Data Visualization

A friend of mine works at a company that specializes in data visualization, and it got me to thinking about computer displays in science fiction. There’s not much flash to the ones we write about, but we certainly see a lot of that in the movies. I think about the floating, translucent displays from Avatar or the gesture-based interface in Minority Report. Then there are the holographic displays, running the gamut from the chess set on the Millennium Falcon to the holodeck on the Enterprise-D. Yes, at its heart the holodeck is a fancy computer display, complete with the best haptic feedback system you could imagine. But in terms of really looking at data, these are just bells and whistles.

I think the really interesting developments will be in how computers figure out how to turn data into a picture, not how that picture is displayed.

For example, let’s talk about a random number generator that wasn’t all that random. It was one of the early random number generator algorithms in computer science. The numbers indeed seemed fairly random when considered one after another or even in long sequences. Then someone started using them to generate points in three-dimensional space, where the point (x,y,z) was filled out with (random1, random2, random3). What they discovered was that while the points jumped around in 3d space with a nice apparent randomness, over time, they started to collect in a series of parallel planes. From one point to the next, you might jump from one plane to another, but the points never fell between the planes. Not so random after all.

Ok, so someone made a sloppy random number generator. What does that have to do with the real world? Well, there was similar case when looking at water dripping from a rapidly dripping faucet. A team studying chaotic systems looked at the simple question of how long does it take for the next drop of water to drip? You might think it’s a steady interval, but it’s not. It is actually quite chaotic, the time from one drop to the next seemed to be random. But again, when plotting them out in 3D-space triplets, i.e. (x,y,z) as (time to drop1, time to drop2, time to drop3), they formed a distorted loop. The data points did not march faithfully along that loop, but while jumping from one spot on the loop to another, they all still fell on the loop.

While those two cases were very similar in terms of the visualizations, there are lots of twists on that. What if the pattern turned out to require four sequential data points instead of just three? Maybe it could have been done as a 3D animation, where the sequential numbers formed points in 3D+time (x, y, z, time). Or maybe it did turn out to be at least a little more random, and instead of taking sequential points, you merely had to skip every fourth number.

Then there’s data that comes in not just as a sequence of numbers, but with its own dimensionality, i.e. it’s not merely a single number, but a pair of them, like wind speed and compass direction. And what if you consider that wind direction as not merely a single compass direction, but as a three-dimensional vector. What if you also had to track some extra component of the wind as well, like some notion of spin?

That takes us smack dab into the interfaces that the starship navigators face in some of my books. They’re sailing on the tachyon winds, and they sometimes shift in dramatic ways. Navigators look at that wind speed and direction, looking for changes that could thrash their ephemeral sails hard enough to rip them apart, pushing back against the generators down in the engine room. They’re looking not just at the current speed and direction, but also the derivatives, looking for critical inflection points to see not when the wind has changed direction, but when it is about to change. Truly experienced navigators eventually learn to recognize certain shapes in the data, being able to distinguish between a meaningless transient versus the leading edge of something horrific.

Personally, that’s the kind of computer display stuff that I want to see more of in science fiction — not just fancier graphics — but new and interesting ways to interpret the crazy world around us.

There’s a Brain-App for That

I was at FenCon over the weekend, and in a panel on embedded (or implanted) computers, the question was raised: what application would you want that doesn’t exist now? That is, if you had some kind of computer implanted in your brain, what would you want it to do for you that you can’t do right now without it?

Here are a few possible answers, some my own and some from other people in the room:

Who Are You? I’d want something to do facial recognition on the person in front of me and remind me who they are, how I know them, and what subjects to avoid when talking to them. It’s not just a matter of remembering the name, because even if I can remember that his name is Bob, it would be nice to know that we met at Jim’s bachelor party – you know, the one with the orangutan stripper – and that it would be best to duck and hide in shame. Or if I can’t hide, I should at least know better than to bring up sailing ships lest I be cornered into a two-hour dissertation on the superiority of the jib sail over the genoa sail.

Dream-vo: This is the DVR for your dreams. No longer do you need to scramble for pen and paper to jot down details of that crazy dream. You don’t even need to wake up. Just replay it the next morning and fast forward to the part with the flying dolphins.

IMDB Brain Search: The Internet Movie Database is a very useful site, but even if you have it on your smart phone, it doesn’t really help when you’re talking about that movie, with the guy… you know, the one with the blonde hair, and they had that sparkly thing with the handle? Yeah, that’s the one. It would also be nice in that you could immediately know where you’ve seen that actor before. Of course, playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” will never be the same again.

