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Singularity vs. Spirituality October 7, 2008

Posted by eyalnow in interactions, technology.
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The Singularity is the moment when
1. artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and will then be able to create an even higher level of intelligence.
2. human beings will be able to “download” their brains into a computer and thus will reach immortality.

In response to a blog post about the singularity at Kevin Kelly’s blog, I wrote the following:

I see this as a spiritual and philosophical issue, not a technological one.
I’d like to offer some ideas and questions that I’ve been contemplating:

1. Singularitans think that consciousness arises from the brain, while spiritualists believe that consciousness arises from the soul, and that the brain and body is just a physical manifestation of the soul.

2. The brain is just a machine – advanced, complex, evolved enough, to serve the soul on this physical plain.
The soul “downloads” itself into the brain, into the body.
It’s the hardware without the software.
Without the soul, it’s just meat.

3. Kurtzweil or others may transfer their brain structure to a computer, but the result will be what William Gibson calls a personality construct – a copy of the persons’ character, persona, memories, etc., which can be programmed to appear self aware, but will not really be.

4. However, I also see it as possible that, as AI gets sufficiently strong, a soul can take residence in it, and for outside observers it would seem as tough the AI has reached self awareness by its own.

5. Which human abilities can _never_ be replicated or surpassed by a machine ?

6. Does high intelligence necessarily mean consciousness and/or self-awareness?

7. What about emotional intelligence ?

8. I see some of the hopes towards singularity and immortality as a simple fear of death and the denial of spirituality.

Shai Agassi’s Electric Cars Innitiative – My Comments September 27, 2008

Posted by eyalnow in technology.
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Shai Agassi, founder of Project Better Place, is setting up an infrastructure that will allow people to switch to an advanced electric car, to charge it while they are at home, at work, or in the shopping mall, and, if they can’t wait to charge it, they can pull into a charging station and have the battery replaced with a fully charged one.

Agassi offers something similar to mobile phone operators – Subscribe to my electricity for a few years and get the car for free.

He already has Israel and Denmark as test countries, and is aiming at the US.

Check out Wired’s profile of Agassi, and a video presentation of his vision on youtube.

As much as I like the initiative, I do see a few issues in Agassi’s plan:

  1. What with all the other electric car manufacturers ?
    Will agassi open up his network and provide charging to their car models ?
  2. What about current competing technologies of batteries ?
    Would all the car manufactures need to adhere to the same standard ?
  3. Is better place the only entity involved in setting up the standard ?
  4. What if, as battery technology advances, it will be possible to safely and conveniently fully charge the battery in a few minutes, and have it last for 100s of miles ? Would we still need all the infrastructure ?
  5. Independence, Choice – Why not allow every car owner to plug the car straight into the wall, without needing a fancy charging unit ?
    When I go to visit my friend who lives out of town, I’d like to be able to charge my car during the time that I’m there.
  6. On a larger scale, why not allow competition on the electric charging market ?
    Better place can have its high-tech charging and battery-swap stations, but why not let others open basic charging stations with competitive prices?
    Surely competition will benefit the consumer, and will help the wide-scale adoption of this idea.
  7. Can regular cars be converted to electric cars, instead of being thrown to landfills ?
  8. Do we really need another type of private car ?
    Can’t this attention, money and energy be spent instead on public transport ?
  9. Is electric the only way to go ?
    What about cars using alternative fuels and energy sources such as Biofuels, Solar, Zero-point energy?
  10. Where would all the electricity come from ?
    Agassi promises that it will all be green energy, but is it feasible?
  11. Privacy: The company always knows where your car is – while driving or parking.
    What security measures are in place ?
  12. Availability – what if the local car computer or server or computer network fails ?
    Can we still get charged ?
  13. While I acknowledge Agassi’s environmental concern, I wonder if in the process of making the world a “Better Place”, his company might become the next ExxonMobil ?

Regardless, I hope that Agassi’s plan helps in moving us towards a more sustainable future.

Augmented Reality December 23, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in technology.
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Nicholas Carr points to an interesting New Economist article about “augmented reality” which involves the displaying or superimposing of “computer-generated text and images onto the physical world.”

A very basic implementation of AR is already used when you watch an international sports match. The electronic billboards at the stadium are used by each television network to display different advertisements, possibly in various languages according to their viewer’s location.

