Poptech 2002
Ernest Svenson's blog reports from the conference in Camden, Maine
Sunday, October 20, 2002

PopTech is about over - Bob Metcalf is summing up what was said by each of the speakers.  After it's over Buzz Bruggeman is going to give me lift to Portland and I am going to pray that I can find a television set that will carry the Saints game.  I had a really great time and lived in constant awe of the many highly intelligent and interesting people who flocked to this conference.  Hopefully, I can come back next year. 
11:03:55 AM    comment []

Stephen Wolfram's explanation of the rules of reality - Wolfram has written a weighty tome in order to argue that all of the complexity that we see in nature is really the result of a few simple rules. In the spirit of trying keep things simple I will distill his whole presentation down to a simple story.  Remember the "big bang" theory?  Well, what's happening is really God running a deific version of WinZip Pro.  And that's it. 

10:04:53 AM    comment []

Beware of "the jaggies" - Vernor Vinge is talking about the far reaches of artificial worlds.  He is a science fiction writer so he is conversant with a bunch of really far out scientific theories.  First, Vinge discussed his interest in the concept of singularity, defined as watershed moment like the event horizon of a black hole.  Vinge explored the idea that human development will soon hit a point where the race will radically evolve.  And for us to understand what is coming next is analogous to an animal like the goldfish trying to understand what human experience is like.  So, if this singularity is coming soon you don't want to be left behind.  But if you are left behind, take comfort.  You won't know.

So even though it's hard to predict what it will be like after the watershed moment we can do some organized imagination stuff and fast forward [fill in radical theories here] to the assumption that really smart humans will like to run simulations as a playful hobby.  Hey, you can't do deep thinking all the time.  Anyway, the point is: what if our current life experiences are really just the computer simulations of higher beings who enjoying a few millenia of leisure time?  Well, this would be big news to us even if we are basically as self-aware as goldfish.  How would we know this is all a computer simulation? 

Vinge examined the podium and said perhaps we should look for "the jaggies."  But that's what a goldfish would do.  We need to look somewhere else.  Maybe the strange stuff that we see in quantum physics is really "the jaggies."  Notice how things change at the quantum level when there is an observer in the picture.  Why is that?  Well, at the moment you add an observer to the simulation that increases the computational load and you get an anomolous shimmer.  That's "the jaggies."  From the standpoint of a goldfish.

Alexander Shulgin took the stage next.  He invented the drug Ecstasy and freely admits he is interested in the development of other psychedelics, and in trying them out.  He was very non-linear in his presentation, but quite entertaining.  He is obviously a pioneer in the quest to uncover "the jaggies."  And the government, and other law enforcement officials, apparently are very concerned about people who use chemicals in this quest.   I didn't see any DEA agents in the audience and I know that they weren't any here because if there were they would have gone into convulsions during Shulgin's talk.

8:29:01 AM    comment []

Tell me a story and play me a song - tonight Jaron Lanier was supposed to discuss "A Musical Experience with Virtual Reality."  The titles of a lot of these programs are often irrelevant to what actually gets discussed, and that was especially true of Jaron's "talk."   He played an acoustic piano, and some weird instruments that came from China and other places.  His music was not mainstream.  Very improvisational, and often somewhat dissonant.  I'm sure a lot of people didn't like listening to it. 

But before he played the music he talked about some of his ideas, including how Alan Turing's homosexuality, which the British government tried to "cure him of," may have affected the development of the Turing test.  Jaron also weaved in a discussion of the amazing computational capabilities of a marine creature known as "the cuddlefish."  Somehow the connection between Turing and the strange fish seemed to be legitimately sensible when Jaron was talking (In the interest of maintaining my journalistic integrity, I admit to having a couple of drinks before the program).  Still, I think everyone would agree that Jaron is a strange and wildly intelligent guy.  What I found endearing about him (even though he seems to enjoy having lots of people pay attention to him) is that he didn't feel like he needed to support his radical ideas with "respectable and accepted sources." 

He basically admitted up front that his views were just "stories."  Of course, as a great philosopher once wrote about the Internet, "The Web...reminds us that the fundamental unit of time isn't a moment, it's a story..."  Jaron Lanier's talk (and his music for that matter) may have contained some dissonance and some unexpected transitions but I found myself more motivated to accept his ideas than some of the other speakers whose presentations were geometrically more coherent.  Why?  Well, usually when academics market their ideas they feel compelled to call them "theories."  I guess I'm a simple guy.  I like stories, even if they're kind of kooky.    Then again, maybe I had too much to drink at dinner.

