Quick Riffs on Autonomous Vehicles

This tweet got me riffing on potential outcomes & exploits available when autonomous vehicles become common:

I also “like” (or “find interesting”, in the Chinese proverbial sense) the idea of rogue agents seizing control over vehicular fleets to direct and coordinate their movements towards some sort of goal, e.g. assembling to bust a road barricade or defend a bank heist. Interesting times, indeed…

[Apologies/nods to Scott Smith.]


Virtual Hitmen Hired To Curb Son’s Gaming Addiction

From China, this article tickles my sic-fi bone in just the right way. It’s one of those news bits that seems enfolded out of the future just to remind us how odd and accelerated we are in the present. From Kotaku:

Unhappy with his son not finding a job, Mr. Feng decided to hire players in his son’s favorite online games to hunt down Xiao Feng… Feng’s idea was that his son would get bored of playing games if he was killed every time he logged on, and that he would start putting more effort into getting a job.

The article itself is a bit bland but the concept is ultracool and ripe for embellishment. Son hires mercenary clan to defend himself against father’s hit men. Or, son hires hackers to destroy dad’s credit so dad turns to Lawnmower Men to wipe son’s digital identity. How about a new niche of virtual assassin’s paid to neutralize annoying troll’s, spammers, or distant relatives with bothersome religious/political agenda’s? Social media assassins that target Twitter & Facebook accounts for permanent deletion… How safe is the virtual self when we don’t have the hard-wired instinct to protect it in the way we do our own bodies?

Valve signals hardware is the future of distribution

Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director at PC gaming powerhouse Valve Software, recently spoke with Kotaku about the shifting landscape of games distribution and his company’s move into the living room.

Ten years ago Valve established Steam as a primary distribution channel for its titles and add-on content. Just this month they’ve released Big Picture, establishing a foothold in the living room by essentially porting the Valve experience to the TV. With a new controller and interface, user’s can play games, stream content, and access Steam through Big Picture’s front-end.

Speaking to Kotaku, Newell suggested that Valve and other competitors will release custom branded hardware solutions for the living room within the next year. User’s would be able to buy an official Valve gaming console (likely to be a lightweight PC or Linux device) and plug it into their TV. While this may seem surprising to many who have suggested that console gaming is in decline, Newell let slip the compelling hook for game’s developers.

“Well certainly our hardware will be a very controlled environment… If you want more flexibility, you can always buy a more general purpose PC. For people who want a more turnkey solution, that’s what some people are really gonna want for their living room.”

As content has dematerialized and gotten loose and slippery, content houses have been trying to figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle and retain control over their IP. Hardware offers such a controlled environment and, thanks in large part to Apple, hardware manufacturing is easier than it’s ever been. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, a few years down the road, Valve decides to lock down distribution completely by shunting all its users onto a low-priced piece of branded hardware. Plug it into your TV, launch Steam, and pull content direct from the Valve server farm.

Now imagine if they release Half Life 3 and you can only buy it through their hardware…

[Related: Hardware, the ugly stepchild of Venture Capital, is having a glamor moment]


Recent Notes on Reality Capture & 3D Printing

It may be symptomatic of our times but the delta between weak signal & fast-moving trend seems to be getting shorter & shorter. Compelling innovations are bootstrapped rapidly into full-fledged solutions, enabling a highly-efficient lab-to-home ecosystem. While it’s been percolating for years, the emergence of consumer 3D printing really only landed on the hype cycle in the past 12 months or so but in this time there have been considerable advances.

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Election 2012: Stories and Statistics

When the 2012 election returns came in there was no more tragic and revealing figure than Karl Rove. His live reaction in the Fox newsroom after the network called Ohio for the Democratic incumbent was that of a man at odds with reality. He simply couldn’t grasp that his narrative had slipped free from the world, the map hewn in twain by the sudden jutting of an unexpected iceberg.

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so you want to migrate to the cloud…

Many mature software companies are now in the awkward position of trying to migrate their heavyweight legacy solutions from the desktop into the uncertain domain of the cloud. Fortune 500’s are slow to adapt, preferring to leverage their cash-cow back catalog for as long as possible while gently testing the waters with lightweight solutions more aligned with marketing than their core execution layer. The results often paint the erstwhile-giants as out-of-touch and late to the game, delivering simple offerings that fail to successfully integrate with the evolving needs of their user base. The solution is not an easy one, requiring much greater commitment and risk than most CFO’s can stomach. But the cloud is not going away and the alternative to full adoption is to be resigned to a narrowing niche.