Other potential uses include:
– Displaying driving directions over your front windshield which are superimposed over the actual road,
– Providing surgeons with “superhuman” skills by projecting x-ray, IR, and other images directly on the skin of the patient,
– Assisting soldiers in training and in the battelfield by having them wear see-through visors and displaying on them tactical information such as targets, attack or patrol paths, and potential sniper nests

Nick concludes: “What’s really going to happen is that the real and the virtual will blur together, become indistinguishable, as more of our experience becomes computer-generated. Eventually, there won’t be any reality to escape from.”

A good introduction to augmented reality is in this guy’s PhD thesis.

Google-Knol enters knowlege-sharing scene December 23, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in knowledge-sharing.
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Google has announced a knowledge-sharing service called “Knol” (from knowledge), which lets people write an authoritative article about their subject of interest or expertise, and meant to be the first thing that web-surfers find when they look for that particular subject.

“The key idea behind the Knol project is to highlight authors”, says Udi Manber, Google’s VP of engineering.
Indeed, one of the strengths of Knol compared to Wikipedia, is the possible authoritative nature of the articles, since writers will be (hopefully) identified by their real name, and may be experts in their fields, so they will be putting their reputation on the line.

“Knols will include strong community tools. People will be able to submit comments, questions, edits, additional content, and so on. Anyone will be able to rate a Knol or write a review of it. Knols will also include references and links to additional information”

An example of a Knol page shows a nice implementation of all these features.

Although I’m glad to see Google put its weight behind such a noble cause as knowledge sharing, I fear, as others in the blogosphere, that it is trying take on Wikipedia or even to dominate the whole knowledge-sharing scene.

There are some other issues here:

Seth godin’s Squidoo, is a similar author-centric knowledge-sharing service.
It has now been online for 2 years, and sports 300,000 articles.
However, I have never found it within the top search results for anything I searched for (and I search A LOT!). Rather, it’s usually Wikipedia at or near the top of my search results.
Would it be any different with Google-Knol ?

As Michael Arrington noted in his review of Seth Godin’s Squidoo, writers could build a name for themselves and possibly make more ad revenue by having their own blogs.

Would the financial aspect affect the choice of subjects and the quality of the writing ?

On average, Wikipedia manages to keep a good-enough level of information, and to identify instances where an article is opinionated, un-substantiated or even false.
Since Knol places more power in the hand of the author of the page, how good will the service be as a source of objective, factual information?

How easy would it be for the public to review and correct articles ?
Wikipedia’s cumbersome editing process leaves much to be desired in this area.

How prone will the service be to spamming, and especially to wisely-disguised advertizing ?

How will copyright be handled ? Would writers have any rights on their “Knol” ? what happends when someone takes a given Knol-page, improves and updates it and then re-posts it under his own name ?

Will Google really stand on the side without any editorial influence (read: censorship) ?

Found via Seth Godin

Word of the day – Implicature December 3, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in word-of-the-day.
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“Implicature” was coined by a guy named Paul Grice to help describe situations in which what a speaker means is not the same as what she actually says.

via powerset blog

Software that both you AND your father can use? – Here’s how March 19, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in design, interactions, interface, usability.
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I learn a lot about user-interfaces when my father needs my help with accomplishing something on his PC.

The other day he wanted to move some videos he shot with a digital video camera from the multiple read-write 80mm DVDs (expensive) to standard write-once DVDs (very cheap).

He could describe it to me very easily — move the files from the small DVD to the big DVD, so I can re-use the small DVD in my camera — but, he couldn’t do it if his life depended on it, and thank god, it didn’t.

I admit I used to somewhat patronize my father, thinking that he’s not really trying or that he expects the computer to do too much.

I now see I was wrong.
I was seeing it with my own tech-savvy eyes, instead of looking at it from the point of view of my father, who only started using computers a few short years ago, and who only needs the most basic features of word-processing, emailing and web browsing.

Sure, the DVD-burning software that he uses has a nice wizard, but it’s not the first thing that you see when you open the program, nor is it so easy to use for someone who is really a beginner.

It’s not the user who is supposed to learn how to operate any application, or the computer as a whole, but rather it is the application who needs to lend itself to non-technical users such as my father, as well as to more experienced users who need easy access to some of the advanced features.

After nearly 20 years of the graphical user interface, and with the much-celebrated exponential rise of computer power vs. its falling costs, its disappointing to see how little technology has really advanced in lending itself to us.

I recall the inspiring words of Jeff Han when he presented his innovative touch screen at the TED conference last year:

“At this day and age, there’s no reason we should be conforming to a physical device… interfaces should be conforming to us”

Hi-tech devices such as interactive touch screens are just part of the solution, and are still a few years away from the mass market.

