Discuss The State of the World

The venerable and ancient community The Well is still alive and kicking – it was bought by community members from salon.com. Right now and for the following days you can participate in the annual discussion with author, journalist, futurist and design guru Bruce Sterling and with entrepreneur and Internet veteran Jon Lebkowski about nothing less than the State of the World.

We’re discussing not just the latest trends in technology but also politics and culture. You don’t have to be a member to participate in this wide-ranging discussion. The URL: http://bit.ly/2013-state-of-the-world

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‘Until Augmented Reality is part of the Operating System, it probably won’t be that useful for consumers’

Imagine you got someone before you who has a general interest in augmented reality. ‘Yeah, putting digital layers on top of my physical surroundings, I like that. Pretty cool, and hey, I got this fancy new smartphone.’ Which app would you recommend?

I asked the question on the Google+ Augmented Reality community page. I suggested Layar, Junaio or Wikitude. Professor Blair MacIntyre at Georgia Tech was kind enough to answer. He said that it depends on what the user wants to do – but those apps are not very generally useful. I must admit that this corresponds with my own appreciation: even though I’m a fan of the possibilities of Augmented Reality, I don’t have such a ‘wow’-feeling when I actually stare through my smartphone to find out where some restaurant is or to find some wikipedia-entry floating around. Often I get the feeling that Google Maps – especially the newest version on the iPhone 5 – is hard to beat (can we consider that as Augmented Reality?).

Anyway, here is what MacIntyre told me:

The fundamental problem with “the AR browsers” is that they impose a single User Interface on top of the data they display. So, if you want to build something that is different than just looking at some data or animated models (i.e.., virtually anything useful or interesting) you can’t easily do t with them. They are good for small things, and displaying bits of data.

Compare them to web browsers, where each site has its own look, feel and behavior. Sure, many are vanilla, but most aren’t.

That’s why we started working on Argon years ago as a research project. It’s coming along, and I expect more and more we will see AR integrated into apps and eventually Operating Systems.

Heretical hypothesis: Until AR is part of the Operating System, it probably won’t be that useful for consumers.

MacIntyre is project director of the augmented reality browser Argon, in this video he explains the ideas behind that browser:

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Beware, the Singularity Comes Nearer: Kurzweil Teams Up with Google

((I had a rather troublesome evening posting this stuff about the entry of Ray Kurzweil in Google. I tried to use Storify for this, but that service and WordPress are a difficult combination. In general, I find WordPress to be rather difficult to use, compared to other blogging platforms.))

Anyway, here we go. The author, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil joins Google as a Director of Engineering. The news is a few days old by now, and I wrote a column for my newspaper about the event. Here’s some of the stuff I used – videos and blog posts, and also some stuff I did not yet use.

Kurzweil and Google already had a good relationship as they work together in the Singularity University. Here is Kurzweil explaining about the Singularity and the academic program:

Here you find a trailer for The Singularity is New, featuring Ray Kurzweil:

Kurzweil is known for his bold predictions, like his view that brain uploads are nearer than we think.

So do we have to conclude that Google and all the folks at the Singularity University are sharing these same convictions? I don’t think so. I guess that companies and institutions (not only Google, also NASA is involved with the Singularity University) are interested in the research linked to these visions – realizing that even when artificial intelligence and brain uploads will take more time than expected by Kurzweil or would lead to outright failures, we’ll learn lots of things which could be very useful in other contexts.

Read also these people about Kurzweil entering Google:
– Jason Dorrier on the Singularity Hub
– Jon Mitchell at ReadWrite

And now for something slightly different. What about politics and social issues in all this? I posted about a remarkable analysis by the Nationale Intelligence Council, indicating possible social and political tensions when only the rich would be able to augment themselves.

There are also consequences for national sovereignty as it discussed in this interview at Metahaven with Benjamin Bratton who is about to publish the book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (The MIT Press, 2013).

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A virtual worlds community going beyond virtual worlds?

