Friday, December 17, 2010

mind uploading = #2 on the list of priorities

so just this past monday i was at Columbia U speaking for the Studies in Religion seminar. i argued that the tranhumanist dream of uploading minds is a really important phenomenon in the study of religion and that it probably necessitates some new ways of thinking about religion (what constitutes a religious group, a holy text, etc.) and would benefit from some new methods coming out of the sociology and anthropology of science.

naturally, there were some folks who wanted to understand where apocalyptic AI fits in in the transhumanist worldview. well, turns out it comes in second, at least according to the Lifeboat Foundation, which labels it the #2 transhumanist technology in its top ten list.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Mark of the Digital Beast

So for millennia, there have been Christians awaiting the return of Jesus, who will vanquish a cosmic beast (known by everyone who's bothered to think about the matter as the Emperor Nero) and establish a New Jerusalem for the faithful. In the Book of Revelation, the Beast has his mark stamped upon the people and without it no one can buy or sell (Rev 13:16-17).

Apocalyptic Christians in the 20th century have oddly interpreted that phrase to mean such technologies as UPC symbols and RFID tags (neither of which is likely to be placed on your forehead). So it won't be long before they jump on  barcoded embryos as examples of the end of the world.

When someone makes a million dollars on a book about barcoded embryos, the Beast, and the return of Jesus, I'm going to be really irritated that I'm too honest to have written the book and gone to the bank, myself.

Time for Kurzweil

So I've been impressed for years at Ray Kurzweil's own exponentially rising public profile, the most recent accomplishment of which is to answer ten questions for Time magazine.

There's nothing new in the article: Kurzweil tells us that we'll re-engineer bodies and brains, becoming long-lived (the word "immortal" is noticeably absent, however) and much smarter. We'll have to prevent anyone from bioengineering weapons, and we'll have a happier, more spiritual culture. These are just reiterations of claims he's made before, in The Singularity Is Near and The Age of Spiritual Machines so the claims, themselves, are of little interest to me.

What is interesting is that Time has jumped on the apocalyptic bandwagon. Does the magazine endorse Kurzweil's ideas? Not yet. Does it endorse Kurzweil himself? Well, yes. By giving Kurzweil massive mainstream exposure, the magazine acknowledges Kurzweil's social status and simultaneously adds to it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

the end of computers as we know them!

So, in 2013, shortly after the world ends because of the Mayan mathematical and calendrical system, the world will end again. A mere 13 years after Y2K destroyed life as we know it, a multitude of solar storms will do so again. According to Wired magazine, we all need to stop driving (this is actually good advice) and buy Faraday cages to protect our computers. Otherwise, solar storms will destroy our data, crash our cars, and leave us bereft of any purpose in life. We should also apparently all save cash under our  mattresses rather than putting it in bank accounts because, like during Y2K, all bank accounts are on the verge of digital erasure. Nevermind that your cash will be worthless if all the computers in the solar system go defunct...surely there must be someone who will sell his last--and impossible to replace--can of food for your stacks of green paper.

Whew, it's a good thing that Jesus is coming back in 2011 to save us from this cataclysmic techno-apocalypse.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

American Gods, Neverwhere, and the power of landscape

So this post has nothing to do with AI or apocalypticism, but it's what I'm up to, so I'm blogging it anyway.

This weekend, I'll be in HOTlanta, first for a visit to SEE SEVEN STATES FROM ROCK CITY! with my awesome friend Kimberly and then to participate in the annual conference for the American Academy of Religion. I'm joining the religion and pop culture crowd to present my paper: "A Landscape of the Religious Imagination: Travel and Tourism in the work of Neil Gaiman."

Sadly, I was invited to go to the Neil Gaiman event at the House on the Rock (a place featured in American Gods and my presentation) but not until after we'd bought tickets for the whole family to head to HTL. I would have loved to have joined the HoTR's Low-Key Gathering, but it just didn't work out. Maybe next time. 

Rock City is also part of American Gods and my paper presentation, so I'm excited to go see it and take lots of pictures. Imported knee-high gnomes in a blacklit cavern...what more could you want?

Gaiman's Neverwhere and American Gods are two of the best damn books I've read and I'm thrilled I get to talk about them at the conference. This paper will also be part of a book I'm co-writing with my brilliant and beautiful wife.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

virtual eschaton

Unfortunately, the hotel in Milan where the Transvision 2010 conference is taking place lost Internet access today. That means that in the middle of Natasha Vita-More's presentation, we went through a 15 minute technical intermission that eventually became a complete severance between those of us presenting in Teleplace and those who were on location. For good or ill, I presented my own paper ("The Mythic Power of Transhumanism") prior to that separation. So the European audience had as much opportunity as the virtual audience to think I'm an idiot. Hopefully, it wasn't unanimous.

In brief, I argued that transhumanism has always been religious despite the objections of members of the H+ community and that, by embracing their religiosity, they'll have greater storytelling power than when they reject it. And, since storytelling power is the greatest power in the universe (no matter what the physicists might tell us), I think I gave them good advice.

Irritatingly, the technical delays during Natasha's talk and that subsequently interfered with the gentleman advertising his cryogenics services took up an enormous amount of time, costing us the opportunity to hear from two other speakers. This was very unfortunate, as I was looking forward to hearing them. Lincoln Cannon's talk on the Mormon Transhumanism can be read on his site. I haven't read it yet, but I look forward to doing so.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


So the Chronicle of Higher Education just published a piece entitled "What if we ran universities like Wikipedia?" or somesuch.

Now as a general rule, I like the Chronicle but in a totally non-judgmental way, what I find really odd about the piece is that it reads like its author is a Cory Doctorow fan. After all, it was Doctorow who described the "ad hoc university" system in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow's book is brilliant and deserves all the awards it got. I love it and have cited it in academic presentations and papers.

On the other hand, I do not take it as a prescription for how to solve the problems of academia (of which there are admittedly many).

I wonder why the folks at the Chronicle have done so.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Transivision 2010 conference in one week!

So we're one week from the Transvision 2010 conference, hosted in Milan by the brilliant Giulio Prisco, the Italian Transhumanist Association, and an advisory board. There's a weekend long set of talks and it should be a fantastic conference. I'm presenting on Saturday night (late by my EST) along with some other really great folks (Ben Goetzel, Natasha Vita-More, Lincoln Cannon, and, I think, a couple of others).

What's that? You don't live in Milan? No problem!

