About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.

Philosophy and tech: speech acts, ethics

(‘Philisophy and tech’ is a series of posts in which I discuss very briefly philosophical issues I encounter reading stuff about technology)

Last week Google published ethical principles guiding its AI development and research. Richard Waters of the Financial Times quotes AI-professor Stuart Russell at the University of California, Berkeley, who says that Google has to think about the output of their algorithms as a kind of ‘speech act’. What he means is that when people use their AI-enabled tools, such as searching texts or images, the responses generated influence the way people look at the world and ultimately change their behavior and convictions. It’s not about ‘mere talking’ but about doing stuff in the real world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lot about speech acts. An interesting take on Google’s new AI ethics can be found at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Also watch professor Russell’s talk at TED2017.

“VR-worlds need to enable writing emails in order to take off”

I attended a Fireside Chat in the virtual world High Fidelity with Philip Rosedale and Peter Diamandis. Dr. Diamandis is founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, best known for its $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight.

High Fidelity is not as easy to access as an app for the Oculus Go mobile headset. I had to use my Oculus Rift and download the High Fidelity interface client, which went not totally smoothly. But the result was totally worth it.

Rosedale and Diamandis used full sensor tracking, their avatars moved around very naturally. They also had 3D-bodyscans, so those avatars looked realistic as well. In the room attended more than hundred people, moving around, sitting or standing freely. Asking questions, getting the person spoken to looking at you, it all made virtual and real blend into one real experience. At one point Rosedale (or his avatar) effortlessly drew a graph depicting an exponential curve out of thin virtual air.

I previously attended some Oculus Venues events which are very nicely engineered into well-run social experiences, but they lack the interaction between performers on stage and the public I experienced here.

About the content: Diamandis eloquently presented his Abundance-thesis. Energy and water scarcity will become something of the past, oil and coal as energy resources are on the way out – give it ten to twenty years. Politicians trying to stop technology will be overthrown or their nations will go bankrupt, the combination of smooth automatic language translation, blockchain and crypto-currencies, virtual reality, e-residency such as pioneered by Estonia give access to the opportunities of a globalized and exponentially evolving world in contrast to staying stuck in a local and linear mindset.

Rosedale seems as bullish as ever about the virtual space, but also realistic: we need a high enough resolution to be able to read and write emails easily in those spaces in order to make them really ready for broader audiences.  Remember the smartphone: you could do about everything with them right from the first iPhone and so that was when generalized adoption started to happen. Also, a VR-room will have to be able to handle a thousand people in order to organize stuff such as TEDx-conferences – High Fidelity is working hard on that.

Here’s the recording of the event:

Philosophy and technology, a list

Which philosophers are particularly relevant when studying and using “new” technologies? Here’s my list based on my readings these last few weeks.

Rosi Braidotti, Metamorposes. Towards a materialist way of becoming

Andy Clark and David Chalmers, authors of The Extended Mind. Andy Clark also wrote Natural-Born Cyborgs.
Mark Coeckelbergh, author of New Romantic Cyborgs.

Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir and, regarding the Panopticum, Jeremy Bentham
Donna Haraway, writer of A Cyborg Manifesto.

John Searle about the Chinese Room thought experiment (and commentators on his ideas) This is one of the topics in a Philosophy of Mind course I’m reading and watching.

Quite some stuff about cyborgs and ‘monsters’ upsetting the classical oppositions human-machine, man-woman, human-animal, real-unreal. It’s a very incomplete and arbitrary list but based on stuff happening in technology, society and culture.

Events agenda

There are so many virtual venues these days! Here are some interesting events across multiple virtual spaces – for the exact time, click on the links. This is a very personal selection, there’s a lot more that might be interesting.

High Fidelity continues the tradition of virtual intellectual “salons”

What I love about virtual worlds are the incredible smart and visionary people one can meet there. This totally applies for High Fidelity, a young and cutting edge virtual world (think decentralized architecture, tokens, blockchain, VR-enabled, avatars who are responsive to their real life users). Founding father Philip Rosedale had this very inspiring chat with Kent Bye, the host of Voices of VR Podcast.

They and their audience of fellow geeks had an in-depth discussion about virtual worlds, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain in virtual worlds and psychology of virtual worlds. What I particularly like is that the chat was not limited to esoteric virtual world tech stuff, but tackled fundamental evolutions such as the emergence of an “Experiential Era”.

In this way High Fidelity continues the great tradition of virtual intellectual “salons“.

I found out about this video via New World Notes.

The limits of blockchain, for now

An interesting take on the use of blockchain in the mass consumer markets by Adam Frisby, CEO and lead developer of Sinespace, a Unity-based MMO and social VR platform: on VentureBeat he explains “why blockchain isn’t ready for primetime“.

