Monday, 1 December 2008

How Technology is Advancing too Fast For Art

Retro gaming is a bizarre phenomenon. Being a technology driven medium, games go through generations in just a few years. However, the differences between generations is more profound than technological advances. It seems that more advanced possibilities change the entire landscape of gaming culture.

Retro gaming is a growing trend, but it is becoming hard to define. There are so many generations of games now, all differing so significantly, that the definition of retro changes according to age, tastes, and personal nostalgia. It's not enough to simply say "Retro means old" any more.

The reason for this blurring of definition, is that games advanced so fast, that human creativity couldn't even keep up. To understand this, remember how old 8-Bit games had such primitive sound, yet the creators did what they could to make the sounds good. We still remember the old music with fondness, not as impressed by today's music that was created with no limitations.

It was the limitations that made the old games so good. It forced the creators to focus on gameplay, and on doing as much as they could with the little they had. Of course, as technology advanced so rapidly, game creators didn't need to do this for long. It's this limited time frame that seems to have inspired the retro-remake scene.

Just as there are some people who perform entire concerts using the original Game Boy, there are others who are remixing old music in a modern style, yet keeping the original feel. And now, the entire community of Street Fighter fans came together to make an updated, but still-true-to-its-original-form, version of Street Fighter 2.

What these ventures go to show, is that there is a lot of potential for art if we look back at opportunities missed. There is so much left unexplored because of the incredible acceleration of technology. There are so many possibilities that have passed us by, not just in art, but in culture, and in application of technology. A prime example of this would be the Nintendo Wii, it ignores the advances of technology and focuses on providing new experiences, new solutions.

So why not stop waiting for tomorrow, and take a look around? Why not try and do the best we can with what we have, embracing limitation for a moment before eradicating it?

Otherwise, the doors will be broken down before we've had a chance to explore the room.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Turning VR Inside Out

This video shows how RFID can help improve control over stock inventory both in real world and virtual world situations. With the current state of virtual reality, it's unlikely that virtual supermarkets will take off. They're just too...clunky. However, one distinct possibility is a reversal. Computer controlled reality.

RFID will play a large part in this. The data it will provide will change the way we look at reality. By reporting and recording our locations and activities, it will digitise us - turning us into real life avatars.

In virtual reality, everything we do can be recorded. The software can record our every movement and interaction. This will soon be possible in real life, thanks to RFID and our interactions with computer interfaces.

Real life benefits will get us to adopt the data collection methods without question. Contact lenses or eventually brain modifications of some kind could provide us with a computer interface while in the real world. In the meantime, we'll have to make do with the iPhone. Right click a person on the street to see that person's shared details - subscribe to their Twitter feed or download their blog. Perhaps they could, from time to time, broadcast from their own eyes, allowing you to essentially inhabit their body. Extreme sports participants could make a fortune out of this, especially once physical sensations can be shared.

The information recorded about us will then take a similar shape to credit card records of the present, only far more in depth. This is not conspiracy paranoia, this is based purely on the corporations' desires (and our own) to record our data. Our purchases already provide a profile of us. In the future, our travel could be logged to provide "statistical data" for the authorities. Our work history and qualifications could be recorded in new and interesting ways. An extremely in-depth analysis of our health could be recorded on a continual basis and shared with our doctor. With enough information about enough of our actions, and the profile that is put together could eventually create some serious possibilities. What if our past could be mapped out so accurately that our future could be predicted?

Think about it; if you know the exact position, mass, and direction of every particle in the universe, in theory you should be able to predict their next moves, based on what is around them and the current laws of physics. Although chaos theory puts a dampener on this, human beings are far more predictable. With enough historical and psychological data on a person, which can be collected post hoc in a triple blind test method, we can provide immensely powerful speculation techniques. Prediction of entire populations needn't be far behind.

But you don't need me to tell you about this. Isaac Asimov's been talking about it for years. I just don't think he imagined we'd make it so easy.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Future of Tele-Coverage

I noticed with interest the difference between:

Michael Anissimov's review of how Second Life and IRC affected Transvision 06
George Dvorsky's comments on Twitter's impact on Convergence 08.

There appears to be a number of advantages and disadvantages to each medium. While Second Life allows those not in attendance to interact with the conference, it requires a lot of commitment. Resources need to be invested in an account, downloaded client software, a powerful computer with a lot of hard drive space, and a good net connection. Even if those things are not an issue, Second Life requires your full attention, you have to control your avatar, its camera, and inventory. Even for a seasoned veteran, the interface is extremely clunky (albeit powerful).

Twitter on the other hand provides a very casual way to stay in touch both in and at the conference. It can be accessed in many different ways, including RSS reader, phone, browser or desktop client, as well as the webpage. It's simple and it gives the user a choice, with little commitment. By all accounts it also provided a great feel to the event.

So, is this the future? Are we no longer interested in fully immersed virtual worlds, instead content with streams of text? What has the world come to?

It certainly seems to be the case. Look at the rise of RSS over the past year. We want our information without the frills. And we want it personalised.

The generic virtual world has failed to evolve with the rest of the internet.
It's lagging behind and dooming itself to extinction.

There's talk on the net of the next generation of virtual worlds being server generated. There will be no need to download clunky software, a simple browser is all it will take to have photo-realistic graphics. Ease of use and low commitment are desperately needed to keep virtual reality alive. However, the most desperate requirement is a larger step away from reality.

