The Technium

Making the Inevitable Obvious

Weekly Links, 01/21/2022

Some Contemporary Heresies

I define a heresy as: something you believe that the people you most admire and respect don’t believe and reject out of hand.
With that criterion in mind, here are a bunch of Contemporary Heresies I’ve collected. These are not necessarily my heresies, although some are; many are “plausible — not insane” heresies that others around me believe. (I’ll add more as I think of them.)

1. Aliens are already here.
2. Robot/AI soldiers are preferable to human soldiers.
3. Polygamy and polyandry should be legal.
4. The amount of taxes each person pays should be public.
5. War is not inevitable; it can be eliminated.
6. Cannibalism is okay.
7. Euthanasia should be encouraged.
8. The US Civil War was a mistake. The Confederate South should have been allowed to secede, and the rest of the Union would be better off today.
9. Flossing doesn’t matter.
10. DNA sequences of each individual should be public information, just like faces, birth dates, etc.
11. The nuclear bombs dropped on Japan were unneeded, wrong.
12. The microbiome in your guts influences your IQ.
13. Universal basic income generates wealth.
14. Pre-crime tracking and deterrence is feasible.
15. There should be a Super Olympics that allows all enhancements and no gender distinctions.
16. It is impossible for humans to eradicate all human life on this planet.
17. Vitamin pills are quackery.
18. Oil is not a fossil life fuel but a geological product.
19. Death is a disease that can be cured.
20. Eating animals should be outlawed and illegal.
21. Government funding of science and tech pays off.
22. Global government is good.
23. Psychedelics should be paid for by insurance.
24. Your weight is a public health concern.
25. BBQ is carcinogenic.
26. Altruism is natural and the default of humankind.
27. No one born on Mars will live to reproduce on Mars.
28. All plastics should be banned from being manufactured.
29. There should be a Human Right of Migration on this planet; you may live where ever you want if you follow local laws.
30. GMO food is better for you.
31. Neanderthals were smarter than humans.
32. Nuclear waste is manageable.
33. California or Texas should secede from the US.
34. We should have a single global currency, maybe on blockchain.
35. There was a civilization on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, but geological forces have eliminated all evidence of it.
36. ESP and telepathy are real.
37. There is no great extinction event happening on Earth right now.
38. Human clones are natural and fine — just serial twins.
39. Obesity is contagious.
40. Animals like being in modern zoos.
41. Billionaire wealth should not be permitted.
42. Social media reduces extremism.
43. Religious belief is on its way out. Believers of major religions will become a small minority.
44. All cryptocurrencies should be state-run.
45. National service (including peace and non-military) should be mandatory for all citizens without exceptions, including the handicapped.
46. There will be a global population implosion soon.
47. Evolution has a direction.
48. No place, institution, organization can be named after a real person. Nor publicly-funded statues made of a real person either.
49. The average person on the planet will own two homes.
50. Electrons don’t flow in an electrical current.
51. Sexism is inherent in biology.
52. Fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians will become deep allies in culture wars.
53. Doctors will outlaw American football, and it will be played only on island countries.
54. Fewer people will learn English as a second language as real time machine translation gets better/easier/free.
55. China will break up, like the Soviet Union.
56. Other life in the universe is DNA-ish.
57. Fans will pay more to see robots dance than to see humans dance.
58. In the majority of countries on the planet, Asian Indians will become the most common immigrant.
59. The super rich will carry or wear no technology at all.
60. The adverse side effects of increasing IQ by genetics will limit it to very modest increases.
61. The next new religion to gain tens of millions of adherents will originate in China.
62. Like snowflakes, no two atoms of the same element are exactly identical in their ultimate composition of sub-sub-sub particles.
63. Tourism will become the industry with the largest number of employees globally.
64. Progress is real. This year is better than last year.
65. Moore’s Law will continue forever, forever being redefined.
66. Modern humans will fork into non-interbreeding species. Racism will be real.
67. Having a parent-given first name will be unfashionable. The norm will be to choose your legal name at puberty.

