Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Future of Knowledge is Becomming Clearer

The internet (you may have heard of it - it's a big deal) when it first got going, was predicted to be like TV, but better, as Kevin Kelly says in this speech. It has obviously become something much greater than that, and its future is becoming clearer with recent developments, a few of which I will briefly discuss here.

The power of the internet that we will see in the short future will have something to do with combining the increasingly massive amounts of useful data on the web, such as all of MIT's publications, which were voted last week to be made available for free on the web, and increasingly efficient searching and knowledge synthesis programs, such as Wolfram Alpha, scheduled to open in May. I quote from Stephen Wolfram's blog:

"...what about all the actual knowledge that we as humans have accumulated? A lot of it is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text. But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out. So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier. But armed with Mathematica and NKS I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable. It’s not easy to do this. Every different kind of method and model—and data—has its own special features and character. But with a mixture of Mathematica and A New Kind of Science automation, and a lot of human experts, I’m happy to say that we’ve gotten a very long way. But, OK. Let’s say we succeed in creating a system that knows a lot, and can figure a lot out. How can we interact with it? The way humans normally communicate is through natural language. And when one’s dealing with the whole spectrum of knowledge, I think that’s the only realistic option for communicating with computers too."

Wolfram Alpha is a search engine that receives questions in the form of natural language, and uses vast amounts of data accumulated from the web to answer them. This is a Knowledge Engine that computes factual answers from the huge, currently unorganized databank that is the internet. And, it works quite well, according to this review article. This combination of scientific data and knowledge generators will be revolutionary. For instance, the evolutionary biologist, John Hawks has a short article on how this technology could make bioinformatics obsolete

Another interesting catalyst is the linked data movement that Tim Berners Lee (the inventor of the world wide web) is starting. His TED talk about the subject is wonderful, but to surmise the concept, linked data is about using the web to connect data, information, and knowledge that wasn't previously linked. It's all about getting raw data out there to be linked to and from to similar or related concepts and ideas, to create a more fluid, integrated, effective and expansive internet.

The future interactive nature of the web "of things" will combine this informative data to actual objects in the real, sensory world that we interact with, using live cameras connected to the internet via mobile phones with image recognition capabilities, to label the world in increasingly minute and precise ways, with informational tags in real time, as I briefly discussed in my post about Photosynth. What is most interesting to me about this future that is becoming more and more clear is that this interactive web of things will not be merely a real time tagging of sensory information, but a real time linking of these quanta of information. In the same way that our brains link all the data that is stored in our memories throughout our lives to connect our sensory inputs in ways that make sense given our past experience, the internet will be using all human knowledge to link our real time sensory data in creative and informative ways.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Knowledge as a Path to Enlightenment

There are as many paths to enlightenment as there are possible ideas. And there are as many descriptions of what enlightenment is as there are people in the world. But although I believe that every person, and every mind is a perfect and flawless construction of a hereditary past and a past of personal experience, I think it is too easy to say that everyone has achieved their own enlightenment. I think that each person has a potential for a unique enlightenment that cannot be exactly similar to another’s version of enlightenment, and I think it is fair to say that many people don’t achieve their own form of enlightenment; they live their lives without every sniffing out their own path toward feeling that they embody their own intrinsic beauty and perfection. This is all to say that my insights into enlightenment do not, necessarily have anything to do with anyone’s enlightenment but my own. Still, I think that finding one’s path has something to do with listening to everyone, but following no one. We don’t exist inside vacuums; we generate our version of reality by synthesizing all other versions of reality that we observe throughout our lives. The pessimistic way of putting this is the way that Audre Lorde put it when he said, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” I disagree with this. In fact, I think that the exact opposite is closer to reality: There are only new ideas. Each moment, from each individual vantage point, is a never-before experienced interpretation of a universe that is also changing faster than our interpretations of it. Every time we encounter an old idea or observation, we combine it with all of the other old ideas in our long-evolved reference frames, and we thus constantly synthesize uncountable old ideas into new ones. The uniqueness of one’s interpretation may be subtle, but it is, nevertheless, unique. So, consider my ideas on approaching my enlightenment as a cobblestone on your own path towards your own. Perhaps you may even think of my words as a stone that begins to diverge from your own. As Isaac Newton famously put it, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

This is the main reason why I think that knowledge is the key towards enlightenment. Knowledge, of course, can come in any form. I use the word in this essay in its most generic sense, simply as sensory input. The reason, as I outlined above, is that more exposure to the world, more reception of others’ views, means more elements to synthesize into your own global interpretation. Of course, as we develop our reference frames, we are more selective about the ideas and concepts that we allow to contribute to them. We have some idea about which tools we need to complete the construction kits that form our conception of reality. In this sense, the ideas that we dismiss as fallacious or harmful are equally as important as the ideas we accept as wholesome and true, because they help to clarify our path towards our own enlightenment by contrasting our path to other, less productive paths. As I said above, these words may all be recognized as a completely divergent path from your own, but they will still be helpful towards your self-discovery, because the more examples you accumulate of ideas that you don’t resonate with, the more you will be able to recognize ideas that you do resonate with.

