The Singularity was in Budapest, Hungary

I attended the Singularity University Summit in Budapest, Hungary. It was like two days of total immersion in discussions about the concept of exponential growth, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, bio-hacking, medical breakthroughs and organisational change. I tried to bring some elements together in a wiki mindmap, people have added links and stuff:

Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

I also talked to CEO Rob Nail of the Singularity University:

How to replicate online the hands on experience of the SU and the intense social experience? Well, maybe by using a virtual environment? It seems the SU is exploring that possibility, but it’s too soon to tell. Which reminds me that Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, is one of those who inspires the SU people (just to be clear: he was not at the Summit). He’s working on a high fidelity virtual world, in which avatars would reflect the expressions of their real life typists:

Wouldn’t it be nice to replicate the Singularity University campus experience in a high fidelity virtual environment? It would be a welcome variation on Massive Open Online Course environments of Coursera, Udacity or edX…

More videos and links can be found in my coverage for my newspaper De Tijd (in Dutch).

Are our attention spans becoming longer again?

There has been an eerie silence on this blog for the past weeks. I was immersed in various learning projects. I had to focus for longer times, and this made me switch my attention away from social media streams, unless I could focus on certain topics via Twitter lists for instance.

howard rheingoldSo what is the learning about? I’m still absorbing stuff I learned at the various courses facilitated by Howard Rheingold (there’s a new one coming up about Mind Amplifiers). Also, I attended a real life class featuring Howard in the Netherlands (more about this in a later post, but that’s where I took the picture), where he discussed the major findings of his book Net Smart (which can be considered as a long and deep study of attention practices). In this part of the learning it’s all about forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat and Twitter.

– The other part of my learning is about tools for digital stortytelling and data journalism. I made a good start on Codeacademy, but somehow I need the intervention of real tutors to continue the learning process. So I decided to take courses at the O’Reilly School of Technology. They even deliver certificates for professional developments. I do realize it are not the certificates which are that important, but it’s a kind of an interesting gamification element. The ‘school’ offers a nice interactive coding environment and tutors evaluate the homework and give feedback.

Crucial technologies I want to master: the components of HTML5 (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), jQuery, and for stuff such as web scraping I need a language such as Python.

Data Journalism is something we’re learning at our media company, and our teacher is Peter Verweij (who was so kind as to include the very basics of using spreadsheets in his program).

– Finally there is a big experiment of helping a newsroom to adapt to the age of never-ending social media streams, community interaction and digital storytelling.

Frankly, all this is pretty exhausting – but at least it forces me to focus for longer periods of time on the same subjects. In this sense it’s immersive – when one is trying to meet some Python course objective, times passes very fast – it’s like playing in some 3D environment.

Is something changing?

These last few years I got the impression we were evolving from longer, immersive experiences to sequences of fast dipping in and out of media streams (status updates, tweets etc). In that context I was not surprised an immersive envrionment such as Second Life was stagnating. It quite simply takes too much time and our attention spans were getting too short for this.

But think again. Maybe we once again want something more. People start complaining about the ‘Facebook-experience’. They start reading books such as Net Smart or meditate about mindfulness. But there’s also something going on at the technology-side of things.

Philip Rosedale, Chairman of Linden LabPhilip Rosedale (archive picture), the founding father of Second Life, has a new company, High Fidelity, to create a new kind of virtual reality platform. True Ventures invested in the company. It’s about a new virtual world enabling rich avatar interactions driven by sensor-equipped hardware, simulated and served by devices (phones, tablets and laptops/desktops) contributed by end-users. Virtual worlds watcher Wagner James Au on New World Notes says that Rosedale is not alone: others are working hard to create new virtual reality platforms: “Overall, this feels like a real trend, made possible by continued leaps in computer power, especially related to 3D graphics, and their continued drop in price.”

But maybe this new trend is also driven by the need of balancing the short attention bursts by longer periods of mindful attention…

Read also: 

True Ventures about the investment in High Fidelity.

