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October 31, 2006


180px-Printer1.pngSo, gone for about a week, followed by a week of meetings and deadlines, and I end up with a serious backlog of interesting/cool/relevant links that really should blog more thoroughly. Rather than bemoan my fate and slowly trickle them out until I get overwhelmed by more current material, I'll just go ahead and bullet point 'em with very short explanations as to why.

Here's some of what's been swimming around in my extended headspace for the last couple of weeks:

Fab @ Home is an open source project out of Cornell, via MIT to create DIY blueprints for a basic fabber. More than that, they're aiming for a universal fabber able to use multiple materials in one object, in order to produce "complete, active systems." The big question: will they get to a working version before a relatively inexpensive commercial product comes out? That is, who will define the market -- the open source method or the proprietary method? (via)

Healthmap is a Google Maps mashup showing geographic links to news stories about emerging global diseases. This is sort of the quick & dirty version of Larry Brilliant's INSTEDD project.

Tracking the Threat is like Healthmap for terrorism: a Google Map mashup showing geographic links to news stories about al Qaeda. Both Healthmap and Tracking the Threat are prime examples of the modern era of Open Source Intelligence.

US Congress looking into Metaverse economies, just as Julian Dibbell predicted (and I wrote about, as well). Lots of numbers get thrown around, but I suspect the trigger will be whether the virtual money is usable outside of the virtual world -- that is, can I buy something non-virtual with it? In the case of World of Warcraft gold pieces, no; in the case of Second Life lindens, yes, making it a complementary currency, and likely taxable.

futurambmaslow.jpgMartin Börjesson wonders whether the traditional concept of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs -- physiological first, then safety, then love, then status, and lastly actualization -- has in fact been reversed by modern culture. Not a lot of detail, but a truly provocative argument.

Mobile phone ATM in Uganda, similar to mobile phone banking in Kenya, is a paradigmatic example of "the street finds its own uses for things." (-Wm. Gibson) It's not the phone itself that works as an ATM, but the mobile phone system, including transferrable minutes and phone cards. (via)

Face Recognition for Secure Phones uses a mobile phone's camera to identify whether the person holding the phone is the authorized user. It's slow and requires 3-10 calibrating photos, but it's a distant early warning of the era of mobile devices with face recognition capacity.

Solar Electric Light Fund made it possible for Pop!Tech 2006 to be "double carbon neutral." Pop!Tech purchased enough carbon offsets from SELF to cover the travel of all participants twice over, by underwriting the deployment of solar electricity systems to 44 villages in Benin. That absolutely rocks.

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October 26, 2006

In Memorium


WorldChanging Logo v1, 2004-2006

My old colleagues at WorldChanging have unleashed the latest version of the site, and it's quite the change. The new WorldChanging is slicker and much more "pro" looking than earlier versions, and is set up to match the design of the WorldChanging book. (I have yet to receive my contributor copy of the WC book, but I saw it at Pop!Tech last week. It's a Mighty Tome, weighing in at over 600 pages. You could kill a man with this book.)

The new WorldChanging site moves well away from the blog format, appearing more like an ultramodern version of a magazine website. (Are we in the era of the PostMagazine yet? The TransMagazine era?) The improved search feature is most welcome, and it's certainly a more attractive version of the WorldChanging site. Even if I have minor quibbles with some of the design choices, I still think it will serve the site well as the book hits the shelves.

I will miss the original WorldChanging logo, however. Designed by Jeffrey Rusch, I thought it captured the dynamism and optimism of the WorldChanging concept better than anything I've seen before or since. It told a story in five simple images. This simplicity lent itself well to iconic uses -- the Bright Green Sun, the last image in the story, quickly came to symbolize WorldChanging and its goals.

Still, change is the nature of things, and I don't begrudge the folks in charge their desire to link the site to the book (and to move swiftly away from its shameful bloggy roots). The Bright Green Sun may be gone, but the spirit remains.

