InformIT has just published an interview with me where they asked me a bunch of questions related to C# 4.0 How-To. We got into the multicore future, Internet versus books, why C# programmers need to know about UAC, and a lot more. Check it out!
Star Trek, along with other science fiction futures, has given us many things, apart from a vision of humanity that is hopefully a little better than we prove to be, but also a taste of what technology can be like when it is integrated so fully into people’s lives that it’s nearly taken for granted.
The computer on the Enterprise is an interesting entity to think about. A crew member can ask it just about any question and it can give the desired answer. It doesn’t matter if the question is slightly vague, or depends on prior knowledge of the conversation. What phenomenal power! How does it work?
I can think of only two possibilities:
- It can read their minds
- It has been paying attention to their conversation, and thus understands the context.
Not discounting the possibility of the first scenario, I want to think about the second.
How much understanding of our immediate environment is due to context? When analyzing a situation we have at our disposal our
- Book knowledge
- Logical analysis/intuition (I include them in the same since intuition could theoretically be a subconscious logical process, colored with experience—I don’t know if I believe that, but it’s not important)
Now take away experience. How would you fare when confronted with new situations (Which, by definition, are all situations)?
Most of us, I think, would understandably quail under the rigor of thought required to get through such an ordeal. If you believe otherwise, make the situation extreme—flying a plane, or leading a squad into war. No amount of knowledge or rational thought will help here—you need the benefit of hard-core training: experience–context.
Do this exercise: describe to someone what salt tastes like.
On the other hand, saying “It’s too salty.” immediately conveys exactly what you mean, based on shared context, mutual experience.
There is an enormous gap between where our computer systems are now, versus what is perhaps the holy grail of foreseeable technology, the computer on the Enterprise—an all-seeing, all-knowing, conversant entity. It’s like Wikipedia, but to a depth of knowledge unheard of on any web site today, all cross-referenced and Searchable.
Wikipedia is a decent (I won’t say great) source of much knowledge, but it’s hardly definitive, or all-encompassing. Also, it’s just facts. It’s not calculation or interpretation. It does not advise or synthesize.
In Star Trek, when a crewmember asks questions, they can be these fact-based, context-free questions that require simple look-ups to respond with. But often, there is a series of questions, with dialogue in-between, all related to a certain topic. Each query does not contain the total information required to retrieve a response. Rather, the computer has tracked the context and maintained an accurate representation of the conversation thus far. In essence, the computer is participating in the conversation fully.
An idea of what context means is demonstrated by this simple list of questions. Just imagine giving these to a computer or search engine today. The first one is ok, but following that, not so much.
- What are the latest Hubble Telescope pictures?
- When were these taken?
- How much longer will it stay up?
- How will the next space telescope be different?
- Compare the efforts of all G7 nations to build orbiting observation platforms.
Each of those questions presupposed the previous one. The computer must keep track of this. That last one is a real doozy—it’s asking the computer to synthesize information from multiple sources into a coherent, original response. We can’t even dream of something this advanced right now, but I believe it’s coming.
On the other hand, let’s take a different direction, more personal:
- Which of my friends are having a birthday in the next month?
- What book should I read next?
- What do I need to get at the store?
- Where are my children?
Is this possible to do today? Yes, technologically speaking.
It’s not technology that will hold us back. It’s us.
Think of what it means to have a computer able to access full context to answer any query you throw at it. It has to know everything about you. To give you good food recommendations, it has to know where you’ve eaten and how you liked it. To be able to answer arbitrary questions in context, it needs to record your every conversation, parse it, cross-reference it, and store it for later access.
In our current culture, what this means is tying together all systems. There are intimations of this happening. Every time you hear of a company providing an API to access its data, that’s a little piece of this context being hooked up. It means that the Computer now has access to your Facebook and LinkedIn data, so that when you search for “tortoise” it can see you’re a developer and a high-proportion of software developers want to actually download “TortoiseSVN”, not see pictures of reptiles. In fact, it probably means there is no such thing as Facebook (or any other social network) anymore. There is just one network filled with data.
It becomes even more intertwined. If I really want the computer to have full context of me, it should monitor what I watch on TV, what my tastes in music are, where I go, where I work, my habits, who I call, what I talk about, etc., etc., etc. It never ends.