You can attend the conference through Teleplace. You  just need an account. I have no idea how you get one, but I bet you can find out here. I'll be presenting through Teleplace, so I spent a few minutes today logging on for the first time. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to delete all the shared windows of a sample document I had created, but hopefully my mess was all cleaned up when I logged off. :)

Hope to see you there!

Friday, September 24, 2010

a million Stephen Colberts -- and me on the Colbert Report

I haven't been on the Colbert Report ... yet.

But I should be.

Who would be better to discuss the possibility of uploading Stephen Colbert's mind into a computer so that we could copy him an infinite number of times?

Imagine the possibilities:

Do you wonder who you should vote for this fall? Just consult your in-house Colbert. Once we've copied his mind into a robot we could all have him!

Are there politicians (or academics!) who need interviewing? A CUPID (Colbert Uploaded Personality In Dispersion) could be dispatched to the location while the flesh and bone Colbert relaxed comfortably in a smoking jacket with a glass of brandy nearby.

Imagine a political debate...the candidates could all answer questions from their personal Colbert.

And what about ending political strife altogether? 100 CUPIDs could ensure that there are no fllibusters in the Senate and another 435 would take care of the House of Representatives. With two more as President and Vice-President and 9 more on the Supreme Court, political partisanship and  legislation from the bench would come to a permanent end!

So, how about showing Mr. Colbert a little love...encourage him to invite me onto his show to discuss the possibilities.

Friday, August 20, 2010


i once had a good friend who was hospitalized for surgical repair of her achilles tendon. being the  kind of person i am, i showed up at the hospital and on days thereafter at her home to entertain her. to improve my entertainment quotient, i purchased the latest copy of the magazine Cosmopolitan for her reading pleasure. in my brief foray into Cosmo magazine, the most obviously entertaining part were the quizzes...are you this? are you that? do you like this? does he like that?

the quizzes were inane but also amusing.

so imagine my delight when, upon first gazing upon FM-2030's Are You Transhuman? (1989), i find that it is chock full of quizzes (called "monitors") to help me figure out whether my "rate of personal growth" is high enough to lead me into a transhuman future.

now FM-2030 (ne feridouin esfandiary) was a bright guy who wrote a couple of early transhumanist books (Optimism One and Up-Wingers) in the 1970s and in his early works you can see a sort of proto-Singularity thesis, a proto-Law of Accelerating Returns, and other transhumanist elements later popularized by Kurzweil and others. so i do not want anyone to come away with the idea that FM-2030 was a nitwit. he definitely was not.

on the other hand, Are You Transhuman? is a pretty amusing mess of transhumanist enthusiasm, Cosmopolitan magazine, and, well, just plain foolishness. my favorite quiz is the very last one: "How Transhuman Are  You?" (this after taking quizzes on how immortality oriented you are, how ritualistic, power-oriented, emotional, rich, fluid, etc.). the final quiz asks the following (in brief):

1. do you have implants, transplants, etc.
2. does your brain have a pacemaker, electrodes, etc.?
3. have you had major body reconstruction?
4. are your body processes (including moods) telemonitored and regulated?
5. are you teleconnected to people via portable telecom?
6. are you androgynous?
7. do you reproduce only through new collaborative asexual methods?
8. are you the product of asexual reproduction?
9. are you postterritorial: free of kinship ties, ethnicity, nationality?
10. have you been to space?
11. have you ever died and been resuscitated?

according to FM, if you answered "yes" to 7 out of these 11, you're a full-fledged transhuman.

so i immediately imagined a geriatric, epilectic, hospitalized former astronaut with a cell phone who could fulfill numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, and 11 right off the bad. if or she has given sperm or ova, that would get 7 or a car accident could result in credit for 3, and then it's just a hop skip and a jump (perhaps an androgynous one?) to transhumanism.

not exactly the poster boy that FM and his so-cal crowd were shooting for...but it might make for an amusing new angle in Cosmopolitan.  :)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

everyone loves the singularity

one of the key issues in my book and in an article to be published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science this december is the public significance of ideas like the Singularity and mind uploading. these days, it seems like i cannot turn around without having that thesis confirmed.

for example:

giulio prisco just pointed me at a Forbes magazine article which, rather surprisingly, concludes with the statement: "Now if other venture capitalists would only adopt the firm’s willingness to back wild new startups, we’d soon be commuting to work with jet-packs, uploading our consciousness to the internet and cloning dinosaurs from DNA." obviously, this is a bit tongue in cheek but it is still fundamentally encouraging transhumanist technologies.


Singularity University sent me an e-mail last week announcing that NASA's chief technologist came to SU to tout the University's work in the local community and that SU's director was invited to a conference hosted by the U.S. State Department's USAID development arm. the policy groups' love of SU is something that the Singularity folks will continue to push for and appreciate.

the only thing that pains me about the persistent emergence of these things is that i cannot put them back into work that's already published. someday, when all the books are electronic, i suppose i'll be able to do that. perhaps that will help mollify me when i cannot hold paper books anymore.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

floating to the top

i must report that I'm already going back on my word: i'll be mentioning the lifeboat foundation, of which i am a board member, soon. i'm working on a paper about transhumanism in pop science and science fiction (it's been accepted, i'm just revising) and i have occasion to mention david brin's comments in the lifeboat listserv. so, while i said i wouldn't be mentioning them in my work, i will be. ;)

in further lifeboat related news, they've cheerfully pointed out to me that they've made it into the new york times. the times seems committed to singularity and futurism talk these days (see my prior post about the recent essay on kurzweil and co.), so it's not too surprising that they've featured lifeboat also. nevertheless, it's certainly a measure of the foundations growing public presence that they made it in. i do wonder how many people the times pushed to lifeboat and whether that was successful in gaining members and donors.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Singularity Summit 2010

Next weekend transhumanists, futurists, and interested parties will converge on San Francisco for the Singularity Summit, an event founded by the Singularity Institute. Speakers include familiar standards (e.g. Ray Kurzweil, Greg Stock, Ben Goertzel) and some other, newer figures. The most exciting of the newer folks looks to be magician and paranormal researcher James Randi, whose abstract says:

"We can trust our perceptions, or so we like to believe. But James Randi knows better. Randi, who for half a century traveled the world as a celebrated conjurer and escape artist, takes the stage to demonstrate how human beings fool each other and themselves. Drawing on his extensive experiences as an investigator of paranormal, supernatural, and generally weird claims, Randi will argue that the inhabitants of the modern world are not as rational as they appear -- and that as our technologies become ever-more potent, our hidden penchant for unreason becomes commensurately more dangerous. In singular times, it is the ethical responsibility of every thinking being to become an agent for the promulgation of critical thought, skepticism, and humility."

