Open Letter on One Billion Rising

Afghan women march in KabulSo you’ve probably heard about One Billion Rising, which was a Big Global Event yesterday, in RL and SL.

I don’t tend to talk about Big Global Events here, ’cause you’ve already heard about them, and I don’t generally have anything novel to add. (I’m more into the Tiny Local Events.)

But a friend pointed out a Whiskey Shots post taking a contrarian view of the whole thing (WordPress thinks “contrarian” is spelled wrong?), and I found myself this morning posting a couple of comments to the comment thread on it, and I thought I’d share them here as well.

I should be clear that I admire Whiskey Day, and sometimes :) admire Crap Mariner (although generally least when he gets into macho mode, as here). I felt moved to present my thoughts because the tone of the comments was so largely negative about OBR (turns out Whiskey’s opinion isn’t all that unpopular after all!), and I wanted to add some positive to the thread.

And also because I thought it was sort of true and significant stuff to say…

I don’t know, we don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. Sure things like OBR aren’t going to solve the problem, but then no single thing is going to solve the problem. OBR works on consciousness raising and solidarity, and those are important things, and easy to underestimate. Maybe a few, or a few thousand, women will see something about it and get that extra push of confidence and support that will lead them to leave an abusive relationship, or get to a shelter. Maybe a few politicians will see something, see a bunch of voters expressing concern, and think hm maybe I ought to actually read that bill on violence against women, rather than just voting against it because my party says to. Really fixing the problem requires changes to society, and that happens slowly, and needs pushes from lots of different directions.

Heck, it’s got us talking about the subject! :) Maybe someone will see Whiskey’s note about the newsletter she is writing for, or what Celestiall said about the 2nd Amendment Sisters, and find out more, and donate or volunteer.

If it was a choice between OBR and something more effective, then OBR would be the wrong choice. But I think the choice is more between OBR and not-OBR. I doubt that lots of the energy that went into OBR was taken from something that would have done more good. The media coverage that it got would probably otherwise have been devoted to some celebrity’s nipple-slip or The Latest Funny Cat Pictures From The Internet.

If you know of something better than OBR, definitely go out and do it! But that doesn’t mean that OBR didn’t make the world a better place, even if it didn’t solve the problem all by itself…

… And I can’t keep myself from mentioning also that I’m pretty uncomfortable with this whole “the real solution is for women to dance on the graves of their abusers after they kill them” meme. It’s a cute weblog-comment soundbite, but are we really saying that an abused little girl should just kill her abusive uncle? That a woman facing a gang on a bus in Mumbai should just hope that her gun will be more effective than theirs? That an abused wife should just kill her husband the Sheriff and hope that the justice system understands?

Are we really going to say to a woman in need, look, we’ll spend millions of dollars to protect Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse in foreign countries, but if you need protection from rape you’re on your own; hope you’re well armed! That’s not something I’m comfortable saying, myself.

Again, what the Second Amendment Sisters, and anyone working to empower women for self-defense, are doing is great stuff. But it is ALSO not going to solve the problem by itself, and I don’t think it’s a legitimate reason to put down things like OBR. There’s a danger, I think, that it becomes a facile sound-bite, and a way to make this all Someone Else’s Problem. In this case, the victim’s. And that’s not a place I’m willing to go…

And even before I’ve pressed “Publish” on this entry :) Crap has responded; mostly missing the point so far I think, but by the time you read this maybe it will be a long and fascinating exchange. Come on over! :)

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Lt. John “Pepper” Pike

We interrupt the combat-scripting exercises :) for this important bulletin. This must-have item is now available in the Marketplace, apparently for the very affordable price of 0 (zero) Lindenbucks:

(If anyone doesn’t know the story of “Pepper” Pike and his elevation to memehood, see for instance this HuffPo piece.)

I saw this by the side of the road and knew I had to have one. :) Not being swift enough to look in that there new-fangled Marketplace for it, I left an IM for the creator, who very kindly not only gave me a copy, but pointed me to the Marketplace link.

So spread the word! Defend SL against dissent and nonviolent protest! Or even just annoying weeds!

Free Hobbit Holes!

