The Future is… Foggy!

utility_fogIt’s called a Utility Fog, swarms of networked microscopic robots that can assume the shape and texture of virtually anything. Originally proposed by J. Storrs Hall, a speculative science writer back in 1993, the concept has gone on to inspired futurists and science fiction writers for years. These include Warren Ellis’s foglets in Transmetropolitan and Neal Stephenson’s personal nanodefense systems in The Diamond Age, among others.

As an extension of the nanotechnological principle – where microscopic machines are able to self-replicate and construct just about anything – the Utility Fog idea goes a step further by proposing that we have a series of robots linked, arm and arm, to form a solid mass that can assume the shape of anything we need. Another term that is often used is “Smart Matter”, because it entails the creation of materials that are capable of responding to input, storing info, and thereby predicting what a users desires.

And since they are composed by tiny robots that could be capable of computing and networking with larger machines, they could even form interfaces that allow us to store information, send emails, or take pictures. Each “foglet” would function as its own discreet computer network, in this model, making sure that separate clouds are discernible and perform different tasks. The possibilities are truly limitless, and though it may be a few decades away at this point (by liberal estimates), we can only imagine how it will alter our daily lives.

During a recent interview with IO9, Hall reminisced about how he first came up with the idea:

“I came up with this vision of form fitting foam — one that could take on the shape of anything inside it and on the fly, which got me to wondering if we could ever possibly build something like that.”

The answer, according to Hall, came to him by considering the nascent field of molecular nanotechnology. By designing and creating objects at the molecular scale, Hall envisioned a fog that could quickly morph along with the movements of anything around it — including the passengers of cars. However, the greatest potential, to Hall lies in the creation of virtual environments. In truth, there could come a day when utility fogs will blend seamlessly with the real and virtual worlds, creating a kind of hybrid reality in between.

“You could actually push this technology to the point of creating a virtual world around you. You’d essentially get Star Trek’s holodeck — one that could actually cut you and make you bleed. You could put yourself in a virtual environment where you’re interacting with something that leads to a real environment, and it’s this interface between what’s real and virtual that will prove to be the most important thing about it.”

However, the most radical possibility could be in the field of clinical immortality. Amongst science fiction writers such as William Gibson, the idea that human beings could upload their minds into constructs and interfaces has been toyed with for some time. However, why upload your mind into a box or some kind of portable hard drive when you could render it seamlessly into the form of a fog?

“You could very realistically imagine uploading into it, and then you’d be this sort of formless data amoeba controlling this formless physical amoeba and take any size or form you wanted.”

Of course, there are limitation to the whole concept, not the least of which is the fact that the constituent components of the technology are still any decades away. For starters, there’s the ability to construct robots on the scale required, then the need to fashion computers that are small enough to fit. Then there’s the software required to program such machines. Hall figures that it could take a team of experts as much as a half decade to come up with the first set of algorithms required for the most basic functions.

“To navigate that hairy interface between the continuous and the discreet — that’s more difficult, the foglets will have to link up hands, let go, walk, crawl, and so forth — it’ll be like a three dimensional square dance.”

But above all, the main issue is one of cost:

“The system will have to be capable of keeping track of any changes to the environment and to keep track of you — and this will require incredibly sophisticated simulation, sensing, and interfacing software and that’s going to be tremendously expensive.”

Not surprising really. At this juncture in time, the greatest leaps in technology that will forever alter the future and make it impossible to predict – to a point anyway – are still highly speculative. But then again, major breakthroughs are being made all the time, and are occurring at a greater and greater pace. Who’s to say when the future will arrive. It never seems to show up on schedule!

Immortality Is On The Way!

William Gibson must get a kick out of news items like these. According to a recent article over at IO9, it seems that an entrepreneur named Dmitry Itskova and a team of Russian scientists are developing a project that could render humans immortal by the year 2045, after a fashion. According to the plan, which is called the 2045 Initiative, they hope to create a fully functional, holographic avatar of a human being.

At the core of this avatar will be an artificial brain containing all the thoughts, memories, and emotions of the person being simulated. Given the advancements in the field of computer technology, which includes the Google Neural Net, the team estimates that it won’t be long before a construct can be made which can store the sum total of a human’s mind.

