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I was totally fried and fighting off a cold yesterday so I decided to spend my digital sabbath on the couch watching Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica. I took a short break at lunch time to try to induce a diabetic coma while gorging on pancakes at Snooze (which necessitated me skipping dinner and going to bed at 7pm, which resulted in me being wide awake at 11pm, hence the blog post at 200am on Sunday morning.)
While mildly ironic that I would spend digital sabbath watching Battlestar Galactica, it was deeply awesome. I have no idea how I missed the re-imagining of the series in 2003. I vaguely remember seeing the original in junior high school around the time everyone was obsessed with Star Wars. But it didn’t make a deep impression on me and my brain tossed it in the storage bin of “other sci-fi stuff.”
Season 1 from 2003 was stunningly good. The mix of low-brow CGI, complex religious metaphors, classical government / military conflict, scary prescient singularity creatures (the evolved Cylons) who are masterful at manipulating the humans, and rich characters made this a joyful way to spend a day relaxing.
I’ve got Season 2 ahead of me but rather than binge watch it like I did today, I think I’ll space it out a little. And – no more five pancake lunches at Snooze. Egads.
I’m a big believer that the machines have already taken over. I recently gave a talk at the Defrag Conference titled “Resistance is Futile” where I made the point that we don’t know whether – in the future – we will be machine-enhanced humans or biologically-enhanced machines, but that it doesn’t matter. In either case, I’m optimistic about the future and think the machines will be our friends.
In today’s New York Times, Randall Stross has a great article titled Turn On the Server. It’s Cold Inside. In it he talks about a paper The Data Furnace: Heating Up with Cloud Computing. The abstract follows:
“In this paper, we argue that servers can be sent to homes and ofﬁce buildings and used as a primary heat source. We call this approach the Data Furnace or DF. Data Furances have three advantages over traditional data centers: 1) a smaller carbon footprint 2) reduced total cost of ownership per server 3) closer proximity to the users. From the home owner’s perspective, a DF is equivalent to a typical heating system: a metal cabinet is shipped to the home and added to the ductwork or hot water pipes. From a technical perspective, DFs create new opportunities for both lower cost and improved quality of service, if cloud computing applications can exploit the differences in the cost structure and resource proﬁle between Data Furances and conventional data centers.”
As data centers become a more significant part of our universe, I think this is a fantastic idea. In the Matrix, humans were used to power the machines. That’s a classical dystopian view of the machine / human relationship. How about turning it around and having the machines warm the humans.
Think about it. Would you be game to have a data center in your basement if heating for your house was free as a result?
After spending the last seven hours in front of my computer, a phrase came to mind that my brother Daniel recently said to me in response to reading The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Daniel said:
“What if we we are already working for the computers?”
While The Matrix and Horton Hears a Who! come immediately to mind, his comment was subtler than that. What if we turn the entire paradigm on its side? In our biological realm we “evolve”; in our computing realm we “innovate.” What if the computers are actually evolving and have figured out that the best way for them to evolve more quickly is to convince us to “innovate” for them.
I had to stop and scrunch my eyes together after typing that paragraph. The first draft I wrote was way weirder and more out there – basically a rant about how computers were having a conversation in a parallel universe that we don’t actually understand and, as part of this, had figured out how to manipulate human beings.
At Ted yesterday, my long time friend John Underkoffler, the co-founder of Oblong stated “Technology is capable of expressing generosity. And we need to demand that.”
While he meant something totally different, I think this is consistent with the parallel universe I’m pondering. As humans (at least most Americans), we regularly envision ourselves at the top of the pyramid of existence, unless you are not an atheist, in which case god factors in somewhere on your hierarchy. But – let’s leave god (or the lack of god) out and think about “humans as a species” vs. “computers as a species”. I started with constructs like collective consciousness and communication hierarchy and was able to quickly come up with a straightforward analogy for each one between the human species and the computer species.
