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The J Curve



For the daily blog, see flickr. Or get both with the RSS Feed from Feedburner What is the J-Curve? The IRR curve over time for an early stage VC fund – that period of time in advance of mass-confirmation of a new idea. For fans of Kurzweil's curves



Updated: 2016-09-29T22:40:01+00:00

 



A poetic ode to Elon Musk and those he inspires [Flickr]

2016-09-29T15:40:01-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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... exciting the inner child in many of us with the breathtaking scope of his vision. He is literally forging the future of our dreams.

I went back to a poem that rolled off Silvi's typewriter at a party, pulled from the astral plane of her imagination...

The poem is somewhat surreal for me, as Elon saw the light::
“When I was a little kid I was really scared of the dark, but then I came to understand that dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength, 400 – 700 nanometers. Then I thought: it’s really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn’t afraid of the dark after that.” (from Bloomberg profile, video clip)

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Octaweb [Flickr]

2016-09-23T14:08:17-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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8 engines in a ring, with a 9th at the center

At SpaceX HQ.

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SpaceX Undercarriage [Flickr]

2016-09-23T14:08:16-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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the historic vehicle that first came back to land

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SpaceX Landing Leg [Flickr]

2016-09-23T14:08:14-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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MIghty legs, with hydraulic rams of helium...

This is the first booster to successfully return from flight, a historic moment for space exploration.

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SpaceX Waffle Fins [Flickr]

2016-09-23T14:08:13-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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when coming back supersonic, the air is like molasses, and this is the Aunt Jemima treatment

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First SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster to Return to Earth [Flickr]

2016-09-23T14:08:12-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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Ok, ok, so now Elon has a better flown space artifact collection at work. :)

Exploring the final frontier at SpaceX headquarters and rocket factory in Hawthorne. This is the first booster to successfully return from flight, a historic moment for space exploration.

It was recently put on display at Space, and needed FAA approval given the proximity to airports.

From SpaceFlight Now: "The 156-foot-tall (47-meter) rocket stage landed at Cape Canaveral after a Dec. 21 launch with 11 Orbcomm communications satellites.

The touchdown marked the first time a rocket landed in such a manner after sending a satellite toward orbit. Burning leftover kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, three of the rocket’s Merlin engines fired to reverse the first stage’s course, erasing the vehicle’s nearly 4,000 mph (6,000-kilometer per hour) downrange velocity as the booster continued to soar higher.

Then the rocket began a supersonic descent, and the trio of Merlin engines fired again for a re-entry burn. Finally, a single engine lit seconds before landing to slam on the brakes."

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Team Eesti on the Playa [Flickr]

2016-09-22T10:56:43-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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Martin Talvari set up this awesome shot with his Leica and f/0.95 50mm lens.

I hope to be able to shoot like this one day.

The Spacestonia team stayed in a RV together at 747-camp with an Estonian over the door.

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Fast 50mm Prime Lenses — the Zhongyi f/0.95 and Canon f/1.2 [Flickr]

2016-09-22T10:56:42-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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on the Sony Alpha 7S Mark II (which trades off pixel count for an astounding ISO of 409,600) and the brand new Canon 5D Mark IV. Here is a review of that unusual Zhongi from China. It cost $800 versus $11K for the equivalent Leica

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Synopsis of Lin & Tegmark's new article: “Why does deep and cheap learning work so well?” [Flickr]

2016-09-21T16:31:07-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo: The Silicon Graphics head in my office was my muse. I just finished reading a fascinating summary of the tie between the power of neural networks / deep learning and the peculiar physics of our universe. The mystery of why they work so well may be resolved by seeing the resonant homology across the information-accumulating substrate of our universe, from the base simplicity of our physics to the constrained nature of the evolved and grown artifacts all around us. The data in our natural world is the product of a hierarchy of iterative algorithms, and the computational simplification embedded within a deep learning network is also a hierarchy of iteration. Since neural networks are symbolic abstractions of how the human cortex works, perhaps it should not be a surprise that the brain has evolved structures that are computationally tuned to tease apart the complexity of our world. Does anyone know about other explorations into these topics? Here is a collection of interesting plain text points I extracted from the math in Lin & Tegmark’s article: "The exceptional simplicity of physics-based functions hinges on properties such as symmetry, locality, compositionality and polynomial log-probability, and we explore how these properties translate into exceptionally simple neural networks approximating both natural phenomena such as images and abstract representations thereof such as drawings. We further argue that when the statistical process generating the data is of a certain hierarchical form prevalent in physics and machine-learning, a deep neural network can be more efficient than a shallow one. Various “no-flattening theorems” show when these efficient deep networks cannot be accurately approximated by shallow ones without efficiency loss." This last point reminds me of something I wrote in 2006: "Stephen Wolfram’s theory of computational equivalence suggests that simple, formulaic shortcuts for understanding evolution (and neural networks) may never be discovered. We can only run the iterative algorithm forward to see the results, and the various computational steps cannot be skipped. Thus, if we evolve a complex system, it is a black box defined by its interfaces. We cannot easily apply our design intuition to the improvement of its inner workings. We can’t even partition its subsystems without a serious effort at reverse-engineering." — 2006 MIT Tech Review Back to quotes from the paper: Neural networks perform a combinatorial swindle, replacing exponentiation by multiplication: if there are say n = 106 inputs taking v = 256 values each, this swindle cuts the number of parameters from v^n to v×n times some constant factor. We will show that this success of this swindle depends fundamentally on physics: although neural networks only work well for an exponentially tiny fraction of all possible inputs, the laws of physics are such that the data sets we care about for machine learning (natural images, sounds, drawings, text, etc.) are also drawn from an exponentially tiny fraction of all imaginable data sets. Moreover, we will see that these two tiny subsets are remarkably similar, enabling deep learning to work well in practice. Increasing the depth of a neural network can provide polynomial or exponential efficiency gains even though it adds nothing in terms of expressivity. Both physics and machine learning tend to favor Hamiltonians that are polynomials — indeed, often ones that are sparse, symmetric and low-order. 1. Low polynomial order For reasons that are still not fully understood, our universe can be accurately described by polynomial Hamiltonians of low order d. At a fundamental level, the Hamiltonian of the standard model of particle physics has d = 4. There are many approximations of this quartic Hamiltonian th[...]



Giraffe Walking in HMB [Flickr]

2016-09-19T15:00:37-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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With Sebastian Thrun and my son on a Sunday sunset stroll
(short video)

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Opening Plenary at AIAA 2016 with NASA Administrator Bolden and Air Force Space Director Beauchamp [Flickr]

2016-09-13T17:55:07-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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In Long Beach today.

They have the video up now, starting with B&B and then I come on at minute 44, followed by Q&A from the audience.

Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator:

"From the vantage point of space we live on one ocean. We're connected at the deepest depths of sea and in space. "

“Remember the first moon walk for a moment. Everyone was filled w joy. Just imagine when we first step on Mars.”

