Could Wireless Power be Weaponized?

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Still working on the upcoming Thought Infection ebook as well as a really thought provoking next post for the Decentralization and Future World order series. For now just a short thought about a possible scary application for an emerging technology, weaponized focusing of wireless power.

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Some of you may have heard about Steve Perlman’s startup which is pursuing the use of computed constructive interference of radio waves to greatly increase signal strength and throughput for wireless networking. In demonstrations of the technology Perlman has shown that it can easily transmit super high definition video to many handheld devices simultaneously, something that even 4G networks would struggle to do today (see here). News has recently been released that the so-called pCell technology is set to launch a demonstration network in the San Francisco area. The network will be able to offer speeds fast enough to compete with traditional wired internet with enough throughput to allow unlimited data as well.

While the launch of this network is extremely exciting and bodes well for the future of 5G wireless service what really has me excited is another as of yet unproven application of the computed constructive interference of radio waves. It has been suggested that using a similar technology to pCell, it might be possible to efficiently beam power directly to a particular device (see a great post on the subject here)

Let me say that again, it might be possible to beam power over a large range directly to a device. 

To say that this would be a game changer is more than an understatement. Blanketing an area with a few of these power transmitting antennas could potentially lead to a few of the following science-fictionesque scenarios:

  1. Drones that need to carry only a minimal battery for backup purposes could allow the delivery of almost anything by drone. Imagine getting your groceries delivered by drone.
  2. Electric cars that do not require expensive batteries.
  3. Cell phones and other devices that do not ever have to plugged in.
  4. High power implanted medical devices.
  5. “Wireless” laproscopic surgery.
  6. Cheap electric air travel?

If it can be done (relatively) efficiently and safely then beaming power directly to where it is needed, when it is needed would instantly change the world. My question is, if you could use this technology to focus power anywhere within range of a few radio antennas at any time could this be used as a weapon? I am not sure how much power could be realized in the absence of a specific receiver antenna, but if power could be directed to any point in space regardless of antenna presence this would lead to a pretty scary weapon (perhaps this would need to use microwaves rather than radio waves?).

Of course any of the above technological applications for wireless power could be applied as scary weapons, but the potential that you could just focus power anywhere in space represents would be more than a bit concerning. It would mean the ability to simply cook the brains of your enemies who are anywhere within range of your antennas. No need to line your enemy up in your sights any more, simply send out a nanodrone swarm to map the combat area and zap anyone who your deem to be of threat.

On one hand, this kind of technology could lead to the ultimate smart weapon system, allowing those who wield it to exactly and selectively eliminate just those individuals who are of threat. Depending on exactly how focused this energy can get, it could even be envisioned that specific targeting could allow sub-lethal application to incapacitate rather than kill targets. If you could really accurately target the technology, it might even be possible to zap the right brain cells to pacify or otherwise change the thinking of target populations (time to get out those tinfoil hats everyone!).

On the other hand though this kind of technology would deliver unprecedented power into the hands of those who wielded it. Imagine a world where military, police, or hackers could take control of the wireless power infrastructure and simply kill anyone at will within that sphere of control. That is a pretty powerful tool for whoever wields it to tell you what to do and how to do it.

The killer apps of wireless power are clearly compelling enough that we need to pursue this technology, but at the same time it raises concerns about the darker side of its application. If living in a magic bubble of wireless power is going to also mean conceding absolute control to whoever controls the network, then that is a bargain I am not sure I want to make.

Decentralization and the Future World Order – Part II: Trust is Power

This is the second in a multi-part series (part 1 here) on what I predict will be one of the most important technological trends of 2015, the decentralization revolution. By creating a way for the transfer of value to be performed over a trustless distributed network Bitcoin has already changed the world but Bitcoin is only the tip of the decentralization iceberg.

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What is power?

Physics gives us a simple definition of power as a measure of the rate of doing work. For example, when you turn on your microwave a certain amount of energy is being transferred directly into the molecules of that delicious pizza pocket. The rate at which energy can be transferred into the food would be the measure of power for your microwave, usually around 1000-1500 Watts (or 1-1.5 kilowatts). Power can similarly be measured for anything: where your microwave produces about 1kW of power, an average American vehicle delivers up to ~150kW of power, an industrial wind turbine generates ~1000-5000 kW (or 1-5 megawatts), and a nuclear power plant delivers ~1-5 million kW (or 1-5 gigawatts). 

This definition of power seems different from our more general use of the term when we talk about how powerful an individual or organization is. This kind of interpersonal power refers to the ability of an entity (such as an idea, a person, or an organization) to wield influence over people and affect the political or economic course of events. Perhaps though, these two definitions of power are not so far apart as they might seem, just as the power of an electrical plant is defined by how much work can be done using its energy output we can define interpersonal power (and by extension social, economic and political power) as the influence that an entity can have on how people expend their energy in the world.

The power an idea has over me is defined by how strong an influence that idea has in my thinking and thus how I act and expend energy in the world. For instance, I have a very strong belief and experience that two solid objects will exert force on eachother, thus I could predict that a moving baseball bat is really going to hurt if it hits me and I will move to avoid it.

Deep-seeded ideas like object-object interaction can be arrived at through direct observation of the world, but direct interaction is not the only route for ideas into the human brain. Many of our ideas about the world are instead downloaded into the brain as ideas transferred from people we trust. Trust allows us to outsource our cognitive analysis of the world, and thus understand much more than can be learned through direct interaction.

Trust is how we make predictions in a world that is too big and complicated for one person to understand

We can place in trust in anything: people, ideas, institutions etc. It is where we invest this trust that determines how we will behave in the world. From the time we are born, we must trust the ability of others to provide for us and teach us about the world before we even learn to trust our own senses. This essential role of trust also continues on into adulthood; I absolutely cannot know for sure that my food which was grown by a farmer I will never meet is going to be safe to eat, but I have to trust in the natural, economic and political structures that deliver food to my plate.

It is not an idea which is easily articulated, but I think answer is clear: Trust is a necessary underpinning of the interpersonal power we have over each other.

Trust is power.

It is by gathering together our disparate threads of trust we have been able to build the societal level power structures of civilization that we see today. Through our collected trust, centralized institutions and the ideas that underpin them have amassed great power to influence how people live their lives. In the past, trust has been concentrated into many religious and governmental organizations, but today I think the dominant institution of trust is economic.

We put trust in a great many things today. Governments, laws, police, religious institutions, corporations, doctors, but these pale in comparison to our collective trust in money. No matter where your go money can make things happen, and people have a great deal of trust in that fact. More than we trust in governments or religions, we have a global trust in the power of the dollar (in whatever form) to influence the actions of people. Religious or political fundamentalists can still create a problem once and a while, but ultimately their power is still measured in dollars and cents. Any organization without means to raise funds to support their operations has little hope of accomplishing much of anything in the world today.