This reveals two serious problems:

1) getting all people to promulgate critical thought, etc. is, well, impossible. As evidence, witness the fact that poll numbers continue to indicate that Republican voters don't think that President Obama is a natural born citizen of the  U.S. and that a stunning 24% of them think he's the Antichrist while their leaders seem to think that the war in Afghanistan began in the Obama presidency

2) what if the thing we're all getting fooled about is that current technological trends are doing us any good? There'd be no way of figuring this out until far too late, as we have already discovered with the massive overuse of antibiotics and might be discovering with respect to things like pesticides and GMO crops. The humility that Randi mentions is in short supply, I'm afraid.

I'm on Randi's side. I'm a big believer that we can thoughtfully, ethically move forward technologically; and I definitely believe that this could include some (though probably not all) of the items on the transhumanist agenda. But I also wonder whether Singularity hype helps us toward this end; it all too often falls short of all three of Randi's concerns.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SL discussion about Apocalyptic AI

Extropia DaSilva, one of the more significant SL folks whom I quote in my book, Apocalyptic AI, recently discussed ideas from the book at a Thinkers meeting in Second Life. She was kind enough to invite me but, unfortunately, I was unable to attend due to the summer research colloquium.

The transcript from her event is here.

There seemed to be issues of defining religion v. spirituality and religion/spirituality v. escapism (neither of which is necessarily a distinction i would make as they were being discussed: "spirituality" is a form of non-institutional religion invented rather recently and all religions, for whatever else they may also be, are to some extent escapism). They finished with an interesting discussion of the ontological status of SL avatars, focusing on what happens when an individual logs out of the system. The conversation seems (from the transcript) to have been reasonably lively and people seem to have been interested in the topic.

Whether or not I'm correct in seeing SL as a platform for religious activity remains, I'm afraid, as inconclusive as at the end of my book.  : )  Regardless, it's nice that people are engaging the ideas and appreciate the Extro enjoyed the book enough to be passing along some of its content.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

one among a multitude

i have been invited to join a foundation's board of advisors for the first time. along with some actual transhumanists (who probably have more to contribute!), i'm among the recently added members to the lifeboat foundation's enormous board. duties will apparently range from nothing to possibly engaging in their grant process and providing input when they put together working papers on stuff.

my wife wonders if this would constitute a conflict of interest, given that i do research about transhumanism. i don't think so, given that a) i've never mentioned the lifeboat foundation before (though i had heard of them) and don't intend to start and b) they're not giving me anything. hopefully i'm right. :)

Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 ARIL colloquium and book progress

so i'm one week into my participation in the summer colloquium for the association for religion and intellectual life and crosscurrents.

it's been good thus far, though it's definitely had its quirks. on the first night, we all met and had dinner together. a pleasant event for familiarizing ourselves with the folks who had come to play. several struck me as having projects relevant to my interests and worth immediately getting to know but several were "off topic" for this year's theme. i knew that would be the case, though, so no big deal. after all, part of the joy of academic life is learning new stuff!

there were 3 talks in the first week (6 to come each week from here on out). of the three, one was about the need for contemplative perspectives in modern culture, one was about religion blogs, and one was about the bodily relationship between humanity and our technologies. a solid start to the colloquium. i have been surprised by the tone of some of the post-talk discussion, which has been more "red in tooth and claw" than is customary in academic discourse.

on the downside, the day we were introduced to columbia's library had me fuming...some of the questions were simply not appropriate for individuals allegedly engaged in scholarly labors. on the other hand, the library is air conditioned and gorgeous, which makes up for a lot when it's 100 degrees outside. when we were led to the rare books collection, i simply wanted to explore for the next 10 hours.

my own progress has been great. this is motivating me through my chapter on world of warcraft. in the past week, i've written 11 or 12 single-spaced pages, read a lot, extensively outlined the rest of the chapter, spent one day incoherent out of combined alcohol poisoning/lack of sleep/brutal heat, and took one day off to visit queens and eat a heck of a lot of indian food. i'll definitely have the chapter fully drafted by the end of colloquium (and possibly by the end of the week if my current pace keeps up).

in the meantime, i'll keep enjoying everyone's research presentations.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

transvision 2010 conference

I've been invited to present (hopefully in person, but the logistics have not yet been worked out) at this year's Transvision conference and encourage you to check it out.  Link and description (from Giulio Prisco):

TransVision 2010, October 22-24 in Milan

Transvision 2010 is a global transhumanist conference and community
convention, organized by several transhumanist activists, groups and
organizations, under the executive leadership of the Italian
Transhumanist Association (AIT) and with the collaboration of an
Advisory Board. The event will take place on October 22, 23 and 24,
2010 in Milan, Italy with many options for remote online access.

While Transvision 2010 is not organized by or connected with Humanity+
(formerly WTA), the organizer of previous Transvision conferences, we
wish to thank the Humanity+ Board for allowing the use of the name.

TransVision 2010 will be a very intense, informative, scientific as
well as entertainingly tour de force in contemporary transhumanist
thinking, activism, science, technology & innovation and grand
visionary dreams, with over 40 talks distributed over three days.
Join us to explore the scientific, technological, cultural, artistic
and social trends which could change our world beyond recognition and
may result in a singularity in only a few decades.

The first day will be mainly dedicated to the philosophical, cultural
and social aspects of transhumanism. We will also explore new forms of
artistic expressions and design inspired by transhumanist thinking.

The second day will be mainly dedicated to technology: we will cover
life extension, biotechnology and genetic engineering, cryonics and
brain preservation, whole brain emulation and mind uploading,
synthetic biology, virtual and augmented reality, artificial
intelligence, nanotechnology, converging technologies and the
technological singularity, and other transhumanist technologies,
either already emerging from the research labs and almost ready for
operational deployment, or still in a conceptual development phase.

The third day will be dedicated to the big picture, the wonderful
cosmic adventures in which the human race is about to embark, leaving
our little blue planet and spreading to the stars and beyond together
with our AI mind children. We will also cover the metaphysical,
spiritual, and even religious impact of transhumanist cosmic visions.

