Augmentation

I’ve had a chance to encounter a service on the web called ‘tumblr.’ So far I like it.

Tumblr is a service that’s somewhere in between the constant microbursts of the twitter and full-scale blogging of the wordpress. Only more modern, not in sense of any aesthetic faux pas, but in sense of integration with the user, like being able to post animation/picture directly from one’s cell phone, rssing different services on the web and etc… More media centric friendfeed would also be a reasonably accurate description of the Tumblr service.

While I am somewhat tired of such deluge of ‘web 2.0’ applications that are practically everywhere these days, I do feel that the whole experience is a positive one. Some people might argue that broadcasting one’s own thoughts and lives are somehow ‘arrogant’ or something such because no one would care about their lives in the first place anyway… Well people who argue that point must not have many friends. 😛

Seriously though, I do not see services like twitter and Tumblr as a channel to reach out to people. Rather, such web applications are augmentations of modern human mind, something physical technology is hard pressed to catch up to. Augmentations of memories and visions one would encounter in the daily life, recording bit and pieces of ‘experiences’ that are separate from carefully mediated thoughts that permeate the decent portion of the web these days…

A rough continuum created to fill the vacuum left by the lack of physical technology of memories and experiences.

And when you tinker around with one of those services, you are tinkering with an augmentation service for your mind itself, albeit in crudely executed form that requires multiple intermediaries.

It is interesting how then the user’s lives get increasingly intermingled with the web, as the experience of the living stands next to the fantastic shapes and movements scrounged from the remotest corners of the infosphere.

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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.

The singularity and the legacy of the world- Sketch

I’ve been reading up on quite a bit of transhumanist literature recently, both arguments for and against it. I must say, I’m beginning to think that the biggest hurdle to any kind of transhumanist and historical/technological singularity ideas is the shallow naivety of the transhumanism/singularity proponents themselves.

Technology will not magically fix the ailing of the world, and the nature of intelligence and consciousness will take much longer to understand fully; it is only that we will be capable of simulating such characteristics using artificial medium. Electric networks certainly catalyzed some great changes for the system of the world, but in the end it was merely catalyzing of the potential already there. The human network and corresponding complex system of human-nodes and social-economic-cultural links were already put in place long time ago, to the extent that we classify such trait as a fundamental part of humanity as organisms. This also means that simple increase in technological capacity will not be enough to surpass the nature of the human network itself, only speed the process already in place.

Mind you, I am very enthusiastic about the future potential of humanity. And I do certainly believe that some sort of chapter-opening change of human civilization will take place sometime soon, not necessarily while I’m alive (I’m 21 by the way) but definitely soon when viewed from the scales of world history. I am simply becoming increasingly skeptical of the kind of change expected to take place by the transhumanist community at large (if there can be such a thing). Massive information processing and storage ability does not translate into intellectual capacity without human input. There simply aren’t enough scientific evidence to support such a claim. The very idea that some sort of external intelligence engine would be able to fix the world’s problems is a vague notion that makes me want to question the degree of understanding possessed by some of the more radical supporters of transhumanism regarding matters of intelligence, brain physiology, and complex system dynamics. Certain degree of performance boost in brain capacities will definitely change the face of human civilization. Artificial intelligence in its ideal form will transform everyone’s lives. There is no doubt about that. I am just very irked about the underlying notion that such advances would be the singular answer to the singular problem of the world. Does anyone remember the concept of legacy anymore? I suggest you to find and read Jaron Lanier‘s essay on irreducible complexity (I’ve read it in a book) if you don’t know what I am talking about.

I believe in singularity-esque future, and all the good things it will bring. I also believe in reasonable ideas and sound scientific basis for reality, something some people seem to be forgetting in their rush to live forever.

Synthetic biology

I’ve been looking around the synthetic biology scene for a while now. Although my academic specialty doesn’t revolve around the field of biology, I try to keep at least an amateur’s perspective upon the advances and techniques of the field. Considering that my passion lies in the study and realization of artificial life I find it important to keep broad view of things irregardless of specialty or the immediate requirements of my own job.

I’ve often noted that the field of synthetic biology had suffered quite a bit of misunderstanding since its inception (which wasn’t that long ago actually), so I thought I might as well do a little write up of what synthetic biology really is.