“The ISS should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.”


Agenda: www.aiaa-space.org/PlenaryProgram/

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Space Cat [Flickr]

2016-09-13T17:55:05-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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Happily takes the leash.

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Space, the Final Frontier [Flickr]

2016-09-07T17:38:52-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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The CNBC video interview with Josh Lipton, and sections filmed live from Planet.

Photos of various artifacts from our space museum at work: DFJspace.com

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EV generation 1 and 2 [Flickr]

2016-09-05T21:12:45-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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Seen loading cargo in SF today. The little plastic beauty on the left is a Sebring CitiCar — with a top speed of over 30 mph and a reliable warm-weather range of 40 miles.

By 1976 the company was the sixth largest automaker in the U.S. but is dissolved only a few years later. The CitiCar and variants were the most produced American electric car, until surpassed by the Tesla.

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Supersized Singularity... At the SU Global Summit [Flickr]

2016-08-29T12:47:06-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo: With Peter Diamandis. Here is a bullet point summary of our fireside chat from Next Big Future: Steve Jurvetson is deeply interested and excited by deep learning It is the future of all engineering Apply anywhere you have a lot of data and make sense of it It is the biggest advance in engineering since the scientific method Deep learning can be used update and optimize deep learning Spacex and Falcon Heavy Talk about the returning the rocket stages The big thing is the heavy use of simulation to get a lot of things to work first time Spacex has a lot of modularity. For the 9 rockets on the Falcon 9, two can fail and the mission can still succeed Methane is used for the the Raptor engine Natural gas is the cheapest right now on earth It will good for Earth and Mars Next year land a one way Red Dragon trip 2024 launch and 2025 land on Mars 2.9 cents per kwh for solar for some sunny countries Nuclear regulatory problems is why they will hold back on investing in nuclear but Steve thinks we (the world- civilization) needs new nuclear Machine learning, autonomy and robotics Biggest customer for Rethink robotics is China. China has 100% employee turnover. Spacex rockets will all be robots Planes will be robots Planes are flown by computer now except for taxiing on the runway All vehicles will be electric all power will be solar all vehicles will be autonomous Every new product that surprises you will have deep learning in it Dwave's Geordie Rose has a new Quantum AI company Kindred ANd



Skimming the Sunday Sea [Flickr]

2016-08-21T19:51:57-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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in HMB... shot blind with the DXO One

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Big Uber OTTO at their SF headquarters [Flickr]

2016-08-18T14:40:58-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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From an earlier visit, coming out of their garage in an unmarked location in San Francisco

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Your Uber Otto has arrived [Flickr]

2016-08-18T14:40:58-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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...at the DFJ steps for an autonomous test drive.

Congrats to Anthony, Lior and the Otto team on their acquisition by Uber to run their autonomous drive efforts.

It is bittersweet for me, as I have been talking with them for over five years now, excited by many of the cool ideas percolating back at Google, leading up to the spinout of 25 great engineers from the autonomous driving team earlier this year.

You can see the sensor rig on top and custom LIDAR up front. We took a ride down highway 280 near Sand Hill Rd., which seemed appropriate as 280 was their initial test track and the placeholder name for the company before becoming ot.to

Congrats as well for going 0 to $680M+ in 6 months, self-funded by the founders. Uber needed the autonomous driving talent, and the $7.5M per head is in line with the $6-10 range for talent acquisitions I wrote about last week here.

Today’s news:
www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/technology/uber-self-driving-c...
www.theverge.com/2016/8/18/12533736/uber-otto-trucks-acqu...


Travis and I separately met Anthony in 2011 at the same Google robo-test-drive event and were smitten with autonomous driving from that point. We took subsequent test drives back in Silicon Valley on 101 and on suburban streets. Back then, he Google cars did everything except highway merges with confidence. Here are some more photos over the years.

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Footloose and Fancy Free [Flickr]

2016-08-13T21:45:58-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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in Deer Valley

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Mindfulness [Flickr]

2016-08-13T21:45:58-07:00

jurvetson posted a photo:

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The Joy of Rockets

2009-01-07T11:56:19.189-08:00

A short talk that I gave at TED, under the apt mavericks conference theme: So many people have contacted me since this video went up to relay how rocketry inspired them in their childhood. Rocket science is tangible.Here are some recent rocket photos and videos: Silicon Valley boasts the largest rocketry club in the world. Yet, there is no "legal" launch site anywhere in the Bay Area, a situation that has become endemic across America. There have been over 500 million Estes rocket launches in the U.S. alone. It's not for safety that rocketry has been pushed out of suburban areas; it's fear of the unknown. Local communities would rather forbid launches in their backyard than think about the systemic effect once all communities do so. This recently happened here, when Livermore shut down the last Silicon Valley site for launches. We are on the search for a new site (DeAnza college used to host sites, and we are currently pitching NASA Ames). If you have a large plot of land and would welcome some excited kids of all ages, please contact us at LUNAR. UPDATE: we succeeded in getting NASA Ames as our low-power launch site. Thanks!!![...]



GeekDad

2007-06-10T22:11:46.958-07:00

The words just warm the heart. WIRED recently launched the GeekDad blog with multiple contributors.

Parenthood is an atavistic adventure, especially for geeks who rediscover their child-like wonder and awe… and find that they can relate better to kids than many adults. The little people really appreciate arrested development in adults. =)

Another cause for celebration is the rediscovery of toys, but as an adult with a bigger allowance. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, put it well in one of his GeekDad posts: “Get Lego Mindstorms NXT. Permission to build and program cool toy robots is not the only reason to have children, but it's up there.”

Here are my contributions so far:

Beginner Ants with the NASA gel ant farm

Beginner’s Video Rocketry to capture video feeds from a soaring rocket

Peering into the Black Box: Household appliances become less mysterious when you take them apart

Cheap Laser Art: amazing emergent images with just a laser pointer and a camera

Slot Cars Revisited: modern cars with modern materials

Rocket Science Redux : Trying to build the smallest possible rocket is a great way for children to learn rocket science

Easter Egg Deployment by Rocket with a hundred little parachutes

Celebrate the Child-Like Mind, a topical repost from the J-Curve

From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure.

Children remind us of how to be creative, and they foster an existential appreciation of the present. Our perception of the passage of time clocks with salient events. The sheer activity level of children and their rapid transformation accelerates the metronome of life.(image)



Happy New Year

2008-03-10T15:45:06.024-07:00

We broke out a wonderful bottle of bubbly with some friends last night, and discovered the official drink of The J Curve....

Starting in mid 2004, I blogged on a weekly basis, then bimonthly in 2005, and just twice in 2006. My creativity here has withered, supplanted by a daily photoblog on flickr.

