23 June, 2010

Democratization of voice has changed everything...why Jaron Lanier is wrong.

In a recent interview, computer scientist Jaron Lanier expresses his view that the social internet has not been a benefit to human society. In particular the open software movement upon which much of it is based is for him mostly a negative for human society.


I think he is missing a critical aspect of what is enabled by the internet and in general communication technologies as they have developed in human societies (predating even homo sapiens sapiens) that aspect is the democratization of an asserted "voice" as explained below.

His attack is more than just on web 2.0 , he has this view that there has been no beneficial social impact to the internet. He couldn't be more wrong, if it were not for the internet, for the hyper connected real time web of communications and the fora of discussion that are made available on the social networks that he called "packs" the following incidents of the last few years would have been worse:

1) Aung Suu Kyi the political prisoner and activist of the state of Myanmar (Burma) would be an unknown person who likely would have suffered and died in the prisons of the military junta leadership of that country, free to do as they wish without the external pressures placed on the regime via the internet.

2) Georgia and the Russian invasion of Abkashia. The Russians would not have stopped at Tblisi...they would have quietly taken over the entire country before the international disagreement would have even built to the crecendo that stopped their advance. Lanier totally doesn't understand the power of democratizing the ability to assert ones voice across the globe be that with digital text media, digital video or digital audio spread virally over the internet. Though it may be true that humans tend to naturally form packs, it is also true that we continue to form packs of familiarity and never before have we been able to embrace as a species our brothers and sisters in foreign lands through our solidarity with their plight..shared instantly via electronic communications. The internet is the pillar upon which this stands and social networks are the conveyor.

3) Sudan, yet another incident that would have been vastly different had the international community not descended on the rising attacks by Sudanese forces on the Darfur region. The eyes of the world stayed the hand of the leadership who could not apply the propaganda in conjunction with their barbarity to sufficiently maintain an artifice of "right" in the eyes of their "friends" and neighbors. We are social animals and now we have a global social interaction that is being expressed by individual countries...many ruled by ruthless men who's actions are actually being mollified by the fact that the world is watching. No other time in history was this possible...imagine Alexander, Gangis Kahn or Cesar Augustus under such international scrutiny...would they have been as ruthless had the world had it's eye on them, I so absolutely not.

4) Even though there was no internet at the time we know that even the Nazi's had a shame about what they were doing the Jews and others they deemed 'unfit' as they hid their programs of extermination from the world. Even though they felt they would rule the world they still hid their greatest crime...this is very telling of the group psychology of even the most evil regimes.

I can go on, Israel and it's invasion of Lebanon. Iran and the Green Revolution all conflicts significantly attenuated in the ferocity that would have resulted had the worlds eyes not been watching and talking, the internet and specifically real time social networks is the cause of that protection and Lanier doesn't see it. The myopia he is suffering from is not new, technological myopia has occurred during ever great technological advance, a more recent change that in my view was second only to the emergence of the internet in human history in it's scope and depth of change is the industrial revolution. One of the major consequences of that age was the mass production of machines of war. The invention of the repeating rifle, the machine gun, the cartridge based bullet and the automated methods of production for these devices..along with the invention of artillery put in the hands of still barbarian minded Europeans weapons of mass carnage which were unleashed upon one another in the many conflicts across the globe prosecuted in pursuit of nationalist and expansionist views of domination had by each nation. The barbarity of the first world war was not an indication of a greater evil on the part of the actors involved...no it was simply a result of a greater ability to prosecute that evil using the "efficient" weapons of war that had been developed in the 3 decades leading up to the great war. In the lead up many bloody experiments were conducted in then far flung regions of the world. The British practiced in South Africa on Zulu's and Boers, the German's engaged in their butchery on Herare...the Belgians worked their technology on human beings in the Congo and Rwanda..it goes on and on.

The technology changed the way that war was waged and increased the scope of murder to the tens of millions that lost their lives in those early years. It was ironically the continued democratization of "voice" that served as a restriction on the barbarity that wars would inflict. A major example from the later half of the 20th century is the Vietnam conflict, the war was quietly being waged until massive media coverage began to turn the public view of just what was going on there, forcing significant and immediate changes by the government. It was so controlled by the opinion of the public that the effort was significantly marred with micro managed decisions near the later half of the conflict that made it very difficult for the soldiers. The internet (invented during the Vietnam conflict coincidentally) and later the web allowed the democratization of voice that today is significantly changing the willingness of groups far off regions of the world to engage in the barbarity that the previous age of unobserved war once enabled. This is a game changer for humanity not a mediocre shift as Lenier believes.

