Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thank you, Sir Arthur

New York Times - Arthur C. Clarke, 90, Science Fiction Writer, Dies: "Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90... Mr. Clarke’s reputation as a prophet of the space age rests on more than a few accurate predictions. His visions helped bring about the future he longed to see". The images above and below are taken from Sir Arthur's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie that made so many of us interested in our future in space.

Of course I was very strongly impressed by 2001, especially by the passage below. I have been a transhumanist ever since. Sir Arthur:

Call it the Star Gate.

For three million years, it had circled Saturn, waiting for a moment of destiny that might never come. In its making, a moon had been shattered, and the debris of its creation orbited still.

Now the long wait was ending. On yet another world, intelligence had been born and was escaping from its planetary cradle. An ancient experiment was about to reach its climax.

Those who had begun that experiment, so long ago, had not been men - or even remotely human. But they were flesh and blood, and when they looked out across the deeps of space, they had felt awe, and wonder, and loneliness. As soon as they possessed the power, they set forth for the stars.

In their explorations, they encountered life in many forms, and watched the workings of evolution on a thousand worlds. They saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and died in the cosmic night.

And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the fields of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped.

And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.

The great dinosaurs had long since perished when the survey ship entered the Solar System after a voyage that had already lasted a thousand years. It swept past the frozen outer planets, paused briefly above the deserts of dying Mars, and presently looked down on Earth.

Spread out beneath them, the explorers saw a world swarming with life. For years they studied, collected, catalogued. When they had learned all that they could, they began to modify. They tinkered with the destiny of many species, on land and in the ocean. But which of their experiments would succeed they could not know for at least a million years.

They were patient, but they were not yet immortal. There was so much to do in this universe of a hundred billion suns, and other worlds were calling. So they set out once more into the abyss, knowing that they would never come this way again.

Nor was there any need. The servants they had left behind would do the rest.

On Earth, the glaciers came and went, while above them the changeless Moon still carried its secret. With a yet slower rhythm than the polar ice, the tides of civilization ebbed and flowed across the galaxy. Strange and beautiful and terrible empires rose and fell, and passed on their knowledge to their successors. Earth was not forgotten, but another visit would serve little purpose. It was one of a million silent worlds, few of which would ever speak.

And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.

In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.

But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.

Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselves; and on a thousand worlds, the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rusty

Now they were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.

And they still watched over the experiments their ancestors had started, so long ago.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

More on Digital Persons, Immersionism vs. Augmentationism

I participated in this interesting debate on Immersionism vs. Augmentationism. Topic: These deep thinkers, all fairly well-known for their positions on immersion vs augmentation, will have an energetic debate about their differences in opinion. Expect the conversation to touch on issues such as avatar rights, voice verification, and avatars as legal entities. See ORANGE EXPLORES SL CULTURE! for background.

This discussion is always interesting. I was representing the attitude of "augmentationists", for whom Second Life is a videoconferencing environment (a better phone call). Sophrosyne Stenvaag concisely states the issue as "is SL for you a place or a tool? Everything else, from standards of identity and trust to "A/S/L," follows from that", and quotes a post by Argent Bury on Digital Persons for whom SL is a place different from the atomic world, aka RL. In the debate Soph said "Giulio and I share a "live and let live" approach, the only difference between us really is the locus of our identities, I'm *here*, and he's visiting from elsewhere". And Gwyneth asked me "did you ever cry or laugh out loud when you read a book?" and welcomed me to immersionism when I answered yes.

Well. I can have emotional reactions to _good_ books, but I don't consider Second Life that good yet. I don't consider SL as a place because, for example, places have a distinctive smell and SL has none. Miami is hot and humid, Amsterdam is cold and humid, Madrid has hot dry summers, it is very nice to walk in the snow in Budapest. These are all places where I have _lived_ and know well. In Napoli, the city where I was born, the characteristic smell in the air is actually one of rubbish (!!!) but the food tastes like nowhere else. The point I am making of course is that the atomic world is sensorially rich while in Second Life the sensorial environment is very poor: pixels on a screen and poor audio with statics.

This will change with better virtual reality technology. Some day VR will offer a fully immersive environment, with stimulation of the five senses via direct brain to computer, brain to network and brain to brain links and sensorial experiences indistinguishable from physical reality. In my interview on The Future and You podcast I speculate on immersive neural interfaces to VR worlds and place them 20 years in the future. At that moment I will take virtual worlds as "places", but now I see them only as advanced communication tools.

But I think the mini-trend toward immersionism and digital personhood is very important, and positive. Those who are psychologically able to really _be_ in a VR world even with the primitive VR technology of today are doing terribly important experiments with the very concept of identity, and I think we will soon need the results of their experiments and some practical guidelines for managing personal and social relations in a world that becomes more and more complex. One of the first results is there is room for more than one person in a brain.

One very important thing that digital personhood can facilitate is tolerance of diversity. Diversity is GOOD - how boring would be a world where everyone looks, thinks and acts the same. Let millions of flowers bloom, in virtual and real worlds. Live and let live, everyone should be free to do absolutely whatever she wishes as long as she does not do concrete harm to anyone else, victimless crimes are not crimes, and one should enjoy his own favorite lifestyle instead of criticizing the lifestyle of others.

Transhumanists talk of augmenting life in very radical terms. We want to merge biology with technology and eliminate disease, suffering, aging and death. Yes, death. Our generation may be among the last mortal generations, and by the end of the century our children may live in the Metaverse as disembodied software beings. Let's call this Life 3.0: escaping the prison of the flesh and moving on. This will be a _very_ radical change of the nature of the game, and will bring much more diversity in human societies. It is important that we learn, now, to live with it. Of course there will be those who will prefer to stay in the old comfortable game instead of embracing change and moving on, but many others will run at full speed toward a speciation with the full range between organic humans 1.0 and conscious software beings in synthetic realities. It is going to be interesting, dangerous and fun. Let us consider our tiny, primitive and unstable SL as a workbench for first experiments and baby steps toward future humanity. To Gwyn, Soph and Argent: I will be an immersionist and a digital person (or many digital persons) then.

Perhaps the most interesting observation in the debate, by Aldon Huffhines, was about "the self as existing at the intersection of our inner neural networks and our external social networks". Aldon Hynes/Huffhines has then expanded this very interesting point in his blog on The Virtual Self and R.