Tag Archives: Web/Tech

Adapt Or Start Over?

Sean Carroll has doubts on nanotech:

Living organisms … can, in a wide variety of circumstances, repair themselves. … Which brings up something that has always worried me about nanotechnology … tiny machines that have been heroically constructed … just seem so darn fragile. … surely one has to worry about the little buggers breaking down. … So what you really want is microscopic machinery that is robust enough to repair itself. Fortunately, this problem has already been solved at least once: it’s called “life.” … This is why my utterly underinformed opinion is that the biggest advances will come not from nanotechnology, but from synthetic biology. (more)

There are four ways to deal with system damage: 1) reliability, 2) redundancy, 3) repair, and 4) replacement. Some designs are less prone to damage; with redundant parts all must fail for a system to fail; sometimes damage can be undone; and the faster a system is replaced the less robust it needs to be. Both artificial and natural systems use all four approaches. Artificial systems often have especially reliable parts, and so rely less on repair. And since they can coordinate better with outside systems, when they do repair they rely more on outside assistance – they have less need for self-repair. So I don’t see artificial systems as failing especially at self-repair.

Nevertheless, Carroll’s basic concern has merit. It can be hard for new approaches to compete with complex tightly integrated approaches that have been adapted over a long time. We humans have succeeded in displacing natural systems with artificial systems in many situations, but in other cases we do better to inherit and adapt natural systems than to try to redesign from scratch. For example, if you hear a song you like, it usually makes more sense to just copy it, and perhaps adapt it to your preferred instruments or style, than to design a whole new song like it.  I’ve argued that we are not up to the task of designing cities from scratch, and that the first human-level artificial intelligences will use better parts but mostly copy structure from biological brains.

So what determines when we can successfully redesign from scratch, and when we are better off copying and adapting existing systems? Redesign makes more sense when we have access to far better parts, and when system designs are relatively simple, making system architecture especially important, especially if we can design better architecture. In contrast, it makes more sense to inherit and adapt existing systems when a few key architectural choices matter less, compared to system “content” (i.e., all the rest). As with songs, cities, and minds. I don’t have a strong opinion about which case applies best for nanotech.

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Will We Ban Tone Readers?

Humans communicate through many channels, including words, tone of voice, body position, facial expressions, etc. An “innocent” view is that these channels say similar compatible things; added channels mainly help us to say more things faster. A “hypocrisy” view, however, is that we say more socially-acceptable things via words, which can be more easily quoted, and via other channels we more say things we’d rather were not quoted, things often in conflict with our words.

These contrasting views suggest differing predictions about how we will react to new rapidly-improving techs for reading face/body/voice tones. Such techs watch and listen to the people around us, and tell us explicitly what their face/body/voice tones are saying. (Quotes from an article on such tech below.)

The innocent view suggests that we will welcome such techs as ways to help us read each other more clearly, helping especially those handicapped in reading such signals. The hypocrisy view, in contrast, suggests that we will resist and regulate such tech, to preserve familiar capacities for and habits of hypocrisy.

Many familiar regulations can be seen as attempts to preserve our habits of hypocrisy. For example, audio recording techs threatened to make our words reliably quotable, and our tone of voice as well, making it harder to say different things in private than we say in public. So we prohibited recording people’s voice without their permission. Similarly, new techs allowing cheap video recording of police activities threaten to expose deviations between how police often behave and how we say they are supposed to behave. So we are starting to ban them .(We may have police internal affairs groups report to police chiefs for similar reasons.)

Older examples are laws against blackmail and gambling, and our reluctance to enforce most long term promises. Blackmail threatens to punish and thus discourage activities we like, even though we denounce them, and challenges to bet show that we like to say things we don’t believe enough to support with a bet. Most long term promises are based on ideals we espouse but don’t actually want to act on.

I lean toward the hypocrisy view of human communication. Thus I suspect expression readers will be widely banned, especially recording or publishing their outputs, as an “invasion of privacy.” Though we may make sure the wording and/or enforcement of such laws is weak enough to allow their common use on ordinary people by firms and governments.