14 June, 2010

Technology: will it kill before it saves?

"And I am very much a skeptic in regards to technology being able to save us from killing ourselves as a species."

A recent email exchange with a new friend contained the previous quote from my friend. It inspired me to finally write out what I'd been saying in bits and pieces to people on Facebook for quite some time.

As for the question, will technology be our saving grace? I am still somewhat ambivalent about it myself, the current time of rapid developments in genetics and biology have me terrified and amazed. Terrified because as a software and hardware engineer I am well aware of the history of change that attended certain technological developments in both areas in the past and how those changes revolutionized human productivity in two phases. The first was the invention of the semiconductor transistor in 1947 by Shockley and Bardeen. The second was the invention of the integrated circuit and soon after photo-lithography that led to the astounding miniaturization of components that made the pc revolution (not to mention the DSP revolution that made possible useful cell phones and other digital devices) of the 80's and 90's possible.

Here we are, 10 years after the grand success of having sequenced a first human genome on the verge of figuring out life from the opposite direction which we took to figure out electronics.

It is quite an interesting story and one filled with amazing parallels that are difficult to see as coincidence but upon closer analysis show their fibers of similar construction in the inevitability of the physical laws that makes both realms possible.

I am talking specifically of conservation of energy and how abeyance to it, makes possible discrete atoms, which makes possible discrete molecules with specific atomic affinity for other atoms or molecules. Which makes possible specific amino acids, which make possible a specific dna and rna family , with make specific enzymes and proteins, which makes possible specific combination's of said enzymes , proteins and nucleotides in the form of living beings. In hardware and software , conservation of energy yet again is the mother of the massive landscape of combinations possible at the circuit level and in software how I chose to write a bit of code can significantly impact it's speed and its usefulness for a given problem domain. The codes that I write are symbolic representations of a designed function space inside the memory space of the computer the code eventually runs on. My applications are alive in the same sense as you, both sense input from the environment, but produce output in response to that input, both require resources to survive (you food, air, water...application, memory and data) up to now...few would have dared to think that life and programs were so similar but now that we approach a time when we can actually code new life functions from scratch (see Craig Venter's recent announcement of synthetic life) that analogy has become starkly real.

But what does this have to do with my fear, now that we know how molecules have come together to create living things we are not only creating our own codes but are figuring out how the extant codes work. The great process of deciphering the book of our genes and how they are expressed into tissues, hormones, organs and bones has now been enabled. The last 5 years have been particularly astounding...I could barely contain my dread and excitement when I read of the successful creation of induced pluripotent stem cells in 2007. I was not expecting that advance for at least another 10 years...but there it was. Then about a year later more advances came as iPSC's were produced by other teams and new methods were invented to get around inefficiencies (like the accidental triggering of cancer) in the old methods. Then more advances came in 2008 and 2009...all far ahead of the schedule I had set in my mind for when I was expecting them. I am an optimist and yet I misjudged the pace of advance...iPSC is important because what it does is it levels the playing field for the process of determining exactly WHERE the genetic sheet music for specific processes exist in our genes and how to play those genes to create the "music" of a growing lung or a cornea or a heart or a femur...you get the picture now?

If I were tasked to write a program that encoded an audio file from .wav to .mp3 I could do it, I would have to consult the specs. for both file formats and then knowing their functioning write code that performed the specific transformations or compositions using various tools available to me in the language I chose to write the program of conversion in..but it would be done. The mystery of doing so would have simply been in the specifications or specs. of the two formats.

The invention of iPSC's allows us to in detail figure out not just the specs. behind expressed biological functions but also to see the code that is known to create those biological functions. The lung grows, the heart beats...we only need "listen" to the regions of dna that are "playing" to see how the keys are pushed. As you would inspect the keys of a player piano to extract the sheet music for a given piece.

And thus comes our big problem, once we've extracted all the sheet music...for lungs, for hearts, for brains, for pisiform bones, for skin, for hair , for blue eyes or green or gray ...we will have the components necessary to write life from scratch or modify existing life by point changes to our dna.

