(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘history of technology

“The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”*…

Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss. It’s a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity — a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied — and the world will pass beyond our understanding.

Vernor Vinge, True Names and Other Dangers

The once-vibrant transhumanist movement doesn’t capture as much attention as it used to; but as George Dvorsky explains, its ideas are far from dead. Indeed, they helped seed the Futurist movements that are so prominent today (and here and here)…

[On the heels of 9/11] transhumanism made a lot of sense to me, as it seemed to represent the logical next step in our evolution, albeit an evolution guided by humans and not Darwinian selection. As a cultural and intellectual movement, transhumanism seeks to improve the human condition by developing, promoting, and disseminating technologies that significantly augment our cognitive, physical, and psychological capabilities. When I first stumbled upon the movement, the technological enablers of transhumanism were starting to come into focus: genomics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. These tools carried the potential to radically transform our species, leading to humans with augmented intelligence and memory, unlimited lifespans, and entirely new physical and cognitive capabilities. And as a nascent Buddhist, it meant a lot to me that transhumanism held the potential to alleviate a considerable amount of suffering through the elimination of disease, infirmary, mental disorders, and the ravages of aging.

The idea that humans would transition to a posthuman state seemed both inevitable and desirable, but, having an apparently functional brain, I immediately recognized the potential for tremendous harm.

The term “transhumanism” popped into existence during the 20th century, but the idea has been around for a lot longer than that.

The quest for immortality has always been a part of our history, and it probably always will be. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written example, while the Fountain of Youth—the literal Fountain of Youth—was the obsession of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.

Notions that humans could somehow be modified or enhanced appeared during the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, with French philosopher Denis Diderot arguing that humans might someday redesign themselves into a multitude of types “whose future and final organic structure it’s impossible to predict,” as he wrote in D’Alembert’s Dream

The Russian cosmists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries foreshadowed modern transhumanism, as they ruminated on space travel, physical rejuvenation, immortality, and the possibility of bringing the dead back to life, the latter being a portend to cryonics—a staple of modern transhumanist thinking. From the 1920s through to the 1950s, thinkers such as British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, Irish scientist J. D. Bernal, and British biologist Julian Huxley (who popularized the term “transhumanism” in a 1957 essay) were openly advocating for such things as artificial wombs, human clones, cybernetic implants, biological enhancements, and space exploration.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that a cohesive transhumanist movement emerged, a development largely brought about by—you guessed it—the internet…

[There follows a brisk and helpful history of transhumanist thought, then an account of the recent past, and present…]

Some of the transhumanist groups that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s still exist or evolved into new forms, and while a strong pro-transhumanist subculture remains, the larger public seems detached and largely disinterested. But that’s not to say that these groups, or the transhumanist movement in general, didn’t have an impact…

“I think the movements had mainly an impact as intellectual salons where blue-sky discussions made people find important issues they later dug into professionally,” said Sandberg. He pointed to Oxford University philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom, who “discovered the importance of existential risk for thinking about the long-term future,” which resulted in an entirely new research direction. The Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford are the direct results of Bostrom’s work. Sandberg also cited artificial intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky, who “refined thinking about AI that led to the AI safety community forming,” and also the transhumanist “cryptoanarchists” who “did the groundwork for the cryptocurrency world,” he added. Indeed, Vitalik Buterin, a co-founder of Ethereum, subscribes to transhumanist thinking, and his father, Dmitry, used to attend our meetings at the Toronto Transhumanist Association…

Intellectual history: “What Ever Happened to the Transhumanists?,” from @dvorsky.

See also: “The Heaven of the Transhumanists” from @GenofMod (source of the image above).

Donna Haraway


As we muse on mortality, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Marvin Minsky; he was born on this date in 1927.  A biochemist and cognitive scientist by training, he was founding director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Project (the MIT AI Lab).  Minsky authored several widely-used texts, and made many contributions to AI, cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics.  He holds several patents, including those for the first neural-network simulator (SNARC, 1951), the first head-mounted graphical display, the first confocal scanning microscope, and the LOGO “turtle” device (with his friend and frequent collaborator Seymour Papert).  His other inventions include mechanical hands and the “Muse” synthesizer.


“History is who we are and why we are the way we are”*…

What a long, strange trip it’s been…

March 12, 1989 Information Management, a Proposal

While working at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee first comes up with the idea for the World Wide Web. To pitch it, he submits a proposal for organizing scientific documents to his employers titled “Information Management, a Proposal.” In this proposal, Berners-Lee sketches out what the web will become, including early versions of the HTTP protocol and HTML.