The conference program is packed with very well known and less known,
but also outstanding, speakers. The morning sessions are reserved for
invited talks, and the afternoon sessions are also open to contributed
talks by other participants. The official language of the conference
is English. We will also have some talks in Italian, for which
simultaneous translation will be provided. Besides the main talks, the
conference will feature round tables, debates, satellite meetings and
social events. Please contact us for any question that you might have,
register now, post a link to your blog, Twitter, Facebook etc., and
consider submitting your proposal for a talk.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

time with the natives

 I don't have time for a full post right now, but I feel obliged to point out that, after a couple of theory chapters that are a touch uneven, Bonni Nardi has written a fantastic ethnography of World of Warcraft in her recently published book. I haven't finished, but her chapters on addiction and gender, for example, are balanced, articulate, and stimulating.

I'm enjoying this book a lot. Of course ... I would. :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Religious Transhumanism

In a recent article, "Why Transhumanism Won't Work," New Atlantis author Mark Gubrud declares transhumanism problematic and seems distressed by its growing public acceptability. Gubrud believes that mind uploading is impossible (which it may be) and triumphantly points out the dualistic implications of Hans Moravec's pattern identity position. Of course, Moravec never denied being a dualist (though grounded in materialism) and Kurzweil calls himself a "patternist," which isn't a lot different (though it is tougher to say). A lot of the criticism of Moravec's position revolves around the fact that such a copied pattern (if technically feasible) would be a copy of me, not me...and would be little consolation for me personally as I reached the end of my life. This is probably why the so-called Moravec Operation involves the body and brain being dissected in order to produce the copy (it's now the only one and you don't have to worry about whether you will die in the future).

There's nothing new in the New Atlantis criticism (which the author admits), but it does point toward the increasingly mainstream nature of transhumanism (which is one of the things that this blog purports to document). That mainstreaming, Gubrud says, might come at the expense of more radical transhumanist ideas, like mind uploading, prompting Italian transhumanist Giulio Prisco to reiterate his agenda:

"YES! Let's form hard-core transhumanist splinter groups yearning for cyber-heaven. Let's put some vision, imagination and FUN back into transhumanism. Let's re-affirm the bold, fresh, uncompromising and energizing transhumanism of Hans Moravec and Max More. Let's not appease critics and PC idiots, but ignore them. Not kissing ass, but kicking ass."

(the entire blog post can be seen here)

Prisco has been one of the most open advocates of religious transhumanism over the past decade and I am very curious to see how the debates between religious transhumanism and philosophical transhumanism (which is still religious, it's just in the closet) will unfold. Two possible strategies for the religious group would involve taking the message to events like the "H+ Summit" and start seeking converts among the transhumanist faithful or else using the religious message to encourage non-transhumanists' conversion. Either of these would oppose the efforts of groups like Humanity+ to blend in with the mainstream as described by Gubrud.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Apocalyptic Times: the Singularity makes it into the New York Times

Raising up a storm of commentary, the New York Times has just published an essay on the Singularity, marking yet another milestone in the public presence of Apocalyptic AI thinking. As Ray Kurzweil's son points out at the end of the article, Kurzweil has become mainstream.

The really amazing thing here is the success rate of Singularity thinking, which is fundamentally tied to Kurzweil's work. Hans Moravec, who really launched the synthesis of religion and digital technology in his books, Mind Children and Robot never moved into the mainstream with any comfort. Kurzweil, on the other hand, basks in the public spotlight that has embraced his work (which became apocalyptic with the publication of The Age of Spiritual Machines in 1999). The Times has been a bit slow to catch on, considering that Rolling Stone featured Kurzweil in 2009, but the recent essay is a good one, featuring some of Kurzweil's critics along with some of his supporters.

Friday, June 11, 2010

first histories of Second Life: review of Wagner Au's The Making of Second Life and Thomas Malaby's Making Virtual Worlds

Since November, 2006, I've been very interested in Second Life and used it for fieldwork in writing my book Apocalyptic AI. One entire chapter is about transhumanist people and communities in SL. Influential commentators like Giulio Prisco, Extropia DaSilva and (then, but now retired) Sophrosyne Stenvaag advocate transhumanist technologies in SL and their efforts helped establish transhumanist groups in that world. What's more interesting is that the Apocalyptic AI worldview actually appears systemic to SL. That is, even folks who've never heard the word transhumanism still ascribe to a basic worldview in which virtual presence promotes a transcendence over finite human existence and many see SL as a heavenly environment. It would seem that this mentality has its roots in the origins of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life. Two histories of SL have been written and they offer considerable guidance in understanding the development of SL and its possibilities for residents.

I didn't have a copy of Wagner Au's The Making of Second Life (Harper 2008) when I wrote Apocalyptic AI and I sincerely regret it. Nor did I have Thomas Malaby's Making Virtual Worlds (Cornell 2010), but it wasn't in print at any stage of my writing (obviously). Malaby's work is an ethnography of Linden Lab, where he hung out as a resident anthropologist on and off through the early years of SL's development. Au was hired as embedded journalist in SL and worked for Linden Lab for a time before branching out as a freelancer. His New World Notes is my go-to source for information about what's going on in SL and LL.

Au's book wavers between being a detailed narrative about the early years of SL and cheerleading for the business potential for the platform. Leaving aside the biz propaganda (which doesn't interest me personally), there's a treasure trove of insight into the development of the world and the things that make the community there so engaging. I was simultaneously thrilled and disappointed to see Au's claim that Phillip Rosedale (the founder of SL) suffers from alienation caused by his mortal body and contemplates visions of mind uploading (231-3). I was thrilled because, well, this is the stuff I study. I was mortified, however, that I did not have this at my disposal when writing Apocalyptic AI.  Au gracefully discusses the ways in which the SL community came together and helps us understand what it means to make a virtual community. In this, his book is a landmark treatise; much like Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, it provides a view of a virtual community's self-production. In short, Au believes three things characterize SL: Bebop Reality (the laws of reality can be manipulated), Impression Society (creativity and skill will impress others and are the basis of much social order), and Mirrored Flourishing (SL success translates to conventional life success). There are many great stories/histories in the book and it is well worth reading for anyone interested in SL or virtual worlds in general.

Malaby's thesis is that "in setting out to make a world that is supposed to make itself (through the content-generating actions of its users), Linden Lab evinced a remarkable and antibureaurcratic commitment to unintended consequences, and then found itself shaped by Second Life as the world and its effects grew" (16). Working through this eventually leads him to predict that in the future, bureaucracies will be increasingly open-ended (128). For this latter, I would have been interested to know which kinds of bureaucracy are most likely to benefit from an open-ended structure, as I don't know that I saw an argument universalizing it.  There's a lot of interesting stuff in the book, though much of it is unfortunately obfuscated by irritatingly awkward and dense writing. Fortunately, Malaby's observations of the company are interesting additions to the anthropology of business and his analysis of the role of technology at SL is powerful. Our modern expectation that technology will solve all our problems is on perfect display in Malaby's work.

