Simulated Selves

“This Mum and Dad live inside an app on my phone, as voice assistants constructed by the California-based company HereAfter AI and powered by more than four hours of conversations they each had with an interviewer about their lives and memories. (For the record, Mum isn’t that untidy.) The company’s goal is to let the living communicate with the dead. I wanted to test out what it might be like.

Technology like this, which lets you “talk” to people who’ve died, has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades…

…“The biggest issue with the [existing] technology is the idea you can generate a single universal person,” says Justin Harrison, founder of a soon-to-launch service called You, Only Virtual. “But the way we experience people is unique to us.” …

But she warns that users need to be careful not to think this technology is re-creating or even preserving people. “I didn’t want to bring back his clone, but his memory,” she says. The intention was to “create a digital monument where you can interact with that person, not in order to pretend they’re alive, but to hear about them, remember how they were, and be inspired by them again.”

-Charlotte Jee, “Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?” technologyreview.com. October 18, 2022

Advances in artificial intelligence are opening up new possibilities of creating virtual representations of people. It’s a kind of advanced Turing test, not of a machine intelligence being able to pass itself off as human, but instead, being able to pass itself off as a person that you know or had known.

If you provide enough data – in the form of video, voice and text – you presumably can approximate what a person might do or so in certain contexts. It becomes possible to create individual avatars or constructs that approach the real thing.

The first application is for people to process grief. It seems obvious that this will be a thing, where people will use this technology to capture people around them and keep them alive in a sense. As with most change, there are benefits and risks to consider. On one hand, it would be nice to be able to talk with and confer with digital avatars of people that have died or left our lives for one reason or another. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine that these “relationships” would become maladaptive, where they call upon the limited time that we have and prevent us from meeting new people and spending the time necessary to have meaningful relationships with them.

Beyond grief, I think, in some sense, we already have inner representations of people in our minds. For example, I will sometimes want to make a comment that lacks tact, I sometimes have a version of my wife in my head saying something like, “You can say that, but say it nicely,” which, in fact, is something my wife says to me several times a year. I’d guess a digital assistant version might be better than the version I have in my head who I could consult about the right way to handle certain social situations. But, then again, I could just ask her in person. Wouldn’t the digital version get in the way of the real person, and ultimately damage my real relationship?

I like the idea of having multiple versions of myself. I imagine the process of adding data to be much like working on a blog, where the process of documenting surfaces thoughts that you might not have had otherwise. It changes you.

Then, you’d be able to consult with a different version of yourself. You’d be able to check in with past versions, and see how you have changed. You could get second opinions, from a close approximation of your self. There are also hazards here because ultimately this is a past facing exercise, and temperamentally, I try to live more in the future, or in the moment, when I can manage it.

In any event, this is interesting food for thought. I’d expect using this technology at funerals or by people that want to live on in a sense beyond when they die to be common within the next decade or two. It’s probably useful to think about the various tradeoffs before then.

Our Technology Sickness—and How to Heal It

“Because of the digital revolution, our lives are being transformed by three grand bargains. The intellectual bargain: we have more knowledge but less capacity to concentrate and focus. The social bargain: we are much more available but much less attentive. And most importantly, the emotional bargain: we are much more connected, but much less empathetic. When we trade away skills for power, attention for availability, empathy for connectivity, and quality for quantity of relationships, we sign up to a Faustian pact that we do not even know exists—one that gives us more control over the outside world, but less control over our inner world.

What then is to be done? What shifts in thinking and behavior will help us reverse course?

1. A philosophical shift: Less choice, more freedom…[essentially, a variation of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. The longer you travel down a path and narrow your scope, the more interesting the path. More options means you are in a space more people travel.]

2. A cultural shift: Attention over availability…Our humanity should not be measured by how much attention we attract but by how much attention we devote to what matters. [Or, as has been said elsewhere, “Focus on nourishment rather than poison.”]

3. Remedial technologies [and behaviors. The idea is to train an incompatible behavior. It is possible to turn Airplane Mode on your phone, a remedial technical solution. But, turning your phone off and reading a book accomplishes the same thing and removes technology from the equation. The Amish might be a good reference point.]