The first entry a timeline that serves as a table of contents for a series of informative blog posts: “The History of the Web,” from @jay_hoffmann.

* David McCullough


As we jack in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that the world first learned of what would become the internet, which would, in turn, become that backbone of the web: UCLA announced it would “become the first station in a nationwide computer network which, for the first time, will link together computers of different makes and using different machine languages into one time-sharing system.” It went on to say that “Creation of the network represents a major forward step in computer technology and may server as the forerunner of large computer networks of the future.”

UCLA will become the first station in a nationwide computer network which, for the first time, will link together computers of different makes and using different machine languages into one time-sharing system.

Creation of the network represents a major forward step in computer technology and may serve as the forerunner of large computer networks of the future.

The ambitious project is supported by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), which has pioneered many advances in computer research, technology and applications during the past decade. The network project was proposed and is headed by ARPA’s Dr. Lawrence G. Roberts.

The system will, in effect, pool the computer power, programs and specialized know-how of about 15 computer research centers, stretching from UCLA to M.I.T. Other California network stations (or nodes) will be located at the Rand Corp. and System Development Corp., both of Santa Monica; the Santa Barbara and Berkeley campuses of the University of California; Stanford University and the Stanford Research Institute.

The first stage of the network will go into operation this fall as a subnet joining UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. The entire network is expected to be operational in late 1970.

Engineering professor Leonard Kleinrock [see here], who heads the UCLA project, describes how the network might handle a sample problem:

Programmers at Computer A have a blurred photo which they want to bring into focus. Their program transmits the photo to Computer B, which specializes in computer graphics, and instructs B’s program to remove the blur and enhance the contrast. If B requires specialized computational assistance, it may call on Computer C for help.

The processed work is shuttled back and forth until B is satisfied with the photo, and then sends it back to Computer A. The messages, ranging across the country, can flash between computers in a matter of seconds, Dr. Kleinrock says.

UCLA’s part of the project will involve about 20 people, including some 15 graduate students. The group will play a key role as the official network measurement center, analyzing computer interaction and network behavior, comparing performance against anticipated results, and keeping a continuous check on the network’s effectiveness. For this job, UCLA will use a highly specialized computer, the Sigma 7, developed by Scientific Data Systems of Los Angeles.

Each computer in the network will be equipped with its own interface message processor (IMP) which will double as a sort of translator among the Babel of computer languages and as a message handler and router.

Computer networks are not an entirely new concept, notes Dr. Kleinrock. The SAGE radar defense system of the Fifties was one of the first, followed by the airlines’ SABRE reservation system. At the present time, the nation’s electronically switched telephone system is the world’s largest computer network.

However, all three are highly specialized and single-purpose systems, in contrast to the planned ARPA system which will link a wide assortment of different computers for a wide range of unclassified research functions.

“As of now, computer networks are still in their infancy,” says Dr. Kleinrock. “But as they grow up and become more sophisticated, we will probably see the spread of ‘computer utilities’, which, like present electronic and telephone utilities, will service individual homes and offices across the country.”

Boelter Hall, UCLA


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 3, 2022 at 1:00 am

“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”*…

The estimable Steven Johnson suggests that the creation of Disney’s masterpiece, Snow White, gives us a preview of what may be coming with AI algorithms sophisticated enough to pass for sentient beings…

… You can make the argument that the single most dramatic acceleration point in the history of illusion occurred between the years of 1928 and 1937, the years between the release of Steamboat Willie [here], Disney’s breakthrough sound cartoon introducing Mickey Mouse, and the completion of his masterpiece, Snow White, the first long-form animated film in history [here— actually the first full-length animated feature produced in the U.S; the first produced anywhere in color]. It is hard to think of another stretch where the formal possibilities of an artistic medium expanded in such a dramatic fashion, in such a short amount of time.

[There follows an fascinating history of the Disney Studios technical innovations that made Snow White possible, and an account of the film;’s remarkable premiere…]

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion—the dancing mouse is whistling!—into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Those weeping spectators at the Snow White premiere signaled a fundamental change in the relationship between human beings and the illusions concocted to amuse them. Complexity theorists have a term for this kind of change in physical systems: phase transitions. Alter one property of a system—lowering the temperature of a cloud of steam, for instance—and for a while the changes are linear: the steam gets steadily cooler. But then, at a certain threshold point, a fundamental shift happens: below 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas becomes liquid water. That moment marks the phase transition: not just cooler steam, but something altogether different.