That's not to say that the worlds themselves should become less realistic, but the interfaces and the features need to be brought more in line with current trends. The closest Second Life comes to what I'm talking about is the mini browser within it. There should be far, far, far more integrated services. RSS feeds, interaction with blogs and forums, and data inputs should be a given. A necessity is improved interaction. The reason Second Life is losing so much ground at the moment is because it's so hard to use, and more casual virtual worlds are emerging. Creating simple objects or performing simple gestures should be easy.

You should have access to your virtual world account and everything about it without having to invoke the virtual senses. In other words, you could be present in the virtual world without an avatar, and without being able to see the world where your presence is residing, but you will still be able to interact with the conversations in that area, make transactions, and perform actions relating to your virtual account.

So what, in that case, would be the point of the virtual world? Well, the interface still offers a level of interaction not found in text based communication. It transmits body language, atmosphere, and imagination. It allows the user to be anything, and to do anything, and to go anywhere. Technically, it has the potential to provide a rich environment to interact with remote events, but it's currently falling desperately short.

Perhaps VR still has a part to play in tele-coverage and communication, but at the moment it's just taking a break, waiting for both the technology and the people behind the software to come up with new and innovative virtual concepts.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Technology - Will it set us Free?

When computers were first invented, users had complete freedom and power, there was no other option but to allow it. However, if they didn't follow the computer's strict set of rules, the computer would break or just not work. Even in the days of Windows 3.11, computers remained obscure and frightening to the masses.

Once computers infiltrated more and more of our lives, it became necessary to remove the need to for "user rules", computers had to become "user friendly". Computers were forced to shed their unforgivable interfaces in order to increase their popularity.

So now, computers, when used by the general public, no longer have that level of freedom. To avoid them being used wrongly, computers simply limit the options general users are allowed to access. Then, instead of telling users how to act, they simply guide users through their processes, anticipating rule-breaking, and absolving responsibility. Users lost their fear of computers, complying with the rules not because they are asked to, but because any possibility of breaking them is simply removed. General users no longer have raw power over computers, they just follow the guidelines provided for them to achieve what they need from the machine. As such, even the desire to break the rules is diminished.

A direct parallel can be applied to politics. Now, people are told not to speed on the roads because it's dangerous. Not everyone follows these rules so we need police and legal systems to deal with the rule breakers. In the future, technology will simply stop your car from being able to speed, absolving you of responsibility. In the future, and it's happening already, technology will remove the need for rules, because it will completely remove the possibility of wrong doing. It will absolve our responsibility.

Your car will be computer controlled and therefore it will be impossible to speed it, drive it off a road, or crash it. Your TV simply won't show adult content if it detects a child in the room. It will be physically impossible to steal, as all items will be installed with an RFID chip, tracking their location and ownership at all times. Alcohol dispensing machines won't work if, upon checking your RFID chip with the government database, it realises that you're underage.

In the even more distant future, nanobots will prevent us from damaging our bodies with unhealthy habits. They may even control our brains to remove criminal elements or immoral desires. Virtual reality could provide us with an environment where it is impossible to do anything wrong, because the computer interface doesn't allow it. Alternatively, virtual reality could provide the means for wrong doing to be carried out with no consequences.

It is often said that technology will set us free. Certainly the need for law enforcement and ruling government will diminish at the hands of technology. But is this destined to put us in a dictator's ultimate fantasy, or an incredibly free yet safe society?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The End of the World Wide Web?

I now have a very organised and efficient way of working online, thanks to a few great companies coming together and integrating their services.

First of all, I use the magnificent Firefox to access the world at large. I had a go with Google Chrome, but found it hard to live without the vast array of Plug-ins Firefox provides. And the less said about Internet Explorer the better.

Firefox allows me to display my favourite bookmarks along a bar beneath my toolbar, for quick and easy access to my main websites. One such button is the "Share on Facebook" link, allowing me to share any page I find of interest instantly and easily. The whole toolbar is invaluable, although it's not a benefit exclusive to Firefox.

I am a slave to the Google Corporation. Google allows me to store and work on all my documents ONLINE, meaning I rarely have to use Open Office again. (Anyone who is still paying for Micro$oft Office needs their head seeing to...)

Google also provides Google Reader. This allows me to see all the latest news feeds from all of my favourite sites, in one place. They can be categorised, shared, stared for later, and notes added. Needless to say Google reader also displays rich content such as pictures and videos.

Next I installed the Add-on. (Which I recently learnt is owned by Yahoo, sorry Google!) This is a great add-on that takes over my bookmarks menu, giving me a lot more power over my bookmarked sites. Now all my sites are stored online, shared with friends, and I get to see what they share. Also, using the buttons on Firefox make it much faster than using a Bookmark Toolbar button. And one more sexy option, right clicking on any link allows me to instantly bookmark it. So easy...

A Twitter tool called TwitterFox pretty much turns Twitter into an Instant Messenger (albeit not a very private one), showing me the latest Twitted items and letting me post Twits without having to go to the Twitter page. And the Delicious add-on also lets me know when new items are shared in my network.

Finally, all of these awesome features are integrated into my iGoogle page.

What conclusion can be drawn from this integration of systems? Well they've got me thinking - why have web pages at all? We're now finding that what we want from the web is content, not fancy designed websites. The tools needed for dealing with this content can theoretically, all be integrated into our browsers, allowing us to never even visit a normal website the whole time we're online. Or websites containing applications such as iGoogle could retrieve and distribute all the data we need for our online activities.

Every interaction I now have with websites involves me either reading or inputting, for one reason or another. Text, images, or video being the main forms of data.