Weekly Links, 01/14/2022

Weekly Links, 01/07/2022

Ideas Want to be Shared


I have contrarian ideas on intellectual property. I’ve come to think that the natural home of ideas is in the commons, that they should not be “owned” for very long. My perspective is neither widespread, nor part of current law, nor have I seen it articulated elsewhere, but I think it might be a better alternative, so I am presenting it here.

The default metaphor for intellectual property in modern times is “ownership.” In this model of ownership, all ideas, stories, inventions, characters, product names, techniques are understood to be inherently born as the property of their creator. These thoughts-made-real are seen to be owned by the mind that births them. You think them, you own them. With this status of ownership, intangible creations such as a novel, a musical melody, a plot, a phrase, formula, etc — all things created by a mind — are given a monopoly of rights in order to encourage further creations by the same creator. And to spur others to create.  This lawful monopoly — such as copyright, patents, trademarks — protects the creation from being used by others for gain. By current law, this inherent monopolistic ownership is held strongly for long periods of time, ranging from decades to a century, depending on the conceptual type (patents may be 17 years while copyright may exceed lifetimes). This awarded monopoly has a few exceptions for very limited special cases, such as “fair use” and public domain. In these modes anyone can fairly use the invention for their own purposes. Certain restrictions may apply, like if the use might need to be for education, or for parody, or so used in a transformative way, or bettered by the use. These exceptions were to be kept to an absolute minimum in order to maximize the monopoly of the hard working creator. This framing plays into both the modern idea of ownership as the sacred foundation of wealth and prosperity, but it also plays into the idea of creator as a hero, or at least as the bedrock of progress.

I believe this arrangement is misguided. The whole framework should be inverted. Public domain and fair use should be the default, and an IP monopoly should be the exception.

We have tons of evidence today that independent simultaneous invention is the norm for ideas in science and technology and even to a surprising extent in literature and art. Most technical things, often even artistic things, are invented by more than one person, at the same time, independently. In other words if X did not create it, Y will soon afterwards, if he/she has not already invented it before. Further, we now know almost all “new” things are recombinations of old things (a new book is a recombination of pre-existing dictionary words), and even the most inventive creative work is still mostly older ideas, concepts, patterns borrowed from others. Breakthrough ideas are usually made with the addition of one small idea to a mountain of other, older ideas. In that way ideas are really ecosystems. Ideas can not stand alone; they depend on other ideas for their force. Of course there can be a gem of a really original idea in a work but it is deeply entangled in a deep web of old patterns. More importantly, we have a mistakenly romantic notion of how those crucial key ideas arrive. The popular notion is the hero creates the key idea with immense struggle alone, and if it were not for them, this greatness  would otherwise never appear. We tend to believe that Einstein’s, or Picasso’s, or Tolkien’s ideas or patterns would have only come to them, but that is incorrect. The evidence shows otherwise (read a good biography), which is why today every single creation (either artistic, technical, or scientific) that becomes super successful will be sued by others who claim to have invented, discovered, or created something similar at the same time or before. The more our modern world gets connected in real time, the more visible this multiple creation becomes. People have the same great idea at the same time.  And increasingly more people are having the same idea at the same time. That is because the ideas arise from our common wealth.

It is in the commons that ideas blossom. When scientific discoveries are shared, they can be accelerated. When the blueprints of inventions are shared (and not hidden) new inventions spring up faster. Walt Disney made his fortune by reworking public domain fairy tales. Because the stories were already in the commons, he was able to re-interpret them into modern forms. As many others also did. In recent years, Disney has begun to create new fairy tales, but they are not shared in the commons. Even after the death of Disney, when he can no longer be incentivized, his stories are given a monopoly. The maximum gain to society would come if those stories, too, were returned into the public domain commons. But ironically Disney has been the chief force in preventing copyrights in the US to return to the commons.

