Category: Musings

Alternate Futures

Humanity’s Endgame

On Crossing the Event Horizon

Having crossed the event horizon of the technological singularity we’re beginning to see many social and technological effects of this convergence – some predictable, some not. Increasingly, we see stories of robotics and artificial intelligence as the former becomes more generally practical and the latter increasingly exceeds humans in endeavours from war games to art and writing to biomedical research. If the Turing test hasn’t been passed yet, it’s only a very short amount of time until that fateful day. These examples are on the predictable, or, ‘I told you so’ front. Less predictable have been the social changes that have come with the 2nd and 3rd level combination of technology. Of course, I’m referring primarily to the Internet, social media, and pocket-sized computing devices of great power and utility.

The Technological Singularity – a period in human history when technological development is so rapid that the developments arising from it alter society in ways we cannot predict beforehand.

While few will dare suggest which technological advancements will remake our world next (cheap space-based internet, neural-link interfaces, driverless cars, AI, quantum computing, moon bases…), fewer still would argue against us being in the midst of species-changing events. This has also meant no shortage of doomsayers. These days, pick any topic from climate change to gender identity to the political far left or far right and you’ll find someone who will suggest it will bring about the end of the world. With this global pessimism, it’s not a large stretch to begin contemplating the actual paths of humanity’s endgame. After all, even the dinosaurs, who existed for several hundred million years, all but disappeared – and they didn’t have nukes or other world/species-altering tech.

Note: While it’s true some species that existed at the time of the dinosaurs – such as crocodiles, turtles, and sharks, still exist, and birds are now known to have evolved from certain species of dinosaurs, the vast majority of the dinosaur species are now extinct. In the case of birds, it can also reasonably be argued that their ancestors are extinct as the forces of evolution have turned birds into a genetically distinct species.

The 3 possible futures of humanity: Extinction

One certainty of the universe is death. Plants die, animals die, people die, civilizations die, species die, planets die, stars and solar systems die, galaxies die, and even universes might die (the jury is still out on that one). Everything dies (sorry for the downer). But on an up note, it’s all part of a cyclical process of renewal. Without the death of the parts, the whole cannot be renewed and the entire natural system would fail. So, the human species is doomed to die also. The only questions are ‘how?’ and ‘what legacy will we leave?’

In nature, there is only ever one endpoint for life and that is death. However, there are two fundamentally different legacies to that death and, as the only self-aware, technological species we know of, we are unique in being at the stage of development where we can choose our legacy.

Legacy 1: Progenitor

Humans have gone boldly and bodily into space and have stepped foot on another celestial body, albeit very briefly in regards to the long span of time (we’ve used automated vehicles for most of the other visitations). Finally, after forty-five years, it does seem that corporate (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and others), political (the China / India space race is pushing the US), and social interests (Planetary Society, British Interplanetary Society) are again moving us toward a presence in space on extraterrestrial worlds. In my personal opinion, there are many reasons why this is crucially important and I’ll detail some in future posts. However, what’s important for the sake of this discussion is the long-term consequences.

By leaving our planetary nest and taking our first steps into the greater universe we take the first steps toward our own maturation as a species. Just as a child will leave the home, find a partner, and produce offspring, so too will the version of humanity that leaves Earth. While the humans of Earth are the parents, the various colonies will be as our offspring until they too mature, which will be increasingly easy after the first effort of the Terrans. So why does this lead to extinction?

Earth is a very hospitable environment. Space and other worlds are not. Even the few that might be will have different environmental conditions to Earth. Regardless of how similar they seem while viewing them from here at the very least, their biosphere will be strikingly different (if it isn’t, that will begin an entirely new existential crisis in humanity and especially the sciences). What this means is that a new strand of human evolution will begin from the first generation born on that colony. On every colony.

Given the distances of space and the time it takes to move between colonies, interstellar isolation would mean those new strands of evolution would diverge from the parental strand (humans) until they are no longer genetically close enough to breed productively. As humans, as we currently define them, become a smaller and smaller proportion of the galactic population, they may eventually give way entirely to the newer species or, at the very least, be effectively consigned to their Earthly domain.

Legacy 2: Dead End

Simply put, humanity, for any number of reasons, may either choose not to leave the planet or may wait too long to leave the planet and have the decision removed from us. If this happens, our species will either stagnate before ‘giving up’ and dying (something that appears to be a natural in-built mechanism of renewal and possibly overcrowding as suggested by the Mouse Utopia Experiment) or we will turn on ourselves, imploding in an orgy of horror and destruction. My bet is actually on the first one since there is already some evidence we are headed that way and that, even if it doesn’t lead to our physical extinction, remaining forever locked to the planet will lead to a kind of psychological extinction.

Legacy 3: Vastly Increased Human Diversity

The final possibility, lying between the other two extremes but still extreme in itself, is that humanity incorporates the divergent evolutionary strands from different colonies into itself to evolve, with uniform possibility, into something more than we are now.

This would seem to be the least likely possibility at the moment, given our current understanding of the universe. It would require the development of propulsion techniques that could shorten the immense travel time between stars from generations to days or weeks allowing humanity could travel between worlds and interbreed before interstellar isolationism resulted in new species.

Given that our galaxy is 100,000 light-years across our current most optimistic estimate of being able to travel at 10% the speed of light would still mean it would require one million years to cross our galaxy. Even travelling to the nearest star would require forty years or at least one generation (and the birth of humans on generation ships brings entirely new issues, discussed fictionally by Kim Stanely Robinson in his book Aurora).

So, with our current understanding of the universe, the chance that humanity could naturally evolve, incorporating all the disparate new evolutionary colonial strands within one genetically-consistent framework is incredibly unlikely (even if it would be great). Of course, increases in biomedical and genetic knowledge may allow technology to take over where natural evolution falls short, so this still may be a viable hope.

Conclusion

As with an individual’s life, so too the life of a species by which I mean, it’s not the duration of the life that matters as much as the quality and the legacy left behind. The odds are that humanity will go extinct eventually and probably much faster than the dinosaurs did (to be fair, the term ‘dinosaurs’ encompasses and wide range of species, and ‘human’ just one). What is most important will be the legacy we leave behind.

We are the first species we know of that actually has the possibility of consciously spreading our descendants to the far reaches of the galaxy. It would be an amazing legacy to leave the universe that spawned us. Or, we could let our fear and self-loathing confine us to the Earth where we will eventually die out, forgotten by all as another failed experiment. The choice is ours.

Fact

7 Areas that Could See Massive Benefits from Artificial…

There’s a lot of discussion regarding the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the consequences for human society. Such concerns hit the media in waves, generally around some new success by AI in the latest human competition. I’ve covered a few of these recently, including games, biochemical research, and writing. Most of the discussion centres around the negative implications because, let’s face it, humans don’t like change, as a general rule. Change means uncertainty, and uncertainty means things could get worse.

But what about the chance that AI makes the world better?

Here are seven areas where AI could greatly aid humans.

1. Personal Assistant

The artificial home personal assistant is already a huge growth area as devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and the many competitors surge into the marketplace to be devoured by consumers. It seems we’ve finally found the market for voice-activated devices. However, as amazing as these devices are, they are still very primitive in regards to their potential.

The AI Jarvis, from Marvel’s Age of Ultron.

