Archive for February, 2009

Faster-than-Light

I’ve predicted a lot of things on this blog and on The Other Blog. One thing I’ve kept silent about, though is faster-than-light travel. I established my “method” (if you can call it that) of predicting the future on The Other Blog. In short: whatever will happen in the future is whatever is possible coupled with whatever is wanted/needed/desirable. I further define “whatever is possible” to be “whatever is not expressly forbidden by the laws of physics as we know them”. The catch is, of course, is  that we don’t fully understand the laws of physics yet, so something that seems possible today may turn out not to be possible tomorrow or vice versa.

Faster-than-light travel is obviously desirable. There’s no question about that. But is it actually possible? From where I sit today, I would say that it is most likely not. You see, there are several potential ways of FTL travel that have been discovered in modern physics.

First is the wormhole. Einstein and Rosen first mathematically discovered wormholes with general relativity. Later, Kip Thorne discovered how to make them actually traversable, and even use them to contruct time machines! Next is warp drive. In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre discovered a way to potentially alter the geometry of the  space-time continuum so that any object (say, a spaceship) could be propelled arbitrarily fast on a moving section of space-time. In short, space itself is compressed in front of the ship and expanded behind it. The beauty of it is that space is not limited by relativity and can expand or contract however fast it wants.

So what’s the problem with these methods? The main sticking point is that both require a form of matter called exotic matter. It’s matter which has a negative energy density. This is matter which has never been shown to exist, and it’s not even known whether this kind of matter can exist. In addition, even if you could gather enough exotic matter to make either of these possible, you’d need far more than the amount of matter in the universe. It’s not possible to create or destroy matter, so where’s it going to come from?

Because of this weak point, I would tend to discount faster-than-light travel entirely. Which is a shame because it would be so awfully useful.

Big Brother is Coming

A little while ago, a few of us were standing around at work, doing nothing, listening to one the older employees talk about how things used to be when he first started working there. One particularly interesting thing was that you used to be able to smoke in the back room, where we keep extra product. There’d be times be times when someone would be cutting lettuce or something with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths; the supervisor would come by and not say anything, or maybe even bum one off of them. It was really funny stuff.

It got me thinking, in my normal futurist-type mode: in fifteen to twenty years, what will we (assuming we were to stay at Stater Bros. for that time) stand around and reminisce about?  What will have changed in the 2025-2030 time-frame? We’ll still be employed (the robotic revolution will just barely be starting). Maybe about how people used to have to ring up groceries by hand, rather than just dumping it on an automated checkstand and having it ring and bag all your groceries for you.

Then I realized something: will we be able to? What I mean is: will we still be able to get away with standing around and doing nothing at all? In our store, and in virtually ever business and public area, there are security cameras. They are watching and recording nearly every square foot of space both inside and outside the store. It’s very much like Big Brother, but we really don’t mind.

The reason we don’t mind is because we know that no one is really watching. Sure, they’re useful when something bad happens and they need to check, but by and large no one is sitting on the other watching everything that is going on. No one will even bother to review hours upon hours of recorded video “just to see” if something happened. In other words, it is still possible to get away with small things (like standing around on the company’s time) as long as no one notices.

But there are a lot of circumstances when having someone watching the cameras constantly would be beneficial. Just last week, a woman in Florida was caught tampering with baby food, putting something poisonous in the jars. Fortunately, someone saw her and she was arrested, but she could have easily gotten away with it if no one had noticed. Same goes for shoplifters. Or vandals. Or if someone is being assaulted and no one is around. Of course, cameras caught the whole thing, so someone watching would also have noticed. But hiring someone (or hiring a group of people because there are often dozens of cameras) just sit and watch surveillance footage in real time would be prohibitively expensive.

So, what if instead the cameras themselves were watching and understanding what they were seeing? Or, at least, the cameras were wired into a base computer which is watching and comprehending the feeds. It is likely that sometime between the next ten to twenty years that will be a reality.

Let’s look at what we’ll need. On The Other Blog, I introduced a unit of computer processing power equal to that of the human brain (HB, for Human Brainpower). 1 HB is equal to 100 trillion floating-point operations per second, or 100 TeraFLOPS, about the measured computational capacity of the human brain. A modern day desktop computer might have 20 GigaFLOPS of processing power, or 0.0002 HB. The Playstation 3’s GPU can run at 2 TeraFLOPS or 0.02 HB. Today’s supercomputers can already exceed 1 HB.

Now, obviously the human brain does more than just handle vision. There’s hearing, sound, taster, motor function, cognitive functions, etc. It is estimated that vision takes up a third of the brain’s capacity (or 0.333 HB). To be conservative, let’s round this up to 0.4 HB. A computer system, then, with 0.4 HB of processing power could, with the right software, perceive and understand the world at the world at the same level as a human (in terms of visual recognition. Whether the computer would actually “understand” the world is a philosophical problem for another time).