October 24, 2006


fruiticeutical.jpgAn offhand comment at the Institute for the Future workshop yesterday sent me spiraling off in a new direction. Tom Arnold, Chief Environmental Officer of Terrapass, made reference to "CMOs," and I didn't catch the particular context of that abbreviation (he meant "Chief Marketing Officers," as it turned out). But divorced of its intended meaning, the term "CMO" took on a new definition:

Cognitively Modified Organism

Much to my surprise, nobody has used that term before (at least nobody that Google knows about, and that's all that counts these days). But it's a term with a clear application, most probably used to refer to living beings with intentionally-altered mental (and emotional) characteristics. In this usage, a cognitively modified organism, or CMO, has had its brain wiring altered in an essentially permanent way to induce a particular behavior or mental state -- a hardwired version of Pavlov's Dogs. It could also refer to organisms modified in a way to induce mental/emotional changes when consumed, such as with the fruiticeutical as imagined by IFTF's Jason Tester.

We already live in a world in which we know enough about brain chemistry and behavior to be able to make fairly replicable modifications via drugs; as we learn more about the genetics underlying brain chemistry, we'll be able to experiment with the concept of making more-or-less permanent modifications to behavior in these ways. It won't happen to human beings right off the bat, of course -- we'll be monkeying around with the brains of non-human animals first. We'll probably even find useful results from the ongoing manipulation of non-human animal behavior through the modification of cognitive structures and chemistry.

If we're lucky, it will only go as far as needed to perform useful neurotherapies. If we're less lucky, we'll find these technologies as the near future equivalent of steroids, superficially therapeutic systems used for clumsy augmentation. If we're entirely unlucky, this will be a dangerous new tool for advertising and marketing -- memetics with teeth, as it were.

Oops, there was the bell! Time for dinner.

Finally Home

PopTech rocked, but it's now a distant memory. I'll spare you the travails of my flight home, but it should be enough to note that I finally crawled into bed at 1am on Monday morning, then woke up five hours later for an all-day workshop at the Institute for the Future.

I should be returning to a regular blogging schedule soon (more IFTF fun tomorrow, though).

October 19, 2006

PopTech Images

Just a couple of pictures to show that, yes, I really was here...


Bruce Sterling and Jamais Cascio


Ethan Zuckerman and Jamais Cascio

(My apologies for the lack of sharp focus on the second one -- cameraphones still have a ways to go, sadly...)

Late to the Party

Tom Friedman just left the stage at PopTech, having talked a bit about about his GeoGreens notion. Friedman frustrates me; his work in the 1980s and early 1990s on the Middle East was remarkable and insightful, but he's lost me with his recent work. His analysis of globalization feels mired in the 20th century -- an amazement about technology coupled with a fixation on top-down authority and very traditional social structures. With his observations and declarations about Iraq turning out to be fatally in error, he's turned to the need for greater sustainability and more renewable energy. And here's where the frustration really hits -- as much as I agree with most of his proposals, his ideas are hardly new (even if he acts like these are novel discoveries and insights), and they're far too timid.

The key problem with his approach is that Friedman's observations about the environment get swallowed up by the quite traditional, limited language of international politics. I'm completely convinced that global warming is already having serious political impacts, but Friedman doesn't tell us anything that anyone with open eyes couldn't have seen five years ago -- and he tells us in a way that (as much as he wants to say that he's trying to butch up the terminology) diminishes the importance of the environment. With an emphasis on the geo-strategic aspect of energy, he opens us up to scenarios in which the political problems are solved without much impact on the environmental problems -- and the potential for "solutions" that could even make environmental (and other) problems worse.

I understand the use of people like Friedman; when he raises topics, he makes them acceptable for the chattering classes and inside-the-beltway bureaucrats to discuss. That's good, I suppose, but if the allowable discourse on the environment is only about "support for freedom" vs. "support for terrorism," we miss out on opportunities for innovation and solutions that cut across multiple problem categories. We need to think bigger, broader and faster. Fortunately, we can, we will, and more and more of us already do.

Pop!Tech Underway

spore.jpgFirst day of Pop!Tech, and I've opted not to try live-blogging it, in part because that's not the way I think/work, and in part because some folks do it far better than I could. Case in point: Ethan Zuckerman. His first post detailing the start of the conference is already up, and he does a good job of covering the conversation between Brian Eno and Will Wright.