Advanced artificial intelligence could soon be incorporated in personal assistants in such a way as to make them very much like Jarvis from the Iron Man movies. Not only would they be able to store and retrieve the information we want, but they would learn the nuances of our individual speech patterns, and our daily schedules, to anticipate our needs. Everything from better understanding our accents to reminders to buy groceries and prepare for meetings. Eventually, they could be good enough to prepare presentations and documents based on our person style from a few seeded keywords.

If this sounds creepy, consider that the wealthy and powerful already have human versions of just this type of assistant. The only difference now would be that everyone could have one.

2. Personal Educator

I’ve been saying for almost a decade now that universities are on the losing side of history. Not only are many departments (and entire universities) failing in the mandate to properly educate their students, but they’re actually introducing and even enforcing socially harmful, and factually incorrect, ideologies. Add to this the rise of online education and it seems reasonable to expect that the university as we know it, with the possible exception of STEM fields, is already obsolete as a place of education (research remains another matter). Filling this void in higher education to an increasing degree are online courses.

Currently, online classes are created by one of three types of people. Either professors from prestigious universities who have put their class online, entrepreneurs who cover niche topics in enough detail for their students to become proficient enough they can also make money in that area, or online child education for home-schooled children or those needing/wanting extra tutelage.

But all of these area require the individual to discover the course, assess the best one, and then sit through all the material to get the bits relevant to them. In addition, it requires the courses be created, often at significant expense. But imagine what an AI tutor could do!

Using a regular series of assessments that could range from tests to simple questionnaires, a personal AI tutor could identify the areas a student is weak in, or an individual wishes to learn about and, determining their level of competence, an AI could pull together relevant information from the net and compile it into a training course personalized to that individual.

My thoughts are that, maybe twenty to thirty years in the future, AI will be the dominant teaching method in advanced countries. Teaching by humans will then fall into two categories: research and management of social development. If the majority of families still have both parents working by that time, schools will be sites that have a combination of self-directed AI learning centres combined with team-building and social development activities moderated by human instructors.

3. Financial Management

Ask people in the West what their greatest fear is and, after climate change, they will most likely say financial collapse. Our well-being relies on the smooth functioning of a complex global financial system that not only appears fundamentally unstable but seems ripe with manipulation leading to regular periods of boom and bust (approximately every 18 years). So it’s no surprise that the majority of the public don’t have a lot of confidence in the continued functioning of such a system.

But what if there is a better way? What if there is a technology that could actually determine and act on all the variables to create a stable financial system? Ignoring the fact that there would be significant resistance to this from the financial sector itself, artificial intelligence would seem to be the perfect solution. Ideally designed to determine patterns and connections between immensely complex data sets, it would seem that, once properly trained, an AI would be the ideal tool for such an endeavour. Furthermore, it should have the added bonuses of being immune to human manipulation while being able to respond to potentially disastrous trends or changes very quickly.

4. Disease Management

Disease management is one area of scientific research that almost no one will worry about an invasion of AI in. The potential benefits to human health and welfare are so great that most objections are quickly swept away and with good reason. Computers have been incredibly important aids in everything from drug development to data analysis and patient management for decades now. However the standard ways of using computers are not meeting the needs of the next level of advancements we need to make in understanding complex diseases and disorders.

Disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons, even cancer, can be managed to some small degree with modern treatments. However, the complexity of these, and many other disorders, which can result from the failure in any of dozens of biochemical pathways and often in the interaction between those pathways, necessitates a level of analysis that is difficult if not impossible for the human mind to manage. A modern, heuristic AI, however, is designed to be able to make sense out of such complexity. So, once the technology matures, we could be seeing huge advances in medical sciences due to AI, potentially even leading to an extension of the human life-span.

Interestingly, just recently, DeepMind has announced being close to releasing, commercially, a device using their software that can diagnose eye-related illnesses, from a 30 second scan, to a degree of accuracy rivaling the top specialists in the world.

5. Climate Change

Much like the complexity of the human body, concern over climate change is an example of humans trying to make sense of an incredibly complex system with only limited awareness of its full scale. We have numerous models being created and updated each year, which is evidence of just how little we actually know — if we understood the climate we wouldn’t have a need for more models!

Once again, if trained properly (no small challenge given the limited data), the complexity of climate is just the type of challenge that an AI could excel at understanding. Of course, an even bigger challenge would be to convince humans to act, or not, on the results (especially if the results go against the prevailing ideology).

One potential positive secondary consequence of using AI to study climate change could be in regards to developing models and technologies for the eventual terraforming of planets we are looking to colonize.

6. Government Management

I’m certain I’m not alone in my poor view of political options both in my own country and around the world. Perhaps it’s just tunnel vision and the world has always been this way, or perhaps it’s the end of an era, but these days regardless of where one looks, there seems to be no good options for national leaders. Perhaps this is a sign we’ve let the wrong people dominate power for so long, or maybe it’s a sign of the increasing complexity of the world. When I think of the type of lifestyle, and the vast number of decisions and considerations a national leader encounters in a given day I’m amazed anyone would want the job – let alone that anyone might be remotely capable of actually doing it.

Scene from the game Civilization 6

This, then, seems to me another field ripe for experimentation with AI, and I’m not alone on this thought. Numerous groups have sprung up over the last few decades that have AI at the centre of their social restructuring policies. Furthermore, given the DeepMind AI training strategy, which is to begin with human input, and then train the AI against each other in numerous rapid simulations, I could even see an AI United Nations existing. If Google ever encounters this article, I’d like to put forth a request. I’d love to see such an AI united nations publicized as a reality show using a system like the game Civilization as a backdrop to their decisions.

7. Interplanetary Exploration

Advanced Engineering is a field that stands to gain tremendously from the application of artificial intelligence. Everything from driverless cars and hypersonic aircraft design to the guidance of nanite construction swarms and fully functioning robots can see the benefits of an infusion of AI. One area I’m particularly excited to see AI applied to is in the development and construction of advanced propulsion systems and ship structures for interplanetary travel.

Artistic representation of Interplanetary Superhighways as calculated by NASA scientist

The complexity of physics on both large and small scales, and the application of principles marrying the phenomenon to real-world space travel would seem to be an excellent direction to turn AI lose on and the potential benefits could literally determine the future of our species.

Conclusions

There are a great many fields that artificial intelligence could by applied to for the benefit of humanity. An interesting idea to ponder is whether any of these applications are already being attempted behind closed doors. After all, our governments hardly tell us everything and, even more importantly, we’re not the only ones in the game.

Next –> AI: What If It’s Not Ours?

Fiction

How Captain Marvel could have been the MCU’s Wonder…

To begin with I’d like to state that this critique will not involve any discussion of any of the controversy surrounding the Captain Marvel movie or Brie Larson. I intend this to be solely an exploration of how the rather lackluster movie could have been so much stronger. Frustratingly, I believe this could have been easily achieved by changing the emotional arc of the story while maintaining most of the scenes that already exist.

The Challenge

Captain Marvel has had a troubled history for much of the last twenty years. In the comics, the character has been rebooted anywhere from 7-12 times (depending on who does the counting). Yet Marvel Comics continues to try and find a way to make this character work. The probable reason is not surprising – a strong female superhero that shares the company name is a highly desirable marketing tool. Still, the comic division of the company appears to have failed repeatedly in their attempt to ingratiate this character with the hardcore fans.

Enter Captain Marvel, the MCU version. Yet another attempt to ‘get this character right’. Wtihout going into details of the internet battles fought around this character and the movie, certain promotional choices made by Disney/Marvel suggested they never truly had confidence in this version of the character either.