But, do cameras actually have to have human-level vision to do their jobs? You can model human vision as such: a hemisphere with pixels 100 arc-seconds across, each with a particular RGB value. 100 arc-seconds is about the limit of angular size that the human eye can see, on half a sphere, there are roughly 26.7 million of these pixels, the same as a square 5200 x 5200 image. Since each pixel has a particular RGB value, that’s 3 bytes per pixel for a total of 80.2 MB. That’s per frame.

So how many frames/second does the human brain analyze? Well, it turns out that the human vision doesn’t really have a “frame rate”, but we can assign one by using something that does have one, such as a movie projector. A normal film plays at 24 frames per second, which is enough to fool the brain into conveying fluid motion. Slowing down the film, the human eye starts to be able to detect individual frames at around 12-16 frames per second. Let’s use 12 as the standard. So, a 5200 x 5200 image with 3 bytes per pixel running at 12 frames per second requires 0.4 HB of processing.

But what about less? The brain can still understand images that have fewer frames per second, or are in black and white. What if our “intelligent” camera has instead a 2000 x 2000 display, in black-and-white (which requires only 1 byte/pixel), and runs at 5 frames per second? Multiplying it out, this type of video has 1.23% the computational demand as full human vision, or 0.02 HB or processing. Let’s round it up to 0.05 HB just to be sure that a given computer system could handle the task. Based on Moore’s Law and my former benchmark of 1 HB in 2025, computers should reach this level around 2016. Add five to ten years for sufficient software development, and it seems reasonable that security cameras will perform as described in the 2020-2030 timeframe.

What gets scary is that it’s likely that governments will also want to buy these cameras for their own purposes. At that point, Big Brother really becomes a reality. Is this really desirable? Security often changes inversely with personal freedom. Personally, though, I think that if we are careful and emphasize that individual rights come first and keep government small, we can have both security and freedom. Much of that comes down to educating the public at large just what their rights are, both recognized and unrecognized by their government, and just what powers the government has.

Wow, I Actually Did It

I finished something. I worked on novels and stories and various other things for years, but I’ve never actually followed through. I think, at this moment, I have approximately ten novels1 I’m working on, some more fleshed out than others, and a couple dozen short stories I have ideas for.

But now something I started I’ve actually completed. It’s done. I don’t want to change anything more. It’s that game I was working on, the one that was inspired from Cashflow 101. I call it It’s Just Business! and I’m actually quite proud of it. Of all the people other that me who have played it2, 100% of them have said that it’s really good and really addictive. The way it works  is that you start with a job, work to become financially independent, and then expand your business empire into the billions of dollars. The details are, of course, trade secrets.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I want to try to sell it because of any possible copyright infringement of Kioyaski’s Cashflow games. There’s no law against making a copy of something and using it for your own personal use (actually there is, but let’s see them try to enforce it, eh?), but selling it is a big no-no. To be honest, though, I may have actually changed things enough that it doesn’t actually infringe on Cashflow‘s copyrights. Maybe I’ll set up a shop on Ebay or something and see what happens.

1Let’s see. Main Universe: Midira, Arthur Mohammed, Alien Life, Admission. Stand Alone: 21st Century, Wolf 359, Wormhole Novel, Haas Riley, Moon’s Moon, Dyson Sphere, Cretaceia. Total: 11.

2Which includes: my friend Dez. And that’s it. Yep.

A Rebuttal to “Fundamental Limits to Virtual Reality”

Today, I came across a curious blog by author Rudy Rucker, who argues that it is impossible to fully simulate the Earth. That to do so would require grinding up the entire Earth into computronium, which is pointless since the result is a simulated world exactly like the real world, so why bother?

But my question is: why would we want to create a perfect duplicate of the Earth, all the way down to the tiniest pebble and blade of grass? Rucker argues that to completely simulate the entire Earth, we would need exactly this amount of matter since “there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations”, and why bother since the result of said simulation already exists. I would agree with this assessment, but we can drastically cut back the required amount of computer power needed to simulate a virtual environment.

Let’s put in some numbers here: the Earth masses 5.972 x 1024 kg. To fully simulate the entire Earth, right down to single atoms, we would 1 Earth, or 5.972 x 1024 kg. The thing is, though, our senses cannot sense atoms. Our visual and tactile systems cannot sense very much below 0.1 mm in size. So why would we have to make our virtual world with such a tiny “pixel resolution”? Instead, let’s make our virtual world have a pixel resolution of 0.01 mm. Basically, our virtual world’s “atoms” are pixels 0.01 mm in diameter. These virtual atoms (or, V-atoms) are bound together with simulated forces in order to accommodate being manipulated in various ways (touching, lifting, tearing, breaking, etc.). Real world atoms, however, have diameters on the order of 10-10 m or, 0.0000001 mm. So, you might think that each V-atom could stand in for 100,000 real world atoms. Ah, but both V-atoms and real atoms are three-dimensional. If you were somehow transport a V-atom into the real world and stuff it full of real atoms, would find that a V-atom holds 100,0003 or 1015 atoms. This means that you could simulate any physical space and use 1015 times less matter than it would take in the real world. For the Earth, that would be 5.972 x 109 kg.