Anyone disagree? What odds will you give?

That article on expression reader tech: Continue reading "Will We Ban Tone Readers?" »

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Against Voter Foresight

No tech is created unless someone imagines it. But how many imagine it, and for how long? Some techs are heralded decades in advance, with wide public discussion on possible implications. Other techs are only imagined by a few folks just before they are introduced. You might think it obvious that humanity does better when techs are imagined and widely discussed well ahead of time, but I have my doubts.

A good indicator that you think someone is rather irrational on topic is: you are reluctant to give them more info on it. When someone’s thoughts are especially messed up, you may well think they’d be better of not knowing more about it. They “can’t handle the truth”, you think. For example, if someone were especially irrational regarding an ex-lover, you might prefer they not hear any news about this ex-lover. Out of sight, out of mind, is what you’d be hoping for.

Unfortuately, my best guess is that public opinion is this messed up regarding techs that won’t appear for decades. Typically, when a public debate begins decades in advance of a potential new tech, it becomes a far-minded symbolic battle ground, where folks express grand positions on family values, materialism, inequality, nationalism, etc. The net effect is usually to inhibit the useful application of such techs. In contrast, when a tech appears mostly out of the blue, people tend to focus on whether they’d actually like to use it now.

For example, the pill and the web were both largely unheralded, and were thus quickly adopted and integrated into our lives. But if folks had seen thirty years in advance how the pill would change sexual practices, or how easily folks would give up privacy for web access, such techs might have been blocked or more heavily regulated, to our detriment.

IVF, genetic engineering, and nanotech, in contrast, were hotly debated well in advance of their feasibility. Such debates often were framed symbolically in ways quite at odds from typical practical application.

Yes new techs can introduce market failures, and yes with foresight and warning a rational public could mitigate such failures, to its overall benefit. But the biggest market failure regarding new techs is insufficient incentives to develop them. It can be good to have potential-developers envision techs ahead of time, so that they are inspired to do such developing. But wider awareness and concern tends to be hijacked into far symbolic land, where it mostly just gets in the way.

Alas this suggests that I should try not to make my speculations about the social implications of future tech too accessible to a wider audience. The chance of inspiring potential devleopers must be weighed against the chance of scaring everyone else.  Decisions markets about how to deal with potential future techs might allow us to better anticipate and prepare for such techs, because greedy contributors would be in a more realistic near mode.  But without such markets, I should watch what I say.

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The Future Is Bright

Three observations just came together in my mind.

1. LED light is in IEEE Spectrum’s top 11 techs of the decade:

With every decade since 1970, when the red LEDs hit their stride, they have gotten 20 times as bright and 90 percent cheaper per watt. … Even now, white LEDs are competitive wherever replacing a burned-out lamp is inconvenient, such as in the high ceilings and twisty staircases of Buckingham Palace, because LEDs last 25 times as long as Edison’s bulbs. They have a 150 percent edge in longevity over compact fluorescent lights, and unlike CFLs, LEDs contain no toxic mercury. (more)

2. When something gets cheaper, we use more of it:

The Jevons paradox … is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase the rate of consumption of that resource. … [It] has been used to argue that energy conservation is futile, as increased efficiency may actually increase fuel use. (more; see also)

3. More light makes most nice things look better:

Yesterday, when filming an upcoming TV show in an ordinary home, I noticed how much extra light they added to the room, even in daytime in a room with lots of windows, and how much better that made it all look to me.  The host explained how common this was, and that to make actors look good in a scene that viewers are suppose to see as dim, they actually use use extra dark materials for everything else in the scene.

