Friday, November 10, 2006

Virtual Brilliance, Virtual Idiocy

Last night, at the offices of the Electric Sheep Company (a company devoted to creating "virtual Real Estate" in multi-participant online simulation worlds such as Second LIfe), I saw Sibley Verbeck give a lovely presentation on the state of the art in these proto-Metaverse technologies.

These days, more than 10K people are online in Second Life at any given moment, it seems. A million subscribers, half of them active. People are talking about the potential for using Second Life for business presentations, as a kind of super-pumped-up 3D avatar-infused WebEx. And of course the possibility for other cool apps not yet dreamed of.

Stirring stuff ... definitely, technology worth paying attention to.

And yet, Sibley's excellent presentation left me wondering the following: Do we really want to perpetuate all the most stupid and irritating features of human society in the metaverse ... such as obsession with fashion and hairstyles!!??

"Virtual MTV Laguna Beach", a non-Second-Life project that Electric Sheep Factory did, is technically impressive yet morally and aesthetically YUCK, from a Ben Goertzel perspective. Virtual So-Cal high school as a post-Singularity metaverse is a kind of transhumanist nightmare.

I remain unclear regarding whether there will really be any **interesting** "killer apps" for metaverse technology (and I don't find gaming or online dating all that interesting ;) before really powerful multisensory VR interfaces come about.

And even then, simulating humanity in virtuo fascinates me far less than going beyond the human body and its restrictions altogether.

But, I do note that we are currently using a 3D sim world to teach our Novamente baby AI system. Once it becomes smarter, perhaps we will release our AI in Second Life and let it learn from the humans there ... about important stuff like how to wear its hair right (grin!)

And I must admit to being excited about the potential of this sort of tech for scientific visualization. Flying your avatar through the folds of a virtual human brain, or a virtual cell full of virtual DNA, would be mighty educational. Not **fundamental** in the sense of strong AI or molecular assemblers or fully immersive VR, but a lot niftier than Virtual Laguna Beach....

-- Ben

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Music as a Force of Nature...

This is just a quick follow-up to the prior post on "Being a Force of Nature" ...

Thinking over the issues I wrote about in that post, I was reminded of a failed attempt I made many years ago to construct a more robust kind of music theory than the ones that currently exist....

(Ray Jackendoff's generative-grammar-based theory of music is a nice attempt in a similar direction to what I was trying to do, but ultimately I think he failed also....)

Existing music theory seems not to address the most important and interesting questions about music: Which melodies and rhythms are the most evocative to humans, in which ways, and why?

To put it crudely, we know how to distinguish (with fairly high accuracy) a horrible melody from an OK-or-better melody based on automated means. And we know how to distinguish (with fairly high accuracy) what sorts of emotions an OK-or-better melody is reasonably likely to evoke, by automated means.

But, we have NO handle whatsoever, scientifically or analytically, on what distinguishes a GREAT melody (or rhythm, though I've thought most about melodies) from a mediocre one.

I spent a fair bit of time looking for patterns of this nature, mostly eyeballing various representations of melodies but also using some automated software scripts. No luck ... and I long ago got to busy to keep thinking about the issue....

What was wrong with this pursuit was, roughly speaking, the same thing that's wrong with thinking about human minds as individual, separate, non-social/cultural entities....

A musical melody is a sequence of notes arranged in time, sure ... but basically it's better thought of as a kind of SOFTWARE PROGRAM intended to be executed within the human acoustic/cognitive/emotional brain.

So, analyzing melodies in terms of their note-sequences and time-delays is sort of like analyzing complex software programs in terms of their patterns of bits. (No, it's not an exact analogy by any means, but you may get the point.... The main weaknesses of the analogy are: notes and delays are higher-level than bits; and, musical melodies are control-sequences for a complex adaptive system, rather than a simpler, more deterministic system like a von Neumann computer.)

In principle one could find note/delay-level patterns to explain what distinguishes good from great music, but one would need a HUGE corpus of examples, and then the patterns would seem verrrry complex and tricky on that level.

A correct, useful music theory would need to combine the language of notes and delays and such with the language of emotional and cognitive responses. The kind of question involved is: in a given emotional/cognitive context, which specific note/delay patterns/combinations provide which kinds of shifts to the emotional/cognitive context.

However, we currently lack a good language for describing emotional/cognitive contexts.... Which makes the development of this kind of music theory pretty difficult.

So in what sense is music a force of nature? A piece of music comes out of the cultural/psychological/emotional transpersonal matrix, and has meaning and pattern mainly in combination with this matrix, as a sequence of control instructions for the human brains that form components of this matrix...

(I am reminded of Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS, in which a composer creates music that is specifically designed to act on human brains in a certain way, designed to bring them to certain spiritual realizations. Before ever reading Dick, in my late teens, I had a fantasy of composing a musical melody that was so wonderfully recursively revelatory -- in some kind of Escher-meets-Jimi-Hendrix-and-Bach sort of way -- that it would wake up the listener's mind to understand the true nature of the universe. Alas, I've been fiddling at the piano keyboard for years, and haven't come up with it yet....)

Anyway, this is far from the most important thing I could be thinking about! Compared to artificial general intelligence, music is not so deep and fascinating ... ultimately it's mostly a way of fiddling with the particularities of our human mental system, which is not so gripping as the possibility of going beyond these particularities in the right sort of way....

But yet, in spite of its relative cosmic unimportance, I can't really stay away from music for too long! The KORG keyboard sitting behind me tempts ... and many of my best ideas have come to me in the absence/presence that fills my mind while I'm improvising in those quasi-Middle-Eastern scales that I find so seductive (and my daughter, Scheherazade, says she's so sick of hearing, in spite of her Middle-Eastern name ;-)

OK... back to work! ...