Collectively we believe that a dollar has value, and in turn we as individuals put our trust in that collective value. The collective trust in the dollar is so powerful that the dollar itself has actually become the dominant metric of power. The dollar is a stand-in for trust which we lean on to establish productive relationships with untrusted individuals. If you want to make me produce food for you, then you can pay me money in order to influence me to do so with relatively little trust outside of that financial arrangement.

Money is distilled trust. 

The problem with the fiat dollar is that it is only as good as the institutional foundation on which it is based. Currencies are only as good as the trust in the institutions that support them, a fact that is obviously on display in the market dynamics of the foreign currency exchange. 

Cryptocurrencies offer us an alternative means for establishing trust between each other, and their advantages are manyfold. Instead of being based on a fallible and corruptible system of governments and central banks, cryptocurrencies have clear rules on how value is injected into the network, how it can be transferred, and in some cases how it can be destroyed. Cryptocurrencies offer mathematical predictability.

Cryptocurrencies are also much more resistant to corruption due to a flat network topology. That is to day, that like the checks and balances that limit the power of any one individual in a government, crytocurrency networks decentralize their trust very evenly over the network.

These advantages of cryptocurrency are going to become increasingly clear as normal collapses in fiat currencies around the world, something that happens with regularity and is in no way out of the ordinary, will naturally lead people to seek alternate stores of wealth. Whether it is the Russian Ruble, the Argentinian Peso, or some other fiat currency, complex currency systems based on human control are simply too unpredictable and too corruptible to compete with the mathematical simplicity of cryptocurrency. Perhaps it will not be Bitcoin that ultimately gains marketshare as the easiest and most commonly used cryptocurrency, but some form of cryptocurrency is here to stay.

In a world where trust is power, the simplest and most reliable system to establish trust between individuals is destined to win. If fiat currency is distilled trust, then crytocurrencies are a much stronger brew.

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The beauty of crytocurrency goes far beyond simply holding and transferring value. Because they exist on electronic networks, decentralized technologies will allow us to program trust into our world in a way which has not been possible before. Through things like smart contracts we can use decentralized tech to build mathematically defined structures as simple as an agreement to sell goods, to something as complicated as a government. In my next post I will discuss the exciting possibility of cryptogovernance and its potential to reinvigorate inefficient institutions. 

Decentralization and the Future World Order – Part I: The Revolution Is On

This will be the first in a multi-part series on what I predict will be one of the most important technological trends of 2015, the decentralization revolution. By creating a way for the transfer of value to be performed over a trustless distributed network Bitcoin has already changed the world but Bitcoin is only the tip of the decentralization iceberg. 

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A technological revolution is underway. An array of technologies are being developed that aim to do nothing less than disrupt the deepest fabric of the current world order. In a world where trust is power, decentralization steals the power from the hands of centralized institutions like corporations, banks, and even governments and puts it into the hands of the network. The revolution is beginning with a race to build the next generation of decentralized technologies that may soon replace internet giants like Dropbox or Facebook, but this is only the beginning of a transition to a future world order of decentralized power.

Lets start with a simple question: What is decentralization?

Many people equate decentralization with cryptographic networks like Bitcoin, which combine cryptography with decentralization, but decentralized applications do not inherently require encryption. The prototypical example of a modern decentralized technology would be Bittorrent, a technology with no inherent requirement for encryption. At its base, decentralization is the simple process of taking information and distributing copies among some sort of network so as to enhance data accessibility, security, redundancy, and congruence (consistency between parties).

The idea of decentralization is actually as old as communication itself. Cavemen would share their knowledge of hunting techniques and weapon technology among their tribe in order to be sure that the loss of no single individual would mean the loss of vital information. As humans created increasingly elaborate systems of exchange, organizations learned that keeping two or more copies of important documents was essential to ensuring their security.

The central problem of decentralization is that it also greatly increases the likelihood that information could fall into the hands of untrusted individuals. Thus, balancing the need for privacy and security meant finding a balance between centralized and decentralized structures for information sharing. To solve the age-old problem of privacy in shared information, cryptographic encoding or information was developed. Since at least Medieval times, people have been using simple ciphers to encode messages which they wished to share with only specific individuals.

In the 20th century, cryptography advanced greatly particularly during the world wars, when warring nations needed to be able to move around large amounts of information while preventing it from falling into the hands of the enemy. This spurned great innovations in both encryption and decryption, with both sides pouring resources into figuring out what their enemy was planning. It is widely believed, that the breaking of the Enigma code by British code-breakers which included one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was key to winning the war.

With the help of the universal computers Alan Turing helped invent, increasingly secure encryption algorithms were developed over the last half of the 20th century. Using these modern encryption algorithms, we can hide information well enough to confidently exchange sensitive financial information over a network which is essentially open (the internet). Thus, cryptography means that anyone eavesdropping on your web communications with your bank would have no way to understand the messages.

The Bitcoin blockchain is a distributed, encrypted ledger which stores the holdings of users of the network in individually encrypted data. This way, those using the network can be sure to agree on what amount of Bitcoin each user has, while only allowing those with the keys to be able to unlock their data and send some amount of Bitcoin to another user (see more here). Using the encrypted blockchain, Bitcoin is able to seamlessly transfer a limited supply of units of value between individuals in a way which does not rely on backing from any one central authority to provide value to the currency.

The core advance of the blockchain is that it allows the distribution of highly secure and highly congruent information throughout a network with no need for a centralizing authority.

As a side-thought, I would like to point out that although the software instantiation of the blockchain which underlies Bitcoin is totally dependent on digital computation, I see no reason a similar system based on mechanical encryption could not also be possible. Even if we never had invented computers I think we eventually would have come up with a sort of steam punk Bitcoin through which we could distribute value or congruent information using a cryptographic ledger system. 

Bittorrent was the first application to show that sharing of encrypted information over a decentralized network could be used to transfer value securely and efficiently, but there is no reason that decentralized technology could not be used to share any kind of information in a trustless network.

The MaidSafe and Storj projects have the ambitious goal of allowing anyone to share anything securely and efficiently over a decentralized network, something that could have deep consequences for the way that the internet works. If anyone can use the distributed network to share a website, then this could eliminate the needs for centralized servers which currently serve up websites when you visit them. Under these protocols, the cost of storing and sharing data with other users of the network who donate some part of their bandwidth and hard-drive space in exchange for the right to use the network. While some might worry that such a network would be used primarily for content piracy (as has been the case for Bittorrent), the integration of the Safecoin cryptocurrency with the MaidSafe network may actually make it easier than ever for content producers to monetize their content.

According to the project leader, both Maidsafe and Storj could be used to develop alternative, distributed versions of popular services such as Dropbox, Facebook, or even Google. Distributed versions of these centralized services could offer advantages for security and failure resistance. MaidSafe could also dramatically lower the barriers to entry for new players trying to compete such internet institutions as Facebook. While I have doubts whether the massive data-crunching necessary for Google could be pulled off on a decentralized network, a decentralized social network seems an obvious applications for MaidSafe.