Google Chrome tried to strip away the tools of the browser, giving us direct access to websites. This will only be successful if all websites take the approach of having a generic layer of tools integrated into them. This may well be happening with the growth of AJAX powered web applications. But if it doesn't, then we're going to need those tools integrated into our browsers. Either way, these tools are going to shift the focus away from website presentation, and towards content delivery.

Could this mean the end of the WWW as we know it, or the Browser?

Monday, 3 November 2008

Virtual Going Out is the New Going Out

A 'Virtual' Escape From Economic Pain:

It seems that in these times of economic decline, people don't want to forgo the luxuries that they've grown accustomed to over the years, so are choosing to indulge themselves in a virtual manner instead. There's certainly a lot to be said for staying home surrounded by cheap entertainment compared with going out and being ripped off and mugged. Could this be the future? As Virtual Reality improves, we'll be finding it replacing more and more of the "Real Life" things we currently take for granted.

Why travel on dangerous, expensive, and environmentally unfriendly airlines when you can immerse yourself in a Virtual holiday? Google Earth and Google Street, not to mention other "virtual sightseeing" options have recently taken a lot of big steps towards this. Although virtual reality interfaces have a long way to go before we can experience all the delights of a trip to somewhere beautiful, in the next few years it will be possible to walk down a foreign street on your computer screen, with the realism of a TV documentary. You'll be able to go into a real shop, select a real item from a real shelf, and make real purchases from the shops on this street, to be delivered to your door. In Second Life, you can already wander around the accurately recreated streets of Dublin and other major cities. Primitive as it is now, we'll soon be taking it for granted.

In the very distant future, personal nano-fabrication devices could allow us to recreate the exact tastes and textures of foods available anywhere on Earth. And if not, computer interfaces to our brains will merely simulate the feelings and tastes of eating these exotic cuisines. Whether as part of a virtual reality interface or not, the ability to remotely indulge our senses will surely come from somewhere.

If you don't think that this will happen, that people will always travel, that we can never get a real sense of what a place is like without actually going there, ask yourself if you would go to the Antarctic. Or the Sahara. Or down to the bottom of the ocean. More likely, you'll be satisfied with your experiences of these places thanks to today's Virtual Reality device, the TV. Needless to say, some people will still seek out the real deal, but the majority of people will radically reduce the amount they travel.

It's not just long distance travel that will reduce, either. Why risk getting beaten up by drunken teenagers when you can sit in a virtual pub, chatting to people with similar interests from all over the world? Why go to the cinema to put up with some idiot crunching popcorn in your ear when you can stay at home and download the latest movie to watch on your 100 inch TV? Why go to the theatre when the performance can be streamed to said 100 inch TV? Why not sit in a virtual stadium to watch your favourite band, where, in the safety of your own home, you can take all the drugs you like without fear of being arrested? Why waste money on fuel to watch your favourite sports team play, when you could stay at home, viewing the action from any camera you wish?

The key is that stay-at-home entertainment will become better than going out, not to mention cheaper, safer, and better for the environment. A culture change on a massive scale is beginning, leading to many unknown implications. What business opportunities might this present?

Not only will replacements of the things we do in real life be options, but we'll enjoy altogether new forms of entertainment. Instead of a virtual pub, you could be having a drink with some like minded friends on the other side of the world...whilst building a city on a nearby planet. Or racing in the Grand Prix. Or slaying dragons. Massively Multiplayer Online Games already make these scenarios reality for millions of people, and they have the potential to become far more than just games. For many people these alternative realities are already more appealing than real reality - and this is while they are still merely primitive computer games. What about when they become fully immersive virtual reality environments, supplemented with complex life imitating software?

Why unplug?

Friday, 31 October 2008


Well, I've finally finished the Otherland Quadrilogy. It was the best 4000 pages I've ever read.

It's shocking how it was written back in the late 90s. So many concepts addressed were way, way ahead of their time. In my article "Virtual Unreality", I touched on a few of these before I had heard of the Otherland books, but these books go into more depth that I could have imagined.

Second Life, which was only released in 2003, a couple of years after the last Otherland book, appears to be our closest manifestation of the books. Concepts that have originated in Second Life were predicted in Otherland, whether the users of Second Life were aware of Otherland or not. The books are a fascinating forward look at metaverses, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.

At the start of every chapter there is a newsfeed, giving a snippet of what is going on in the late 21st century world. Everything from politics to entertainment is reported on, giving the book even more depth and atmosphere.

Special note must be made for the ending. Even after 4000 pages, it doesn't disappoint, in fact it blew me away. Several times during the book I actually thought I had just read the best chapter I'd ever read in my life. The ending took those experiences to a new level.

What really makes these books stand out, to me, is the quality of the writing. Every word of every paragraph seems to be picked to perfection. The writing is some of the best I've ever read. The quality is consistent for the entire 4000 pages, and the styles are varied. The story is exciting, full of deep, complex twists, emotional rides, and profound imagery. I've been inspired by the storytelling, the character development, and the stunning scene description. I don't think I've ever felt so immersed in a story. You might say I was "Totally Immersed."

I can't recommend these books highly enough. They go into profound topics such as immortality, the morality of artificial intelligence, mind uploading and the importance of self, and much, much more.If you haven't read them yet, please buy them now! In the words of the books: "Prepare to change your world."

Monday, 20 October 2008

User Generated Content - Empowering Everyone

User Generated Content is increasing exponentially, as is the ease of creating and hosting home made material.

To get an idea of what this might mean for us in the future, we've only got to look at the best example of UGC around today: YouTube.

