Bits and Pieces: The Future

This is almost exactly a year late, but Vernor Vinge, one of my favourite SF authors and perhaps the most insightful prognosticator I know of, gave the keynote lecture at the Austin Games Conference in 2006. He covers so much ground in the lecture that I suspect he lost a few people not familiar with his ideas, but the two main themes he focuses on are localizers – dust-sized devices that can exchange information that includes their location – and display technologies that would allow for augmented realities.

In its simplest conceptual form, [localizers] are simply a feature that is on networked embedded processors, whereby the processor knows where it is in 3D space.

In principle, that actually is very easy. You don’t even need GPS, simply if you have lots of them, thousands in this room scattered around as an ad hoc network, they can figure out their relative position to the other nodes. And in fact they can know where things are outside of this room if the world as a whole is hooked up this way.

Think about what that would mean. It actually eliminates whole industries. It eliminates hundreds of different locational technologies. Almost all the moving parts machinery we have and coordination of moving parts machinery involves either having humans know how to position the parts or a wide variety of technologies working together…

I am convinced that the day we really get high resolution heads up displays, most people who nowadays are carrying a bluetooth earphone and microphone would have no problem with wearing eyeglasses that gave them a heads up display of something like 4,000 by 4,000 if the infrastructure had moved along in concert. Then high resolution HUDs could be exploited. That’s an example of a highly disruptive technology. It essentially destroys all other display technology except as emergency backups.

If you were able to get localization that was really good, you could imagine setting this up so that if your wearable knew where you were looking, what the orientation of your head was and where your eyeballs were tracking, then in addition to being able to produce the world’s best display, as good as the worlds’ best desktop display, you could actually overlay things in the environment.

The term for that in academic circles is augmented reality. In that situation, having the processing power that’s involved with the network infrastructure I just described becomes very very useful, because you could in an ad hoc way overlay those portions of reality that you wanted to.

In an auditorium like this you could make the walls look like whatever you wanted, you could make the speaker look like a clown, and since everything was networked, you and your friends could get together and agree on what things looked like. The notion of consensual imaging becomes very very important, and again this is actually a very disruptive technology, if it were finally to happen. It blows away all discussion of large three-dimensional display technologies.

And so on. I suggest you read the whole lecture, or better yet, read his latest Hugo award-winning novel, Rainbows End, which he has very kindly put online for free.

The West Wing

Never mind one year late, this is about ten years late: I began watching The West Wing a couple of months ago after enjoying Studio 60, and I must say that it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen. Its wiki page says that one of its most significant effects was to challenge the overwhelming view of politics being totally cynical, and I would agree with that wholeheartedly.

I am also overjoyed by the fact that it sees intelligence as a virtue. This may seem like a strange thing to say, but I don’t feel that intelligence or thoughtfulness is particular valued these days, at least not in the popular media. There’s a particularly brilliant part in the third season, where the President is worried that he’ll be crucified by the public for appearing to be too smart:

Toby: You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken… do not – do not – do not act like it!

President Bartlet: I don’t want to be killed.

Toby: Then make this election about smart, and not… Make it about engaged, and not… Qualified, and not… Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight.

This is a very deliberate allusion to Bush versus, well, anybody else, but it still had me cheering.

They should show the West Wing in civics classes. Two episodes a week, plus discussion, and you could get through the whole series in a few years. It’d be perfect for home-schooled kids as well.

One Reply to “Bits and Pieces: The Future”

  1. The West Wing is awesome. And seems to grow very well after the first couple of series. Must remember to pick up the box set at some point!

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