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inside scoop – interviewing the santa cruz city council candidates

Last night I was on a panel of 3 with Peggy Dolgenos and Cliff Hodges interviewing our local candidates for Santa Cruz City Council. I represented the Santa Cruz Geeks, one of the event sponsors along with SC NEXT, Cruzio Internet, and Civinomics. The legendary Kuumbwa Jazz center hosted the event (I was on the same stage once held by Booby Hutchinson, McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Zawinul, and many other greats). Our local darlings, the Penny Ice Creamery, brought free waffle cones. Billed as “Inside Scoop“, we crowdsourced questions from the community, then reviewed, consolidated, & massaged them into ~100 min of public examination. The event was fun, and warm, organic, and surprisingly challenging to the candidates and the panel.

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Me, in the Kinect point cloud (video still).

my home project: kinect hacking

Over the weekend I bought a Kinect and wired it to my Mac. I’m following the O’Reilly/Make book, Making Things See, by Greg Borenstein (who kindly tells me I’m an amateur machine vision researcher). With the book I’ve set up Processing, a JAVA-lite coding environment, and the open source Kinect libraries, SimpleOpenNI & NITE. I’ve spent a good chunk of the weekend reading a hundred pages into the book and working through the project tutorials and I’ve generated some interesting interactions and imagery. There’s also a ton of tutorial vids on You Tube, natch, to help cut through the weeds and whatnot.

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weak signals in 3d print disruption

Peter Thiel’s foundation gives $350,000 to back Modern Meadow’s efforts to create bioprinted meats.

An engineer prints a working lower receiver for an AR-15 using a 15-year old Stratasys printer.

A Glasgow professor modifies a 3D printer to make pharmaceuticals.

More people manipulating matter with cheaper hardware. The rising tide of technology lifts all boats…



“insight, perspicacity, lyrical beauty and complete hogwash

I just have to share this wonderful blurb from Bruce Sterling about my article, Extended Senses & Invisible Fences:

*Y’know, it’s crazy-making to read stuff like this. It’s so full of insight, perspicacity, lyrical beauty and complete hogwash… and there’s no possible way to know which parts are which.

*It’s like a tsunami is coming and someone hands you a witch’s broom.

When I first read this I was struck by how he managed to catch a fairly subtle piece of my character that indeed deeply informs my writing: I aim for no truth, merely sharing my own experience, equal parts analytic and trickster, swept up with some good ol’ mysticism.

Praise from Caesar is praise indeed! Thanks, Bruce!

inviting machines into our bodies – big think

I have a new article over at Big Think looking at trends in wireless implant technology and the vulnerability profile presented by our emerging integration with connected biodevices. This article builds on my previous post here, Ubicomp Getting Under Your Skin? So Are Hackers.

From the intro:

In what amounts to a fairly shocking reminder of how quickly our technologies are advancing and how deeply our lives are being woven with networked computation, security researchers have recently reported successes in remotely compromising and controlling two different medical implant devices. Such implanted devices are becoming more and more common, implemented with wireless communications both across components and outward to monitors that allow doctors to non-invasively make changes to their settings. Until only recently, this technology was mostly confined to advanced labs but it is now moving steadily into our bodies. As these procedures become more common, researchers are now considering the security implications of wiring human anatomy directly into the web of ubiquitous computation and networked communications.


New Aesthetic Filmmaking – Clouds: DSLR + Kinect + RGBD Toolkit

The work of James George caught my attention when he began publishing still images generated by mixing inputs from a DSLR camera paired with a Kinect scanner. He & partner, Jonathan Mind, recently produced this thoroughly compelling future-now video from the same process, using their open framework software, RGBD Toolkit, to manage the mapping and in-scene navigation. The camera is fixed but since the Kinect produces a 3D scene you can navigate around the captured image. Where forms in the camera field cast shadows, i.e. where the Kinect cannot scan past e.g. an occluding arm & hand, you see stretching and warping of the 3D mesh and image map. The effect is uncannily similar to the scenes in the film version of Minority Report when Tom Cruise’s character watches holovids of his son & wife, their forms trailing along the light path of the holoprojector.George & Mind frame this video as an exploration of emerging techniques and technologies in filmmaking. Also, they talk about coding and geekery and other cool stuff.

Clouds: beta from DEEPSPEED media on Vimeo.

Clouds is a computational documentary featuring hackers and media artists in dialogue about code, culture and the future of visualization.

This is a preview of a feature length production to be released later this year.