Blogging was great, but there appears to be far more power in a video than a long winded piece of text. Home made internet radio is pretty popular, but sadly not to the extent it could be. For this I blame the lack of microphones as standard on modern PCs. YouTube has allowed people to present themselves and their opinions in a way far more effective than has ever been seen before.

Who knows how this could evolve. Anyone can create relatively high production values given the right software. As it becomes easier to edit, present, manipulate, and even research content, more and more possibilities open themselves up to amateur creators. Professionally created material that amateurs could use in their own content, such as blue screen backgrounds, soundtracks, or special effects, could become a respectable market in a few years.

Perhaps User Created interactive experiences could have even more impact. Tools could be written allowing radical and user friendly customisation of game engines. Spore has already started to embark on this fascinating path.

What about professionals? The internet allows collaboration of talents, and is slowly becoming more and more profitable to content creators. Could it be possible that in the future creative entertainment is no longer created by broadcast companies, but collaborating grass roots teams, working to create and profit from their labours of love? Or will professional teams always have an edge?

Although quality content is often lacking from User Generated Content, it occasionally allows unlikely stars to emerge. Talent will always be well received, and as the profitability of UGC increases, as will the desire to improve the quality.

The key to the success of UGC systems is, without doubt, user-friendliness. The success of Facebook and the Nintendo Wii are testament to this. Creating Flash animations, or machinima in Second life, are not things everyone can do, but make an easy to use program for creating animations and people will be all over it – providing it's any good. There is definitely a need for more of this so I can see it improving immensely over the next few years, providing many opportunities.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Extreme Multi-tasking of the Future

As consumer choice increases, and software teaches us to multi-task, attention spans are getting shorter.

TV appears to be the first casualty of this change of attitude. Simply the advent of more channels started diluting TV audiences in the late 90s. Sheer volume of choice has made people realize that they no longer need to watch what they're told to watch, that the TV doesn't have the same power over their lives any more. Even quality programming hasn't saved it, as the “On Demand” paradigm has put timing in the hands of consumers.

As well as choice and control over TV content, the rise of DVD, the internet, and video games has further dispersed consumer attention. The new generations are growing up with an abundance of choice over their entertainment. This alone is causing them to demand choice and control in everything they do, something that is soon to have a major impact on our lives.

With all that choice, it's hard to stay focused on one thing at a time. The TV screen from Back to the Future 2, displaying many channels, may have seemed bizarre, but it is fast becoming a reality. If you don't believe me, look at how many tabs your browser currently has open. With so much choice, we need to cut down the amount of time spent of each thing we do, so we look at lots of things at once. Long gone are the days waiting for a web page to open, we've already opened 3 others and read another one while it was loading.

This concept alone is sure to spread into other areas of our lives. Our impatience and lack of attention span will likely lead to us becoming more and more efficient, not just absorbing more than one thing at a time, but performing more than one action at a time. Yes, even men.

Imagine you're preparing for your next holiday. You click a button on your touch screen keyboard (think laptop sized Nintendo DS) and your main screen is filled with information. In the top right hand corner, a small panel displays the local time, weather, and currency value of your destination.

A Google Earth window takes up a quarter of the screen, you fly around the streets of your destination using a virtual joystick on your touch panel. A ticker tape of the local news rolls along the bottom of the screen. A language coach on the webcam takes up another quarter of your screen, going through regular verbs. Downloads of holiday review TV programmes play in a small window. Virtual hotel walkthroughs play out, allowing you to book one there and then. A small box displays local restaurant photos and reviews.

Don't forget that while all this is on your screen, you're also listening to music, instant messaging a friend, and eating a microwave pizza.

Choice and control are going to be taken to the extremes, forcing us to integrate multitasking more and more into our everyday lives.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Sharing the Universe

This last week I've been reading an excellent book. I wanted to recommend it as it is a very comprehensive and entertaining discussion about the possibility of Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Now bear in mind that in the past week I've read 5 books, and this is the only one I felt compelled to recommend.

Although written in 1998, and no mention of the Singularity per se, it does mention living machines and artificial intelligence. I was also thrilled to see a couple of mentions of the "Galactic Internet"!

Seth Shostak has a very entertaining writing style that has inspired me. The book makes you laugh out loud at the profound humour whilst compelling you to read the next section. I read the book in less than a day and a half.

Every aspect of Extra Terrestrials are covered, from how planet systems form (this was written before we had discovered such an abundance of ET planets), to how life begins, how intelligence forms, how aliens would evolve physically, and what motives they would have to communicate with us. It describes the SETI mission in comprehensive detail, recounts the history of UFO conspiracy, and discusses the implications of picking up a signal. No stone is left unturned, yet the book never feels like it's going into too much detail.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will be keeping it for future reference even though I'm currently travelling around the world and have serious weight limitation!

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Just Another Death?

Page 9, somewhere in between another problem with public services and the latest celebrity gossip, is usually where I’ll find today’s horrific murder story. A teenager is brutally beaten and then “accidentally” killed when his attackers take it too far. They get a few months inside for man-slaughter; his family gets a lifetime of heartache. Consequently, the world balance between peaceful, loving, value creators and destructive, sadistic losers is shifted yet a little further in favour of idiocy. Yet, taking another sip of coffee, we turn the page.

We think to ourselves, “There’s nothing we can do”, and continue with our daily lives. "It doesn't really affect me or anyone I know". We blame "fate", or, most fundamentally, we think "Everyone dies, he was just taken before his time".