In the classic science fiction film "Blade Runner" a scene has the renegade "replicant" Roy meet his maker, the rich and aristocratic bio geneticist that "invented" the replicants and grew rich selling these artificial people for use in various ways. Some were made strong to serve as labor on off world farms, others were trained to be skilled fighters and warriors, others were made to be "pleasure models". In the film the year is 2015...which considering where we are today in the technology is astonishingly prescient of Philip K Dick the original writer of the piece "Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" from which the movie was made. Roy is dying because though the geneticists were able to make him faster, smarter and stronger than ordinary humans...they could not make his life longer, he only had a 4 year life span. He found his way to the corporate headquarters to plead with the maker for more life. The maker tells him that it is impossible to make an in vivo genetic change to an organism without killing it. Now though this was true in 1981 it is no longer true today...we are on the verge of going far beyond he replicants of that film in ways that scare me. (For completion of the story of Roy, if you are not familiar with the film ...rent it as soon as possible...you'll see the end result of Roy's conversation with his maker.)

First, just after the human genome was sequenced it was believed that it would be extremely difficult to find out how to express the proteins and enzymes of the genetic code. The number of genes were first believed to be high but consensus put the number at around 100,000...when the genome was actually sequenced however the real number came out closer to 25,000.

25,000 genes and the song of you and me is sung.

This includes all the variation that exists between you , me and every human on Earth ....the problem should dawn on you now. How are those genes "played" differently per person? I find the musical analogy most apt. Though it is true that between human populations there are different genes, these differences are minor ...insignificant, making up fractions of a percent difference between all human lineages...far too few to account for why we are so different. Thus there must be some modulation mechanism that exists outside of the known genes that allows them to flower the diversity of forms that can result when they are expressed in the life of a human being. This modulation mechanism has only just recently been identified and exists in several areas of the cell. First, we now know that genetic expression can be modulated by other genes, so genes can constrain other genes expression of various enzymes and proteins but the greater question is how, the answer to this question was found in the recent discovery that the padding between genes...up until recently actually called "junk Dna" was serving quite a non junk role. This DNA is in fact the developmental modulation mechanism for the play back of genes to specific expression pathways that ensure the growth of a heart, or a lung or a kidney ...or that guide the development of breasts or a face in relation to a head. A third set of controls lies in the use of functional RNA's that perform specific gene activating and silencing functions within the nucleus of the cell but these are also triggered by either other genes or activity in "junk DNA" regions.

So now the puzzle is complete, we have the genes , we have the modulation mechanism(s) and we have an ability to observe expression in any cell type (iPSC)...every thing that follows will be book keeping. The next 20 years will be a race between competing teams of geneticists as they try to identify key developmental pathways about important genes to figure out precisely how to control modulation of those genes within specific cell types. In individuals that have genetic diseases owing to the fault of a gene or genes they will repair them in the person and cure them, for individuals that wish to have a new capability that they were not born with, it can be added...just as I write code to spec. living beings will be able to have their code tweaked, adapted, modified to suit a personal aim.

If the fear part of my concern hasn't dawned on you yet, consider this, once the price of sequencing and building organisms falls (and it is already 100 times cheaper than it was 10 years ago) the ability to tinker together new enzymes will be democratized. I learned the bulk of my programming at home and mostly from online sources. I did take several courses in formal programming as an undergrad but the bread and butter coding I do in java, xml, sql, xsl,javascript and html was learned outside of an academic environment.

Soon the resources for creating living things will be just as ubiquitous and any one with a desire to learn will be able to "write" new organisms in their basement labs. Imagine, just as 10 years ago rash teens were writing computer viruses and worms to infect computers and cause crashes...in another 15 to 20 years similarly rash teens will be able to write super pathogens that infect people in various frightening ways. The democratization of the power of computer code will be followed by the democratization of the power of the genetic code and unless humanity radically shifts its nature in this time we are as dead as the dodo. Imagine what Bin Laden would whip up if he had such technology at his disposal today?

This is why I feel it is critical that we use the technology to help move us away from the selfish and xenophobic past that made the horrors that we've visited upon one another in the past *less likely*. I am not so naive as to think we would ever eliminate all sociopathic tendency in time but our control of the genes holds the answer to that question as well. We will soon be able to determine those with sociopathic tendency to absolute clarity and rectify cures that will not require the permanent incarceration of the individuals. The question is which will come first?

A pathology free human family with all members fully cognizant of the sanctity of all life and with no desire to invent superbugs that kill unlike anything ever before possible?


Will we move so quickly into the future, before we've unfettered ourselves of the stone age ignorance of hard religious belief and ingrained xenophobia, that some one will create such a beast and in a short moment end life on Earth?

Now it is possible that my fear under estimates the importance of opposing forces, in a world where a super bug can kill you in 2 hours...that bug will be able to be isolated, analyzed and a counter to its effects created also in a short period of time but would that time be short enough to prevent the disruption of entire human societies?