Now, here’s the million-dollar question: who would agree to such invasive procedures, even if the benefit was enormous?
In many ways, we are agreeing to it all the time. We allow places like Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes to track all our purchases in order to give us decent recommendations (in the hope we’ll purchase more). We give up our privacy a bit when we get the grocery loyalty cards, or even credit cards. This is all tracked and correlated. In the case of recommendation systems, there is a tangible benefit for us,but the loyalty cards are less certainly valuable to us, other than lower prices (which is not an inherent benefit of those cards, just a marketing tactic). Indeed, studies have shown for just how little we humans give up our privacy.
There are a few levels of security we need to worry about. At a low level, how much do you trust Google, or Microsoft, or Apple, or Amazon with your information? Right now, a lot of us trust them with a fair amount, but nowhere near our entire life’s story. We have it neatly segmented. Part in Amazon, part in Facebook, part in Google, part in all the other companies we deal with. If mistakes are made, consequences not thought through, we have problems like all our friends seeing what we’re purchasing.
At a high level, we need to consider all of this context ending up in the wrong hands. Not just scammers and other low-lifes, but government, foreign and domestic. The potential for abuse is massive—so much so that most of us wouldn’t voluntarily agree to any of the unifying ideas in this essay in our lifetimes. We just don’t trust anybody that much.
In essence, a Star Trek-like computer would require massive amounts of “spyware” on every system in the world, all tied together in a massive database. This is possible (maybe even desired?) in a closed system like a ship, where everything is easily monitored and hierarchies of security are well-understood. In the world at large, it’s just scary.
Economy and Altruism
I believe another obstacle to this is money. The way our society works, with limited resources, we are required (?) to have some system of trade, an economy. These days, the trade is often over information, the very thing this mythical Star Trek computer depends on. Think credit reports, buying history, demographics.
What is the specific danger of businesses finding out personal information about you? Can they force you to buy something? Not likely. But they can manipulate the environment in such a way to make it more likely. They present a lie designed to sell you something you don’t need. More maliciously, they can also sell your information to more vital entities, like insurance companies, or governments. If the government is too powerful, there is no way to prevent this. Think about what happens in China.
Is the only way to have such efficient and helpful systems to do away with our current capitalistic economy? Yes and no. Such far-reaching, life-changing technologies will undoubtedly continue to be developed and become more a part of our lives than they already are. Unfortunately, the potential for abuse is enormous and will grow as we become more and more dependent on them. We have no inherent trust in the system, nor should we. Just look at the ridiculous politicking taking place over voting machines. That’s just one system, and our society can’t get it right. We have a thousand such systems, many hanging onto usefulness and security by a thread. I bet that it’s not even the exception, but the rule to have such systems. Why should we trust such things to run our lives? We shouldn’t. There are so many reasons for this: corruption, economy, politics, and motivation.
Perhaps motivation is they key. We are often motivated now by money, comfort, or some other selfish reason—reasonable or not. In the Star Trek vision of the future, we see a population depicted as motivated by a quest for knowledge and understanding. That’s why they can have all-knowing computers. They trust who created it and what it does. They know there is no political or other ulterior motive. Yes, there’s adequate security and protections against attack, but the whole starting mindset is different.
Don’t think that I’m in favor of destroying capitalism in favor of more socialistic or idealistic systems. Imposing a system of “fairness” or “equality” does nothing to further those goals and I’m not advocating any political or economic system—I’m merely stating what I think the reality must be in the future for us to make these advancements. People themselves must reform their motivations. Pushing any political system has no effect because the fundamentals of our world haven’t changed. Resources are still scarce, thus economy must still exist. If people’s intrinsic motivations are to be changed, I believe resources must be (practically) infinite.
When this happens the nature of the Internet will change as well. If the economics change and we are no longer concerned with that, and we also have an altruistic frame of mind, information that is posted on the Internet will similarly change. No longer do we have to actually care about our walled gardens—the information is just put “up there”, in the “cloud”, to use the popular term. A computer would be free to just quote the contents to the user, or recombine it with other content. It’s all just content, with a single interface to access it all.