I have wondered why I find it so much easier to post a daily photo than to sculpt prose on any kind of regular basis. For me, the mental hurdle for a daily photo post is so much lower than text. A photo can be a quick snapshot, without much care for quality, and this is immediately apparent to the viewer. You don't have to waste much time with uninteresting images. With text, if I dash off a few sloppy and poorly thought out paragraphs (like these ones =), the reader has to waste some time to realize that this is a throw-away post, or maybe meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I hold myself to a much higher quality hurdle for linear media — something thoughtful and provocative — and so I procrastinate. Many of my text posts are repurposed material that I wrote for external deadlines (magazines, conferences, congressional testimony), without which I may never had crystallized my disparate thoughts into something coherent.

Anyway, here are my 30 favorite photos and my best shot of 2006. Cheers!(image)



The Dichotomy of Design and Evolution

2006-07-17T22:31:20.146-07:00

The two processes for building complex systems present a fundamental fork in the path to the future.I just published an article in Technology Review which was constrained on word count. Here is a longer version and forum for discussion.Many of the most interesting problems in computer science, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology require the construction of complex systems. But how would we build a really complex system – such as a general artificial intelligence (AI) that exceeded human intelligence?Some technologists advocate design; others, prefer evolutionary search algorithms. Still others would selectively conflate the two, hoping to incorporate the best of both paradigms while avoiding their limitations. But while both processes are powerful, they are very different, and they are not easily combined. Rather, they present divergent paths. Designed systems have predictability, efficiency, and control. Their subsystems are easily understood, which allows their reuse in different contexts. But designed systems also tend to break easily, and, so far at least, they have conquered only simple problems. Compare, for example, Microsoft code to biological code: Office 2004 is larger than the human genome. By contrast, evolved systems are inspiring because they demonstrate that simple, iterative algorithms, distributed over time and space, can accumulate design and create complexity that is robust, resilient, and adaptive within its accustomed environment. In fact, biological evolution provides the only “existence proof” that an algorithm can produce complexity that transcends its antecedents. Biological evolution is so inspiring that engineers have mimicked its operations in areas such as artificial evolution, genetic programming, artificial life, and the iterative training of neural networks.But evolved systems have their disadvantages. For one, they suffer from “subsystem inscrutability”, especially within their information networks. That is, when we direct the evolution of a system or train a neural network, we may know how the evolutionary process works, but we will not necessarily understand how the resulting system works internally. For example, when Danny Hillis evolved a simple sort algorithm, the process produced inscrutable and mysterious code that did a good job at sorting numbers. But had he taken the time to reverse-engineer his evolved system, the effort would not have provided much generalized insight into evolved artifacts.Why is this? Stephen Wolfram’s theory of computational equivalence suggests that simple, formulaic shortcuts for understanding evolution may never be discovered. We can only run the iterative algorithm forward to see the results, and the various computational steps cannot be skipped. Thus, if we evolve a complex system, it is a black box defined by its interfaces. We cannot easily apply our design intuition to improve upon its inner workings. We can’t even partition its subsystems without a serious effort at reverse engineering. And until we can understand the interfaces between partitions, we can’t hope to transfer a subsystem from one evolved complex system to another (unless they have co-evolved). A grand engineering challenge therefore remains: can we integrate the evolutionary and design paths to exploit the best of both? Can we transcend human intelligence with an evolutionary algorithm yet maintain an element of control, or even a bias toward frie[...]



Brainstorm Questions

2006-06-28T17:27:54.260-07:00

The editors of FORTUNE magazine asked four questions of the attendees of Brainstorm 2006. Ross Mayfield is blogging the replies and the ongoing conference. Here are my answers to two of the questions:• WHAT THREE GLOBAL LEADERS WILL HAVE THE GREATEST IMPACT IN SETTING THE COURSE FOR THE NEXT DECADE?None of the individuals named today.I would bet that in 2016, when we look back on who has had the greatest impact in the prior 10 years, it will be an entrepreneur, someone new, someone unknown to us at this time.Looking forward from the present, we tend to amplify the leaders of the past. But in retrospect, it’s always clear that the future belongs to a new generation. A new generation of leaders will transcend political systems that cater to the past. I would bet more on a process of empowerment than any particular person.• WHAT DO YOU FEAR MOST?I tend to be out of touch with fear as an emotion, and so I find myself rationally processing the question and thinking of the worst near-term catastrophe that could affect all of us.At perhaps no time in recorded history has humanity been as vulnerable to viruses and biological pathogens as we are today. We are entering the golden age of natural viruses, and genetically modified and engineered pathogens dramatically compound the near term threat. Bill Joy summarizes that “The risk of our extinction as we pass through this time of danger has been estimated to be anywhere from 30% to 50%.”Why are we so vulnerable now?The delicate "virus-host balance" observed in nature (whereby viruses tend not to be overly lethal to their hosts) is a byproduct of biological co-evolution on a geographically segregated planet. And now, both of those limitations have changed. Organisms can be re-engineered in ways that biological evolution would not have explored, or allowed to spread widely, and modern transportation undermines natural quarantine formation. One example: According to Preston in The Demon in the Freezer, a single person in a typical university bio-lab can splice the IL-4 gene from the host into the corresponding pox virus. The techniques and effects are public information. The gene is available mail order.The IL-4 splice into mousepox made the virus 100% lethal to its host, and 60% lethal to mice who had been vaccinated (more than 2 weeks prior). Even with a vaccine, the IL-4 mousepox is twice as lethal as natural smallpox (which killed ~30% of unvaccinated people).
The last wave of “natural” human smallpox killed over one billion people. Even if we vaccinated everyone, the next wave could be twice as lethal. And, of course, we won’t have time to vaccinate everyone nor can we contain outbreaks with vaccinations. 
Imagine the human dynamic and policy implications if we have a purposeful IL-4 outbreak before we are better prepared…. Here is a series of implications that I fear:
1) Ring vaccinations and mass vaccinations would not work, so2) Health care workers cannot come near these people, so
 3) Victims could not be relocated (with current people and infrastructure) without spreading the virus to the people involved.
4) Quarantine would be essential, but it would be in-situ. Wherever there is an outbreak, there would need to be a hair-trigger quarantine.
5) Unlike prior quarantines, where people could hope for the best, and most would survive, this is very different: everyone in the quarantine area dies.[...]



