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July 30, 2009

New Fast Company: Autonomy Sans

My latest Fast Company essay is up: Autonomy without Intelligence asks what "high-frequency trading" says about the future of military robots.

But that situation--humans on one side, humans + computer/robot systems on the other--won't last. And when both sides of a conflict have digitally-augmented combat systems, the side that keeps humans too much in the loop is at a distinct tactical disadvantage. We could easily find ourselves giving our military robots the power to make the kill decision not because we think it's wise, but because that may be the only guarantee that they can act in time.

Think of it as an add-on to the "That's Impossible!" clip from a couple of weeks ago.

July 29, 2009


About a week ago, I was interviewed by Lovell Dyett of WBZ newsradio in Boston, ostensibly about my Atlantic article. For a variety of reasons (not worth going into), the conversation ended up being primarily about Google, and not as much about the bigger picture stuff. Nevertheless, as Dyett's show doesn't have a science or technology focus, it was a good opportunity to talk about these kinds of issues in front of an audience that may not be exposed to them that often.

Here's the recording of the interview (MP3). It runs just under 30 minutes. I haven't had a chance to give it a listen, so let me know what you think.

July 22, 2009

New Fast Company: Kindle and Orwell and Clouds

Oh my.

New Fast Company essay is now up: Head in the Clouds looks at cloud computing in light of Amazon's nuking of purchased Kindle copies of 1984 and Animal Farm.

Now, the Kindle is not a cloud computing system, but the Amazon-Whispernet-Kindle infrastructure mirrors many cloud features. More importantly, this incident is indicative of what kinds of trouble can emerge when we reframe "content" as "service." As numerous pundits have noted, the physical book analogy would be Amazon breaking into your home and taking away a book you'd purchased (leaving you a refund on your desk, of course). But a Kindle book isn't a physical book--it's a service, one that (as the Kindle license makes clear) you don't really own.


At least with the Kindle, you can make a backup of your downloaded files; if the Kindle was truly a cloud device, where the book file itself lived online, you may not even have that option. In either case, since Kindle books (even free ones) are wrapped in DRM, you can't legally read them on anything else anyway. And all of this points to the real risk: when your work is treated not as content but as a service, and is subject to centralized control, it can be altered or deleted at any time. For legal reasons, for "local standards" reasons, by mistake, by malice, or simply when the system owner decides to discontinue that service.

Now, as I've mentioned a few times, I have a Kindle. I'm reasonably happy with it, and I bought it with open eyes about the implications of the DRM (no "right of first sale," for one thing). This was a foolish move by Amazon, however, and is exactly the kind of thing that guarantees people will work to break the Kindle DRM simply to protect themselves.

It's a perfect example of an organizational "auto-immune disorder" response.

July 19, 2009

That's Impossible: Real Terminators

Okay, managed to put together a collection of the scenes I'm in from the July 14 "That's Impossible" episode.

Jamais Cascio segments from That's Impossible: Real Terminators
from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

I don't believe I will be in this coming week's episode (on weather warfare -- it's not that I wouldn't have had anything to say, we just couldn't work out the logistics of an interview), but I should be in the subsequent week's episode on longevity.

(It's probably just me, but I could swear that the image shown above as the video screen looks like I'm about to grab a big cheeseburger.)

July 17, 2009

Ah, Robots

Here's the clip from this week's "That's Impossible" talking about the Big Dog robot. It's one of the small bits with me. :)


(it starts about 30 seconds in...)

July 15, 2009

Human Interfaces

Warren Ellis:

Clay Shirky’s line about how anything that ships without a mouse is broken — that’s her [his daughter's] generation. (I still think he was just one foot behind the time — I understand he was working from an anecdote, but I can’t help thinking the word he should have used is "touchscreen.")

Yes. This.

KAMPI've had the Amazon Kindle 2 for a few months now (that's it on the left in the picture, next to my ancient Newton MessagePad), and it's been a great device for the far-too-abundant travel I've been doing lately. Much of that travel has been overseas, and since the Kindle isn't available outside of the US (and Canada, I think), I've been running into a lot of people who are curious and want to check it out.

And what's the first thing they try to do?