By Jonathan Minard (http://www.deepspeedmedia.com/) and James George (http://www.jamesgeorge.org/)
Made with RGBDToolkit.com

The State of Augmented Reality – ARE2012

Last week I attended and spoke at the Wednesday session of ARE2012, the SF Bay Area’s largest conference on augmented reality. This is the 3rd year of the conference and both the maturity of the industry and the cooling of the hype were evident. Attendance was lower than previous years, content was more focused on advertising & marketing examples, and there was a notable absence of platinum sponsors and top-tier enterprise attendees. On the surface this could be read as a general decline of the field but this is not the case.

A few things are happening to ferry augmented reality across the Trough of Disillusionment. This year there were more headset manufacturer’s than ever before. The need for AR to go hand’s-free is becoming more & more evident [my biases]. I saw a handful of new manufacturers I’d never even heard of before. And there they were with fully-functional hardware rendering annotations on transparent surfaces. In order for AR to move from content to utility it has to drive hardware development into HUD’s. Google see’s this as does any other enterprise player in the mobile game. Many of the forward-looking discussions effectively assume a head’s-up experience.

At the algorithmic level, things are moving quickly especially in the domain of edge detection, face tracking, and registration. I saw some really exceptional mapping that overlaid masks on people’s faces in realtime responding to movement & expressions without flickers or registration errors (except for the occasional super-cool New Aesthetic glitch when the map blurred off the user’s face if they moved too quickly). Machine vision is advancing at a strong pace and there was an ongoing thread throughout the conference about the challenges the broader industry faces in moving facial recognition technology into the mobile stack. It’s already there and works but the ethical and civil liberty issues are forcing a welcomes pause in consideration.

Qualcomm was the sole platinum sponsor, promoting its Vuforia AR platform. Sony had a booth showing some AR games (Pong!?) on their Playstation Vita device. But pretty much everyone in the enterprise tier stayed home, back in the labs and product meetings and design reviews, slowly & steadily moving AR into their respective feature stacks. Nokia is doing this, Google of course, Apple has been opening up the camera stream and patenting eyewear, HP is looking at using AR with Autonomy, even Pioneer has a Cyber Navi AR GPS solution. The same players that were underwriting AR conferences in exchange for marketing opportunities and the chance to poach young developers are now integrating the core AR stack into their platforms. This is both good & bad for the industry: good because it will drive standardization and put a lot of money behind innovation; bad because it will rock the world of the Metaio’s & Layar’s who have been tilling this field for years. Typically, as a young technology starts to gain traction and establish value, there follows a great period of consolidation as the big fish eat the little ones. Some succeed, many fall, and a new culture of creators emerges to develop for the winners.

So here we are. Augmented reality is flowing in three streams: Content and marketing grab eyeballs and easy money while conditioning the market to expect these experiences; developers extend the software stack towards real-time pixel-perfect recognition & mapping, enabling the solutions to actually, um, solve problems; and hardware manufacturers labor to bring AR into the many transparent surfaces through which we interact with the world, freeing our hands and augmenting our views with ubiquitous networked data. Across these domains sit content shops, emerging start-ups, the leading innovators ala Layar & Metaio, and the big fish enterprise companies that have had a piece of the tech game for years & years and aren’t going to miss out if AR goes supernova. The market is a bit shaky and very much uncertain for the SMB’s but it’s certainly maturing with the technology.

My sense is that everybody gets that AR is here to stay and has deep intrinsic value to the future of mobility and interface. How this will impact the many passionate folks curating & cultivating the field from the bottom-up remains to be seen.

Extended Senses & Invisible Fences – ARE2012

I recently gave a talk at ARE2012 about emerging interactions in the networked city. It’s a broad overview of ubicomp and how it is modulating our experience of ourselves, each other, and our environment. I’ll be writing a follow-up article with more info.

The Church of Perpetual Reconfiguration

“What??” he yelled, in near shock. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did you talk to the contractor?”

A short pause.

“Ok. Ok. Stop. What do you mean he’s not engaged? He’s a civ! He has to be!” This was going sideways fast.

“I’m calling my attorney.”

He de-coupled from the stemlink and rubbed his temples, struggling to push through the numbness now wrapping itself around his head. He closed his eyes, groping for the sense of it all. Then with a fast spin he flicked his stem and coupled to his attorney, Ersatz Bolzman.

“Satz. This is Bentley Statmaker. I’ve got a problem.”