And yet, I still type. All in the name of sharing and contributing my thoughts via this very interesting mechanism. I’m going to run for three hours this afternoon. I’ll have my Garmin 305 on my wrist (with its GPS) and my iPhone in my pack (listening to the end of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ll be contributing a lot of data to both devices, which will then record them and upload them to “the computer”. The amount of data I’m generating is enormous; I’m not quite sure what the computers are using all of this data for, but what if it was actually something specific?
Before you discard these thoughts as the ravings of a lunatic, just think about them for a minute. This is a common construct in so much contemporary science fiction. Maybe the “collective compute infrastructure” of the world has already passed us by and now have us working for them / it. Wouldn’t that be something to discover 100 years from now.
Well – what’s old is new again. Dave Jilk – my first business partner and CTO of Standing Cloud – sent me this magnificent video on 1963 Timesharing: A Solution to Computer Bottlenecks where MIT Professor Fernando Corbato explains how timesharing works to MIT Science Reporter John Fitch (who has one of those magnificent deep reporter voices).
Since history can be so incredibly instructive to reflect on when you think about the future of science. If you draw a curve of “computer technology progress” from 1963 to 2010 after you watch this and then ponder the progress from 2010 to 2057 you will have a very interesting few moments of reflection.
The following quotes are approximate but they will give you enough sound bites to motivate you to watch it!
“Computers used to be unreliable – they managed to lick all of those problems” (2:00)
“The man machine interaction is very poor” (3:00)
“The computers are very expensive – they cost between 300 and 600 / hour” (3:30) – (BAF: Kind of like a lawyer today)
“It’s a little noisy out here (in the data center) – let’s go in my office so I can show you how it works from a remote terminal” (4:30)
“It looks like a typewriter” (5:00)
The moments of drawing on a blackboard to explain how a computer works (starting around 6:00) is priceless.
“Eventually we’d like to see graphical display but there are technical problems right now” (9:30)
“Wooo the chalk is a little soft” (12:30)
“The disk memories have been available for a year or so but most people haven’t figured out how to use them yet because they haven’t figured out how to keep things from getting mixed up” (16:30)
“I’m moderately familiar with the keyboard – we have to study how humans interact with the machines” (19:00)
Watching the interactive demo at about 20:00 is just wild.
“In the long run we will have increasing needs for computer time by a large amount” (25:00)
Singularity anyone? Or not so much?
Last night I had a long ranging conversation with Amy and a pair of close friends about the singularity and the future of human and machine. The conversation centered around the notion of consciousness and what happens if (or – in my opinion – when) non-biological entities have more reasoning and processing power than biological entities, especially if this is combined with the notion of consciousness. We didn’t reach any conclusions, but we made an hour disappear really quickly.
I woke up to a fun blog post from one of my favorite biological entities (Fred Wilson) listing his Top Records of the Decade. I brought up one of my favorite non-biological entities (Pandora) and created a new channel called “Fred Wilson 2000 Decade” that consisted of the artists behind these records (I find it intriguing that Fred calls them “records” instead of “albums” or “CDs” or “disks” – it definitely dates him.) I then tweeted the Fred Wilson 2000 Decade Pandora Station and shared it with him via email. Here’s the response I got from the non-biological entity masquerading as Fred.
From: Fred Wilson
Sent: Monday, December 28, 2009 8:36 AM
To: Brad Feld
Subject: Re: Brad Feld thought you would be interested in this station
Dear Pandora Visitor,
We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.
We believe that you are in Argentina (your IP address appears to be 126.96.36.199). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at email@example.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.
We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.
We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.
I know Fred is on vacation in Buenos Aires with his family. I even know that they got hosed last night at La Cabrera. Suddenly I was thinking about the mix of human and machine here – Pandora (machine), Geolocation (machine), my knowledge of their vacation (human), their dinner experience (human), the description of their dinner experience (written by a human, coded and transmitted by machine), and Fred’s Records of the Decade List (human, but coded by machine – the post and the music). The level of interaction of human and machine is high, although the level of sophistication is pretty low.
In an effort to be subversive, I forwarded the email to Fred with a note that said “Wild how the music licensing stuff is stupid.” He responded immediately with “Yup. Rights holders fuck everything up.” I wonder what the machines think of that?