From virtual to real

I must admit, there was a time when I would play computer/video games late into the night. I was a wee-lad back then, so impressionable and curious about the whole plethora of things of this universe. And the allure of the virtual worlds to such mind was just too sweet to resist. I gave a lot of thought to my then-current condition during the phase of my life. Why would I be captivated by certain types of virtual reality? Is there something shared in common between the hundreds of different worlds constructed using a number of different mediums-writing, visual, and aural-that composes the fundamental idea of what an enjoyable world should be? Would the impression of such an ‘idea’ of the mysteriously attractive world be common to all human beings? Or only human beings of certain memories and experiences? I would spend many days just thinking about the nature of all possible virtual worlds imaginable by human mind and their possible implications while my hands played the mechanical play of controlling my representation within the display.

Deus Ex was a computer game created by the now-defunct ION storm that came out during the aforementioned impressionable period of my life. This game isn’t aesthetically pleasing by any stretch of imagination. It’s gritty, ugly, in a very superficial and unintended kind of way. It is based in imaginary near-future where nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are just coming into full gear among the financial and political turmoils of a new human age. Conspiracy theories based on some real-world conspiracy fads play an important role in the setting and the plot, and there are lot of techno-jargon thrown around in one of the numerous conversations within the game world which might add to its depth. Any way you look at it, Deus Ex is not a work of art, and it was never meant to be. Deus Ex as a game was designed to be immersive. Immersive as in realistic within the confines of the plot and available technological means to execute that plot. Whatever the Deus Ex was meant to be, it did its job and it did its job fantastically. Deus Ex took itself just serious enough to be immersive.

I played and finished Deus Ex numerous times since the day it came out. The game had the semblance of a virtual world, just enough to be a better game, not enough to be a real virtual world, which was actually a good thing. I’d figure out a number of different ways to achieve the objective of the specific stages and the game as a whole, each of those paths gradually beginning to encompass different processes that the designer of the game probably never intended in the first place-a first form of truly emergent game play on digital medium. I can still remember a number of quotes and conversations from the game by heart, not through any diligent study, but simply through repeated exposure stemming from the interest in the world itself. And to be perfectly honest, while I was aware of nanotechnology and its growing prominence before playing the game (I was a little precocious for my age), I began to truly comprehend what such technology could mean to the world and the people in the far future by seeing it applied within the virtual world built and maintained by fictional premises. It would not be far from to truth to say that my interest in ‘industries’ of biology and other fields of science (with my current ‘official’ pursuit being plasma physics, which is an entirely different field altogether) began with my introduction to this game… I place much emphasis on the term ‘industry’ because it was through the application of the idea of technology within a virtual (no matter how absurd it might be compared to the real) world that I began to grasp the requirements of science and its true impacts in the modern human civilization of rapid prototyping and mass production. Yes, I’ve come to learn that science effects the human world as a whole, just as the hand of economy reaches into the deepest pockets of the remotest corners of the globe, and such permutation of ideas and information might have a reasonable pattern of causality behind it, forming a system of sorts. All this at the first year of high school, all this because I’ve seen it applied in a limited virtual world whose goal was to entertain, perhaps mindlessly.

People talk of the web 2.0, the web based virtual reality (like the second life) all the time, perhaps without grasping what it truly means. To me, the change on the web and its technical and semantic updates are merely superficial effects of the real change that is taking place right now. The real change we are about to face at this moment, is the change to the nature of the human network. I find that I’m using the term human network more often these days. The human network had been present since the very first moment of human civilization (perhaps even before, going back to the start of the human species) and has the same mathematical and sociological properties of networks that more or less remains the same on some compartmentalized level. The changes we are seeing in the emergence of the web 2.0 ideas and virtual realities merely reflect the technological advances applied to the same ever present human network that had been in place for as long as anyone can remember. At the core of the web 2.0 is the idea of user interactivity. What happens when there is a freedom of interactivity between millions and billions of people? The medium providing the room for interactions itself begins to take on closer resemblance to the concept we call ‘the world.’ Forget reality. What is a ‘world?’ What satisfies the definition of a ‘world?’ The core of a ‘world’ as it stands happen to be a place where people can interact with the very components of the world itself and with each other. In that sense, if our reality somehow forbid certain type of interaction between us and the ‘world’, it would cease to be real.  The world as seen from information perspective, is a massive space/concept/thing for interactivity, and interaction between the ‘things’ within the world builds and evolves the form of the world itself.