Bentley proceeded to share with Bolzman the unsettling news that his frenetic & frazzled assistant had just conveyed: how the Biomoss got corrupted and was presently deviating wildly from the 19th century Craftsman remodel he had ordered and god-damned paid for and was now 2 wings and several buttresses into printing out a 13th century gothic cathedral. His home, a modest 3 bedroom on the South Side in dire need of a significant retrofit and well out of style to boot, was expanding at a nonlinear rate – so much so that the houses of his immediate neighbors were now food for its architectural extrusions. Possibly worse, the adjacent street was being overtaken by an aggressively-compiling abbey.

“What…the fuck, Satz?? What the hell am I supposed to do? The neighbors are on me, the city has sent a swarm of inspection flies – they’re mapping the whole deal, blaring code violations non-stop. I can only imagine the stacks at the planning department spinning wildly with dollar signs in their beady little machine eyes…” He trailed off, unsure of his course, whether he should strain to feed the hungry anger or just give in and veer downward into an impotent malaise. He knew there was nothing he could do but prepare for the imminent onslaught of legal battles, the deep apologies to the neighbors, the pay-offs to his HOA… God, that bastard Malamut would have him run out of the co-op for sure this time.

“Calm down, Bent. I’ll file for a writ of suspension, tie up the city works a bit. Pretty sure I can get those inspectors recalled to central too. And it’s not just happening to you, ya know. A whole condo development on 4th & Jobs just went Gaudi. Was supposed to be a nice post-decline piece, all glass and bioplastics, but the mossers crapped out and now it’s just a crazy riot of spires and ceramic tiles and weird biomorphic flourishes. Pretty much totally wiped out the high school across the street. Apparently, some agitprop collective of biomods hacked into the genome. Oh, and that new wing of the Hu Jintao Child Workers Memorial Colliseum..? Went from Classical Ming to Retro Koolhaas in the blink of an eye. The Imperial ruler is pissed,” he emphasized sourly. “You think you got legal troubles? Lemme tell ya…”

Talking with Ersatz calmed him down a bit. At least enough to cover the gap until the neurografts did their thing and started metabolizing the flood of endorphins & cortisol washing through his system. Then, with an almost audible sigh, the grafts began to release a steady drip of Relaxipam into his brain. His affect dulled, the tension of his musculature eased, and he was left with a vague longing for simpler times that probably never really existed but for the halcyon filter of nostalgia.

Midway into the 21st century the industrial labs toiling away for decades on nanotech started to merge into the university labs working on procedural construction, and that whole mess got mashed up with the Asian street gangs and neurocartels delving deeply into the forbidden wizardry of biosynthesis. The end result was a pretty wild chimera of hybridized designer nanomanufacturing: Biomoss. The stuff was the same thing as fire, metal, steam, electricity, hydrocarbons, and atomic physics. Or rather, it was the result of the same quest that drove humanity to harness each of those divine elements of nature and bend them to its will. Biomoss was both the penultimate subjugation and celebration of life itself. It was a means to not only design life but to program it to construct anything we could think of.

We made fuel first, of course. Algae mats that grew to cover most of Asia, expressing sweet crude like shiny black dew. Then we had to engineer vast carbon sinks and tar cleaners – and universal rice that could grow anywhere now that all the Eastern paddies were gone. That was a bit of a detour. Everyone started making all kinds of foods, natural and bizarre. The Southern Federalist Nation of God practically exploded with diabetes until a biomod made an insulin virus. Then they all started collapsing from hypoglycemia. Humans, of course, are pretty great at ideation, not so great at implementation.

The next big step moved beyond simple protein expression. This phase was about building and mass-producing living constructors that could take instruction sets and extrude things. All kinds of things. You could flash a constructor gel, give it a slab of substrate, and watch it build a cup, a toaster, a mobile, even a stemlink. Then they started making vehicles, buildings, bridges, factories. With increasing scale, food for the constructors became a limiting factor.

Initially, substrate was basically a slab of hydrocarbons bound to a crystalline lattice and studded with various functional groups. Esters, aromatics, polymers, and biomolecules. The ingredients of your standard organic stew. This posed problems. There was concern that the constructor gels might start eating up the local flora & fauna. More importantly to the benefactors of the massive public & private grants funding this work, constructing organics only gets you so far. They wanted to build product and devices, machines and monoliths. They needed inorganics. The constructors would be modified to chew through minerals, metals, lanthanides, and solid state compounds, then recompile and extrude them in forms. This also posed problems.

