On the Humanist discussion list John Keating recommended the short video Slaughterbots that presents a plausible scenario where autonomous drones are used to target dissent using social media data. Watch it! It is well done and presents real issues in a credible short video.

While the short is really about autonomous weapons and the need to ban them, I note that one of ideas included is that dissent could be silenced by using social media to target people. The scenario imagines that university students who shared a dissenting video on social media have their data harvested (including images of their faces) and the drones target them using face recognition. Science fiction, but suggestive of how social media presence can be used for control.

Continue reading Slaughterbots

Of Course Citizens Should Be Allowed to Kick Robots | WIRED

Seen in the wild, robots often appear cute and nonthreatening. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hostile.

Wired magazine has a nice short piece that suggests, Of Course Citizens Should Be Allowed to Kick Robots. In some ways the point of the essay is not how to treat robots, but whether we should tolerate these surveillance robots on our sidewalks.

Blanket no-punching policies are useless in a world full of terrible people with even worse ideas. That’s even more true in a world where robots now do those people’s bidding. Robots, like people, are not all the same. While K5 can’t threaten bodily harm, the data it collects can cause real problems, and the social position it puts us all in—ever suspicious, ever watched, ever worried about what might be seen—is just as scary. At the very least, it’s a relationship we should question, not blithely accept as K5 rolls by.

The question, “Is it OK to kick a robot?” is a good one that nicely brings the ethics of human-robot co-existence down to earth and onto our side walks. What sort of respect do the proliferation of robots and scooters deserve? How should we treat these stupid things when enter our everyday spaces?

The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence – The New York Times

It’s not robot overlords. It’s economic inequality and a new global order.

Kai-Fu Lee has written a short and smart speculation on the effects of AI, The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence . To summarize his argument:

  • AI is not going to take over the world the way the sci-fi stories have it.
  • The effect will be on tasks as AI takes over tasks that people are paid to do, putting them out of work.
  • How then will we deal with the unemployed? (This is a question people asked in the 1960s when the first wave computerization threatened massive unemployment.)
  • One solution is “Keynesian policies of increased government spending” paid for taxing the companies made wealthy by AI. This spending would pay for “service jobs of love” where people act as the “human interface” to all sorts of services.
  • Those in the jobs that can’t be automated and that make lots of money might also scale back on their time at work so as to provide more jobs of this sort.

Continue reading The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence – The New York Times

LOTRProject: Visualizing the Lord of the Rings


Emil Johansson, a student in Gothenburg, has created a fabulous site called the LOTRProject (or Lord Of The Rings Project. The site provides different types of visualizations about Tolkien’s world (Silmarillion, Hobbit, and LOTR) from maps to family trees to character mentions (see image above).

Continue reading LOTRProject: Visualizing the Lord of the Rings

Cybergeddon: Why the Internet could be the next “failed state”

Ars Technica has a good article on Cybergeddon: Why the Internet could be the next “failed state”. The article all the ways the internet is being abused (from porn to the theft of information.) The article starts by reminding us of all the abuse on the internet from revenge porn to the theft of personal information. It then summarizes a paper by Jason Healey, The Five Futures of Cyber Conflict and Cooperation that outlines five possible cyber futures from the unlikely Paradise to Status Quo, Domain (where cyberspace is a domain like any other for conflict), Balkanization, and Cybergeddon.

One wonders what the futures for cyberspace for the academy are. Here are my speculative futures:

  • Balkanization: universities create their own internets (intranets?) to keep out the great unwashed. Alumnae get to keep their university email addresses if they behave. The elite universities (like the University of Alberta) then create a ivory tower subnet where only the important hang.
  • Cybergeddon: trolls drive academics off the internet as we are all Social Justice Warriors who should be doxxed, swatted, and watched. Risk management takes over and academics are not allowed on the internet without grant-funded insurance.
  • Paradise: universities finally succeed is teaching ethics reliably and the world is made a better place. Philosopher rulers are put in charge. The internet becomes the nice safe place it was originally. Microsoft goes out of business, but wills Bob to the internet to be its AI policeperson.

IEEE Spectrum: Ray Kurzweil’s Slippery Futurism

From Slashdot I was led to a great critique of Kurzweil’s futurism, see the IEEE Spectrum: Ray Kurzweil’s Slippery Futurism. I’ve tried to tackle Kurzweil in previous posts here (on Singularity University), but never quite nailed his form of prediction the way John Rennie does.

Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.

Pontypool Changes Everything


Back to Pontypool, the semiotic zombie movie that has infected me. The image above is of the poster for the missing cat Honey that seems to have something to do with the start of the semiotic infection. The movie starts with Grant Mazzy’s voice over the radio talking about,

Mrs French’s cat is missing. The signs are posted all over town. Have you seen Honey? Well, we have all seen the posters, but nobody has seen Honey the cat. Nobody, until last Thursday morning when Miss Collettepiscine … (drove off the bridge to avoid the cat)

He goes on to pun on “Pontypool” (the name of the town the movie takes place in), Miss Collettepiscine’s name (French for “panty-pool”), and the local name of the bridge she drove off. He keeps repeating variations of Pontypool a hint at the language virus to come.