Fleep Tuque, a major virtual worlds community expert, said on her Google+ page that AvaCon, the organizers of the Second Life Community Convention (SLCC) plans to include the open-source version of Second Life, OpenSim, and other platforms, in the upcoming gatherings (which will get another name). On the AvaCon website it seems they’re looking for volunteers.

In a famous blogpost Tuque previously explained that people who care about the future of the Metaverse need to move beyond Second Life. There was no edition 2012 of the SLCC as there was disagreement between Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, and AvaCon.

All of which is very interesting as the community conventions were highly creative gatherings, with keynotes from visionaries such as Philip Rosedale and Ray Kurzweil. Most of all, these conventions inspired people who are actually building new layers on top of our reality and who are part of a digital culture avant-garde.

This is how AvaCon defines its mission:

Our mission is to promote the growth, enhancement, and development of the metaverse, virtual worlds, augmented reality, and 3D immersive and virtual spaces. We hold conventions and meetings to promote educational and scientific inquiry into these spaces, and to support organized fan activities, including performances, lectures, art, music, machinima, and much more. Our primary goal is to connect and support the diverse communities and practitioners involved in co-creating and using virtual worlds, and to educate the public and our constituents about the emerging ecosystem of technologies broadly known as the metaverse.

But what is the Metaverse exactly? This is what Wikipedia says:

The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe” and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

So we talk here about the sum of all virtual worlds but also about augmented reality and even ‘the internet’, which seems to be quite a broad definition. Maybe that’s normal as the mobile revolution, ubiquitous computing, the internet of things are integrating ‘the internet’ with the ‘physical space’.

I do hope AvaCon will embrace this broad definition. (Some) people in virtual worlds not only want to export their creations into other virtual places, they also want to turn bits into atoms through 3D-printing (read about Second Life artisan Maxi Gossamer in the New World Notes).

It also makes sense to go beyond virtual worlds (which does not mean abandoning them) as we know them and not just beyond Second Life. In essence these virtual worlds create the illusion of 3D on a flat screen. But what about this? Thesis Prize Winner at the Harvard Graduate School of Design 2011 Greg Tran:

Greg believes that ”People assume we have digital 3D already but this is a fallacy. When you rotate your model on ascreen or watch a Pixar animation is actually just a digital 2d REPRESENTATION of material 3d.What people are calling 3DTV and 3D movies are just a form of shallow depth or Bas Relief, not true digital 3D. The critical/operative imperative of the digital 3D is that there is a subject moving through space. The digital 3D is in its beginning stages, but will evolve in a similar way to the digital 2D. The digital 2D began as a specialized, singular medium which was largely used for documentation purposes, but has evolved towards personalization, interactivity, fluency and distribution.”

Or what about telepresence through iPads mounted on light structures? Or about avatars combined with robotics?

One of the lessons of the latest MetaMeets conference was that it’s very worthwhile to gather people who are interested in augmented reality, mobile applications, Kinect and Kinect-style sensors, and virtual worlds (plural). I hope AvaCon will succeed in doing this on an even bigger scale and that they will embed their virtual worlds focus into a larger vision.

Read also: The Metaverse is Dead (and the discussion following the post).

Hat tip to Daniel Voyager for posting about Fleep Tuque on Google+ (did I mention I’m kind of addicted to Google+?)

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Become super-human or have a super-avatar, but can you afford it?

The US National Intelligence Council offers strategic analysis for the American intelligence community. This week they published the Global Trends 2030 report (pdf). They developed various scenarios, taking into account the emergence of a world where not one or two states dominate the world, but various states and non-state entities (a multipolar world). We risk scarcities of water, food and energy. The report also takes into consideration disruptive technological change such as robotics and 3D printing. There are some fascinating ideas about the augmented human – people who become super humans using prostheses, drugs and implants – possibly creating new dimensions of inequality and social tensions.

The report does not suggest one single scenario, but depicts four possible worlds – and the final outcome may very well be some combination of those worlds:
Stalled engines: in the most plausible worst-case scenario, the risks of interstate conflict increase. the Us draws inward and globalization stalls.
Fusion: in the most plausible best-case outcome, China and the Us collaborate on a range of issues, leading to broader global cooperation.
Gini-Out-of-the-Bottle: inequalities explode as some countries become big winners and others fail. inequalities within countries increase social tensions. Without completely disengaging, the Us is no longer the “global policeman.”
Non-state world: driven by new technologies, nonstate actors take the lead in confronting global challenges.