So, our worldviews are massive culminations of data we accumulate from the world as we perceive it, and our brains are constantly translating our perceptions into highly detailed representations of the world’s constituent phenomena. Our minds are constantly updating, redefining and rearranging these codified mental representations to create extremely accurate maps. An example of this is that we are surprised when you pick up a can that we thought was full of paint, but turns out to be empty, causing you to almost topple yourself over with your own motion, expecting to meet more resistance to your pull. Our moment to moment, mundane interactions with our world are brimming with highly organized data that we’ve accumulated throughout our lives, such as the average weight of a gallon jug full of paint, and how much force must be exerted, in a certain direction with a specific muscle group, to live it to a specific height. The maps that we use to navigate the familiar areas of our lives, such as a midnight walk down your pitch-black hallway, down the stairs, through the kitchen door and to your fridge, have so much representational data about the physical world that one can close their eyes and almost see and feel every element of it. Our memories are little more abstract and disconnected from the real world than our senses are.

In this sense, we can accurately think of our consciousness as expanding to try and become the world around us by seeking out sensory information, combining them to make increasingly accurate models and maps, and performing profoundly intricate calculations upon this data in order to make specific predictions about how our interactions with the world will effect it. We literally manipulate the elements of our mental world to see what will happen before we manipulate the real world. So it is very important that the descriptions of physical things and the laws they obey are mapped very accurately in our mental copy of the world.

But we don’t only build our mental maps strictly from direct sensory observation. First of all, we reflect upon our observations and arrive at conclusions about our surroundings that are greater than the sum of their parts. We also communicate with others to find out what they have observed and reflected upon, and we add that data to our model. Often times, this data is very counterintuitive, and is extremely hard, if not impossible, to obtain from direct, personal observation and reflection. So we construct our mental worlds through a combination of direct observation, and information that others have gathered from others, which we take upon trust to be accurate. This process of counterintuitive observation and communication has become highly specialized, so that groups of people dedicate themselves towards observing and thinking about very specific phenomena within the universe as precisely and accurately as they can. And lucky for us, those people share that information with others, so that they can also make their mental models more accurate and rich.

This is what makes learning and exploring so enlightening and addicting. Learning information about the universe we live in literally expands the representational world that is coded in our minds. Specifically, learning about the very big and the very small expands our consciousness by expanding the proportions of the mental models that collectively form it. So, for instance, if you become very familiar with the process of photosynthesis, you incorporate that information into the same consciousness that you perceive from, so that you can in a sense see the microscopic processes that are occurring in a plant when you observe it. Or if you are aware of the nuclear reactions that take place in stars, you incorporate that knowledge into your observations when you look directly at the sun. So, we can gain great enlightenment from becoming increasingly familiar with phenomena in the extreme proportions of our universe, because our consciousness stretches to accurately represent this new information, and to understand our position within it.

This is why I have come to consider a life in the pursuit of knowledge as a life that is destined towards profound enlightenment. Another important thing to note is that in trying to understand the nature of the universe we live in on all scales, one is always approaching perfection. This is because whatever the universe is, it is the most perfect thing imaginable. I don’t mean the word “perfect” here in a practical or functional sense. We could imagine more “perfect” versions of many things, in the sense that they could perform the functions that they seemed to have evolved for in a more efficient way. Blood could deliver more oxygen, brains could contain more information, and a peacock’s feathers could be more colorful. The universe is perfect only when considered without motive in mind. Indeed, it has created and contains all existing motives. All of the rubrics for considering functionality and efficiency exist within it. The universe isn’t trying to approach perfection in its evolution. It is us who are trying to approach a full understanding of the perfection that is immortally within and without us, the omnipresent perfection of the universe that we both make and are made of. We are some of the many perfect tools that the universe uses to mold itself into new forms of perfection. Our intentions will never be any other than the universe’s intentions, because we are the universe.

A path towards knowledge will never be disappointing, because we can only approach an understanding the world’s intrinsic beauty, and this beauty itself is changing faster than we will ever be able to keep up with. As Dr. Robert Goddard wrote in a letter to H. G. Wells in 1932, “There can be no thought of finishing, for “aiming at the stars,” both literally and figuratively is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.”

Breaktime from Gangpol & Mit on Vimeo.

Blam from Gangpol & Mit on Vimeo.

