Cityscape from 18F26 Feb 2008
25 Feb 2008
A supplement to my recent article about the End of the World:
I was reading today about a potentially apocalyptic event in our future referred to as the Technological Singularity, and have come to the conclusion that if the Mayan deadline passes by uneventfully, this may be the most likely way humanity will eventually wipe itself out.
It’s no accident that the term “singularity” appears in other branches of science as well. The most well-known is the spacetime singularity which describes a point at which gravity approaches infinity, thereby causing a breakdown of the laws of modern physics (the study of black holes mentions this a lot). Here’s the Cliffnotes version: when we fall, the speed at which we approach the ground doubles every second. If it were possible to fall from an infinite height, our speed would also approach infinity given enough time.
In a similar vein, a “technological singularity” refers to a point in time when all of our knowledge and innovations occur at such speed that the potential (and consequences) become “infinitely unpredictable.” Specifically, we’re looking at the moment when man builds an ultra-intelligent machine that can surpass the intellect of its makers, at which point things spin out of control.
When originally hypothesized by statistician I. J. Good in 1965, he declared that this ultra-intelligent machine would be “the last invention that man need ever make,” because we will at that point have rendered ourselves obsolete.
As you can imagine, this is the kind of theory that makes for some incredibly dramatic science-fiction. In the Terminator movies, the Singularity is reached on July 25th, 2004, and is promptly followed by a massive nuclear launch that nearly wipes out the entire human race. In the Matrix trilogy, the robots subjugate humanity at the turn of the 22nd century. Other writers have even worked out methods of prevention: in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, artificial intelligences are regulated by “Turing Police,” to make sure they never become smarter than us. And leaping even further beyond that, in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, a group of artifical intelligences debate whether to design a new technology that will render themselves obsolete, suggesting that even the AIs may have to face their own subsequent singularity.
Whether or not it’s possible to build this ultra-intelligent game-ender seems obvious to me, which is why this theory is so troubling. We’re already building machines that are better than us at specific tasks, and it’s only a matter of time before we build a machine that is better than us at everything. (For example, although the chess computer Deep Blue just barely plays the game better than the best players in the world, it totally trounces its programmers. So it is definitely possible to build an entity that exhibits more intelligence than its creators; the key difference is that, at the moment, this is only possible in very narrow applications like chess.)
Precisely when this world-changing event will occur is, of course, unknown, although the leading voices on this topic have published some opinions on the matter. The rather dramatic first paragraph from mathematician Vernor Vinge’s 1993 treatise reads:
Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
If this is the kind of analysis that intrigues you, check out the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and this riveting article on friendly (and un-friendly) AI. 15 years to go, folks :)
Oscar Thoughts24 Feb 2008
The Academy Awards are kicking off in a matter of hours, and I thought I’d write out some thoughts about the various nominations. 2007 was a a really great year for movies, not just because the general quality was good, but because so many of the high-quality movies were also really fun to watch. My favorites this year, in reverse order:
5. 3:10 To Yuma
This is more of a sentimental pick than anything else. There’s a kind of magic in well-executed Westerns that I find really irresistible and 3:10 just really kicks butt all the way through. Christian Bale and Russel Crowe are powerhouses here, and young Ben Foster is ridiculously intimidating. I had two other movies that were pushing for the #5 spot — American Gangster and Gone Baby Gone. All three of these were about the same level in my opinion, although 3:10’s subject matter managed to give it a slight edge. (And interestingly, none of them were nominated for Best Picture, which is a testament to just how tight the race is this year.)
I thought this movie was trademark P.T. Anderson in that you can’t really expect to understand and appreciate it fully the first time you see it. It’s a complex film about a ruthless oil tycoon at the turn of the century, and Daniel Day-Lewis gives a Godfather-level performance in it. The range of this guy is truly incredible — watch him in The Last of the Mohicans before you see this film; he’s almost unrecognizable. If Blood doesn’t win Best Picture, Day-Lewis should at least win the "Best Actor Ever" award.
Director Jason Reitman performs a precarious balancing act with this quirky story about teen pregnancy: Juno is funny without being ludicrious, familiar without being cliche, and sentimental without being cheesy. Best comedy of the year, easily, and some critics have actually predicted that this might take home the Best Picture Oscar simply because it’s the odd man out.
I’ve never liked how the Oscars marginalized animated movies by creating a separate "Best Animated Picture" category for them in 2001 (only Beauty and the Beast has ever received a Best Picture nomination). Ratatouille is not only the best movie out of Pixar — a studio reknowned for making extremely impressive films — but it’s also one of the finest films of this year, and should have been nominated in the regular "Best Picture" category.
