The Technium

Making the Inevitable Obvious

Recent Readings 14

The emergence of YouTube sites that provide virtual friendship, companionship, and cater to loneliness. Link.

The Economist interviewed an AI to ask it about the future of AI. It gave coherent answers. But they weren’t what the AI thought. The answers it gave were what the AI thought the internet thought. Still, impressive. Link

Science has not destroyed religion. Link.

Important uncertainty: the untested legality of streaming video games, particularly for profit (see Twitch). Link.

Innovation and discoveries are becoming more expensive because the easy ones have already been found. Future innovations will cost more. Link

Pure Gibsonian future: Red state American farmers hacking their tractors with Ukrainian pirateware. Link

Universal translation by AI will increase global prosperity. When eBay improved its translation functions it increased their commerce by 11 percent. Imagine what prosperity will come from earbuds that give instant, free, real time language translation to all workers. Link.

Bill Gibson had some interesting things to say in this interview about his new book Agency.

“I have a nagging suspicion that evolution (a wholly random process, though too few of us understand that) has left most of us unable to grasp the idea of an actual apocalypse being possibly of several centuries’ duration. The jackpot began one or two hundred years ago, it seems to me. I myself can dimly recall a world before utterly ubiquitous injection-molded plastics. Toys were of metal, wood, rubber. Styrene was as exotic as Gore-tex, briefly. I’m yet to discover any record of a culture whose imagined apocalypse was a matter of centuries. I doubt anyone has ever stood out on a street corner wearing a sandwich board reading, “THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END IN A FEW HUNDRED YEARS.” Even before we became as aware as some of us now are of climate change, and of the fact that our species has inadvertently caused it, we seemed to be losing our sense of a capital-F Future. Few phrases were as common throughout the 20th century as “the 21st century,” yet how often do we see “the 22nd century”? Effectively, never.”

Recent Readings, 13


One of the best future scenarios of the next decade — 2020s —  by @fredwilson. It is hard to be not obvious and not implausible at the same time, but Fred is neither. It helps he is optimistic. What Will Happen In The 2020s.”

This is true: “To a degree still difficult for outsiders to absorb, China is preparing to shape the twenty-first century, much as the U.S. shaped the twentieth.” From the must read article:

The question “why do the Chinese people like their current government?” is answered here with great intelligence, insight and empathy. I think this article is 100% correct from my personal experience of my extensive time in China. Link.

Deep fakes are getting better each day. Here is a holiday melody of one actor doing a series of impressions speaking, while the AI does an impression visually. Link.

It is a thing: Mukbang (mook bong) are live streaming videos of the host eating, often over-eating huge meals. It started in Korea and is now a sizable global phenom. Link.

Quibi is a $1 billion experiment in video streaming. Some if its ideas will work, many won’t. We won’t know which until it launches. Link. 

New trend: naming boys with action-words, like Charger, Trooper, Stryker. Great article about new styles in naming children. Link.

The case for a 100-year bond. Link.

Using state-of-the-art technology to add a glowing trace of a hockey puck on TV was a brilliant innovation that did not stick. Perhaps it was too early to be accepted, but it did change sports viewing. And perhaps the time is right to bring it, or something like it, back. The history of the glowing puck:

In response to highly overworked urban lives, some young Chinese are dropping out, almost becoming Chinese hippies. Here is a short video on early hippy pioneers.

Major change brewing: “Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.” Good summary anticipation. Link.  



Recent Readings, 12

An emerging alternative theory for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes (among others) is that the underlying cause is bacterial. If true, this is huge. Link.

Great TED talk on the 7 principles of building a livable city by Peter Calthorpe. Based on his experience doing urban planning in California and China. Link.

The superiority of knobs. The US navy is reverting back to physical throttles after sailors reject touch screen controls because they were too complex. Link.
Further steps toward a virtual movie studio. One step is a combined real and virtual model. Short video clip.

By trying to model oceans in detail, astronomers hope to simulate possible Earth-like planets capable of detectable life, and are concluding that oceans play a huge role in creating diverse life on Earth. It may be that other planets, with other oceans, may yield even life more diverse than on this planet. Link.