It is possible—maybe even likely—that a further twist awaits us. When Charles Babbage encountered an automaton of a ballerina as a child in the early 1800s, the “irresistible eyes” of the mechanism convinced him that there was something lifelike in the machine.  Those robotic facial expressions would seem laughable to a modern viewer, but animatronics has made a great deal of progress since then. There may well be a comparable threshold in simulated emotion—via robotics or digital animation, or even the text chat of an AI like LaMDA—that makes it near impossible for humans not to form emotional bonds with a simulated being. We knew the dwarfs in Snow White were not real, but we couldn’t keep ourselves from weeping for their lost princess in sympathy with them. Imagine a world populated by machines or digital simulations that fill our lives with comparable illusion, only this time the virtual beings are not following a storyboard sketched out in Disney’s studios, but instead responding to the twists and turns and unmet emotional needs of our own lives. (The brilliant Spike Jonze film Her imagined this scenario using only a voice.) There is likely to be the equivalent of a Turing Test for artificial emotional intelligence: a machine real enough to elicit an emotional attachment. It may well be that the first simulated intelligence to trigger that connection will be some kind of voice-only assistant, a descendant of software like Alexa or Siri—only these assistants will have such fluid conversational skills and growing knowledge of our own individual needs and habits that we will find ourselves compelled to think of them as more than machines, just as we were compelled to think of those first movie stars as more than just flickering lights on a fabric screen. Once we pass that threshold, a bizarre new world may open up, a world where our lives are accompanied by simulated friends…

Are we in for a phase-shift in our understanding of companionship? “Natural Magic,” from @stevenbjohnson, adapted from his book Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World.

And for a different, but aposite perspective, from the ever-illuminating L. M. Sacasas (@LMSacasas), see “LaMDA, Lemoine, and the Allures of Digital Re-enchantment.”

* Shakespeare, The Tempest


As we rethink relationships, we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that the original iPhone was introduced. Generally downplayed by traditional technology pundits after its announcement six months earlier, the iPhone was greeted by long lines of buyers around the country on that first day. Quickly becoming a phenomenon, one million iPhones were sold in only 74 days. Since those early days, the ensuing iPhone models have continued to set sales records and have radically changed not only the smartphone and technology industries, but the world in which they operate as well.

The original iPhone


“If you are confused by the underlying principles of quantum technology – you get it!”*…

A tour through the map above– a helpful primer on the origins, development, and possible futures of quantum computing…

From Dominic Walliman (@DominicWalliman) on @DomainOfScience.

* Kevin Coleman


As we embrace uncertainty, we might spare a thought for

Alan Turing; he died on this date in 1954. A British mathematician, he was a foundational computer science pioneer (inventor of the Turing Machine, creator of the “Turing Test” (perhaps to b made more relevant by quantum computing :), and inspiration for “The Turing Award“) and cryptographer (leading member of the team that cracked the Enigma code during WWII).  


“Artificial intelligence is growing up fast”*…

A simple prototype system sidesteps the computing bottleneck in tuning– teaching– artificial intelligence algorithms…

A simple electrical circuit [pictured above] has learned to recognize flowers based on their petal size. That may seem trivial compared with artificial intelligence (AI) systems that recognize faces in a crowd, transcribe spoken words into text, and perform other astounding feats. However, the tiny circuit outshines conventional machine learning systems in one key way: It teaches itself without any help from a computer—akin to a living brain. The result demonstrates one way to avoid the massive amount of computation typically required to tune an AI system, an issue that could become more of a roadblock as such programs grow increasingly complex.

“It’s a proof of principle,” says Samuel Dillavou, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania who presented the work here this week at the annual March meeting of the American Physical Society. “We are learning something about learning.”…

More at “Simple electrical circuit learns on its own—with no help from a computer, from @ScienceMagazine.

* Diane Ackerman


As we brace ourselves (and lest we doubt the big things can grow from humble beginnings like these), we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 that Texas Instruments (TI) demonstrated the first working integrated circuit (IC), which had been invented by Jack Kilby. Kilby created the device to prove that resistors and capacitors could exist on the same piece of semiconductor material. His circuit consisted of a sliver of germanium with five components linked by wires. It was Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, however, who filed for a patent within months of Kilby and who made the IC a commercially-viable technology. Both men are credited as co-inventors of the IC. (Kilby won the Nobel Prize for his work in 2000; Noyce, who died in 1990, did not share.)

Kilby and his first IC (source)
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