Our Brains in the Cloud

Who are we when parts of our brains are in our heads, but other parts are in the cloud, is one of the questions Keith Kleiner asks on SingularityHUB in this interview:

Also consider the business model of SingularityHUB – you can become a member (for a modest contribution), which gives you access to more content – for instance to a longer version of the interview.

Find out about the future by looking at Defense

The computer visionary Doug Engelbart designed in the 1960s the NLS – the “oN-Line System” – a revolutionary computer collaboration system implemented by researchers at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The NLS system, so explains Wikipedia, was the first to employ the practical use of hypertext links, the mouse, raster-scan video monitors, information organized by relevance, screen windowing, presentation programs, and other modern computing concepts. The project was funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force.

Throughout the history of computing we see the crucial role being played by the military and the intelligence community (this is just one of the many interesting discussion threads of Howard Rheingold’s course about Think-Know tools). One of these famously funded project gave us the Mother of all Demos by Engelbart (the mouse! videoconferencing! hyperlinks!):

Maybe it’s a good idea to have a look at what they’re funding now in order to get an idea of the longer term developments in computing. Typically projects which are too long term and risky to be interesting for big corporations or even venture capitalists sometimes get support from those defense-related agencies. However, these days the capital needed for innovative projects is no longer as enormous as it used to be, and we see how agencies invest in commercial start-ups not only to stimulate research which otherwise may not have been done, but also to get first-hand information about research which the private sector is doing anyway.

One of the most fascinating agencies is DARPA, which has a habit of changing names. Wikipedia: “Its original name was simply Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), but it was renamed to “DARPA” (for Defense) in March 1972, then renamed “ARPA” again in February 1993, and then renamed “DARPA” again in March 1996.”

DARPA of course is not only active regarding information processing. This is what Wikipedia tells us about the more recent history: “During the 1980s, the attention of the Agency was centered on information processing and aircraft-related programs, including the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) or Hypersonic Research Program. The Strategic Computing Program enabled DARPA to exploit advanced processing and networking technologies and to rebuild and strengthen relationships with universities after the Vietnam War. In addition, DARPA began to pursue new concepts for small, lightweight satellites (LIGHTSAT) and directed new programs regarding defense manufacturing, submarine technology, and armor/anti-armor.
On October 28, 2009 the agency broke ground on a new facility in Arlington, Virginia a few miles from the Pentagon.
In fall 2011, DARPA hosted the 100 Year Starship Symposium with the aim of getting the public to start thinking seriously about interstellar travel.”
Interstellar travel really sounds cool, but let me look at that another time. For now, let’s just read how the Information Innovation Office describes itself on the DARPA-site:

I2O aims to ensure U.S. technological superiority in all areas where information can provide a decisive military advantage. This includes the conventional defense mission areas where information has already driven a revolution in military affairs: intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, command, control, communications, computing, networking, decision-making, planning, training, mission rehearsal, and operations support.

It also includes emergent information-enabled technologies and application domains such as social science and human, social, cultural, and behavioral modeling; social networking and crowd-based development paradigms; natural language processing, knowledge management, and machine learning and reasoning; medical/bio informatics; and information assurance and cyber-security.

I2O works to ensure U.S. technological superiority in these areas by conceptualizing and executing advanced research and development (R&D) projects to develop and demonstrate interdisciplinary, crosscutting and convergent technologies derived from emerging technological and societal trends that have the potential for game-changing disruptions of the status quo.

The capabilities developed by I2O enable the warfighter to better understand the battlespace and the capabilities, intentions and activities of allies and adversaries; empower the warfighter to discover insightful and effective strategies, tactics and plans; and securely connect the warfighter to the people and resources required for mission success.

Headings on that page are “understand“, “empower” and “connect“.

One of the many fascinating programs is Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC). It aims to develop “a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. Through the program, DARPA seeks to develop tools to support the efforts of human operators to counter misinformation or deception campaigns with truthful information.”

It’s all there: analyzing narratives, experiments with role-playing games which make heavy use of social media…


Yet another interesting organization is In-Q-Tel, launched in 1999 as an independent, not-for-profit organization, IQT was created to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and new advances in commercial technology.