Books I am Enjoying Now

2007-08-15T12:53:33.768-07:00

and the library they came from. Each image links to comments
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Keep On Booming

2005-11-21T16:46:46.330-08:00

(I thought I’d post an excerpt from testimony I gave to the WHCoA: the White House Conference on Aging. I tried to use language that might appeal to the current political regime. =)Every 60 seconds, a baby boomer turns 60. In thinking about the aging demographic in America, let me approach the issue as a capitalist. Rather than regarding the burgeoning ranks of “retirees” as an economic sink of subsidies, I see an enormous market and an untapped opportunity. Many marketers are realizing the power of the boom, and some of our largest investors have made their fortune attending to the shifting needs of the boomers.Aging boomers are numerous and qualitatively different. Compared to an older generational cohort, the average boomer is twice as likely to have college degree and 3x as likely to have Internet experience.Envision a future where many aging boomers are happily and productively working, flex-time, from home, on tasks that require human judgment and can be abstracted out of work flows. Fortunately, we are clearly entering an information age for the economy. The basis of competition for most companies and all real GNP growth will come from improvements in information processing. Even in medicine and agriculture, the advances of the future will derive from better understanding and manipulation of the information systems of biology. In short, the boomers could be America’s outsourcing alternative to off-shoring. The Internet’s latest developments in web services and digital communications (VOIP and videoconferencing) lower the transaction costs of segmenting information work across distributed work organizations. There is a wonderful economic asymmetry between those who have money and those who have time, between those who need an answer and those with information. This is a boomer opportunity. Imagine a modern-day Web librarian. Think of professional services, like translation, consulting or graphic arts. The majority of economic activity is in services, much of which is an information service, freely tradable on a global basis. Imagine an eBay for information. Boomers may be the beneficiaries.The free market will naturally exploit opportunities in secondary education and retraining, telecommuting technologies for rich communication over the Internet, web services to segment and abstract workflow processes and ship them over the network to aging boomers, and technology to help all of us retain our mental acuity and neural plasticity as we age. Lifelong learning is not just about enlightenment; it’s an economic imperative.Where can the government help? Primarily in areas already entrenched in regulation. I will point out two areas that need attention:1) Broadband Access. Broadband is the lifeline to the economy of the future. It is a prerequisite to the vision I just described. But America trails behind twelve other countries in broadband adoption. For example, our per-capita broadband adoption is less than half that of Korea. The Pew Internet Project reports that “only 15% of Americans over the age of 65 have access to the Internet.” Broadband is infrastructure, like the highways. The roads have to be free for innovation in the vehicles, or software, that run on them. Would we have permitted GM to build the highways in exchange for the right to make them work exclusively with GM cars[...]



XPRS: Big Rockets in the Black Rock Desert

2005-10-01T20:05:28.233-07:00

"In terms of sheer coolness, few things beat rocketry."
— Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder

I just had the most exciting weekend of my life.

For those who are not subscribers to my unified Feedburner RSS feed, the links here are to the relevant photos and commentary.

There was a steady stream of high power rockets, all day and into the night. Their roar quickens the pulse. Especially when they fall from the sky as supersonic lawn darts, shred fins at Mach 2, or go unstable and become landsharks. I had been warned about what happens when a supersonic rocket meets a Chevy Suburban.

The Hybrid Nitrous Oxide rockets and Mercury Joe scale model had glorious launches. To get my L1 Certification for high power rocketry, I had to build a rocket and H-size motor, and then successfully recover them after launch. I also tested my rocket videocam and GPS and altimeter systems.

Black Rock Desert in Nevada is the only place in the country with an FAA waiver to shoot up 100,000 feet, way beyond the end of the atmosphere.

I was camping with a member of the 100K team. It is a beautiful rocket, but this weekend a software bug brought the upper stage back to earth as a supersonic ground-penetrating “bunker buster” that tunneled and blasted a cave 14 feet under ground.

My inner child can’t wait for the next one…(image)



Reverberations of Friendship

2005-07-23T21:14:00.106-07:00

On my flight to Estonia for a Skype board meeting, I was reading my usual geek fare, such as Matt Ridley’s Nature Via Nurture, a wonderful synthesis of phylogenetic inertia, nested genetic promoter feedback loops, bisexual bonobo sisterhoods, and the arrested development of domesticated animals.

While reading various interviews of Craig Venter, I stumbled across a nugget of sculptured prose from Patti Smith, which eloquently captures the resonant emotional filtration of a newfound friend and, in a more abstract way, the curious cultural immersion I felt in my Estonian homeland:

“There are those whom we seek and there are those whom we find. Occasionally we find – however fractured the relativity – one we recognize as kin. In doing so, certain curious aspects of character recede and we happily magnify the common ground.”(image)



Ode to Carbon

2005-07-05T16:35:19.096-07:00

I took a close look at the benzene molecular model on my desk, and visions of nested snake loops danced in my head… Is there something unique about the carbon in carbon-based life forms?Carbon can form strong bonds with a variety of materials, whereas the silicon of electronics is more finicky. Some elements of the periodic table are quite special. Herein may lie a molecular neo-vitalism, not for the discredited metaphysics of life, but for scalable computational architectures that exploit three dimensions. Why is the difference in bonding variety between carbon and silicon important? The computational power of nature relies on a multitude of shapes (in the context of Wolfram’s principle of computational equivalence whereby any natural process of interest can be viewed as a comparably complex computation).“Shape based computing is at the heart of hormone-receptor hookups, antigen-antibody matchups, genetic information transfer and cell differentiation. Life uses the shape of chemicals to identify, to categorize, to deduce and to decide what to do.” (Biomimicry, p.194)Jaron Lanier abstracts the computation of molecular shapes to phenotropic computation along conformational and interacting surfaces, rather than linear strings like a Turing Machine or a data link. Some of these abstractions already apply to biomimetic robots that “treat the pliability of their own building materials as an aspect of computation.” (Lanier)When I visited Nobel Laureate Smalley at Rice, he argued that the future of nanotech would be carbon based, due to its uniquely strong covalent bond potential, and carbon’s ability to bridge the world of electronics to the world of aqueous and organic chemistries, a world that is quite oxidative to traditional electronic elements.At ACC2003, I moderated a debate with Kurzweil, Tuomi and Prof. Michael Denton from New Zealand. While I strongly disagreed with Denton's speculations on vitalism, he started with the interesting proposition that "self-replication arises from unique types of matter and can not be instantiated in different materials... The key to self-replication is self-assembly by energy minimization, relieving the cell of the informational burden of specifying its 3D complexity... Self-replication is not a substrate independent phenomenon." (Of course, self-replication is not impossible in other physical systems, for that would violate quantum mechanics, but it might be infeasible to design and build within a reasonable period of time.) Natural systems exploit the rich dynamics of weak bonds (in protein folding, DNA hybridization, etc.) and perhaps the power of quantum scanning of all possible orbitals (there is a probability for the wave function of each bond). Molecules snap together faster than predicted by normal Brownian interaction rates, and perhaps this is fundamental to their computational power. For example, consider the chemical reaction of a caffeine molecule binding to a receptor (something which is top of mind =). These two molecules are performing a quantum mechanical computation to solve the Schrödinger equation for all of their particles. This simple system is finding the simultaneous solution for about 2^1000 equations. That is a task of such immense complexity that if all of the[...]