Hobbit Holes!I mean, Linden Homes! :)

In a recent posting to the official Second Life “blog”, the Lab has announced that they will soon be beta-testing a program in which Premium members can get a free plot of land, with a pre-installed Hobbit hole house on it, to live on. For free.

These Linden Homes will be limited in various ways:

Therefore these parcels will be unlike normal land in that they will be restricted in various ways; the house cannot be removed and the parcels cannot be sold, joined, terraformed or divided. Events and classifieds cannot be created for these parcels; only Premium Members can own them, and only one per account.

If you can’t remove the house, I imagine you also won’t be able to modify it so that it consists of a single invisible phantom prim buried a meter underground. :)

My initial visceral reaction to this was sheesh here we go again with the Lindens sort of dipping down and futzing around with the world and the economy.

Sort of like having Athena Herself open a free pizza-place on the corner. Okay, maybe she only offers three toppings, and no Sicilian crusts, but I’m not sure how happy I’d be about it if I had a pizza joint in the same town. Or, alternately, if I was a big fan of Sicilian pizza!

I’ve read Jacek Antonelli on the subject, and she is hopeful that this will turn out to be a good thing even for the people that might look on it as wildly uneven competition.

I’ve read most of Second Thoughts on the subject (I admit I didn’t read the entire long chat transcript); Prokofy Neva thinks this is all part of the Lindens’ systematically destroying the mainland.

Whether or not the Hobbit Holes program succeeds in its stated aims, my larger impression is that, as I’ve noted before, the Lindens still think of Second Life as a thing of theirs, that they can of course do whatever they want with. They are not Deistic creators, setting the world spinning and then keeping their hands off; they are hands-on deities, reaching down and twiddling in ways both small and very large, not worrying all that much about what mortals might be swept asides in the process.

I have the feeling that the internal economy is in some sense not real to them; they probably know it exists, but it doesn’t figure at all largely in their calculations. They like being able to show big numbers in monthly press releases, but on the other hand they regularly do things that have large and disparate impacts on various sectors of the economy (freebie policies on xstreet, the Zindra exile, now the Hobbit Holes), and the only sign that they’re aware of this is typically some vague reassuring noises in the forums and the weblog.

And as I’ve probably also said before, this is entirely within their rights. It’s just a continuing sign that the way the Lab as a whole views the world, as a thing that they are doing, and that we are allowed to play in, and that they will periodically fiddle with in ways they think we will overall like, is quite different from the way that I would like to view the world, as a place where the Lab creates only the basic ‘physics’, and the Resis then create an actual functioning world on top of it. To me it is much less fun and interesting to see what a few dozen people in a California company would do with a world than it would be to see what thousands of random people from all around the world would do.

I’d like to be able to say that the world is gradually moving from the former model to the latter, but I don’t see it. It’s all too easy to tell a story in which things move the other way: in order to attract some possibly-imaginary set of neophobic corporate and mass-market users, the Lab wants more control, not less, over the way the world develops. And so over time the doings and the imaginations of the Residents become less and less important.

I hope that’s not the story we end up telling, ’cause I like Second Life, and I would hate to see it all cleaned up and sterile and dull and controlled. I hope that either the Lab decides that reducing Resident influence on the world is in fact not the best way to grow the business (and I think that it isn’t, myself), or we get some sort of compromise, where (sigh) parts of the Grid are all sterile and clean, and parts are allowed to remain as wild and wooly and unpredictable as (well) our imaginations…

Update: oh, and here is Ordinal, who I intended to quote from but forgot:

It is not First Land though. Those days are behind us. Now, residents are Content Creators or Content Consumers, and the assumption is that they are Content Consumers from Day One and will not move from that position.

Exactly. And exactly what I fear for the future of SL.

Imprudent Emerald Meerkats

Imprudent Emerald MeerkatSo the recent Second Life weblog posting on third-party viewer policies has caused quite a stir in the comments, due in part to one particularly vocal and vehement and misinformed Resident, but due also to some quite understandable concern about the current and future role of third-party viewers in Second Life.