They didn’t let the movie evolve organically from the characters and it shows.

After seeing the movie, I believe they were right to be concerned — at least with this entry into the MCU franchise. My take on the movie is that it probably could have been at or near the top 5 MCU movies, instead of languishing around 14th place, if the directors/producers would have realized what movie they were actually making and play to its strengths instead of attempting to force the movie into the story they thought they wanted to make. That is, they didn’t let the movie evolve organically from the characters and it shows.

Let me explain.

How to Improve The Movie

Needless to say, if you haven’t seen Captain Marvel yet…

***** SPOILER ALERT ********

Yes, really. A lot of spoilers.

But that should be obvious.

Are you sure you’re ready?

Okay then, on with the discussion.

***** SPOILERS BELOW ********

The Wrong Emotional Arc

The biggest problem with the Captain Marvel movie is that the directors/producers attempted to force the story around the wrong emotional arc. That led to too little time develop the necessary emotional aspects of the story they wanted to tell, and too much time developing the emotional aspects of the story they weren’t telling. But a bit more on the movie to help you understand what I mean.

A Brief Summary of the Movie

Captain Marvel begins on the Kree homeworld of Hala with a nightmare/flashback that ‘Veers’ doesn’t understand. to get over it, she wakes her senior officer for a sparing match where he warns her against losing emotions and that she won’t achieve her true potential until she can defeat him without her powers (yes, we see her already with powers from the start).

To make things brief, they go on a mission that is an ambush by the hated Skrulls and she is captured. As they probe her mind we begin to learn about her past on Earth, including short clips of all the times people doubted her abilities, completely devoid of emotion. She escapes, single-handedly battling through the entire ship of Skrulls (it would have been useful if they had the device that stunned her originally) and escapes, plunging to Earth where she crashlands, without a ship, in a Blockbuster store, completely fine and barely even stunned.

She meets Nick Fury and Agent Colson, and chases some Skrulls, before discovering more of her history including a scientist she used to know and the identity of her former best friend (before her amnesia). And a cat. Chased by more Skrulls, they blast off in an experimental ship and land at her old friend’s house to a heartfelt welcome and a heart-to-heart with the head Skrull. He helps reveal her true past and the betrayal of the Kree. They then discover the hidden laboratory they’re looking for is in space, they modify their ship and blast off to find… the tesseract and a ship full of Skrull refugees. Turns out Skrulls aren’t the scourge of the galaxy but relatively innocent victims of the Kree who are looking for a new homeland.

Battles ensue, Captain Marvel is captured by frees herself from the influence of the Kree superior mind after finally realizing the Kree didn’t create her, they’re inhibiting her. She can now fly, is invulnerable and doesn’t require a space suit in space, essentially becoming Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk all combined. She chases off the Kree ships and everyone is happy. Then she flies off to stop the Kree/Skrull war… cue credits.

Despite all the action and all the potential, this movie falls flat. We don’t really care about any of the characters except maybe the Skrull refugees and there’s nothing to interest us in much of the rest of the story, as cool as it sounds on paper. As a writer, I’m very interested in why this movie fell flat and, of course, I think I know or I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Dont’ Fear the Haters

The emotional arc that Disney/Marvel went for in Captain Marvel was essentially ‘don’t listen to the haters’. We eventually learn, through flashbacks, that Carol Danvers has multiple experiences where her abilities are doubted, including as a kid, during military training, and even with the Kree she is constantly doubted by her squad commander. However, not only are these shown through rapid flashbacks, but we rarely see them having any emotional effect on the character, so likewise, we’re emotionally unaffected. Once Carol Danvers learns to grow past those who have held her back (physically represented by an actual inhibitor implanted in her neck) her full power is unleashed and she becomes unstoppable.

If this was truly the character arc the writers/producers wanted to develop, they needed to show us in much greater detail how Carol was affected by the doubters. We needed to see more than just brief flashbacks of those scenes, we needed to actually be there with her for at least one, but preferably several, in some detail. In fact, I would suggest we needed to follow her through some scenes as she grows up and even through basic training.

Instead, the flashbacks all feel quite rushed and we eventually understand what has happened without truly empathizing with her, leaving us to develop no emotional attachment with her.

The Power of Friendship and the Sting of Betrayal

In truth, instead of developing Carol’s ‘insecurity’ arc, the movie spends most of its time – apparently without realizing it – developing a ‘friendship/betrayal’ arc for Carol. We spend a lot of time with Rambeau and her daughter, Carol develops a strong relationship with Fury, she was good friends with Mar-Vel the Kree scientist, and even has very strong camaraderie, laced with a hint of one-sided romantic overtones, with Yon-Rogg her Kree commanding officer and ultimate betrayer, where we also spend much of the early movie. She’s even able to make friends with the Skrull, overcoming her Kree-programmed hatred of them.

The current story structure of the movie leaves us with too little time seeing the impact of the ‘haters’ to empathize with Carol, and too much time developing friendships for us to feel she’s been wronged by the haters. The time spent on each doesn’t appear to match what seems to be the intended emotional arc, leading me to believe that Disney/Marvel didn’t realize which movie they were making and perhaps, which they should have been making.

Rambeau and Danvers walking to their planes.

Instead, if Disney/Marvel would have developed the ‘importance of friendships/avenging a betrayal’ arc, the scenes would have fit much better, albeit in a different order.

I suggest the story should have gone something like this:

We begin with Carol Danvers and Rambeau as friends and pilots who get involved with the strange, secretive plot of their scientist-friend Lawson (Mar-Vel). Before the spaceship chase scene, we develop the friendships fully and hint at a mystery surrounding what Mar-Vel is working on. Things go bad and Mar-Vel needs a way out, Carol offers to fly her out of there and they’re attacked and brought down. Mar-Vel is killed and Carol goes unconscious as the power-source they were carrying explodes. She only sees the attackers identity through a haze.

Next, we fast forward through a montage of ‘rebuilding’ and training years to the the point we start with in the current movie. Carol is beginning to remember things, but the Kree appear unable to explain what she remembers although we get hints they want to keep something from her.

At this point we can follow forward with the story arc of the movie almost entirely as is. Now that we’ve developed the proper emotional arc we will see and feel the horror of the truth that the Kree betrayed her and used her, stealing her away from her home planet and her friends. We will also be continually curious about how she will regain her memories and what her reaction will be. We also meet her without powers and see her character before she becomes the superhero. And the short flashbacks will be useful in the emotional arc, rather than just being there for a bit of the story. In this way, the movie would have much greater emotional depth.

Frustratingly, this is such a small change to the story arc but, I believe, would have resulted in an immensely better movie with a deeper emotional arc.

An Incomplete Heroes Journey

The changes above would have made it much more apparent why this second change would be necessary. A smaller but equally important thing the movie gets wrong is forgetting to finish the heroes journey.

One very specific mistake the movie makes is near the end. Carol confronts Yon-Rogg, her Kree mentor who has constantly taunted her that she won’t truly be ready to lead until she can beat him without using her powers. It’s obvious that his taunt is in large part because he knows he can’t beat her now that she fully come into her powers and her response is to blast him mid-sentence with her pulse beams claiming that she doesn’t need to prove anything to him. I’m not sure whether this was meant to be a ‘girl power’ moment, a ‘stop mansplaining’ moment, or a hat-tip to Indiana Jones, but it fails for one big reason. The showdown with Yon-Rogg is the natural conclusion to her heroic arc. He is the person that gained her trust, lied to her, betrayed her, and then tried to kill her. She’s right that she doesn’t have anything to prove to him, but as a hero she should have a need to prove it to herself. She has to demonstrate to herself that she’s more than just fancy lights from her hands.