Rather than concede there are multiple origins, our current system rewards the first person who claims to be the first. But the ownership we bestow on the first to claim originality it is rather arbitrary, although it does indeed spur more effort.  A better way of accounting is to admit that all ideas and intellectual goodness is actually born from the commons and into the commons, from the pool of all that is known. That is, ideas arise from the commonwealth of all knowledge and current ideas. Without this commonwealth of knowledge, there would be no new ideas. However, if no one is rewarded for working on bringing new ideas to life, then far few would try. So even though the reward for originality is arbitrary, it is still useful. My proposal then is that we continue to award monopolies briefly on those who claim first rights (while acknowledging it is basically arbitrary). So for a brief period of time we remove this idea from the commons and bestow a monopoly upon it. The “owner” has exclusive rights for that monopoly period. But as soon as possible it is returned to the commons where great things can happen. A novel thing is born from the commons, and it is returned to the commons as soon as possible. In the meantime to encourage future creation we give it a temporarily limited monopoly. In my model, the natural home of intangibles is in the commons, as a default.

For best results for society, this monopoly should be as minimal as possible in its duration and privileges. “Soon as possible” is the key phrase. No IP should last a century, no matter what. In our fast-moving world, 20 years of protection is more than enough for most ideas. Another step is to emphasize the rights of monopolies should have corresponding duties. Those duties might include publication, dissemination, education, APIs, platform tools, or many other tools that would facilitate its use when it returns to the commons.

The books I have written are created from words invented by others, filled with ideas created by others. Even the few new ideas that are new depend on older ideas to work. What I had to say would probably be said by someone else not long after me. (More probably there have already been said by someone I was not aware of.) I may be the lucky person to claim those rare new ideas, but the worth of my art primarily resides in the great accumulation of the ideas and works of thousands of writers and thinkers before me — what I call the commons. My work was born in the commons, it gets its value by being deeply connected to the commons, and after my brief stewardship of those tiny new bits, it should return to the commons as fast as possible, in as many ways as possible.

That may strike others as romantic as the heroic stance. What happens in the details? We can imagine a very short half life of protection for ideas in patents and science, but it is harder to imagine for characters and stories in literature. They seem more like children than inventions. Would we want Harry Potter to be returned to the commons before JK Rowling died? Is that just cruel? So we already have a different time scale for copyrights vs patents (but of course I think the current Lifetime Plus scale for US copyright is ludicrous and bonkers). But if we were guided by this inverted perspective we would be doing as many things as possible to widen the common use, to make fair use the default stance, to assume that intangibles should start in the commonwealth and return to it as soon as possible. Use of snippets, copies in transit, sampling, remixing, gray areas, would all be seen as natural, and the default. Creators would borrow easily, make generously, and we would minimize the benefits of illusionary sole proprietorship.

This illusion, BTW, reigns not just in the arts, but throughout American culture, especially in the business world, where narrative of the lone American genius battling the entrenched biases of the establishment and breaking through with his personal heroic “aha” moment is the set storyline. If you add a layer of politics, then the lone hero is battling the socialistic tendencies weighing down the masses with victimhood, and then we have the story of this decade. I am under no illusion myself that my communitarian perspective of ideas as being born from the commons, not from heroic individuals, and returning to the commons widely as fast as possible, will be adopted voluntarily. But like the initial resistance to accepting that copies want to flow freely (another communistic tendency), these resistances in the end are overwhelmed by the inherent biases in technology. See the music industry, which fought against streaming for decades before succumbing to the inevitable.

Ideas want to be shared. Sharing is baked into their nature. They don’t want to be owned, since ownership diminishes their usefulness. In the end, ideas will move in the direction of maximum sharing regardless of what the law says. And over time the law will codify what technology wants.

Weekly Links, 12/31/2021

Weekly Links, 12/24/2021

The Photonic Age

We are moving into a photonic world. Photonics may become more important that electronics.

Photons, like electrons, can carry both energy and information. We have heavy wires for electrons carrying big energy, enough to shock or kill you, and we have tiny wires, smaller than a hair for electrons to carry information — in electronics and chips —- whose energy you can’t feel in any way.

We have photons from the sun. Outside of the shields of atmosphere and magnetic fields, these photons — especially the UV variety — could kill you. Within the shields of Earth these photons warm us and power all plants and indirectly all life on this planet. We have lasers that shoot photons with enough power to cut through steel and kill us. We also have weaker streams of photons that carry information — glass fibers and screens — whose energy we can’t feel in any way.