Reading Malaby's and Au's work together will give any reader the opportunity to see how SL developed. Both Malaby and Au were insiders to the development of both the company and the world and their books complement one another nicely. 

These days, odd things are afoot. Based upon the recent reports at NWN and elsewhere, LL is laying of 30% of its workforce and trying to produce a web viewer for SL. What this will mean is rather beyond prediction; hopefully it will not spell the end of SL's more interesting community functions but will instead provide new ways for folks to engage with others in the virtual world.

Monday, May 31, 2010

review: Jaron Lanier's _You Are Not a Gadget_

This being the first book review I've put on the blog, I've chosen a book that will get wide circulation in tech circles written by someone whose thinking I've followed for nearly a decade now. Jaron Lanier is one of the fathers of virtual reality research and commands enormous respect from researchers into VR and Internet technology more broadly. In 2010, he made Time magazine's list of top 100 folks who affect our world. He's also spent the last few years preaching against the beliefs advocated by Ray Kurzweil and others (whose ideas are documented in my book, which takes a position of agnosticism on the morality of or likelihood of the fulfillment of the Apocalyptic AI agenda).

In short, Lanier believes that supremely intelligent computers are a) highly unlikely and b) not worthy of empathy. Instead of worshiping at the altar of robotic progress, Lanier argues we should be using technology to advance human interpersonal relationships. His early ideas were distributed through the Edge listserv and can be read here and here.

Lanier's new book, You Are Not a Gadget, advances these basic themes and explores how choices made in technology design have serious moral and social consequences, some of which he would like to reverse.

The book is, for the most part, a clearly written exposition which will be comprehensible to the lay reader and technocrat alike. Lanier's lucid English is, quite frankly, a delight compared to the work of many present day intellectuals, who seem to think they should model their exposition upon the likes of Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, or Adorno (in short, whichever impossibly dense theorist they choose to represent their interests).

Lanier's fundamental premise is that many of our technological choices right now depersonalize human interaction (think of how an individual is reduced to a set of checked off preferences at a social networking site or the fact that people exist with thousands of alleged Facebook "friends"). Such technological designs are not self-determining, however, and Lanier feels that we can reinvigorate our technological and social lives by designing tech environments that emphasize what he calls the mystical aspects of human personhood and the development of and social capitalization upon personal creativity (a partial rejection of hive mind and group think mentalities, which are not universally useful). He offers constructive advice on how this might be accomplished and his vision is a valuable contribution to discussions about life in a digital culture. Lanier emphasizes how digital life can be cruel in a world of "drive by anonymity" and would see that world reconfigured to advance personal responsibility for ideas and words. Likewise, he pushes for an acceptance of human persons as semi-mystical (and thus not reducible to the level of a machine) and capable of postsymbolic communication through advanced technological interfaces. I appreciate that he seems to have acknowledged that his own position is semi-theological without the knee-jerk reaction some people have to religion.

The book is definitely excellent, though I found myself frustrated by one concern in particular. Given Lanier's repeated emphasis upon personal, individualized creativity, I find it disconcerting that he cites few sources for many of his claims and interpretations (and I confess to wondering whether a very brief e-mail interchange I had with him in 2007 about my Apocalyptic AI ideas led to his claim--for the first time that I'm aware of--that what he calls cybernetic totalism is a religious system  ...see pages 18-25 or so of You Are Not a Gadget). While I recognize that a book written for a popular audience cannot be a rigorously documented as an academic work, I would have liked a bit more referencing throughout (which could have just taken the form of mentioning people and their work).

Fundamentally, I am in accord with Lanier. I do not believe that technological progress is self-determining. The accidents of history and personal choices of real individuals shape our future. We should advocate that individuals pay attention to the world in which they live, the world in which they wish they lived, and the ways in which technology plays out in that distinction. If we can attend to the design choices in our lives (and this is perhaps especially true for major content creators), we can work toward the betterment of society.

Friday, May 21, 2010

games & learning

last night a friend of mine told me that her son is among the first group of students at the new quest to learn school here in new york city. i had not heard of the school before but am very impressed at the ways in which the folks putting the school together seem committed to taking advantage of our evolutionary predilections to offer a real learning opportunity.

my wife and i are home schooling our children precisely because we bemoan the ways that school steals the fun and excitement out of learning. should the q2l model take off, perhaps we can save education in this country after all. learning ought to be a game...challenges that demand of us a combination of data acquisition, pattern recognition, organized expression, and novelty are the ones that we engage enthusiastically and effectively. they are the ones that will receive our loyal efforts even when the problems are difficult. games can be excellent at this. the sheer amount of things i learned from my interest in professional baseball and football as a child continues to surprise my wife and i think my involvement in dungeons & dragons probably did much to encourage certain ways of thinking that continue to benefit me now as a researcher. that's just two kinds of gaming situations that promote long-term learning and manipulation of what is learned in new and sometimes very helpful ways.

the q2l school asks students to learn through games, helping them to understand complex, dynamic relationships in scientific and social systems. the school's approach immediately calls to mind jane mcgonigal's faith that video games can save humanity (as widely publicized in this video).

mcgonigal argues that in video games we are inspired to work hard and to collaborate with one another. they encourage us to feel like we have something to offer and the ability to do well. playing video games is training the youth in optimism, forming social bonds with fellow players, blissful productivity, and the development of a sense of meaning. all of these, she argues, are precisely what we need as a society. several of the games she's involved in actually change people's behavior. an oil shortage game, for example, has led to different usage patterns among the players. thus a conservationist game can provide a conservationist attitude more broadly. her thesis is, of course, a dramatic and debatable one. all good theses are.

in some sense, the q2l school should test some of mcgonigal's ideas as well as some more pedagogical issues about how people learn and what enables them to do so effectively. i don't know much about the school yet, but i look forward to reading more as it develops in the coming years.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

digital souls at the ARC

this past week, i joined a few other folks on a panel at this month's meeting of the society for the arts, religion and culture to talk about "digital soul: artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the fate of religion and the arts" and, as on my first event with ARC (3 months ago) had a very good time.

the four of us on the panel were: anne foerst, a theologian who writes about the implications of robotics for thinking through human personhood and our religious obligations, siona van dijk, former director of the gaia community, and gina bria, an anthropologist interested in ritual and technology, particularly with respect to families, and me (officially there to talk about video games).