How to get really good — world class — at something. Don’t just practice the flow. Try to fail in practice. More tips here.

In biology the Red Queen hypothesis is well known. I had not heard of the Black Queen hypothesis: organisms shed genes for functions adjacent organisms provide. Link.

Ghost-kitchens are virtual restaurants that are visible only as an app on a phone. The kitchen is not opened to the public, often hard to find, but serves food delivered via online sales. Uber Eats, Grubhub and other apps cater niche food prepared by hidden kitchens.

Recent Readings, 11

Walking is a superpower. When you walk you increase many cognitive functions. I know that is true for me. A scientist offers some evidence in a new book In Praise of Walking (I have not read). Article about the book here.

A job for humans: teaching the AIs to see. It’s now a big business. See this article on the startup, Scale.

Using virtual reality to swap bodies and give your self advice. Weird, but early experiments suggest it works. Link.

Forgetting may not be a malfunction of memory, but a key component of memory. In other words you may not be able to remember or deal with the future unless you forget. Recent science. Link.

“Why Humans Will Never Colonize Mars” is a very strong argument, one that I agree with. Link.

A well-argued proposal for a new science of progress and setting up a new discipline of Progress Studies. I think this would be a highly productive investment for society. Link.

Are you up to speed? DYK “China has more than 425 million live-streamers.” Many earn money live-streaming. Some use face filters to make them look more beautiful. Except when they break. Story link:

Insightful article about the business models of online/video games. Says “it turns out the most effective way to generate billions of dollars is to not require a player spend a single one.” Link.

This album of tiny video experiments is sweet, lovely, brilliant, useless and cool — in other words, art. Link.

Recent Readings, 10

So-called Influencers don’t influence. According a 2007 paper by Duncan Watts, “large scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else, but rather by easily influenced people, influencing other easily influenced people.” Link.

This is super great! A chat bot wastes the time of a scam telemarketer. I want one of these. Link.

In-depth exploration of the real dilemma in video game architecture between “free to act” and “guided story.” A super fan of Red Dead Redemption goes deep with entertaining analysis in long YouTube episode. Link.

Extensible games is a neat new concept. When you gain levels, powers, tokens, characters in one game, you can transfer them, securely and honestly, to other games via a blockchain technology. Link.

By 2025 the next car you buy will probably be an electric car manufactured in China. Link. /

I recommend this deep dive into the precarious state of grocery chains in the US, and why their future is moving away from transactions (owned by Amazon) and into the realm of experiences. This move is not just about grocery stores. It applies to all product and industrial businesses. Link.

New Coke didn’t fail because it tasted bad. It failed because it was new and its brand was nostalgic and the cranks took over. Great writing about the true story.  Link.

The science of video gaming, and an appreciation. Excerpt: “I might go further and say traveling in imaginary spaces rivals the experiences of traveling in real ones, like Venice and Rome, Lima and Machu Picchu, as I have in my life. Both the imaginary and real are emotionally moving and immersive.” Link.

Recent Readings, 9

Global Greening: Increased CO2 in the atmosphere is plant food. Wild plants of all kinds are growing faster around the world, sequestering CO2 into biomass. This is not the whole climate story, but it should not be ignored. Good summary by Matt Ridley here.

Once a modern heresy, non-Darwinian inheritance, aka Lamarkism, increasing can be shown to sometimes happen in nature. Case in point this recent paper. Question is: how common or important is it ordinarily.

One necessary aspect of the Mirrorworld is scanning the real world in full volumetric 3D. This demo of Matterport’s scanning ability is pretty impressive. They scan Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.

TikTok, Chinese-owned video music platform, is creating a whole new genre of music video — the music meme, or memetic music, in 15 second clips that spread virally. This ear-opening article is a good introduction. Link.

There’s a yearly contest run by JPL for the best strategy to settle 100,000 star systems with human habitation 10,000 years from now. If you have a plan, you submit a simulation based on technology yet to be invented. Link.