I predict that over the next few decades, as lighting gets lots cheaper, we will make our indoor worlds a lot brighter.  This will start with “studio quality lighting” for high end homes, and then percolate to the rest of our spaces. You probably don’t notice just how much our indoor areas vary in their lighting:

Full, unobstructed sunlight has an intensity of approximately 10,000 fc [footcandles]. An overcast day will produce an intensity of around 1,000 fc. The intensity of light near a window can range from 100 to 5,000 fc, depending on the orientation of the window, time of year and latitude. (more)

The Illuminating Engineering Society … guidelines extend from lighting a public area using 2 fc to 5 fc level, to lighting special visual task areas of extremely low contrast and small size using 1,000 fc to 2,000 fc. The recommendations consider factors like occupant age, room surface reflectance, and background reflectance. (more)

At 60 years old, we need two to three times the light we needed at age 20, and also more shielding and diffusers since older eyes are more sensitive to glare. (more)

Added 11:30a: Eli points us to the August Economist:

Assuming that, by 2030, solid-state lights will be about three times more efficient than fluorescent ones and that the price of electricity stays the same in real terms, the number of megalumen-hours consumed by the average person will, according to their model, rise tenfold. … When gas lights replaced candles and oil lamps in the 19th century, some newspapers reported that they were “glaring” and “dazzling white”. In fact, a gas jet of the time gave off about as much light as a 25 watt incandescent bulb does today. To modern eyes, that is well on the dim side. (more)

Added 1:30p: More energy efficient windows also leads to more bigger windows and so more light.

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Get Eggs Froze

A few years back I endorsed an unfairly-neglected tech to extend life: cryonics.  Yesterday, Amara Graps reminded me of a related unfairly-neglected fertility-promoting tech: egg freezing. Slate in March:

In 2004, the fertility field’s professional organization, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), declared egg freezing “experimental.” … In an unprecedented paper calling for the removal of the experimental label, three of the world’s most prominent researchers in egg freezing claim the technology has vastly improved and is safe: Frozen-egg babies, so far, have no more health problems than the rest of the population. Doctors who support the experimental classification argue that more research is needed and say they’re still uneasy offering the technology to vulnerable women who might unwisely be counting on their frozen eggs years after extraction. … Egg freezing … has been unfairly singled out. By comparison, the adoption processes of other breakthroughs in fertility medicine, such as freezing embryos, injecting sperm into eggs to help men with low sperm count, or screening embryos for abnormalities, have been more informal. … The ASRM did not assign them the term ‘experimental.’ “

In fact, egg freezing received such an outsized institutional smackdown that the ASRM pointedly said it “should not be marketed or offered as a means to defer reproductive aging.” Why the special treatment? Many members … feared women would use egg freezing as “baby insurance” by paying $8,000 to $13,000 per cycle to stash away some good eggs in case their fertility is gone by the time they’re ready to become mothers. …

Many IVF programs are achieving the same success rates using frozen eggs as they normally would with fresh eggs. … Other practitioners have less stellar results. Many have no data at all because they’ve never thawed the eggs they’ve frozen. Although 54 percent of American clinics now offer the procedure, only 1,500 babies have been created from frozen eggs in the world. … With more competition, professional standards would rise and the price might even go down.

Seems docs discourage freezing eggs because they fear people might find, horrors, that it works and adds value. Gee we wouldn’t want people using something that might save the world from a falling fertility collapse!  Sigh. Yes, let’s encourage this, and get usage up and costs down.

Let’s not forget at a big cause of falling fertility is women thinking they can wait longer than they can to have kids. Here’s Bryan citing a 2001 survey:

In the survey, “high-achieving women” are basically those in the top 10% of the distribution of female income. … Survey highlights:

  • 33% of high-achievers … are childless at age 40.
  • “Looking back to their early twenties… only 14 percent said they definitely had not wanted children. … More than a quarter … in the 41-55-year-old age bracket said they would still like to have children”
  • Only 1% … had a first child after 39.
  • 89% of young high-achieving women believe they can get pregnant into their 40s. In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization.

For more quotes, here is Nature in 2007: Continue reading "Get Eggs Froze" »

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What Tech Wants

Kevin Kelly’s new book What Technology Wants quotes the Unabomber at length:

I have read almost every book on the philosophy and theory of technology and interviewed many of the wisest people pondering the nature of this force. So I was utterly dismayed to discover that one of the most astute analyses of the technium was written by a mentally ill mass murderer and terrorist. What to do? A few friends and colleagues counseled me not to even mention the Unabomber in this book. Some are deeply upset that I have.