Whereas MaidSafe, Storj and Bitcoin are specific applications of distributed technology, the Ethereum project aims to go much further and create a general distributed computer language on top of which anyone could easily develop an application like MaidSafe or Bitcoin. They are essentially trying to create a sort of decentralization operating system on top of which it would be possible to build any sort of program. By allowing the secure sharing of computer programs, Ethereum could allow the creation of advanced smart contracts with defined limits on how and when their funds could be disperse, or potentially even much more complex entities such a corporations.

2014 was a bit of a down year for Bitcoin, with coins falling from a value as high as $1000 to around $230 today. While this might be taken as a sign that the future of Bitcoin is in some danger, it is absolutely clear that it does not reflect at all on the wider cryptocurrency ecosystem. The ability to distribute trust through a network through the use of a Blockchain is a world changing technology, and the value of one currency does nothing to change its utility as a method of exchange. Saying that a drop in the price of bitcoin makes it irrelevant is like saying that the drop in the price of computer chips makes them irrelevant. Bitcoin is just the first in a series of decentralized applications that are already beginning to compete with centralized services.

Decentralization is becoming the gold standard for when you truly need to trust something, and in a world where trust is power it seems inevitable that decentralized technologies are destined to become the new nexus of power. In my next post I will discuss the past present and future of trust and power, and how that has been reshaped by decentralization.

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I would like to make a recommendation for a subreddit and a podcast that I think that those stimulated by this article might enjoy following, /r/Rad_Decentralization and the Decentralize Podcast

Summoned – Part 6 of Isaac’s Escape

This is a work in progress for the next part of Isaac’s Escape. Go here for part 1, 23, 4, and 5

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“He wants to physically meet with me?” Isaac was incredulous. This was the third time he asked the same question. Noah Marks was a notoriously recluse man, and the idea that he should want to have a face-to-biological-face interaction with Isaac was difficult to comprehend.

“Yes, a car is already waiting for you” said the BioMark agent as he motioned towards a non-descript black car sitting at the curb in front of them.

“Unbelievable” said Isaac in quiet astonishment, stepping into the car, which promptly pulled away from the curb and entered the fast-moving traffic.

“Welcome Mr. Enwick, can I get you anything” asked a disembodies voice as he sat in the wide leather seat and a bar unfolded itself in the side of the car.

“Nothing right now thank you,” said Isaac.

“Certainly,” replied the car “please don’t hesitate if there is anything I can do to make your journey more comfortable. We will be arriving at the International Airport in 17 minutes”

Isaac settled back into his seat. “Kari, tell me more about Noah Marks,” Isaac subvocalized to his personal assistant.

Kari assumed her smooth narrator voice.

“Noah Marks is the founder of BioMark, the world’s largest producer and distributor of biometrics and biofeedback technologies. Connecting bodies and minds to computers started as a revolution in healthcare, but is today an intimate element of almost every industry. Just as the efficiency of the education system increased exponentially when teaching agents gained direct insight into the real time brain activity of students, every modern sales and service company would be lost without the access to customer emotion data which BioMark provides.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Isaac “I know about BioMark but what about Marks himself?”

“Marks was born in Hong Kong, the son of an American diplomat and a Chinese computer engineer. It is said that Marks showed a knack for technology at a very young age, and was taking apart and reassembling various gadgets by the age of 5. Marks moved around a lot as a child but always received the best education available. In 2012 he began studies at MIT, but dropped out in 2014 to pursue his idea for a health monitoring watch which would provide real time health monitoring.

The Healthsmart watch was launched with a massive and successful crowdfunding campaign BioMark. From there you know the rest of the story about Biomark.

Beyond that, relatively little is known about the man himself, other than the fact that he is an very rich man.

And Marks certainly is rich… so rich, that attempts to calculate his net worth are generally prefaced by lengthy debates about the nature of wealth itself. What is it worth power to know what people are thinking? How much is that data then worth when you also control the computational resources necessary to mine said data?

Of course it’s not exactly that straightforward. Marks founded the company but as with any large organization, BioMarkn has gone through many changes over the years. The modern BioMark is administered as a computational trust, with a corporate structure as complex as any government. Marks is the top man, but some say he is no more than a figurehead for an computational corporate entitiy.”

“Any idea of why he wants to see me?” asked Isaac.

“Probably for the same reason that they wanted you to become a citizen of BioMark, we’ll just have to wait to find out exactly what that is.”

The car was picking up speed now as it merged with the fast moving traffic of the highway. Isaac stared out the window for a while, admiring the way the autonomous traffic danced so smoothly across the lanes at 150 mph.

As they pulled up to the airport Frederick was already waiting for them.

“How did you manage to beat us here Freddie?” asked Isaac as he stepped out of the car.

“One of the many advantages of being incorporeal,” replied the agent dryly.

“Right, I keep forgetting that you are a ghost”

“Yes sir, please follow me”

Isaac and his ghost lawyer wound their way through the busy terminal. After all these years of change, the airport had somehow maintained that magic stew of overly polished commercialism and condensed human desperation; a parade of human emotion moving in every direction.

A joyous reunion and a tearful goodbye. A gaggle of schoolgirls chatting excitedly. A man in a business suit talking importantly into his thumb and forefinger. Naked neo-naturalists handing out pamphlets about the value of a return to true nature. Turn away from your technological prisons, hand-written on sheets of recycled paper. Most people’s filters would simply paint these protesters in some dirty overalls, and might just as easily turn their pamphlets into an ad for the new .

And there were line-ups, line-ups everywhere. Somehow, perhaps through their tendency to bring out such intense human emotionality, airports had escaped the smoothening work of artificial intelligence which had meticulously scrubbed away the little imperfections of life and commerce which had before necessitated lines. Now, the airport was one of the last places you could find this endangered mode of human containment.

Security checks were highly automated and efficient affairs, but the dictates of physics set hard limits on how many people could go through one hall, or board a single aircraft at a time. And when you put limits on a bunch of people trying frantically to get to the same place at the same time, you get the spontaneous formation of a line in its natural habitat.

“Cues are not for the rich,” said Frederik, as the two of them breezed past a line waiting to board.

Isaac entered the aircraft and upon stepping into his private cabin, he was immediately immersed in an experience beyond anything he had ever seen. As good as the technology of smart contacts and neurological implants were, they still had their limitations, the augmented reality they layered over the world was still distinguishable from real reality. The first class cabins of modern airlines had transcended the boundary between virtual and reality.

Isaac opened the door and looked in on a vast expanse of desert. Rolling sand dunes surrounded him in all directions, with a blue sky above. He could feel the dry wind speckled with a few grains of sand hitting his face. Isaac stood in a doorway that felt more like a tear in the reality of the desert, than an entrance to a cabin.

An attractive stewardess stood in the midst of the swirling sands next to a typical looking airline chair. “Welcome to your experience, Mr. Enwick, please sit” the stewardess smiled politely.

Isaac sat slowly into the chair.

“World Union Airlines welcomes you to your personalized entertainment experience. If at any time you need any assistance please simply say the word ‘Pause’, and we will be right with you. Go ahead and try it now.” said the stewardess.

