The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 30-03-2011

At times of crisis, the irrationality of capitalism becomes plain for all to see. Surplus capital and surplus labour exist side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together in the midst of immense human suffering and unmet needs. In the midsummer of 2009 one third of the capital equipment in the United States stood idle, while some 17 per cent of the workforce were either unemployed, enforced part-timers or ‘discouraged’ workers. What could be more irrational than that? – David Harvey The Enigma of Capital (2010)

In my previous column, I cast an eye over the different ways in which strategy games depict the world and how these distorted visions of reality mirror the distortions that affect people when they become part of large institutions, such as governments and corporations. In that column, I discussed strategy games such as Civilization V (2010) and Europa Universalis III (2007) and god games such as Populous (1989) but I omitted to mention games that set out the simulate what it is like to run a business. Continue reading “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”


[$mind]!=[$computer]: why uploading your brain probably won’t happen

Paul Raven @ 18-01-2011

Via Science Not Fiction, here’s one Timothy B Lee taking down that cornerstone of Singularitarianism, the uploading of minds to digital substrates. How can we hope to reverse-engineer something that wasn’t engineered in the first place?

You can’t emulate a natural system because natural systems don’t have designers, and therefore weren’t built to conform to any particular mathematical model. Modeling natural systems is much more difficult—indeed, so difficult that we use a different word, “simulation” to describe the process. Creating a simulation of a natural system inherently means means making judgment calls about which aspects of a physical system are the most important. And because there’s no underlying blueprint, these guesses are never perfect: it will always be necessary to leave out some details that affect the behavior of the overall system, which means that simulations are never more than approximately right. Weather simulations, for example, are never going to be able to predict precisely where each raindrop will fall, they only predict general large-scale trends, and only for a limited period of time. This is different than an emulator, which (if implemented well) can be expected to behave exactly like the system it is emulating, for as long as you care to run it.

Hanson’s fundamental mistake is to treat the brain like a human-designed system we could conceivably reverse-engineer rather than a natural system we can only simulate. We may have relatively good models for the operation of nerves, but these models are simplifications, and therefore they will differ in subtle ways from the operation of actual nerves. And these subtle micro-level inaccuracies will snowball into large-scale errors when we try to simulate an entire brain, in precisely the same way that small micro-level imperfections in weather models accumulate to make accurate long-range forecasting inaccurate.

As discussed before, I rather think that mind simulation – much like its related discipline, general artificial intelligence – is one of those things whose possibility will only be resolved by its achievement (or lack thereof). Which, come to think of it, might explain the somewhat theological flavour of the discourse around it…


Worldbuilding

Paul Raven @ 14-01-2011

Did you enjoy that planetary impact simulator I linked to a while back? Did you enjoy it, perhaps, a little too much, and feel that your galactic karma could do with a bit of balancing? Well, what better way to atone for smashing planets to bits than by building new ones, which is exactly what NASA’s Planet Makeover webapp lets you do [via BoingBoing]. A bit of random fun for friday afternoon: adjust planet size, orbital distance, solar type and planetary age, then hit the button and see whether you’ve made a habitable world. [SPOILERS: your odds of doing so are very low. Good afternoon, Professor Drake!]

Not a new idea, of course (I had a serious hankering for a copy of SimEarth back at the start of the nineties, but never got one), but NASA have wisely brought the idea kicking and screaming into the Twentyteens by a) simplifying it and putting it on the web for free and b) using the word EXTREME! in the name.


Fractal levels of simulated reality, forsooth!

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

I’m sure I ran a story similar to this a while back, but I’m damned if I can find it in the Futurismic archives, so I’m gonna mention it anyway: it’s the one about the folk building logic-based processors within the virtual spaces of computer games, the latest example being the insanely popular (and rather lucrative) Minecraft. Find blocks of material with the right in-game properties, chain ’em together, and hey presto, you’ve got a simulated arithmetic processor made of non-existent lumps of an entirely fictional substance. Whole lotta meta, right there.

I think the reason I love these stories is because of the extrapolatory end-point: the implication is that given simulated spaces of sufficient size and complexity (and sufficient player-hours, or clever macros to obviate the need for such), one could build a computing device within that simulation which was itself capable of running a simulation within which another computing device could be simulated. Sort of like Nick Bostrom rewriting Lavie Tidhar’s “In Pacmandu”… it’s simulated turtles all the way down! Now, where’s the door back to my origin reality, please?


Welcome to Mock Mars, Utah

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2010

Reminiscent of the gang-in-a-can experiment in Russia (I wonder how that worked out in the end?), Wired UK reports briefly on six aspiring Mars missioneers (missionaries?) living in a cylindrical habitat out in the Utah desert to simulate the trials of daily human existence on the surface of the Red Planet, should we ever make it there. There’s another “Mars Analag Research Station” (see what they did there?) in the Canadian Arctic, and the Mars Society – unwilling to wait for beleaguered nation-state space budgets to recover sufficiently (if ever) to send out a manned mission – has plans for another in Iceland.

It strikes me that the obvious flaw with the MARS set-ups and the Russian mission sim linked above is that the participants know that it’s a sim; clomping around in spacesuits and eating spacesnax is all well and good, but if you know that you can remove the helmet or open the hatch in an emergency, you’re not really stress-testing the psychological issues properly. Ballard thought it through (of course), in a short story whose name I am presently unable to recall (or locate in a book, as my Collected Short Stories appears to be on vacation somewhere other than my bookshelves at present); anyone remember the one I’m thinking of? It featured a small (fake) generation ship rather than a Mars station, but the whole cabin-fever psychology thing felt spot-on during a recent re-read (no Suck Fairy damage in that one, though not all of Ballard’s early short stuff fares quite so well)…

Bonus content! Talking of Ballard and space, how’d you fancy seeing some Cold War dreams of space dominion decaying in a post-Soviet junkyard [via SlashDot]? How the mighty have fallen… but before you get too hubristic, that’s not far from the fate the Space Shuttles will suffer as museum pieces. Yesterday’s technological marvels and dream-vehicles are today’s salvage-hunt relics; this is something we’d all do well to remember, but will probably all forget.


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