TED Reflections

2005-03-07T08:43:27.430-08:00

TED is a wonderfully refreshing brain spa, an eclectic ensemble of mental exercise that helps rekindle the childlike mind of creativity.This year’s theme was “Inspired by Nature”, which I believe has broad and interdisciplinary relevance, especially to the future of intelligence and information technology. By the end of the conference, there was a common thread running throughout the myriad talks, a leitmotif along the frontiers of the unknown. I felt as if I had been immersed in a fugue of biomimicry.I am still trying to synthesize the discussions I had with Kurzweil, Venter and Hillis about subsystem complexity in evolved systems, but until then, I thought I’d share some of my favorite quotes and photos.• Rodney Brooks, MIT robotocist:“Within 2-3 weeks, freshmen are adding BioBricks to the E.Coli bacteria chassis. They make oscillators that flash slowly and digital computation agents. But the digital abstraction may not be right metaphor for programming biology.”“Polyclad flatworms have about 2000 neurons. You can take their brain out and put it back in backwards. The worm moves backwards at first, but adapts over time back to normal. You can rotate its brain 180 degrees and put it in upside down, and it still works. Biology is changing our understanding of complexity and computation.”• Craig Venter, when asked about the risks of ‘playing God’ in the creation of a new form of microbial life: “My colleague Hammie Smith likes to answer: ‘We don’t play.’”“With Synthetic Genomics, genes are the design components for the future of biology. We hope to replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy and bioremediation.”“The sea is very heterogeneous. We sampled seawater microbes every 200 miles and 85% of the gene sequences in each sample were unique... 80% of all known gene data is new in the last year.”“There are about 5*10^30 microbes on Earth. The Archaea alone outweigh all plants and animals... One milliliter of sea water has 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses.”• Graham Hawkes, radical submarine inventor, would agree: “94% of life on Earth is aquatic. I am embarrassed to call our planet ‘Earth’. It’s an ocean planet.”• Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry (discussion):“Our heat, beat and treat approach to manufacturing is 96% waste... Life adds information to matter. Life creates conditions conducive to life.”• Kevin Kelly, a brilliant author and synthesizer:“Organisms hack the rules of life. Every rule has an exception in nature.”“Life and technology tend toward ubiquity, diversity, specialization, complexity and sociability…. What does technology want? Technology wants a zillion species of one. Technology is the evolution of evolution itself, exploring the ways to explore, a game to play all the games.”• James Watson, on finding DNA's helix: “It all happened in about two hours. We went from nothing to thing.” (Photo and discussion)• The Bill Joy nightmare ensemble: GNR epitomized in Venter (Genetics), Kurzweil (Nanotech) and Brooks (Robotics).• The Feynman Fan club: particle diagrams take on human form =)• GM’s VP of R&D on the importance of hydrogen to the auto industry.• Amory Lovins on th[...]



Thanks for the Memory

2005-04-21T21:52:09.886-07:00

While reading Jeff Hawkins’ book On Intelligence, I was struck by the resonant coherence of his memory-prediction framework for how the cortex works. It was like my first exposure to complexity theory at the Santa Fe Institute – providing a perceptual prism for the seeing the consilience across various scientific conundrums. So, I had to visit him at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute.As a former chip designer, I kept thinking of comparisons between the different “memories” – those in our head and those in our computers. It seems that the developmental trajectory of electronics is recapitulating the evolutionary history of the brain. Specifically, both are saturating with a memory-centric architecture. Is this a fundamental attractor in computation and cognition? Might a conceptual focus on speedy computation be blinding us to a memory-centric approach to artificial intelligence?• First, the brain: “The brain does not ‘compute’ the answers to problems; it retrieves the answers from memory… The entire cortex is a memory system. It isn’t a computer at all.” Rather than a behavioral or computation-centric model, Hawkins presents a memory-prediction framework for intelligence. The 30 billion neurons in the neocortex provide a vast amount of memory that learns a model of the world. These memory-based models continuously make low-level predictions in parallel across all of our senses. We only notice them when a prediction is incorrect. Higher in the hierarchy, we make predictions at higher levels of abstraction (the crux of intelligence, creativity and all that we consider being human), but the structures are fundamentally the same.More specifically, Hawkins argues that the cortex stores a temporal sequence of patterns in a repeating hierarchy of invariant forms and recalls them auto-associatively. The framework elegantly explains the importance of the broad synaptic connectivity and nested feedback loops seen in the cortex.The cortex is relatively new development by evolutionary time scales. After a long period of simple reflexes and reptilian instincts, only mammals evolved a neocortex, and in humans it usurped some functionality (e.g., motor control) from older regions of the brain. Thinking of the reptilian brain as a “logic”-centric era in our development that then migrated to a memory-centric model serves as a good segue to electronics.• And now, electronics:The mention of Moore’s Law conjures up images of speedy microprocessors. Logic chips used to be mostly made of logic gates, but today’s microprocessors, network processors, FPGAs, DSPs and other “systems on a chip” are mostly memory. And they are still built in fabs that were optimized for logic, not memory.The IC market can be broadly segmented into memory and logic chips. The ITRS estimates that in the next six years, 90% of all logic chip area will actually be memory. Coupled with the standalone memory business, we are entering an era for complex chips where almost all transistors manufactured are memory, not logic.At the presciently named HotChips conference, AMD, Intel, Sony and Sun showed their latest PC, server, and PlayStation processors. They are mostly memory. In moving fro[...]



Giving Thanks to our Libraries & Bio-Hackers

2004-11-25T20:24:48.453-08:00

As I eat a large meal today, I am reminded of so much that we should be thankful for. Most evidently, we should give thanks to the epiglottis, the little valve that flaps with every swallow to keep food and drink out of our windpipe. Unlike other mammals, we can’t drink and breathe at the same time, and we are prone to choking, but hey, our larynx location makes complex speech a lot easier. Much of our biology is more sublime. With the digitization of myriad genomes, we are learning to decode and reprogram the information systems of biology. Like computer hackers, we can leverage a prior library of evolved code, assemblers and subsystems. Many of the radical applications lie outside of medicine. For example, a Danish group is testing a genetically-modified plant in the war-torn lands of Bosnia and Africa. Instead of turning red in autumn, this plant changes color in the presence of land mines or unexploded ordinance. Red marks the spot for land mine removal. At MIT, researchers are using accelerated artificial evolution to rapidly breed M13 viruses to infect bacteria in such a way that they bind and organize semiconductor materials with molecular precision. At IBEA, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith are leading the Minimal Genome Project. They take the Mycoplasma genitalium from the human urogenital tract, and strip out 200 unnecessary genes, thereby creating the simplest synthetic organism that can self-replicate (at about 300 genes). They plan to layer new functionality on to this artificial genome, to make a solar cell or to generate hydrogen from water using the sun’s energy for photonic hydrolysis (perhaps by splicing in novel genes discovered in the Sargasso Sea for energy conversion from sunlight). Venter explains: “Creating a new life form is a means of understanding the genome and understanding the gene sets. We don’t have enough scientists on the planet, enough money, and enough time using traditional methods to understand the millions of genes we are uncovering. So we have to develop new approaches… to understand empirically what the different genes do in developing living systems.” Thankfully, these researchers can leverage a powerful nanoscale molecular assembly machine. It is 20nm on a side and consists of only 99 thousand atoms. It reads a tape of digital instructions to concatenate molecules into polymer chains. I am referring to the ribosome. It reads mRNA code to assemble proteins from amino acids, thereby manufacturing most of what you care about in your body. And it serves as a wonderful existence proof for the imagination. So let’s raise a glass to the lowly ribosome and the library of code it can interpret. Much of our future context will be defined by the accelerating proliferation of information technology, as it innervates society and begins to subsume matter into code. (These themes relate to the earlier posts on the human genome being smaller than Microsoft Office and on the power of biological metaphors for the future of information technology.) P.S. Happy Thanksgiving, even to the bears… =)[...]