Ever since the Lab open-sourced the viewer, way back in some year prior to this one, there have been third-party viewers available, based to a greater or lesser extent on the main Linden viewer. A bunch of alternative viewers are listed in the wiki; the ones whose logos I’ve snatch for the adorable picture here are Imprudence, Emerald and Meerkat. I’ve used both Imprudence and Emerald, myself; currently Emerald is my favorite just because it has so many nice small features, and they seem to have thought hard about the overall user experience: lots of the little things that I want to do are just that one or two mouse movements and clicks closer to hand than they are in any other viewer.

And of course there are the enhanced avatar physics. :) But I was using Emerald before that feature was added.

I’m hoping that Imprudence, say, will be goaded by a friendly sense of rivalry to make their viewer even more pleasant to use than Emerald. Competition is good. :)

Third-party viewers are really popular on the Grid these days, especially among people who have been around long enough to know they exist and try them out. One nice thing about Emerald is that it can often tell you what viewer other Residents that you see are using (although they can turn that off if they’d rather you didn’t know). The fraction of the crowd using Emerald seems to vary from around 10% in your average dance club, to 40% or higher in places where the people tend to be more oldbie or more clued in general (I’d say it was close to 50% at the Lamplighter procession the other night).

The new policy that was announced on the SL weblog was rather vague and unformed. It said that people using third-party viewers to violate the Second Life Terms of Service would be warned and/or banned, as appropriate; but since that’s true of anyone who uses any viewer to violate the ToS, it doesn’t really mean anything new. It also mentioned that the Lab might provide a registry of viewers known to be nice. And in a letter to the developers of third-party viewers, Cyn Linden apparently mentioned the ability to encrypt chat and IM as a function that is “at odds with” the ToS, something that has left quite a few people scratching their heads.

Toward the end of the comment thread linked above, Blondin asked for people to summarize their thoughts on the subject. Here’s what I wrote:

Always nice to have a chance to summarize. :)

My basic feeling on the general subject is that third-party viewers are a primary source of innovation in virtual worlds technology, and I would hate to see Second Life cut itself off from that stream. This is largely for selfish personal reasons: I think a Second Life that closes in on itself that way would quickly fade from the scene, and re-establishing on OpenGrid or elsewhere my social networks and my reputation (not to mention my collections of nice tank-tops and dark-red hair) would take time and effort that I’d rather spend on other things.

In itself this new policy doesn’t, I don’t think, put too much of a burden on the viewer innovation stream. If the lab publishes a reasonable set of rules for acceptable third-party viewers, and is reasonable about enforcing those rules, that would be fine. The rules should include a ban on functions whose main effect is to enable copyright violation or griefing. If the Lab has some good reason for it, they could also include a ban on end-to-end encryption, but I would really like to hear the reasons behind it. And the rule should not say that the encryption function may not be in the viewer at all; at most it should say that the function should be turned off when connecting to the SL grid.

So as long as this policy is truly just an attempt to limit the use and distribution of malicious viewers, I think that’s all to the good. To the extent that it’s a step toward closing the grid to independantly-written viewers in general, I think that would be a very bad thing for Second Life as a leader, or even a significant player, in its field.

It’s been loudly suggested that the third-party viewers that we have now are a threat to content creators, and I’d like to take a moment to address that issue, because I don’t think it’s true, and I think an artificial conflict between viewer developers and content creators would be harmful to both communities, and to Residents as a whole.

The current third-party viewers include, as everyone knows, various features that are useful to content creators: things like more flexible and precise build tools, and temporary texture caching that doesn’t use the asset servers. (The argument that if users get used to free temporary ‘uploads’, they will come to demand free real uploads is unconvincing to me: one could as well argue that allowing free uploads on the Beta Grid will lead users to demand it on the main grid as well, and that hasn’t happened. Users understand that if they want to store textures on the main grid asset servers, they need to pay the upload fee.)

But as well as features that are directly useful to content creators, third-party viewers also contain innovations that help protect content. Consider a skin creator, for instance. Unless the main Linden viewer has changed since last time I looked, every time someone using that viewer walks into a club wearing a skin that that person created, a copy of that skin is saved in cache on the hard drive of everyone in the club who can see them. On the other hand, if someone wearing that skin walks into a club using the Emerald viewer, with the appropriate box checked (I forget whether it’s the default), the only thing that ends up in all those caches is the fully baked and composited AV texture; the skin itself isn’t sent anywhere.