There’s an important issue I glossed over in the above paragraphs. That is understanding. I talked a little about this in my previous blog entry about Software Creativity and Strange Loops.
I’m excited for this future. I doubt I’ll live to see advances fully along these lines. The problems are phenomenally difficult and they’re not all technical, but it’s still exciting to think about. Those of us who can just need to do our small part to contribute towards it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kind of technology and scientific understanding that would need to go into a computer like the one on the Enterprise in Star Trek, and specifically its interaction with people. It’s a computer that can respond to questions in context—that is, you don’t have to restart in every question everything needed to answer. The computer has been monitoring the conversation and has thus built up a context that it can use to understand and intelligently respond.
A computer that records and correlates conversations real-time must have a phenomenal ability (compared to our current technology) to not just syntactically parse the content, but also construct semantic models of it. If a computer is going to respond intelligently to you, it has to understand you. This is far beyond our current technology, but we’re moving there. In 20 years who knows where this will be. In 100, we can’t even imagine it. 400 years is nearly beyond contemplation.
The philosophy of computer understanding, and human-computer interaction specifically is incredibly interesting. I was led to think a lot about this while reading Robert Glass’s Software Creativity 2.0. This book is about the design and construction of software, but it has a deep philosophical undercurrent running throughout that kept me richly engaged. Much of the book is presented as conflicts between opposing forces:
- Discipline versus Flexibility
- Formal Methods versus Heuristics
- Optimizing versus satisficing
- Quantitative versus qualitative reasoning
- Process versus product
- Intellectual versus clerical
- Theory versus practice
- Industry versus academe
- Fun versus getting serious
Too often, neither one of these sides is “right”—they are just part of the problem (or the solution). While the book was written from the perspective of software construction, I think you can twist the intention just a little and consider them as attributes of software itself, not just how to write it, but how software must function. Most of those titles can be broken up into a dichotomy of Thinking versus Doing.
Thinking: Flexibility, Heuristics, Satisficing, Qualitative, Process, Intellectual, Theory, Academe
Doing: Discipline, Formal Methods, Optimizing, Quantitative, Product, Clerical, Practice, Industry
Computers are wonderful at the doing, not so much at the thinking. Much of thinking is synthesizing information, recognizing patterns, and highlighting the important points so that we can understand it. As humans, we have to do this or we are overwhelmed and have no comprehension. A computer has no such requirement—all information is available to it, yet it has no capability to synthesize, apply experience and perhaps (seemingly) unrelated principles to the situation. In this respect, the computer’s advantage in quantity is far outweighed by its lack of understanding. It has all the context in the world, but no way to apply it.
A good benchmark for a reasonable AI on the level I’m dreaming about is a program that can synthesize a complex set of documents (be they text, audio, or video) and produce a comprehensible summary that is not just selected excerpts from each. This functionality implies an ability to understand and comprehend on many levels. To do this will mean a much deeper understanding of the problems facing us in computer science, as represented in the list above.
You can start to think of these attributes/actions as mutually beneficial and dependent, influencing one another, recursively, being distinct (at first), and then morphing into a spiral, both being inputs to the other. Quantitative reasoning leads to qualitative analysis which leads back to qualitative measures, etc.
It made me think of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s opus Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This is a fascinating book that, if you can get through it (I admit I struggled through parts), wants you to think of consciousness as the attempted resolution of a very high-order strange loop.
The Strange Loop phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.
In the book, he discusses how this pattern appears in many areas, most notably music, the works of Escher, and in philosophy, as well as consciousness.
My belief is that the explanations of “emergent” phenomena in our brains—for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will—are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing “resonance” between different levels… The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.
I can’t help but think that this idea of a strange loop, combined with Glass’s attributes of software creativity are what will lead to more intelligent computers.
Charles Fishman has a wonderful article on a aircraft engine manufacture plant in Durham, NC. There are a lot of interesting lessons in here about teamwork, motivation, and work that make it a highly recommended read.
I’m supposed to be packing up the house and instead just read that.
Update:Jon supplied a link to a Joel Spolsky article counterpointing the above article. Now I’m going to be reading that instead of doing some chores.