4. A Talmudic shift…Jews are expected to be conversant with all sides of a controversy, but in their lived behavior they are expected to follow one position among many. Such a culture ensures that one’s intellectual world is much more expansive than the world of one’s lived practice. [Or, don’t let your politics define the ideas you are allowed to engage with.]

—Micah Goodman, “Our Technology Sickness—and How to Heal It.” Sources. Spring 2022

Excellent essay, all the way around. Recommended.

Letter in Support of Responsible Fintech Policy

“Blockchain technology cannot, and will not, have transaction reversal mechanisms because they are antithetical to its base design. Similarly, most public blockchain-based financial products are a disaster for financial privacy; the exceptions are a handful of emerging privacy-focused blockchain finance alternatives, and these are a gift to money-launderers. Financial technologies that serve the public must always have mechanisms for fraud mitigation and allow a human-in-the-loop to reverse transactions; blockchain permits neither.”

Letter in Support of Responsible Fintech Policy

If you can dictate the premises, you can dictate the conclusion. It is possible to have transaction reversal mechanisms as part of a smart contract, which presumably these “experts” would know. They are worried about privacy, but at the same time, they are worried about too much privacy. Let me guess, only government hits that sweet spot of panopticon privacy and anything outside the panopticon must be used in service of crime.

As a counter to this document, I’d like to refer to the previously mentioned blog post on blockchains, where Tim Roughgarden says:

“An enormous number of people, including a majority of computer science researchers and academics, have yet to grok the modern vision of blockchains: a new computing paradigm that will enable the next incarnation of the Internet and the Web, along with an entirely new generation of applications.”

Which experts are being listened to and who does that benefit?

The Map by Venkatesh Rao

“If only, the argument went, you could discover the exact opposite territory — not literally; that was in the middle of the ocean, but some sort of training-data antonym in latent space — and the exact set of tweaks to make to the training code, the Antimap would emerge at the Antipode, and begin its own inexorable creep towards the Map. And through the ensuing battle of Map and Antimap, the final training epoch would be triggered, leading to the Final Convergence, and heaven on Earth.

It was widely derided as a profoundly stupid religion.

And yet, as the growth of heaven slowed to a crawl, the surreptitious search for hell began.”

-Venkatesh Rao, “The Map.” ribbonfarm.com. May 5, 2022.

Parable of the best possible outcome of a piece of technology, where its limits invariably bring humans to imagine its opposite, a kind of hell.

Metaphorical Apes & Gorillas

Apes & Gorillas is another little gem from Joe Armeanio. It closely mirrors the idea two computing revolutions talked about in this post that talks about:

  1. Apps with easy to use interfaces designed for casual users
  2. Application layers, that provide tools that allow new ways of using a computer that were previously impossible

There’s a huge difference in needs between traders doing swaps and solo miners using a node wallet. The general principle is applicable to most areas of life where technology touches.

N.S.A. Research Director Interview

“In his first interview as leader of the NSA’s Research Directorate, Gil Herrera lays out challenges in quantum computing, cybersecurity, and the technology American intelligence needs to master to secure and spy into the future.”

Patrick Howell O’Neill, “Meet the NSA spies shaping the future.” Technology Review. February 1, 2022.

The leader of the National Security Agency’s Research Directorate is giving interviews? I guess times have changed since people used to refer to it as No Such Agency.

Robustness of the Underlying Technology

I was reading The Browser, which made this recommendation:

Folders Versus Tags by Eleanor Konik | 24th September 2021

Personal knowledge management enthusiast’s magnum opus on the fraught subject of hierarchical organisation. The overwhelming trend in digital products, from Gmail down to the most niche notetaking app, is to apply tag to files rather than sort them away into folders. But, as is argued here, keeping all of your information in one bucket with no compartments has its downsides (4,238 words)

Upon clicking the above link, it returned the following:

The thing people tend to forget, when they talk about the comparative advantages and disadvantages of different ways of organizing information, is the underlying technology and how likely it is to fail. Using tags instead of a hierarchical file structure requires using a database, and everyone of us has had instances where a database fails, right when we need it. That’s fine, for a time, for a personal website. But, it’s not a good idea if were are doing something mission critical for our organization or perhaps even as a storage medium for your life work.