my friend anne (she's german, so it's pronounced much like "anna") started the conversation by discussing how sin is a condition of estrangement and that to feel estranged from machines (to automatically discount them as persons) would, therefore, be sinful (just as discounting the personhood of disabled persons (on the grounds of senility, disability, youth, etc. is sinful). while i confess to have disputed her position on whether or not the MIT robot leonardo is "self aware," i find her politico-theological goal reasonable enough. leonardo has passed the sally-anne test for self-awareness but i'm pretty sure that the only way that a person establishes his or her self-awareness by passing that test is when the rest of us make ourselves a little less aware and a little more stupid. measuring something as complex as self-awareness through one simple test indicates the foolishness of the tester, not the awareness of the tested. that said, she was provocative and fun.

i then spoke about video games, presenting my position that while there might be some losses associated with souls (whatever those happen to be...i'm agnostic on the subject) in a world with increasing identification with video gaming, there are definite possible gains too, in the kinds of companions (AI and human), communities, and self-identities made possible in video game cultures.

then siona spoke about the online world's lack of utopia and her belief that escapism fuels technology. i'm pretty much on record rejecting the idea that virtual technologies are simple escapism but there's no doubt that she made a thoughtful engagement with some of the possibilities inherent in technology and the uses to which many folks put it.

finally, gina discussed the nature of soul, and whether such a thing can be thought of as digital (katherine hayles's book on this subject, for all it's impossibly over-convoluted writing, remains the best text on the subject). she argued that technology is an extension of the human person into previously unreachable spaces and wondered whether it was even possible for technology to lack "soulfulness" given its origin in human creativity.

after we'd given our opening remarks, there was a 70 or 80 minute discussion of various ideas, most of which were woven out of the issues of machine intelligence and presence in virtual environments. problematically, the scope of the evening was wide enough that no idea got sufficient attention. the positive aspect of this, though, is that there were plenty of new ideas being tossed around. probably the best thought of the evening came from chuck henderson, editor of CrossCurrents, who argued that the worst thing about seeing intelligent machines as people might be that it would prevent us from understanding them for what they are and appreciating their needs, interests, etc. that will bear considerable reflection, i think, from folks interested in the subject.

all told, it was another fun get together, involving wine and loud argument. my kind of place. there are a lot of really intelligent folks in the ARC and i look forward to our next meeting in september or so.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

interview @ TransAlchemy

TransAlchemy, which publishes a lot of interesting stuff (including a number of interviews on the subject of intelligent machines and the future) just put up an interview with me at They are working on a documentary based upon interviews at this year's Singularity Summit (I wanted to attend but couldn't make it happen even though it happened in NYC this year) and I look forward to its completion.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

interivew on sci-fi and religion @ TheoFantastique

i was recently invited to interview with TheoFantastique about a paper that i wrote a few years ago about science fiction and religion. the interview is available here.

i'm very interested in using sci-fi as a window for cultural analysis, as is apparent from the way i've used it in the past (in the essay cited, "Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction," which can be found here), in my book Apocalyptic AI, and also in a recent paper i presented at the American Academy of Religion (link here), which i've recently submitted as a full paper for peer review.

one of the things i love about sci-fi is the way it reveals (in many ways) the religious ways we approach technology. sometimes we respond to machines as though they are sacred, sometimes we promote certain religious perspectives (such as transhumanism), sometimes we reject or accept institutional religions, etc. science fiction is a gold mine for thinking about our cultural response to the modern world.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

10 ways World of Warcraft will help you survive the apocalypse

i wrote such a list (thanks to Jovi and Kenn for their comments and help!) for Oxford's blog.

check it out here:

also, if you're a WoW player, please join my research project by taking this survey:

and spread it around on blogs if you can.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

upcoming event with the Order of Cosmic Engineers

giulio prisco, of the order of cosmic engineers, has kindly invited me to Second Life to talk about Apocalyptic AI and give everyone an opportunity to tell me how abysmally wrong i am about everything. it should be a lot of fun, so do come out and join us! i'll chat for about 20 minutes and then we'll open it up for discussion.

the event will be held in the Singularity Club on the Transvision Nexus island in Second Life at 1 p.m. EST, tuesday, march 30.

so, grab yourself a glass of early afternoon wine, sit yourself down at a computer, and head on into virtual reality to talk about, well, virtual reality.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

robot art

many of my favorite things to see around the house or office are robots. i like functional robots, robots that are programmable to do things, but i especially like artistic robots. robots that, to paraphrase oscar wilde, are excusable in their uselessness only because one admires them intensely. i even make useless robot art...wooden boxes with little robots inside (i call them Machine Habitats). my kids even think they're pretty cool. one of my favorite possessions is Reflecto, created by Electro Artworks, and given to me by my wife for our 4th anniversary. my kids love Reflecto too but i had to forbid them from playing with him anymore (mostly) after i needed to mail him back for surgery. some day, i'll buy other pieces from EA, but for now Reflecto has to settle for unrelated robot companions. i also love the work of lawrence northey, though it remains financially out of the means of mere college professors.

my father seems to have caught on and has passed the news my way. he recently went to see a traveling robot exhibit curated by the san jose museum of art that is all about robots. the SJMA website includes some commentary by the curator and artists and shows some of the work in the show. i would love it if the show rolled through NYC because i would jump at a chance to see it.

one of the things i love so much about robot art is that it challenges our conception of nature. well, okay, so i like robot art just because i love robots and there's nothing much intellectual about it. but, given that, i think it's still worthwhile to engage the concept of how robots fit into nature (are they products of nature and, hence, natural? would intelligent robots think of nature as being filled with plants and animals or as filled with robots? perhaps robot plants and animals?). one of the things about robot art is that it so often manages to create a technowonder ... a fanciful whimsy (and we could all use more of that) without losing sight of the seriousness of scientific life and the modern world.