When push comes to shove, a hero is not the sum of the powers but the strength of their heart. If their powers are removed they still remain a hero. That’s what we see in Iron Man 1, that’s what we see in Thor 1, that’s what Steve Rogers demonstrates before becoming Captain America, that’s what T’Challa demonstrates in the challenge of Black Panther. Even Dr. Strange has to learn that before he truly comes into his powers (when he’s between the power of his doctor skills and the mystical powers he gains). But Carol Danvers doesn’t. And if the proper emotional arc had been developed in the movie, this would have been self-evident.

In the current form of the movie, we experience almost no heroic qualities from Carol Danvers prior to receiving her powers (except a fairly short flashback with all emotion drained from it) and the only larger-than-life deeds we see her accomplish are with her powers. And she only gets stronger and more invincible as the movie goes on. So we never see her truly challenged. The one chance for this important part of the heroic journey to be fulfilled was in the face-off with Yon-Rogg. A scene that utterly fails to fulfil its purpose.

In Summary

Captain Marvel is an action-filled bore-fest that didn’t need to be that way. The lack of empathy and engagement from the audience comes from the producers failing to develop the proper emotional arc. Frustratingly, this didn’t have to be the case. All the elements were there for a strong story. For whatever reason, the producers just decided to make a different, less engaging story.

Fact

Artificial Intelligence: Fake News is about to get real…

With the coming technological advances and the dearth of investigative journalists in the modern world, fake news is about to explode.

The Issue

Among his many other projects, uber-wealth entrepreneur Elon Musk sponsors OpenAI, a group with the goals of guiding the development of artificial intelligence so that it is ‘nice’ and representative of peoples and positive ideas from around the world. Certainly, this is a laudable goal for the near future, for that period of technological development where artificial intelligence means advanced heuristic systems that can pass the Turing Test but are still just software we can turn on and off. In other words, that period of technological development that we seem to have entered sometime in the last year.

Some of the recent advances in AI (detailed in other posts) included aiding or replacing human health care workers in hospitals, defeating humans at games where incomplete information is a feature (Deepmind vs Starcraft II Pros) and much greater success than human-generated algorithms in regards to the protein folding problem… and now, a highly trained AI author that can mimic genres and styles and even respond to rudimentary questions.

Journalist Activists

Over the last five-to-eight years the Western world has seen a strong and notable shift in the focus of journalists. No longer is the goal of journalism impartial and investigative. No longer do modern journalists feel their job is to get as close to the truth as possible. Instead, most modern journalists seem to feel they already know the truth and instead have taken it upon themselves to share their interpretation of any given story with their audience in an attempt to convince us they are right.

We can argue the why’s of how this shift has happened but what is difficult to argue is how it has changed the news landscape providing the viewing and reading public with a surge in what is now termed fake news. What once was the domain of government propaganda and tabloid rags is now proudly splayed across even what used to be the most respected news franchises.

Modern mainstream journalists are no longer journalists in anything but job title. They’re now primarily activists.

Artificial Intelligence Journalism

Into this landscape, where the truth is already relative and amorphous, enters a project by OpenAI – an artificial intelligence writer. A bot so convincing in its ability to write that it’s virtually impossible to tell it apart from a human.

Open AI has trained an artificial intelligence they call GPT-2 on a huge dataset of writing. The result is yet another AI that we can be afraid of (coming after the Microsoft – Twitter debacle that created a hate-bot, and the Google AIs that developed their own language). GTP2 can write so convincingly in different genres that the creators have decided not to release the code for fear of malicious use. Specifically, they fear its use in the generation of Fake News.

While they should be commended for their sense of social responsibility, OpenAI researchers must realize that their actions are only delaying the inevitable. Currently, most of the visible AI research and milestones are coming from Western organizations. However, we would be naive to think that other nations don’t have their own projects. Russia and China come to mind as two countries who would have the resources to fund such projects and would be happy to use the results to destabilize the fragile West.

Furthermore, the recent results of the investigation into Russian collusion in the US election that revealed no actual collusion with the victor but suggested interference – likely on both sides in an attempt to destabilize the nation – should have revealed to all of us that there are other nations actively working toward the demise of the West.

Given these facts it’s difficult to argue that some malicious power (or even an individual with a basement full of hardware) won’t soon reproduce the OpenAI success. When that happens, we will find a huge proliferation of AI writing bots as the software floods the internet. And then the entire landscape of news, among other things, will change. When this happens it will be more important than ever that each person has done their research and has gathered a network of respectable investigative journalists they feel they can trust to do the research and report honestly on stories. Because the others, the lazy journalists and the activists, are going to do nothing more than muddy the waters ever further in their race for fame and notoriety.

The power and scope of modern heuristic algorithms (AI) is a socio-political game-changer of a magnitude equivalent to fire, the wheel, gunfire, the printing press, and nukes – combined. In a small world filled with the deafening cacophony of every voice on the planet, AI will drown them all out and will change everything we think we know within a matter of decades. And that’s without gaining self-awareness. Never before has human adaptiveness been so tested. The coming years will truly be ‘interesting times’ as Terry Prachet might have described them.

Fact

Artificial Intelligence: boon or bane?

This is the first in a series of posts that discuss the developments, prospects, hopes and fears of Artificial Intelligence in human societies. This is a field of computer science that has been making noticeable strides in recent months and it is therefore important that our societies have a serious and informed conversation about this. So, without further ado, part 1 of my series on AI.


A Recent Development

In the wake of the DeepMind (Alphastar) defeat of professional Starcraft II players the world once again turned its short attention briefly to the discussion of artificial intelligence. Most journalists and news sources aren’t terribly concerned with the event, considering it to be just another sign-post in our technological history. However, others realize that it should be an event that spawns more serious conversation.

The Deepmind project, owned by the parent company of Google, is attempting to develop artificial intelligence agents that can self-learn any game given an initial human example (and life is essentially a game in this context). Known for defeating world champions in Chess and Go, the Deepmind team recently turned its attention to the e-sport Starcraft II. Not only to test its decision making speed, but also to see how well it could understand unit management on a very dynamic field and most importantly, to test whether the AI could learn how to manage decision-making with incomplete information (Starcraft II’s Fog of War).

The initial 10-0 defeat of the human players highlighted its strengths and also an oversight in the training that gave the AI an advantage. However, even when retrained to only use the main camera to make its moves (as humans are limited to) it still performed at a professional level, although it lost 1-0. This second example is all the more important when considering that the agent was trained from novice to professional in only one week.

But surely this is just a gimmick, harmful fun by computer nerds, isn’t it?

One thing that such AI experiments regularly highlight is the unpredictable conclusions that AIs can arrive at when left to train themselves.

It might be just a cool gimmick but for a few important details that highlight a future closer than we might think — or wish for.

Several important points in this latest Deepmind experiment are:

  • after watching the initial set of human games (of all skill levels), the AI was then entirely self-trained, learning only by playing other AI agents in an ‘Alphastar’ league
  • such agents can be trained up a very short time (a week or two is sufficient and corresponds to decades, if not centuries, of human training).
  • while the agents require some serious hardware to be trained on, once developed they can run on a standard laptop
  • while there were some weaknesses in gameplay, the Alphastar agents developed and successfully utilized strategies that humans either hadn’t thought of or had collectively abandoned as sub-optimal.
  • there are organizations in the world that desire, or require (e.g.for their social order to function), such AIs to run, or ruin, countries.
Myths of AI, from the Future of Life Institute.