The web 2.0 in that sense, is the beginning of a virtual world that builds upon human interactivity rather than superficial (though still quite important) reliance on resembling the physical characteristics of the real. And the real change being brought on by the advent of the web 2.0 thought to the general population is the enlargement of the perspectives of the real world brought on by interactions with other human nodes within the virtual world. I am not suggesting that people are somehow becoming more conscious. Just as I have demonstrated with my old experience with the computer game Deus Ex where seeing certain kind of ideas applied to a virtual world left an impression of impact of such ideas on a rapidly prototyping, global world, the population of this world is becoming increasingly aware of the true global consequences of their and others actions and thought. It is the awareness that in this highly networked world, science, industry, economics and politics all walk hand-in-hand as ‘ideas’ and its currencies, a single change in one sector of one corner of the world giving birth to certain other events on the opposite corner of the globe in entirely different field of ideas. It is the beginning of the understanding of the malleability of the human world and its thought.

I’ve started with remembering my experience with an old computer game, and came to the talks of virtual reality, the human network and the changes of the world. I hope I didn’t confuse you too much. This is what I call ‘taking a walk’, where I begin with one thought and its conclusions and apply them to different yet related thoughts to arrive at interesting ideas. In case you are wondering about the game itself, it seem that they are giving it away for free now. Go grab it and spend some time with it. It’s still fun after all these years.

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DIY synthetic biology

Just a short note about a cloning kit developed by Qiagen and Invitrogen. Will this be a first step in signalling the trend of the industry toward relatively freely available bio kits for DIY synthetic biology? I certainly hope so. Disposable lab kits packaged for small-scale labs and private hobbyists might prove to be a lucrative market in the near future once more universities get around to introducing synthetic biology curriculum to their students.

Of course, a number of such kits had been available for smaller scale purchase before, but I find this one significant in streamlining of the process, inclusion of ‘directions’, and appearance in mass-media outlet like the wired magazine… Some of the problems plaguing the field of synthetic biology at this point is the problem of general appeal and accessibility (other than the usual technical issues), and this might be beginning of an industrial trend in fixing it through the ‘hand of the market.’

Synthetic biology, being a biotechnology of information, will benefit greatly and show rapid growth from industrial level support. I can’t even begin to talk about the benefits of biological economy, and many in the field of economics and biology seem to agree on that issue.

There are some who are voicing concerns about streamlining of technology involved in the general biotechnological process pampering the scientific community, but I find such arguments rather shortsighted. The technologies available to us at the moment are not perfect. If we can’t get minor technical details out of the way of the real pursuit of science, the field of science as a whole will remain on the fringe of the human civilization. The pressing need here is to broaden the field and scope of the science itself so that the average layman might apply him or herself along with the traditional scientist population. Such a change will be able to trigger a whole spectrum of economic and social changes in creation of jobs and specialties, with more even distribution of knowledge which will further the advances of humanity as a whole.

No matter how much I’d like to deny it, advance of science is intimately linked with fostering of proper economical and sociocultural environment for such a change.

I will post more on the matter as I go along.

Without borders

I happened to stumble upon this article about a program called scientists without borders. It’s basically a web 2.0 project much like jove, but with focus on interactivity and network building for scientist around the world with goal of negating some of the more significant effects of brain drain across the globe rather than sharing physical data or research protocols. Wonderful stuff, somewhat of expected and perhaps even redundant with all the ‘community’ sites aimed at various strata of the world popping up all over the place, but still it’s nice to see that someone in this world noticed the negative effects of professional brain drain and is attempting to do something about it (I’m looking at you, United Nations). Perhaps this program can also work in favor of certain people of professional learning scraping dishes in remoter corners of the globe simply due to the problems of accessibility, rather than lack of talent or diligence. Such waste of men/womenpower always bothered me.

The problem of brain drain is a serious issue. It had been as long as anyone can remember. However, just like the field of synthetic biology which, despite being of opensource nature (reflecting the roots of the movement based on informations technology), can’t establish itself without significant industrial presence of genome synthesizing and computerization facilities, science utilizing web 2.0 concept itself won’t work well without some sort of physical international distribution network that would make it possible for remoter corners of the globe to have access to the more sophisticated laboratories and equipments available in richer nations.

