Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Careers and Sterling

Sorry I’ve been absent for so long, nine days, in fact. But in those nine days sixty three thousand people have died of AIDS, I have revised fifty pages-worth of maths textbook, read more pages of text than your average medieval scholar would have done in a decade, suffered from an overreaction on the part of my body towards a totally harmless tree pollen, discovered a competition that offers a top cash prize of £750 that is about writing about the future of technology of all things, decided I love the music of “Alabama 3”, I watched the sublime "The Godfather", I bought a copy of Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and considered that a masters in chemical engineering, followed by a post-graduate course in nanotechnology from UCL (or Cambridge [a man can dream...] or Manchester) would be quite an acceptable decision careerwise, and have fallen in love with the new MacBook. I want one. It is perfection – and it can run Windows! Now the last bastion of my resistance to buying a Mac is finally crumbling! I can have all the benefits, and not have to worry about compatibility issues.

Anyway I’ve just popped in to apologise for not updating my blog (who the hell am I apologising to?)and also that I’ve found a number of interesting articles by Bruce Sterling (whose "Schismatrix Plus" I need to read). Here is a typically interesting excerpt:

So where are the human limits? What are we supposed to do with these peculiar twin minorities: the tiny minority who can program from the silicon up and who genuinely understand computation, and the other cyber-dyslexic community who won't have any truck with computers under any circumstances? If I were a eugenicist, I would suggest that maybe we ought to interbreed these populations for the safety of the rest of society. But that's just a conceit.

More practically, I would suggest instead that the problem itself is a phantom problem. Human intellectual limits, although very much there, don't really matter all that much. There are, what, 5.7 billion people on the planet right now? Let's assume that one percent of the population can really hack. One percent of that figure would be 57 million people. This is a huge pool of creative talent, it must be as big as the entire population of Europe at the height of the Renaissance. If we can't coax a few decent multimedia programs out of that group, I would suggest that perhaps the fault lies elsewhere.

And if that makes the market smaller, so what? We can just do what Microsoft does. Instead of selling an easy workable program to a vast popular audience of 20 million people, we can sell a difficult, treacherous program to an elite audience of two million people, only we'll sell them the very same program ten times over in different upgrades.

I have often heard people in computing fretting over the purported fact that their mental inferiors can't keep up with the deep technical skills needed for computation. It's odd that I've never heard this said about television (except for VCRs, that is). I've only rarely heard it said about automobiles. Most of us can't fix or understand our televisions, and we can't fix or understand our automobiles either, but this vast ignorance about television and automobiles doesn't seem to bother anybody. We'll let most anybody get behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle which can travel a hundred miles an hour and kill a dozen people in the blink of an eye. We never demand that they learn anything about the chemistry of oil refining, or about internal combustion. We just let 'em drive the car, and if they're no good at it and kill somebody, well, that's just tough luck!

I think it might be possible to design a computer that's as easy to drive as an automobile. Where you just rent one and sit in the seat and turn the key and get going, without getting enmeshed in the barbed wire of extensions and shells and bell-and-whistle hotkeys and all the rest of it.

I think the extremes of complexity in the human computer interface may be a passing phase. You shouldn't have to become a portly UNIX freak in order to manage a computer. I suspect, in fact, that it ought to be possible to design computers simple enough for animals to use. After all, do you really need a cellphone? Your cat, that's who needs a cellphone. Who knows where your cat is right now, anyway? Your cat needs a beeper. We already have gophers and lynxes on the Internet; on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; is there any real technical reason why can't I put my dog on the Internet? I suspect this might be genuinely possible.

I suspect the ultimate Internet link is going to look and act a lot like a make-up case. You won't see any command-line prompts when you use it. It will be a social device, a social-relations technology just like a make-up case is. When you pull it out of your purse and open it and talk face to face to your friends on the other side of the planet, you will feel just about the same kind of glamorous intimate pleasure you feel when you are pulling out and using your compact mirror. The engineers will no longer be in control. Or at least, the engineers won't be trying to one-up one another by building and selling each other macho power-user desktop dragsters full of smoke and burnt rubber and oil fumes.

These words were spoken in October 1994 at the American Center for Design “Living Surfaces” Conference, San Francisco. It is extraordinarily prescient in what (as I read it) it says about intuitive graphical user interfaces and the move towards usability.

It also touches on a pet peeve of mine: people today are perfectly capable of operating cellphones, PCs, MacBooks etc without actually having the faintest idea of how the device they are using actually works. I can’t program “from the silicon up”, but I have no problem using a PC. My last rambling rant on this topic had me move from finding this state of affairs reprehensible to finding it a monument to humanities’ interdependency. Still, I think people should try to be slightly more technically oriented. Maybe we should all try and be like shands (plural shandi? – go look it up: reference to Strata by Terry Pratchett, one of his less critically acclaimed but nevertheless superb books) who simultaneously have several different professions. Below is a list of different profession-collections:

• Chemical engineer, meat animal herder, lift-attendant and bounty hunter.
• Solid state electrician, graphic-novelist, taxi-driver and cartwheel artizan.
• Film critic, private detective, cat burglar and insurance broker.
• Pharmacist, software technician and priest.
• Religious scholar, pro boxer, lithographer and architect.