I quote at length from the Unabomber’s manifesto for three reasons. First, it succinctly states, often better than I can, the case for autonomy in the technium. Second, I have not found a better example of the view held by many skpetics of technology that the greatest problems in the world are due not to individual inventions but to the entire self-supporting system of technology itself. [p.199]

While Kelly agrees a lot with the Unabomber, he disagrees here:

The final problem with destroying civilization as we know it is that … the collapse of civilization would destroy billions [of lives]. … The paradise that Kaczynski is offering … is the tiny, smoky, dingy, smelly, wooden shack that aboslutely nobody else wants to dwell in. It is a “paradise” billions are fleeing from. …

The Unabomber is right that the selfish nature of this system causes specific harms. Certain aspects of the technium are detrimental to the human self, because they defuse our identity. The technium also contains power to harm itself; because it is no longer regulated by either nature of humans, it could accelerate so fast as to extinguish itself. Finally, the technium can harm nature if not redirected.

But despite the reality of technology’s faults, the Unabomber is wrong to want to exterminate it … [because] the machine of civilization offers use more actual freedoms than the alternative. A lot of people don’t believe this. … They point to the vices that I cannot deny. We seem to be less content, less wise, less happy the “more” we have. …

That leaves one remaining theory: We willingly choose technology with its great defects and obvious detriments, becasuse we unconsciously calculate its virtues. … After we’ve weighted downsides and upsides in the balance of our experience, we find that technology offers a greater benefit, but not by much. [pp.211-15]

I applaud Kelly’s honesty, but he fails to address two key objections. First, Kelly didn’t consider coordination failures, where actions we each take for personal benefit add up to a net harm. For example, if everyone in an auditorium stands up to better see the stage, they can all be worse off than if they all sat. Air pollution is an related example. But I expect Kelly knows about this and would just say that on the whole such harms have been overwhelmed by other gains. And I’d agree.

A second issue that I’m less confident Kelly understands is that the net benefits of tech he sees result mainly from rising per-person wealth, and only indirectly from improving tech. Better tech has only consistently caused more per-person wealth in the last few hundred years, when wealth has grown faster than population comfortably could. This a local, not a global, feature of tech.

For example, the new techs that enabled farming seem to have reduced per-person wealth and prosperity; farming populations easily grew fast enough to keep with with the thousand year time to double farming wealth. Starting within a million years in the future, and continuing on for trillions of years, it seems clear that economic growth rates must become far lower than feasible population growth rates. And with a century or so from today, a new tech enabling rapid population growth, whole brain emulations, may drastically reduce per-person wealth.

For me, our tech-induced future will be good not so much because individuals will be better off, but because it will support a vastly larger population, big enough to balance any plausible reduction in per person wealth or happiness. And honestly, even if we wanted to, we have very little chance anytime soon of derailing the great tech locomotive we ride, short of killing us all.

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The Auto-Auto Race

Cities are a central engine of the modern economy. Enormous gains come from folks interacting and specializing more in bigger cities. What limits these gains, and keeps us from all living in one mega-city, is transportation costs. While the cost of transporting goods and people once mattered similarly, today people transport costs dominate. And while hopes for mass-transit remain, cars clearly dominate human transport today. Thus the near-term future of cities, and of which cities dominate the world, comes down to how cities handle auto innovation. I see three main innovations to consider:

