Four Years Later – “Science, Pseudoscience, and My Love of the End of the World”

[Commentary]

It has been over four years since I relaunched Frontier Channel as a news and commentary site with a discussion of pseudoscience and the Technological Singularity. The commentary – “Science, Pseudoscience, and My Love of the End of the World” – began with me listening to Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, a habit I dropped soon after except for a rare listen when particular guest speakers are scheduled. The show remains popular but the problem I mentioned four years ago also remains: the mix of legitimate scientists with pseudoscientists and crackpots dilutes science education. All guests’ topics are treated as equal night after night.

Those people well versed in rigorous day-to-day science can quite easily tell the real from the fantastic, and when they cannot they temper any enthusiasm with an appropriate level of scepticism. It is not clear to me that many in the general public can do the same. Some might claim that this radio show is all about entertainment with a dash of learning thrown in. However, in a world of rapid technological change, where science fiction sometimes becomes science reality, where questions of science become political quagmires based on belief systems rather than empirical evidence, reason, and logic, the ability to tell the difference becomes increasingly important. Coast to Coast AM simply does not help.

Radio shows are not the only problem, and four years after my commentary it seems there is more talk of pseudoscience in the mainstream media than ever before. Mixed in with truly amazing scientific discoveries and technological progress are articles about prayers for rain in areas suffering drought, ghosts allegedly captured on video camera, New Age drivel masked as quantum mechanics (think “The Secret”), and nasty commentary about the evils of progress. It is as if serious news reporting never went away, but instead began to meld with stories previously found only in the tabloids, resulting in the hybrid major news websites of today.

What then to make of my own rather consistent coverage of the Technological Singularity here on Frontier Channel, as well as increasing attention to cryonics, transhumanism, and other ideas many legitimate scientists consider to be pseudoscience, or at best, fringe science? Has Frontier Channel itself become an example of the problems I find with mainstream news outlets? I have admitted in the past that in high school and college I was a rapt fan of pseudoscience. Have these new topics led me back to those silly days?

Unfortunately, the answer lies somewhere along the fine line between science and pseudoscience, a line blurred by the trends of today. On the one hand we do appear to be experiencing technological progress at rates never before experienced. Breakthroughs that were science fiction only a decade ago have become old news. Legitimate scientists sometimes report extraordinary advancements, like parallel computing in nanoscopic devices, reasoning avatars in Second Life, epigenomic understandings of diseases, an increasing number of spots in our own solar system that might harbor extraterrestial life, etc. Real life sometimes comes across like a tabloid article or science fiction story!

However, there are tools we can use to explore each one of these breakthroughs. Today’s breakthroughs require tomorrow’s confirmation. That excited moment of awe requires many moments more of critical analysis.

Pseudoscience, unlike science, is often very entertaining even at its most detailed. Pseudoscience has to be: it is competing for your entertainment time budget. Proponents must tell the most exciting tale possible, glossing over anything that might poke holes in the idea or decrease the entertainment value. Pseudoscience can be boring, of course, but not in the same way the minutia of peer-reviewed science can leave even the most enthusiastic defender bleary eyed and brain dead. Science does not have the luxury of glossing over details Further more, it is written in languages many people do not have a good grasp of, like the language of statistics, of graphics and charts, of images that without context make little sense in our macroscopic existence. Pseudoscience only requires the language of mainstream storytelling.

Pseudoscience is not hard. There is no rigor to its practice. Science, on the other hand, plumbs new depths everyday and requires rigorous checking and rechecking, confirmation, reporting, peer review, and other activities that are really designed to falsify the working theory. Scientists put in long hours for a reason: science is hard work.

So then, back to the Technological Singularity. There is not currently a rigorous “Science of the Singularity”, though there is compilation of statistics related to exponential technology trends and there is active and increasingly mainstream scientific and engineering attention to Artificial General Intelligence.

Without a “Science of the Singularity” it is hard to say why such an event should occur, trace its constraints, or fit it properly within various contexts. This is addressed somewhat by the activity in the AGI and AI fields, and therefore Vernor Vinge’s idea of the Technological Singularity appears to be on firmer scientific footing than Ray Kurzweil’s idea.