In the future, when you have your first humanoid robot servant and you decide to have some fun with it, and you tell it to do something stupid and arbitrary like go stand in the corner for no reason, put itself in embarrassing poses, or anything generally “abusive”, will you feel bad afterwards? Should you? Why?
I think I would, perhaps depending on the severity and arbitrariness. I asked my wife. She said definitely yes, and that regardless of whether the machine can “feel” embarrassment or frustration, it reveals a character deficiency in yourself. She compared it to abuse against animals.
I think it may also depend on how humanized the robot is. You would feel bad doing it to Data (ignoring his free will), but maybe not to a mute, grotesque car welder.
Thankfully, South Korea has come up with a robot code of ethics.
I installed Windows Vista Service Pack 1 this morning. It took about 45 minutes, two reboots, and afterward I had no problems. It never showed up in Windows Update for me so I used the standalone installer (linked to above), fully prepared to reinstall some drivers. But afterwards, no drivers seemed to have any problems–Device Manager didn’t show any issues. So all is well and good.
Technorati Tags: Vista SP1
Thank you for your increasing interest in my blog, which is apparently slowly gaining in popularity with legitimate readers too!
Unfortunately, my dear spammers, you are idiots. 100% of comments on this blog are moderated–99.9% are filtered before I ever see them. The rest are fairly obvious scams. None of your stupid spammy comments will ever be allowed. You’re just annoying me. And you get nothing out of it. I hate you.
My wife sent me a link to the Amazon Kindle the other day, and asked, “Have you heard of this? what do you think?” I think she wants one.
I have to admit that the thought of such a device is appealing. I have tried reading e-books on my PDA and BlackBerry occasionally, but other than a quick read now and then, it’s too painful–the screen was too small.
But the Kindle…this might work out. I’m seriously considering getting one.
With the news that Amazon is buying Audible, the story gets more interesting. Personally, I haven’t gotten much into audio books, but I know people who do and love them.
I have no idea if or how Amazon will integrate Audible into the Kindle’s experience, but I have a feature request. For a killer feature:
Sell the audio version of a book at a discount (or free, or + $1)when someone buys the e-book format (or vice-versa). Then, synchronize the bookmarks between the two formats. That way, I can plug the Kindle into my car’s stereo on the way home to listen to my current selection, and at night I can pull it out and continue reading from where the audio left off.
That’s my prediction for a killer app. My wife and I do a LOT of reading (we JUST ordered our first TV, and it’s only for NetFlix, and we will not be hooking it up for any broadcast or cable). I think someday soon we’ll both have our own Kindle–it would save a lot of bookshelf space.
Power. Electricity. The Holy Grail of modern technology.
I say this because the information revolution completely depends on electricity, whether it’s batteries, hybrid motors, or the grid. Everything we do depends on converting some naturally occurring resource into power to drive our lives.
I was thinking about power recently while watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything they do depends on an infinite (or nearly so) source of energy. Their warp core powers the ship for a 20-year mission. Each device they have is self-powered. From what? Do they need recharging? I imagine not, but it’s been a while since I’ve read the technical manual.
In any case, much of that world (and other Sci-Fi worlds) depends on powerful, long-lasting, disconnected energy sources. For one example, think of the energy required to power a laser-based weapon. And it has to fire more than once.
The truth is that having such a power source is more than world-changing. It has the potential to completely rebuild society from the ground up. If you think about it, much of the world’s conflict is over sources of energy. Authority and power is derived from who controls the resources. If energy was infinitely available, it would be infinitely cheap (at least in some sense). I almost think it would change society from being so focused on worldly gain, to more on pursuit of knowledge, enlightenment, and improvement. We wouldn’t have to worry about how to get from one place to another, or who has more oil, or what industries to invest energy resources in. So much would come free.
When I speak of “infinite” power, don’t take it literally. What I mean is “So much to be practically unlimited.”
Of course there are different types of infinities:
- Infinite magnitude – Can produce any amount of power you desire. Not very likely. Something like this would be dangerous. “Ok, now I want Death Star phasers. ok. Go.” Boom.
- Infinite supply – There’s a maximum magnitude in the amount of power it can generate, but it can continue “forever” (or at least a reasonable approximation of forever). This is the useful one.
And there are a few other requirements we should consider:
- Non-destructive. Environment. Mankind, etc.