If this concept sounds familiar, then chances are you’ve been reading either from Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy or Ray Kurzweil’s wishlist. Intrinsic to the former’s cyberpunk novels and the latter’s futurist predictions is the concept of people being able to merge their intelligence with machines for the sake of preserving their very essence for all time. Men like Kurzweil want this technology because it will ensure them the ability to live forever, while novelists like Gibson predicted that this would be something the mega-rich alone would have access to.

Which brings me to another aspect of this project. It seems that Itskova has gone to great lengths to secure investment capital to realize this dream. This included an open letter to roughly the world’s 1226 wealthiest citizens, everybody on Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s richest people, offering them a chance to invest and make their mark on history. If any of them have already chosen to invest, it’s pretty obvious why. Being so rich and powerful, they can’t be too crazy about the idea of dying. In addition, the process isn’t likely to come cheap. Hence, if and when the technology is realized, the world’s richest people will be the first to create avatars of themselves.

No indication of when the technology will be commercially viable for say, the rest of us. But the team has provided a helpful infographic of when the project’s various steps will be realized (see above). The dates are a little flexible, but they anticipate that they will be able to create a robotic copy of a human body (i.e. an android) within three to eight years. In eight to thirteen, they would be able to build a robotic body capable of housing a brain. By eighteen to twenty-three, a robotic humanoid with a mechanical brain that can house human memories will be realizable. And last, and most impressive, will be a holographic program that is capable of preserving a person’s memories and neural patterns (aka. their personality) indefinitely.

You have to admit, this kind of technology raises an awful lot of questions. For one, there’s the inevitable social consequences of it. If the wealthiest citizens in the world are never going to die, what becomes of their spoiled children? Do they no longer inherit their parent’s wealth, or simply live on forever as they do? And won’t this cramp this style, knowing that mommy and daddy are living forever in the box next to theirs?

What’s more, if there’s no generational turn-over, won’t this effect the whole nature and culture of wealth? It is, by its very nature, something which is passed on from generation to generation, ensuring the creation of elites and their influence over society. In this scenario, the same people are likely to exert influence generation after generation, wielding a sort of power which is virtually godlike.

And let’s not forget the immense spiritual and existential implications! Does technology like this disprove the concept of the immortal soul, or its very transcendent nature? If the human personality can be reduced to a connectome, which can in turn be digitized and stored, then what room is left for the soul? Or, alternately, if the soul really does exist, won’t people who partake in this experiment be committing the ultimate sin?

All stuff to ponder as the project either approaches realization or falls flat on its face, leaving such matters for future generations to ponder. In the meantime, we shouldn’t worry to much. As this century progresses and technology grows, we will have plenty of other chances to desecrate the soul. And given the advance of overpopulation and climate change, odds are we’ll be dying off before any of those plans reach fruition. Always look on the bright side, as they say 😉

The Coming Singularity… In Song!

Singularitarian. That’s a good name for someone who embraces the idea of the coming Technological Singularity, which I believe I mentioned somewhere… Yes, these days a lot of high-minded terms get thrown around to describe what may very well be possible somewhere in this century and the next. Extropian, Post-Human, Clinical Immortality, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Ethics, Transhuman, Mind/Machine Interface, Law of Accelerated Returns, and so forth. It can be kind of confusing to stay up with it since all the lingo is kind of complex and esoteric. Lot of big and obscure words there…

Luckily, Mr. Charlie Kam has decided to explain. Setting the ideas to the tune of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”, he tells how the idea works and what the eventual aim is. Basically, the idea is all about improving the condition of humanity through the ongoing application of technology. By preserving our cells, our memories, lengthening our lives, we will ensure that humanity will live on and achieve more than we previously thought possible.

Since we don’t yet know how to do this, we will achieve the first step by either merging our own minds with technology to enhance our thought processes and expand our awareness. Or, we could just create machinery that could do the job for us (aka. AI). Then, applying this superior intelligence, we will unlock the mysteries of the universe, create nanotech machines, medicines that can cure all diseases, and machinery that can store human memories, senses and impressions for all time.

Some big names got thrown in there too, not the least of which was Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video. If nothing else, its good for a laugh.