Nanotech is the Nexus of the Sciences

2004-11-21T09:00:29.033-08:00

Disruptive innovation, the driver of growth and renewal, occurs at the edge. In startups, innovation occurs out of the mainstream, away from the warmth of the herd. In biological evolution, innovative mutations take hold at the physical edge of the population, at the edge of survival. In complexity theory, structure and complexity emerge at the edge of chaos – the dividing line between predictable regularity and chaotic indeterminacy. And in science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs in the inter-disciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines.

Herein lies much of the excitement about nanotechnology. Quite simply, it is in the richness of human communication about science. Nanotech exposes the core areas of overlap in the fundamental sciences, the place where quantum physics and quantum chemistry can cross-pollinate with ideas from the life sciences.

Over time, each of the academic disciplines develops its own proprietary systems vernacular that isolates it from neighboring disciplines. Nanoscale science requires scientists to cut across scientific languages to unite the isolated islands of innovation.

In academic centers and government labs, nanotech is fostering new conversations. At Stanford, Duke and many other schools, the new nanotech buildings are physically located at the symbolic hub of the schools of engineering, computer science and medicine.

(Keep in mind though, that outside of the science and research itself, the "nanotech" moniker conveys no business synergy whatsoever. The marketing, distribution and sales of a nanotech solar cell, memory chip or drug delivery capsule will be completely different from each other, and will present few opportunities for common learning or synergy.)

Nanotech is the nexus of the sciences. The history of humanity is that we use our tools and our knowledge to build better tools and expand the bounds of our learning. Empowered by the digitization of the information systems of biology, the nanotech nexus is catalyzing an innovation Renaissance, a period of exponential growth in learning, where the power of biotech, infotech and nanotech compounds the advances in each formerly discrete domain. This should be a very exciting epoch, one that historians may look back on with no less portent than the Industrial Revolution.(image)



Clones and Mutants

2004-11-15T09:49:01.823-08:00

“Life is the imperfect transmission of code.” At our life sciences conference in Half Moon Bay, Juan Enriquez shared some his adventures around the biosphere, from an Argentinean clone farm to shotgun sequencing the Sargasso Sea with Craig Venter. From the first five ocean samples, they grew the number of known genes on the planet by 10x and the number of genes involved in solar energy conversion by 100x. The ocean microbes have evolved over a longer period of time and have pathways that are more efficient than photosynthesis. • Clone Farms Juan showed a series of photos from his October trip to a farm in Argentina. With simple equipment that fits on a desk, the farmer cloned and implanted 60 embryos that morning. All of the cows in his field came from a cell sample from the ear of one cow. Some of the cows are genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical proteins in their milk (human EPO). These animal bioreactors are very efficient and could replace large buildings of traditional manufacturing capacity. Whether stem cell research and treatment for ALS, or cloning cows, Argentina is one of the countries boldly going where the U.S. Federal government fears to tread. • Three Wing Chickens Juan also showed a genetically engineered three wing chicken. The homeobox gene that has been modified is affectionately called “Sonic Hedgehog” (his son really likes SEGA!) The homeobox genes are my favorites. They are like powerful subroutine calls that have structural phenotypic effects. I recommend Juan’s book As the Future Catches You for an exploration of the economic imperative of technology education, especially literacy in the modern languages of digital code and genetic code. And for a populist description of the homeobox genes, I recommend Matt Ridley’s Genome, a very fun primer on genetics. Here is a selection: “Hedgehog has its equivalents in people and in birds. Three very similar genes do much the same thing in chicks and people… The hedgehog genes define the front and rear of the wing, and it is Hox genes that then divide it up into digits. The transformation of a simple limb bud into a five-fingered hand happens in every one of us, but it also happened, on a different timescale, when the first tetrapods developed hands from fish fins some time after 400 million years ago.” "So simple is embryonic development that it is tempting to wonder if human engineers should not try to copy it, and invent self-assembling machines.” One of Juan’s slides was the first hand drawn map of the Internet, circa 1969. Larry Roberts had drawn that map, and happened to be in the audience to brainstorm after the talk. P.S. The most popular phone at our conference was the Moto Razor, Chinese edition. P.S.S. The most popular blog photo so far (with over 12,000 visitors) is a simple message…[...]



Spooks and Goblins

2004-10-31T16:32:07.506-08:00

As it’s Halloween here, I got to thinking about strange beliefs and their origins. Do you think that the generation of myths and folkloric false beliefs has declined over time?

In addition to the popularization of the scientific method, I wonder if photography lessened the promulgation of tall tales. Before photography, if someone told you a story about ghosts in the haunted house or the beast on the hill, you could chose to believe them or check for yourself. There was no way to say, “show me a picture of that Yeti or Loch Ness Monster, and then I’ll believe you.”

And, if so, will we regress as we have developed the ability to modify and fabricate photos and video?

For our class on genetic free speech, Lessig used a pre-print of Posner’s new book, Catastophe: Risk and Response. Posner relates the following statistics on American adults:
• 39% believe astrology is scientific (astrology, not astronomy).
• 33% believe in ghosts and communication with the dead.

Ponder that for a moment. One out of every three U.S. adults believes in ghosts. Who knows what their kids think.

People’s willingness to believe untruths relates to the ability of the average person to reason critically about reality. Here are some less amusing statistics on American adults:
• 46% deny that human beings evolved from earlier animal species.
• 49% don’t know that it takes a year for the earth to revolve around the sun.
• 67% don't know what a molecule is.
• 80% can't understand the NY Times Tuesday science section.

Posner concludes: “It is possible that science is valued by most Americans as another form of magic.” This is a wonderful substrate for false memes and a new generation of bogeymen.

Gotta go… It’s time to trick-or-treat… =)(image)



The Photo Blog

2004-10-28T09:54:07.070-07:00

For those of you who are not receiving the Feedburner RSS Feed of this blog, you are missing the whimsical and visual postings. So, for Halloween, I thought I’d post links to some of the interesting photos and commentary:

• Fun with: Bush, Kennedy, Gates, Jobs, Moore, and Jamis in Japanese.