Synthetic biology is an approach to engineering biology instead of being an academic field of specific goals. Simply put, synthetic biology as a whole is an approach, which may be utilized toward a specific application dictated by the case/individual/group etc.

In order to become a tool in engineering biology its link with conventional genetic engineering is inevitable. The breakdown of the similarities and differences between synthetic biology and genetic engineering is as follows.

Conventional genetic engineering is composed of three primary stages.

1)Recombinant DNA

2)PCR (stands for polymerase chain reaction)

3)Automated sequencing

The step one and two are about writing the DNA of specific purpose, and the step three is about reading the recomposed/component DNA. While these three steps are integrated to the core of the field of synthetic biology, it includes three more stages which differentiates it from pure genetic engineering.

4)Automated construction of DNA

5)Standards

6)Abstraction

The fourth stage, automated construction of DNA refers to the divide between the designers and builders of the DNA. Within the structure of the synthetic biology the designing of a DNA sequence and actually working in forming such DNA sequence (which is an expensive and time-consuming process) is separate from each other, making student-amateur oriented biological machine design possible within currently existing technical/industrial infrastructure. However, simply having a separate industry deal with mechanical parts of the synthetic biology would be meaningless without stage five and six, formation of standards, and abstraction of genetic interface. The last two stages run along the lines of the advance of computer programming scene, where formation of standard (html) and abstraction (most users don’t type in zeroes and ones anymore. We click buttons) brought on an explosion of global userbase and subsequent integration of the computerization into the very fabric of modern human civilization. Synthetic biology as a field encompasses all the six stages I’ve written about so far, each of them an integral part that reinforces another. In a way, synthetic biology is intimately linked with the garage-biology or biohacking movement in that it allows individuals to focus on designing their own novel biological contraptions using freely available and globally present database of biological/genetic abstractions and standards, while leaving the complexities and drudgeries of bioengineering to the mechanism of economy/industry.

I personally consider the field of synthetic biology to be a movement. Nothing as pretentious as some political gather-up, but a real movement like a wave spreading across the surface of the human society, a tell-tale sign of something gigantic beneath the surface. People used to build computers in their garage. Look where we are now. I can’t begin to imagine to full impact of well-executed synthetic biology as movement/industry/economy in the course of the future. Many little children these days are aware of tools like python and java, and some of them even utilize them with surprising efficiency and familiarity. Imagine the same children in the future, not with imaginary numbers but with the stuff of life. A little risky, but it’s certainly the type of world I want to live in.

What I also find to be interesting is the method of thinking behind synthetic biology. I don’t know how to put it succinctly yet, but as I have noted in the previous write up ‘transhumanism and the human network’, there is an underlying method of thinking that is showing up in universal scales, regardless of locale and cultural background. Am I correct in assuming this peculiarly wide-spread method of thinking as a type of zeitgeist? If so, where and how did it originate? And what role does the human network and its emergent properties take in the shape of the world we live in?

Maybe, once the biological hacking is done, the little children will hack the human civilization itself.

For those of you interested in slightly more detailed insight into synthetic biology, I give you two links.

www.openwetware.org

The openwetware website, definitely worth a look.

http://openwetware.org/images/3/3d/SB_Primer_100707.pdf

A simple primer to synthetic biology, covers the basics so it applies to other fields of biology as well.

Hackability of the world

I’ve been thinking and writing about the whole steampunk and tranhumanism ‘movement’ (if it can be called as such) all over the net. Though they were nothing more than novelty writings, jumbled things that came straight out of my mind without much introspection, I think I’m beginning to see some underlying pattern here. I do not particularly believe in attitude or belief of any specific cultural movement like the steampunk or the transhumanism. As someone dedicated to the study of sciences the ideas of transhumanism does appeal to me, but I still think appeal alone doesn’t make for a sound prediction of the future, and the St. John’s apocalypse-like images espoused by some of the more enthusiastic believers of the transhumanism thinking doesn’t really help things either.