Partly because of this lack of a specific “Science of the Singularity” my focus on these ideas have been greatly modified in the past four years: instead of the heady far future, I am much more interested in near term prospects, benefits, and consequences understood within a framework of “technology”, “engineering”, and similar contexts. It is all I can do to keep up with accelerating technological progress over the next few years, let alone over the next several decades. At the most recent Singularity Summit I saw this in many other attendees and speakers. There was a shift of emphasis from the Singularity itself to business plans for emerging technologies coming much sooner.

In this I find support for the direction Frontier Channel has taken. The Technological Singularity will remain a framework by which we can explore emerging technologies and trends and how they may potentially merge, but the emphasis will be on the near-term rather than more “fringy” speculation. With cryonics I will focus more on the science of cryopreservation and scientific breakthroughs related to retrieving viable biological material than the possible technologies that might someday bring a person back to life. With transhumanism I will focus on the social movement and recognition of the impact of science and technology on humanity rather than speculate about a posthuman future.

And of course I will continue to report on the latest planetary science findings, an exciting field far removed from the fringe but even more compelling than science fiction led us to believe in those days before spacecraft visited the planets and their moons and before astronomers captured the first visible light images of exoplanets. Discovery backed by compelling evidence and data provides a depth of joy and consequence pseudoscience can never provide and fringe science cannot until it has been built on a firmer foundation.

The State of Digital Media 2008

[Analysis]

The rapid pace of progress in digital media on the internet has been well documented and several trends important in this growth may be relevant to technological progress as a whole. For example, Moore’s Law, a powerful indicator of progress for many industries, provided the hardware platform that enable widespread adoption, creation, distribution, and consumption of digital media. Working against this progress was another trend that saw traditional content publishers seeking to slow down the spread of digital media through digital rights management (DRM), lawsuits, and dead-end technologies. Other trends like changing artist and consumer preferences and the rise of digital piracy complicate the picture but by 2008 digital media is all but ubiquitous.  We can now eluciate which trends were important and how they might be relevant to other technologies.

Digital media refers to those texts, papers, reports, flyers, brochures, books, magazines, newspapers, comics, photographs, graphics, webpages, music, radio, television, movies, multimedia, applications, games and other information-rich means by which humans communicate that have been turned into binary code and made accessible via computing devices and the internet.

The transition from physical to digital media has had interesting, even earth-shattering, benefits. Consider the spatial dimensions of a library building compared to an ebook reader and how this relates to accessibility and distribution. Consider how a library grows in size to accommodate more books while computer memory shrinks in size and price despite exponential gains in capacity. Ebook readers that will soon rival physical libraries in number of books they can hold while adding a host of capabilities not available with paper.

Another benefit is the mixing and interaction of various types of digital content into new content.  Note the development of the web page from a static repository of text, graphics, and images into web applications that are beginning to rival the capabilities of desktop software. The use of video and audio online has exploded this year, embedded within webpages and increasingly organized using new visual metaphors in web applications. 

While following digital media trends closely and examining these benefits for the past few years I have found it useful to periodically stop and consider the current state of things, how we got here, and where we are heading. Starting with digital text I will highlight the key digital media developments in 2008, those trends leading into 2009, and where I expect digital media to be by the end of the next decade.

Digital Text

A paper book is limited by the capabilities of the paper on which it is printed.  The text is static, you can write on the paper, the table of contents and index are two of a limited number of indices, and a book takes up some amount of space.  A paper book cannot be updated once printed and it can refer to but not provide immediate access to additional references.

A digital book, on the other hand, is limited by the capabilities of the device for which it is published, which are less limiting all the time.  These devices now generally offer all the capabilities of paper, plus much, much more, like levels of annotation, hyperlinks to other resources that are immediately available, adjustable presentation parameters for improved readability, embedded media like audio and video, and the ability to purchase and download additional books for immediate gratification.  Meanwhile, digital book platforms keep improving at a pace inconceivable for paper.  This evolution can never be matched by paper.