Where Are My Damned Keys? A brain implant won’t keep you from leaving your keys behind the toaster, but with enough input monitoring 24/7, it should at least be able to tell you where they are. And your favorite pen, your glasses, your left sneaker, the good scissors, and the remote control. Of course, if the kids took them, this suddenly becomes a network application.

Too Boring; Didn’t Listen: I think we’ve all run into that wall of text that was simply too long to read. Hence the phrase tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). Whenever I’ve run into that, I’ve wanted a little tool to read it, present me with a summary, and give some kind of guesstimate of whether or not it was worth the number of electrons that died for it. (Yes, I know electrons don’t die – they only wish they could.) But if I had a computer implant, I’d want one of those for audio. Remember that guy who went on for two hours about jibs vs. genoas? Too boring; didn’t listen. How about the app that filters it all and says, “Jibs handle better when tacking.”

So, how about you? What’s your favorite iBrain app?

No Singularity

Last week I talked about missing out on the next big revolution in fiction, and how that can make it hard to make future fiction hard to write believably. However, if you thought I was going to go so far as to predict the impending technological singularity, you’re wrong.

The supposedly approaching technological singularity is some point of exponential advancement that changes the game so much, we cannot really see past it, and depending on the exact definition, I’ve seen it predicted to occur as early as 2011 and as late as 2050.

Well, I disagree. Depending on the more precise definition of this technological singularity, I say maybe, no, and Hell No. If you’ll bear with me on this rather long entry, I’ll explain why.

AI: the Easy Singularity

The tamest definition of this technological singularity is that we will create a computer intelligence that is more intelligent than the smartest humans. On the face of it, this seems believable. Given the advancements that Moore’s Law brought to computational power in the last fifty years, it might even seem to be inevitable.

In specific areas, we have already reached this. Notably, computers can play some games perfectly, i.e. they cannot be beaten. For other games, they can beat the best human players. Chess was a recent and notable triumph for the silicon team. But they are still losing other games to human players. (See this informative and humorous XKCD comic )

But skill at games is not the only measure of human intelligence. Visual and speech processing are still difficult for computers, though they are improving. Creativity is hard to measure, but with the exception of some isolated problems, computers have not shown much creativity. A sense of humor still seems a long ways off. The brass ring, of course, is the self-aware computer. That’s the real cogito ergo sum moment.

If Moore’s Law continues, we may reach the required processing power within the predicted timeframe, but I foresee a couple of problems to the hyper-intelligent computers of the singularity prediction.

The first problem is that reaching the level of even human intelligence is probably harder than it looks on paper. It’s about more than just processing power. Specifically, it’s going to require that we reach an understanding of how human intelligence works in the first place, and we’re simply not there yet. How is it that these sporadic neurons firing translate into the subjective experience of sentience? How important is the structure of the human brain that has evolved from more primitive brains? How do the chemical regulators keep our neural nets in good operating condition? It’s not just a matter of connecting enough transistorized neurons and flipping the switch. There’s structure and a billion years of Darwinian design at work.

The second problem is this notion of hyper-intelligence. Briefly consider qualitative aspects of intelligence vs. quantitative aspects of intelligence. A human is qualitatively more intelligent than a lizard. He thinks about problems, designs tools to solve them, and ultimately eats the lizard. Mmmm, that’s good lizard. Some humans (my wife, for example) are quantitatively more intelligent than I am. She can solve mathematical problems much faster than I can, but given enough time, I’ll get there eventually.

The upward ramp of Moore’s Law gives us a lot of hope for computers that could be quantitatively more intelligent than humans, but I don’t think automatically provides a qualitatively higher intelligence. Certainly, the old Church-Turing thesis is often interpreted to suggest that any calculation that can be performed (i.e. the human experience of consciousness) can be performed by a Turing machine, and that interpretation is one of the strongest arguments that increasing computing power will lead to human-level computer intelligence. However, the Church-Turing thesis also makes it clear that there are some problems (e.g. the halting problem) that are beyond the ability of a Turing machine.

Thus, it seems to me that while computers may become significantly quantitatively more intelligent than humans, there may be a real upper limit on qualitative improvements in intelligence. What would that look like? I would expect it to be like talking to someone who knows pretty much everything and can answer hard questions quickly, but they would still be just as clueless as we are on questions like “will I be happy with Sue?”