The digital realm runs on electrons. Electrons underpin the entire realm of computing and today’s communication. Almost all bits are electronic bits. We use packets of electrons to make binary codes of off/on. We make logic circuits out of packets of electronics flowing around circuits. Electrons are close to our idea of particles flowing like bits of matter.

Photons on the other hand are waves, or wavicles. Light and all electromagnetic spectrum like radio travel as wave-particles. They are not really discrete particles. They are continuous, analog waves. They are almost the opposite of binary. To one approximation, the photonic world is closer to analog than is the electronic world.

We have interfaces for moving between electronics and photonics.  That’s how you get Instagram pics on your phone, and Netflix over fiber optic cables. Electronic binary packets rush into screens which emit photons. As we enhance our virtual worlds we will do ever more with photons. Augmented reality, mixed reality, or what I call Mirrorworlds, are spatially rendered spaces with full volumetric depth and minute visual detail that will mimic the photons of the real world.  To render full volumetric spatial scenes with the resolution needed, and to light it convincingly, in a shared world with many participants will require astronomical amounts of computation. Since the results we want are in photons, it may turn out that we do as much of the computation in photonics, rather than going from photons to electrons and then back to photons. Instead of electronic chips we’ll have photonic chips. Photons race around and are gated and shunted to compute results and then the results are display directly as photons. We see them on the screens in our smart glasses. Using cameras in our smart glasses we detect the photons generated by another person in the Mirrorworld, and those photons are processed in a photonic chip, and rendered into a new scene, displayed as photons on someone else’s screen.  Even without a fully 100% photonic chip, the Mirrorworld requires immense amounts of rendering photons to correctly light and visualize the virtual layers. The Mirrorworld and even the metaverse will be primarily photonic realm, with zillions of photons zipping around, being sensed, and then re-created. It will be the Photonic Age.

Weekly Links, 12/17/2021

Always-On Spatial Audio

I’m gonna bet that a large part of AR, XR, Mirrorworld and spatial computing, will be spatial audio. Not just stereo sound, not just 3d surround sound, but spatial sound. That means virtual sound that is very specific in its locations, like real sound is. If a cricket is cricketing, it is perceived as being in a very exact spot, which we hear, and our brain translates, as RIGHT THERE. When we turn our head, the sound remains where it is. Like in movies, spatial audio will be at least 50% of the immersive experience. Right now I am imagining that our smart glasses will have some sort of sound component that will direct spatial sound into our ears. Perhaps they will be speakers or bone conducting vibrators on the glasses stems.

It will not only be spatial sound, it will be always-on sound. That is important. Always-on is essential. A couple of things can come from that.

•  We can have real time language translation whispering into our ears. This will be a boon for the developing world and for travellers. I believe real time translation will accelerate the global economy by several orders because it allows so many with skills other than English to join the global economy remotely.

•  We can have Jeeves, or the AI in Her, or  a better Alexa whispering into our ears as we work and go about our day. I don’t think we’ll rely on an audio-only interface, but I do bet that audio will be a huge part of the interface. I think today’s users of the Airpods are getting an early glimpse of always on audio power.

• Life will have a soundtrack. Yes, people will listen to their playlists, plural, perhaps even having one for different functions or moods. The system can play one set when you are walking to work, another when you cook, and another when it detects you are down. But I think the real innovation will be the ability for AIs and sensors to create new music/ambient sounds to match your life, almost as if you had some composer score a soundtrack for your day, each day. When you saw something cool, it would detect your emotion and ramp up the violins, or whatever you favor.

• There might be a need to cultivate a new skill of multi-channel listening, somewhat the way TV anchors can have a conversation with people even as their producer is chatting to them in their ear.

• Just as ordinary lives may get a soundtrack it is also possible to imagine getting a narration to your life. You could choose to hire an agent to be always explaining things to you, telling you what just happened, reminding you about what did happen, or what you thought before. Instead of our own “voice inside our head” this would be a different “voice in our ear” that might be able to displace the neurotic version in our head. It could be therapy or self-improvement.

• We would need to evolve a social etiquette for conversing — or not —with said voice in your ear.

There must be many more unexpected consequences of having always-on, spatial audio.