Application of the web 2.0 and related human network philosophy (…engineering?) ethos is only beginning, of course. What we see right now will not even remotely be close to what we will see in the future, and all I can say at the moment regarding the matter are mere speculations. However, am I too far gone in predicting that in the future the science community might be able to reap the benefits of an international laboratory that does the lab work ‘contracted’ from scientists around the globe regardless of nationality and location?

Rice shortage-Network demonstration

The matter of rice shortage is becoming increasingly mainstream. The warning of possible shortage and dangerous increase in price had been around for a long time, and unusual price hike of rice in major exporters like Thailand had been reported in (relatively) mainstream media about three to four months ago. In fact, major United Nations advisers and IMF personnel had been giving warnings since mid 2007 in mainstream sources. I myself remember scoffing at a particular warning given by a United Nations forecaster, warning of possible food shortage and criticizing the rapid increase in biocrop cultivation as a major player. I guess such is the evanescence of appealing to mainstream media, where the specific sources and logistical data to support novel claims are frequently invisible or simply unavailable.

The warning was in place, and the back-up system for possible shortage in each of the nations most heavily affected had been more or less in place. So why do we have a developing crisis at hand with reported casualties? The answer I believe, lies in the lack of distribution network in the world today. Of course, with the advent of the technology the world itself is ever more networked than before. As each second passes it is predicted that the network of the world will become thicker and wider, someday possibly encompassing every single member of humanity in direct and accessible way. But that is the network of information. What about the physical network, the infrastructure, the ones we use to ship the things we order through the virtual spaces of the net? The airlines, the shipping lanes, the railroads and the expressways. I have on reliable sources that the actual range and volume of physical shipping across the world had remained at similar or lower levels since the height of the age of imperialism so long ago (the specific source I can’t find at the moment, if someone knows otherwise please correct me). It is somewhat unlikely that there is an actual shortage of food (at least not to the degree that some sensationalist media would have us believe). What we have at hand is more akin to the lack of distribution network, so that the flow of resources are channeled into the most readily available physical network without regards to economical balance, or even, the need. In the type of eschewed free market system we have in place at the moment, there is virtually no incentive for tapping into parts of the world without pre-built infrastructure. And without the resources of the world available at hand, popular discontent is bound to rise, leading to further instability.

Living in New York city, I am physically and mentally insulated from most of such problems plaguing the world. Hipsters in fashionable clothings walk into fashionable restaurants and eat a plateful of vegetables, supposedly crafted from fashionable ingredients, possibly grown in fashinable dirt, as they clutch their fashinable laptops while hoping someone sees them writing down a ‘novel.’ In the subway a woman so bloated that she has to take up two sits and a half holds onto her third bucket of KFC. Is there something wrong with this picture? I do not particularly think so. Of course, the scene I’ve just described is certainly distasteful, but I do not believe people should be judged and criticized for utilizing the resources made available to them by the environment. The physical network of the world is configured in such a way that massive amount of cheap resources and resources expensive beyond their actual value exist hand-in-hand, composing the greater fabric of the market system.

We are all cogs reinforcing the current system of the world. And this system of the world, this world-wide system of ‘free-market’ seem to be suffering from some sort of bug. A free market system without proper physical distribution network for the market to take place on is fundamentally oppressive and exploitative, even without malice, even with good will of the individual members of the system. Perhaps it is possible to speculate that the fiasco experienced by certain biocrop based national economies are very similar to that experienced by planned and enclosed economies of the old communist nations. There had been a few novel attempts at readjusting the system of the world through various means, like freer access to information network from poorer places of the globe allowing development of a market system based on information and knowledge, but outcome of such works-in progress are unpredictable at the moment.

All I can say is, I think the problems like the kind we are seeing right now seem to stem from certain inadequacy of the global network itself, and will persist in different forms so long as that inadequacy continues to plague the system of the world. And the developed nations of the world are making a huge mistake in allowing such unbalance to continue, as such difference in network-system tend to cluster individual components into groups sharing similar traits, which in this case would be poverty and isolation of economic and cultural nature.

This reminds me, how about donating some rice to the UN? It won’t cost you a dime and you’ll probably have fun doing it.