This kind of feature protects, not the Emerald user as such (who probably doesn’t really care, as a user, about what’s in other people’s disk caches), but the creator of the content that the user is wearing; the content creator gets this protection regardless of what viewer she herself uses. This feature has been discussed for the main Linden viewer for some time, but because the Lab is always busy, and has things that it considers more urgent to attend to, it hasn’t been (at least last time I looked) implemented there yet.

This is the virtue of the third-party viewer system in general: it allows innovation and experimentation with all sorts of features, to the benefit of the Residents using the viewers, the producers of the content that they use, and the grid as a whole, without the burden of the Lab’s review cycles, internal politics, and resource constraints. Malicious innovation is of course also possible, and I think the viewer policy that we’re discussing here, if carefully and thoughtfully implemented, will be a good way of minimizing the impact of that.

On the whole, it’s my feeling that Second Life will stay in the game only if it stays tied to key sources of innovation. If this policy is a way to do that responsibly, that’s a good thing. If it is part of an effort to break that tie, that would be very ill-advised.

It’s always hard to tell what’s going on in the collective mind of Linden Lab. I hope that this new policy will be made sensibly and thoughtfully, and keep Second Life going strong. If only ’cause I have a lot of tank tops. :)

Hey you Lindens, get offa my lawn!

On the snazzy black-background Flash-driven page that Second Life dot com shows if you aren’t logged in, it says

Second Life is an online, 3D virtual world imagined and created by its Residents.

On the masthead of the pages that Second Life dot com shows to logged-in Residents, it says more succinctly

Your World. Your Imagination.

I like both of these phrases quite a bit. I like the idea that SL is whatever the Residents make it, and that Linden Lab qua Linden Lab confines itself to making sure that the laws of physics work, making sure that the land exists, and that the most basic rules of civilized behavior (i.e. no griefing) are enforced.

If the Lab wants to have some land where they do cool stuff, and wants to like organize a Winter Festival or something now and then, too, that’s okay, although I’d rather they did it as individual Residents, rather than as The Lindens; it’s fairer that way.

It’s like how the FSM created the RL universe for us, and then mostly stepped back to let us play with it. He doesn’t reach down with His Noodly Appendage now and then to put on a barbecue or a remake of Casablanca or anything. He keeps, if you will, a clean separation between the tasks of physics and culture.

There seems to be a real tension at the Lab between letting the Residents shape the world, “Your World, Your Imagination” style, and intervening to shape and mold the world the way that the Lab would like it to be. The most obvious example of that is the Great Adult Exile, but it’s relatively easy to argue that they were forced into that by RL laws about exposing people who might be children to taboo images and stuff. More subtly, though, the Lab does things like Bay City and Nautilus, parts of the mainland where rather than just putting out land for sale and letting Residents build stuff, they do big builds of their own, with Themes, and Texture Sets, and Back Story, and all like that. Whatever one thinks of the particular builds, it’s undeniable that, having been built by The Gods Themselves, they have certain advantages, economic and psychological, over anything that a mere Resident might build.

I posted a comment on this SL weblog entry about the Hau Koda Municipal Airport, with this sort of concern in mind:

This looks like a really pretty build, and I know lots of hard work and great intentions have gone into it. And I hate to be an ol’ grump but…

Why is the Lab making large elaborate builds, again? I mean okay I can understand roads, a bit, because in order to be useful they have to cut across large areas and it would be hard for a private Resident to acquire all that land from the folks in the path of the road. But why an airport? It being Our World Our Imagination an’ all, why not sell that land to a Resident or a Group and let them build whatever the imagination suggests? Maybe an airport, maybe a hockey rink, maybe a carnival-grounds, whatever.

Not that I don’t think y’all at the Lab should have the fun of building. But why do it in an official capacity? Buy the land by the usual processes and build stuff on it that way! I dunno if it’s just me, but otherwise I sort of feel like us Resies are just sort of sitting around going “ooh” and “ahh” at what the Lindens and Moles are building. And somehow that doesn’t feel all that SL to me.

Again, nothing against this particular airport or the good times that ppl are having at it. But just as a matter of general principles…

And I got an answer from M Linden himself:

Well, Dale, several reasons; some more specific to this project than others.