That’s still a lot of matter. The computer system that would simulate the entire Earth would mass roughly the same as the Pyramid of Giza. But why would a person need to simulate the entire Earth? If you’re a normal person with their own personal computer made of computronium, you’d like to be comfortable and have lots of space in your virtual environment, but simulating an entire planet seems like overkill. Instead, what if we were to simulate a volume only 5 km x 5 km x 5 km? The entire volume of Earth (including 100 of atmosphere), is around 1.14 trillion km3, whereas our imagined virtual environment is only 125 km3. This again reduces the amount of needed matter by a factor of about 10-10, so that our imagined virtual space would require only 0.6 kg of mass (about one-and-one-third pounds). This is smaller than a modern-day desktop computer. In fact, it is likely to be much small since a virtual world like this would likely be mostly skybox. Simulating air would likely be much easier to simulate since it is far less dense than the ground. You might have maybe a few dozen to a hundred meters of ground depth, and then 4.9 km of virtual air above. Lots of people like to fly, not as many like to dig. Of course, it’s up to the user what they want, but the point is there is definitely enough matter around to distribute such computers to each and every person in existence.

Not to mention that the whole point of a virtual world is that it can be made different than the real world. In physical reality, we are stuck with physical law. But in virtual reality, physical law become limited only to what is imaginable. Feats impossible in the real world (for example, humans flying like Superman) become trivial in the virtual world. Deconstructing the Earth to make a perfect virtual duplicate which requires the entire Earth anyway makes no sense, but using tiny parts of it to make coarser, smaller, but ultimately indistinguishable, virtual fantasy worlds makes enormous sense.

Duck!

A bit of space news. Tuesday, two satellites collided in Earth orbit, completely destroying each other in the process. This is a relatively rare phenomenon which could have disastrous consequences.

You see, even though there are thousands of artificial satellites orbiting the Earth, its still pretty much empty space. There may be, on average, tens or hundreds of miles between satellites most of the time. But, given enough time, satellites will collide and produce a lot of debris. Satellites are often maneuvered in order to avoid just this type of scenario, but even so, this still happened.

But what is the danger? A bunch of satellite shrapnel raining down on Earth isn’t much to be worried about as the vast majority of it will burn up in the atmosphere. The real danger lies in the fact that pieces of an exploding satellite can impact other satellites, which then create even more debris, which impacts even more satellites in a runaway chain reaction. The result? Low Earth orbit becomes completely filled with debris, making sending any more satellites (and crewed expeditions) impossible. As soon as they reach orbit, they would be obliterated by debris. Such a situation could cut off access to space for centuries.

To be honest, I don’t think a single event like this could cause this. But increase the number of events, and the number of satellites orbiting, and you could have a real problem.

Wow, I Need To Get Out More

It’s been about three weeks since I last updated, so I figured it might be about time to let my adoring public know that I am still alive. Actually, I’ve been sick the past couple weeks. It’s getting pretty annoying. Plus I’ve been busy with school and work.

What I’ve also been doing is working on my game that I invented. I was lucky enough to get a chance to play Robert Kiyosaki’s game Cashflow 101 a while back, without having to shell out an outrageous $200 (I will never pay $200 for a boardgame. Even if it is a “pedagogical tool”. Especially from someone who’s only success at making money is…telling people how to make money. Yeah). Anyway, I thought it would be cool to have my own copy, but I noticed a few flaws and places where it could be improved. It’s been hardwork, but I’m nearly done now, and have retitled it “It’s Just Business!”. I’d sell it, but then I’d probably get, you know, sued. Although at this point it’s different enough I don’t know if they’d actually have a case.

Also, I’ve been working on a new novel, one which I am so excited about it may end up being my first one. It’s about a group of about four hundred fifty people who get stranded back in time in the late Cretaceous period, shortly before the extinction of the dinosaurs. Sounds like a pretext for a Jurassic Park-type story, right? But Jurassic Parkhas been done, and I hate doing cliched, predictable ideas. No, the real story is about their situation and really about what possible temporal paradoxes that might arise because of their presence there. Are they changing the future? If so, are they possibly erasing the future evolution of the human race, and thus their own existence? If not, why is there no evidence of human civilization at the time of the dinosaurs? Are they really in some parallel dimension, a split timeline, or something else entirely? And what about that asteroid due to hit soon?

In any event, I’m going to try to stay on top of this blog as it is the “public face” of my life.