Of course, the zero-eth problem with all this is that Moore’s Law may not continue long enough to reach this singularity. For the last twenty years, I’ve been reading predictions that Moore’s Law only has another five to ten years left in it. Eventually, they’ll be right. I’m not saying that we’ll never get the required processing power – after all, evolution managed to crank it out – but we might have to give up on the notion of getting exponential results in logarithmic time.

So, will we see this easy singularity of artificial intelligence by 2050? Ehhh, maybe. Maybe not. I think we’ll see it eventually, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get that qualitative advance.

Impenetrable Wall: the Medium Singularity

More advanced definitions of “the singularity” typically say that once we build these hyper-intelligent computers, they will change the world in ways that we cannot imagine, and hence, we cannot see into the future past that event. After all, we only have normal intelligence, so how can we possibly guess at where hyper-intelligence is going to lead us?

Personally, I don’t think that gives human imagination enough credit. Scholarly study of this question leads to possibilities ranging from utopia to human extinction and all manner of possibilities in between. Utopias are fairly easy to imagine, though the road to reach them is hard. Human extinction has been over-imagined, from the Terminator to the Matrix. I think we’ve also seen plenty of in-between’s. One of my favorites is the Poul Anderson series ending in the Fleet of Stars, where hyper-intelligent computers simply want to manage humanity into a safe, peaceful, and boring existence.

We don’t seem to have any trouble imagining futures with hyper-intelligent computers, and face it, we’re getting by in this area on the odd-balls, the kooks, the SF-writers. Put some serious policy wonks on it, and we’ll soon be talking about the best tax strategies to manage Skynet’s homicidal rage.

Ah, but it’s not enough just to imagine the possibilities, is it? In order to foil this aspect of the singularity, we have to predict what’s going to happen beyond that impenetrable wall of exponential change. How on earth can we lowly humans do that?

Well, we can’t.

But we can’t predict what’s going to happen on this side of that impenetrable wall of change either. Who’s going to win the U.S. presidential election this fall? Will Iran build a nuclear bomb or fall to a populous revolution? Will wireless broadband ever reach parity with physical cables for the last-mile problem of connectivity? Will solar panels ever get cheap enough to drive us towards a privately-owned distributed power system, and if so, when? Will the Cubs ever get back to the World Series?

The only thing I can grant the singularity camp is that predictions beyond the achievement of hyper-intelligent computers will be more difficult, just as any significant change makes predictions more complex. The creation of the personal computer threw technologists for a loop. Ditto with the creation of the Web. However, some things remain the same, no matter how much change we throw at them. Top among them is human nature.

My predictions for a post-hyper-intelligent-computer world: Humans will be noble but petty. They will be greedy and charitable. They will love, and they will hate. Fathers will want to play ball with their sons, and daughters will declare that their mothers have RUINED THEIR LIVES!!! These things haven’t fundamentally changed in ten thousand years. The arrival of hyper-intelligent computers, friendly or not, won’t change them either.


Post-Humanism: The Really Hard Singularity

In fairness to the original singularity camp (Vernor Vinge, etc.), this kind of thing was not in their definition of the singularity. They were making what they felt were reasonable predictions up to the point where they felt they could no longer make such predictions. They didn’t sign on for humans becoming immortal demi-gods.

But I include this here because enough post-humanists (or trans-humanist, take your pick) have hitched their miraculous transformations onto the computing singularity bandwagon, and they’re making predictions in the same timeframe as the computer singularity folks. What’s more, I’ve run into too many woo-woo technology lovers who have looked at a few exponential charts and convinced themselves that the techno-rapture is at hand.

So, what the hell am I talking about here? Some folks believe that we’re on the verge of changing human nature in big ways. The most aggressive think that we’re going to download our minds into computers at the earliest opportunity, shedding our physical bodies like gas-guzzling SUV’s. Others think that life-extension is advancing rapidly towards the point that life expectancy will grow by greater than one year for each year that passes – essential immortality, even for those of us alive today. Still others think that we’re a generation away from engineering children who are as far in advance of us as the hyper-intelligent computer is ahead of my laptop.

To which I say: Bullshit, not likely, and not soon.

The notion of downloading into a computer has been around for a while. I can’t say when I first ran into it, but when I saw it dealt with in SF (again by Poul Anderson) it seemed an old concept to me. Old yes, but practical, no. The first thing I’ll throw out there are the technical problems with non-destructively reading a brain’s complete state, building an electronic system that can match it, and duplicating all the chemical support systems electronically. But they landed a man on the moon, so I won’t make it a sticking point.