As a society, we still see death as inevitable. As a result, there is just no respect for human life. This, I believe, is why we have a situation where killing somebody can carry a lower sentence than stealing money from a bank.

Not only do the killers have no respect (another topic!), but neither do those handing out the pathetic sentences. Nor do the beauracrats who create the laws. Nor do the media, who report on deaths with a cold objectivity. As such, nor do the public, whose attitudes shape the decisions of authority. So we live in a world where the consequences of our actions are severely depreciated, a world where a mindless violent killing just isn’t important enough to get more than a passing mention.

When you know about Actuarial escape velocity and the potential for people alive today to live forever - this attitude is incredibly significant. Life suddenly gains a lot more significance when people are presented with the possibility of an increased or even indefinate biological life span. And not just on a personal level, people living longer has many implications to society. Centuries of training, knowledge, and wisdom could bring us an entire generation of Einsteins, Da Vincis, and Hendrixes. (Another topic!)

Our attitude to death must change. Every human life is sacred, deserving far more respect and recognition than we currently give. The concept of radical Life Extension simply must be introduced into the public conciousness, because every day, we're seeing more and more mindless killings of valuable, potentially immortal members of society.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Blogger of the Week!

I'm extremely proud to announce that I've been awarded "Blogger of the week" at FutureBlogger ( The articles mentioned were the ones I'm currently most proud of; "Virtual Unreality" and "How to Destroy Humanity", but "Science & Serendipity" has a high ranking there too. Needless to say I'm very pleased to be noticed so early in the blog's life.

Now for the difficult part: maintaining the standard...

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Virtual Unreality

Imagine, a life fully immersed inside a computer game where our every desire is fulfilled, and the suffering of reality is absent.  

One day, we may decide that a virtual existence is a more appealing option than the real world of pain and limitations. Perhaps we could create such an amazing alternative, that reality itself becomes obsolete.

Even today, without the "fully immersed" aspect, there are thousands of people who already spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one. As virtual environments improve, this will only increase.

Since the early 21st century, the residents of the virtual world Second Life have been working hard to recreate real "life" as accurately as possible. Despite the virtual platform giving occupants the ability to fly and teleport, they still prefer to meticulously create staircases to walk their avatar up and down. At discos, people require the coolest dance animations and best looking clothes. In meetings, virtual characters sit down to rest their virtual legs. It seems the confines of "reality" provide a comfortable and familiar environment. 

But virtual worlds are created by us – so why limit ourselves to reality? We could create entirely new realities. By realising that we are free of the rules of real life, the doors are open to incredible new possibilities. In many ways, virtual worlds already provide us with glimpses of alternate realities. We should take notice of these instrumental differences.

In Second Life specifically, we are introduced to many “virtual concepts”. These ideas exist only in the virtual world and they provide us with an insight into a possible future, exposing us to their possible implications.

Virtual Concepts

In Second Life, you cannot die. Your avatar may still exist (although it won’t be “physically” present) in the virtual world even after your real body has passed away. Although it is possible to harm you by the use of scripts, you will always exist unless you are deleted by the administrators. People can always view your legend whether you are personally online or not. 

Perfect History
It is entirely possible to record every action you perform in your virtual life (although, as far as we know, this feature has not yet been implemented into Second Life). All of your memories can be put into the virtual world by means of screen grabs, videos and saved conversations. One can only imagine this becoming more and more sophisticated, recording thoughts, movements, emotions, desires, preferences, and more, onto a central server to be accessed at any time. Perhaps with this kind of in depth recording in place, prediction of alternate futures within the virtual world might not be far behind. 

Distance is not a real concept in virtual worlds, so can easily be circumvented. Transporting instantly from one place to another is easy. This is because everything’s location is catalogued, and then referenced in a more human way, via context. Just like the Internet, we don’t care where a website is hosted, we just care about the content. In the same way, communication is not affected by physical distance.

Nanotechnology and the non-existence of the laws of thermodynamics
In the future, we may have desktop devices that can create any object instantly from a few basic raw materials. It promises to change the economy and the way we think about possessions.
In Second Life, it is possible to build anything you want, instantly, on the spot, from nothing. Providing you know how to build, it is a simple matter of putting together the polygons you require to create a new “physical” object in the virtual world. More sophisticated items require programming, bringing life to inanimate objects. 

One of the most fun things in Second Life is flying. Humankind has long looked up to the skies, wishing we could join the birds and see the world from another perspective. In virtual reality, this is not a problem. You can even use scripts to fly higher and faster. This is a showcase of an ability that doesn't exist in the "real" world. What other abilities could we attain in Virtual Reality?

Astral Projection
There is a technique that exists in Second Life called “Cam Scanning”, which involves manipulating the camera any way you wish. This allows you to “scan” the surrounding area, even seeing into private rooms, while your avatar is somewhere else. The people being observed cannot tell that they’re being watched, and people around your avatar can’t tell that you’re doing it. This feature completely undermines privacy and brings up some important social questions. Should it be programmed out of virtual worlds? Or should we just accept that our previous perceptions of body language, proximity, and presence, are obsolete? 

Obsolete Concepts

In addition to exposing us to new concepts that do not exist in real life, virtual worlds also reveal some real world concepts that are made obsolete by the Virtual Reality paradigm.

Physical Pain
Although your avatar can experience harassment and “physical” effects such as “bumping” and being propelled by programmed projectiles, feeling physical pain is something that needn't exist in Virtual Reality. This is profound in that those who enjoy hurting people no longer have any way to satisfy their desires and demonstrates the primitive nature of physical pain. Could suffering be completely eliminated in Virtual Reality?