Holy green jelly from Gangpol & Mit on Vimeo.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gravity as the Perfect Software System

The discussion of the idea of a computational universe is a religious one as of now, because we don't yet know of a way to prove or disprove it. I realize that to talk about this in such a literal way is to postulate God, but however far we go back, once we realize that time existed before the big bang, we never reach the answer of "why?". As a scientifically minded person, I don't demand this answer, like most religious people do, because I realize that it cannot be answered, and therefore is impractical to ask. But I also don't wish do sweep it under the table, because it is the most important question we can ask, regardless that the only answers we can generate are postulations. This is all, of course, postulation - is the universe a computer?

1. Computation can be viewed as providing a small number of inputs to generate a large number of outputs, such as the fundamental force(s) and energy (although even the separation between these two things might in fact be superficial) generating the complexity that we are today.

2. The universe is a fabric of individual quanta of information, which communicate the nature of themselves to every other part of the universe, and manipulate the performance of these other universal constituents.

3. We see in our modern world a doubly exponential rate of expansion of computational power. We have moved through paradigms of computation, from electromechanical calculators, to relay based computers, to vacuum tubes, to discrete transistors, to integrated circuits, which is where we find ourselves (in the common public) today. The scale that we're moving to now is to nanoscale computation with the same fundamental properties we see in computers now, but with much smaller proportions. Also in successful development is self-assembling computation, using the inherent structure and behavior of things like DNA and other complex molecules to generate computational results (software) and small physical structures (hardware, like cell phones or smiley faces). After that, we will be in the atom and quantum scales. In fact, many great strides have already been made in this field lately. The types of computation that we will be doing in 100,000 years or so, if we project these trends, might look something like the universe we live in.

4. If time is infinite, the probability of life being created in the past who create these profound types of computational devices that we foresee in our own future are also infinite. Of course, I'm talking about a multiverse, or whatever; not simply the universe that we can see within the cosmological horizon of our light sphere. Big bang theory is said to form time as well as matter and energy as we know it, but this is all based on equations that are based within relativity theory. There are a host of quantum principles that would prevent matter from, as the most strict big band theorists say, condensing into an infinitely small point, in which nothing exists, including time. Many cosmologists agree with this, and it is bringing back the old "bounce" theory of a local universe that expands and contracts forever.

5. The only constant we find in the universe around us on all scales is information. Everything contains information that is used to communicate to, and manipulate, everything else. The most straightforward example is DNA, which uses a single language of four letters to create all forms of life that exist on our planet. But this property of information-based manipulation is shared by everything that has mass, and therefor has gravity, as I will discuss later.

6. If the fabric of the universe that we are a participating part of is computational in its most perceivably fundamental nature, then we can never, ever, become aware in a positive way that we are part of a computational system. Even if we find something of a drastically different nature, the only way we could perceive it is if it were of the same nature as us, and we could never know whether or not it is also part of the computer.

Of course, I realize that to postulate a final cause of our existence as the products of previously existing, information-seeking entities results in the logical fallacy of infinite regress, but this is no worse than the situation we find ourselves in now. With infinite time, there will have to be infinite regress in any question with the form, "But how were the creators created?" On some of the grandest scales, I am hooked on Lee Smolin's idea that our universe is a product of many, many generations of other universes that reproduce through black holes, and thereby exist in an environment of natural selection that is created by the tendency for universes that have more progeny, or offspring, to tend to win in selective competition. That is, the universes that create the most black holes tend to continue their line of descent, while the universes that create less black holes due to mutations of their physical laws, have less progeny to continue their "genetic" line, and the landscape becomes overwhelmed by those universes that can create more progeny.

But this still does not give us an answer to "Why?" Why was this chain of evolving universes composed of ingredients that gave rise to something like matter, or physical structure, rather than something else, or nothing at all? This is where the infinite regress comes in - something needs to be the cause of this initial cause, and so on. So, I acknowledge the possibility of conscious creation of physical properties causing this cycle, and the possibility of the conscious creators of those creators. And at those types of scales, science has no ideas, doesn't and shouldn't consider, and even scoffs at, ideas like this. And they should, because there is absolutely no way to know.

So, perhaps the final cause of physical structure and organization is computation itself. Computation, creating more sophisticated computation, and so on, ad infinitum.

Certainly, in our universe, I can imagine no other future than one dominated by conscious beings, who understand how to manipulate their physical environment to increasingly minute degrees. This, I believe, is the cosmic arena of evolution. Forms of life on an individual planet will be eventually dominated by those who can understand and manipulate their environments in the most creative ways. These are the forms of life that reach out into the rest of the universe outside of their planet, and eventually, out of their local solar system. Eventually, these beings interact with each other, communicating and sharing knowledge and resources, creating more and more sentient beings who embody more fundamentally and minutely the informational potential of the universe, and make increasingly wise and powerful choices in their interactions and communications.