Wright showed Spore, of course, and it keeps looking more astounding every time I see the demo. I could easily imagine myself spending hours on end playing -- as much as I want to get my hands on it, I hope that it doesn't come out until after the IFTF project is done!

Kevin Kelly is speaking now, making a surprising argument that technology determines culture more than culture determines technology. My gut reaction is to disagree -- I have a strong bias towards the opposite argument -- but given Kevin's history of insight and observation, I have to take his position seriously. A key element of his piece is that, in conflicts between culture and technology, technology wins pretty much every time.

October 17, 2006

The Nightmare Scenario

While reading a story about the "gray goo" attack in Second Life, I was struck by what could well be the nightmare scenario for molecular manufacturing:


Hear me out. We all know the logic behind email spam: the cost of sending out a million messages differs little from the cost of sending out a single message; even with a minuscule response rate, sending enough messages can mean a visible return on investment; spam "offense" always eventually overwhelms anti-spam "defense."

The same logic could apply to molecular manufacturing spam, but MM-spam could take myriad new forms. Advertising messages etched into whatever objects get made by a nanofac. Code that tells the nanofac to use all available nanotoner to continuously print out small, mobile commercial-shouting bots. Hacks that instruct a nanofac to embed into the hardware of any new nanofac it makes commands to add commercials on whatever the new nanofac makes. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here, and that far more insidious and hard-to-root-out forms of nanospam are on the horizon.

It seems that every digital technology capable of displaying a message and hooked to a network eventually becomes the target of spam. It's highly likely that nanofactories will be online, along with everything else in one's house or community, for reasons of hardware updates and design transfers; those here old enough to remember floppy disks know that malware can travel via sneakernet & disk quite easily, too, so being unplugged is not the same as being offline.

Forget home-printed assault rifles and field-produced drones. Forget gray, green and red goo. The real danger we will face in the time of molecular manufacturing is spam.

October 16, 2006

Anticipating Pop!Tech

poptechlogo.jpgThe speaker list at Pop!Tech includes more than a few very familiar faces, and that will undoubtedly be fun. But I'm really hoping to see some new names, and a few presentations on the list look to be definitely worth checking out.

Roger Brent is the Director of the Molecular Sciences Institute, Rob "Carlson Curve" Carlson's old home. He's talking on biohacking and synthetic biology.

Homaru Cantu is a hacker-chef, and this line from his bio just tickles me: Scientific elements such as liquid nitrogen and helium and devices such as a centrifuge and a hand-held ion particle gun make regular appearances in the Moto kitchen. I want my KitchenAid Ion Particle Gun!

Marie-Helene Carleton is a documentary filmmaker, along with her partner Michel Garen. In 2003, as they were finishing a documentary about the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq, Garen was kidnapped. Carleton worked aggressively to bring his release.

Hasan Elahi is a professor at Rutgers specializing in understanding the technologies of media, surveillance, and society. I'm definitely hoping to get a chance to talk participatory panopticon with him...

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somalia-born Dutch feminist, activist and politician. She's best known as the producer behind the film Submission, a documentary critical of the treatment of women in Islam; the film led to the assassination of its director, Theo van Gogh. She's about to move to the US to join (of all places) the right wing think tank American Enterprise Institute.

Will Wright, creator of a few video games. Have you heard of SimCity and the Sims? Yeah, that Will Wright. His soon-to-be-released game Spore threatens to bring down the collapse of the US innovation economy by forcing technocreative types to stay at home for days or weeks on end building new universes and sharing them online.

New Podcast at Fringehog

My latest Fringehog podcast, The Big Backup, is now available. It covers a theme I've discussed in previous posts -- the necessity of a civilization archive to aid recovery in the case of a disaster that hits faster or harder than we can handle.

As always, the Fringehog podcast has multiple participants, and runs about 20 minutes; in this edition, my piece is at the very beginning, and runs about 5 minutes. Do let me know what you think.

