Tag: the future


Permanence and technology

November 19th, 2010 — 12:23am

1. Mt. Fuji, 3776 m high. A petrified mass of volcanic discharge, thought to have been first ascended in year 663.

2. Skyscrapers in Ootemachi, Tokyo and the City, London. Buildings belonging mostly to banks and insurance companies. They appear, on some intuitive level, to have been there forever, though most of these buildings can now be built from the ground up in less than a year. It is hard to fathom how they could ever be destroyed, though the work could be done in a matter of months (?) with the right equipment.

3. What is permanent? Anything that we cannot perceive as changeable, we call permanent. But this is a linguistic and epistemological error. The inability to perceive something has led us to declare its absence.

4. The earth. 5.9736 x 10^24 kg of matter, likely fused into a planet about 4.54 billion years ago. The sun will enter a red giant phase in about 5 billion years and swallow or cause tremendous damage to it. The sun is also currently the source of all fossilised energy on earth and the energy used by most life forms on it.

5. A certain class of mathematical proofs often consist in converting facts from one basis (family of concepts) to another. Such proofs often have a hamburger-like structure: first the initial facts are rewritten into a larger, more complex formulation that suits both the assumptions and the conclusion, and then the complex formulation is collapsed in such a way that the desired results come out and the original formulation is lost. The “beef” in such a proof often consists in carrying out the correct rewriting process in the middle.

6. Facebook takes off and becomes enormously popular, in part because it facilitates, on a huge scale, something that human beings want to do naturally. Communication and the need to relate to crowds and individuals could be said to be universal among humans.

An incomplete version of the technology lattice, as suggested in this post, with human desires at the top and the resources available in the universe at the bottom.

7. We can imagine technology as a lattice-like system that mediates between the human being, on one hand, and the universe on the other. As a very rough sketch of fundamental human needs, we could list drives like communication, survival/expansion, power/safety and art. (In fact, an attempt to make some of these subordinate to others would constitute an ethical/philosophical system. Here we do not need such a distinction, and the one I have made is arbitrary and incomplete.) When we place our fundamental drives on one end, and the resources and conditions provided by the universe on another – elements and particles, physical laws and constants – we can begin to guess how new technologies arise and where they can have a place. The universe is a precondition of the earth, which is a precondition of animals and plants, which we currently eat. And food is currently a precondition of our survival. But we can imagine a future in which we are not dependent on the earth for food, having spread to other planets. We can imagine a future in which oil and nuclear power are no longer necessary as energy sources, because something else has taken their place. New possibilities entering the diagram like this adds more structure in the middle – more beef – but the motivating top level and the supplying bottom level do not change perceptibly. (Of course, if they did, beyond our perception, they could be made part of an even larger lattice with a new bottom and top configuration.)

8. Technology is a means to the establishment of permanence, and a re-encoding of human desires into reality.

9. New technologies arise constantly. But can this evolutionary process go on forever? Does the lattice converge towards a final state?

1 comment » | Philosophy

The coming politicization of mathematics and computer science

October 9th, 2010 — 7:10pm

Increasingly, ordinary people encrypt their internet communications. Some want to share files. Some are worried about the increasing surveillance and threats of surveillance of Internet data that is taking place in many corners of the world. ACTA, Hadopi, data retention would be a few examples. People may simply wish to keep their data private, even in cases when the data is not objectionable. Others, hopefully not so ordinary people, have an acute need to hide from authorities of some form or another, maybe because they actually have a criminal intent, or maybe because they are regime critics in repressive countries. Maybe they are submitting data to sites like Wikileaks.

Various technologies have come out of academic experiments, volunteer work and government sponsored research to assist with encrypted communication. PGP/GnuPG and SSH are classic mainstays. Onion routing, as implemented in the TOR system, is an effective way of concealing the true origin and destination of data being sent around. Darknet systems like the I2P project aim to build a complete infrastructure for an entirely new kind of Internet, piggybacking on the old one but with anonymity and encryption as first class fundamental features.

I think we are only at the start of a coming era of political conflicts centered around communications technology, and that more and more issues will have to be ironed out in the coming years and decades. The stakes are high. On one hand control and political stability, on the other hand individual rights and democratic progress. This is not new. One thing that I think is potentially new and interesting though, is how mathematics and computer science ought to become increasingly sensitive and political in the coming years.

Today disciplines like genetics and stem cell research are considered controversial research areas by some people since they touch on the very foundations of what we think of as life. Weapons research of all kinds is considered controversial for obvious reasons, and the development of a weapon on the scale of nuclear bombs would completely shift the global power structure.  One fundamental building block of communications control is the ability to encrypt and to decrypt. These abilities are ultimately limited by the frontiers of mathematical research. Innovations such as the Skein hash function directly affect the cryptographic power balance.

Most of the popular varieties of encryption in use today can be overcome, given that the adversary has sufficient computing power and time. In addition, human beings often compromise their keys, trust the wrong certificates, or act in ways that diminish the security that has been gained. Encryption is not absolute unless the fact that something has been encrypted has been perfectly hidden. Rather, it is a matter of economics, of making it very cheap to encrypt data,and very expensive for unintended receivers to decrypt it.

It is not possible to freeze encryption at a certain arbitrary level, or to restrict the use of it. Computers are inherently general purpose, and software designed for one purpose can almost always be used for another. If the situation is driven to its extreme, we might identify two possible outcomes: either general purpose computers are forbidden or restricted, or uncontrolled, strongly encrypted communication becomes the norm. Christopher Kullenberg has touched on this topic in Swedish.