One thing that such AI experiments regularly highlight is the unpredictable conclusions that AIs can arrive at when left to train themselves. Indeed, when extrapolating this to the running of a society, this unpredictability could lead to greater optimization or it could lead to what the the Future of Life Institute might consider as AIs having ‘misaligned goals’.

That is, when humans consider running societies, we have goals. Some of them are explicit, some of them are implicit, and some of them have to be fought over by the majority in order to have our voices heard. However, while AIs may be more efficient in managing and distributing resources, an AI leader may set up a social structure that misaligns implicit and explicit human goals (more in a moment).

Arnold Swarzenegger as an AI assassin in the Terminator series.

After all, we ourselves are still bumbling through the creation of our social structures, trying to determine what is truly important for our survival and well-being. For example, it’s quite clear that the simplistic view of aiming to maximizing human happiness (a goal of the early Humanist movement) is flawed and would end up likely resulting in a society that collapsed in strife and humans sought to ‘fix’ ever smaller imperfections. So any explicit goals for an AI manager would have to be very carefully chosen.

Insane AI Ultron from the Avengers series.

Hollywood loves to use the obvious example of having an AI created to protect us and then having it decide that we are our own worst enemies. Or that protection means never allowing us to evolve or leave the planet. Let’s look at the considerations of an equally important social discussion underway in Western societies right now.

Vision, benevolent robotic AI in the Avengers series.

Safety and Equity vs. Exploration and Freedom

We are currently embroiled in a *sometimes violent* social debate on multiple fronts that effectively boils down to the right of the individual to be completely safe vs the right to have freedom to take risks and make mistakes. This is a crucial debate because risk-taking can lead not only to great harm and even death, but also great boons for humanity. Without the risk-taking of our ancestors we would not have any of the wonders we have now and it’s unlikely we would even have left our African crib. Furthermore, a safe society, while feeling more humane, is less robust because it loses the ability to adapt to hardships and change as its members expect all their needs to be met by someone else.

Let’s say we decide that humans are unable to come to an agreement on this and we turn it over to an AI for management. What considerations might it make?

Depending on who programmed it it could favour equity and safety over risk-taking and personal freedom. This could be expected to result in short-term survival and even prosperity but long-term stagnation (survival but no growth either personal or social). While our species might survive a long time, they would do so as little more than automatons themselves.

Conversely, too much emphasis on freedom in a hi-tech age could lead to the use by individuals of technologies that might destroy our entire species. Some middle ground is required but, of course, the devil is in the details.

It could be that an AI comes up with an original and wonderful solution to this conundrum. Or it could be that its explicit goals are misaligned with our implicit ones and it comes up with a truly horrendous solution.

For example, let’s say we give an AI like Deepmind past human societies from around the world and across history to base its models on and we give it no human bias regarding the success of those societies so that it can create its own criteria. And let’s say it discovers some patterns of bevaviour or social structures that it equates with social degradation and some with social success. Then it structures our society based on those models. Now, it could be that we agree on the new ideas the AI discovers and love the new society. Or it could be that the AI decides the best society is one of a benevolent dictatorship where a certain segment of the population is given second class citizenship (e.g. from some perspectives a valid line of reason could be made for this to target any of: men, women, certain – or all – religions). It could even be that this latter conclusion is demonstrably, mathematically, superior. Yet most of us today would feel such a regime to be a nightmare scenario.

Catch-22

So we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Try to guide the AI and we introduce human biases that could destroy the experiment, don’t guide the AI and we could get a highly ‘successful’ yet nightmarish scenario. Do nothing and rogue players will force our hand by introducing their own AIs.

The recent Deepmind experiment with Starcraft II has demonstrated that AIs can make successful decisions with incomplete data information and that their goals can align well with the overall goals of the game they’re playing. However, games have simple rules, life and societies do not. With Artificial Intelligence we are entering a period of our history that is truly different from any that have come before. We must tread very carefully on the path forward, all kinds of unknown dangers await.


Next week: Fake News is about to get real (prevalent)

Fact

What Lessons Can We Learn from Deepmind vs the…

What Happened?

Recently (in December, although the results were only just revealed Jan 24), a team of Artificial Intelligence agents created by the group at Deepmind — the same group that created AIs to beat the Chess and Go world champions — challenged two Team Liquid Starcraft II pro players (TLO and MaNa) to a 5-game match playing as the Protoss race and proceeded to defeat each player 5-0. A week later, MaNa defeated a new agent 1-0 for humanity’s only win.

What Are the Details?

Deepmind self-training strategy. Human examples to begin, then competition against other AI agents to improve.

Deepmind is an organization, financially supported by Google, that creates self-learning artificial intelligence programs. They’re best known for creating the AI agents that defeated the chess and go world champions.

Since then they’ve turned their attention to Starcraft II. Not only is the e-sport an incredibly fast-paced game with a large number of aspects for the player to consider at any given time but, more importantly, it features ‘imperfect information’ or, as it’s more commonly known, The Fog of War. In other words, while in chess and go the players can see the entire board and judge their next moves using a totality of information that includes the up-to-date position of the opponent pieces, in Starcraft II the only information a player has is what their pieces can ‘see’ on the map at any given moment.

Deepmind began by training an initial AI agent using human replays from all leagues. They used this agent to spawn new agents, which then trained further by playing each other in purely AI leagues. There they learned to develop and counter their own strategies.

Once ready, the Deepmind team reached out to Blizzard for a pro player to test their AI bots on and TLO was the name give. The Little One is a German pro known for his ability to play all races, and for being a generally all-round nice guy. They chose a Protoss vs Protoss match-up to reduce the complexity for the AI agents. A 5-game match was agree upon and played in early December. TLO lost 5-0.

However, it was only revealed after the match that TLO was playing 5 different agents, each with preferred strategies, meaning his standard method of adapting to an opponent wasn’t effective since he was effectively playing five different opponents.

Given that TLO does not play Protoss as his main (he’s a Zerg player), Deepmind then reached out to his teammate MaNa who was also beaten 5-0, this time by a set of agents trained for a week more. Some interesting revelations occured during that match, which led Deepmind to train a new agent, which MaNa managed to defeat 1-0.

What Does it Mean?

To start with, it’s important to note that the single human win was, arguably, the fairest game of the challenge as it used a new agent, trained in one week to only act on what was showing in the camera view of the screen — just like a human player would. It appears this was done because it came to light in the 9th game (4th game against MaNa), that the AI had perfect micro (individual unit control) while managing three squads of units in vastly different parts of the map. Something no human player could do. Presumably, while the original AIs were handicapped to human actions-per-minutes (APM), they primarily used the mini-map to manage units, giving them a massive advantage over humans, who cannot do that (at least partially because the minimap is in a tiny corner of the screen).

The other point worthy of note is that the human players commented that they could not adjust for the AI’s tactics from match to match. It came to light the reason for that was because there were, in fact, five different AI agents, each with preferred strategies, instead of one. This also put the human players at a vast disadvantage because it was equivalent to them playing a team of five pros while not knowing anything about their opponent’s tactics. Something that would rarely happen in human pro matches.

