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Singularity vs. Spirituality October 7, 2008

Posted by IntimatePower in interactions, technology.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.

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

Posted by IntimatePower in design, interactions, interface, usability.
1 comment so far

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.

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

Posted by IntimatePower 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.

“What are you optimistic about?” – Leading EDGE thinkers share their thoughts March 12, 2007

Posted by IntimatePower in interactions, quotations, science, technology, thinkers.
1 comment so far

Every year, EDGE, a leading scientific community, presents a question to its members – leading thinkers and scientists.

At the beginning of 2007, it presented the following question:

What Are You Optimistic About? Why?

Here are some excerpts that I found interesting, thought-provoking, and in some cases, even inspiring.
While I don’t necessarily agree or accept all of them, I still find them important.

[Note: My notes appear in square brackets]

John Brockman
Edge’s Publisher and Editor

As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.

Richard Dawkins
Evolutionary biologist; Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science, Oxford University; author, ‘The God Delusion’

I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything.
I am optimistic that, although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem.
I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that’s in it, including ourselves.

Brian Eno
Artist; composer; producer (U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon); recording artist

The acceptance of the reality of global warming has, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern in his report on climate change to the British government, shown us “the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen”.

Technical solutions will hopefully be found, but the process will need to be primed and stoked and enforced by legislation that would be regarded as big-government socialism in the present climate.

The future may be a bit more like Sweden and a bit less like America.

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