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Monday Topsight, September 17, 2007

Frankfurt Nuclear Plant 2Back in the US now, at least for the next two weeks -- then off to Budapest, to speak at a conference entitled "Visions of the Future. Technology and Society: Global and Local Challenges."

Trying to get back into the blogging practice.

• Fast Lane to the Uncanny Valley: Motion Portrait is a new Japanese company offering a novel service: it can take a single 2D image of a person and turn it into a believable 3D animation. The website has a couple of examples of the process at work. Start by mousing over the woman in the box in the upper right of the page -- notice that she'll start following your mouse pointer around. Click on the bell and she'll talk (she'll also chastise you if you mouse around in a circle too quickly, making her "dizzy").

The company wants to use the technology (which they claim will run on a low-end computer or even mobile phone) to provide personalized avatars in 3D environments, as well as animations for entertainment. Other, less-friendly, applications are also quite possible. As this gets more realistic (and, arguably, it's pretty spookily realistic now), how difficult would it be to make a believable animation of someone saying something they never said just by using a single quick snapshot?

For a real sense of just how weird this technology can be, click here. It's entirely safe for work, but arguably NSFS (not safe for sanity).

• Word of the Day: Anthropocene -- the current geological era, marked by the accelerating human impact on the Earth. The term was first used in 2000 by Paul Crutzen, a scientist who has popped up again last year as an advocate of looking at what would and wouldn't work in geoengineering.

The question that comes to my mind, of course, is "what follows the Anthropocene?"

If our civilization is destroyed, there won't be anyone to name the era, so let's set that scenario aside.

If we suffer a significant die-back, and the planet starts to revert to pre-human influence conditions, then we'd probably end up calling it something like the "Rehabilicene."

My bet, though, would be a world in which our information sensing, communication and analysis tools are so pervasive that they change every aspect of how we understand and manage the planet around us. A world so fully enriched by knowledge could only be called one thing:

The Noöcene.

• It's Future Conference Season: The Singularity Summit wasn't the only future-focused conference underway this month. Aubrey de Gray's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence foundation assembled the third annual SENS Conference, in Cambridge UK, over September 6-10 (thus overlapping the Singularity Summit entirely), and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology put together its own 3 day event in Tucson, Arizona, from September 10-12. I particularly regret having to miss the latter, as the CRN Scenarios were unveiled there for the first time (more on that later).

Fortunately, all was not lost: OtF friend Michael Anissimov live-blogged all three days of the CRN conference, providing in rich detail the proceedings of the various talks and conversations. This is a long, long blog entry, complete with some of Michael's own pictures. I look forward to his upcoming entry talking about his own reaction to the proceedings.

One big agreement emerged from all of this, however: next time, the three big transformative technologies conferences won't all be scheduled for the same damn week.

• Dollar Auctions, War and the Future: Oliver R. Goodenough, professor of law at Vermont Law School and a faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, has a short, straightforward commentary in the Rutland, Vermont, Herald discussing how rational decisions can, in the aggregate, lead to disastrously undesirable results. He uses a classroom game called a "dollar auction," where students bid on a dollar; the twist is that the top bidder may win the dollar, but the #2 bidder has to pay up, as well.

The problem surfaces when the bidders get up close to a dollar. After 99 cents the last vestige of profitability disappears, but the bidding continues between the two highest players. They now realize that they stand to lose no matter what, but that they can still buffer their losses by winning the dollar. They just have to outlast the other player. Following this strategy, the two hapless students usually run the bid up several dollars, turning the apparent shot at easy money into a ghastly battle of spiraling disaster.

Goodenough applies this concept to the Iraq war, but it strikes me that it's an interesting example of what commons theorist Peter Kollock, in The Anatomy of Cooperation, refers to as a "social trap," where rational near-term benefits can create nearly unavoidable long-term costs -- but where the consequences of changing behavior can be nearly as costly as continuing, and will continue to increase.

One of the drivers of a social trap/dollar auction is the perception that, by bowing out of the competition, someone else will be benefitting from the result, offering a superior strategic (or economic) position. It's not just that I don't get the benefit myself, the logic goes, but my competitor gets it instead. This kind of trap is sadly commonplace in the world of environmental policy, where one can see it in the interactions between the US and China over signing onto carbon reduction measures.

No grand conclusions, yet, on what can be done about this kind of engagement, but it's helpful to have a mental model for what's going on.

• I'm Just Innocently Sousveilling the Nuclear Reactor, Officer: I took the picture at the top of the page from the airplane window, flying into Frankfurt on my way to Zürich. I have to admit, I felt a little suspicious snapping pictures of a nuclear plant from the air, and I know I got at least one odd look. No arrests have been made, however.


Jamais, the Motion Portrait link doesn't work. And I wanted to play!

Give my regards to Vorosmarty Ter, Vaci Utca, and the Chain Bridge (Istvan Szechenyi was a very great and tragic man). If you get the chance, try the tea and pastry at Gerbaud's.

Motion Portrait is spooky. The cynic in me predicts one of its first uses will be for pornography.

The "Dollar Auction" dynamic was described years ago by Stewart Brand, in an article in Coevolution Quarterly called "How To Run the Arms Race Backwards."

I agree - the Motion Portrait is creepy. The idea reminds me a little of the portraits in Harry Potter...

What follows the Anthropocene? Guitar Solo!

the key lesson of the dollar auction is:

"never bid"

it is a loser's game


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