Kevin Kelly: The next 5,000 days of the web

Futurist Kevin Kelly sits in a red chair and like a latter-day Nostradamus reminds us of why we should be in awe of what has happened in the last 5,000 days of the web and what we should look forward to in the next 5,000 days.

Kelly says that the internet was first a database of computers, then a database of web pages and links, and now it is a database of individual pieces or granules of information.

And we continue to feed the web by acting as the eyes and ears of this global brain by taking photos, recording video and making observations of every facet of the earth.

“There are an approximate 55 trillion links to web pages which is about as many synapses in the human brain, and 1 quintillion transistors is almost the same as the amount of neurons in your brain. The size of the web is almost equivalent to your brain except your brain isn’t doubling in power every two years.”

Kelly estimates the total processing power of the web would exceed humanity’s by 2040, not unlike the estimates of the coming Singularity predicted by Ray Kurzweil

Three consequences of this: We are going to embody it, restructure its architecture and then be completely co-dependent on it.

Watch the video on TED.com
or YouTube.

Obama’s speech crafted by 27-year-old in Starbucks

From the Guardian:

Jon Favreau, 27, is, as Obama himself puts it, the president’s mind reader. He is the youngest chief speechwriter on record in the White House, and, despite such youth, was at the centre of discussions of the content of today’s speech, one which has so much riding on it.

In composing the high notes of the speech, Obama has leant on Favreau, whom he discovered almost by chance four years ago when the younger man was working on John Kerry’s failed presidential bid. “Favs” has since studied Obama’s speech patterns and cadences with the intensity of a stalker. He memorised the 2004 speech to the Democratic national convention which first brought Obama into the limelight. He is said to carry Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father, wherever he goes. As a result, last November when Favreau sat down to write the first draft of the inaugural address, he could conjure up his master’s voice as if an accomplished impersonator.

That skill had been put to almost daily use in the 18 months of brutal campaigning on the presidential trail. Favreau would be up most nights until 3am, honing the next day’s stump speeches in a caffeine haze of espressos and Red Bull energy drinks, taking breaks to play the video game Rock Band. He coined a phrase for this late-night deadline surfing: “crashing”.

He crashed his way through all Obama’s most memorable speeches. He wrote the draft of one that helped to turn Iowa for Obama while closeted in a coffee shop in Des Moines. For the presidential election, he wrote two speeches: one for a victory, one for defeat. When the result came through, he emailed his best friend: “Dude, we won. Oh my God.”

The tension between such youthful outbursts and his onerous role has sometimes cost the 27-year-old. In December, pictures of him and a friend mocking a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton at a party, Favreau’s hand on her breast, were posted on Facebook to his huge embarrassment.

Obama is an accomplished writer in his own right, and the process of drafting with his mind reader is collaborative. The inaugural speech has shuttled between them four or five times, following an initial hour-long meeting in which the president-elect spoke about his vision for the address, and Favreau took notes on his computer.

Favreau then went away and spent weeks on research. His team interviewed historians and speech writers, studied periods of crisis, and listened to past inaugural orations. When ready, he took up residence in Starbucks in Washington and wrote the first draft. The end result will be uttered on the steps of the Capitol.

Obama’s mind reader has crashed his way through yet another deadline.

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Speech excerpt:

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Full transcript of inauguration speech of Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States.

The dawn of the “personal journalist”

WANTED: Personal journalist. Must be able to gobble up massive quantities of media – RSS feeds, blogposts, tweets, Facebook updates, podcasts, Youtube videos, Flickr photos on daily basis – and turn it into easily digestible bits of gold for superbusy C-level executive.

Michael Hedges suggests the possibility of the personal journalist – similar to that of the personal trainer or personal shopper:

The personal journalist is a wave or two beyond the tried and busted ‘user-generated content’ and ‘citizen journalist.’ Neither found a business model. Citizen journalism, a term invented by accountants, past its prime when listeners, viewers and readers lost interest in ‘reports’ from the 16 year old on the corner with a cell-phone camera. Blogs, touted as giving voice to many, became, largely, ranters ranting to themselves or PR people posting the daily spin. Blog creation has peaked, wrote the Pew Research Center in a 2007 report. The successful became niche publishers, albeit of the traditional media model. The rest are just out there, hanging by the Web.