Even though the report does not study the very long term, there is this interesting passage about avatars:

As replacement limb technology advances, people may choose to enhance their physical selves as they do with cosmetic surgery today. Future retinal eye implants could enable night vision, and neuro-enhancements could provide superior memory recall or speed of thought. Neuro-pharmaceuticals will allow people to maintain concentration for longer periods of time or enhance their learning abilities. Augmented reality systems can provide enhanced experiences of real-world situations. Combined with advances in robotics, avatars could provide feedback in the form of sensors providing touch and smell as well as aural and visual information to the operator.

Some social and ethical considerations:

Owing to the high cost of human augmentation, it probably will be available in 15-20 years only to those who are able to pay for it. Such a situation
may lead to a two-tiered society of an enhanced and non-enhanced persons and may require regulation. In addition, the technology must be sufficiently
robust to prevent hacking and interference of human augmentation. Advances in synergistic and enabling technologies are necessary for improved practicality of human augmentation technologies. For example, improvements in battery life will dramatically improve the practicality of exoskeleton use. Progress in understanding human memory and brain functions will be critical to future brain-machine interfaces, while advances in flexible biocompatible electronics will enable better integration with the recipient of augmentations and recreate or enhance sensory experiences. Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable.

Read also: the official blog about the report.

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In the pursuit of meaning

(warning: philosophical nerdiness)
It is funny how one can keep encountering strange, weird words such as ‘ontology’ – which means something like ‘the study of what there is’ – but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that this is just a first approximation. Anyway, I stumbled long ago on this word while studying philosophy. Ontology is part of metaphysics, which is another weird word.

This is how Wikipedia tries to bring it all together:

Ontology (from onto-, from the Greek ὤν, ὄντος “being; that which is”, present participle of the verb εἰμί, eimi “be”, and -λογία, -logia: “science, study, theory”) is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Only many years later I realized ‘ontology’ is also used in information science. Ontologies in that context are structural frameworks for organizing information and are used in artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, systems engineering, software engineering, biomedical informatics, library science, enterprise bookmarking, and information architecture as a form of knowledge representation about the world or some part of it. The creation of domain ontologies is also fundamental to the definition and use of an enterprise architecture framework. (Wikipedia)

Now I encountered the word ‘ontology’ in the About section of a company site of two co-learners of mine at the Howard Rheingold courses and projects.

Their company is called Ontologique – The Ontology Boutique. This is how their About section starts:

Ontologique is the collaborative brainchild of Joe Raimondo and his co-venturer in the wilds of the semantically aware web, Doug Breitbart. Our firm is dedicated to pursuit of an array of shared passions and convictions about technology in service to enhancement of meaning, understanding, knowledge and improvement of human productivity and the human condition, rather than the other way around.

In this context they do stuff for large companies but also for new or early phase or turnaround ventures that find themselves at the convergence of Web3.0, social media, gaming and game theory.

One might be inclined to consider all this consultant mumble jumble but I’m convinced that, in this case, it is not. Joe and Doug are intensely involved in this pursuit of meaning and clarification of meaning. More of us should be – this was one of the big messages of LeWeb 2012 where people such as cyber anthropologist Amber Case talked about converting big data, real time streams and mobile technology into stuff which actually is meaningful. Going back to my philosophical roots, I’d say that enhancing meaning helps us attaining eudaimonia – the Aristotelian notion which means not so much happiness but rather’human flourishing’.

These last few days I’ve been experimenting with Siri, Google Now and a number of similar services and apps. I’m more and more convinced that the next phase of the mobile revolution will be about meaning. How do we design smartphones, tablets and whatever other wearable devices in such a way that they can function as elegant organisms, rather than as a bunch of disconnected, shallow and addictive applications. How can we organize these services in such a way that they convey something meaningful? That’s the challenge for the designers, dreamers and techno-philosophers of this day and age.

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