October 12, 2006

Pop! Goes the Tech

I'll be out most of next week at Pop!Tech, an annual conference held in Camden, Maine. Similar in some respects to TED, Pop!Tech brings together interesting thinkers and speakers across a variety of subjects for a multi-day gathering. I'm not speaking -- this year -- but I am going at the invitation of the Pop!Tech curator, Andrew Zolli. I've known Andrew for a couple of years now, and will likely be working on a few projects with him in 2007.

The speaking list combines familiar faces and new names, although it does seem a bit overly-weighted on the usual suspect side. For the first time, the talks will be streamed live, so if any of the speakers look interesting, you can catch them via the web. As usual, the audio will be made available on IT Conversations.

If you're going, definitely let me know -- I'd be happy to see a friendly face there.

I Want My Google Data Privacy

googleeyes.jpgThe Hawk Wings blog points us to a site called Freds House, wherein a writer proposes something new and, as far as I'm concerned, absolutely brilliant: Google Data Privacy.

I'm feeling increasingly uneasy about my dependence on Google services. [...] I look around my desktop and I see Google Reader, Google Mail, Google Talk, Google Toolbar, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google News, Google Analytics, Google Earth, and of course Google Google. [...]

I think I need a new Google product to drop into beta. That would be, let's see, Google Data Privacy. GDP would allow me to review all of the information that Google retains on me across all services, from all devices, and from all sources. GDP would allow me to determine the maximum data retention period for each of my services. GDP would allow me to selectively opt out of cross-service data mining & correlation, even if it reduced the quality of the services I receive. GDP would allow me to correct any inaccurate data in my profile. And GDP would log and alert me when my data was queried by other services.

I want my Google Data Privacy.

So do I. This is exactly the kind of thing that Google could do, should do, to maintain its "Don't Be Evil" motto, while compiling better -- more accurate and more useful -- information.

This is the best web idea I've seen in a long time, and it deserves wider discussion.

October 10, 2006

Tuesday Topsight, October 10, 2006

boomgoessf.jpgIt's End of the World time at Open the Future Topsight!

• MADH -- Mutually Assured Dark Humor: DEFCON proclaims itself to be the "World's First Genocide 'em up," and that bit of ad copy should tell you everything you need to know about the underlying attitude of this game of global thermonuclear war. The graphics are chilling, looking like General Buck Turgidson's "big board" mashed-up with a first-person shooter: as the missiles hit home, the numbers of dead float for a moment above each impact point, then evaporate. The goal of the game isn't to win -- as the web domain proclaims, "everybody dies!" -- but to lose the least.

When I first stumbled across this game, I thought it was a parody, but it seems to be quite real. Up to six people can play over the net, and there's even a "diplomacy" mode. The demo offers a single opponent (AI or network) and the standard play mode only. In a week where the nuclear weapons are on the front pages, it's only appropriate to give them their due.

• Political Games, Part Deux: If blowing up the world isn't your schtick, how about just the Strait of Hormuz? In the game "Counter Strike" -- not the Half Life mod -- players try to plant bombs on an oil tanker in order to sink it in a way to block the waterway, thereby cutting access to about 40% of the world's oil supply. Oh, did I mention that it was a product of state-funded Iranian game designers, intended to demonstrate how such an act could take place?

There's not much info about the game other than a single Reuters piece, but the commentary among the "serious games" crowd has been interesting. Ian Bogost at Water Cooler Games muses about how to categorize the game (propaganda? education? videogame diplomacy?), asking whether it is the 'first example of a videogame-based geopolitical act." Nate Combs at Terra Nova riffs off of Bogost's observations, and links to the larger question of the purpose of building virtual worlds. (The comments at Terra Nova are less edifying, unfortunately, as they include at least one participant who seems to insist that any discussion of this game other than condemnation is implicit support for the Iranian government.)