When considering the relative advantages and disadvantages, let’s also consider how likely the technology is to fail. Text files in a hierarchical file structure have disadvantages, but some of them have solutions, such as symbolic links that point to the same file in multiple locations. But, it’s a robust system and less likely to fail over time than new systems like Roam.

Questions About Technology Investment: CharaCorder

“The CharaChorder is a new kind of typing peripheral that promises to let people type at superhuman speeds. It’s so fast that the website Monkeytype, which lets users participate in typing challenges and maintains its own leaderboard, automatically flagged CharaChorder’s CEO as a cheater when he attempted to post his 500 WPM score on the its leaderboards.

It’s a strange looking device, the kind of thing Keanu Reeves would interface with in Johnny Mnemonic. Your palms rest on two black divots out of which rise nine different finger sized joysticks. These 18 sticks move in every direction and, its website claims, can hit every button you need on a regular keyboard. “CharaChorder switches detect motion in 3 dimensions so users have access to over 300 unique inputs without their fingers breaking contact with the device,” it said.”

-Matthew Gault, “This Keyboard Lets People Type So Fast It’s Banned From Typing Competitions.” Vice. January 6, 2022.

Open Question: What is a good “investment” in technology?

Let’s imagine you have a child that it at the age they are starting to use a computer and a QWERTY style keyboard. Do you spend $250 and get them this kind of peripheral knowing:

  • It’s a new technology that likely will not be around in 20 years
  • It seems likely that in 20 years or so that the main input with computing will be via voice and/or video
  • It is even possible that in 20 years everyone will have a brain-computer interface.

Personally, I think it is useful to learn how to use new devices, even if they turn out to be novelty devices. It’s easy to see that certain popular devices that became obsolete have paved the way for the evolution for the subsequent devices that come later. Examples:

  • Mainframe computing led to personal computing which led to mobile computing
  • Blackberry, PalmOS, iPods were the precursors to Android and iPhones
  • Every few years, someone makes a new chat app, from ICQ and IRC to Telegram and Discord.

Familiarity with the previous version can help you transition to new variants. So, it’s probably a good idea to get familiar with technologies, even if you don’t think they will last.

Confronting the Technological Society

“But as more and more activities and areas of life get absorbed in technique — in recent years perhaps most visibly through digital technologies shaping friendships, learning, buying and selling, travel, music, leisure, and much else — the possibilities of pushing back against it diminish. The lesson here is not that the particular technologies are necessarily harmful and ought to be shunned. Rather, while they aim to make countless activities easier and more efficient — and us happier — they tend to obscure from our vision the real, kaleidoscopic, sometimes maddening but appropriate complexities of these activities. Education, political engagement, friendship, artistic and scholarly excellence, moral and intellectual virtue — these are and remain vexingly difficult, and there are no shortcuts to becoming good at them, even if various tools are helpful along the way. What we need is to learn to appreciate the tensions and difficulties of pursuing these deeply meaningful ends. As Ellul writes in The Political Illusion, “Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.”

An ethics of nonpower — choosing not to exercise mastery at the expense of proper human ends — will involve tensions and conflicts, the maintenance of which is a prerequisite for the pursuit of the best things. The craftsmen of governments demanding separation of powers and a system of checks and balances recognized this principle, ensuring restraint and organized tensions to prevent despotism. Freedom requires tension, and Ellul in his insistence on dialectical thinking is ultimately concerned with preserving human freedom. Whereas technologies grant us greater freedom to master our environment, technique as a whole restrains it and itself becomes the new environment resisting our mastery. An important point Ellul seems to have missed is that for the technician, the craftsman, and the mechanic, mastery over technology requires not confrontation from without but proper care for the thing and submission to its physical demands. Freedom from the tool goes hand in hand with freedom and skill to manipulate it, which often makes older tools that reveal their workings superior to the new ones that conceal them. The master technician may thus be freer than the mere user who has not been disciplined by the making of the tool…

…We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.

-Samuel Matlack, “Confronting the Technological Society.” The New Atlantis. Summer/Fall 2014.

Another reminder, along with L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, to read Ellul’s work.