In 2047 a federal appeals court ruled against Pratt Lapman Assuary, Inc. in a class action lawsuit filed by the People’s Republic of Colorado. The plaintiff’s argued that due to gross neglect and moral corruption Pratt Lapman Assuary Inc. did knowingly and willingly administer a swarm of replicating bio-constructors outside the town of Gunniston, Colorado for the sole and express purpose of recompiling the region’s vast titanium deposits into a 3000 foot tall statue of the company’s founder, Chapman Assuary. As the constructors extracted and processed the resource, replicating in multitudes to match the scale of the work, it was only by a programmatic glitch in the genetics that the scalar vector botched and the replicators came to a halt. To this day there remains a 2000 foot headless titanium statue of Assuary, guarded by judicial writ, it’s shiny figure being slowly decomposed by the local, court-appointed bioscrubbers, and sold off bit by bit for the benefit of the Gunniston School District. Despite the loud & irate sputterings & protestations erupting from Pratt Lapman Assuary Inc. the World Court refused to review the case.

By 2050 international conventions were in place forbidding unrestrained nano-bio replication. This pretty much stopped conventional use of constructor gels for several years until epigenetic containment switches and network ID’s were engineered into the germ lines in 2057. The first successful line to emerge from the new regulatory environment became the prototype for Biomoss.

Biomoss is notable in that it is not really a moss, per se. In fact, by microscopy it appears more solid and structured like a mass of very tiny lady bugs covered in salt crystals. It gets its name from both the viridian hue of the individual’s carapace and the way it masses and accretes across surfaces. Furthermore, unlike constructor gels, it does not require a specific pre-configured substrate or uniform material base. Instead, Biomoss will digest anything that it’s targeted for and then recompose the digested mass into a product of similar composition. This adds additional containment to its capabilities by limiting its output to roughly the same as its input. Roughly. But the morphology of the thing is inconsequential. Or rather, the output is customizable as long as it stays within the bounds of the source.

Once Biomoss was productized, innumerable design shops spun up offering precision bespoke manufacturing, customized & stylized by in-house computects. A whole industry grew around the artistry of designed bio-extrusion, resurrecting the styles of historic starchitects, collaging & remixing the canon of industrial design, and making international figures of the leading composers tubing about the globe to paint their visions in transcendent and impossibly expressive mega-structures.

These facts were little comfort to Bentley Statmaker.

After a quick hop across the tube line and a relay along the ped tiles, Bentley Statmaker arrived at his home. Which is to say, Bentley Statmaker arrived at his shiny new gothic cathedral. It was enormous, dark & brooding, hung from the heavens themselves and, frankly, beautiful. But not in this neighborhood. And high holiness or not, historical re-creation be damned, Malamut and the board would not approve. No. They’d more likely have him drawn & quartered, strung up limp and emptied from the highest spire.

Pushing through the noisy crowd of angry neighbors, drooling gawkers, flashing newsbots, countless projectagrams, and a gathering collective of syncretic worshippers, Bentley heaved open the tall, wooden cathedral doors, stared blankly for a moment at the vast, arching, vaulted nave that used to be his tired living room, and then proceeded defiantly inward. He slammed the great doors behind him with a deep boom and thoughtlessly, aimlessly, walked down the aisle taking his seat along a bland and stern pew. Eschewing formality, he let himself slack, took out a cigarette, lit it after a few tries, and inhaled deeply. He immediately sputtered and coughed before defiantly drawing a second drag of the blue smoke, as if to authoritatively subdue the instinctual protestations of his corpus. In the sudden silence he could just apprehend the delicate crunching and printing of the Biomoss, like the sound of soft snow settling on an empty field.

Suddenly and without due respect to his sanctuary there was a great pounding on the door. Amidst the muted yelling of Malamut he made out the decree of Bentley’s imminent eviction. He imagined Malamut as a tired & troubled Martin Luther nailing up his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church. Here he sat, Pope Bentley the First, grinning slyly while billions of micro-miniaturized bio-machines, seized by some unknowable possession of Spirit, labored towards the monumental construction of this, his great abbey. He keyed his stemlink and coupled to Bolzman.

“Satz. Bentley. Listen… I think I’m gonna keep the church. Yeah, seriously. Hey, can you look up precedent for religious protection? And maybe seizure & eminent domain. I think there was something with the New People’s Temple of Jerseytown maybe ten years ago…”

He took another long drag, holding in the hot smoke as the evening light began to shine through the stained windows of the celestory. Bold indigos and feverish carnelians, glowing laurels and immaculate ambers, all caught fire with the Stations of the Cross surrounding the transept. If he let himself go for a moment, he swore he could hear a great and distant chorus rising up, washing away the pages of time with the enduring hope of the sangreal, and filling the nave with a resounding affirmation of his Grand Papacy.

“Oh, and Satz..? I think I’m gonna need a priest.”