Sunday, January 27, 2008

DNA - the real Identity 2.0

Right now is an exciting time with at least eleven advancing technologies that could have an even bigger impact than the Internet in the next fifty years. More than any other area, biotechnology is showing potential for revolutionary change with interesting recent developments in personal genome services, synthetic biology and online health portals.

Personal genome services
Genetically, humans are 99.9% the same. The variations can be referred to as SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms. Medical tests have existed to look for specific SNPs and there are now recently launched general tests, $1,000 personal DNA services from 23andme and deCODEme, to scan for up to 1 million known possible SNPs on an individual’s genome checking for 18 diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's. Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei writes an excellent blog tracking advances in DNA.

As with any new technology, reactions are myriad and stratified by age. Middle-aged and older people are far more reticent than younger people to try it. There are many open questions such as are we ready for the information? Will the information be substantive? What use is the information if it is not readily actionable? Given the high similarity of DNA amongst family members, is it most ethically appropriate to discuss the situation with relatives ahead of time? In any case, this is the first time the consumer can be in the driver's seat with their medical information in a powerful new way and

the appetite for personal genetic data may prove insatiable.
Of course it is always prudent and fun to consider the darker uses for new technology and one can imagine Identity Theft 2.0, when someone's DNA is stolen and a newly synthesized mix injected as a replacement, waking up and really not feeling like yourself...or worse, being injected with genes that cause all of your cells to de-differentiate back into stem cells!

Synthetic biology
Until last week, synthetic biologists had only been able to create small DNA segments from scratch using computer synthesizers but then genomic pioneer Craig Venter announced that his lab had synthesized the full genome of the smallest known bacterium. It contains 485 genes and has 582,970 base pairs making it roughly 2% the size of the human genome. So far, it has been difficult to synthesize full genomes because long strands of manufactured DNA have tended to break but this new method utilizes the DNA repair mechanism of yeast to stitch the full genome together. It also includes a watermark to tag the bacteria and a gene so that it won’t infect humans or animals.

There is considerable controversy about the future implications of the technology, somewhat similar to those at the advent of genetically-modified food. The desired endgame of Venter's synthetic biology and this advance is to create synthetic biofuels and organisms that could combat global warming by absorbing carbon emissions and other related high impact solutions to open challenges.

The potential applications could be wide-ranging as biological machines automatically persevere once set to task; clean water, nuclear and hazardous waste cleanup and food generation may also be within their purview, not to mention building repair and cleansing, human and animal grooming and nutrient and drug delivery, potentially rivaling the as yet not arrived nanotech mites in a multiplicity of tasks...

Online health portal
Microsoft launched its online health portal, HealthVault in October 2007, allowing people to centralize and store personal medical records and prescription history, manage records, upload data from medical devices such as blood pressure monitors, and analyze and manage the data. A similar offering from Google is expected sometime in 2008 and Adam Bosworth, formerly leading the Google health effort now how his own startup in the personal health services space, Keas.

These Web 2.0 information portals help people to aggregate and proactively manage their health information and will probably continue to add valuable services, especially mobile-device based; at a glance: news, stock tickers, blood pressure and caloric expenditure...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pooled consciousness

There could be a future where individuals opt to pool all or parts of their consciousness, memory and processing power with those of others or in a central repository. Access could be permissioned only to select groups like family, friends or project teams, or to society as a whole. Pooling could be real-time or with a time lag (e.g.; initially people may prefer the increased privacy of uploading thoughts after several years). Pooled consciousness could lead to an interesting future in many ways, for example, consider the Freedom of Information Act extending to the thoughts of politicians while in office.

Greatest Benefit
There would be many benefits and risks to pooled consciousness, but perhaps the biggest advance would be having a repository of collective experience and perception knowledge, a library of experience, perception and analysis. As fact-based data revolutionized human progress, so too would measurable, manipulatable, researchable, aggregatable human experiences.

A small example of the value of pooling would be all of the witnesses to a traffic accident providing their mindfile excerpts of the situation to supplement the facts supplied by street, car and personal life cams with perception, understanding and analysis of the event. In addition to the basic functionality requirements, anonymizing and aggregation techniques, relevance filters and security would be key technical issues in implementing pooled consciousness.

The first phase of pooled consciousness would most likely be transmitting discrete experiences, memories or thoughts to others. It is hard to imagine permissioning one’s full consciousness stream, although before long some people will probably be offering a full neural RSS feed from their blogs or virtual world sims. A funny result could be that people subscribing to other people’s sex thought feeds might be substantially underwhelmed.

What are the benefits of pooled consciousness to society and individuals?

  • more accurate and fully-represented history
  • more representative democracy, inclusion of all views
  • more efficiency, more progress, elephants in the room can not be ignored
  • sociological data for real-time application and academic study
  • rich AI training ground
  • individuals feel acknowledged and heard
  • the long-tail can meet, small groups of similar people can find each other
  • productivity improvement - people stop worrying about what they think others are thinking, because they know what others are thinking
  • learning, training and entertainment applications of experiencing another’s experience
What are the risks of pooled consciousness to society and individuals?
  • possibility of groupthink, diminished diversity of thought
  • spying, loss of personal liberty
  • too much information, not wanting to really know
  • thought shaping and management through legal and social pressure
  • advent of thought crime (everyone is a Minority Report precog)
  • people become slaves to public opinion, behave, have experiences because of what will go in their neural feed (already see this behavior in Facebook)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Capital markets 2.0

In the last few years, a variety of innovative capital markets have arisen to supplement and extend traditional large institutional capital markets. The new markets fill niches of demand for capital and investment, and allow greater granularity of investment information and capital direction. The currency may be money, reputation, ideas, social good or any combination of these. Some of the new capital market vehicles include:

