Learning, Connectivism, AI, Virtual Environments

I’m still thinking about the video-conversation of Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Maybe we could change the title of the course from the rather bland ‘E-Learning 3.0, Distributed Learning Technology’ to ‘Human Learning in the Age of Machine Learning’.

After all, Connectivism, the learning theory developed by Stephen en George, is about “the idea that knowledge is essentially the set of connections in a network, and that learning is the process of creating and shaping those networks.”
Wikipedia explains that “learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”.Connectivism sees knowledge as a network and learning as a process of pattern recognition.

Which means, as is explained in the video, that in times of rapidly developing Machine Learning Connectivism is a very suitable learning theory. It blends philosophy, educational practices and technological skills. It emphasizes the ability to make decisions and to choose what to learn, connecting with others and thus empathizing with those others. The theory is also related with the Extended Mind ideas of the philosopher Andy Clark.

Virtual Reality and Virtual Environments enhance human connections, they turn telepresence into much more than videoconferencing: they enable people who are dispersed all over the planet to share the same space. Downes mentions Virtual Reality in his slide show “Personal Learning versus Personalized Learning“, but I’d love to elaborate on the possibilities and the many aspects involved in VR and learning. Not only humans benefit from virtual environments, simple virtual worlds are also used to train artificial intelligences to acquire a basic knowledge about the world (like elementary physics) which make those intelligences grow in their world-knowledge. There are many other aspects: for those interested in distributed networks, the virtual world High Fidelity (optimized for VR) uses a distributed architecture, a cryptocurrency and it registers digital assets using a blockchain.

In 2008 we discussed Connectivism with a small group of learners in Second Life. It’s not too late to organize similar experiences for this course.

New media theatre

So many interesting things are happening in and around the virtual world High Fidelity that I can’t keep up. The company raised $35 million in June and combines virtual worlds, virtual reality and the blockchain. Philip Rosedale, creator of both Second Life and High Fidelity, also manages to invite interesting people for in-world talks, and in the aftermath of the capital increase he had a fascinating talk with Charlie Fink, an expert in VR, AR, new media and a columnist at Forbes. He also is the author of an AR-enabled book, Metaverse.

In this video Rosedale explains a bit more about the future of High Fidelity and he and Fink brainstorm about new theatre and movie formats which would convert the spectators into actors – a bit like roleplaying in virtual worlds. All this, like concepts such as volumetric video, is rather new to me. During the discussion I heard about other experiments in virtual environments where spectators were converted into bubbles who could follow the actor around. It is obvious there will be formidable challenges like managing the huge data flows involved and finding an equilibrium between the freedom of roleplaying and the need for narrative structure.

“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:

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.

Philip Rosedale and Fred Ehrsam discuss blockchain in a virtual salon

It seems the virtual world High Fidelity is hosting interesting events, like this salon about blockchain with Philip Rosedale (High Fideltiy, founding father of Second Life) and  Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam. I think it’s a good idea to organize these salons, they remind me of the Metanomics series in Second Life – years ago – where we discussed economics, anthropology and all things virtual worlds.

The look and feel of the avatars does not appeal to everyone, but then again this is a very young virtual world, still being born, using fancy stuff such as virtual reality headsets, hand- and face-trackers.

The discussion itself is pretty fascinating as it touches the philosophical – and increasingly also practical – question of what is “real”. Let’s not forget that Rosedale also is very knowledgeable about virtual currencies since the whole Second Life economy works in Linden dollars which are exchangeable in American dollars. One could easily imagine that virtual worlds use virtual currencies such as bitcoin or ethereum or even other currencies specifically created for those worlds and communities.

Those worlds could run their own monetary policy and economy – but the same could be done by communities in the physical world. The blockchain technology could also be used to identify each and very object in a virtual world, but also in the physical world. The blockchain technology enables a shared reality through a distributed ledger which stores transactions in such a way that the records can not be tampered with. This could be of utmost importance for managing identities, not only of objects, but also of people.

Having a central company such as Facebook controlling the databases with identities, posts and pictures is maybe not too terrible as people use Facebook but do not actually live in it, while the ambition of virtual worlds creators such as Rosedale is that people work, study and ultimately pass a substantial part of their lives in those environments – so the issue of who controls the databases becomes of existential importance. Hence the importance of distributed, tamper-proof solutions.

More about this subject:

VR is a Killer App for Blockchains by Ehrsam
Metaverse Identity on the Blockchain by Rosedale
Blockphase To Test Its Ethereum-based Virtual Reality Content Distribution Platform

Blockchain for avatars

Even though I’m sceptical about the appeal of open-ended, user-created virtual worlds for a mainstream audience, I still follow people who are very active in that field because they tend to be highly creative out of the box thinkers. One of them is Philip Rosedale, the founding father of Linden Lab and Second Life, and these days busy creating a new world which takes full advantage of VR, High Fidelity.

In the post Metaverse Identity on the Blockchain he tackles the question of how we can prove our identities in a digital environment without revealing our real life identity:

As we begin to live and work in digital spaces, we must design an identity system that is safe, secure, and decentralized like the web. A combination of theblockchain and digital certificates seems like the best design.

Being a true Maker, Rosedale does not limit himself to a theoretical explanation, but will try the coming months to implement such a technology in High Fidelity. All this even fits into my ideas about Mixed Reality, as one could consider such a virtual implementation as a big rehearsal for ‘real world’ applications. Rosedale:

And of course, this sort of identity system might someday even work well for real-world things, like who can vote, or keeping track of who owns parcels of land. It seems likely that a distributed database like this, applied to identity information, could be a bigger value to people than the current applications which have been mostly for virtual currencies like Bitcoin.

Hat tip to Wagner James Au for discussing Rosedale’s article on the New World Notes.