12:14:21 AM    comment []

Saturday, October 19, 2002

Total Immersion in Virtual Reality and Virtual Worlds - this afternoon's program features Jordan Pollack and Bruce Damer, and apparently it's show and tell time.  Pollack shows us a gangly robot that was evolved from software trying to create something.   Damer showed us a virtual world program with weird heads that were actually controlled by real people.  I lack the skills to even attempt to explain what is happening during this session.  

1:31:44 PM    comment []

The Invisible Society: the world of gamers - Dan Gillmor is the moderator of the session on gaming. He opens with a funny line (if you read the previous post about the guy from Pixar): "Forgive me, I'm a bit out of sorts this morning.  I'm only operating at about 50,000 polygons."  Dan apparently is adapting the "Everything I know I learned in Kindergarten" model to gaming.  He says everything he needs to know he learned from gaming.  Such as: if you see food on the floor pick it up and eat it; if you smash some things they have cool and useful stuff inside; if something moves, shoot it.  Later, he remembers another important point: you can run out of hand-grenades, but you can never run out of bullets.

The speakers are Warren Spector and Amy Jo Kim.  Spector is first up to talk about single-person games, which he is committed to develop despite the surging popularity of multi-player games.

Warren Spector - talking about single player games.  Makes single player games, and has created 14 titles.  Doesn't understand the fascination with multi-player games.  Criticism of gaming is that it is passive and doesn't help the user. Not true. The gamer is not some zoned-out teen in his bedroom.  Lots of different types of people game.  People say gaming stifles learning.  Not true.  Gaming can be a useful learning experience.  Success in gaming requires thinking, planning, acting and reacting. 

Let's talk about the process of making games.  He too echoes the idea that creating virtual worlds is expensive and hard.  His last game cost $5 million, and next one will cost more.  The technology needed to create the game world is intricate.  Since we are talking about polygons he uses that metric.  He says game reality starts at a much lower threshold than what Pixar requires (80 million polys).  Says his dream is 300,000 polys, and (looking at Dan Gillmor) says "I would kill for 50,000 polys."  Audience laughs.  Then he adds: "I'm a gamer and I know how to kill."  More laughter.

9:46:51 AM    comment []

Real Music, Imaginary Sights - Noel Paul Stookey and Alvy Ray Smith are up this morning.  I hadn't heard of Noel Paul Stookey (apparently he is the "Paul" of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, and the song Puff the Magic Dragon, and no it isn't about drugs), but he was great!  I can't convey why he was great except to say that he played his guitar, improvised across a few technical difficulties, read a poem that he wrote while affecting a New England accent, and basically had the audience of brainy cognosenti filled with an uplifting spirit of communal love.  Really!  I'm not kidding.  And he even had them singing along, doing the background vocals to one of his songs.

Alvy Ray Smith is talking now.  He's a principal figure at Pixar, the graphics company that creates the fantastic stuff in movies like Toy Story.  His first mission, oddly enough for a guy that creates fantasy at its highest and most believable level, is to debunk the Ray Kurzweil chronicles.  Smith makes fantasy for a living, so he's skeptical of Kurzweil's claims that we will all exponentially progress into a uptopian fantasy world where we will become software and go on to live forever.  Smith has his own mathematical models I suppose.  He says that reality begins at 80 million polygons (per frame).  His point is that creating fantasy requires a lot of computation and is hard work.  So maybe some of Kurzweil's projections are a little optimistic <grin>.

Q&A with these two guys reveals something worth considering.  Pixar creates artificial worlds to entertain us and it is hard work and requires a lot of polygons.  Noel Paul Stokey can create imaginary worlds with his spontaneous antics and childlike wonderment (you'd have to be here to fully understand, but just picture a 50+ year old bearded history professor who acts like Robin Williams).  Technology is great, but connecting with people using the tried and true technique of being down-to-earth is best.

8:39:47 AM    comment []

Friday, October 18, 2002

New Human Societies in Cyberspace

Howard Rheingold - If Kurzweil uses mathematical models, Rheingold is more like the gum-shoe.  He tries to predict and learn what's coming from what he observes on the street.  Spent the last 2 years chasing down clues about changes that cause virtual and real worlds to merge.  He was in Tokyo recently and started observing people using their phones to do SMS (we don't see this in the US much).  Then he was in Helsinki.  What's going on?  A lot of really interesting things.

Look at cooperation and collective action in the wake of the advent of the Internet.  How have humans gotten to the point of working together?  Traditionally,they have required direct knowing of the person that they are dealing with.  Napster and eBay show us large groups of people sharing and trusting each other (even though they have no face-to-face knowledge of the person that they are "trusting").  Napster is more than about "stealing music."  Large numbers of people were "sharing their hard-drives."