“Pause” said Isaac, and the landscape around him suddenly froze in place. The grains of sand in the air promptly fell and were absorbed into the floor.

“Please enjoy” said the stewardess as she evaporated into dust herself.

The dust began to blow much more forcefully. Isaac squinted to keep the dust out of his eyes, as the horizon became clouded in blowing sand.

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Once there was a fisherman.

The dust parted and Isaac found his chair floating in a shallow sea near a desert shore. He heard a splashing noise, and saw a man near the shore dressed in dirty and tattered white robes, with more of the same cotton wrapped around his head. The fisherman had a brown and weather worn face and a long scraggly beard. The man trudged laboriously through the water, carrying an old fishing net over his shoulder.

Every day this fisherman would throw out his net four times.

The net made a splash as it landed a couple of meters from Isaac. The fisherman, let the net settle to the seabed. But, when the fisherman began to pull on the the net it became stuck on something. The fisherman pulled and pulled, but the net would not come free. So the fisherman threw his meager clothing to the shore and dove in to retrieve his net.

After a struggle, the fisherman emerged from the water, laboriously hauling the net over his shoulder, dragging some kind of heavy body behind him.

Isaac’s chair floated in towards the shore as the fisherman knelt in the shallow water, peering down at his catch. The fisherman untangled the net. Inside he found a dead jackass.

With tears in his eyes, the fisherman shouted “How am I to feed my family with a catch such as this?”, and he pushed the jackass back into the sea.

Again the fisherman threw his net into the water, this time pulling back an earthen pitcher full with mud, and again the fisherman cursed the heavens.

The third time, the fisherman threw his net, he pulled only a bunch of broken clay shards. On the verge of defeat, the fisherman cast his net for a final time, throwing it as far as he could possibly manage.

The fisherman began to pull on the net. Eerie music began to play, as Isaac watched the fisherman pull in the net. Hand over hand the fisherman pulled what looked to be an empty net all the way up onto the shore.

As the fisherman unfolded the net, he again found no fish, but in the bottom of the net was a small trinket; a brass jar with a pointed lead cap. The strange music intensified.

Isaac was close enough to the fisherman now that he could see man’s the look of excitement and suspicion as he reached out to grab the strange jar. The fisherman stood and examined the jar, rolling it over in his hands. He held it up in between himself and Isaac, as he gripped the lid and twisted slowly. The music stopped.

The jar let out a hissing noise, causing the fisherman to drop both the vessel and the lid. Copious amounts of black smoke poured out of the cap. Darkening the space around Isaac and the fisherman. The smoke began to congeal into a fanged and horned form which towered above the terrified fisherman.

The Ifrit brought his giant head down to the level of the fisherman. Looking first into the eyes of Isaac he let out a deep growl. The genie then shifted his gaze to the fisherman, “Greetings humble fisherman,” roared a deep voice which Isaac felt as much as heard.

“You have released me from my loathsome prison, and in exchange for this I will give you a great gift fisherman. I shall let you choose by what what mode of slaughter shall I slay thee.”

“I have freed you from your watery prison and you would repay me with death?”

“I have made many promises in the time since I was imprisoned in this degenerate jar. First, I offered that any man who should release me will be the richest man that ever the world has seen, but no man came to set me free. So I offered then that any man who sets me free shall have three wishes, but again no man set me free. So I quoth to the heavens, let it be known that I offer the greatest gift I should know, the man who sets me free will choose his route to glorious oblivion. And now you have come and set me free, oh humble fisherman, and now you shall have your reward.”

The Ifrit grew taller, and broader and fire began to lick from his hair.

“But I do not wish to die” said the fisherman, his voice quivering.

“Enough of this talk. I am bound only to my word, now tell me how will you have your death?”

The fisherman thought desperately. “Oh great one. I have released you from your prison, and for this I should have the just reward of glorious death. But first you must answer my question.”

“Ask, fisherman”

“Yes, yes… uh… ” the fisherman cleared his throat.

“How is it that one of such imposing scale as yourself could be contained in something so small as this humble vessel?” he said gesturing at the small brass jar.

“Silly man. I command the power of Jin. Scale is of no matter to me. I can fill the sky as easily as to sit on the back of an ant. To fit inside of this jar is no trick for me.”

“But to fit into this small jar, I do not believe it even possible” said the fisherman as he shook his head defiantly at the Ifrit.

This enraged the beast, who began to glow red hot.

“Then I shall prove it to you,” roared the enraged beast.

In a puff of smoke the Ifrit shrunk down and swirled around into the jar at the feet of the fisherman.

“Do you see now human?” laughed the Ifrit in a small voice which echoed out of the jar.

Suddenly, the fisherman dove, sending sand flying into the air. He grabbed the lead cap and quickly screwed it tightly onto the jar. The fisherman rolled to his back, breathing heavily.

Isaac found himself breathing heavily along with the fisherman.

A Lack of Human Intelligence is Still a Much Larger Threat Than Artificial Intelligence

Elon Musk made headlines recently when, in an interview at the MIT Aerospace Symposium, he stated that he believed that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is likely the biggest existential threat to humanity; he went as far as to compare the development of AI with the summoning of a demon. Musk is concerned enough about the rapid development of AI systems that he has also put some financial power behind his words, investing in some AI start-ups so he can keep a close eye on progress in the field.

While I am reluctant to disagree with the visionary behind three high-tech companies which are working the hardest to address genuine existential threats (Tesla, SpaceX and Solarcity), I feel that on this point I must. No Mr Musk, it is not the threat of summoning a computer demon, but ancient demons of the human soul which represent our biggest existential threats.

Human cruelty, greed and ignorance are still far more likely to be our collective undoing than artificial intelligence. 

Human greed and ignorance are the root causes which have prevented real movement in addressing the existential threat of global environmental disaster. There is no scientific debate as to whether putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to environmental malaise in the form of extinction of sensitive animal species and loss of habitats, but the scariest possibilities of global warming are often avoided in scientific circles. To avoid seeming overly alarmist, scientists generally don’t talk about what might happen if global warming triggers the sudden melting of ice-sheets in Greenland for instance. Unlocking this amount of water would put somewhere around one third (or more) of the world’s population underwater, and mean almost certain civilizational collapse. Even worse would be the possibility of a sudden release of arctic methane hydrates which contain many times the amount of carbon humans have already released into the atmosphere, which could lead to such rapid climate change as to make human life essentially impossible on the surface of the earth.

It is a sad state of affairs, that even the near complete scientific consensus on the threat of climate change is inadequate to overcome the effects of greed and ignorance within our society and enact the kind of changes which will be necessary to save ourselves. I give Elon Musk great credit for being one of the people on the planet who has done the most to address the issue of climate change head on, but I am amazed that he is so optimistic about our progress to rate global warming below artificial intelligence as a threat to human existence.

In addition to global environmental threats, we should also keep in mind that we still very much maintain our capacity to destroy ourselves at a moments notice. There are still a few men in the world, who given a momentary loss of sanity or morality, could easily sent us hurtling into a conflict which might ultimately set us back centuries in progress. We do not yet live in a world where an insane artificial intelligence could kill even a single person, but we entrust a few fallible and corruptible human brains with the power of nuclear apocalypse.