  • Mass Mass Transit – If a big city could coordinate to create subways, etc. on the scale and quality of New York, it could support densities like New York. The level of investment and coordination required to pull this off, however, seems well beyond what any known city can muster.  New York only achieved it accidentally (a dotcom-like boom in private subway building).
  • Congestion Pricing – Pricing road usage to discourage overuse at peak times offers real gains, by encouraging off-peak work schedules. But these gains are limited by the large coordination gains we achive by having similar work and leisure schedules. This is also up against strong public opinion that roads should be free. A few cities like Singapore, Stockholm, and London have managed limited moves in this direction. I’d guess long run efficiency gains here are somewhere near 5-20%; important, but not revolutionary.
  • Automated Driving – In the last month Google told the world it has developed computer driving tech that is basically within reach of doubling (or more) the capacity of a road lane to pass cars. Pundits don’t seem to realize just how big a deal this is – it could let cities be roughly twice as big, all else equal. The main problems here are not technical but legal (& political) – first to not excessively punish tech sellers for related car accidents, and second to sufficiently reward car owners for their contribution to reducing congestion. Achieving these will require great coordination, more than for congestion pricing, but much less than for mass mass transit.

So a huge upcoming policy question is: when will what big cities manage to coordinate to change road law to achieve these huge auto-auto economic gains? Thirty years from now we may look back and lament that big city politics was so broken that no big cities could manage it. Or perhaps history will celebrate how the first big city to do it dramatically increased its importance on the world scene.

Some related quotes: Continue reading "The Auto-Auto Race" »

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Who Should Get A Life?

A common complaint about nerds is that they should “get a life.” For example, parents, teachers, etc. feel quite justifying in tsk-tsking hackers who spend most of their hours in front of a computer screen. Interestingly, we don’t feel much inclined to complain about athletes who are similarly focused. Alex quotes Wallace ’95:

It’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. … The actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them. … Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce.

This seems to me yet another example of people picking on nerds more because nerds are widely disliked.

Added 11a: Many suggest that “get a life” means “get popular, high status.”  OK, I can buy that.

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Why Not Friend Match?

Bryan Caplan recently pointed out to a few of us that while many dating web sites offer to help you find matching romantic mates, there are far fewer friend finding helpers.  We tend to collect friends informally, by liking the people we meet for other reasons, and especially friends of friends. But for mating purposes we are more willing to choose folks based on a list of their interests, an intro paragraph, a picture, etc.  Why the difference?

The explanation that occurs to me is:  We need mates more for their simple surface features, while we need friends more to serve as social allies in our existing social network.  Since we need friends in substantial part to serve as allies in our social world, supporting us against opposing coalitions, it makes sense to draw our friends from our existing social world.  And since we need mates more for their personal quality, e.g., good genes, youth, wealth, smarts, mood, etc., it makes sense to pick them more via such features.

Now if the personal qualities we sought in mates were difficult to discern and describe, dating web sites wouldn’t be very useful; we’d more want to rely on personal experience and on folks who know us well recommending others who they thought would match us well.  And we do like to think that our mate (and friend) preferences are complex and subtle, not easily captured in a few match website entries. But in fact, I suspect, the truth is that we are more mating simpletons than we care to admit; we can actually find much of what we need to know about potential mates in a few simple items, especially the picture.

Added 1p: Many suggest the explanation is that friends are worth much less than mates because we can have many friends.  But I value top friends similarly to top mates – am I unusual?

Added 15Aug: Al Roth weighs in.

Added 12Nov 2013: Now there is at least one friend match site: bigfriendo

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Two Movies

I have two movies to recommend.

  1. Nobody Knows is terribly touching, and for exactly that reason, hard to watch.  It depicts dramatic story-like events, but it doesn’t give the usual cues to suggest you process it in a story-like far mode.  The main characters are children, who you see in near mode, up close and personal, mostly without words.  If you love children, you will love these children.  Things happen to them, but slowly, and without clear “here is a key event” markers.  So you process the events as near, with less story-mode emotional distance; you are more naked to the full terror of bad possibilities.  It makes me wonder what other stories would feel like, if we felt them as nearby.  And if I would dare to watch them.
  2. The Third & The Seven, a free ten minute entirely CG (computer graphics) clip, is a truly spectacular demo of what CG can do today.  I’ve watched it daily for two weeks now and still marvel at its details. See the hidef version if you can.  If you doubt at all that virtual reality could really be as detailed and vivid as our reality, take a look. (HT Rob Wiblin).
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