The first category, virtual world economies, is burgeoning and complex and provokes an interesting debate about how these new market vehicles should evolve and integrate with traditional economies. The virtual worlds There and Entropia Universe have had a hands-on approach to economic regulation, for example approving parties for in-world banking licenses. On the other hand, the virtual world Second Life has been more laissez-faire at the outset but then stepped in with prohibitions where self-regulation has been inadequate. Gambling was outlawed in July 2007 and now banking activity has been effectively outlawed:
"As of January 22, 2008, it will be prohibited to offer interest or any direct return on an investment ... without proof of an applicable government registration statement or financial institution charter. (Full text here)"

Risk, Cost of Capital and Acceptable Return
One value of the new markets is that they provide capital in cases that are less attractive or irrelevant to traditional financing entities. These situations often have dramatically different risk, growth and timescale profiles than traditional investments and are conceptually similar in many ways to doing business in a high risk country.

The risk is higher, so the return too must be higher in compensation. Looking at annualized interest rates may not make sense in the accelerated time environment of virtual worlds where the economy (as measured by land and money supply) is currently growing 6% per month in Second Life.

What is an appropriate cost of capital? Anecdotal interest rates on Second Life loans have ranged from 7% per month to nearly 50% per month, and experienced a 20-30% default rate. This is the cost of capital for people who do not want to declare their physical identity details or seek other means of capital. In the physical world, it is not unusual for payday lenders to charge 300%+ per year to cover their high default rates. Peer-to-peer lender Prosper found that U.S. state-based usury laws did not allow the site to charge enough interest to cover subprime borrower defaults.

Virtual economies are chided for not having sustainable interest rates at the same time as the subprime lending crisis is crescendoing through physical world capital markets, itself a reprise of the 1980s RTC crisis.

Law, Regulation and Jurisdiction
The appropriate norm is to comply with traditional governing entity rules and laws, including being flexible with business models in order to do so. Peer-to-peer lenders had to structure their businesses in specific ways to obtain licensing and comply with U.S. usury laws which vary by state.

Virtual world economies will likely need to be even more innovative to receive physical world approvals. The pervasively global and anonymous virtual world medium suggests that geographically-based physical world regulation will be challenging to apply in reasonable and effective ways. However, anonymity is probably less important as an attribute for virtual capital seekers, as when a benefit is conferred, people are generally willing to give up anonymity. For example, peer-to-peer lenders found that people are perfectly willing to have their credit reports posted publicly on the Internet in return for the ease of potentially obtaining a loan.

In addition to traditional law and regulation, new capital markets may face another layer of compliance in the form of specific in-medium practices that develop. Complying with in-medium practices is important both reputationally and in the instance of in-medium adjudication and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Long-term impact of the molecular assembler

As described in Molecular Assembler Adoption and Molecular Assembler Impact on Society, while the initial roll-out of molecular assemblers may be the usual multi-year S-curve of technology adoption followed by a period of slow social change for adjustment to the widespread presence of molecular assemblers, at some point, social and political change will likely become more radical.

'God assembler'
The initial simple molecular assemblers may only be able to provide for basic survival needs but would presumably give way to ‘god machine’ assemblers that could produce health diagnostics and remedies, nanotechnology, sophisticated electronics including self-aware robots and any other required or requested objects of the time, as well as recycle unwanted material.

Societal organization
Right now society is organized around a variety of cultural groupings: family, education, work, interests (hobbies, religion, sports, alumni, community activity), and per political and geographical boundaries. With molecular assemblers, virtual reality and nanotechnology, there is no reason for these traditional groupings to persist. The work imperative dissolves. Political and geographical boundaries may become meaningless. Anywhere interaction occurs, virtual reality environments will be indistinguishable from physical reality and perhaps preferable in many ways.

In a mature molecular assembler society, what happens to the basis of physical location?
Existing land would still be somewhat scarce, but it might be possible to create additional land or stable novel residential structures in oceans, rivers and bays. For example, the Pacific Garbage Patch could be collected into a foundation for a vacation destination and a transportation, trade and conference hub between the U.S. and Asia (“The PGP Convention and Visitors Center is pleased to host CES 2020”).

Molecular assemblers and super strong nano structures could create much denser comfortable habitation on existing land (kilometer high skyscrapers) allowing existing and new cities to flourish and grow. The improved technology could also be used to easily build and inhabit many more environments. Removing physical proximity requirements for work, education and activities would allow people to fan out across the globe and eventually into space.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Is it moral to kick a robot?

As long as robots are non-sentient, non-feeling beings, it would only be immoral to kick a robot in the sense of potential property damage to others. It would be like kicking a couch or a car.

If robots were sentient, emotional beings, it would certainly be immoral to kick one. It would be like kicking a human.

If a robot were sentient but non-emotional, non-feeling, would it be immoral to kick it? Yes, for both the potential physical damage and an as yet undefined area of implied morality amongst sentient beings. Even if the robot did not ‘feel’ a kick as physical pain in the same way a human or animal would, the robot would have some sort of sensor network awareness that perceived and coded the action as inappropriate and possibly dangerous and illegal. A sentient robot would likely be able to take some action against the mistreatment.

How sentient or feeling does a robot need to become for it to be immoral to kick it? There will be early stages as robots are in the beginnings of sentience and emotion. If the kicker knows that the robot is or could be sentient or emotion-feeling, then it would be immoral to kick the robot. This would be similar to situations between adults and children, the former are assumed to have an uneven control and influence advantage over the latter who may not be consciously aware and able enough to perceive damage and protect themselves.