• Observations from the first screening of Pixar’s new film, The Incredibles.

• Beautiful Scenes from: Estonia, the Canadian Rockies, Singapore, Montage (Beach), and The Internet.

• Odd Photos: Halloween Horses, Climbing the Dish at Stanford, Extreme Macro Zoom, Elephants, Aquasaurs and Ecospheres, the Technorati Bobsled Team, and the NanoCar spoof (which continues to fool people even this week).

• It came from TED: Visual Material Puzzles (another) and the DeepFlight submarine.

• And, of course, Rockets, Detached Heads, Funky Pink Divas and Robot Women.

An eclectic mix…. Happy Halloween!(image)



Defining “Don’t be Evil”

2004-10-18T12:30:39.816-07:00

Back in 1995, it was easy to rig search engine results. Some search engines would actually tell you how they parsed just the first 100 words on the page. And they would let you submit pages to be crawled for fast feedback on how page content modifications lead to search results. Stacking white keywords on a white background at the top of the page did the trick for a couple years. Then Overture invented the pay for placement model, which Google disdained as “evil” and then adopted as its primary revenue model. Google got around their own evil epithet by clearly delineating paid search results from unpaid. This has been their holy line in the sand. From the Business Journal: "'Don't be evil' is the corporate mantra around Google…. When their competitors began mixing paid placement listings with actual search results, Google stayed pure, drawing a clear line between search results and advertising.” So Overture and Google have made search engine results a BIG business, and several “consultants” sell advice on how to spike results, but their tricks are short lived. So it was with some amusement, that I found a way to easily spike certain Google search results. This has worked for a few months now, and it will be interesting to see how long it lasts after this post… ;-) A reader of this blog pointed out to me that my Blogger Profile gets the top two Google search results for IL-4 smallpox, a genetically modified bioweapon. This is when my blog had no content whatsoever in this area (it now does). My profile is also number one for genetically modified pathogen policy, over thousands of more relevant pages. And my profile is number one for several areas of whimsy: Techno downbeat music, and Nanotech core memory boards, and Artificial life with female moths, and Viral marketing with Technorati, among others. (disclosure: we invested in Technorati and Overture). Of course, longer phrases are easier to spike, and not everything works for a top placement, but this still seems way too easy. Why is this interesting? Well, Google owns Blogger, and they get to decide how to fold blog pages into search results. It’s not obvious how to rank a vapid Blogger profile page versus real content… or a competing blog service for that matter. And as Google offers more services like Blogger and Orkut, it will be interesting to see how they promote them in their own search results. Every person I have met from Google is fantastic, and I don’t think this quirk is an overt strategy passed down from management (and I presume it will disappear as more people exploit it). On the other hand, this is the kind of product tying you would expect from Microsoft. And it begs the question, can a mantra to not do evil infuse into the corporate DNA and continue to drive culture as a company scales? There's also the question of internal consistency. Thinking back to the holy line in the sand about disclosing advertising in search results, does it somehow not count if you own it? Google has taken on the challenge of defining evil,[...]



Childish Scientists

2005-03-02T21:09:49.070-08:00

In the comments to the Celebrate the Child-Like Mind posting, a wonderful quote came from Argentina:

"I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore” – Sir Isaac Newton

Of course, this observation does not apply just to the Newtonian physicists. The September issue of Discover Magazine observes: “Einstein had the genius to view space and time like a child,” as with his thought experiments of riding a light-beam. "His breakthrough realization of the relativity of time turned on a series of mental cartoons featuring trains and clocks. General relativity, his theory of gravity, started off as a meditation on what happens when a man falls off a roof."

And the fantastic physicist Feynman (the first person to propose nanotechnology in his 1960 lecture “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom”) is especially child-like: "When Richard Feynman faced a problem he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks and saying, 'Now, what have we got here?'" – The Science of Creativity, p.102.

For a humorous aside, the T.H.O.N.G. protesters remixed Feynman as "Plenty of Room at This Bottom."

Lest we think that childishness is reserved for physicists, I am reminded of my meeting with James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. His breakthrough technique: fiddling with metal models and doodling the fused rings of adenine on paper. I like this summary: “Watson can himself be quite the double helix – a sharp scientific mind intertwined with a child-like innocence.”

How far can this generalize? In Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, the author “finds a childlike component in each of their creative breakthroughs.”

This final quote reminds me of a wonderful echo of Michael Schrage’s claim that reality is the opposite of play:

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
– Albert Einstein(image)



Notes from EDAY 2004

2004-10-11T09:11:59.800-07:00

On Saturday, IDEO mixed some fun and play with some great lectures:

• Stanford Prof. Bob Sutton: “Sometimes the best management is no management at all. Managers consistently overestimate their impact on performance. And once you manage someone, you immediately think more highly of them.” When Chuck House wanted to develop the oscilloscope for HP, David Packard told him to abandon the project. Chuck went on vacation” and came back with $2MM in orders. Packard later gave him an award inscribed with an accolade for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering.” When Leakey chose Jane Goodall, he “wanted someone with a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory.” Sutton’s conclusion for innovative work: “Hire slow learners of the organizational code, people who are oblivious to social cues and have very high self-esteem. They will draw on past individual experience or invent new methods.”

• Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the Institute for Play, showed a fascinating series of photos of animals playing (ravens sliding on their backs down an icy slope, monkeys rolling snowballs and playing leapfrog, and various inter-species games). “Warm-blooded animals play; fish and reptiles do not. Warm blood stores energy, and a cortex allows for choice and REM sleep.”

Brown has also studied the history of mass murderers, and found “normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, anti-social men. The opposite of ‘play’ is not ‘work’. It’s depression.”

“We are designed to play. We need 3D motion. The smarter the creature the more they play. The sea squirt auto-digests its brain when it becomes sessile.”

• Michael Schrage, MIT Media Lab Fellow, defined play as “the riskless competition between speculative choices. If it’s predictable, it’s not play. The opposite of play is not what is serious, but what is real. The paradox is that you can’t be serious if you don’t play.”

“We need to treat our tools as toys and our toys as tools. Our simulations, models and prototypes need to play.”(image)



More Things Change

2004-10-09T18:00:04.400-07:00

I am at the World Technology Summit today. Just finished a panel on accelerating change, where John Smart made the following provocative points:

• Technology learns 100 million times faster than you do.
• Humans are selective catalysts, not controllers, of technological evolutionary development.
• 80-90% of your paycheck comes from automation.
• Catastrophes accelerate societal immunity. The network always wins.

If you want to take a deep dive into these topics with him, John is hosting Accelerating Change 2004 at Stanford, Nov 6-7. He is offering a $50 discount to readers of this blog (discount code "AC2004-J" with all caps).