The second problem, though, is a messier one. Would you really want to live as a computer? In most of the ways I’ve seen this envisioned, the downloads live virtual lives with no physicality. Perhaps they interact some with the physical world, but only at an intellectual level. Is that really enough for you?

I direct your attention again to that games diagram from XKCD. One of the games that computers will never play better than humans is “Seven Minutes in Heaven”. I think a human mind living in a computer would go mad without the comfort of physical touch, without the sensation of the wind and the rain, without the taste of food or the smell of freshly cut grass. I believe this goes beyond a mere craving. I think our minds need that physicality. It’s part of who we are. We are animals of flesh, not free-floating motes of intellect.

We could, of course, turn ourselves into robots, but they would have to be exceptional robots. More properly, they would have to be androids with at least all the senses and capabilities we have today. Again, that’s another technical challenge, but I’ll waive it here in Wonderland. Still, if we do manage all this, how different is our human nature? Haven’t we just turned ourselves into immortals with an off-site backup?

That brings me to that second notion of post-humanism: biological immortality through life-extension techniques. Again, there are technical problems, though before I waive my objection, let me point out that we know far less about manipulating biology with precision than we know about silicon, and there’s no Moore’s Law pushing us along here. Still, life expectancy is increasing. How far can it go?

The real problem is that we’re kind of fighting evolution here, or at the very least, evolution is not our friend in this case. We’ve been bred to breed and then die. Pass on our genes to the next generation, and evolution is done with us. At best, we’re useful to make sure that our genes continue on to a second or even third generation, but before long, we’re standing in Darwin’s way.

So we’ve been designed to not last that long, or at the very least, we’ve not been designed to last that long. Planned obsolescence at the genetic level. To get around that, we have to solve some problems that evolution has never bothered to try, and we’re trying to do it for people who are already up and moving. Personally, I think we’ve got a better shot at downloading into androids.

But perhaps that third post-human notion has some merit, eh? Design our kids to be immortal, immune to disease and age and any human frailty we want to edit out. How about that? We’ve mapped the human genome. Let’s start writing some new code.

I don’t think so, and for once, I’m not going to put the strongest barrier at the technical level – though be assured, that’s no cake walk either. Instead, it’s human nature that’s going to slow us down, and ironically, I think it will be parents’ love for their children that will limit the gifts that we give them.

Think about it. You and your spouse are about to start your family. This is today, or perhaps it’s a year after the hyper-intelligent computers have dropped by to say “dude”. Now a doctor tells you that he wants to significantly rewrite the genetic code of your offspring so that he’ll be smarter, healthier, and immortal. “Sounds great,” you say, but then you ask the first question any potential parent would ask. “How many times have you done this?”

“Ummm… well, never. You’ll be the first.”

“I’m sorry, but you need to get the fuck out of my house.”

Sure, sooner or later, someone would give it a shot, but 99.99% of parents would wait until that first 0.01% had grown up and designed some kids of their own. Then maybe another one or two percent of that next generation would try it. It would grow, generation by generation, until there would be a tipping point of everyone doing it, and the poor would be demanding universal genetic health care. But it would not happen overnight, and it sure as hell won’t happen in the next couple of generations from now as a number of folks are predicting. This will take a century or more, especially for some of the more radical proposals.

Still, in all three of these post-humanist scenarios, I think they fail on the impenetrable wall of unpredictability. People will still be people, even if they’re androids or immortal meat-bags. We can hope that they will be better people, but we’ve already known better people: Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., and of course, Tom Landry. (Go Cowboys!) We can readily imagine stories in a world filled with these types, just as we can imagine worlds filled with their opposites. Utopian and dystopian fantasies are a staple of the SF genre.

So, no, we’re not on the verge of some biotech rapture which blinds us to the future.

Story-telling: the Non-existent Singularity

But as much as I may poo-poo the likelihood of any of these singularity events, I don’t ignore them. Even if they never come to pass, they’re fun ideas to play with, simply because we SF geeks like to think about odd scenarios and then ask, “What happens next?” Because they postulate such a different world, we’re drawn to the other side of that impenetrable wall to explore, have fun, and tell stories.

It’s because of that imaginative drive that I don’t think any change will ever present us with an impenetrable wall.

And I also think it’s that same drive that gives us any chance of ever reaching those theoretical walls in the first place.