They try to "turn the page" by flicking a finger across the screen. But the Kindle doesn't have a touch screen. The "e-paper" display it uses is easy to read (at least in good lighting) and extremely low-power, but it is not touch sensitive. Which means that the second thing that people checking out my Kindle do is get a funny confused look -- why doesn't it work? -- before having that moment of realization that this device doesn't have that seemingly obvious functionality. That it's "broken."

What's particularly notable here is that the vast majority of people who have gone through this "Ooh! Oh." experience aren't teens or young adults; they're people across a wide range of ages, including people who are older than I am.

A handheld device's screen should be touch-sensitive. It took us awhile to figure that out, requiring a smart user interface team (at Apple, in this case) to turn the annoying (stylus-based touch screens are usability insults) into the obvious. But now that the kinetic-memetics have taken root, anything that works otherwise is incomplete.

Or, for all intents and purposes, broken.

July 14, 2009

New FC: Material Issues

My new column for Fast Company is now up. The Desktop Manufacturing Revolution looks at the possible impact of 3D printing, which seems to be on the verge of the same breakthrough we saw 25 years ago with desktop publishing.

If 3D printing follows a similar trajectory, we may not be likely to see a massive shift to entirely digital "products" any time soon, but we could well see a shift to more local--even desktop--production. There's no guarantee, of course, that 3D printing system prices will crash in the exact same way as laser printers, or that individual households will decide that desktop manufacturing is appealing. Local manufacturing seems a good bet, however, for a variety of reasons. There's a particularly strong sustainability argument around local manufacturing, from the rising tide of "localism" philosophies (from food to media), to the ability of 3D printing to extend the useful life of manufactured goods by making new parts (as Jay Leno does for his vintage cars). The sustainability argument will become especially powerful once cheap overseas-produced goods reflect rising costs for fuel and carbon. And local manufacturing via 3D printing, even if limited to simple consumer items, has the potential to disrupt incumbent manufacturing, shipping, and retail industries.

As usual for my FC pieces, not many surprises are in store for long-time readers, but it's sometimes useful to clarify my core ideas about what the future could hold.

July 13, 2009

Catching Up

Okay, folks, for the handful of you still following (and the subset thereof who may be interested -- hi Mom!), here's a set of links to recent video and audio interviews.

  • Hour-long interview for Wisconsin Public Radio, on Geoengineering:

  • 40-minute interview for BlogTalkRadio "Tactical Transparency" show, on Augmented Reality (note: will auto-play at that link):

  • My appearance on last week's "That's Impossible!" amounted to little more than 45 seconds. For those of you who missed it, but want to see it (hi Mom!), here it is:

    (I expect to have a bit more visibility in tomorrow night's show about military robotics.)

  • Finally, three more links from the Freedom Lab interview from last month; these three segments (each running under three minutes) articulate three important ideas I work with all the time:

    The videos themselves can be found in the extended entry.

    Foresight as Society's Immune System

    Technology is Political

    Nature is No Longer Natural

  • July 10, 2009

    For the Record


    ...a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that [were] necessary in the original...

    More on this soon.

    July 9, 2009

    Life Lessons from the Next Decade

    I'm still coming out of the combo too-much-travel/need-some-downtime period, so in the meantime, watch this:

    Bruce Sterling at Reboot last month. Starts out casual, but ends up extraordinarily powerful. It's the kind of talk that reminds me why I wish I had half of Bruce's public presentation talent.

    July 5, 2009

    Apparently It's Not (Updated)


    Lifting my head up from my short rest & recovery to note that the first episode of "That's Impossible" -- formerly "Science Impossible" -- on the History Channel will be shown on Tuesday night at 10pm (consult your local listings). The episode concerns "invisibility cloaks," and I know for a fact that I'm in it -- apparently, I appear in the commercial for the episode (I must have said something pithy).

    Unfortunately, I'll be stuck in a hotel in Atlanta, prepping for the second day of a meeting, and very likely not able to see the episode until I come home. Tell me what you think!

    (Update: Caught the commercial for the show, and there I am... talking about robots. Which would be next week's show. I know that I was interviewed about "invisibility cloaks," however, so there's still a decent likelihood that I'll be in this week's show, too.

    Ah, television is a fickle mistress.)

    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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