This one will win the Oscar for sure, unless Juno pulls off the biggest upset in Academy history. It’s probably the most pitch-perfect movie I’ve seen in the past 5 years; brilliant performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem (creepiest mofo since Hannibal Lecter), deliberate and methodical cinematography by Roger Deakins, and dialogue that’s so sharp you could poke your eye out with it. (The Coen Brothers will probably take home the Direction and Screenplay awards for this movie as well. It’s just that good.)
24 Feb 2008
Ooh, line graphs!
Vertu Constellation21 Feb 2008
I have no idea how long this has been available here, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the world’s most expensive(?) non-custom cellphone on sale in Lucerne at Glorietta this evening. See that six-digit number at that foot of each unit? That’s the price in pesos — roughly the cost of a decent second-hand car, or a really tricked-out Mac Pro.
As you can imagine, the specifications of this thing are utterly laughable if you’re coming at it from a price-to-performance perspective. (It doesn’t even have 3G for goodness’ sake.) Instead it has non-tech-related features like "flawless leather," "ceramic keys" and a "locking device that took two years to design" (see un-deep-linkable Flash website at http://vertu.com for more marketing speak).
I love the idea of having outrageously expensive devices on the market, because there’s always someone who’s reckless enough to buy them. Think about the unboxing videos you could take with this thing! The entire store probably falls silent to allow an on-call string quartet to set the proper mood.
Capsule Movie Review: Once17 Feb 2008
Caught this little indie gem with charlie yesterday afternoon and thought it was just short of perfect. Once is a really small story about two struggling musicians who meet in Dublin, get to know each other, and proceed to cut the most heart-wrenching record you’ve ever heard over a weekend in a rented studio. It stars the lead singer of The Frames, Glen Hansard, and the Czech phenom Marketa Irglova.
If nothing else, this movie is worth seeing for its absolutely brilliant songwriting, and the very mature way that it handles the growing intimacy between the two leads. The first time they play together — gingerly feeling their way around the musicality of one of Hansard’s songs — is pure magic.
10 Feb 2008
It’s been awhile since I’ve written about anything substantial, so I figured that a suitable comeback would be a little subject I’ve very recently been boning up on, i.e., the end of the world. Or I really should say, The End of the World, since title-casing is much more ominous. I’ve been watching Lost again these past few days (season 4 is a triumphant return to form), and as usual, the theories have been flying around the net with terrific intensity. A couple of these theories use the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar as a foundational concept—the calendar, of course, being the main topic of this discussion.
The Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar is, as the name suggests, a system for counting long periods of time. (At a glance: 1 Winal is 20 days, 1 Tun is 360 days, 1 K’atun is 7,200 days and 1 B’ak’tun is 144,000 days.) The calendar itself kicked off on the 11th of August, 3114 B.C, so all its counting essentially just picks up from that point in time. It’s similar to how we picked an arbitrary point in time to start counting dates using our 2,000-year-old Gregorian calendar, or how January 1st, 1970 UTC marked the beginning of UNIX Time due to the fact that we track computer time by counting the seconds since that point. (Rather ironically, UNIX Time has its own unique apocalypse approaching in circa 2038.)
But we were talking about The End of the World, weren’t we?
Hidden in the analysis of the Mesoamerican Calendar is a belief that it wasn’t just meant for tracking time, but for foreseeing the future. The Mayans believed that we (i.e., all humans) are currently in a creation cycle, with the past three cycles of creation having ended abruptly right before the new one came along to take its place. As it happens, the cycle that we’re currently in (called the “4th world”) is winding down on the 21st of December, 2012. The theory was first brought forth by Terence McKenna, one of the most prominent figures in the New Age movement, and is actually one of many, many theories in a field of inquiry spanning religions, cultures and eras called Eschatology (literally, “the study of the End”).
Nearly every belief system has an eschatological branch—as Christians, we know about Armageddon, and as geeks, we know about the Nordic Ragnarok. Islam, Zoroastrianism, and even the Native Americans all believed in a coming “Day of Judgement,” where the world was to be purified in some final way (the precise reason for which is unique to each religion). But what I particularly love about the Mayans was that they actually cast a date, so that there was no doubt as to when it was supposed to happen. Their counting system was precise enough over 5,000 years ago to tell us that we’ve got about 4 years left, even with the Mayan civilization itself long gone.
This is fascinating stuff, and I’ve been poring over every bit of Mayan-related info I can get my hands on. I’m a fairly secular person, and I have a natural dislike for the vagaries and ambiguities of religion. As such, the wonderful exactness of this eschaton has really got my curiosity piqued. See you all in 4 years, 10 months and 11 days!
3 Feb 2008
Here’s an interesting bit of kit that we just released an hour ago on moomai: mood timelines. A user picks a general emotion from a dropdown (i.e., angry, sad, happy, worried, etc.), adds a description and we blast that "emotional status" message to their friends on the site. Over time, we compile these messages into a timeline so users can have great fun seeing how sad their online lives generally are.