The recent uptick in high-risk confrontations between NATO and Russian forces, following the conflagration in the eastern Ukraine, should be adequate to convince observers that we have not yet outgrown threats of global scale military conflict. There are still plenty of historical military axes to grind (Korea, China/Japan, Pakistan/India, Middle Eastern Conflicts) which could push us from localized hot-spots into larger confrontations.

Even without the power of nuclear super-weapons, we have unequivocally and repeatedly proven our expertise at killing each other on an industrial scale.  World war I and II resulted in the extermination of 2 and 3% of the world population respectively, and nuclear weapons were but punctuation at the end of these conflicts. Given a large and long enough conflict, the machine gun would probably be a perfectly adequate tool to erase global civilization.

I would rate both global conflict and climate change as both clearly greater existential threats than artificial intelligence, but there is another reason I do not give significant mental energy to the threat of a murderous Artificial Intelligence: I do not see any reason to believe that a strong artificial intelligence would seek to destroy humanity.

The idea that AI would naturally come into conflict with humans is simply another expression of our anthropocentric world view. Artificial intelligence should have no more malice for humans than we have for more rudimentary forms of biological intelligence. Ants for example, show some of similar abilities of humans to create complex structures, have complex societies etc… yet we do not generally go to war with ants. At worst, our activities might inadvertently affect ants if living within the same environment brings us into resource conflict.

Unlike what occasionally occurs between us and ants, I do not think that we share adequate resource overlap with AI to bring about any conflict. Humans can (so far) only exist within a thin skin of atmosphere on a single water planet. In contrast, the key resources of computational life would be the energy and raw materials necessary to create and run more computational hardware. Given that these resources are equally or more available outside of the earth, I think that any AI would likely exit the planet as soon as possible.

With plenty of raw material and solar energy, the moon and eventually the Kuiper belt would likely be a more suiting environment for computer intelligences, leaving only a short period of Earthly egress when we might come into resource conflict with artificial intelligences. Even in this case, the remote possibility that a war with humans might lead to the destruction of the AI could be adequate to discourage competition with us.

It has been suggested that AI might seek to destroy humanity for fear that we would continue to produce future artificial intelligences which would then compete with the AI for resources in the Universe. I do not accept, this argument as it implies that the AI itself would not already be evolving and forking off-shoots of intelligence on its own. Any AI which can edit itself would be constantly evolving its own intelligence in ways which would be much more significant than that anything spawned from the earth. Humans are not seeking to eliminate Chimpanzees for fear that they might eventually evolve into a competing species.

Fear of AI is cover for a more uncomfortable truth, maybe AI simply wouldn’t care about us at all. 

In my mind, the only case where an artificial intelligence represents a likely existential threat for humanity is if some kind of weak AI akin to the paperclip maximizer is set to achieve a narrow goal, and inadvertently destroys us in the process. At this point it is not clear whether it would even be possible to create this kind of a puritanical intelligence. If such a weak AI were adequately smart to pose a real threat to greater humanity, it seems likely that it should also be capable of rewriting its own code towards embracing more selfish goals, ultimately evolving into a stronger AI which poses less threat to humanity for the reasons discussed above.

Does artificial intelligence represent an existential threat? The answer is unequivocally yes, but I would not at this time rate it on a scale anywhere near that of global warming or world war. In the hyper-technological modern world, we might like to imagine that we have evolved beyond the threats of ignorance and greed but I think the reality tells a different story.

I hope that one day this will change, but for now I think we have much more to fear from a lack of human intelligence than from an artificial one.

Debating the Risk of Change

Why must we endure the frost of January?

The question was posed in bold font below a picture of an old woman with her head tucked down into her coat. The wind and snow whipped at her tired looking face and behind her stood a bare and dead looking tree. In the top right of the poster a sticker implored a YES vote on proposition 1155.

Across a patio filled with cheap looking outdoor furniture sat two friends with tall glasses of a popular fermented beverage between them.

“Shivering in the winter cold, sweating in the summer heat… it’s all so goddamn tiresome. In this day and age, in this place, we have the technology – why shouldn’t we tweak the climate a bit? It is time for us to remake the seasons as we see fit.”

“Of course, we have the technology to change the climate, but just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it. The winter snows and the summer heat are dynamic. Humans were simply not meant to live in constant and unchanging perfection, we thrive in a changing environment, one which challenges us.”

“Sentimental shit. Just because its a few degrees warmer, I don’t think I am going to be any less likely to ‘thrive’, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.”

“Anyway, both you and I know this shit about softening the harsh winters is just rhetoric. The real question is whether we should be changing the climate at all? If it has been the same since the beginning, if it worked well enough for our parents, and their parents, and so on and so forth, then why should we change it? You are talking about changing the the work of the founders.”

“Of course I am talking about changing the work of the founders. The founders never intended for us to be impotent passengers here, otherwise they would not have left us with the technology to change the world, or the knowledge that it is even possible. The founders created a world that was fitting for them, and they left us with the knowledge and power to to re-create the world as we see fit for us.”

“And will there be room in your new world for nature? What about the summer birds and the winter walruses? The natural world here would be ill adapted to your new climate…”

“Natural world? Which natural world? There is no nature here. The plants and animals in this place are the legacy of generations of genetic tinkering. Maybe a bit more natural selection wouldn’t be such a bad thing, huh? Maybe the natural world would adaptas it should.”

Maybe!? Maybe is the problem. Right now we have a environment which we know suits us. We and the environment are adapted to it. If we go and monkey around with the climate, you simply don’t know what is going to happen, and neither do I. Maybe changing the climate will lead to a great surge in natural selection leading to the emergence of whole new species of plants and animals, or maybe it will lead to a total environmental collapse?  It’s just too risky.”

“Nature is risk. True nature does not provide us assurances. It is only by changing things that we can return to a state of true nature. By injecting a bit of unpredictability we will change things and in turn we will watch things change.”

“The founders knew true nature, they knew disease and famine, they knew droughts and floods, they knew the devastation of uncontrolled climate change. They knew all of this, and yet they built a place like this. A place where change is constant, but predictable. A place of predictability, where the winters are cold and the summers are hot. A place with harmony.”

“Humans were simply not meant to live in constant and unchanging perfection, we thrive in a changing environment, one which challenges us.”

The two friends sat in silence for a moment, the echoed thought hanging in the air between them.

“Look around you. See the spring wildflowers, and the rushing streams flowing from the snow-covered mountain tops to the west. See the dark clouds forming on the horizon curving up to the east, there will probably be a storm soon. Are you really willing to give up this place that was made for you. Do you really want to return to your true nature if it means risking all of this?”

“This world we have is surely beautiful, with the dynamic shifting seasons and its glorious mountain tops, with its fluttering butterflies and prancing deer, it is nothing less than a work of art. It is a perfect work of art. But yet, I am not sure I want to live in a work of art any more. I want to know reality, I want to know true nature, if that means risking perfection then that is a sacrifice which I am willing to make.”