— build theming: we think creating a theme for urban areas is Very Good. Since the parcelling, parks, and other Linden-owned land is part of the theme, we try to seed the entire area with in-theme examples.

— public event sites: helps build community without a specific Resident having to support the cost. We have various auditoriums, meeting spaces, etc. spread around the world. Some (like the Linden Memorial Zone) are created to ensure long-term stability and freedom from the perception of bias – not that Lindens can’t be biased, but at least we have to answer for it in the forums, office hours, etc.

— hub: once the load on the infohubs is balanced a bit more, we’re gonna turn on the hub settings for this region. Even when hubs are nicely balanced, it’s now thought best to avoid having Resident-owned parcels in the same Region (to avoid the “I can’t get into my own land” problem).

— land buying: the DPW (at least) tries to avoid buying land (or other content), since our sources of Linden dollars are pretty much infinite. We’ve sometimes bought small parcels, at market rates or lower, to fill out “broken” projects (like missing pieces of roads); and we buy some stuff for personal use (avatars, props, etc.). But it’s hard to stop “bidding higher” when you have unlimited funds. And, heh, how do you know the DPW didn’t buy the Region; “Hey, [Region-creating Linden], we’ll buy you lunch for a Region!” (joke!)

In the case of Hau Koda, we knew that some sort of Linden content needed to be placed there. I chose “period airport”.

I can sort of understand the “public event sites” one, sort of; I could make a case that (like roads) big event sites are a Public Good that no one Resident or Resident Group would be incented to build, and that it makes sense to build them with tax money (so to speak). The “hub” one I don’t really understand at all: all of the infohubs that I know of are in regions that also have Resident-owned parcels (unless I’m just really confused); maybe this is some new policy?

But the first and last ones are the ones that worry me. “We think that it’s good to have themes in urban areas, so we’re gonna do builds”. Well, why? Isn’t that something that the Residents should be doing? “We knew that some Linden content needed to be placed there.” Again, why?

When the people that control the laws of physics and the land supply and so on also get to choose the aesthetic theme of various areas, that seems to me to unfairly advantage those Residents with similar tastes, at the expense of everyone else. Is Second Life really “Your World, Your Imagination”? Or is it “Our World, Our Imagination, You Allowed To Participate If You Follow The Theme”?

The latter is certainly the case in many other virtual worlds. Twinity is always sending me these notes about exciting new events and buildings and stuff that they, the Twinity gods, are putting on, and what RL city they’ve decided to model next. Vside (last time I looked anyway), was entirely designed and built by the owners, not the residents. Once in a great while I see someone trying to have a Player-run event (a sermon, a beerfest) in WoW, but they’re mostly ignored and often derided, and all of the buildings and official events and holidays and so on are written by Blizzard.

But, for reasons that I thought I’d be better able to articulate when I started typing this entry, I want Second Life to be different. I want it to be a place that grows organically from the individual activities of the Residents, and voluntary groups of Residents. The place that’s most obviously and chaotically like this is the mainland (which, as you may recall, I adore); but private estates are that way also, in that each one represents a consensus of some sort among the estate owner and those people who choose to live there. Except for having put down the dosh for an island, the private estate owners are just Residents like everyone else; they aren’t the people who run the underpinnings of the world, or control the laws of physics.

Prokofy Neva recently posted two entries that brought my mind back to this worrying tension (while I have my own problems with Prokofy, at least the first of these postings is quite cogent). It seems, he’s discovered, that the Lab has a closed email list in which the Lindens are talking with some of the major Estate owners about what SL should be like. My initial reaction to this is that it’s really none of the Lab’s business what SL is like (Our imagination, guys!), and that when caught talking about it on a mailing list with certain selected Residents, the response “oh, sorry, that mailing list was supposed to be closed” is not real real comforting.

The feeling that I get from the response that M Linden wrote to my comment, and the responses that Prokofy got from Jack Linden, and quite a few of the statements by Blondin Linden and others during the Zindra discussions, are that the Lindens aren’t even aware of any tension between their views on all this and the views of at least some of the Residents. To them, I think, it’s pretty obvious that they own the world, they will be making various decisions about how it works and how it is themed and organized and managed, they will decide who to partner with in doing all this, and the end result will be a great thing for everyone, with lots of opportunities for individual Residents and Resident groups to express themselves and build stuff that they’re inspired to build. That this would seem creepy and paternalistic to lots of Residents doesn’t seem to have even occurred to them; after all, why would any Residents be all distrustful and ungrateful like that? The Lindens created the world and continue to run it in a way that lets us do various cool things. We should be happy, not moaning all the time!