• Because Nothing Could Go Wrong With Armed Computers: If you don't have the stomach for global thermonuclear war or system disruption terror, maybe we should just take people out of the loop entirely. At least, that's what a group within the US Department of Defense wants to do, according to Jane's Defence Weekly:

A proposal, unveiled publicly in September but never before publicised, would give "armed autonomous systems" the authority to shoot to destroy hostile weapon systems but not suspected combatants. Accordingly, any people killed or injured in the attack would be considered the collateral damage of a successful strike on a legitimate target.

There are so many things dizzyingly wrong with this proposal it's hard to know where to start.

• Nanomaterials to the Rescue!: So how about some good news, then? Researchers at Clemson university have figured out a way to use carbon nanotubes to render weaponized anthrax spores effectively harmless!

The Clemson team used carbon nanotubes as a platform or scaffolding for displaying sugar molecules that would attract the anthrax spores. [...] When sugar coated, the carbon nanotubes bind with the anthrax spores, creating clusters that are too large to be inhaled -- stopping their infection and destruction.

Sun said a similar approach using sugar-coated carbon nanotubes to stop the spread of E. coli bacteria was tested successfully in 2004. He sees this new method potentially as a way for first responders to contain anthrax in an office or mailroom setting using a water-based gel, foam or aerosol spray, and he thinks it has potential application on the battlefield in larger quantities.

You can find a very cool image of Anthrax spores covered in sugar here.

(Via Medgadget)

October 6, 2006

Implant Rejection

braincrafters2.jpgHow'd you like a computer in your head?

Brain implants are staples of both science fiction and speculative conversations about the future. I noted a few months ago that a surprisingly large portion of the Metaverse Roadmap crowd considered brain implants as the logical extension of the virtual world-real world crossover. The worlds of novels like Neuromancer and games like Transhuman Space are filled with jacked-in, chipped up citizens. I've even raised the possibility in some of my talks about the later stages of the Participatory Panopticon.

This week, James Hughes, my colleague at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, was quoted by the Saint Petersburg Times in an article about the potential for implanted communication devices. Given his visibility as a proponent of transhumanism, you might expect that he'd be all for getting wired up. He's not -- he's rather cautious, in fact.

"We're moving inside" the body with cell phones, said James Hughes, a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of Citizen Cyborg. "My opinion is it is realistic. But for at least a couple of decades, I don't think it's going to be terribly attractive to open up our heads."

I'd go further than that. Until we reach a stage where nano-magical systems can rewire our brains at will, I don't see non-therapeutic brain implants ever becoming popular. Cortical implant systems to deal with severe physiological disabilities are already available, and such devices will just get better and more widely available. But voluntary brain implants for enhancement purposes? Count me as a nay-sayer, for reasons that should be familiar to anyone who has purchased consumer electronics.

The first is stability: I have yet to encounter a piece of electronic gear or computer hardware that doesn't crash on a semi-regular basis. Would you want a chip in your head made by the same folks that made your cell phone? How about having your brain run Windows, or even Linux? Even if we assume that implanted devices are built to higher standards than something you'd pick up at Best Buy, you're still left with the uncomfortable knowledge that even high-end, military-grade systems can and will have flaws. These are complex devices; I don't want to have to ctl-alt-del my brainjack, let alone deal with a all-too-plausible "fatal error."

If you're going to connect something directly to your brain, you really want it to work.

The second reason is upgradability: unless or until we live in a world of risk-free, cheap and easy brain surgery, once you get something implanted, it's going to stay there for awhile. Hughes alludes to this; brain surgery isn't something you can wander into the shopping mall and deal with over lunch. It's a major bodily trauma, and certainly not something you'd want to do over and over again. Unfortunately, in a world of ongoing Moore's Law acceleration of technological power, today's cutting-edge implant is tomorrow's obsolete piece of junk -- and good luck if the protocols change or you're on the wrong side of a "format war" (anyone want a betamax implant?). There's no way to avoid falling further and further behind without going under the knife time and again.

But how many of us would want to be stuck with the computer or mobile phone we had five or ten years ago?

Fortunately, this is all a solved problem. We can use external information and communication devices -- Hughes refers to these as "exocortical technology," but you can just think of them as "the stuff you already have." If a phone or computer crashes, it's an annoyance but rarely fatal, and upgrading can be done as often as one can afford.