It is the whole concept of the graphical user interface that must be re-designed to allow for a natural, gradual learning curve.

Says Kathy Sierra, from the “creating passionate users” blog:

“I’m a big fan of splitting capabilities into different products, or having a really good user-level modes–where you use wizards or simpler interfaces for new users, etc. Yes, they’re often done badly, but they don’t have to be”

and in another post:

“What if instead of adding new features, a company concentrated on making the service or product much easier to use? Or making it much easier to access the advanced features it already has, but that few can master?”

While I resonate with the “user-level modes” concept, I don’t agree with Kathy that “splitting capabilities into different products” is a good idea, because most users will need to use only some of the advanced features, not all of them.

Offering a single product with a flexible set of features can also allow users to “pay as they go”.

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How to design software that both you and your father can use

An application needs to have 3 main “profiles” or “modes”: Beginner, Normal and Advanced.

By default, a new product, service or application must arrive in the “beginner mode”, with only the basic features available. The interface needs to be similar to what you encounter in any system that serves as a public information-kiosk. The beginner mode is maybe the most challenging to design, because it involves a lot of thinking into which features are really the most important and how best to design the wizards that will take the user by the hand and lead him through the whole process.

The option to switch to the “Normal mode” needs to be visible, and when selected, at least for the first time, the application needs to re-check with the user that he’s really interested to access this mode.

The “Normal mode”, as you might expect, shows more of the product’s features, but still not all of them. Only the features that the typical user needs.
There should be an easy way to customize these features, as well as their display, so the interface will not be cluttered with too many features that the user seldom uses.

Some applications highlight the features you use often and grey-out or even hide those you don’t use, which is a nice feature by itself, but there should also be an option to permanently hide these features.

The application must be able to save these customized views and options in a user-profile, that should be easily accessible, manageable and transferable.

The “Advanced Mode” should not display all the features, but rather allow the advanced user fine-grain control over all aspects of the application, its features and its display.

The application’s HELP section needs to accommodate for both beginners, normal and advanced users, and include friendly HOW-TOs along side detailed instructions on how to customize various features.

Real-world examples

There are a few good examples that come to mind which implement some of these ideas:

Spybot Search and Destroy (an anti-spyware tool) creates two start menu entries – normal and advanced, and also displays this option in the menu bar as “mode”. When you switch to the advanced mode, Spybot warns you that it is only recommended to those who know what they’re doing, and that you might harm your system. The advanced mode lets you tweak many of the program’s features and to choose if you want to display them or not.

Azureus (a legal P2P content sharing tool), opens in the “featured content” page, with very few icons or menu options, but still allows you to do what you came here for – browsing content, downloading, managing your content library and even publishing. Pressing the “advanced” mode expands the menu, adds many expert features, and gives you fine-grained control over all aspects of the program.

It’s not only software, though.
Some digital cameras arrive in a “simple” menu mode, which you can easily turn into “advanced”, unlocking many features that novice users never need.

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Software and product makers who adopt this attitude will appeal to a greater audience, and their increasing sales can help them make their products even better.

And maybe these products will be good enough to allow my father, and others, to interact easily and naturally with technology, and to derive more personal value from it.

.

Twitter is here to stay, and for good reasons March 16, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in interactions, social, socialweb, twitter.
4 comments

twitter-logo.jpg

Twitter is a web application/service that lets you tell the world what you are doing at this moment. These last few weeks have seen a meteoric rise in its adoption.

Mat Balez predicts that Twitter will be “Non-existent before the end of 2007″.

Says Mat:

“Twitter will flame-out before the end of 2007, in one of the most awe-inspiring lessons in irrational exuberance we’ve seen since the turn of the millennium. Why? …

There is no substance to the house of cards that is Twitter. No deep content, nothing to learn, no reason to keep coming back to the trough, other than the thrill/obsession of pre-adolescent voyeurism – which is simply not reason enough for busy professionals.”

As I’ve told Mat, I think otherwise:

“Although I’m not using Twitter nor “following” anyone who Twits, I can certainly understand why many people use it and cherish it and will continue to.

It’s for the same reason that people blog about what they had for breakfast, and post photos of their pets, and for the same reason that others read and interact with them about it.

People like to express themselves, and to share these expressions, be it blurbs or snapshots, with others. And people also like to get a glimpse into other people’s lives, activities and whereabouts.
The explosion in the blogosphere is not due to professionals or companies who want to interact with their customers, but rather due to your neighbour who blogs about his stamp collection, and his teenage daughter who blogs at *her space* about her boring family.

