Some cool stuff from this week, plus a new feature in which I share with you one thing I’ve been enjoying this week (keeping it down to one will be very, very difficult, but in the interest of brevity I will do my best).
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The doomsday invention – from The New Yorker
A riveting portrait of transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom and his views on the future of our species. Transhumanists believe that technology can augment our capabilities and transform the human condition. Bostrom subscribes to that belief, but he’s not like most transhumanists. His studies go further. From his Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, Bostrom studies the potential impact of technology – especially artificial intelligence – on the probability of mankind’s survival.
His work on “The Doomsday Argument” shows that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated. It’s unlikely now that we will be wiped out by a volcano explosion or a comet crashing – since we’ve gone millions of years without that happening, it’s safe to assume that we can go a few more million. But, since we have very little experience of technology not wiping us out, we can’t assume that that won’t happen. So, we need to work extra hard to protect ourselves from that eventuality. Even if the technology that could wipe us out hasn’t been invented yet, we need to prepare for it.
“The view of the future from Bostrom’s office can be divided into three grand panoramas. In one, humanity experiences an evolutionary leap—either assisted by technology or by merging into it and becoming software—to achieve a sublime condition that Bostrom calls “posthumanity.” Death is overcome, mental experience expands beyond recognition, and our descendants colonize the universe. In another panorama, humanity becomes extinct or experiences a disaster so great that it is unable to recover. Between these extremes, Bostrom envisions scenarios that resemble the status quo—people living as they do now, forever mired in the “human era.””
This is pretty scary stuff. But we can’t turn our backs on progress. And the benefits of approaching the Singularity, when artificial intelligence becomes self-improving and no longer needs humans, are incalculable. Bostrom believes that we need to develop artificial intelligence, but we need to be very careful. The headlong rush of industry into this potentially very profitable field could bring on the end of humanity unless we take into account its ethical design. We can’t prevent it, but we do need to control it.
“Even the most grounded version of the debate occupies philosophical terrain where little is clear. But, Bostrom argues, if artificial intelligence can be achieved it would be an event of unparalleled consequence—perhaps even a rupture in the fabric of history. A bit of long-range forethought might be a moral obligation to our own species.”
This article is a bit heavy on the philosophical terms, and I confess that some of the reasoning is a bit over my head, but it does drive home the importance of the questions: Are we capable of inventing something that will bring about our own destruction? How do we handle that possibility?
With brilliant people working on this, I at least will sleep a bit better. Bostrom’s institute recently received $1.5 million from Elon Musk, to craft social policies that take some of the futuristic scenarios into account. It’s not easy, though. As Bostrom himself says:
“What I want to avoid is to think from our parochial 2015 view—from my own limited life experience, my own limited brain—and super-confidentially postulate what is the best form for civilization a billion years from now, when you could have brains the size of planets and billion-year life spans. It seems unlikely that we will figure out some detailed blueprint for utopia.”
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Images from the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards – via The Atlantic
You have got to see these photographs. It’s a beautiful, crazy world we live in.
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3d printers give us a new way to think – via Wired
This is mind-blowing in more ways than one. The story opens with an account of how a brain surgeon preps for complicated surgeries by 3d-printing a model of the brain, tumour and all, which he then holds in his hand, studies from all angles, and develops a “feel” for the problem.
Which opens up the possibility of using 3d-printing not just as a making machine, but also as a thinking machine. A way to help us think about problems and to see them from different perspectives.
This reminds me of how we saw mobile phones when they first came out. I don’t know of anyone who expected them to morph into lifestyle management devices. The point is, that we often can’t see what a technology will be used for, until it’s out in the field and people are actually using it and coming up with new purposes.
“What’s more, we need our intellectual culture to evolve. Right now, we don’t value or teach spatial reasoning enough; “literacy” generally only means writing and reading.”
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3d interactive display – via PSFK
And speaking of minds being blown, take a look at this:
I’ve written about haptics before. This takes the concept to a whole new level. Interactive 3d graphics, without glasses. Really. Virtual, formable displays that feel squishable. Yes, mind-blowing.
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How railroad history shaped internet history – from The Atlantic
Ingrid Burrington gives us a beautiful stroll through networking history and shows us that history matters (not that we doubted that) and that offline sets the tone for online (maybe we doubted that, but we shouldn’t).
“My favorite part of looking for network infrastructure in America is really all the ghosts. Networks tend to follow networks, and telecommunications and transportation networks tend to end up piled on top of each other. The histories of these places isn’t always immediately obvious, but it’s there, forming a kind of infrastructural palimpsest, with new technologies to annihilate space and time inheriting the idealized promise and the political messiness of their predecessors.”
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Bitcoin and neuroscience – from Motherboard
This is a very strange article, about how we can use neuroscience to determine the Bitcoin price movement. The digital currency’s surges and slumps have been the subject of much speculation in the press recently, with doomsayers and evangelists vying for the spotlight. And the relative scarcity of information leaves the market moves more vulnerable to the striatum region of the brain. I did mention it was a strange article, right?
“The key word here is expectation—positive or negative information can have paradoxical effects in the brain, based on the person. If something ostensibly bad happens in Bitcoin—the bottom falls out of the price, for example—then someone’s brain may actually respond as if that were a positive thing. What goes down must come up, and all that. It doesn’t make much sense, but then again, neither neither do people or their brains.”
Personally, I think that Bitcoin’s price movements have to do with the relative number of buyers and sellers. Call me “old school”, if you will.
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The most inspirational holiday gift guide ever, really – from Quartz
Have you started your holiday gift shopping yet? I’m still searching for ideas, so I do click on the “gift guide” links and I do skim the lists. And then I marvel at how “unique” my family is, that none of the recommended gifts would be even remotely appropriate for them.
This selection from Quartz, however, is different. It’s inspirational, uplifting, and quite lovely. 40 leaders in art, business, fashion, science and social justice were asked “What is the best gift you have ever received?”. The article summarizes their answers, which flow between the eye-opening, the moving, the surprising and the profound.
“The best gifts are like those roman candles, giving light and wonder to our lives.” – Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy
In the end, the most powerful gifts we can give are education, understanding and some of our time and attention. Check out Astro Teller’s entry, it’ll give you the warm fuzzies. I also loved René Redzepi’s (“Something that changes the course of your life”), and Whitney Wolfe (“It was a total detach kit”).
My biggest take-away from the report is that we are all so different, and it’s so hard to know what will impact and float to the top and stay there. And that’s beautiful.
“I like a gift that helps me to become someone I’d like to be.” – Akhil Sharma, author
Even if you don’t want to read this for the inspiration, the graphics are creative and lift the whole concept to a new artistic level.
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Glitter beards – via Bored Panda
If you’re an avid Instagram user, you’ve probably already seen this trend. Men are covering their beards in glitter for the holiday season. Very festive. Just don’t try and kiss me.
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One thing I’m enjoying this week:
Jennifer Jones, the new series on Netflix. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The opening title set is stunning, the photography mesmerizing, the plot unusual, the characters intriguing. So far every episode has a good dose of “whoa”.
This review on Quartz (spoilers included) is deep, and goes a long way towards explaining the storyline’s pull.