which gives further incentive for automation. I argue that workers should rejoice at the possibilities created by human labor becoming obsolete. We should speed up the process. Screw the right to work, we need the Right to be Lazy!

Employment is only valuable if it is performing a necessary service. If we can get our basic needs taken care of sufficiently, unemployment could be a perfectly reasonable option. There are plenty of worse things in the world than doing nothing. Being a marketing executive or politician, for example.I would argue, though, that under conditions of abundance, we should seek to find joy in ways that benefit others as well. Volunteering one’s time to nonprofit charitable endeavors would certainly be one example. Creating art, music, comedy, poetry, movies, video games, and so forth would also be valid ways of contributing to the world.

Thus, as automation progresses, we should gradually and continually strengthen laws regarding overtime, retirement, minimum wage, welfare, universal healthcare, importation from sweat-shop-ridden countries, and so forth, all in the name of making human labor more expensive, and compensating for the displacement caused by mechanization of labor. We should consider simultaneously giving positive incentives, such as tax breaks, for businesses that make strides toward automation, and fund research in that area.

I would go so far to say that once a sufficient amount of our production of basic necessities is automated, unemployment would be a good thing. We shouldn’t just have welfare, but a Guaranteed Minimum Income system. (even Hayek would agree)

Once liberated from needless toil, we will be free to spend more time enjoying the fruits of our material abundance by creating art, playing sports, and loving one another. Maybe our GDP won’t be growing quite as quickly at first, but some things are more important than the quantity of stuff we produced this financial quarter. Feel free to share your thoughts. Is the End of Work near? If so, what should be done about it?

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