As for the language virus, I replayed parts of the movie where they talk about it. At about 58 minutes in they hear the character Ken clearly get infected and begin to repeat himself as they talk on the cellphone. Dr. Mendez concludes, “That’s it, he is gone. He is just a crude radio signal, seeking.” A little later Mendez gets it and proposes,

Mendez: No … it can’t be, it can’t be. It’s viral, that much is clear. But not of the blood, not of the air, not on or even in our bodies. It is here.

Grant: Where?

Mendez: It is in words. Not all words, not all speaking, but in some. Some words are infected. And it spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken. Ohhhh. We are witnessing the emergence of a new arrangement for life … and our language is its host. It could have sprung spontaneously out of a perception. If it found its way into language it could leap into reality itself, changing everything. It may be boundless. It may be a God bug.

Grant: OK, Dr. Mendez. Look, I don’t even believe in UFOs, so I … I’ve got to stop you there with that God bug thing.

Mendez: Well that is very sensible because UFOs don’t exist. But I assure you, there is a monster loose and it is bouncing through our language, frantically trying to keep its host alive.

Grant: Is this transmission itself … um …

Mendez: No, no, no, no. If the bug enters us, it does not enter by making contact with our eardrum. It enters us when we hear the word and we understand it. Understand?

It is when the word is understood that the virus takes hold. And it copies itself in our understanding.

Grant: Should we be … talking about this?

Sydney: What are we talking about?

Grant: Should we be talking at all?

Mendez: Well, to be safe, no, probably not. Talking is risky, and well, talk radio is high risk. And so … we should stop.

Grant: But, we need to tell people about this. People need to know. We have to get this out.

Mendez: Well it’s your call Mr Mazzy. But let’s just hope that your getting out there doesn’t destroy your world.

As one thoughtful review essay points out, Pontypool is not the first to play with the meme of information viruses that can infect us. Snow Crash, the Stephenson novel which features a language-virus, even appears in the movie.

Pontypool itself is infectious, morphing from form to form. Sequels are threatened. The book, Pontypool Changes Everything, which starts with a character who keeps Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his, led to the movie which led to the radio play which was created by re-editing the movie audio (and it apparently has a different ending with “paper”.)

MK12: Quantum of Solace Interface

Screen Shot

I just blogged about the interface ideas in Stranger than Fiction from MK12. Turns out they were behind the interface for MI5 in the latest James Bond – see UI’s from Movies – Quantum of Solace and see the response from MK12. For images from the movie see NUI Group: Quantom of Solace images.

Monty Norman and the James Bond theme song

A couple months ago I stumbled on an intriguing connection. Monty Norman who is credited with the theme song for James Bond apparently adapted it from the score for Bad Sign, Good Sign, a tune that he had written for an ill-fated stage version of Naipal’s “A House for Mr Biswas.” See Monty Norman – The first man of James Bond music. That the James Bond theme song turns out to be based on a song meant to be sung by Mr Biswas is some sort of post-colonial irony.

Here are the lyrics to Bad Sign, Good Sign start,

I-I was born with this unlu-ucky sneeze and what is wo-orse I came into the the wo-orld the wrong way round. Pundits all agree that I-I’m the reason why…

Journal of Virtual Worlds Research

Stan pointed me to the inaugural issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research which has a number of fine articles.

  • “Cityspace, Cyberspace, and the Spatiology of Information” by Michael L. Benedikt is a reprint of a classic paper where he argues that,

    If we wish to reach deeply into the “nature” of “space itself” then, I believe we must allow into it, as it were, a substance of some sort: not the æther of nineteenth-century science perhaps, but a registering, tracing, questioning, remembering substance, spread as thinly as we can imagine, but present nonetheless, and definitive of here versus there because of how it pools, how it vibrates, how it scatters difference, différance. (p. 2)

    That substance is information. As he puts it later, “ultimately, the space in information and the information in space are one.” (p. 15)

  • “Toward a Definition of ‘Virtual Worlds'” by Mark W Bell is a short “Think Piece” defining “virtual worlds” as “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.” (p. 2)

These two pieces make an interesting contrast since Benedikt focuses on space and Bell manages to define virtual worlds without any reference to space. Benedikt calls for architects to engage in the design of virtual spaces while Bell focuses on the network of avatars – or the people within the space (and persistent time.)

Ever since the Gartner press release saying that “80 Percent of Active Internet Users Will Have A “Second Life” in the Virtual World by the End of 2011″ there has been a renewed interest in virtual worlds. My sense is that the 1990s interest in virtual reality was overblown and ultimately wrong in that people predicted we would be manipulating information inside virtual worlds with VR interfaces, data-gloves, headsets and so on. What has emerged instead is the proliferation of massive multiplayer online environments from games like World of Warcraft to social/creative spaces like Second Life. The headsets and torture apparatus of Lawnmower Man are gone, thank you!

Image of Book CoverSo … what is next? I’ve just finished Halting State by Charles Stross which is a near-future detective story set in Edinburgh where players can move their avatars from game to game in the Zone (something actually proposed by Linden Labs and IBM – see Lohr Free the Avatars – this reference is from the Messinger, Stroulia and Lyons article “A Typology of Virtual Worlds” in the JCWR.) What is more interesting is the way Stross imagines the overlay of virtual and real worlds. Everyone, including cops, wear glasses that provide augmented reality views on the world they walk through, including the ability to see people in their in-game avatar representation while, for example, at a trade fair. Stross does a imaginative job or weaving the virtual into everyday life. (If you like this book you should also read Accelerando – a great accelerating run through the artificial life as it leaves meat behind.)