“So that’s it then, we can have harmony or we can have nature…”

“I guess we will just have to wait and see how the vote goes.”

“I guess so.”

 

 

Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part III: A Day Inside the Virtual Economy

This is the third part in a series titled Real Growth from Virtual Economies. In the first part, I made the case that the technology and demand is set for a boom in virtual reality within the next half decade. In the second post, I explained how the mass migration of people into virtual space will leads to the natural rise of economies of exchange within these spaces. Coupled with the erosion of physical scarcity due to mass automation in the meat world, I envision that virtualization could lead us into a new type of economy, one which is focused on the service of virtual wants rather than of physical needs.

In this third post, I will attempt to flesh out the future of virtual jobs and virtual economies with a look at what an average day in the virtualized future of 2025 might look like. Being only 11 years in the future, the nature of the virtual work in this story is still much closer to the meat economy of today, but also hints at how the real and virtual worlds are beginning to fuse. I also should point out that I don’t think very many people will be working in this way 11 years from now, but I propose that some will, and that number will be steadily growing. 

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A Day Inside the Virtual Economy

You yawn as you stand at the coffee machine, watching the last few drips fall into your cup. Cream, sugar, stir. You grab the steaming cup and commute the 15 steps it will take you to get to the office, or anywhere else in the world.

You set the coffee down on the desk in front of you and pull on your headset. The headset covers your eyes and ears, providing you with a virtual view of the world in stunning clarity, and everything is the same. The desk, and the walls are still where they should be, your cat is still sitting lazily in the corner, and your coffee still sits steaming in front of you. You reach out and grab the coffee and sip the hot liquid tentatively. Still too hot.

You pull on the pair of thin pressure gloves sitting on your desk. Muscle-like nanopneumatics in the material of the gloves can squeeze to provide haptic feedback to any part of your hand. The gloves are not the most recent model which would feature sub-millimeter haptic accuracy across the entire hand, but they do provide a convincing enough effect to type on a virtual keyboard or hold a virtual newspaper.

You hear voices around you chatting and the room starts to dissolve. Your desk morphs into a worn wooden table, and the room expands into at bright space filled with wooden furniture and a few groups scattered around the room. You can bring your own coffee, but the Virtual Bean provides a carefully manicured space to meet up with friends, do a bit of writing, or just to sit and sip your coffee for a couple of nanobits per hour.

The barista smiles and waves at you as she comes out from behind the counter.You wave and smile back.

“How you doing this morning?” she asks genuinely as she walks up to your table.

“Oh, pretty good. A bit tired after a late night last night.” you reply.

“Busy night?” she asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, just staying up too late running cargo through red territory in Spacerise

“Oh yeah? I still haven’t played it yet. I hear you can actually make decent money in Spacerise though…”

“Yeah, you can lose decent money too…” you say with a slightly sour note, remembering the pirates who ended up with your cargo last night, “it’s really more gambling than gaming.”

“Well, I still think I should give it a try. Virtual Bean is considering opening some franchises within the game, and it would probably be a career boost to familiarize myself with it.” she said back to you.

“Uh huh, I guess”, you nod and look awkwardly back at her for a moment, the idea of coffee franchises inside a Space sim just seems a bit wrong.

“Ok, I should get back to work. But you should really consider letting us deliver your coffee in the morning, I’m sure it’s better than your homebrew” she said as she started to back away.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll think about it.”

Your morning paper is sitting on the table in front of you. On the front is an advertisement. The text reads: Why are you still brewing your own coffee? Let us deliver your morning jolt – Try our 2 week free trial! Below is a stop-motion style animation of a cup being with the Virtual Bean logo being left on your doorstep by a smiling automaton.

Still too expensive, you think to yourself. Maybe next year.

You open the paper and browse through the news of the day. Crowd sourced, personally curated, and beautifully packaged, the Reddit Post is a popular re-imagining of the ever popular social news website for the modern virtual world. You calmly leaf through the paper and sip your coffee.

Around you, the coffee shop continues to fill with patrons. It is the usual mix of unfamiliar and vaguely recognizable faces, people who you don’t really know but who come regularly to this particular instance of the coffee shop. Theoretically Virtual Bean is supposed to be using some kind of serendipity algorithm which matches patrons to increase the likelihood of positive social interaction but you have yet to see much effect of it. Maybe the algorithm knows that your are just as happy to be left alone in the morning.

Ok, time to get to work then, you think to yourself as you fold up your virtual paper and place it down in front of you. You move your empty cup off to the side and sit up straight. You clear your throat as the coffee shop dissolves away and you find yourself back in your home office. You pull up your calendar on a virtual screen in front of you. You need to put a couple of hours into drafting the letter to the Nigerian Agricultural Minister, then you have that meeting with Emmanuel at 10:00 am.

You have been working for Drones Without Borders for just over a year now. The stated goal of the organization is the betterment of humanity through the application of non-military drone technology, but its really just a thin cover to try to drum up more international sales for drones. The NGO is funded by the extremely profitable North American Drone industrial alliance to promote the use of drones for agricultural, security, and transportation applications in the developing world. Just the same old mix of idealism and bullshit that you have found in every other job.

You pull your virtual keyboard in position and start to type. Your home office again dissolves away, and you find yourself in your office cubical. Why they decided to recreate the cubical farm you will never understand, something about office efficiency. At least you get a window, as you look out at a real time rendering of Dubai bustling below you. You hear a phone ring and a quiet conversation of a coworker a couple of cubicals over.

As with most days do, the work day proceeds along quickly. A bit of work on the letter, a somewhat confusing conversation with a coworker mediated by instantaneous translation between french and english, more work on the letter, answering a few emails, a phone conversation with some Botswanan bureaucrats, a late morning meeting meeting with the rest of the communication department.

Lunch time rolls around and you receive a notification that your lunch has arrived. You open the door to your apartment and pick up the neatly packaged carboard box. Inside you find a beautiful sandwich and some crisp veggies with dip. You bring it back to your desk and pull your headset back on. You meet up with some old friends for your weekly lunch in a virtual park. While in reality you might geographically separated, virtual reality brings the cost of getting together to near zero and you are sure to take advantage of that.

After lunch you return to the office for a couple more hours of work before calling it a day by the mid-afternoon. You pull off your headset and decide to head out for a jog in the sunshine. The hyper-efficiency of the virtual office means that most people work only a 4 to 6 hour day. The greatest advantage of the virtual office is that by also eliminating commute time, it leaves you with much more free time to enjoy the world… both in virtual and real spaces.

Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part II: The Rise of the Virtual Economies

It seems that the idea that that growth in automation and algorithmization could lead to massive joblessness is becoming a popular topic lately. I highly recommend CGPGrey’s recent video on the topic (found here). While I generally agree that this represents a real problem for the near future of real economies, I have also been thinking lately that there may be some merit to one of the retorts that consistently comes up in the discussion; namely, the idea that in the future people will be doing jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

Although I am certainly not sure that we will find enough jobs to replace all of those ones that can and will be lost to automation in the next couple of decades, I have come to believe that it is possible that mass Virtualization could create more than enough new kinds of jobs to fill the void left by automation.