- Contained and controlled. Obvious.
- Portable. Sometimes microscopically so.
It’s nice to dream about such things…
- Cell phones and Laptops that never need recharged
- Tiny devices everywhere that never need an external power source (GPS, sensors, communications devices, robots, etc.)
- Cars that do not fuel. Ever. We’d probably keep them a lot longer. They could do more, be larger, more efficient, faster, safer.
- Vehicles that can expand the boundaries of their current form. How big can you make an airplane if you don’t have to worry about using up all its fuel? (not to mention the weight)
- Easier to get things into orbit–space program suddenly becomes much more interesting. Maybe we can develop engines that produce enough power to escape gravity, without using propellant (a truly ancient technology).
- Devices that can act more intelligently, and just do more than current devices. Think if your iPod that turns itself off after a few minutes of not using it. That scenario would be a thing of the past.
With such a power source the energy economy of devices that we have to pay such close attention to now goes out the window. Who cares how much energy it uses if there’s an endless amount to go around (and since we’ve already established that the energy source is non-destructive and highly-efficient, environmental factors don’t enter in). There would be no need for efficiency until you started bumping up the boundaries of how much power you needed.
Anybody who’s taken high school or college mathematics know how phenomenal exponential growth is. Even if the exponent is very, very small, it eventually adds up. With that in mind, look at this quick-and-dirty chart I made in Excel, plotting the growth in hard drive capacity over the years. [source: http://www.pcguide.com/ref/hdd/hist-c.html]
Ok. it’s ugly, but notice a few things:
- The pink denotes the data points from the source data or what I put in (I added 1000 GB in 2007).
- The scale is logarithmic, not linear. Each y-axis gridline represents a ten-fold increase in capacity.
- At the current rate of growth, by 2020, we’ll have 1,000,000 GB hard drives. That’s 1 petabyte (1PB). (by the way, petabyte is not in Live Writer’s spelling dictionary–get with the times Microsoft!)
- The formula, as calculated by Excel, says that the drive capacity should double roughly every 2 years.
Also, this doesn’t really take into account multiple-hard drive storage schemes like NAS, RAID, etc. Right now, it’s quite easy to lash individual storage units together into packages such as those for more space, redundancy, etc. I’ll ignore that ability for now.
So 2020: that’s 12 years from now. We can expect to have a petabyte in our computers. That’s a LOT of space. Imagine the amount of data that can be stored. How about every book ever written? How about all your music, high-def DVDs, ripped with no lossy compression?
Tools such as Live Desktop and Google Desktop take on a whole new level of importance when faced with the task of cataloging petabytes of information on your home PC. Because, let’s face it, you’ll never delete anything. You’ll take thousands of pictures with your digital camera and never delete any of them. You’ll take hours of high-def footage and never watch or edit them, but you’ll want to find something in them (with automated voice recognition and image analysis, of course). Every e-mail you get over your entire lifetime can be permanently archived.
What if you could get a catalog of every song ever recorded? That would probably require more than a few petabytes, even compressed, but we’re heading that way. I don’t think the amount of music in the world is increasing exponentially, is it? Applications like iTunes and Window Media Player, not to mention things like iPods, would have to have a critically-designed interface to handle the organization and searching for desired music. I think Windows Media Player 11 is incredible, but I don’t think it could handle more than about 100,000 songs without choking–has anyone approached any practical limits with it?
What about the total information in the world–that probably is increasing exponentially. Will we eventually have enough storage so that everyone can have their own local, easily searchable copy of the vast sum of human knowledge and experience? (Ignoring the question of why we would want to)
Let’s extrapolate this growth out 100 years to the year 2100. I won’t show the graph, but it approaches 1E+20 GB by the year 2100.
How do the economics of digital goods change when you can have an infinite number of them? It’s the opposite of real estate, an ever-diminishing good.
On my home PC, for the first time, I do have a lot of storage that isn’t being used. I have about 1 TB of storage, and about 300 GB free. I suppose I could rip all my DVDs, rip all my music at lossless compression (it’s currently all WMA / 192Kbps).
The rules of the game can change quickly when that much storage is available. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming decades. Of course, all this discussion is completely ignoring the increasingly connected, networked world we live in.