Friday, March 5, 2010

when will the computers get radically brilliant?

so i just read a piece by AI guru ben goertzel and compatriots written for a transhumanist magazine that concludes lots of current researchers believe that humanly or superhumanly intelligent robots are right around the corner (mid-century). oddly, the piece actually disputes this conclusion. we'll get to that in a moment.

the main data for the claim comes from a survey performed at the artificial general intelligence conference this year. it is worth noting that the folks who show up at the AGI conference are precisely the AI folks most likely to think that artificial intelligences can and will become "general" (equal to human intelligence or beyond). otherwise, why would they be there? even at this conference, 9 out of 21 respondents believed we will never see superhumanly intelligent machines and significant minorities doubted our ability to accomplish more modest goals as well.

in my own research, not all that many researchers either a) worry about this question or b) think it likely that such an outcome is likely any time soon (even though it is presumably possible). after all, as one roboticist at carnegie mellon univeristy's robotics institute put it to me, we don't understand the neural activity of lobsters (which have 214 neurons) it is rather silly to suggest we'll have human mental abilities understood and/or replicated in the next twenty years (as many people predict, following upon the work of hans moravec and, later, ray kurzweil).

wonderfully, though, the authors point toward the fact that in a survey done outside of the AGI conference, 41% of respondents believed that human/superhuman ability was "more than 50 years off" (which includes a really, really long stretch of possible time frames) and another 41% believed such ability would never be achieved. this means that 82% believe that such technology is either impossible or of indeterminately long time away. the authors tell us that these numbers, like their own data at the AGI conference "suggest that significant numbers of interested, informed individuals believe it is likely that AGI at the human level or beyond will occur around the middle of this century, and plausibly even sooner." this conclusion is simply without merit, as their own data are far more optimistic than the 82% who think that AGI is far off or impossible!

that said, we should all get behind goertzel, et al., who do provide one meaningful conclusion: "these days, the possibility of 'human-level AGI just around the corner' is not a fringe belief. it is something we all must take seriously." whether transcendently intelligent computers are coming or not is beside the point; the authors are absolutely correct that these ideas play a serious role in contemporary culture. let's not miss them as we wander around in our rose colored glasses.

Friday, February 26, 2010

girl gamers

so, according to a recent essay, nearly 40% of american World of Warcraft players are women. while i've been aware that the gender gap has been shrinking in MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games), i found the numbers listed here (sadly without a proper citation) absolutely stunning. i'm not surprised that women want to play, only that they've adopted WoW in such numbers already.

in 2008, i joined WoW so that i could attend a conference hosted by bill bainbridge of the national science foundation and john bohannon of Science. my wife mocked me mercilessly until she saw me playing it, after which she promptly became interested in playing. indeed, during the months that i played, i found it fun principally when i had her to play with. the guild we joined was almost entirely composed of women and was a thoroughly enjoyable group with which to game (indeed, they were far more engaging than some of the gamers i'd known as a kid). given her interest, i'm not surprised that women in general would enjoy WoW, only that so many have already overcome whatever social prejudices we've placed before them.

prejudice remains strong among many of my students at manhattan college but i think this must change eventually. if post-college women are rapidly adopting all manner of video game platforms, it seems that their interest will encourage college-age women to engage such games with more interest. as for where that might go, charles stross in his book Halting State suggests we'll all be overlaying virtual reality games with our conventional lives. will we have quests to perform in the neighborhoods where we've gone to have a beer with our friends after work? perhaps.

what the article leads me to ask, however, is what role women have in the development of the games. if 40% of players are women, then surely the number of game developers ought to be significant as well. anecdotally, i understand that this is not the case but i have no real data to support such a claim. one of these days, i hope that we will have some researchers who can give us a meaningful look at how the games are developed and in what ways men and women might play different roles.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

the commercial apocalypse

so i dropped a little amazon widget over on the lefthand side there and it's supposed to offer relevant books that might interest someone who is reading this blog. so far, it isn't. the first book it's throwing onto the blog is so shockingly inappropriate, in fact, that i'm stunned. if the amazon AI can't get a little more on the ball, i'm afraid i'll  have to drop the widget.

what would be nice is for me to have a chance to select which books it advertised, then i could advertise things like wagner au's book on second life. i can add such things here in the postings but i'd rather just have them in the side bar.

can anyone help out here? drop me a line because i don't have any more time to dig into it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

twittering christianity

so a friend of mine was recently invited to spread a christian message through the "first church of twitter."

i have no idea how many people received this rather unconventional worship but certainly there were some who shared their concerns during the open prayers section, as is apparent from the blog link.

conveniently, this has happened just as i've spent the last 2 weeks reading essays on the nature of identity and community formation in online religion for my majors' seminar at manhattan college.

there's quite a debate over whether or not online communities are "real" communities and what, precisely, is necessary in order to define them so (steady membership, identity consistency, public forums, interactivity, etc.). some authors have, as yet, denied that online communities can be real and several of my students have voiced concern about whether or not the flexibility of identity online diminishes our ability to connect to one another and others are concerned that the elimination of physical contact does likewise. one person at a lecture i gave this past fall insisted that everyone involved in these kinds of communities is psychologically unbalanced, a position that i found patently silly.

for some folks, online religion provides communities that they simply cannot better in conventional religious practice. it seems to me that, yes, some folks online are unbalanced, but that many others are simply ordinary people who find that online religion meets profound human needs. for these folks, religious communities must be possible online...their claims and their actions repeat this daily.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

arts, religion & contemporary culture -- final installment

this is a consolidated post. after starting my blogging at amazon i quickly found that their set-up wasn't quite what i need. but i did blog there (now unavailable) about my recent adventure to join the society for arts, religion & contemporary culture and i'd like to put in one last post. so, i'm pasting my first two posts on the subject here below the new one (in case you missed them).

"jet-setting, pt 3"

so i'm cheerful to report that i mailed a check to the ARC today to make my membership official. it was a fantastic group with a lot of interesting insight and i'm grateful at the opportunity to hang around with them and, hopefully, work through some interesting stuff.

there were two other (as yet unmentioned) issues that came up in our meeting that fascinated me:

1. can digital art function to bring community together?
2. do changes in human culture change human nature?

this first question was problematized by an opera singer who no longer auditions but instead gets gigs through youtube and mp3s, a fact that seemed unanimously odd to us (her included) but there are unquestionably ways in which artists can spread their ideas digitally and, in fact, art forms impossible without computers. thus, our artistic relation to digital technology is mixed. i still maintain, though (perhaps just to persist as devil's advocate, though i think not) that pencils do as much to change our approach to art as computers do.

as for human culture reshaping human nature, i'm deeply suspicious of this. i really don't think that you can evolve the structures of our brains/minds/whatever just by throwing us into a new cultural matrix. rather, i suspect that old structures of thought will operate in different ways when faced with different cultures. but the instincts, the ways of establishing relationships, etc. are fundamentally the same (i recognize that this places me in opposition to a whole host of network theory 20th century philosophers ... but i have never repudiated my love of Plato!).

the ARC is a fascinating group of artists, authors, and thinkers and i'm enormously grateful to erling hope, the president, who invited me to join them and who was both a gracious moderator for the conversation and a great contributor. i'm happy to have joined the ARC and hope i'll be able to continue my involvement with them.