In 2008, digital books took off when ebook readers, devices that have been around for some time but failed to gain much  traction previously, added unique capabilities that finally began to sway consumers.  E Ink‘s improved paper-like resolution display appeared in many more products. Amazon’s Kindle used the free Whispernet wireless service to allow wireless browsing, purchasing, and downloading of books while mobile. Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch turned out to be surprisingly comfortable eBook reading platforms making use of taps and swipes instead of buttons to turn pages.

By the end of 2008 the major book publishers were suddenly and acutely interested in accelerating the digitization of their books. Publishers like Random House and Penguin embraced the iPhone by offering bestselling novels like “Twilight” and “The Golden Compass” through ScrollMotion’s Iceberg app; the Stanza, Classics, and eReader from Fictionwise.com apps surged in popularity in the iTunes App Store; and Stanza added ebook retailer Fictionwise.com to its list of ebook providers, meaning buyers can now purchase, download, and begin reading an ebook within the same app.

Over the next year ebook readers will begin to feature color and flexible, paper-thin screens, which will help speed up the transition to digital magazines and newspapers in addition to ebooks. In 2009 the industry will likely converge on a few digital formats, experiment with removing DRM, and add personal media player (PMP) and web browsing capabilities to better compete with the iPhone.  Should publishers reluctant to digitize textbooks change their minds, watch for an acceleration in acceptance.  The rich set of capabilities over and above those of paper combined with the dire economic situation of the publishing industries will finally bring about the long awaited obsolescence of physical books, magazines, newspapers, and comics.

Digital Audio

2008 did not mark the final death throes of DRM for music but 2009 might. Amazon went DRM-free in their MP3 Downloads store with support from the top four music label while Apple failed to reach an agreement with the top three to offer the same via iTunes. All is not lost; the collapse of CD sales continued to accelerate and this can only help Apple in their negotiations.

When iTunes finally goes DRM-free, the competition between digital music retailers will be less about pricing and more about audio quality; look for a “bitrate” war by the 2009 holiday season. The quality of audio will become a selling point as PMP capacity continues to increase exponentially, allowing bigger libraries of content at higher bitrates.

Almost all new music is routinely made available immediately in digital format and the library of old music that has been digitized is nearly completion. There a still a few superstar holdouts (the Beatles and Garth Brooks come to mind), some protesting the consumer preference for singles rather than full albums. Artists will need to come to term with this change or risk obscurity; this trend will not reverse. Those artists who learn to manage their music across a portfolio of platforms (personal media players, video games, virtual worlds, etc.) will be best positioned in the new digital world order.  After all, the benefits and reach of the 24/7 Digital Jukebox did not come with any guarantees about old paradigms.

Personalized music discovery services like Pandora continue to be a hit with listeners after winning reprieve from unfair and exorbitant licensing fees. Pandora’s iPhone app became an early and immediate success in the App Store, allowing streaming music over wireless AND 3G cellular. Many more streaming radio apps quickly followed.

Unfortunately, digital music remains behind artificial geographic borders created by the music labels.  “Music in the Cloud” services like Lala accessible in any country and an iTunes no longer separated into stores for various countries is still at least for a few years away. I’m still waiting for those legal “Naruto Official Soundtrack” digital downloads and free rein in the iTunes France store.

Digital Video

Speaking of Naruto and world-wide availability: TV TOKYO Corporation announced [PDF] they would be making episodes of sequel series “Naruto Shippuden” available online and worldwide an hour after their Japanese premiere beginning January 2009 with a monthly subscription fee.  Crunchyroll will provide this subscription service (which includes other anime and some episodes in 480p and 720p quality) in the United States for US$6.95 a month. The episodes will also be available a week later for free on the official North America Naruto website and on advertisement-based streaming TV services like Hulu and Joost.