One phrase from Jack’s note to Prokofy really drove this home to me. Jack is talking about the Lab looking for ways to “add value to the Mainland” (a phrase that already makes me very nervous), and he writes:

The last part is in finding ways for the community to partner with us. As you know we’ve had mixed results there, but I still feel there is a lot of value in doing that whenever we can.

Yowch. It’s hard to read this as saying anything but “we’ve tried letting Residents do stuff on the mainland, and while we don’t really like how it’s turned out, I feel that we should look for ways to continue allowing Residents to do stuff, maybe, if we can, where it doesn’t conflict with our more important goals of making everything look nice.”

And that’s just scary!

I don’t feel that the mainland, or even Second Life in general, should grow and develop through partnerships between the Lab and whoever the Lab feels like partnering with. I think it should grow and develop through the actions of the Residents. I don’t think that’s an unusual opinion :) but I also don’t think that the Lindens are really aware of it, or even understand the difference. And I think that’s too bad. I would also love to be proven wrong.

Our World. Our imagination. Remember!

Update: Related posting by Ciaran Laval.

Update 2: In the original version of this post, I wrote that “Even in Metaplace where (some / most / many / all?) of the places outside of the central hub are user-created, the decision about which worlds to link to directly from the hub is made (afaik) by the Metaplace owners, and that gives them a tremendous amount of control over what the place as a whole feels like as you explore.” Raph of Metaplace very kindly corrected me in the comments, pointing out that while they do have some rotating Featured Worlds linked from Central (sort of like SL’s Showcase), most of the links out from Central are rented by users for Metaplace coins, and so quite user-controlled. Good for them!

Closer and Closer!

With the announcement that Ray Kurzweil is giving the introductory keynote address at this year’s SLCC (Second Life Community Convention), there’s been some resurgence of the whole “Are Second Life and AI and nanobots and stuff going to transform the world tomorrow, or will we have to wait until next week?” meme, and related thoughts.

New World Notes calls the announcement “extraordinary and transformational”, which strikes me as way over the top. (I mean, even if you think Kurzweil’s thinking is extraordinary and transformational, it would be a weird thing to say about a single talk, much less about the mere announcement of a talk.) I replied in the comments (lightly edited):

/me grins. “extraordinary and transformational” is a tad strong, I think. He’s done some really good work in OCR, speech recog, and cool musical instruments, but he’s kinda over-the-top in the AI and virtual reality realms.

One of his most famous charts is that hysterical one showing number of neurons a computer can simulate over time, and implying that by the year whatever computers will be smarter than people. As if the hard problem in AI was getting enough transistors on a chip! (Example: a mouse is higher on his chart than the Deep Blue chess-playing computer; but how good is your typical mouse at chess?)

His ideas about virtual reality are fun, but again I think overblown. When I’m wearing these glasses and “walking around” in a completely immersive virtual world, explain to me again how I avoid tripping over my real-world chair and walking into walls? And 10 or 20 years seems like a wild underestimate for people having brains full of nanobots. The things he says are cool-sounding, but I think he’s drifted away from practical fact in various ways.

I’m sure he’ll give an engaging and thought-provoking keynote, but these days he’s really more of a showman than a technologist; it will be fun, but hardly extraordinary or transformational. The danger with Kurzweil is that he goes beyond the factual or even the plausible, makes the techies roll their eyes, and builds up unrealistic expectations in the audience that, when they are not matched in reality, could lead to a backlash of (similarly unwarranted) skepticism.

And then, in reply to some good words fro Extropia DaSilva:

I think one of the things that somewhat makes me roll my eyes about Kurzweil is that he has a number of things like that chart: the most obvious message is an extremely exciting, but wrong, one (in this case, that we’ll have computers as smart as people by year nnnn), whereas if you read him carefully enough he’s actually using it to make a claim that’s more plausible, but much much less exciting (in this case, that by year nnnn we’ll have overcome one of the very minor challenges in making smart computers).