Just looking here at information and communication technologies, the site of this special kind of venture capitalist explains:

Focus areas in the ICT practice include advanced analytic tools, next generation infrastructure and computing platforms, mobile communication and wireless technologies, embedded systems and components, geospatial and visualization tools, and digital identity analytics.

For more concrete information one can simply consult the list of companies in which In-Q-Tel invests (note to self: make a Twitter list which includes these companies to get updates!). To give but two examples:
Streambase Systems, Inc., a leader in high-performance Complex Event Processing (CEP), provides software for rapidly building systems that analyze and act on real-time streaming data for instantaneous decision-making. The World Economic Forum awarded StreamBase the title of 2010 Technology Pioneer.

Cloudera Enterprise is the most cost-effective way to perform large-scale data storage and analysis, and includes the tools, platform, and support necessary to use Hadoop in a production environment. (The Apache Hadoop software library is a framework that allows for the distributed processing of large data sets across clusters of computers using simple programming models.)

Read also:

Pentagon’s Plan X

Bezos, CIA invest $30M in quantum computing startup

Big Data and Cyberpunk

– Cloudera Makes Hadoop Real-Time with Impala (SiliconAngle)

Kurzweil: Brains will extend to the cloud – Computerworld

“Human brains will someday extend into the cloud, futurist and computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil predicted at the DEMO conference here on Tuesday.

Moreover, he said, it will become possible to selectively erase pieces of our memories, while retaining some portions of them, to be able to learn new things no matter how old the person is.”

Of course, it’s all about AI and augmented reality, leading right up to our having an augmented brain. Which, in a sense, we have for so long already – at least since we invented writing. But okay, in many ways we’re re-inventing writing. 

You’ll find the video at Computerworld. 

via Diigo

Read also: ‘this is my cybernetic organism, the internet’

The New Industrial Revolution – the New Satanic Mills?

So I’m reading Cory Doctorow’s Makers, but there is also that other Makers book – inspired by Doctorow – in which Chris Anderson tells us about a New Industrial Revolution. Here is a video posted on TechCrunch.

What we’re seeing here with the third industrial revolution is the combination of technology and manufacturing, so Anderson explains. “It’s the computer meets manufacturing, and it’s at everybody’s desktop.”
But then again, being a slightly pessimistic European, there’s also the dark side: rapid prototyping, smooth international collaboration by individuals on what formerly needed impressive institutions also facilitates the production of weapons of mass destruction. The classical Industrial Revolution got a rather bad press (the ‘Satanic Mills’) – but the bio- and hardware hacking labs could churn out another kind of satanic stuff. The empowerment of the individual is not necessarily a story with a happy ending – but then again, we don’t have any choice but try to deal with it, to grasp the opportunities and avoid the horror.

The future is better than we think.

One of the big inspirations for the MixedRealities blog is the book Race against the machine, written by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. These last few days I’ve read another book about globalization and exponentially growing technologies, Abundance, The Future Is Better Than You Think, by the engineer and entrepreneur Peter H. Diamandis and journalist/entrepreneur Steven Kotler.

I wrote a column (in Dutch) about the book and the reaction of our newspaper community during a chat session, but here I’ll give more a ‘MixedRealities-take’.

Our brains are hard wired to be in constant alert, changes around us can always be catastrophic. This is useful when your life is constantly threatened by predators, but in a contemporary society it makes us far too pessimistic. It makes us look foremost at the dangers and the negative news while we downplay positieve news.

Cover of the book AbundanceIn the meantime we evolved from beings with a very local horizon and a linear technological evolution to people living in a world defined by global collaboration and an exponential evolution of key technologies. Diamandis gives a very positive, even exhilirating view on developments in sectors such as biotech and bio-informatics, nanotechnology, computer networks, robotics and sensors, pharma and education.

Small and highly innovative teams accomplish breakthroughs, eventually stimulated by prize competitions and with a considerable push in the back by techno-philantropists. But there’s also the ‘bottom of the pyramide’, the one billion poor who are doing better because of technologies such as mobile communication and microfinance-institutions. Those people represent not only a new market, but their needs lead to innovations which are applicable elsewhere (like the manufacturing of ultra-cheap cars or the use of distributed energy production).