When we do approach the ultimate limit of computation, I think that we will be trying to emulate the best software platform we see in the world around us - gravity.

Einstein gives us a picture in which gravity is the shape of space-time produced by the organization of energy in our universe. It can be viewed this way, but another hypothesis is that it is a particle. This is one avenue that people take towards finding a unifying theory of physics between relativity and gravity.

But however we view it, it is clear that, although gravity is taken for granted by most of us, it is truly profound. It communicates infinitely (infinitely, you guys!!!!!!) between everything (you guys!!!!!) all the time, at the fastest possible speed (the speed of light). Everything that has mass communicates this force to everything else that has mass in an unfathomably precise way. This universally attractive force is truly the only real necessity for creating great organization in the universe, on all scales. (Of course, repulsive forces are necessary on small scales, which is what we find in our universe). We know that our universe expanded from an extremely dense point, and that the unimaginably minute inhomogeneities within this early universe were the seeds of gravitational condensation that were the cause of the large-scale structure of our universe.

If we could detect gravity (and the other forces) on the smallest theoretically minute scales, we could note the position, size, shape, and movement of everything in the universe. I cannot stress that this information is being communicated to and from everything that exists, to extreme precision, and that this information results in an extremely precise manipulation of the discreet constituents that receive this information. The universe is the perfect computer because there is absolutely no separation between its hardware and its software (which is the direction that we see computation going down today) and because its most basic platform (the laws of physics) are extremely simple and universally communicative, while resulting in unimaginably complex and cohesive products.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Song to download - Windows and Knots

Windows and Knots

My Ableton is done for; I had to download the trial version to finish this song. So, I must let down my loyal fans across the seas by saying that it will probably be awhile before I post another song. Another thing I might be doing is learning CSound, which is a sound oriented programming language. That may be one of those things that just sits on the shelf for awhile, though. Who knows.

Photosynth, and it's Possibilities

Here is the link, if you can't view the movie.

This is one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Photosynth examines images for similarities to each other and uses that information to estimate the shape of the subject and the vantage point each photo was taken from. Then, the information is used to recreate the space and use it as a canvas to display and navigate through the photos. Used in conjunction with the vast amount of photographic data on the web, it allows an immersive recreation of the most interesting landmarks and events (there's a great one of Obama's inaugural address on the site). The program is freely available on the site (there's no available Mac software for the creation of Photosynth canvasses, but you can view others. but there is an app for the iPhone). You can just take a bunch of pictures of whatever, upload them, and whalla! Your room is now communicated as a 3d environment that is shared with the rest of the world. Think of all the Google street view image files, low and high flying balloon and plane images, tourist photos on Flickr, all combined into a navigable, virtual landscape. (There's actually a couple cool skyview Photosynths on the main page.)

Another important extension, as Aguera says in the above video, is the huge amount of semantic information attached to image files on the internet, such as tags for image searches, or additional tags or embedded information about the location, subject, etc.

This, in combination with mobile phone devices with cameras, is a huge step towards an approach that some people call augmented reality. A combination of image-matching, GPS coordinates, compass orientation, and an internet full of knowledge about the world are leading more and more to an up-to-date, wiki-style portal of information wherever you are, whether it's getting bus times, product or company info, book reviews, or the types of wires inside the stoplight pole across the street. Right now, it's being pursued through increasingly high-performance mobile devices like iPhone apps, and this new Microsoft device, but even now, there are previews of what it will be like when these type of human-computer interfaces are completely ephemeral. Here is a cool demo of this type of "sixth sense" by Pattie Maes.

I was thinking, though, that this software could be used for even more than all that. With this image recognizing software, which make tons of points on an image and cross-examines them against other images, this could be used to synthesize tons of visual information for many purposes. For instance, with the wealth of high resolution digital images of species on the internet, one could import all of them into a massive Photosynthish compilation, using the software to match phenotypic congruences and arranging them into a more or less continuous morphological line, and simply watch it morph through the line of the just-over-2-million identified species (and many unidentified ones scattered throughout the web). It's been discussed before how the internet and widespread high-res digital photography will aid in skyrocketing our list of known species, reducing the daunting gap between the 2 million known and perhaps 100 million unknown species in the world, bringing back an old school, Linnaen taxonomy of searching and labeling. At the very least, this is a profound art project waiting to happen, if not an invaluable tool for understanding our world in new ways.

In fact, the same could be done for almost every physical structure, giving a fresh perspective, for instance, on the morphology of musical technology over the years, or of medieval armor. This type of technology allows for an invaluable synthesis and cross-reference of visual information of all types. And synthesis is exactly what we need to see more of on the internet, with its hopelessly disconnected and unorganized nodes of information laying strewn about in the most unlikely corners.

Another huge catalyst towards a fully integrated, universally connected consciousness!