The US is headed down a risky path toward 5G that is different from the rest of the world, while China is leading the rest along the other more doable path. Good explanation in @WIRED.  This was a solid, essential, correct piece. I have not seen the argument made elsewhere. It was the article I hoped Wired would run. Link.

What color is the future? If you google “futuristic” you get images in blue and black. Why is that? Good thread on Twitter here.

Cyberweapons: A Real Worry

There is not too much about technology that I worry about. But one technological area I do worry a lot about is cyber war, cyber security, cyber conflict. My worry stems from the lack of accountability and the lack of consensus in this arena. It is devilishly difficult to discern what is being done cyberwise, and who is doing it. At the same time, there is no consensus about which actions need to be disclosed, or monitored, or verified. Nor is there real consensus on what actions are allowed, permitted, prohibited, discouraged, or encouraged. Finally, there are no limits, remedies, restrictions that can be enforced.

What this means is that right now there are huge cyber operations happening around the world every day. Some of these are defensive, but many are offensive attacks. Systems are breached, probed, potential damage is rehearsed, future secret entrances installed, small things are broken. The US, China, Russia, Isreal, Iran, North Korea — to name some of the most active countries — plus many more non-state, quasi-state, organized crime agents, like hacker groups, are involved in huge maneuvers that are invisible to the rest of the world. Increasingly these data vs data conflicts are touching the physical infrastructure. The world’s electrical grids, transportation networks, hospitals, water systems all depend on an intangible data structure, where these skirmishes are taking place. So far only a few incursions have crippled physical civic services; a hospital is cut from electricity, or traffic lights are disrupted. My worry is that because there is neither transparency nor agreed norms, these mutual attacks will escalate until something horrible happens. There is no push-back on this arms race. The public doesn’t see it, and the experts who do see it, don’t agree on where to go.

We beings on this planet have evolved an elaborate set of rules about how to conduct war. Weirdly we have agreed on how to kill each other. Some ways are okay and some are not. You can’t kill someone you take as  prisoner. You can’t intentionally kill children. You can’t torture. Etc. As new weapons were invented we added them to our agreement. We have agreed to avoid using nuclear bombs (although some countries, including the US, still make them).

Cyber weapons are new, and have not been included in our agreements. In war is it okay to take down a nation’s banking system? Is it permissible to disable everyone’s phones? Should the world accept hacking interference in another nation’s election?

Problematic weapons like nuclear, chemical, and biological ones, have extensive, complicated programs of verification to make sure our collective agreement is adhered to. Part of that process is self-reporting, self-disclosure by those who posses these weapons. None of this disclosure is happening in cyberspace.

None of the countries active in using these new weapons will acknowledge they have the weapons; they deny they are using them, and don’t even communicate when others use the weapons against them. There is a conspiracy of silence in cyberwar. That is the danger.

This silence and denial also creates cover for non-state attacks by criminals, rouge state hackers, naive teenage hackers, to do damage. They are hidden behind the same cloak that nations are hiding behind. Together state and non-state hacking can add up to a potentially mutual destruction. Today every developed country is potentially very vulnerable to a cyber attack. And soon every developed country will be capable of delivering a crippling attack.

We have nuclear arms treaty because we realized we had the capability of mutual destruction . Our next step is to realize we have the capability of mutual CYBER destruction. The remedy is  similar: a global agreement on acceptable use of cyber weapons, and a public accounting of those weapons.

A significant hurdle for the accountability of cyber weapons is their close alignment with intelligence gathering. Cyberwar is fought with information, and information is the heart of intelligence. It is very difficult to unravel cyber weapons from cyber tools. There is the thinnest line between hacking a system to learn about it (intelligence gathering) and hacking it to learn how to damage it (reconnaissance) or hacking it to damage it (war). The same tools (weapons?) may be used in each case.

Understandably, the intelligence departments of nations are reluctant to reveal their methods, or share their tools, or in any way handicap themselves. Cyber-weapons derive from cyber spy tools, and it is a challenge to untangle the two. Knowledge and intelligence can be wielded as a weapon. It’s hard to see a way to account for information weapons that does not expose information spying.