Obviously whilst still in possession of a physical body, we will always need fuel to keep us alive. But could this be achieved by powering the "Matrix" of VR users with vast solar farms?

Going further, we may be able to upload our minds completely to a virtual reality environment. In this case there will be no need for food, other than virtual food for our enjoyment. Of course, the machines running the Virtual Reality interfaces would require fuel, but in the virtual world itself, we may have no concept of starvation or even eating.

Most aspects of biology aren’t relevant in virtual worlds at present. However, as the programming of these worlds is improved, it may be possible to incorporate biological aspects. Sex is a biological element we would almost certainly want to retain in a virtual environment, as would other positive physical sensations such as the benefits of exercise. However, none of these would be necessary, just desirable options for virtual living. Certainly, biological limitations and problems such as illness do not need to be present in a virtual world. 

Real Concepts

On the other side, there are many concepts that we do not (yet) escape from in virtual worlds. Mostly related to the human element, these concepts illustrate what is important in life. Whatever “reality” we decide to live in, there may be no escape from our core humanity. Or is there?

In Second Life, there are rules to adhere to. The company who runs the servers create the guidelines and control the economy. There is no voting for new leadership. It is essentially a dictatorship. However, in the future, we may decide that we prefer a virtual world that is entirely open source, created by the public and run by the public, with no overall leadership. Could this demonstrate that liberty is a perfectly viable and highly desirable system once concepts such as sadism are nullified and energy abundance is realised, or would it lead to anarchy on the virtual streets? Or most profoundly, would we be able to program out any chances of wrongdoing, thus creating (in the eyes of the creators) a perfectly behaved society – the dream of autocratic leaders?

Social Interaction, Emotions, Humour
In a virtual world, we are still ourselves. We still have to talk to people as we would in real life. Our personalities aren’t changed by the fact we look like Spongebob Squarepants with a machine gun. All the vital elements of personal interaction, timing, humour, affecting other people’s emotions, debate and relationships, are impossible to escape from, no matter how the reality is programmed. 

Art and Entertainment
No matter what the environment, art and entertainment will always be a vital part of humanity. People will always want to be entertained, and there will always be people that want to be creative. Creativity is a vital aspect of humanity that I see transcending all transformations of our environments, entities and existences. With infinite life spans, what else can hold our interest but an infinite array of possibilities? 

The difference with virtual reality though is that the reality we know no longer confines these possibilities. Art no longer needs to represent reality, in a virtual world, art itself opens up a whole new world of possibilities. For instance, in today’s world, art is represented by a picture on a wall, a movie, a piece of music. But in a virtual world, it could be an experience, a highly abstract representation of a situation, or something else entirely. 

In a virtual world where every fantasy and desire can be fulfilled, will there be any need for people to use trade to get things they want? Surely the point of a “Better than Life” simulation is to obsolete the need for money, work and business? Will enterprise will continue to have a place in a Utopian reality, virtual or otherwise.
Creativity is something that we all possess, but everyone is different, so there will always be new ideas, new art, and new ways to entertain. This continuing need for entertainment, and the fact that there will always be those who want to create, could keep some form of enterprise alive. Perhaps creative ideas themselves will become the new currency in a virtual society.

Cause and Effect
If you’re dealing with real people, you’re always going to have an effect on them with the interactions you have. There will be no way of turning back the clock on other people’s minds. 

However, if you were dealing only with Artificial Intelligences, their memories could be erased and you would be able to re-live situations, essentially going back in time. Which of these two alternatives you wish to live in could perhaps be a choice.

It may even be possible, in the case of the virtual world dictatorship, that the actions and memories of real people are undone for the benefit of elites within the world, thus giving a select few complete control over their lives at the expense of the rest of the population. 

Virtually Human

The move to a virtual existence would have all sorts of implications on our humanity.

As humans, we are motivated and driven by our needs. Our primary needs are physiological; food, sex, and comfort. At the current state of society, these needs are quite often not met, leading to all kinds of consequences.

In fully realised virtual immersion, satisfying these needs is as simple as programming the environment. The implications of this are profound, and will change the fabric of society.

Even now we see the impact of desires being met with virtual reality. Millions of online gamers are able to live virtual lives that are better than real lives, having adventures, being different people, and fulfilling their fantasies, albeit via a keyboard and monitor. This changes our very essence of our psyches.

In realising that these fantasies are possible, our general expectations in life are altered. Our priorities are distorted.

Our morals and ethics are altered by the alternative environments we occupy - we are a product of our environments after all. If our environment provides us with all we need, we remove many aspects of our humanity in an instant, both positive and negative.

As well as our environments, we are defined by our bio-chemistry. Testosterone changes men's personality as oestrogen does women's. What happens when we can control the brain more intimately and more precisely by artificial means, in a similar way to hormones?

Without food, where do we focus our efforts? With ultimate sex, what impact does this have on relationships, sexuality, love, friendship, reproduction, and sex itself? What will become of violence without anything to cause it? Without suffering, will we retain the concept of good with nothing to contrast?

What will we become without the primitive animal urges that made us human in the first place?


As you have seen, the idea of a virtual world goes far deeper than a 3D chat room. Looking from the perspective of a futuristic, perfect virtual reality, we are forced to question the very essence of our existence. What is the point of living if a utopia is provided for us? Once the superficial shell of reality is peeled from us, what is left of the human soul? What are the common denominators of our existence? 