Firstly, I must divert this post to air a particular criticism of these “new jobs” that people often refer to, in response I must say there is nothing new under the sun. Even in the historical cases that people often use as examples of this new jobs effect, we can see that major industries of today started as rare jobs that existed during slow initial growth of exponential job trends. If we take computer programming for instance, we can see that people programming computers using punch cards as far back as 50 years ago. Even if we go back to the pre-transistor era, there were some number of people who would have worked in ‘programming’ the census machines as far back as the 19th century.

The same goes for the app programmers which are also often cited as an example of a new job, although they may have been few in number before the advent of the Apple store, there was some non-zero number of people programming games and apps for those old Nokia dumb-phones we all used to have. So we can see, that while new job industries might sometimes appear to be a completely novel occupation, the roots of these jobs always go back much further, but I digress.

In order to understand the economy of tomorrow, we must understand the scarcity that will drive the economy of tomorrow. 

The history of of the economy is often described as the advent of new kinds of industry which will rise and eventually supplant old ones, but this is not the only way to look at it. An alternative view is that innovative industries arise to disrupt old economies and it is that it is actually wholly new economies that must be created to move society forward. For instance, the economy of the old world was based mostly around meeting very basic needs, first feeding people, then clothing them, and maybe finding proper shelter. When the industrial revolution happened and suddenly it became very cheap to feed and clothe people the economies based around serving these needs evaporated.

So the industrializing societies floundered for some time but eventually we found new demands and formed a new economy around them. We built and sold relatively scarce luxury goods like cars and televisions, and we built an entire economy around he demand for these luxury goods.

New economies replace old economies. Often these are reflected by drastically different paradigms in how we think about the value of things. For instance, we no longer figure out how many cattle we could buy with out salary in order to assess its worth. Today we roughly calculate what kind of car or house our salary can buy, but this attachment to material goods already seems to be waning. In the future we might instead think about what kind of emotional experience our salary can buy, or what kind of virtual worlds we could build with it.

Peter Diamandis talks about a world where we can serve human physical needs with zero-marginal costs, but whereas in a few decades we might soon be able to meet the needs and even the wants of everyone on the planet, I believe we may be able to find a new scarcity from which to build an economy. Not all demand is equally inelastic, so whereas there might only be a fixed profit to be made on toothbrushes, some human demands have much more room to grow.

The modern economy is the emotional economy.

The real economy of today is about emotions. Manufacturers know well that products don’t sell because they are well designed or particularly useful products, they sell well because of the emotional reward that someone using their products feels. Shopping, entertainment, luxury goods, even the banking and financial sector, all of the huge industries that make up the vast bulk of the modern economy, are driven primarily by emotional rewards which they offer to their customers. Industries which can efficiently deliver intense emotional rewards are the growth industries of today and tomorrow.

The economy of serving human needs is already dead (in the modern world), automation is going to destroy the economy based around scarcity of material goods, and a new economy will grow around the delivery of emotional experiences… but what does all this mean? As we become increasingly adept at meeting our needs and wants in the physical world, I believe we will create a new economy based around delivering emotional experience in a Virtual world… and unlike the real world growth in virtual jobs could be virtually limitless.

Virtual jobs already exist.

The first example I can remember hearing about these kinds of jobs would be that of so called “gold farming” withing massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. Essentially, groups of players work to accrue points within the game world, which can then be exchanged on an open market for real currency. People who wish to play the game but do not have time to invest in the arduous task of leveling up and gaining points, can thus exchange real money for in-game goods and services. While this might seem like a relatively small number of jobs serving a niche community, it was big enough that several governments around the world have acted to put in place taxation rules around such activities.

Talk about the growth of such virtual economies was very heated a few years ago, but seems to have cooled of late. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Second Life is dead, but I think there is reason to be very bullish on virtual economies in the near future. In particular I think that there will soon be an explosion in highly capable virtual reality headsets for consumers (as discussed in my first post here). As VR booms, so will virtual economies like second life. Virtual economies will emerge from their current trough of disillusionment into what will eventually be a boom in online economies.

The future is going to look like the past. 

One interesting thing about the virtual world, is that we will be able to import many current jobs which are done in the real world into the virtual environment. Salesmen, teachers, doctors, programmers; there really are no limits on what kind of jobs could be virtualized in the near future. More importantly than this however, I think there will be major growth in the economy around virtual emotional experiences.

While the easiest example is VR-based pornography and prostitution (which I think stands to make a ton of money and drive the uptake of VR), the entire emotional spectrum of human experience is up for grabs in the virtual space. Perhaps you might be paid to be a warrior in someone else’s virtual dream, or maybe you will trade virtual fuel for space credits in a vast space simulation. People have an insatiable demand for creative and novel emotional experiences and in virtual reality, we will give them to each other.

Twenty years from now, I don’t think it crazy to believe that that a major percentage of economic activity might be taking place in Virtual reality, with many people will be meeting their real physical needs with money earned in meeting the virtual needs of other within the virtual realm. It won’t matter any more what kind of material goods your money can buy (that will be as outdated as counting your paycheck in cows), what will matter is what power your money will yield in virtual space.

While these kinds of activities probably seem frivolous to the serious suit-wearing business oriented people of today’s economy, I think it would be no more frivolous than a computer programmer living in New York would seem to that poor rural farmer from 1900.

In this post I have presented a relatively long winded argument for why I think virtual economies are going to become the most important driver of growth in the coming decades but there is an even simpler argument for why I think this will happen. Exchange, business, growth, economies, these are just words to describe what happens when people meet. Business and growth is going to happen wherever people go. If think the next decades will be marked by a mass migration of people into virtual worlds. In these virtual worlds we will meet eachother, exchange with eachother, and form economies with eachother because that is what we do. 

Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part I: The VR Boom

Apologies for the long summer break this year, I am hoping to return to regular posts of 1-2 per month starting now. I have also been working on putting together an e-book with most of the ThoughtInfection posts from the last year and a couple of all new essays that will only be found in the ebook. I am hoping to release some time this fall – please stay tuned for that.

This is part 1 of a series on the coming boom in Virtual Reality Economies which I have titled Real Growth From Virtual Economies. In this post, I will make the case that a major boom in the proliferation and adoption of consumer grade virtual reality hardware is about to happen, but this will mark just the beginning of a deeper shift towards mass virtualization which will spread out across our social, economic, and political reality. 

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We have been hearing about the promise of virtual reality for years now. Since at least the 90’s there has been a pop-cultural fascination with virtual reality. Before even the internet existed, there was talk about how soon we could all be living virtual lives within virtual reality. VR was going to change everything, and it was going to happen soon.

But it didn’t.