This is in response to the popularity of anime fansubs, episodes of anime TV series and movies that have been subtitled by fans and made available, illegally, online for viewers to download. Until an official English-dubbed version of “Naruto” arrived on the Cartoon Network in 2005 and official subtitled and uncut DVDs went on sale later, most North American viewers had been following the series through these fansubs. The  Japanese television networks and studios have apparently tolerated fansubs but are now interested in tapping this robust worldwide audience with officially sanctioned services that can compete with fansubs most important benefit: timeliness. The availability of “Naruto Shippuden” episodes only one hour after broadcast in Japan is unprecedented. The popular fansubbing group Dattebayo announced that in support of this development they will no longer create fansubs of “Naruto Shippuden” and will evaluate their fansubs if this trend in anime distribution catches on.

Thanks to Dattebayo Fansubs, I became a huge fan of “Naruto” in 2004, but stopped downloading “Naruto Shippuden” after re-evaluating my download pirating activities a couple years ago.  I am happy that I can finally, and legally, follow this show again, and at nearly the same time as Japanese television audiences. Thanks to Hulu and Joost’s iPhone app I was able to watch all the “Naruto” (minus the horrible filler) episodes again in preparation for “Naruto Shippuden”.

Joost’s iPhone app? Another exciting digital video development this year was the first app for the iPhone that allows the legal streaming of movies and full television episodes. Although buggy, streaming over wireless only, and offering a relatively small library of content (and even less good content), the Joost app heralds a huge leap forward in portable access to video. I hope we see similar apps from Hulu and Crunchyroll in 2009.

While critics still decry long-form video on computers, laptops and coms (cellphones and smartphones) I have thoroughly enjoyed using just these devices for the majority of my television and movie viewing the past few years.  The iPhone screen is simply gorgeous.  Sure, someday I would like to see all video content in 1080p quality on a large screen, but I would rather follow this trend via computer monitors and com screens rather than televisions.

Television and movie content exploded online this year with the surprise success of Hulu, the arrival of Amazon’s Video On Demand streaming service, YouTube’s new HD viewer and higher quality streams, and HD television downloads in iTunes. Most of this content is of low bitrate 720p quality (much closer to 480p DVD quality) but I remember well the first round of long-form video attempts on the Internet circa 1999: excruciating hours of buffering of postage stamp-sized video at horrendously low resolution. Considering how long it took television to improve picture and audio quality, the arrival of full screen DVD resolution video online in just ten years from these first feeble attempts is remarkable! The coming era of 50 Mbps broadband in the United States and multi-core media acceleration will provide the right platform for true 720p and higher quality HD video. Fourth generation cellular will likewise improve resolution on our coms, promising steady progress toward true 1080p resolution long-form video online on all platforms by the middle of next decade.

Digital Games

Video games for consoles are still generally distributed via physical media like cartridges and discs. However, the latest consoles now offer older games as direct downloads to the system via the internet.  Many computer games can be downloaded directly to your computer via services like Steam.

The iPhone turned out to be an exciting and powerful gaming platform, with games rivaling the quality of existing gaming handhelds. Waiting around somewhere like a doctor’s office or an airport and bored with your current selection of games? If there is wireless available, you can easily download and install a new game app in mere seconds.

Musicians frightened by the collapse in CD sales and angry about the preference for digital singles found comfort in the success of releasing their archive and new music within video games like Guitar Hero. Nine Inch Nails licensed their tracks for use in a special edition of Tap Tap Revenge for the iPhone, as did a variety of artists for the Tap Tap Dance app (one of my favorite games so far.) Gone are the days when releasing music on CD and radio was enough; artists today need to license and release their music on a variety of platforms.

In 2008, Microsoft and Sony continued to position their latest generation gaming consoles as entertainment hubs capable of more than just the latest and greatest games. Both expanded their digital video and audio download offerings, including high definition TV episodes and movies on the XBox 360. Nintendo is rumored to be joining the fray, at least in Japan, beginning in 2009. Showing up late to digital media distribution has not harm Nintendo in the slightest; the Wii remains the top-selling console in this current generation. Their Wii Remote gaming interface turned out to be a huge hit.

The ability to reach out, gesture at, manipulate and touch digital content is perhaps the most fascinating technology development in the past two years and a topic I will return to later.