But not impossible. We can regulate specific actions via treaties and agreements. Rather than outlaw tools (or weapons), we can outlaw outcomes. We might agree that taking a banking system down is not acceptable, whether you use a computer virus, a social media hack, or a EMP bomb blast. Interfering in an election should be prohibited via any method, even the most indirect.

The remaining challenge is mutual verification of the source of cyber actions. Tracking the source of actions is made difficult by the dark web. Much can be hidden by anonymizers and cleverness. But a lot online is hidden because the global internet is a patchwork of national networks, and because the actual humans creating attacks are shielded from inspection by national laws. Hackers in country X casting spells on country Y, even if proven bad, may be out of reach of country Y.

Part of the needed reform for a consensus on cyber war extends to making it harder to hide behind the walls erected by nations. I predict the nations will begin to cooperate more in disclosing the source of actions, including their own departments, for this simple reason: nations will come to understand that there is no national cyber security without global cyber security.

Rather than kumbaya global peace, pure self-interest will drive nations to be more cooperative in the cyber dimensions. When you have a global network, your security is only reliable as the weakest link in that system.  Attackers bleed to the least secure edges where they can continue to cause damage.  Ultimately security within your nation will fail unless the security of all the other nations is also maintained.

In addition to improving the overt security in peacetime, this requirement for global mutual security can drive the transparency needed to regulate cyber weapons.  My only worry is that it may take a huge cyber disaster with many people dying before nations come together in agreement on how we should treat these new weapons.

Recent Readings, 8

IMHO, reading this subReddit written by an AI feels very similar to reading a subReddit written by humans that post on Reddit. Link.

Pregnant women operate at a the limit of human energy endurance, just slightly ahead of elite ultramarathoners. The limiting factor is not heart, lung or muscles, but the amount of calories your digestive system can process — about 4,000 calories per day. Link.

E-sports are huge, mostly in Asia, but worldwide. This illuminating video explains the financial landscape of e-sports.

The perennial question of why ancient China, which invented most important inventions centuries before the West did, did not invent the most power invention of the scientific method, gets a summary answer here.

“The new American religion of UFOs. Belief in aliens is like faith in religion — and may come to replace it.” I believe this. This is the headline of a Vox article. Link.

To my ear these AI-generated voices of famous thinkers are a completely convincing simulation. You can make Bill Gates, or Jane Goodall, or Stephen Wolfram say anything you want. Go to the Select Speakers section and pull down a pundit’s voice sample. Link.

Awareness of Chinese science fiction is beginning to rise in the west, and this tide is swelling in China as well. At the forefront is the author of The Three Body Problem. Two articles delve into the new wave. A New Yorker profile of Liu Cixin is gracefully done and incredibly revealing about Chinese society. The second is an Economist round up of other Chinese sci-fi just behind Mr. Liu.


Arrival of the Babel Fish

In the very near future, maybe in ten years, we’ll have earpods that will do real time language translation. Someone speaks Greek to you, and with the slightest delay, you’ll hear English. You respond in English, they’ll hear Greek. It’ll work for most spoken languages, x to x. You might recognize this as the Babel fish in Douglas Adams’ fiction, but this one will be real. We are not far from it today. I’ve been using Google Translate on my phone when traveling in China. I can speak or write English through it, or listen or read Chinese from it. It’s about 80-90% accurate, which is good enough to speak with taxi cab drivers, or navigate as a tourist. I have also been using a couple of different AI translation services, such as Trint, to create a text transcript from podcasts. It listens to the podcast audio file and puts the words into text with about 95% accuracy. It does this in minutes and for a few dollars.