The virtual world paradigm opens up our eyes to the limitations of reality, and shows us the true essence of what it means to be human.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Alien Immortality

  • Imagine we learn to read human brains down to the most intricate details.
  • Imagine we learn to record, in detail, every action that occurs within the brain, every synapse firing, every cell interaction, every memory.
  • Imagine if all of this data could then be stored on a computer and used to re-engineer a new, identical brain.
  • Imagine this brain could then be put into a new body, thus creating a new version of us when we die.
  • Imagine we knew for a fact that there was nothing after death.
  • Imagine we live forever using this, or some other mind transfer technique.
  • Imagine then we discover another civilisation on another planet, who is still too primitive to save minds, and who still believes that death is natural and essential.
  • Imagine we then engineer a situation, for example we send swarms of microscopic probes to their planet to monitor, transmit via microscopic satellites, and then record their minds on our computers.
  • Imagine we use this data to re-engineer the brains of these people back on our planet when they die.
Would we?

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

How to Destroy Humanity

Nuclear weapons are so 20th century. If you want to bring annihilation to the planet for not conforming to whatever depraved idealism you aspire to, there will soon be many much more interesting ways to do it. Unlike nukes, these technologies won’t be reserved for elite governments.



Nanotechnology presents many interesting possibilities. How about using self replicating nanoscopic robots to turn everything on the planet into grey goo? This kind of destruction would be so effective that nothing would remain of the present world. Perhaps this kind of disaster has already happened in our history? As there would be no evidence, we would never know! However, for many supervillians or religious fanatics, disassembling us to our core molecules just wouldn’t be fulfilling enough.

Fear not, the destructive power of nanotechnology is limited only by our imaginations. What about swarms of predatory nanobots, programmed to hunt down and kill “non-believers” and kill them in any manner of ways – asphyxiation, crushing, burning, or simply tearing them apart? Having a non-solid physical presence they would be virtually impossible to catch and destroy. Nano-assemblers, machines capable of manufacturing anything with atomic precision out of basic molecules such as carbon, look set to change the entire world as we know it. They would put an end to world hunger, propel the entire world into luxury, and have untold effects on the economy.

Or, they could be used to undermine security measures, creating weapons in volatile scenarios, thus reversing power balances in an instant. Imagine terrorists gaining access to the Whitehouse unarmed, only to fabricate guns once inside. Or an entire country arming every citizen within hours before going on a worldwide rampage? With nano-assemblers, the rules of supply, laws of transportation, and manufacturing limitations are turned on their head. As such, any controls put in place to limit armourment are undermined in an instant.

Of course, these kinds of scenarios are purely speculation, in a world full of nano-assemblers, the playing field would be severely levelled. Who knows what scenarios would present themselves? Nanotechnology itself paves the way for unimaginable abuse. At its most basic, it could provide means to simply and barbarically destroy human bodies, at its most advanced, it could turn every one of us into powerful gods, able to truly manipulate our environments and bodies.

At the moment though, nanotechnology in these forms is not yet a reality. In fact, due to the differences in basic mechanics at the atomic level, the dream of nanoscopic robots able to manipulate molecules could remain just that – a dream.


Mutant Army

So what other options does a would-be evil tyrant have? Well, blasphemous scientists are always looking for ways to play god, providing a few more ways to wreak havoc on society. Potentially there is nothing to stop corrupt governments or corporations creating an array of superhuman, cybernetic, or mutant monsters reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. Creating “The Hulk” isn’t too far off, there is much research going on in the field of increased strength.

Many other superpowers are around the corner, and cybernetics could allow any manner of weapons to be incorporated into the body, such as a cannon for an arm. Once we have mastered biology, the limits are again set by our imaginations. My favourite cartoon character of all time, Hordak from He-Man/She-ra, was modifying bodies to create an army of elite evil warriors back in the early 80s. A real life Hordak needn’t be far away.


Existential Evil

The very fabric of our existence could become an attractive target for all you destruction merchants, if time travel ever becomes possible, and it’s looking like, in some form at least, it will. But forget about “Terminator-esque” scenarios, any evil time travellers would be ruthlessly efficient, there would be no Hollywood happy endings in real life.

The Chinese controlled the weather to prevent rain during the 2008 Olympics. This was just the first step in controlling the world around us. Controlling hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and the like are not outside the realms of possibility, and many speculate that it's already happening.


A Moral Dilemna

All of these powerful technologies have one thing in common, they involve manipulation. Manipulation of matter, biology, the weather, or even time itself. It seems we are on the verge of mastering the universe in the most intricate fashion. And unlike nuclear weapons, these new God-like powers will be in the hands of the majority, corporations and individuals. What a scary thought. How can the general population which is riddled with wrongdoers, do-gooders and just plain irrationals, remain responsible with such awesome and destructive power? Should we restrict technology and not allow society down this dark and blasphemous path?

Well, taking such a stance is naïve. The fact is, even if such advances are banned, someone will still do it. Legislation, as always, is not the answer. Not only does it give unfair advantage to those who want to break the law, but the legislation itself is usually extremely narrow scoped. It will restrict an action deemed to have negative consequences without taking into account that it may also have good implications. Take the legislation against stem cells as a prime example. Holding back on science and progress with legislation is not just pointless, it is highly immoral. Any leader who does so, either by political power or religious manipulation, has the blood of future generations on their hands.

Whatever their reason, restricting knowledge equates to deliberate neglect. The power to manipulate the universe is the destiny of conscious life. Since we first picked up a stick and used it as a tool, humanity has been on a journey, a journey of discovery and creation. These new powers are no more than an extension of building an aeroplane, performing a heart bypass, or planting a tree. They may well be abused to the point where they threaten our entire existence, but without them, we stagnate, or even regress.