On the positive side, there were some interesting strategies that the AIs used repeatedly. While the human-like AI walled-off, many of the other AIs didn’t. All AIs, however, over-saturated their gas mining in the early game, choosing to expand later than their human opponents. It became clear that this small difference in income ended up resulting in a stronger economy, something underestimated by the human community of Protoss players. Of course, these strategies have only been tested in one type of match-up so it remains to be seen what other interesting strategies the AI will come up with.

Conclusions

This was a very interesting challenge. The main difference between Starcraft II and board games, and the reason the DeepMind team chose this game, was to see if their AIs could perform to human-like capabilities in an environment with imperfect information. That is, anyone who’s played Starcraft knows of the Fog of War, segments of the map you can’t see because you don’t have units there. Entire battle in WWII have been won due to creative use of the Fog of War, so this is not an idle challenge.

Interestingly, and perhaps a bit worrying, the Deepmind agents, once trained, can be installed, fully functional, on laptop computers. That’s right. While the training phase takes a vast amount of resources (equivalent to 50 GPUs for each agent), the finished agent can then function on a device that any person can buy. Scarier still, an agent can be trained from novice to pro in a week, amounting to the human equivalent of dozens, or even hundreds, of years of playing.

While the real-world consequences of this technology are obviously frightening, in game, I’m looking forward to the pros training with AIs to develop new and interesting strategies. Perhaps more feints or double feints, and other bits of misdirection. One strategy the last AI showed itself vulnerable to, and confused by, was oracle harassment of its mineral line. Humans would have dealt with that easily while the AI was confused time and time again. Presumably, future agents trained from this one will not be fooled but it will be interesting to see how man and machine relearn the game together. And I’m looking forward to seeing a single AI agent enter a pro tournament.

Fact

An Important Battleline is Being Drawn for the Fate…

cover image from Alternative Press Review Fall 2000
There are many social issues that are dividing our attention as we enter 2019. From Trump and Brexit to climate change and China to the tearing down of historical statues and statutes to the raising up of minorities, migrants, and the marginalized, we can’t escape hearing about one or many of these subjects in any given day and regardless of which position one takes, there is always bad news.
I have come to believe that most of these issues are blown out of proportion and are just the same old fears that always circulate and I intend to ignore virtually all political discourse for the foreseeable future, at least until nearer election time when I need to become more well-versed on the political platforms. This means I will be training Facebook to hide all posts regarding Trump Derangement Syndrome, Climate Change Alarmism, Identity Politics, and Fear of a Brexit Planet. This is partly for personal sanity, and partly so I can direct all such energies toward what I believe it truly the most important issue of our time: Freedom of Speech in Our Digital World. I believe if we lose this fight we lose all meaningful freedom.
The information age / digital era has provide the potential for unimagined freedom. Freedom of creation, freedom of communication, freedom to pursue one’s dreams, and yes, even freedom to be an abusive jerk. That means it is a great threat to those with authoritarian leanings. It’s increasingly obvious, for example, that the majority of our leaders fall within that category, and they appear more than happy to use technology and the internet to finally achieve complete control over us. Such a social engineering experiment is already being attempted in China. If successful, you will see part or all of it rolled out to the West within a few years.
Unfortunately, if the Chinese are any example to go by, and current Western behaviour suggests they are, the majority of people are perfectly satisfied trading their freedom for a gilded cage. But those who don’t rock the boat rarely have any price to pay for their bland, sheep-like existence. Unless they accidentally come on the radar of the authorities. It’s only then that they find themselves completely at the mercy of an unfair and increasingly brutal authoritarian regime. Consider the cases of Tim Hunt, James Watson, Richard Dawkins, Mark Meechan (Count Dancula), James Damore, Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad), Tommy Robinson, Lindsey Shepherd, and Alex Jones – and those are just the high-profile examples of people who have had their lives turned upside-down because they made a comment someone didn’t like. If you are unclear on who these people are or what they were accused of, I respectfully suggest you may already far behind the wave and you may want to inform yourself.
Now, many of your reading this may agree with me that free speech is an important issue, but surely it’s not ‘the issue’. You may consider there are many other very important causes. The media tells us of many of them all the time and how we may only have decades left if we don’t deal with some of them. Or you may think that your favourite cause is morally or factually just and your loud, brutal honesty and passionate discourse combined with the consequences of inaction have convinced the powers that be to act. You may consider this evidence that free speech is not threatened. And you would be wrong. At present, your protest is tolerated only because it serves a purpose. At present, there is only one issue that Western protesters are being punished for – free speech. Consider a few examples to demonstrate my point.

(1) Climate change alarmism. Surely the powers have heard us, you cry. They have summits every few years, they’re making changes, we call out the unbelievers and shame them…. and yet little has changed (except on the most obvious issues like the ozone hole) since the first summits. I suggest that’s because this issue is only important for our rulers in that they can use it to further other agendas — global economic redistribution and social engineering in particular. It has been technological advancements that have spurned on what little change has happened, very few of them can be claimed to have been inspired by direct government action. Our governments main tool has been carbon taxes, a policy that has resulted in companies shifting their money around the globe but doesn’t affect emission levels at all. What change we have seen has largely been driven by an increase in cheap, effective green technology created by industry.

(2) Trump derangement syndrome. A great many people believe Donald Trump is a horrible monster. While the man is definitely not the most likeable of beings, while in power he has done little to actually warrant the immense amount of hatred pushed his way. Many of his most hated policies can be seen to be carbon copies of those of more liked politicians such as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Yet protests and disrespectful discourse continues because we live in free countries, right? No. It continues because the establishment (and perhaps even Trump himself) feel it’s useful. As an example, consider many of the horrible policies of the Obama administration. Yet criticisms of Barack Obama almost immediately lead to cries of ‘racism’ and were shut down. Even during the George W. Bush administration, during the lead up to the Iraq War criticism of government policy was met with condemnation. The lesson is that, if the government allows you ‘the right’ of protest, it means either you’re serving a purpose for them, or they haven’t got around to squashing you yet.

(3) Identity Politics – Sexist / Racist Policies in the name of Equality. In the name of equality we have created not only laws but now entire institutions that create laws of inequality. It’s argued that somehow more equality will equal less equality. To point out the absurdity of this, however, is to labelled sexist, racist, or some type of -phobic. If you fail to cave in to the hateful labels and you still wish to speak your opinion, you are either deplatformed, visited by the police, or even arrested. This even happens to people of those marginalized groups who have a different opinion from what the loudest voices desire, making this the current frontline in the battle for free speech. If you can only offer an opinion that is popular, than you can’t really offer an opinion.
The above examples are the types of issues that have circulated in society for much of the last century. Examples of history repeating. The curtailing of Freedom of Speech is also an example of history repeating, but this is the one issue that binds the others together. It’s the one issue that appears with each new technological advancement. It’s the one issue that, if we lose, we will automatically lose all the others. And we are at a time, once again, when we must fiercely fight for it or we will lose it.
We witness regular examples all around us. From the new Chinese use of mobile communication and facial recognition to police the social interactions of their entire population and the EU attempting to censor the entire internet in the name of copyright protection to British police considering predictive profile to prevent crimes before they happen and the removal of funding options for politically uncomfortable individuals at the request of financial cartels such as PayPal and Mastercard.
These powerful forces – from IT giants, to financial cartels, to national and continental collectives – are currently aligning that threaten our freedom of speech, potentially across the entire globe. They will succeed if we allow ourselves to believe their claims of altruistic purposes and allow them to build their ‘well-intentioned’ road to hell. They will succeed if we fail to realize that we have more individual power and opportunity now than we ever have at any time in the history of our species and that it can be taken away far more easily than it was given.
Or, we can allow ourselves to be distracted trying to save the Giant Panda and making laws to stop men from sitting with their legs too far apart on public transit while our future slips from between our fingers.
Alternate Futures

The Reality of Professional Video Gaming

As part of the MIT Technology Review series on future jobs, they have an article about professional video gaming which is well worth the read. As someone who enjoys gaming, here’s my take on the subject.