Education, international collaboration, telepresence, knowledge networks and the organization of small teams of innovators are subjects about which MixedRealities wants to post on a regular basis. The blog starts about five years ago with a firm focus on virtual worlds, and I’ll continue writing about those environments but in the broader context I mentioned above.

Even though Abundance is exhilirating optimistic, the authors do recognize the challenges ahead. 3D printing can help small teams to engage in the production of goods on a worldwide level, challenging multinational companies. But it can also be used by other small teams to collaborate in the production of weapons of mass destruction. The same applies for biotech labs, which become ever more affordable, but also this DIY-revolution can be used for destructive purposes. Or nanotechnology, which could lead to massive destruction of matter – the grey goo scenario.

The solution for all this is not less technology, but more. The restrictions on stem cell research in the US did not end that research, it simply moved abroad. It appears to be impossible to stop the technological evolution – even world wars, revolutions and financial meltdowns don’t stop technology.

It’s easy to consider Abundance as a typical example of a naive American optimism. But in reality, it’s the only hope we have: advancing as rapidly as we can in the development of knowledge, science and technology, and enhancing worldwide collaboration. There are many, many very concrete examples of all this in Abundance.

The site Abundance.
The twitterfeed and the hashtag #Abundance.
The sites of the authors and
Diamandis is also co-founder and chairman of the Singularity University and chairman of the X Prize Foundation.
Here you can watch a TED-presentation by Diamandis:

Big Data and Cyberpunk

Monday afternoon: while I’m in a chat session on one screen, I watch my finance twitter list  on the other screen. The tweets about Europe are rather apocalyptic, like this one by the investment banker Dan Alpert:


It reminds me of cyberpunk – a sci-fi genre which combines hightech with low life – the collapse of the social order as we know it. The story is in the near-future, or even in the here and now – but told in such a way that it seems like the future. After all, the famous movie Blade Runner is situated in Los Angeles, 2019:


We are mostly very positive about technology because it seems to empower us as individuals. From mainframes we went to personal computers, from desktops to laptops and now to smartphones and maybe even more transparent wearable devices. Those devices provide us with enormous computing power because they are part of a worldwide network of very powerful computers.

‘A new Renaissance’ it is often said, and once again the individual is in the center. But then again, that same individual can abuse this new power for mass destruction. There will always be groups of young males – ambitious terrorists so often seem to be both young and male – who feel their purpose on earth is to provoke mass destruction and generalized mayhem.

Well, it seems that they have increasingly the means to do so – a rather unintended consequence of this empowerment of the individual.

On the other side we have the authorities, linked with corporations which are useful for their needs. Splunk had an impressive IPO. The company collects and analyzes massive amounts of data. In this Big Data industry we also find a company such as Cloudera, and one of the investors is In-Q-Tel – which was created to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the Intelligence Community and new advances in commercial technology.

Big Data often means running software on hundreds and even thousands of servers, looking for patterns and visualizing economic and financial trends, but also possible criminal and terrorist threats or the outbreak of infective diseases.

The financial crisis is, in a way, a data crisis – money after all travels as bits and bytes. But other layers of the massively increasing data traffic are potentially about life and death of world cities. Big Data and the dystopia of cyberpunk are not that far apart.

The future of money

Facebook Credits becoming more important than the dollar? Not any time soon – but there are some thought-provoking elements in this discussion about the future of money (by Ross Dawson and Gerd Leonhard). Recently Ben Bernanke got the question whether gold is money. The answer was ‘no’. But maybe we’ll have to ask him whether Facebook Credits, Bitcoins or Linden dollars are money.

Gerd Leonhard reacted on Google+ that what he said about the dollar vs. Facebook Credits was meant more as a provocation than as serious prediction.

Previously we posted about similar ideas being presented by Sean Park: ‘The Sixth Paradigm

In the comments on my Google+ entry there’s also a discussion about what Linden Lab says regarding the Linden dollar (the famous ‘You acknowledge that Linden dollars are not real currency or any type of financial instrument and are not redeemable for any sum of money from Linden Lab at any time.’).