“As it stands, blockchain is caught between three competing objectives: fast, low-cost, and decentralized. It is not yet possible to make one chain that achieves all three”, Frisby says. A post written by someone who has first-hand experience in dealing with payments in game environments.

Note that the Blockstack-project I posted about is not based entirely on the bitcoin blockchain, presumably for some of the reasons discussed by Frisby. I’m not sure how exactly they improve on the blockchain.

Post from another internet

I’ve been experimenting with Graphite Docs, a decentralized app (DApp) on the Blockstack-platform. It works remarkably well, it’s like an alternative for Google Docs. I actually prepared this post using Graphite. What I dislike about the Blockstack-universe is that one has to pay in bitcoin in order to get a username. In my opinion a new internet should not identify itself with one particular crypto-currency. Fortunately, one can use Graphite also without a username, just by using your blockchain-based credentials. The blockchain used is the bitcoin blockchain, but I think to have understood they could also use other blockchains.

I guess it means we have the regular web now, the dark web which is accessible via the Tor browser, and the decentralized internet like the one presented by Blockstack (there are some other platforms for decentralized apps).

It’s interesting to note that Blockstack is both an open source project and a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC):

“Blockstack PBC, a Public Benefit Corp, upholds specific commitments to the greater public good in addition to stockholder interests. The mission of Blockstack PBC is to enable an open, decentralized internet. Blockstack PBC is committed to always keep the core Blockstack software open-source, and to support the decentralization of the Blockstack network. Blockstack PBC has historically taken the lead on Blockstack protocol development, but in the future will work with other parties to build a fully transparent and adaptable decentralized internet.”

For now there are only a few DApps consumer-ready on the Blockstack platform. It will be interesting to see what other apps become available and whether these apps will actually be used by a broader audience.

Decentralized internet for you and me

It seems all the talk about the “decentralized internet” gets more concrete for ordinary internet users (citizens?) like me. Tom Simonite at Wired did a great job explaining decentralized applications (DApps) in his article The Decentralized Internet Is Here, With Some Glitches. He discusses alternatives for Google Docs (using Graphite), eBay, YouTube (DTube) and so on.

Graphite proudly says it’s powered by Blockstack and that it is the first truly decentralized and encrypted replacement for Google G-Suite and Microsoft Office. Blockstack explaining Blockstack:

I’ll experiment with these things the next few days. Tom Simonite warns the DApps can be pretty clunky, but isn’t that the charm of all new developments? The more fundamental objection is whether we really want a kind of unbreakable, unstoppable communication network. Just asking the question might seem like heresy to cyber libertarians, but isn’t there some value in stopping criminals and terrorists from communicating in total freedom and secrecy? I guess there must be some balance here, figuring out how to organize that balance is a complicated matter.

Learning how to cooperate in a web-environment. What about Virtual Reality?

Howard Rheingold’s online course about Cooperation started last week, using BigBlueButton and not in some fancy Virtual Reality environment. BigBlueButton is our synchronous communication system (let’s say ‘videoconferencing’), but a lot of work happens asynchronously using a wiki, blogs, social bookmarks, and – very important – forums. These asynchronous systems are bundled in a proprietary system called the socialmediaclassroom.

I watched a recorded videoconferencing session, as usual in these courses the about 12 participants got jobs to do while Howard presented this week’s material: searchers, lexicon-builders, bloggers, summarizers, mindmappers…

The idea is to show how people can engage into online collaboration and to experience how rich the results can be.

I participated in this course for the first time  in January 2013 and at that time I wrote a rather detailed post about the content of this first lesson: Exploring the biology of cooperation.

Why no VR-meeting?

In 2007-2008 I participated in many meetings in the virtual world Second Life. We’re in 2018 now and the idea of organizing online courses in virtual worlds seems even more exotic than it was in 2007. We have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and smaller, closed online courses – but all these are based on video (streaming and archived), texts with interactive elements and forums.

How comes? Since even videoconferencing inevitably starts with technical problems – people struggling with the user interface, connectivity and audio issues, it seems even more problematic to organize this in a virtual space where the learning curve is even steeper and the equipment needed is even more high-end.

In the meantime we have environments which are enabled for real VR such as Sansar and High Fidelity. 

VR-enabled environments have some big advantages. They make it possible to show objects in 3D and to let participants manipulate these objects using touch controllers for instance. Very important is the sense of sharing the same space, something which lacks in videoconferencing.

The disadvantages: people need the right equipment, which is often not the case. The learning curve is often steep, and you can’t see the ‘real’ persons (even though avatars these days can reflect the facial expressions of the people behind them).

It would be interesting to check how easy or how difficult it would be to organize realtime annotation, link exchanging or mindmapping in a virtual environment.How much hassle would it take to make recordings? Stuff like 3D mindmapping would be fascinating but extra training would be needed.

Maybe we’ll give it a try during this six-week course. If so, you’ll read it here.