Saturday, March 12, 2011

Innovation prediction

My innovation prediction is that WEB 2.0 tools will enable a rise in cottage industries, with many people choosing to work from home. My wife paints portraits on commission, and these tools will enable her to do business in a global market. The paintings shown here were all produced by wife and myself.
It is now practical for a single individual to buy materials, use services to help convert these materials into products, and sell these products to a widely distributed, very thin market. Often such products serve such a small niche that they are of no interest to large companies, yet produce a good living for an individual. Consulting services of all kinds can also use WEB 2.0 tools.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Control the bad actors

A few days ago, my son introduced me to the online game "Moonbase Alpha". I was struck by its similarity to Second Life. In fact, it looked like a primitive ancestor.
I examined the Second Life scripting language to see if I could develop a similar game to run under it. I found that such a development would be straightforward. Unfortunately, when anything like Second Life is established, bad actors appear as quickly as fruit flies on rotten fruit on a hot summer day. An example occurred at the beginning of the course when Dr. Calongne faced a hacker attack on Acheron. She responded by making the island private, which solved her immediate problem at the cost of making it unavailable to good people as well as evil doers.
I then started speculating on improvements to Second Life to protect against bad actors. The question is, how do you do that.
I could create scenarios designed to entrap specific kinds of bad actors and lead them down various paths. In other words, experiment on them! However, there is an elephant in the room ... Ethics! What right do I have to experiment on people without their knowledge or permission, even though they do not respect my rights at all?
After the Manhattan Project in the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer said “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb”. Many Project scientists had misgivings about releasing the genie from the bottle. I believe that this genie would eventually have escaped its bottle even if there had been no Manhattan project. If some other country had been the first to develop the bomb, for instance the USSR during the 1960s, it might have resulted in annihilation for the free world. Certainly if Stalin or Hitler had possessed the ability to destroy North America by touching a button, they would not have hesitated.
It may seem silly to compare Second Life with the atomic bomb, but remember that the first nuclear reactor was just a pile of graphite blocks and uranium rods. It still produced enough radioactivity to kill everyone who worked on it, and it was a critical step in the development of the bomb. Whenever there is technological development, the people involved focus their attention on the technological first, and the ethical after the fact. Technological and ethical forces are often intertwined and sometimes at odds with each other.
I have always believed that choices between good and evil are obvious and simple to make. Is that because of some universal logic, or does it result from my Judeo/Christian  background? If a malicious hacker makes the island of Acheron unusable to others, I consider the act evil, but perhaps from the hacker’s point of view, the concept of evil does not apply. When Hitler ruled, did he know that his deeds were evil? Was his awareness of good and evil suppressed? Did he even have a concept of good and evil?
If I have the technical skill to cause either evil outcome A or good outcome B, I am compelled to choose outcome B, but there may be difficult ethical questions along the way.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Small aircraft for everyone? NOT!

Starting on page 86 of "Technology's Promise" by Halal, the author makes a number of fantastic claims. For instance, "Costs of owning small aircraft are falling dramatically, and new technology makes piloting a small plane almost as easy as driving a car". I owned a Cessna Cutlass from February, 1991, to May, 2004, and my experience was exactly the opposite. I bought the plane for $40,000 and sold it for $75,000. In 1991, the cost of renting a Cutlass "Wet" (gas included) was $65 an hour. In 2004 it was $140 an hour. In 1991 I could land at San Jose Airport and park for free. In 2004, it cost $40 to park for a day. I routinely flew into the San Francisco Bay area several times a week, and the procedures became progressively more complex due to increasing government regulation. GPS is assumed to make navigation easy, but a unit approved for instrument flight would have cost $10,000 for my plane, plus data base updates every 56 days.
It is true that the accident rate continues to go down. I believe this is because the training and experience level of the average pilot keeps going up. In other words, there are fewer casual weekend pilots.
The number of student pilot certificates peaked in 1979 and has dropped drastically since then. It is far more difficult and expensive to get a license now than it was in 1979, and it is getting steadily worse.
The primary force driving the decline of aviation is governmental. Rules and regulations seem to increase without bound. The second force is financial, driven in part by governmental. Even after adjusting for inflation, the cost of flying a small plane has tripled since I got my license in October, 1985. A third force which fits between governmental and financial is legal. It seems that manufacturers of anything that goes into an airplane are easy prey for multi-million dollar lawsuits. This cost has to be paid by somebody.
Halal's comments on the Robinson R22, Eclipse Aviation, and Moller International are delusional. Halal's predictions in this section are not just wrong, they are insanely wrong, so much so that for me, at least, the credibility of the rest of the book is compromised.

Friday, February 11, 2011

WEB 2.0 Convergence

The definition of Web 2.0 is a controversial subject. Tim Berners-Lee calls the term a "piece of jargon", but then goes on to state his vision of the web as a read/write medium for sharing of papers. Clearly the World Wide Web has already evolved far beyond that.

This tag cloud from Wikipedia gives a suggestion as to the current and future state of the WWW

My current favorite Web 2.0 example is Second Life, which allows a variety of novel interactions to occur which would not be practical in the real world. We are already using it for holding "Classes" among students who are geographically dispersed. It could also be used to teach in really dangerous situations, such as bomb defusing.

Extending Second Life to, for instance, moving robots through a hazardous environment, such as a burning building, partially collapsed coal mine, or badly damaged nuclear reactor, should allow for a type of augmented reality that does not currently exist. Just as now, there is no requirement for the participants to be at any particular place.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Innovation from Delphi Wiki

Implanting a bio sensor under a person's skin to monitor blood glucose and oxygen levels is a concept that is almost here. Powering such a device externally and reading the results is a technology borrowed from RFID chips and can work with a microprocessor with ample ROM and RAM. What is missing is the sensors themselves. These sensors must operate indefinitely without requiring consumable materials. One possibility is BioMatrix.
Two forces that support this concept are medical (obviously) and technical, from RFID technology and  sensors on a chip.
Governmental forces impede development in two ways: First, a "tax the rich" policy reduces the incentive for entrepreneurs to take risks on new products, since if they succeed, financial reward will be reduced. Second, increasing regulations add to the complexity of any new product, especially in medicine.
Legal forces also reduce the incentive for new medical devices since anything new in medicine is a target for lawsuits.
The Delphi method would be appropriate here with experts chosen from all related fields, especially including silicon chip designers and experts in legal medicine. Closed collaboration allows experts from competing organizations to participate without trade secret issues.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Neural Connectome

The following video may be found at

When I first started my quest for material on neural networks, I was afraid that there would be little  available on a computer science perspective. I am pleased to find that there is an abundance of material!
This video shows the technological challenges of pursuing the brain. The medical motivations are obvious, since if this technology can be perfected, our ability to treat and diagnose diseases  and other malfunctions of the nervous system will be greatly enhanced.
Although financial considerations exist in any research endeavor, the primary limitation in this area is lack of really brilliant people. There are many approaches to applying computer science techniques to biological neural networks, so there is plenty of room for many players.
The two points from the video that I would like to discuss are the ethical implications of this approach to defining who we are, and the technological requirements to achieve this sort of mapping for human beings.