When even more accurate machine translation becomes available in ever more handy forms — like earbuds, or embedded into smart glasses — I can imagine huge economic changes arising from this technology. The first thing it will do is to enable people around the world who have very desirable skills, except the skill of English, to participate in the global economy. This Babel fish would permit a talented programmer in Jakarta who spoke no English to work for a Google. It would allow a talented programmer in Utah to work for a Chinese company, in Chinese. Nor does the translation have to happen online. Two employees in the same room could each be wearing the Babel fish. Of course it is immensely effective combined with virtual telepresence. When a colleague is teleporting in from a remote place to appear virtually, it is relatively easy to translate what they are saying in real time because all that information is being captured anyway. For even greater verisimilitude, their mouth movement can be reconfigured to match what they are saying in translation so it really feels they are speaking your language. It might be even be use to overcome heavy accents in the same language. Going further, the same technology could simply translate your voice into one that was a different gender, or more musical, or improved in some way. It would be your “best” voice. Some relationships might prefer to meet this way all the time because the ease of communication was greater than in real life.

This unleashing and liquidity of talent would be a huge boost to the global economy and would help in leveling some of the inequality between wages around the world.

There would be other effects: films, music, videos, books would not need to be laboriously and expensively translated beforehand, or to reach some level of popularity before getting dubbed. Now with the Babel fish they would be instantly subtitled, dubbed, translated in real time, on demand. Over time, even regional differences (American vs Australian) could be accounted for. This universal translation-on-demand (UTOD) immediately increases the potential audience size for creative works, increasing the probability that obscure interests can find the thousand true fans around the world it’ll need to be sustainable.

I can also imagine this UTOD technology aiding migration and human mobility.  When the global population plunges later this century, mega-cities around the world will begin to compete for workers and citizens; without the added hurdle of having to speak a new language will make it much easier to migrate. Many might move to Tokyo if they could virtually speak Japanese fluently.

UTOD might diminish the dominance of English as a second language. Why bother with it? On the other hand it is very possible that having simultaneous translation whispered into your ear all day for years would, over time, with the right attention, act as a teacher and help a person learn another language. Or the program could be modified to accelerate such learning if someone desired.

Today I can use Google Translate for free, just like other Google products. Ideally there would be a free version of Babel fish so that those to whom this would most make a difference would have full access to it. But we know free has its own costs. There will be pressure to insert advertising into UTOD. One could imagine how annoying it would be to be conversing with someone when every now and then you are interrupted with an ad that you both hear in your language. Worse, the ad could be related to what you were talking about, since the machine would “know” exactly what you are talking about in order to translate it. Other biz models would not interrupt you in conversation, but would try to exploit that very specific data in other modes or parts of your life. The poor and desperate are likely to take that bargain, but their data is less valuable (being poor and desperate). Alternatively, there would be a paid (no ad, no track) version.

UTOD, encased in a wearable like a Babel fish, is almost here. If adopted widely its consequences would be enormous, and I think, sudden. Even though it has been gradually improving, it might come as a huge “overnight” surprise to the world.


We need a better word than smart. Or dumb. I’m trying to come up with the word that we’ll use to describe artificial intelligences that fuel our self-driving cars, or enliven digital assistants. These agents will be incredibly smart and incredibly dumb at the same time. They will be to solve a Rubik’s cube in a blink, but will be unable to tie a shoelace; they will recognize your face instantly, but never get that you wanted to hide from someone; They will crack the lock in a safe in a few seconds but never be able to find the safe hidden in a room; or they will beat you in chess, but always lose any other game your kids make up.

We’ll find this dumb-smartness infuriating. It will drive us crazy. How can it beat me here but be so dumb? There will be comedy sketches about this failure, whole movies based on this paradoxical combination of ultra brilliance and utter stupidity. We have some experience with this state in certain handicapped humans called in the past idiot savants. I find that term for humans degrading. But there is a germ of truth in it for machines. The will be idiot-geniuses. Maybe we call them genidiots.

These everyday AIs will be brimming with dumbsmarts. They will be so dumbsmarten they can actually be smart enough to know they are stupid!  Or stupid enough to not know they are smart. Both at once.

It should be a short word because we’re going to use it in anger a lot. Sad to say, I predict the word will also be used about humans, when they act like a machine this way. It will definitely become an insult. Perhaps languages other than English already have a word that means Dumbsmart. If so post it in the comments.