"jet-setting, pt 1"
so, a few weeks ago i received an invitation to attend a meeting of the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture (ARC) downtown. having never heard of the society, i looked them up and found that the group had included such prestigious participants as paul tillich, mircea eliade, erich fromm, w.h. auden, phillip johnson, and more. more to the point, they planned an event (last night) to talk about religion and technology, including a brief presentation on the bauhaus. totally sounded like my kind of thing (though i confess i was so tired last night that i was having second thoughts).

i made my pilgrimage to whatever neighborhood NYU is in and--being myself--was a few minutes early so--being myself--i stopped in for a beer at a small local bar.

after my beer, i headed on over to the church where the event took place, found my way to the right room, and popped into the first conversation i found, asking for erling hope, ARC's president. he immediately introduced me to anne foerst, who's work i've been citing for the past 5 or 6 years and who is a leader in the study of religion and science (particularly with regard to robotics). later on, i found myself chatting with rachel wagner, who profs at ithaca college and shares many of my interests in video games and such (i butted into a conversation she was having with a "didn't i just hear you on a...a podcast?"). i also met an architect who studied with walter gropius at harvard, the editor of crosscurrents, an opera singer, students, artists, ministers, more architects, and other college professors. it was a really remarkable crowd across the board.

the conversation's leitmotif appeared to be the difference between pencils and computers in mediating human nature (naturally, i fought tooth and nail for the honor of the pencil). it was amusing, stimulating, and totally engrossing. we drank wine and probably would have spoken all night if the church didn't assign us a curfew.

i'll report more later.

"jet-setting, pt 2"

so, more on my meeting with the ARC folks last friday.

this post was wiped, by the way, by amazon's poor set-up (it required me to log in again and decided to eliminate the original post in doing so), which means i'm trying to recreate what i wrote the first time. i am _not_ happy. and i'm pretty sure the first post was a bit clearer. but it's late and i must away to bed so i have no time to continue my rewrite.

the opening talk was on the bauhaus, a german art movement of the weimar era (1920s) that sought to unify art and craft, rejecting the distinction between "high art" and other creative work. perhaps in keeping with the ideological position that all of life could be grasped as a single cosmic entity, many of the bauhaus artists integrated organic and mechanical elements into coherent wholes (e.g., mies van der rohe's barcelona pavilion, klee's "twittering machine," and kandinsky's later, 'biomorphic' pieces). now what interested me is the way in which the bauhaus sought to intentionally design the built environment and how it engaged our relationship with the built environment. the artists pretty much all sought ways to create an architecture (broadly defined, so as to include the objects of our daily life also) that met the spiritual needs of modern humanity (the influence of le corbusier's _towards a new architecture_ is decisive here).

the bauhaus was a concerted effort to create the built environment which generally arises 'accidentally,' or, at least, through the uncoordinated efforts of many people. of course, our built environment is increasingly digital and increasingly virtual and so i wonder whether the bauhaus project could have any meaning for us today. what are the possibilities afforded by digital and virtual technologies for the direction of our built environment? can the proliferation of pdas, laptops, cell phones, etc. fit within the bauhaus faith in a cosmic harmony or of the unity of life or has our technological progress disenfranchised an artistic movement that celebrated progress and sought a radically new way to live? should we reject virtual environments that preclude our creative construction (a position advocated by the famed game designer richard bartle) or does the environment of world of warcraft suffice for us? it would be interesting to see someone attempt to design a video game environment that accomplished what the bauhaus sought up until the nazis came knocking in 1933.

one last post on this meeting later this week, i think.

Monday, February 15, 2010

IEEE and the singularity in second life?

the IEEE (the institute of electrical and electronics engineers) is a very large and highly respected organization of folks that includes a bunch of people in artificial intelligence and robotics. over the past 2 years, i've been really fascinated by their forays into the apocalyptic AI world.

in 2008, the IEEE Spectrum published the "special report" on the singularity, which included a bunch of essays about the singularity, most of which were generally negative. the singularity is the hypothetical moment when exponential progress in robotics and AI leads to unimaginable progress in a very short time. the idea stems from hans moravec's calculations about the future of robotics intelligence and was articulated by vernor vinge in a well-publicized essay. ray kurzweil and others have cheerfully championed the idea that, in just a couple of decades, we'll see the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of years of progress (because progress itself is allegedly speeding up exponentially). thus, the near future is fundamentally beyond our power to predict: but it will be robotic and awesome!

anyway, it was a touch surprising that the IEEE was jumping on the singularity bandwagon. as one well-known roboticist i know put it to me back then: "i was a little disturbed that the Spectrum would put such stuff on its cover. better suited to [insert name of a layman's science magazine here] but i scanned some of the articles and they seemed pretty sensible." a fair summation of the report, which was generally though not universally skeptical of the singularity. the interesting thing, from my perspective, was simply that the Spectrum would even bother to engage ideas once considered to be very much on the fringe. faith in the singularity is rapidly become mainstream!

which is why i can't help but wonder if there's a connection between the singularity and another, tangentially related project: the IEEE's new AI island in Second Life. personally, i can't wait to see what they put together. while there's no clear relationship between pushing AI projects (or even AI projects in SL) and pushing the singularity, i just can't help but think there might be something other than my imagination linking the two.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

a new foundation

it has taken me somewhere around 5 days to become dissatisfied with my author's blog. so, i'm launching this one in its stead. hopefully, i'll rapidly sort out how to get the site feed working and it'll deliver content to amazon's blog page.

so, some content:

in my current religious studies seminar on online religion, i'm digging up some interesting websites, such as this one, a site where you can pay to have a computer say your prayers for you. the idea that you can pay someone for a prayer isn't new. my colleague drew bourn (the stanford medical library archivist) sent me a link years ago to a colors magazine that referenced a "monk machine" that chants mantras in japan. apparently, monks actually went on strike in frustration with the device, which held their employment in its robotic hands (it wasn't actually a robot, just a statue that recited the mantras for those who paid to have it do so).

what i love best about the information age prayers site is that, for the time being, you can get two free prayers and lower rates on all prayers.

of course, the site creators do not dispute that individuals should continue to pray in person but suggest that it might be nice to supplement one's prayer with that of their computer.

naturally, i'm really curious. is this empty ritual or meaningful ritual? i'd love to know how many people use the site and what percentage of visitors end up subscribing.