Western society has never truly concluded the debate over whether competitive Chess should be categorized as a sport. And what about things like Poker? I mean ‘professional game’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘sport’. So, of course, twenty years after their inception, we are still debating the classification of professional video games and the term ‘e-sports’. In all honesty, I’m not sure that the classification matters, however. After all, whether it’s on a real or a virtual pitch, at a table or on a computer, they’re all games. The real issue is the value of the professional player and the skill and dedication they bring to the game. In this regard, footballer, or video gamer, they’re all the same.

However, as a parent, I’m also aware of some of the stigmas and concerns around the long hours of video gaming that are require to reach professional status. What I will attempt in this article is to discuss some of the various issues surrounding pro-level video gaming.

health

One of the first and strongest issue that comes up for every parent of a would-be gamer is that of health, both physical and mental.

Physical

Physically, the concern is that hours upon hours of video gaming destroys a person’s body and there is the stereotype of the fat gamer to bring to mind. However, while the fat gamer is a dying stereotype, with gamers being no fatter than the rest of the population, there is evidence that too much gaming can harm the body. This may not be due specifically to gaming itself, but to the long hours sitting in a chair. As the saying goes, ‘sitting is the new smoking’.

A search of scholarly articles on Google reveals that there are a large number of studies on pro-gamers that have been carried out and that the physical demands of pro-esports are significant, with one study suggesting pro-gamers’ bodies are physically several decades weaker than would be expected.

At this point it should be noted that even serious physical athletes can, and often do, destroy their bodies with their sport. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for a young hopeful to have a sudden accident that completely derails their professional dreams. Of course, if there is a chance to modify training or lifestyle to avoid that, as could be the case in professional e-sports, then it should be taken.

As I see it, the challenge is to accept pro-gaming to the degree that the teams and trainers will actively provide similar training support structures for their members (physical training, good habits, good nutritional training, in addition to game training). This is already happening to a degree with independent gamers and groups such as Vitality for Gamers, as well as gaming teams themselves, such as this health post on the Team Dignitas site.

Mental

The same studies as mentioned above, highlight that mental acuity and reflexes of pro-gamers can reach level equivalent to a jet fighter pilot. This is a massive benefit of gaming that should not be trivialized or overlooked. These are people highly trained in rapid problem solving and system analysis. Not only do they develop incredible reflexes, but to function at the top level of some of the fast-paced games, they need an incredibly detailed understanding of the game mechanics (system), something which many pro-gamers carry as a generalize ability to understand fundamental system structures, since they are able to move between different types of games and remain near the top in each. This is in incredible skill that should not be overlooked and should surely find use in other parts of industry, should the gamer move on.

Overall, however, I would suggest there is little to argue that the health affects seen with pro-gamers are anything different from what would be expected for people undertaking any activity at the highest levels. The task informs the outcome. With that in mind, we should, of course, train pro-gamers to take care of themselves with healthy physical and mental activities to offset the strain of their sport. However, I would like to note that rarely has it been suggested that pro-footballers be required to have supplemental cognitive training to offset the one-sided focus on physical activity. Perhaps that should also be looked into.

not a real sport

The surface argument here is only a matter of semantics and thus easily dismissed. Personally, I’m not concerned whether it’s classified as a sport, as long as the players are allowed the same protections due to athletes, and the games are allowed to develop the same followings, if the public interest is there.

The secondary argument here relates back to the health issue. The only thing I’ll add at this point is that one could consider e-sports as sports for the mind, while real world (rw)-sports are largely about physical prowess. And, of course, both share the need for strong determination, will-power, and competitive spirit.

not a real career path

This is ironic, often coming from International Football fans or fans of other rw-sports, and it demonstrates yet again how much we’ve lost touch with our past. One has only to go back about 60-70 years to a time when professional athletes could barely survive on their meager paychecks. Undoubtedly, such athletes faced very similar criticism at the time.

It was less than 40 years ago, with the wide-scale access to cable television, that athletes began commanding the superstar-level salaries as their audience numbers exploded. By contrast, we are still in the early days of professional e-sports. Until recently, many players ran solo, making money from tournament wins. Gaming teams have been around for 10-15 years but arguably, it’s been the new Overwatch League created by game company Blizzard, that has begun to set in place formalized league and team structures, as well as a sense of professionalism, that mimic those of professional rw-sports. It remains to be seen whether this will be a successful model for e-sports and the players.

As for whether a pro-gamer can earn a living, some of the top players have taken home over a million USD a year, with some regularly bringing in six-figure annual winnings. Now that professional leagues with sponsored teams are becoming a part of the framework, pro-gamers on such teams can earn a livable fixed salary. As the popularity of the players and the e-sport grows so too could we expect their salaries to grow.

As we struggle with health issues, and whether we want our kids devoting so much time to games, the one thing we have to agree upon is that professional video gamers can now making a decent living off their games. And that’s not even considering future developments and possibilities.

what happens when your pro-gaming career is over?

Another argument that was certainly faced by early professional rw-athletes and is faced by gamers at all levels, is ‘even if you are a successful pro, how can you make a living when your career is over?’

To begin with, this argument is no different that with a rw-sport, so it’s ironic that we treat the two differently. However, as a quick run-down, here are a list of current e-sports related jobs that aren’t directly gaming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caster / Commentator

These are the colour commentators that host the tournaments. They are every bit as skilled and knowledgeable about their games as the rw-sports commentators are. Furthermore, most e-sports commentators actually play, or have played at a high level, the game they commentate on, giving them far more credibility than their rw-sport counterparts.

When an esports commentator doesn’t know their sport well, fans and players will call them out on it, so these people need to be serious about their game.

Observer

The observer (an often there are several in big tournaments or fast-paced games) is a person who watched from in-game with a virtual camera. They provide a view of the interesting action to the audience.

Tech Support

All gaming tournaments have a significant amount of tech support both for setting up the computers, cameras and headsets at the beginning, to ensuring the highest player standards for set-up are met.

Future Jobs

While the above are the main e-sports related (non-gaming) jobs that currently exist (ignoring most of the behind-the-scenes people who have more generalized, non-gaming specific, jobs), I can foresee several possible future jobs that are gaming related. Whether any of these will actually come to exist remains to be seen.

Military / Business

With their advanced ability to understand system structures, it seems the skills of high-level gamers would be very useful in business or the military as analysts.

With increasing robotics development, gamers might also make very skilled pilots and remote controllers for robotic platoons.

Diagnostics and Data Analysis

A few years ago in the Cancer Research UK carried out a highly successful experiment using gaming to aid in data analysis (Play to Cure: Genes in Space). They found the data was too complex for computers to analyze accurately, but their game allowed them to get thousands of people to analyse the same data, then average the results for >90% accuracy. They used a fairly simplistic method with the game more as a reward than a method. Since then, they’ve built several more with crowdfunding help.