Implanted computers are a staple of science fiction in large part because they admirably provide one of the key tensions of the genre: a vision of tomorrow that it simultaneously compelling and disturbing. Plugging something into the brain raises all sorts of questions about safety and control -- what does happen if a brain implant fails? How long after the first brain computer is out will we see the first brain computer rootkit? At the same time, fictional implants show a world in which communication and information technologies are quite literally a part of us -- an observation of our lives turned into flesh and silicon.

Brain implants in fiction and futurism are, in the end, metaphors, not blueprints.

October 5, 2006

Participatory Panopticon Draws Ever Closer

waymarkr_examples_of_wearing_cellular_ph.jpgJust a couple of quick items on the participatory panopticon front:

Life Caching has the current lead for the pronunciation-friendly name for the participatory panopticon -- and it's the term used by Waymarkr, the first public software with an explicitly PP purpose.

The Waymarkr system allows you to effortlessly document and share your life with others. Just install our software on your mobile device... . Once the WayMarkr software is enabled, your phone will continously take photgraphs of your events and perspectives. All photographs are sent to a the Waymarkr web site so your phone never runs out of room. You can then login to the Waymarkr web site, annotate and share your photos, see stop motion movies of your captured event and map out where your photos were taken. You can also see other user's photos that were taken at the same time and place as your photos, giving you an alternate perspective on your experience.

Right now, the program only supports the Nokia Series 60 phones (which, interestingly enough, aren't just made by Nokia). You do have to wear your phone around your neck -- but being on the cutting edge is worth a little public embarrassment, no?

(More details can be found here and here. Hat tip Picturephoning for the lead.)


Although Participatory... er, Life Caching discussions typically focus on the use of mobile phones, most of already carry a powerful computing system with significant storage capacity in the form of an iPod. Now we're starting to see add-ons for the iPod that do more than just make it easier to play music.

The iBreath is a fully-functioning iPod-based breathalyzer. It also serves as an FM transmitter, but that's not really interesting now. As far as I can tell, it's the first non-sound-related sensor device for attachment to the iPod -- and there's absolutely no reason it would be the last.

I'd love to see environmental sensor add-ons for the iPod, letting you store abundant data and upload when you sync.

(Via Infinite Loop.)

October 4, 2006

Twenty Years


Happy Anniversary, my love.

New Position

I'm pleased to announce that the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has asked me to serve as their Global Futures Strategist, and I have accepted.

This is a volunteer position, so I'll still be doing my various other projects as before, but is easily one of the most important jobs I've had. The advent of molecular manufacturing nanotechnology will be a transformative development in 21st century history, and will change -- often in radical ways -- human economies, material capabilities, social communities, and political and military balances. Many of the problems that we face as a civilization will be readily solved in a post-MM world -- but nanomanufacturing will make other problems much more daunting, and we will face enormous new dilemmas.

I strongly believe that understanding and preparing for imminent changes is the best way to see those changes happen safely and, well, responsibly. Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, the principals at CRN, believe this as well, and want to make careful foresight part of the CRN toolkit. I am honored to be part of this effort.

October 1, 2006

New Futurismic Column Up

My monthly column at Futurismic is now up: The Geoengineering Option. Those who are familiar with my pieces at WorldChanging on "Terraforming Earth" will find some of the content familiar, but the focus in this piece is on understanding geoengineering/terraforming as a last-ditch option.

It starts...

Here's the good scenario: we have maybe a decade, fifteen years on the outside, before we need start seeing a significant and sustained global reduction of greenhouse gases if we are to avoid absolutely catastrophic environmental results. You know the litany by now: unstoppable sea level rise, famine from loss of agricultural land, countless deaths around the world from the heat and opportunistic diseases, extinctions galore, and on and on. Ten years is enough time to implement significant improvements in our transportation and energy technologies, our consumption patterns, and the design of our communities. We know the pieces that we need to put into place, it's just a question of getting them assembled in time.

Here's the not-so-good scenario: you know that decade we thought we had? It's more like a year or two. Good luck.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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