Thus I see it as critically important to foster any effort to connect people to people, to mollify xenophobic tendencies based on ignorance with fact, to obliterate religious ignorance with reason and yet more fact. To help us connect with one another without the barrier of language (a critical problem in this time), far flung across the globe in the emotional ways that will make all humans more human to each of us. It's a small step that just may take us from the brink and the ability to attempt it is provided by internet, which shares the same mother(technology) as our potential doom...how ironic is that?









06 June, 2010

A Poem in the key of Erdos

I am a believer of the BOOK,

though there is no Supreme Fascist as it's author.

Before I should die, I would have several epsilons,

though now is not the time as I have no boss as other slaves do.

I do wish to be captured however, before those epsilons come

as is custom and in my view, only the right thing to do.

Having been captured I should not be liberated as my choice

of boss will be a careful one, as any proof should be.

I have no plans to ever leave as science quickly

unravels the mystery to that disease.

Despite this, I occasionally partake in poison in doses

sufficient to enjoy but prevent my leaving.

Though under the influence of poison I must admit to dying temporarily.

Often I listen to noise but never while my mind is open.

I enjoy the act of preaching though in engineering and art but yet mathematics, excluding instruction to my sisters little epsilons at which time I often take great joy in torturing them.

My brain is open!






01 June, 2010

Communication as a promoter of human empathy.

The following is excerpted from a comment to a friends Facebook wall post concerning humanities pending control over life itself. (Recent announcement of synthetic life being created) I advocate the view that if we do not learn to embrace the sanctity of all life and in particular human life before the costs of weilding this power come down we may end up destroying ourselves.

We have already seen the distal effects of empathy in averting what would otherwise have been great tragedy just by the hyper connected communication streams we share today. What would have happened in the former Yugoslavia if our communication technology were still morse code? Total extermination of Bosnian Muslim by Christian Serb, and the world wouldn't have known until far too late and then not really cared. "Those slavic people who are they ?"

What would have happened in Georgia when Russia decided it was going to invade and take over Abkhasia? More massacre, and we would not know about it for months or years after.

What would have happened in Rwanda, surely not the amicable peace that exists between Hutu and Tutsi today, total genocide in the vacuum of international deafness to the plight and inability to assert actions (even if late) to stem the blood shed.

What would have happened to Lebanon two years ago when Israel invaded, bombing an entire country supposedly in order to get Hezbollah militants pestering it with bottle rockets at its northern border? More total killing without any way for the international community to indicate it's view and thus modify the behavior.

We are now globally social animals and the same proclivities against bad behavior we have in small groups that object to actions we may wish to take against the group or an individual in the group we now have on a global scale.

Would Iran have simply tolerated the protests of the Green revolution last year had the eyes of the world in the form of cell phones and the mouths of the world in the form of tv and blogs on the internet were not ever listening ? Unable to be quieted down with propaganda? No.

Our communicative isolation in the past let astonishing atrocities like the Bolshevik revolution toll occur in relative silence as Lenin asserted his way, they similarly allowed Stalin and Mao to the the same. The same killing that was done across the centuries by the Egyptians, Greeks, the Romans, the Caliphates, the Vandals, the Franks, the Mongols ...now aided by modern killing machinery reached a new level of efficiency. Luckily ...Something different happened with the birth of the internet and more specifically the web 20 years ago...we went from communicating by major media outlets or government run versions of the same to a million broadcasting individual agents. A million cracks in the dam of potential propaganda and information restriction that otherwise would enable concentration of atrocity as occurred in the first half of the 20th century.

Today, because of our hyper communication all the worlds eyes are on all of us and we all know it and that modifies behavior in itself. Now take this to the next step and make language irrelevant...not only are we communicating without care for linguistic or cultural borders but we are free of the mental bias that would otherwise exist if we did know. The ignorance , probably for the first time in history is actually good for us...as we now engage others on terms of who they are and how they relate to us alone, not by what language they speak or where they are from. Yes, of course empathy will be more local between geographically proximal human beings when it comes to being *practiced* (but only marginally so in the sense that today if I feel pity for a man on the street I can directly interact with him by giving him money for food, similarly I can interact virtually with a homeless person in Guatemala by donating to a charity that does the same) but the *desire* to practice empathy on those far away is near parity with those that are local. Language stands as a barrier to you even knowing of a small child in a village in western China who could use a donation, it would stop you from communicating with that boy if he had an OLTP (free third world laptop) as he probably reads (if he does read) in Chinese character sets and not the Roman alphabet. If we flatten this last barrier, a major gap in how human we perceive others far away will be taken away as the masses will be free to communicate across geographical *and* language borders.