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Moore’s Law and SyNAPSE

If you’re aware of the history of computers and machine intelligence at all, you know that raw computational power has come a long way since the early transistors. Gordon Moore’s famous law has more or less held up: the number of transistors that will fit on a microchip has doubled every 18 months or so, thus producing a steady increase in processing power, speed and storage capacity for so many of our digital devices.

Here’s Moore’s Law graphed out, courtesy of wikipedia:
As the fruits of Moore’s Law ripened, it became easy to imagine that machines would quickly become so smart that they would rival human intelligence. Yet alas, they haven’t yet. Despite this tremendous increase in machine computational power — and it is impressive, probably the single most driving force of human advancement in recent history — the dream of Artificial Intelligence, or of the Singularity, remains unfulfilled.

And Moore’s Law is slowing down and coming up against the laws of physics. There are many opinions on when the law might collapse, but here’s the always entertaining Michio Kaku discussing the issue:


As Kaku indicates, there are alternatives to the silicon and code path we’ve been beating for the past 50 years.

Here’s one: SyNAPSE, a project from DARPA.

To quote their site:

“Current programmable machines are limited not only by their computational capacity, but also by an architecture requiring human-derived algorithms to describe and process information from their environment. In contrast, biological neural systems, such as a brain, autonomously process information in complex environments by automatically learning relevant and probabilistically stable features and associations. Since real-world problems generally have many variables and nearly infinite combinatorial complexity, neuromorphic electronic machines would be preferable in a host of applications. Useful and practical implementations, however, do not yet exist.

“The vision for the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program is to develop electronic neuromorphic machine technology that scales to biological levels. SyNAPSE supports an unprecedented multidisciplinary approach coordinating aggressive technology development activities in the following areas: hardware, architecture, simulation, and environment.”

The approach here, then, is inspired by the brain, where the architecture is composed of simple units in a flexible structure that effectively responds to complex input. So the SyNAPSE vision is something along the lines of this chart they provided:

Simple systems with complex environmental capacity. Kind of like us, really. I am reminded of the human brain, which is again the SyNAPSE model, but I think also of much of nature. Consider colonies of ants or bees: together they make a flexible system of simple components that respond effectively to a complex environment. But the question is always whether the collective hive can be considered intelligent, or rather be considered an intelligence. And thus, we are back into the questions around artificial intelligence and the Singularity that I find so fascinating: will it be a single-system intellect or some kind of hive mind? Or could there be both? What is really possible?

Either way, I do believe there’s something great about the simple chart from the SyNAPSE project, above. That green star on the horizontal axis, labelled “human level performance” and “dawn of a new age,” that’s the Singularity, isn’t it? And see the yellow star? DARPA intends to get us closer.

SyNAPSE. Interesting project. Worth following.

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Scary Beautiful: The Future and Human Kinetics

Thinking about and prototyping the future often means pushing out boundaries and subverting expectations. It means rejecting and reinventing expected models, forms and interactions. And the momentum of the future finds expression in so many different ways. Often in big, obvious ways, but also in small, subtle, yet unforgettable ones.

For me, one of the most striking, often unintentional, expressions of the future is motion. New things move in new ways, or cause us to move in new ways. Think of the awkward, compelling kinetics of early computer graphics, of Second Life, or of people interacting with new technology. Have you ever walked in a hallway filled with people texting on their phones?

Inevitably, the visceral and the kinetic are secondary, accidental canvases upon which the raw power of new technologies and modes of being find expression. Yet, it’s obvious from the way the human body moves: here is something new.

I came across two videos this week, and together they form a kind of dialectic around human kinetics and the future.

First, this striking video of dancing Japanese robots in which the machines synthesize organic human motion in a mesmerizing fashion:

Second, this equally striking video in which a human model walks across a room in Leanie van der Vyver’s experimental “Scary Beautiful” boots. When you watch this video, don’t focus on the boots themselves; they are exaggerated, inverted high heels. Watch instead the way the model’s body moves as she walks across the floor like a primitive mechanical insect:

Mesmerizing as well, no?