If all he’s really saying is that we’ll have solved the easy problem, why did he bother to make that chart at all? Where is his chart of progress in the software / semantic side of the problem (which would be essentially flat)?

I share your skepticism about his claimed timescales. This sentence is another example of the tendency I posit above: “we are learning to build artificial brains that are getting closer and closer to matching the power and performance of the biological version”. Taken at face value, with “closer and closer” meaning that we’re pretty close, it’s exciting but false. Taken more literally, with “closer and closer” meaning “we’ve gone from a thousand light-years away to 999.9 light-years away”, it’s true but boring.

I think Kurzweil’s right about the exciting things that people will be able to do in the future. I think he’s wrong about how much progress we’ve currently made in those directions; and that’s a big part of his message.

Really I think it’s good that they got Kurzweil to come and talk; he’ll stir things up. People don’t have to be right to be interesting, or to inspire useful discussion and even useful work. Which is good, because I don’t think Kurzweil is right. :)

It’s easy to get excited and breathless about all this cool futurist stuff, in either direction. In a comment thread on Second Thoughts, Desmond Shang wrote, on the subject of Cyc:

The great thing about this, is that it would make an awesome avatar back end intelligence with very little work.

which rather disappointed me, because Desmond is usually more sensible than that. Cyc would do no such thing; at most it would help slightly with one of the many problems that we are light-years away from solving in “avatar intelligence”. Of course, if someone can prove me wrong about that with very little work, I hope they do. :)

This all reminds me of that widely-blogged demo where some folks made a program-controlled avatar (a ‘bot) called “Eddie” that supposedly was able to reason at the level of a four-year-old. Looking into it more deeply what they’d actually done was a small demo of how a program could be explicitly programmed to model a particular problem about belief-understanding in such a way that it was about as good at it as a four year old person would be. Which is probably a good piece of research and a fine use of time, but the impression that people were getting from it, something like “we can now have Second Life bots that are as intelligent as four-year-olds”, was just completely wrong.

Another recent example of this, I suspect, is that “Milo” demo from Lionhead. In this case the maker of the thing is making pretty amazing-sounding claims about it (including that what they are doing goes beyond anything in science fiction!), but I strongly suspect that the reality behind it is much more modest. (Which is to say, my “rigged-demo” detectors are pinging hard the whole time.)

(Reminds me also of that “OnLive/OTOY” demo of how advances in server-side rendering are going to give us all the ability to get to Second Life at 60 fps from our cellphones any day now. Uh-huh.)

And on the other side Second Thoughts has now spent three whole entries on how anyone who says favorable things about AI and nanotechnology and life extension and transhumanism and stuff like that is a crypto-fascist who wants to take over the world, in typical flaming-at-straw-men fashion. Not that straw men don’t make a nice fire. :)

I find that I don’t have a simple opinion about all of this stuff, myself. I think science is, overall, a good thing; figuring out how the world works and how to make it work more the way that we want it to is good. Exactly what “we” means there, just who (if anyone) should be in charge, what should happen when what I want to do (whether enabled by science or not) conflicts with that you want to do, are all hard questions. In general I’m a left-libertarian in some sense; I think that the government should leave us alone unless we’re actually harming or defrauding someone, and that it’s nice when what we choose to do with that being-left-alone is to be nice to each other, to share things, to sit around wearing flowers in our hair and playing the guitar, and so on.

Along with that, it’s good to think about all sorts of wild stuff that some of us might want to do in the future, like modify our bodies to be able to live in space, like developing devices that are actually intelligent, like making itty bitty machines that can swim around in our bloodstreams and keep us healthy. And as we think about doing those things, and start to even do them, the same principles apply: we each should be allowed to do what we want if it’s not hurting anybody, and it’s nice when we do it in nice cooperative ways involving guitar music.

Hm, I’ve been rambling here, what was I going to say? Oh, yeah: and while it’s fun to have some people around (Ray Kurzweil, Peter Molyneux of Lionhead, and so on) who make it sound like things are farther along than they really are (because that makes us hopeful, and stirs up debate), it’s even better to have, when we can get it, realistic estimates of what’s really going on.

Because truth is good, too.