It is clear that many people living today will live much longer than you (for the purposes of this conversation, you are “Joe Everyman”) might expect, and might retrain and follow a dozen totally different career paths over your active life, constantly hoping for the event-horizon of retirement to suck you down into the placid singularity of a halting state.
Speaking of which, I bought The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, I hope it is as good as his other books.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Ultimate Gadget

For some time now I’ve been ruminating on “the ultimate gadget” (that’s right, you heard me – ruminating). The problem is that every time I pursue this train of thought I commit singularity and have to reboot. The thought process generally goes something like: “foldable, hi-definition, 3D electronic paper with eVisors and a neural interface…!!! Then singularity hits and a mere pre-transcendence homo sapien such as myself cannot know wot of the wonders available to the vast and cool and unsympathetic posthuman intellects of the beyond…
So in an attempt to create a useful thought experiment, here are some guidelines:

• All the technology used in the gadget should be feasible by the standards of 2006.
• By “gadget”, I mean a handheld device. Clearly cybernetic cyborg-implants are disallowed by the first point, and anything I can’t carry around in a jeans pocket is also out.

The gadget would be the form factor of an Orange SPV M5000 except it wouldn’t have the annoying asymmetry of the aforesaid device, and it should be slightly longer and thinner, more like that of the Sony Ericsson P910. The dimensions would probably be about 12 x 7 x 1.5 cm. In this aspect the gadget would resemble a mini-laptop/tablet, with the screen and a compact, QWERTY keyboard available on the interior of the clamshell. However the screen should be touch-sensitive when the device is in “PDA mode/camera mode”. The supplied stylus should of course have a little cap under which lurks a black ball point.

The gadget would have a camera similar to that of the imminent Sony Ericsson K790i. 3.2 MP, a substantial lens, autofocus, macro modes, and a xenon bulb for flash photography. The flashlight should also have a lower power setting which allows it to be used as a torch (a very useful feature of the K750i). There would of course be a cover to protect the lens – and the cover should not cover the flash. The gadget would have a smaller camera inside the clamshell for video conferencing. It is worth pointing out that beyond about 4 megapixels other factors start to affect the quality of the photographs you take much more than the number of pixels. I think building an optical zoom into the device is reasonable. The camera and cover should be flush to the surface of the back of the device, and be of a similar consistency material-wise so that it is not irritating or uncomfortable to hold.
The gadget would come with a full suite of entirely open-source, free and tech-hippy-friendly software including all the office basics, games, a web browser, basic photo and picture editors, sound recorders, media playing software etc…
Speakers and microphone (both for mobile-phone capability and note taking) would have to be included, of course. External function buttons could include pause/play, stop, back-forward buttons, a camera button and a voice record button, as well as the all important “hold” slider switch.

Connectivity options would include: a USB/Firewire data cable (presumably bundled in the box) a standard audio jack for speakers and earphones, an IRDA port located near the top end of the device (this would mainly be for use as a remote control for TVs, VCRs, DVD players, PVRs etc), Bluetooth, wireless a/b/g, EDGE, GSM, UMTS etc. The device should be able to function as a removable USB pen-drive with the cable. Included in the box should be adapters that allow the device to communicate with phone outlets and LAN cables.
One feature I’d like to include (but sadly cannot for feasibilities sake) and would like to see on mobile devices generally is a cross-spectrum sensor that allows the device to communicate in huge numbers of different ways across all conceivable areas of the electromagnetic spectrum. Updates and information about protocols could be downloaded and put in place through software mechanisms. This is a bit like black box technology, where you simply have a lump of stuff that does something depending on what you do to it. I suspect that this is one technology that will emerge from widespread nanotechnology and the invention of computronium, but I should really leave it out of this experiment as such a device isn’t quite here yet. For an example of the sort of universal gadgetry I mean read the sublime Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer.

Processing power and RAM should be sufficient to play games to a standard similar to that of, oh, say an old Gameboy Advance, after all, if you could play PSP games with PDAs there would be no need for a device designed specifically for gaming – right?.
The device should come with a hard disk of a type similar to that found in the current generation of iPods. Flash memory is still at the 2-4 GB stage, and I’d use flash over a vulnerable hard disk any day, but the disk would of course be cushioned, buffered and have a facility similar to those of Powerbooks, whereby an on-board motion sensor removes the stylus from the hard disk when a sudden motion is detected. The top-end iPods currently have 60 GB hard disks, so I’ll go for one of those.

Among the many ebooks that should be included with the device include a static version of Wikipedia, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, The CIA World Factbook, IMDB Movie Database, US Army Survival Manual, The Bible, Koran, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, the Encyclopedia of Mythology, Foldoc Dictionary of Computing, Buddhist Dictionary, BBC Health Medical Notes, and How Stuff Works (all currently available for Palm, Windows handheld and Symbian users in TomeRaider format – now you know why I need the 60 GB hard drive).

It would be nice to be able to receive TV on a mobile device (in a ho-hum, should be done sort of way) and to be able to view all the freeview digital channels and record them and transfer them to a PC.

Thinking about it, I have absolutely no preference as to size and form. Something like the P series from Sony Ericsson or the old Nokia we-swear-its-not-a-brick would be fine, although the Orange SPV M5000 is almost perfect.

If you happen to be sitting in the park and an idea for an absolutely killer SF short about cyborgised spiders infiltrating an extreme-extropian libertarian enclave in a decrepit habitat in orbit around Pluto and you just have to write it down, fast, ’cause the words are right there in your head… Then an external keyboard would be good, something like those supplied by Palm and Nokia, amongst others. Ideally the keyboard would be foldable and not much larger than the device itself, so that you could whip one out of one interior jacket pocket and the other out of another interior jacket pocket.

GPS navigation facilities are obviously a must-have, and while we're talking about satellites and whatnot, why not have a satellite phone built in as well?

There is no doubt that such a device is entirely feasible with today’s technology, but usually when you try to put too much functionality into a device it becomes a jack of all trades and a master of none. I think (hope) that my perfect gadget (or something very like it) will be on the market before 2010, and shortly after that there will be all the eVisors and singularity-gifted consumer goods a presingularity liberal capitalist could wish for.