What I am really interested in, is the shape of the world that is beginning to emerge underneath all the superficial beliefs and cliques of various social/cultural movement. A human network that is being accelerated and consolidated into an emergent and concrete form by the technology of near instantaneous connection between individual members of the humanity, which seem to form the backbone of the majority of the changes that make up what we call the ‘modern age’, web 2.0 generation, and etc etc. It’s really just a thought, nothing eloquent and lucid enough to be a theory… Perhaps this is merely adaptation of the mathematical theory of networks and links in the fashion of Barbarasi to the perspective of social theory… But something doesn’t sound quite right to refer to it as such.

Formation and linking of human beings to ideas, the belief and search for the method to change/control the world through variety of means, linking which leads to a form of phase shift, the compounding between the idea and the human being… A history is a fundamentally human story… If linking between ideas and human beings, ideas and ideas, human beings to human beings is viable and displays emergent characteristics so common in their physical equivalents, the term zeitgeist begins to take more significant meaning in the structure of the world.

If the ‘structure’ of the world and its interactions can be defined as such , wouldn’t it be possible to hack the system of the world to gather wanted result from it? A giant machine-construction formed of human dreams and lives, that are linked with each other so that while each part may be independent the whole remains homostatic, hacking such system to follow certain path would be tantamount to hacking the Genie of the lamp or the holy grail, since, in the end, the only thing that responds to human wishes is the human world itself. This giant human world, soon to be even bigger, is in effect a substitution of the human wish and the human will.

All the fad associated with the UCC or the web 2.0 generation will come and pass. Yet the wisdom and experience gained from this generation will invariably effect the other. Who is to say that the brave new world will bring with it social concepts and mundane practices so powerful and so fundamentally human that it would form an entity on its own, political, scientific, and artistic ideas living and traveling across the world like full-bodied life, while the human beings are both subject to its whims and a master of its path, raising and training it like pets.

Should such a day ever come, it would be the beginning of the age when arts may finally walk among the humanity.

Transhumanism, and the human network.

A little something I scribbled down a moment ago. Maybe it would be an interesting read for some of you, especially when viewed in light of the digital art -social networking age we live in right now.

The term transhumanism is thrown around a lot these days. It’s almost as if it is fast becoming a whole generational movement instead of a novelty philosophy catering to a limited cadre of technophiles. The true attraction of the movement I believe, is the real possibility that many things currently considered impossible might become possible in the future, not through any institutional reform but through a technological revolution capable of suiting individual tastes and goals. In many ways the movement of transhumanism is intensely political yet at the same time as politically neutral as it can be.
It seems transhumanism is about increasing the capacity to do things on the individual level without regards to a unified direction. After getting the ability you want using technological means, you can be a hardcore communist or a hardcore libertarian. The movement of the transhumanism itself doesn’t dictate what its proponents should do after becoming ‘transhuman’, and the only political ideal directly associated with the philosophy of transhumanism is the one necessary in making it come true, free and unrestricted access to technology and information. It can be said that the transhumanism and the theory of singularity so many people attribute to the movement of transhumanism is like deus ex machina come to life, the proverbial genie of the lamp given flesh in human adaptation of technology. However, it should be noted that the post-cyberpunk transhumanism ideals aren’t quite as clean and wish-wash as some of its predecessors of the enlightenment and industrial revolution, instead opting to put its faith in the very opening of the possibilities themselves rather than what those possibilities can ultimately achieve, and I dare say that it is this new way of thinking that defines the current generation’s zeitgeist regardless of geological locale or technical proficiency. Propagation of systems of thought through generational sentiments instead of any strict governmental or academic structure (that might even go beyond regional and cultural taboo), a sort of social-blogging approach to the propagation and practice of systems of thought. Yet in this case, the physical entity of the net is not a necessity. Instead, majority of the network-forming, linking and subsequent emergent behavior results from interactions between people and ideas, the technical infrastructure only acting as a catalyst for already present elements in precipitating metamorphosis.

As the idea of physical distance becomes fuddled in the future and virtual density of the human population increases, the idea and practice of the net-less networking built into all conscious life forms in the innate interaction between life forms themselves and the life and idea-structures will become more and more profound, its effects more and more pronounced, perhaps enough to truly dictate the course of human history, and perhaps, even human beliefs.