User-generated content is another concept designed to warm the accountants’ books. Couple it with the much vaunted social networking sites and zillions of web hits are created. All content may, indeed, be equal for 20 year old user/creators but an adult looking for knowledge and clarity is left empty. Unfortunately, sources for adults have evaporated into the dither of click-through ads.

Imagine a typical appointment with the personal journalist. Busy humans, executives in their own right, need to acquire knowledge efficiently. While an executive might be buried in reports and analysis and numbed by 15 news channels, the personal journalist answers the need by asking the right questions, getting the story and delivering it in 750 words, voice or text, to the device of choice. Is it worth €75 a hour – the rate personal trainers charge – to avoid the 3 hours sifting through 250,000 search engine results, only 2 of which might yield a shred of knowledge?

The personal journalist does, in fact, do what journalists do best: keep their eyes open. In addition to providing the news you need, the personal journalist brings serendipity to the day. What a joy it would be to have that concise ‘news for you’ mixed with the occasional ‘…and think about this.’ And best of all, the personal journalist is ‘on and gone.’ No promos. No pop-up ads.

Media in the 21st century is buckling under the empowerment of users to get the information and entertainment they want, whenever and however they want it. The next step in that empowerment provides both clarity and expertise with greater sensitivity to time economy. Sad for some, technology will take a smaller role.

Of course, you might want to share your personal journalist with others. What might that be called?

MORE.

VS Ramachandran: Self-awareness, the Last Frontier

From The Edge:

qualia (QUAIL-yuh or QUAL-yuh singular: quale, QUAL-ee or -ay): Often referred to a “raw feels”, qualia are those subjective, qualitative properties of mental states such as sensations and emotions—the “what it is like” to see red, feel pain, be angry. Such mental states are thought to have intrinsic qualitative features by which we identify them through introspection.

Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran sheds light, by way of analogy and intriguing true cases, on self-awareness and a new term for me – qualia:

One of the last remaining problems in science is the riddle of consciousness. The human brain—a mere lump of jelly inside your cranial vault—can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space and grapple with concepts such as zero and infinity. Even more remarkably it can ask disquieting questions about the meaning of its own existence. “Who am I?” is arguably the most fundamental of all questions.

It really breaks down into two problems — the problem of qualia and the problem of the self. My colleagues, the late Francis Crick and Christof Koch have done a valuable service in pointing out that consciousness might be an empirical rather than philosophical problem, and have offered some ingenious suggestions.

But I would disagree with their position that the qualia problem is simpler and should be addressed first before we tackle the “Self.” I think the very opposite is true. I have every confidence that the problem of self will be solved within the lifetimes of most readers of this essay. But not qualia.

The qualia problem is well known. Assume I am an intellectually highly advanced, color-blind Martian. I study your brain and completely figure out down to every last detail what happens in your brain—all the physico-chemical events — when you see red light of wavelength 600 and say “red”. You know that my scientific description, although complete from my point of view, leaves out something ineffable and essentially non-communicable, namely your actual experience of redness.

There is no way you can communicate the ineffable quality of redness to me short of hooking up your brain directly to mine without air waves intervening (Bill Hirstein and I call this the qualia-cable; it will work only if my color blindness is caused by missing receptor pigments in my eye, with brain circuitry for color being intact.) We can define qualia as that aspect of your experience that is left out by me — the color-blind Martian. I believe this problem will never be solved or will turn out (from an empirical standpoint) to be a pseudo-problem. Qualia and so-called “purely physical” events may be like two sides of a Moebius strip that look utterly different from our ant-like perspective but are in reality a single surface.

So to understand qualia, we may need to transcend our ant-like view, as Einstein did in a different context. But how to go about it is anybody’s guess.

