The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


Some thoughts too inchoate to make a science fiction story from yet ...

This time next week I'll be attending and later blogging about the first afternoon of a symposium on The Evaporation of Things, which discusses the cultural and intellectual consequences of the digitisation and virtualisation of physical, and particularly of biological, objects. A couple of weeks ago, in a BBC programme on Google's attempt to digitise all written knowledge, someone was quoted as saying: 'Google isn't building a library - it's building an AI!' And today I read a much-tweeted piece on how Google Glass plus some existing/easily foreseeable applications and algorithms such as face recognition and voice recognition and speech-to-text transcription will make everything we say and do within sight of the damn things recordable and indexable and searchable forever.

The physical world is on its way to becoming as searchable as a database. As real-time surveillance from satellites and drones and sensors increases asymptotically to ubiquity, the knowledge won't even have to be recorded first. We'll be able to, as it were, google Earth.

Almost all recorded knowledge from the earliest bone-scratchings to your latest Tweet via the Library of Congress are all going to be in a single searchable virtual space.

Add to this that there is an uncountable number of deductions that could be made from what we already know, but that we haven't made -- or perhaps can't make in our heads, because they are of the type that Charles Dodgson identified long ago as 'pork chop problems', and which now look entirely soluble using modern symbolic logic and lots of computer power.

What seems to follow from this is that a large and growing part of the science of the future will be not finding new results but making new discoveries by connecting hitherto isolated drops in the ocean of facts we already know. The key skill will be formulating algorithms. Research becomes Re:Search.

Have I just discovered data mining, or is there something more here that we aren't thinking about yet?   


not finding new results but making new discoveries by connecting hitherto isolated drops in the ocean of facts we already know

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

It's a point of view, I suppose ...

I think Lovecraft may have been laying the cosmic horror on a bit thick.

Lovecraft's universe is a lot more cheery than Christianity's, and lots of us thought we lived in that! Come to think of it, many still do, and they're not going mad or ... oh, wait.

I just read somewhere that researchers are identifying drug side effects based on people googling for "drug x side effect y". They've found some that weren't identified investing apparently. So maybe the panopticon won't be all bad.

That's "in testing" not "investing". Silly iPad.

Truly unnerving. The notion of "pre-crime" could become even more pervasive as the data miners could now find associations and correlations between people that don't yet know each other.

I'm not too sure about the whole 'dust to dust' routine, it could just as well be a waxy buildup that eventually disappears like a candle.

Ha! ..and I was so excited to find the speech-to-text option on my new phone! Silly me - I didn't think it was so my random messages could be searchable forever.

Lovecraft's universe is a lot more cheery than Christianity's

They've found early Viking amulets that read "Protect me, Christ and Thor." I've always wondered what that universe looked like.

These thoughts miss the role played in scientific progress by the formulation of new theories. Such new structures can, say, reorder existing knowledge found in the big data base, accommodate radically new data into it, or eradicate inconsistent sets of data.

I did a little bit of work on the first days of the total surveillance society (in 1935) and concluded that all was not lost. We can collect lots of information, but processing it into knowledge that we can use is another matter altogedher. See pages 7 and 8 of this:
Chris Williams

This is pertinent ....

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think [Hardcover]
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger (Author), Kenneth Cukier (Author)

'...Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger propose a kind of inspector-general for algorithms who'll make sure they're not corrupted to punish the undeserving or line someone's pockets unjustly. But they also talk about the fact that these algorithms are likely to be illegible -- the product of a continuously evolving machine-learning system -- and that no one will be able to tell you why a certain person was denied credit, refused insurance, kept out of a university, or blackballed for a choice job. And when you get into a world where you can't distinguish between an algorithm that gets it wrong because the math is unreliable (a "fair" wrong outcome) from an algorithm that gets it wrong because its creators set out to punish the innocent or enrich the undeserving, then we can't and won't have justice. We know that computers make mistakes, but when we combine the understandable enthusiasm for Big Data's remarkable, counterintuitive recommendations with the mysterious and oracular nature of the algorithms that produce those conclusions, then we're taking on a huge risk when we put these algorithms in charge of anything that matters.'

This should also cast some light --

The TerraSwarm Research Center

Money is coming from DARPA and business. Research is centered at UC Berkeley, but there's nine universities involved, including the usual suspects like Carnegie-Mellon.

A relevant search phrase if you want to find out more is "Moving the Swarm to the Cloud.' You can also think of it as "Waking the Built World." If you want to think of it in classic SF terms and you know Budrys's MICHAELMAS, I guess the aim is to give everybody their own DOMINO

The Skillset of the MBA may yet save us all.

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