Digital Applications

Like games, other software is increasingly being purchased and downloaded online. Soon to be gone are the days of paper packaging and CD installations.  Meanwhile, even software downloads are being threatened, by the advent of online web services and applications.

2008 saw the release of Adobe’s AIR platform, intended to bridge the capabilities of a desktop-run application with increasingly powerful web-based applications. Unlike traditional applications, you can keep working if you lose your internet connection, but when connected you have all the communications capabilities, auto-saving, storage in the Cloud, and other benefits that come with connectivity.

Sensing the same and related trends, Google launched Chrome, a speedy web browser that vastly improves JavaScript performance. This is a browser designed for those cutting edge web-based applications that will soon rival the capabilities and performance of desktop applications. Mozilla’s Firefox 3.1 also  received a similar speedup as will Apple’s upcoming Safari 4.0. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer continues to languish, only recently obtaining something of the standards support the other browsers have long included.

The goal with these next generation web browsers is clear: browsers powerful enough to run complex applications. They are better equipped to deal with the explosion of audio and video online and will soon make use of your system’s graphics cards to accelerate 2-D, and then 3-D, graphics. These turbo charges will result in a much richer Web experience full of delicious yet useful eye candy.

These browsers are enabling a new visual language in web pages and applications that marks the end of Web 2.0. Although these dot designations are arbitrary, there are specific visual cues that epitomize a certain era of web design and technologies.  The static text and designs of user-unfriendly Web 1.0 became the user-friendly productivity and social networking tools of  Web 2.0.  The eye-friendly text, icons and graphics, pleasant color choices, AJAX enhanced features, and minimalism that epitomized Web 2.0 design will be set into motion and given depth in Web 3.0 design. The Web 3.0 visual language will work well with the Semantic Web (machine parsing of the semantic relationships within our data)  and our increasing use of touch and gesture-based interfaces.

Toward the Metaverse?

The accelerating digitization of content is directly related to the rapid development of new human-machine interfaces and the continued advancement in hardware that make these new interfaces possible.  These evolving interfaces allow computing technology to reach wider and wider demographics. The keyboard and mouse controlled Graphical User Interface (GUI) is giving way to much more user-friendly interfaces based on touch, gestures, voice, and mind reading.  The elderly, technology novices, younger and younger children and perhaps even our pets will embrace computing devices that do not require steep learning curves and unnatural and unfamiliar movements. Entire populations will leap frog over desktops and laptops to coms.

This is an incredible opportunity for media content providers, who will see their potential audiences swell to billions in number. In response old media and new players will produce more content. Not all of that content will be good content.  In fact, just as there will be more quality content, so to will there be more drivel, something that a quick browse of YouTube will illustrate now.  

Meanwhile, most of us will no doubt consume more and more content on a variety of rapidly advancing platforms. When content is readily available 24/7 in pleasing formats via user friendly interfaces no more difficult to use than it is to scratch our noses or raise our eyebrows, will we enjoy any individual piece as much as we might today?  When movie watching is no longer an event that requires preparation and and the performance of particular rituals (driving to a theater or to rent a DVD, watching at a set time, gathering family members and friends, etc.), how much will we value the experience?

More digital media that is cheaper and easier to produce, distribute, store, and consume will drive down the value of music, TV, and movies until vast libraries of content all but vanish into cheap consumer electronics and whatever computing platforms becomes ubiquitous over the next decade.  To make use of these incredibly powerful platforms there will be a rapid transition from producing music, TV, and movies for the 24/7 Digital Jukebox to more immersive content like virtual and augmented realities.   Even 3DTV and higher resolution video formats than HD cannot hope to engage a civilization heading rapidly toward a “Great Vanishing” of consumer electronics when consumers begin to embrace powerful brain-machine interfaces and implants.

As 2008 comes to an end with the rapid proliferation of digital media across a variety of platforms, the various instantiations of the Metaverse – virtual worlds, mirror worlds, augmented reality, and lifeblogging – loom large and apparent on the horizon.