Apparently, the shoes are a reaction by van der Vyver to the obsessive construction of perfection. Here’s a statement from the South African designer:

“Humans are playing God by physically and metaphorically perfecting themselves. Beauty is currently at an all time climax, allowing this project to explore what lies beyond perfection. Scary Beautiful challenges current beauty ideals by inflicting an unexpected new beauty standard.”

And yet, here’s the heart of it: watch the model. Does not that mechanical motion suggest, perhaps even celebrate, a crude robotic kinetics? Yes, the ongoing search for a perfection that is not humanity, but its technological mirror. Not a new beauty standard for humans, but for something else entirely. An awkward, imperfect prototype of the kind of scary mechanical beauty more fully realized in the dancing robot video.


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Making the Virtual Physical: Like-A-Hug

I’ve written before about the convergence of our digital existence with our physical existence. It’s the idea that the metaphorical virtual things that happen in our digital online lives will become substantiated in reality, and vice versa, so that there is little distinction between the two in our consciousness.

One of the critical points of this convergence is of course the human central nervous system. On one side of the equation, we are connecting the impulses of the brain to systems that manipulate the physical world, such as this example. On the other side, the increasing efforts to hack the CNS mean digital events can be made fully sensorial at a fundamental level (through the familiar grammar of pain, pleasure, pressure, touch, sound, imagery, smell, etc.), and thus our digital lives can be experienced in the same way our physical lives have been experienced for tens of thousands of years.

In this vein, here’s a very simple and brilliant illustration. It’s the Like-A-Hug vest from Melissa Kit Chow, Andy Payne and Phil Seaton.

Here’s a video Chow posted on her blog:

The basic concept is that it’s a social media vest that inflates to “hug” you when someone clicks “Like” on one of your social media posts, thus giving you the physical sensation of an embrace (and thus the emotional validation) that is implicit in the virtual social media act of “liking” or similar. You can also send the hug back, apparently, by embracing yourself and deflating the vest.

I love it, and I am delighted by the image in my head: imagine looking out on a city street full of people wearing these vests, all of whom are immersed in their own mobile digital headspace. And in that sea, you’d see these vests puff up and deflate at intervals, as people hug each other at a distance, responding cryptically through the medium of the vest to a vast construct of data just beyond the ancient limitations of our five physical senses.

Eventually, however, we should be able to fire the proper neurons to deliver the sensation and do away with the vest. That’s the path we’re laying out here, right?


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A Little (Futuristic) Night Music: AtmoWorks

It’s been some time now since the music business has morphed from a big, monolithic culture industry to whatever it is at present — independent, fragmented, and highly digital, for starters. The change has been driven by technological innovation at every step in the musical value chain. Composing, recording, mixing, production and distribution are readily available to anyone with an inclination to make and put out music, and as EMI’s Barka Moffit notes here, consumers of music are more interested in access than ownership. Such online outlets as YouTube and Spotify are becoming massive, globally shared music collections.

The grand lament from business concerns, and some artists, is that the money has gone out of making and recording music, which is largely true. All this free and cheap access fails to support the big industry that music once was (remember record stores?). Live performances still draw to a great extent, but selling CDs? Well, it seems rather quaint now, doesn’t it?

The flip side of all these changes is a wealth of access to music for listeners and a wealth of opportunities for musicians to cheaply and easily reach engaged niche audiences. It’s especially a boon for non-mainstream music such as the kind of experimental and electronic music that innovates the aural experience.

One example of the new opportunities for electronic music fans (and musicians) is AtmoWorks. AtmoWorks was co-founded by a friend of mine, MJDawn. With an assortment of collaborators, MJDawn and his partner Vir Unis have released a wide range of electronic explorations, all without the benefit of a big traditional label and old-school distribution.

Click the image below for a sound sample (from Noise of Night (Once Night) by miKroNaught):

Good stuff — soothing future sounds for insomniac nights, perhaps.

And AtmoWorks — it’s a sign of our present DIY music framework. I hope you check out their site.

Finally, what will the future hold for the music industry?

In a way, the present anxiety (as in the Moffit piece referenced above) is the fretting of vested intermediaries (record labels, retailers, etc.) that have in effect been disintermediated. Musicians and listeners, on the other hand, are like lovers; they can’t be kept apart for long. They are beginning to find elegant ways to connect and reward each other, and I trust they will find even more innovative ways to do so in the future.

Consider it liberating.