Those who would rather not see a society where widespread encryption is commonplace would perhaps still want to have what they see as desirable effects of computerisation. In their ideal world they would pick and choose what people can do with computers, in effect giving a list of permitted and prohibited uses. But this is not how general purpose computers work. They are programmable, and people can construct software that does what they want. If the introduction of non-authorised software somehow is prohibited, and all applications must be checked by some authority, applications can still usually be used for purposes they were not designed for. This generality of purpose simply cannot be removed from computers without making them useless – at least that is how it seems today. It seems that it would take a new fundamental model of computation that selectively prohibits certain uses is needed in order to make this happen. (In order to make sure that this kind of discovery is not put to use by the “other camp”, those of us who believe in an open society should try to find it, or somehow establish the fact that it cannot be constructed.)

Mathematics now stands ever more closely connected with political power. Mathematical advances can almost immediately increase or decrease the resistance to information flow (given that somebody incorporates the advances into usable software). The full consequences of this are something we have yet to see.

6 comments » | Computer science

Multiplayer protein folding game

August 10th, 2010 — 4:07pm

You read it here first – Monomorphic predicted this development in February. In a recent Nature article, researchers describe a multiplayer online graphical protein folding game, in which players collaborate against the computer to fold a protein correctly quickly. (Also: NYTimes article.) It turned out that the human players were successful compared to the computers, and the comparison teaches us much about the problem solving heuristics that humans use. Which will be the next computational task to be turned into an online game?

Comment » | Computer science

Abundance and the culture of thrift

November 12th, 2009 — 12:43am

Tiny fish

For a long time, the level of comfort allowed us by technology has risen persistently. This trend shows no signs of slowing down. One of two things would have to happen: either we reach some point where a fundamental barrier prevents us from extracting or converting certain natural resources beyond a certain rate, and this becomes a hard constraint on humanity for all time, or physical matter ends up being under our complete control. In this latter scenario, which I don’t view as unlikely, we’d be able to convert trash into useful things at our whim, for instance.

This scenario is sometimes referred to as an age of abundance. It may have a large intersection with the singularity, an idea first championed in 1993 by Vernor Vinge, or it may be a consequence or a necessary prerequisite of it. For now, let us focus on the economic aspect of abundance only.

If these things come to pass, one of the fundamental assumptions of classical economics – scarcity – would be contradicted. I would suggest that we are culturally unprepared for this kind of world.

As countries’ economic productivity increases, we are faced with the choice of whether to work less and enjoy the same standard of living, or work as much and enjoy a higher standard of living. My understanding is that people have always chosen the latter.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber puts forth the view that the development of capitalism in Europe was largely influenced by protestant values, particularly Calvinist ones. Even though many European peoples today consider themselves to be secular, it is clear that a Christian legacy has left a big mark on contemporary European culture. Simply put, many people only feel proud when they work and feel that they serve a useful purpose to their country. This is why they cannot choose to work less.

In an era of abundance, people would not be needed for the carrying out of most tasks. If they insisted on carrying out the tasks anyway, they would have to know that they were being costly and useless, thereby depriving them of enjoyment – unless we deluded them!

I see a few ways out of this situation.

  • Craftsmanship is considered a uniquely human and artistic activity, and people who turn to art and crafts can continue to feel that they are important.
  • Some work is fundamentally centered on human interaction and human meetings, for instance care, psychotherapy, hairdressing and leadership. These roles are unlikely to grow useless even as technology advances (purely materially).
  • Culture would have to change, allowing people to rest and feel valuable even without contributing to their society’s affluence. If this is possible or not is an open question.

I should point out that the contribution-as-pride mindset is a feature not just of European protestant cultures, but also seems to be one of Japan – though for different reasons. And probably one of many other countries as well.

Comment » | Philosophy

Iran, Twitter and information control

June 26th, 2009 — 11:03am

Ahmadinejad protesters in Ebisu, Tokyo

We’ve now had just over a decade of truly mainstream access to and use of the internet. I think I personally took my first stumbling steps on the web around 1995-1996. At the time, it was a limited phenomenon, rife with poor design. It was hard to see what was eventually going to come out of that. And even today, it’s hard to see what today’s internet will eventually evolve into.

If it wasn’t clear before, the events of the past week have made it clear that the internet is a valuable tool for democracy. When everybody can broadcast to everybody else, as opposed to just a select few broadcasting, it’s difficult to control the information flow. Repressing select bits of information becomes hard – the repression just results in the information getting more attention. In the aftermath of Iran’s elections, it seems one of the most important communication channels for protesters was Twitter.  The situation is being likened to Tiananmen square. Together with everybody else, I could follow #IranElection as the events unfolded. It went to the point where the US State Department asked Twitter to delay upgrades in order to keep the service operative, supposedly because of Twitter’s importance in Iran.

I don’t know enough about the candidates to take sides in Iran, but I think one of our fundamental principles should be that nobody should seek to rule by repressing communication. Today, the Internet is a free communications device that anyone can use. How long will it stay this way? When legislators seek to clamp down on the Internet’s uncontrolled nature and regulate it for one reason or another, we should protest. Unrestricted mass communication for everyone is too important an invention to give up.

For those who read Swedish, Rasmus Fleischer has written a brilliant post on the events from a philosophical-historical perspective.

Comment » | Uncategorized

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