The problem of self, on the other hand, is an empirical one that can be solved — or at least explored to its very limit — by science. If and when we do it will be a turning point in the history of science. Neurological conditions have shown that the self is not the monolithic entity it believes itself to be. It seems to consist of many components each of which can be studied individually, and the notion of one unitary self may well be an illusion. (But if so we need to ask how the illusion arises; was it an adaptation acquired through natural selection?)

Consider the following disorders which illustrate different aspects of self.

Out of body experiences: patients with right fronto-parietal strokes report floating out into space watching their body down below — undoubtedly contributing to the myth of disembodied souls. Left hemisphere strokes result in the feeling of a mysterious presence — a phantom twin — hovering behind the patient’s left shoulder.

Apotemnophilia: An otherwise completely normal person develops an intense desire to have his arm or leg amputated. The right parietal (a part of it known as SPL) normally contains a complete internal image of the body. We showed recently that in these patients the part of the map corresponding to the affected limb is congenitally missing, leading to alienation of the limb.

The patients are sometimes sexually attracted to amputees. We postulate that in “normal” individuals there is a genetically specified homunculus in S2 that serves as a template acting on limbic and visual areas to determine aesthetic preference for ones own body type. Hence pigs are attracted to pigs not people. (Which is not to deny an additional role for olfactory and visual imprinting) But if the image in S2 is missing a limb this may translate into an aesthetic preference toward an amputee – mediated by reverse projections that are known to connect the (”emotional”) amygdala to every stage in the visual hierarchy.

Transsexuality: A woman claims that for as far back as she can remember she felt she was a man trapped in a woman’s body—even experiencing phantom penises and erections. Our ordinary notion of every person having a single sexual identity (or self) is called into question. It turns out there are at least four distinct aspects of sexuality; your external anatomy, your internal brain-based body image, your sexual orientation and your sexual identity—who you think others think of you as. Normally these are harmonized in fetal development but if they get uncoupled you become a transsexual person. (It is important to note there is nothing “abnormal” about them, any more than you would regard being gay as abnormal.)

A patient with a phantom arm simply watches a student volunteer’s arm being touched. Astonishingly the patient feels the touch in his phantom. The barrier between him and others has been dissolved.

Cotards syndrome: the patient claims he is dead and rejects all evidence to the contrary.

Capgras delusion: the patient claims that his mother looks like his mother but is in fact an impostor. Other patients claim that they inhabit a house that’s a duplicate of their real house. Bill Hirstein and I (and Haydn Ellis and Andrew Young) have shown that this highly specific delusion arises because the visual area in the brain is disconnected from emotional areas. So when our patient David sees his mother he recognizes her — along with the penumbra of memories linked to her. But no emotions and no jolt of familiarity is evoked so he rationalizes away his curious predicament saying she is an impostor. It is important to note that these patients are usually intelligent and mentally stable in most other respects. It is the selective nature of the delusion that makes it surprising and worth studying.

David also had difficulty abstracting across successive encounters of a new person seen in different contexts to create an enduring identity for that person. Without the flash of recognition he ought to have experienced in the second, third or n’th exposure, he couldn’t bind the experiences together into a single person. Even more remarkably David sometimes duplicated his own self! He would often refer to “The other David who is on vacation.” It was as if even successive episodes of his own self were not bound together the way they are in you and me.

This is not to be confused with MPD (”multiple personality disorder”) seen in psychiatric contexts. MPD is often a dubious diagnosis made for medico-legal and insurance purposes and tends to fluctuate from moment to moment. (I have often been tempted to send two bills to an MPD patient to see if he pays both.) Patients like David, on the other hand, may give us genuine insight into the neural basis of selfhood.

• In another disorder the patient, with damage to the anterior cingulate develops “akinetic mutism”. He lies in bed fully awake and alert but cannot talk or walk — indeed doesn’t interact in any way with people or things around him. Sometimes such patients wake up (when given certain drugs) and will say “I knew what was going on around me but I simply had no desire to do anything”. It was if he had selective loss of one major attribute of the self — free will.