If you think of the phone as always-on connection to the Internet then you start to glimpse a vast change.  Stationary computing doesn't invade our life the way that a pervasive computer communication does.  Cost of access is one barrier to the always-on connection.  But the barrier is dropping.  Even people in Botswana ride their bikes in the street and talk on cell-phones now.  If you plug the PC into the telephone you get something more than you would ordinarily imagine.  People are doing things that they find interesting.  Posting pictures of their dogs, whatever.

Protests in Seattle (The "battle of Seattle").  The protesters used computers, cell-phones and E-mail to organize their protest.  Same sort of thing occurred in Manila with people using text-messages.  Around the world we observe people "flocking" and quickly organizing meetings, and they do so using technology.

Technology is often developed for one thing, but used for another.  The Internet was originally driven by E-mail, which was the predominate form of collective communication.  We are now seeing new forms of communication.  What forms?  Well, even Google is an example.  It evaluates relationships and categorizes them.   His new book Smart Mobs is out soon and covers all of this in more detail. 

Amy Bruckman - Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech.  Bruckman is interested in children, and learning, and how people connect.  Big things are happening generally. 

We see many-to-many eCommerce, online suppport groups, hobby sites, blogs. But how does the Internet affect education and kids? She works with kids and there is a project called Moose Crossing, which teaches kids as young as seven object-oriented programming.  They "get it" right away.  Adults are so slow.

She created the Palaver Tree Online project where kids interview elders and learn history.  They do it online, and it works better.  Why?  Well, in the original model people have to meet face-to-face and coordinate their schedules.  Meeting face-to-face is hard, and somewhat daunting for the elder.  The online model is asynchronous and is not as daunting. 

What was learned from the project?  Apparently, more than just the online model is easier on the schedule.  Like what?  Kids had a greater role in shaping their own information gathering and liked history more.  We haven't seen all the expressions of online communication.  There are new interaction models being created, and we have to understand them.  She is wary of predicting the future.  It isn't set and it's up to us to create it.

10:43:19 AM    comment []

Ray Kurzweil sings In the Year 2525 - Ray Kurzweil is known for his work with speech recognition, which he says took 15 years to do.  Now he studies tech trends and tries to predict evolution of technology.  Uses mathematical models,  which are surprisingly predictive.  What has he learned?  That that the paradigm shift rate is doubling every decade.  It is an exponential growth rate and we are just now at the knee of the growth curve.  So 100 years of progress will actually only take 25 years (self-replicating nano-technology won't take 100 years.  It will take 25 years).

The end-point of Moore's law is not the end of the growth rate of computing.  Three dimensional molecular computing will be the paradigm that will take over for the the integrated circuit.  Computers are just one thing.  Gene sequencing experienced expontial growth.  ISP cost performance.  All of these technologies have S-curves reflecting exponential growth.

Next up for exponential growth rates?  Resolution of non-invasive brain scanning.  The growth rate of E-Commerce, the Internet, and telecommunications is following the predicatable path.  Wall St. doesn't see this, but it is true.

Predictions:  2010 Computers disappear.  We have always on wireless access to the Internet at all times.  Images written directly into our retinas.  Electronics so tiny it's embedded in the environment, our clothing, our eye-glasses.

2029: An intimate merger of computers and our brains -  $1,000 of computation = 1,000 times the power of the human brain.  Reverse engineering of the human brain completed.  Computers pass the Turing test.  Nanobots let you auto-switch between real and virtual reality.  A computer stimulation test with one woman caused her to laugh and find humor when a certain spot was stimulated. Human brain is 12 million bytes of compressed information (less than Microsoft Word, but more complicated...well, maybe not).  Computers have the ability to quickly transmit information.  Software is easily copied, but human knowledge is currently hard to transmit.  That won't be the case in the near future.

The Challenge from Malthus "Exponential trends eventually run out of resources"  This is not necessarily true because new catalysts for exponential growth arise.  Human Life Expectancy is going to experience exponential growth.  So if you can just hang in there...Radical life extension will be available to our kids.  Soon on the market: Human body 2.0.

9:37:43 AM    comment []

PopTech Kicks Off- "Art is the lie that tells the truth," says the opening speaker (Tom DeMarco) and attributes the quote to Picasso.  This quote is to suggest that artifice can express truth in ways that the objective statement cannot.  Appropriate quote for the theme of the 2002 PopTech Program, which is Artificial Worlds.  First up?  Ray Kurzweil on Expanding Human Horizons.
8:09:38 AM    comment []

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

PopTech Starts on Friday at 9:00 am EDT.  For a list of the events click on the Program link over on the right.
7:54:11 PM    comment []

© 2003 Ernest Svenson
Last Update: 6/5/2003; 11:20:46 PM

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