Advancing this technique, data analysis could be incorporated into games such that gamers around the world could work together on a distributed diagnostic network. With thousands doing analysis of the same data, through game, the averaged results would be very accurate. This could be something a company could set up for doing low-cost, high-accuracy diagnostics in medicine, research, or anywhere data is better analyzed by humans than computers.

In Conclusion

The issues surrounding e-sports and pro-gaming are nothing new, and were faced by rw-athletes during the early years of what are some of the most popular sports today. The current generation of parents has a stigma against e-sports for various reasons, some valid, some a hold-out to tradition and past views on what’s acceptable and reasonable. However, with its enormous popularity among the under 30’s, it’s difficult to see e-sports going away, especially now that it has gained some corporate legitimacy.

 

Musings

Can We Colonize Extrasolar Planets?

At the recent Eastercon I had the pleasure of listening to Kim Stanley Robinson speak at a few sessions. While I don’t agree with all his ideas, he is clearly someone who bases his views on well thought-through concepts. I found one of the ideas he discussed particularly interesting, namely, he’s of the view that the technical and social challenges of interstellar colonization are too great for humans to reasonably overcome.

Robinson is an author who’s works acutely detail the human condition under future challenges. For example, he’s best know for his Red Mars trilogy detailing the technical and social challenges of humans terraforming Mars.

He’s also recently been nominated for a HUGO award for his novel New York 2140, in which he describes life in a New York city flooded due to extreme global warming.

In Aurora, Robinson once again presents many of the technical and social challenges to great human endeavours. In this case, the generation ship used to colonize worlds around other stars.

Avalon: Generation ship from movie Passengers

For those unfamiliar, a generation ship is a city-sized space ship that carries a living (as opposed to cryogenically frozen, genetic, or embryonic) population. The idea is that, since the distance to even the nearest stars are so great, it would take generations for humans to travel there. Hence those arriving would be the ancestors, several times removed, of those who started the journey. Immediately several issues become obvious with such a situation and Kim Stanley Robinson deals with the majority of them in Aurora.

Ignoring the technical challenges of protection from the extreme conditions outside the heliosphere, the social challenges that arise on such a vessel come from the differing experiences of each generation and how people are generally adverse to change (at least, once they’re over 30). So, while the initiators of the journey are set on their goal of settling a new planet, their descendants, who have lived their entire life in space, may not be — especially if not educated to the reasons for their journey or their need to land.

Imagine a town the size of where I live now. That’s about 80,000 people. Now imagine that everyone living there has the same viewpoint, the same goals for society, and the same idealistic values. You’re right, it doesn’t happen, as every election in history demonstrates. So it’s naive to think that a population hurtling through space, changing generation after generation, would continue to have the same values as its founders.

At the panel discussions during Eastercon, Robinson stated a few times that he doesn’t’ believe extra-solar colonization is even possible for humans, although it was unclear whether he was speaking from the viewpoint of human social issues, or technical challenges, although definitely there will be many of both.

My own view is that, like most amazing human endeavours, it will depend on the will of the people. If it’s possible to overcome those challenges, then we will. Or we’ll muddle through enough to succeed eventually. Even in Aurora, one segment of the population accepted the mission and stayed to colonize the world, while the remainder returned to Earth. Humans tend to be a remarkable and adaptive species and, if we find the will, we will find a way. The only question will be whether the AIs beat us there first!

Alternate Futures

What is the technological singularity, and why should you…

Doesn’t it seem that the latest iphone is coming out sooner and sooner? That just a few years ago we had first mainstream digital assistant in Apple’s Siri (2010) and now the market is flooded not only with dedicated devices such as Amazon’s Echo Dot (2015) and Google Home mini (2016), but a range of similar creations from competitors. And that’s just a simple example of the advances of computational technology. What about other technologies?

In biochemistry, the techniques of site-directed mutagenesis, where a scientist can introduce a single mutation into almost any gene and study the resulting protein were invented in the 1970s. A decade later, a graduate student could get a Ph.D. for successfully creating a single point mutation and studying it’s effects. By the time I finished my degree in 2000, it was quite standard for a degree to require the creation of a half-dozen such mutations, the successful culturing and purification of each resultant protein, and the chemical and structural characterization of each to create a coherent story of their role in the given protein’s function. Now, almost twenty years later, most of that can be done by a single technician working with a room of computerized equipment in a fraction of the time. Before you consider what wonders the merger of biochemistry and computational technologies bring, consider how many other technologies are maturing at an equivalent rate, and what this might mean for our future.

In the 1990’s a few scientists and futurists (notably Carl Sagan and Ray Kurtzweil) mapped out the progress of human technological advancement from estimated times of the earliest inventions to the modern day. They discovered that technology is advancing at a double exponential rate. To put this in perspective, we often interpret change as being linear such that each advance seems to take the same amount of time as the previous one – even though we actually know this not to be true. Our population, for example, increases at a single exponential rate (in the U.S. this is 1.5% per year).

The truth, however, is that technological change happens even faster than we guess — at a double exponential rate. That is, technology increases even faster than the exponential growth rate of our population (the difference is difficult to visualize on graphs because both have very steep right-hand sides — the bottom scale of the two graphs, above and below, are significantly different).

For our purposes, this difference isn’t significant, other than realizing that each new advancement comes much sooner than we’d naturally expect. So, what does this mean for the future and just what does it have to do with the Technological Singularity?

A single technological advance can change our world, sometimes in small ways like a rapid drop in world record times for the 100m sprint, sometimes in large ways like enabling instant communication across countries and continents. Advancements in two synergistic technologies (like social media + mobile phones) can bring the world together, or tear it apart. Imagine what our world might be like when we have the simultaneous maturation of five to ten technologies within a few years of each other.

You can’t.

None of us can. That’s what the Technological Singularity is — a convergence in the development of all technologies such that they form kind of a black hole in the future timeline, which we can’t see past. A point of change so significant and with so many possibilities that we simply can’t understand what might lay on the other side of the veil. So, why should we worry about something so vague? Why is this important for you?

Well, you’ll probably be less stressed if you don’t, but if you find the unrest of the modern world at all disturbing, if you were one of those people who were surprised by the election of Donald Trump, if you have children, and if you have any concerns over the future direction of humanity, then you will want to be aware of the development of new technologies and the kind of changes they may enable. That’s what I’ll be discussing in this blog.

Does this mean:

  • General artificial intelligence?
  • Household or military robotics?
  • Transhumanism?
  • Designer babies?
  • A cure for cancer?
  • A cure for aging?
  • Advanced Biohacking?
  • Basement biotech?
  • Virtual or neural-immersive environments for social media?
  • Greater longevity?
  • Virtual vacations?
  • The end of human creativity?
  • Greater human creativity?
  • Extraterrestrial colonization?
  • Extrasolar exploration?
  • The end of war? The war to end everything?

Maybe all of them, maybe none of them. I don’t know any more than anyone else, but the one thing it will mean is change, and lots of it. Gone are the days when you could live most of your life and the only thing that changed was a new model car and a better television. We’re now in the era where everything is change, including the very nature of what it means to be human.

As a scientist I’ve always had an interest in technology, science, and the future. As a science fiction writer, I have the ability to create stories to explore the world of what might be. And as a father, I have a desire to explore what the next generation might be facing and help prepare them for it. In this blog I will bring together all these interests to explore the undiscovered country (by which I mean the future, not death, from Hamlet, nor peace, from Star Trek VI).


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