• Even odder is a phenomenon called “The telephone syndrome”. The patient (I’ll call him John) will display akinetic mutism — no visual consciousness — when seeing his (say) father in person. But if he receives a phone call from his father he suddenly becomes conscious and starts conversing with him normally. (S. Sriram and Orrin Devinsky, personal communication.) It’s as if there are two Johns — the visual John who is only partially conscious and the auditory John (with his own self) who talks over the phone. This implies a degree of segregation of selves — all the way from sensory areas to motor output — that no one would have suspected…

The purported “unity” or internal consistency of self is also a myth. Most patients with left arm paralysis caused by right hemisphere stroke complain about it as, indeed, they should. But a subset of patients who have additional damage to the “body image” representation in the right SPL (and possibly insula) claim that their paralyzed left arm doesn’t belong to them.

The patient may assert that it belongs to his father or spouse. (As if he had a selective “Capgras” for his arm). Such syndromes challenge even basic assumptions such as “I am anchored in this body” or “This is my arm”. They suggest that “belongingness” is a primal brain function hardwired through natural selection because of its obvious selective advantage to our hominoid ancestors. It makes one wonder if someone with this disorder would deny ownership of (or damage to) the left fender of his car and ascribe it to his mother’s car.

There appears to be almost no limit to this. An intelligent and lucid patient I saw recently claimed that her own left arm was not paralyzed and that the lifeless left arm on her lap belonged to her father who was “hiding under the table”. Yet when I asked her to touch her nose with her left hand she used her intact right hand to grab and raise the paralyzed hand—using the latter as a “tool” to touch her nose!

Clearly somebody in there knew that her left arm was paralyzed and that the arm on her lap was her own, but “she” — the person I was talking to — didn’t know. I then lifted her “father’s hand” up toward her, drawing attention to the fact that it was attached to her shoulder. She agreed and yet continued to assert it belonged to her father. The contradiction didn’t bother her.

Her ability to hold mutually inconsistent beliefs seems bizarre to us but in fact we all do this from time to time. I have known many an eminent theoretical physicist who prays to a personal God; an old guy watching him from somewhere up there in the sky. I might mention that I have long known that prayer was a placebo; but upon learning recently of a study that showed that a drug works even when you know it is a placebo, I immediately started praying. There are two Ramachandrans — one an arch skeptic and the other a devout believer. Fortunately I enjoy this ambiguous state of mind, unlike Darwin who was tormented by it. It is not unlike my enjoyment of an Escher engraving…

MORE.

VS Ramachandran at TED talks on YouTube.

Tanya Vlach: The human camera

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Tanya Vlach lost her left eye in a car accident three years ago. Now, as part of an artistic experiment, she’d like to wear a video camera – behind her fake eyeball.

Vlach, with the help of enthusiastic strangers who responded to a call for engineers on her blog, hopes a tiny recording lens can be developed to help her launch various art projects, from filming documentaries to live Web casting through her eye.

Meanwhile, another one-eyed filmmaker in Toronto named Rob Spence has announced that he’s enlisted inventor Steve Mann, an expert in “wearable technology,” to also enter the race for the world’s first recording eyeball.

Both Vlach’s and Spence’s cyborgian art projects speak to the growing acceptance of transhumanism – a broad term used to describe the community of inventors, academics and enthusiasts who, among other things, encourage the ethical use of technology in bodies to expand human capabilities.

Remember Professor Kevin “Mr Cyborg” Warwick of Reading University talking about his man-machine interface experiment?

He embedded a radio receiver and several chips under the skin inside his left elbow. The chips allowed sensors around his department to detect his presence and open doors, switch on lights and have a synthesised voice say: “Welcome Professor Warwick.”

His secretary could locate him simply by looking at a computer screen, a useful tool to find the constantly moving Warwick.

Warwick may have started an odd trend.

Tanya Vlach’s experiment sounds more exciting, in a kind of ghoulish way.

One wonders when we will have the memory implants similar to those seen in the Omar Naim/Robin Williams movie The Final Cut

MORE: Humans hope high tech can improve their bodies

Tanya Vlach’s blog

Rob Spence’s blog

Kevin Warwick’s website

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