Update: For those not subscribing to the Feedburner RSS feed, here are some new photos from WTS 2004 and the Awards Dinner.(image)



Celebrate the Child-Like Mind

2007-01-08T16:34:50.816-08:00

Celebrate immaturity. Play every day. Fail early and often. From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure. On Thursday, I went to a self-described "play-date" at David Kelley's house. The founder of IDEO is setting up an interdisciplinary "D-School" for design and creativity at Stanford. David and Don Norman noted that creativity is killed by fear, referencing experiments that contrast people’s approach to walking along a balance beam flat on the ground (playful and expressive) and then suspended in the air (fearful and rigid). They are hosting an open conference on Saturday, appropriately entitled The Power of Play. In science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs at the inter-disciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines. Perhaps the D-school will go further, to “non-disciplined studies” – stripped of systems vernacular, stricture, and the constraints of discipline. What is so great about the “child-like” mind? Looking across the Bay to Berkeley, I highly recommend Alison Gopnik’s Scientist in the Crib to any geek about to have a child. Here is one of her key conclusions: "Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new.... They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments…. In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally." Much of the human brain’s power derives from its massive synaptic interconnectivity. I spoke with Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute last night. He observed that across species, synapses/neuron fan-out grows as a power law with brain mass. At the age of 2 to 3 years old, children hit their peak with 10x the synapses and 2x the energy burn of an adult brain. And it’s all downhill from there. This UCSF Memory and Aging Center graph shows that the pace of cognitive decline is the same in the 40’s as in the 80’s. We just notice more accumulated decline as we get older, especially when we cross the threshold of forgetting most of what we try to remember. But we can affect this progression. Prof. Merzenich at UCSF has found that neural plasticity does not disappear in adults. It just requires mental exercise. Use it or lose it. We have to get out of the mental ruts that career tracks and academic “disciplines” can foster. Blogging is a form of mental exercise. I try to let this one take a random walk of curiosities and child-like exploration. Bottom line: Embrace lifelong learning. Do something new. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.[...]



Quote of the Day

2004-10-02T10:26:56.730-07:00

"Microsoft has had clear competitors in the past.
It's good that we have museums to document them."
- Bill Gates, today at the Computer History Museum (former SGI HQ)

At the reception, Gates mingled in front of the wooden Apple 1, with a banner over his head: “The Two Steves.” (image)



Transcending Moore’s Law with Molecular Electronics

2004-09-26T20:54:17.953-07:00

The future of Moore’s Law is not CMOS transistors on silicon. Within 25 years, they will be as obsolete as the vacuum tube. While this will be a massive disruption to the semiconductor industry, a larger set of industries depends on continued exponential cost declines in computational power and storage density. Moore’s Law drives electronics, communications and computers and has become a primary driver in drug discovery and bioinformatics, medical imaging and diagnostics. Over time, the lab sciences become information sciences, and then the speed of iterative simulations accelerates the pace of progress. There are several reasons why molecular electronics is the next paradigm for Moore’s Law: • Size: Molecular electronics has the potential to dramatically extend the miniaturization that has driven the density and speed advantages of the integrated circuit (IC) phase of Moore’s Law. For a memorable sense of the massive difference in scale, consider a single drop of water. There are more molecules in a single drop of water than all transistors ever built. Think of the transistors in every memory chip and every processor ever built, worldwide. Sure, water molecules are small, but an important part of the comparison depends on the 3D volume of a drop. Every IC, in contrast, is a thin veneer of computation on a thick and inert substrate. • Power: One of the reasons that transistors are not stacked into 3D volumes today is that the silicon would melt. Power per calculation will dominate clock speed as the metric of merit for the future of computation. The inefficiency of the modern transistor is staggering. The human brain is ~100 million times more power efficient than our modern microprocessors. Sure the brain is slow (under a kHz) but it is massively parallel (with 100 trillion synapses between 60 billion neurons), and interconnected in a 3D volume. Stan Williams, the director of HP’s quantum science research labs, concludes: “it should be physically possible to do the work of all the computers on Earth today using a single watt of power.” • Manufacturing Cost: Many of the molecular electronics designs use simple spin coating or molecular self-assembly of organic compounds. The process complexity is embodied in the inexpensive synthesized molecular structures, and so they can literally be splashed on to a prepared silicon wafer. The complexity is not in the deposition or the manufacturing process or the systems engineering. Biology does not tend to assemble complexity at 1000 degrees in a high vacuum. It tends to be room temperature or body temperature. In a manufacturing domain, this opens the possibility of cheap plastic substrates instead of expensive silicon ingots. • Elegance: In addition to these advantages, some of the molecular electronics approaches offer elegant solutions to non-volatile and inherently digital s[...]



Recapitulation in Nested Evolutionary Dynamics

2004-09-17T11:18:16.503-07:00

I noticed the following table of interval time compression midway down the home page of singularitywatch.com: “3–4 million years ago: collective rock throwing… 500,000 years ago: control of fire 50,000 years ago: bow and arrow; fine tools 5,000 years ago: wheel and axle; sail 500 years ago: printing press with movable type; rifle 50 years ago: the transistor; digital computers” Then I burst out laughing with a maturationist epiphany: this is exactly the same sequence of development I went though as a young boy! It started with collective rock throwing (I still have a scar inside my lip)..... then FIRE IS COOL!.... then slingshots…. and the wheels of my bike…. then writing and my pellet gun.... and by 7th grade, programming the Apple ][. Spooky. It reminded me of the catchy aphorism: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (the overgeneralization that fetal embryonic development replays ancestral evolutionary stages) and recapitulation theories in general. I’m thinking of Dawkin’s description of memes (elements of ideas and culture) as fundamental mindless replicators, like genes, for which animals are merely vectors for replication (like a host to the virus). In Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore explores the meme-gene parallels and derives an interesting framework for explaining the unusual size of the human brain and the origins of consciousness, language, altruism, religion, and orkut. Discussions of the cultural and technological extensions of our biological evolution evoke notions of recapitulation – to reestablish the foundation for compounding progress across generations. But perhaps it is something more fundamental, a “basic conserved and resonant developmental homology” as John Smart would describe it. A theme of evolutionary dynamics operating across different substrates and time scales leads to inevitable parallels in developmental sequences. For example, Gardner’s Selfish Biocosm hypothesis extends evolution across successive universes. His premise is that the anthropic qualities (life and intelligence-friendly) of our universe derive from “an enormously lengthy cosmic replication cycle in which… our cosmos duplicates itself and propagates one or more "baby universes." The hypothesis suggests that the cosmos is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that evolutionary theorist and ultra-Darwinist Richard Dawkins proposed that genes are "selfish." …The cosmos is "selfishly" focused upon the overarching objective of achieving its own replication.” Gardner concludes with another nested spiral of recapitulation: “An implication of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the emergence of life and ever more accomplished forms of intelligence is inextricably linked to the physical birth, evolution, and reproduction of the cosmos.”[...]