Archive for the ‘thoughts & ideas’ Category.

Our future is destroying our future

Automation is an awesome process. If you’ve ever taken a tour of a car factory, you know what I’m talking about. It’s totally cool that we can build things that do our work for us. but if we keep this up, the entire economy will need to change. Those supercool robots you saw at the car assembly line? Each one replaced a person and destroyed a job. The self-checkout systems creeping into grocery stores are doing a similar thing by taking away jobs from checkout clerks. Now imagine someone makes an RFID-like checkout system that actually works (i.e. it doesn’t have huge gaping security holes in it), and allows stores to replace all checkout people entirely. A similar system is already in place at my local library (complete with RFID security problems, but who’s going to steal books that are loaned out for free anyway?), and as a result there are about half as many librarians who work there as there were 5 years ago.

Suppose self-driving cars improve and become commonplace: there goes the job of every trucker, taxi driver, and garbageman. Taking that closer to the present, there already exist autonomous aircraft that can take off, fly, and land on their own with no human intervention. If that wasn’t tied up in patent nightmares, I wonder if pilots would still have jobs. I’m surprised that trains/subways are still operated by people at all; I would have expected them to be completely automated years ago. and looking to the more distant future (though still probably within my lifetime), suppose a human-level AI is created. There go the jobs of everyone who thinks for their living (software engineers, accountants, actuaries, etc). and if we ever put such an AI in a mobile body, there goes everyone’s jobs.

Even without a human-level AI, things will change in major ways. Once automation starts being applied in all the places it can be, the world’s job market will change drastically. Lots of occupations will no longer exist because they can be done more efficiently by machines than by people. and if nothing else changes before that happens, a lot of people will be out of jobs and in financial trouble. I hope we can find some way to head this crisis off before it happens, and either find new jobs for people or restructure the economy in such a way that all the out-of-work people aren’t destitute. I’ve been kicking around some ideas on these topics, but I haven’t come up with anything realistic yet. In particular, when a human-level AI is created, all of us will be out of work and all jobs will cease to exist. At that point, we really need to do something about the economy.

An idea for tuning new music

I’ve been reading about the history of musical tuning (which is way more interesting than it sounds; no pun intended, but please bear with me), and it recently occurred to me that these days, you can actually get all your notes in tune (which has not truly been possible at any point in history more than about 50 years ago). I can’t tell if this will make a significant difference in most music, but I think it would be interesting to try. Before I explain my idea in more detail, let me summarize the various tuning systems over the years, to give you the background of where this came from. Wikipedia, while not necessarily wrong here, is too incomprehensible to really read; I got a lot of information from this old temperament overview.

A history of tuning methods, followed by a new idea →

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The Singularity is Not Necessarily Near

For those of you not already familiar with him, let me start off by introducing the visionary futurist Ray Kurzweil. He’s done some amazing things, but I don’t think his whole Singularity thing is right. →

I am Mildred’s incorruptibility

I’ve recently had several fantastic experiences that, until I noticed them happening, I would never have imagined. They were absolutely thrilling:

It all started when I was watching some late night TV, alone and in the dark. Reruns of The Untouchables were on, and I was sipping my chamomile tea as Eliot Ness tried to track down the moonshiner passing off wood alcohol as real hooch. As he walked through the alleys, the steam floating up from the Chicago sewers and the steam from my tea mingled, the darkness of the alley and the darkness of my apartment blended together, and suddenly I was experiencing a TV show in a way I had never done before: I was right there, with the steam blowing in my face and the darkness encroaching in on my periphery, just like Ness!

A few weeks later, I’m reading a book. I don’t have a fireplace, so I’m curled up next to the oven instead (it’s surprisingly cozy when you open the door and prop your feet up on it). As it turns out, I’m rereading my favourite parts of Fahrenheit 451. I hold the book close and cherish every word as the amber glow of the methane flame licks my feet, and I say aloud, “play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out” (the line is spoken by a woman holding illegal books to her chest shortly before she is lit on fire, and alludes to an actual event in which a similar thing happened). Again, I suddenly realize that I am experiencing the book in an interactive way that I had never conceived before.

This evening, Rob, Dave, and I went to a midnight showing of Fight Club. I was a bit sleep deprived because I was up until 2:30 last night playing Munchkin at the office, and had to wake up pretty early this morning. So now, it’s 12:30 AM, I’m very tired, and am taking in a movie that discusses insomnia and passive consumerism. Again, I felt like I was participating in the movie, in a way I had never experienced before.

If you can notice when it happens, this sort of thing metamorphoses the media and synthesizes an interactive experience. The feeling I got from realizing this and relishing the moment was fantastic. I need to look for this more often!

‘Cable News Confidential’ talk

Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and author of Cable News Confidential, gave a talk at work earlier this week.

A summary of the talk →

An idea for a video game

Take a classic game that makes heavy use of a simple physics engine (such as Asteroids), and add in general relativity to the physics engine (and set the speed of light so that the game has very noticeable relativistic effects). For the Asteroids example, asteroids traveling at high speeds relative to you would exhibit Lorenz contraction, asteroids coming towards you would be bluish and those going away would be reddish, firing your gun would propel you backwards a little, etc. I’m not sure if accelerating would have different behavior than in the usual version (sure, the asteroids would age faster, but that wouldn’t be noticeable in-game). Stuff displayed on the screen would be what the spaceship pilot would perceive “now.” I suspect it would be an interesting twist on a classic game, and give people a better intuition for relativity (assuming people like it and play it a bunch). I can’t find such a game already created on the internet, but I haven’t looked too hard.

Any thoughts?

Like tech talks, but without the tech

Google has several series of talks that are always going on. I think of them all as tech talks because that was the series I was first introduced to. However, they’re apparently quite separate. Google periodically has authors come in to give talks about their books, and these are called the Authors@Google series. I’ve gotten to see Scott Ritter (former UN weapons inspector in Iraq) speak live, and I’ve gotten live video feeds of news reporter Tom Brokaw, Steve Wozniak (cofounder of Apple Computers), Ken Jennings (the Jeopardy dude), and Dr. Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel prizewinning economist) speaking. It turns out many of these are on Google Video as well! Some of the ones that have caught my interest (but I haven’t watched them yet): graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, Dr. James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA), and Dr. Jane Goodall (the chimpanzee lady).

TED – the conference on Technology, Entertainment, and Design

I’ve just found out about an incredible conference called TED, which apparently puts lots of its talks on Google Video (and they’re surprisingly concise—about 20 minutes each). It seems to be just a collection of brilliant people with ideas that can change the world, talking about their stuff. and whether or not I agree with their premise, I find the talks fascinating. Here are a few of them:

  • Hans Rosling shows a way to represent data collected from different countries to see how the world changes
  • Richard Baraniuk discusses ways to make education cheaper and available to more people (assuming they are literate and have internet access, so there’s a bit of a barrier at the beginning)
  • Jeff Han shows off an incredible touch-screen interface
  • Aubrey de Grey, creator of the Methuselah Mouse Prize, gives his thoughts on how to greatly extend life expectancy (a bit Kurzweilian, but interesting nonetheless).
  • Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and evangelical atheist, discusses how we view the world and how this would change if we had different senses or were a different size.

It seems like going to TED would be a really neat experience, except that admission is $4400. I’ll have to settle for the videos, I suppose.

Two talks

Yesterday, I got to see a live video feed of Steve Wozniak talking about his youth and how he cofounded Apple Computers. A summary of the talk →