Deep value is not the only criterion to judge a service or application. Tetris and minesweeper aren’t that “deep” either, but still very popular.

Busy professionals are just a small segment of potential customers. They are certainly not a representation of the average Myspace, YouTube or Flickr user.
In the same time, there are already professionals who *are* finding ways to harness commercial benefits or twitting.

My prediction: The hype will subside, but Twitter will not close.”

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I dare to speculate that one of the reasons that Mat is so pessimist about Twitter’s future is that he is projecting his own issues with Twitter and with the onslaught of information into his life. Says Mat in an earlier post:

“I for one, find it difficult (as my frustrated girlfriend will attest to) to maintain very grounded in “real life” when I immerse myself in the clutches of online media consumption…[Twitter is] an app I refuse to approach for I feel it crosses a line of over-invasiveness”

While I resonate with some of the other issues he’s raising in this post, I don’t agree that Twitter is invasive, because your participation is voluntary.
You need to sign-up.
You need to sign-in.
And you need to update it so that the world knows what you’re doing.

Your aggregated attention data (what you browse, search for, purchase, read and say on the net) is probably more invasive than anything you might divulge by yourself.

As for professionals who use Twitter, Tara hunt is a seasoned twitter user who isn’t just using it, but being really passionate about it.

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I’m confident that Twitter is here to stay.

What I’m really interested and intrigued by, which also arises from both Mat’s and Tara’s posts, is the larger social aspects of Twitter and others of its kind.

More on that — soon.

The (misguided) pursuit of happiness March 15, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in growth, happiness, psychology, science.
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We all want to be happy, yet some of us keep making the wrong predictions regarding what it is that will make us happy.
What can science tell us about the human pursuit of happiness?

Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies just that: Happiness.

Last year at TED conference, Gilbert gave a talk in which he demonstrated just how poor we are at predicting or understanding what it is that will make us happy. Only 22 minutes long, and highly recommended.


Gilbert suggests that many of our wrong predictions are due to what he calls an “impact bias” which is our tendency to overestimate the impact of future events, such as elections, romances, promotions, college tests, personality tests, medical tests, sporting events, discrimination, insults, infidelities, and others.

“The fact is that a year after loosing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto — lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their life

“A recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened more than 3 months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness”

What at first can seem as a trauma can be turned to a vehicle for growth and change. In his book – Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert expands on this issue and gives the examples of Christopher Reeve (superman turned quadriplegic) and Lance Armstrong (successful cyclist recovers from cancer, regains his championship and becomes a cancer-awareness activist), who said that cancer was “the best thing that ever happened to me”.

Gilbert goes on to explore the idea of synthetic (self-created) happiness:

“[Most people] believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call natural happiness.
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”

“In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind… Why do we have that belief? [because:]
What kind of economic engine would keep churning, if we believe that NOT getting what we want could make as just as happy as getting it!”

“A shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable because they don’t want stuff enough

“I wanna suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for”

I resonate with his suggestion.
Consumer culture, through the popular media, tries to persuade us that the key to our happiness is to be found in material possessions and the act of consuming. However, real joy, rather than mere pleasure, can be felt directly through experiences such as falling in love, the birth of a child, or selfless service to others.

Gilbert finishes his talk with an inspirational thought:

“Our longing and worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience”

I’m looking forward to reading his book.

More Dan Gilbert resources

A few excerpts from Gilbert’s book can be found here.

An excellent book review by the New York Times can be found here.

“Affective forecasting…or…the big wombassa” – a (long) talk with Gilbert at the respectable EDGE magazine. I haven’t read it all yet, but it looks promising.

If you have diigo installed, you can read the sections I’ve highlighted directly on these pages, or otherwise, read them here.

Intuitive user interfaces March 14, 2007

Posted by eyalnow in innovation, interface, technology.
7 comments

I recently came across two innovative user interfaces that are reminiscent of the technology portrayed in the movie Minority Report.They both use touch-screens that can handle multiple inputs, and are sensitive to both movement and pressure.

Jeff Han of Perceptive Pixel, presenting his touch-screen at TED, said some things I found inspiring:

“There’s no manual, there’s no interface – the interface just kinda disappears”

“At this day and age, there’s no reason we should be conforming to a physical device… interfaces should be conforming to us”

“This is really the way we should be interacting with machines from this point on”

Fast Company magazine has a piece on Han, written by Adam L. Penenberg.

Natural Interaction

The second touch-screen is by an italian company called natural interaction, which has some captivating videos on their website.

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