Considering, for a second, the human spirit, I really don’t think that’s an option.

“One kills a man, one is an assassin; one kills millions, one is a conqueror; one kills everybody, one is a god.” ~ Jean Rostand

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Galactic Internet


We all know how the internet has changed our lives. It's not souly because of the information it can fill our minds with, but because of the applications that it brings us. We can go shopping, check flights, make money, network with people, form movements, archive entertainment, connect businesses, and lots more.

There's no knowing where the internet will take us in the next 10-20 years. What if, we were to look far further into the future?

This century we are closer than we have ever been to discovering alien life. If it exists, we may well discover it in the next few decades. Far more significant however, will be the discovery of intelligent life. The implications of discovering an extra terrestrial conscious life form are immense. It will shake the entire foundations of our society. It will give us new perspectives on both the problems and pleasures of human life.

Given the vastness of the universe, and the unimaginable timescales it presents us, the discovery of alien life will no doubt give us the opportunity to see not only a totally different race, but a totally different time. The chances of finding a civilisation that has come into fruition in the past few thousand years like we have are extremely improbable. So the likelihood is that any civilisation we discover will be far, far in advance of our own.

Look at the way the world has changed in the past decade, just because of the internet. This century is expected to bring such medical and technological breakthroughs that mankind will soon become unrecognisable to its ancestors. Combine this exponential, accellerating rate of change, with the massive timescales of space. Can you imagine, what any race intelligent enough not to succumb to existential risk would become?

Now imagine what such a civilisation's internet would have evolved into. For an interstellar civilisation, an interstellar communications system would be essential. Vast amounts of data would need to be shared between star systems. Entire planets or stars would need to be used for data storage and computation.

Transfer of data would provide the biggest obstacle, given the speed limit of the universe and the vast distances presented. Sci-fi solutions such as wormholes or time travel could solve these problems. With wormholes, data could simply be sent through tears in space, with time travel, data could be sent via traditional methods, only to be sent back in time once it arrived at its destination, giving the illusion of an instantaneous transfer. Von Neumann communication probes could provide the infrastructure.

Discovering the transfer method used for such a galactic internet could enable us to at least detect its presence. It is possible though, that advanced civilisations protect themselves from "non-enlightened species" by hiding or securing the network. Perhaps, discovery of the network requires enlightenment, for example the singularity itself could provide discovery and connection methods that we would never have discovered without it. Alternatively, discovery may be extremely easy, which would almost certainly be a deliberate scenario designed to uplift us once we find it. (If an advanced civilisation doesn't want us to find it, it's highly unlikely we'll be able to.)

What applications and knowledge could such a powerful internet that spreads across the galaxy, or even the universe, bring us?

Monday, 2 June 2008

Science and Serendipity

In the past, many scientific discoveries and technological solutions have come from a non related source of information. From Archimedes’ realisation in the bath, to the accidental discovery of penicillin, history is full of occasions where going outside the subject in question has provided answers to scientific problems. When you really think about it, in many ways humankind, technology, and scientific understanding have been propelled forward, significantly, by luck alone. 
Many great individuals have been personally responsible for some of the most important discoveries of all time. Often, their discoveries were the result of sharing information with a friend or colleague from another field, who was able to introduce a new angle to the problem, opening up the eyes of both parties to new possibilities. Or, someone will change their field, bringing knowledge and experience from a previous career into the new subject and then approaching problems from a unique perspective. Today’s prime example of this is Aubrey DeGrey’s computing background giving a new perspective to the concept of aging. 
Many major breakthroughs have been created this way, by going outside the realms of the problem itself, drawing upon the knowledge of something else to find a solution. It’s often something that is not done purposefully, so, more often than not, it doesn’t happen. Chemists might plug away at a problem for years, not realising that the answer lies in zoology. The solutions to nanotechnology might lie in quantum physics, or perhaps just mathematics. There are so many possible avenues that perhaps there are problems that we will never solve, due to us never taking the correct path to their discovery. 
This is obviously not acceptable. Relying on chance meetings of elites from different fields coming up with solutions will likely keep human progress to the speed of the 1800s, whilst working on problems for which solutions already exist is a ridiculous waste of time, especially if you want to stay ahead of Actuarial Escape Velocity. Thankfully, the internet brings a lot of information together and keeps the relevant people informed on progress. With the advent of huge, web based amateur communities and special interest groups, much news and information is shared amongst those with common goals, helping the spread of information. 
However, the spread of information alone is not enough to ensure efficient solution development. We need intelligence to process the information, bright human beings to integrate concepts, related and otherwise. Even then it is a case of trial and error, relying on the ingenuity of the brightest and best to chance upon solutions from their usually random integrations. This is still not really ideal. 

What is needed is a system to solve this problem. The system may not be fully efficient until the creation of the first AI, which will be able to integrate any number or combination of concepts at lightning speed. Before then, however, it is certainly possible to improve on the current system of chance. We drastically need something to aid the thinkers of our world in coming up with new discoveries. 
Wikipedia has so far come as close as I’ve seen to such a system, bringing together information that is linked together, and constantly kept up to date by human beings. However, the information is linked together by relevance, so discovery and development that can be credited to non-related concepts are still only going to be from human intervention. It’s unknown if we’ll ever be able to make a system that organises information in a way that finds the missing links of relevance, but perhaps something can be created to assist humans in doing it.