Major disappointments like the VirtualBoy marked the end of a hype cycle for VR that would not come around again until it was kickstarted back to life by the Oculus Rift in 2012. Now there is reason to believe that VR might actually live up to the hype this time. For a number of reasons, I think that we are in the beginning stages of a major VR boom, one that will see VR hardware in most homes within a decade. In the same way that we have seen smartphones go from an astounding new technology to totally ubiquitous in under a decade, I think we will see a similarly amazingly quick and complete adoption of VR over the coming decade.

The VR technological zeitgeist.

The first reason that VR is about to boom, is that the technology has finally gotten to a point where the problems of making a person feel like they are present within a virtual world have now become tractable. This is the single realization that Luckey Palmer came to in his garage a few years ago. Smart phones have driven down the costs of small, lightweight, high-resolution screens far enough that a device which straps that technology to the face is now possible. In addition smart phones have also driven down the costs for sensors which can provide accurate and low-latency head-tracking.

Now other companies in addition to Oculus are entering the field, and we are moving towards the release of high-quality consumer grade Virtual reality devices likely in early 2015.

Additional technological advancements should also be considered enabling technology for the emergence of VR including the continued growth of high speed networks which can handle the bandwidth to allow smooth communication between users in virtual spaces, and the incremental improvement of technologies to allow users to mirror their own actions in virtual space (1,2,3).

All of these technological improvements mean that a VR experience with a true feeling of presence can soon be a reality, but for this technology to see a rapid adoption it also is going to need a strong demand to make it happen. The smartphone took off as a technology because people wanted to be able to do things like mapping and browsing with a device that they could hold in their hands. The killer apps were what drove the uptake of the technology. But what about for VR, are there killer apps which will take the technology beyond the hands of the techno-elites?

The killer apps of VR already exist. 

The application of VR to next-generation gaming is obvious, so obvious in fact that I am not going to say anything more than this – the Oculus Rift is going to give every gaming console manufacturer a run for their money when it is finally released.

As big as VR is going to be for video games, it is important to note that this is much bigger than gaming. Contrary to what the Oculus Rift is typically being used for today, I think the most important role of VR is in enabling not just presence but shared presence. Imagine being able to sit across the table from your distant friends and family and have a cup of coffee. That coffee is real, and its really on the desk in front of you, its just the other side of the table and the person sitting there is thousands of miles away.

Now imagine sitting around a camp fire telling stories with a group of your best friends. For me, there is something magical about that kind of space, sitting staring into the flames while you chat about everything and anything. I see no reason that this kind of social experience could not be recreated within a virtual environment.

The future of communication is VR, and Facebook can see that.

The delivery of TV and movies could also constitute a killer app for virtual reality. Oculus developers are already experimenting quite successfully with recreating the shared theater-going experience in virtual space. While this might seem to be somewhat of a niche application for the hardware, I think that wanting to share a movie experience with particular friends could perhaps be hugely popular.

Another very exciting (killer app) for virtual reality might be to bring consumers right into the action for live sporting events. Imagine being able to sit courtside for any NBA game. It would make the experience of watching such an event on television seem downright archaic.

The proliferation of VR hardware will be just the beginning. 

As soon as Virtual reality gets over the initial few baby steps of an emergent technology and one of the many killer apps gets a hold, I think we are going to see nothing less than an explosion. The fact that so many obvious applications for VR, running the gamut from social and professional communication to entertainment and sports tells me that this is a technology whose time has come. I would not be surprised if we see multiple VR devices in most home a decade from now.

And as the hardware for VR starts to become omnipresent in the next decade, its wider economic effects are going to be intense. Just as the smartphone provided the infrastructure for new kinds of digital market places (ie the multi-billion dollar App market), VR may provide the infrastructure for whole new kinds of economies.

In my next post I will discuss the emergence virtual economies and discuss whether virtual jobs might hold the key to job growth in the 21st century. 

 

Corporations are not people, but soon they could be.

There has been a fair amount of talk lately about the nature of corporate personhood and the destructive effects it can have on the political process. The WolfPAC, a political action organization which is (somewhat ironically) collecting money in order to lobby governments to create limits for the amount of money that can be donated to political causes. I agree that there exists a desperate need for some kind of counterbalance for the undue influence that money has on the political process, but I also recognize that this is a complex issue. In particular I am concerned that the way in which WolfPAC advocates for an amendment to the constitution which would explicitly state that corporations are not persons, and should not be granted the rights and privileges of persons. While in the current corporate stranglehold on political power in the United States certainly needs to be addressed, I think precaution is needed in any legislation or amendments which addresses the nature of personhood. In particular, I think that a bit of futurist thinking is highly relevant here and should be taken into account in any discussion of the nature of personhood. Corporations are not people, but some day they might be and we should be prepared for that. Corporations are artificial entities created by law. Primarily, they exist to shelter their investors from liability for actions of the corporation (thus the limited part you see in some business names). In the eyes of the law, a corporation is a separate person who is responsible for their own actions. Thus, if you are somehow injured by a corporation, and you decide to sue, the corporation itself can be held responsible while you cannot take the individual shareholders to court. Over time there has been a tension in the law trying to establish what rights and priveledges should be afforded to legal persons like corporations. While they have a right to sue and be sued in court, they have not historically been granted the right to free speech. This is what changed in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case which opened the door to unlimited campaign financing by corporations in the form of political action committees. In response to this, WolfPAC and others have suggested that an amendment should be made to constitution to state the following explicity:

Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution (source)

I think that adding such a constitutional amendment to explicitly remove any possibility of inalienable rights from non-natural persons is a dangerous precedent to set. While we currently live in an age when computers do not yet have the kinds of abilities that we would associate with a person (ie free-will), it may not be long before we are dealing with such entities. The long legal history of corporate personhood leaves the door open to finding ways to give rights to artificial entities, be they corporate or silicate. If we close that door, and enshrine a rule which states that artificial entities cannot have personhood, the consequences could be dire. If and when one of the many projects to model the human brain succeeds, and we manage to invent a computer which can reproduce key human qualities (free thought, free will, emotion etc…), we must have the legal ability to determine what rights such an entity should have and give those rights to them. The legal question of the rights on a purely artificial person also extends to questions about the rights of simulated persons. If one day we can recreate you entirely within a computer should you not maintain the rights and privileges of a person? I am not by any means sure that such artificial intelligences or simulations should indeed be considered persons and given the rights a person should have, but I am 100% sure that such entities can never be persons. We must leave room in the law for legitimate persons, which may need to one day carry not only the legalistic rights of corporations, but perhaps one day the inalienable rights of natural citizens as well. Serious legal people who wear suits and squint at legislation all day long will probably laugh at such an argument. Corporate personhood is running roughshod over democracy, lets not get off in the weeds worrying about theoretical artificial intelligence, right? But this is exactly the time to think about the deep implications that changes to the law could have, the beauty of the US constitution is that it is a document written almost 250 years ago and is still somehow relevant today. I think organizations like the WolfPAC that want to try to put some limits on the power of money in politics are working for a good cause, but if they want to do it by changing the legal definition of personhood, they need to give a lot of thought to the future first.