Friday, September 23

Until the End of the World: Closing the Gap Between Science and Science Fiction

In Wim Wenders' 1991 near-future science fiction and "ultimate road-movie" Until the End of the World, a device that translates images into neural impulses (a "camera for the blind") gets reverse-engineered, allowing people to record and view their own dreams. As characters are exposed to the technology, they become addicted, running and re-running memories and dreams in a lab in a cave in the middle of the Australian desert.

Aparrently, by setting his film in 1999 Wenders was only off by 12 years: 
"researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to measure the blood flow through brain’s visual cortex. Then, different parts of the brain were divided into volumetric pixels or voxels... Finally, the scientists built a computational model which describes how visual information is mapped into brain activity.
Test subjects viewed some video clips, and their brain activity was recorded by a computer program, which learned how to associate the visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity.
Then, test subjects viewed a second set of clips. The movie reconstruction algorithm was fed 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos, which were used to teach the program how to predict the brain activity evoked by film clips. Finally, the program chose 100 clips which were most similar to the movie the subject had seen, which were merged to create a reconstruction of the original movie. The result is a video that shows how our brain sees things, and at moments it’s eerily similar to the original imagery."
 (Mashable | Scientists Turn Brain's Visual Memories Into a Mind-Blowing Video)

It remains to be seen whether this new technology turns us all into weeping solipsists or not, but it is an amazing example of how the rate of technological change has compressed the idea of "futurism." Remember, Wenders' film was also one of the first to feature in-car GPS, a mind-blowing millennial technology in 1991. 

(Also, it is an interesting footnote to look at the role YouTube plays in the experiment.  The availability of a vast library of royalty-free video content is what makes it possible to generate the vast quantity of fMRI data needed to create a statistical model this complex.)

Thursday, September 22

Critics of the Google+ "Ghost Town" Miss the Point

Now that the initial post-launch euphoria has died down, Google Plus has been feeling very empty these days (except for the mindshare-squatters who are determined to get in on the ground floor and own the service).  For the past few days, it's felt as if all of us who signed up for the service two months ago are suddenly measuring our G+ streams next to Twitter and Facebook at the same time.  Cue the flood of premature G+ obituaries since last Monday

Ironically, the trigger for these obits has been a slew of defensive changes announced by Facebook in advance of F8. If G+ is good enough to scare Facebook it must be doomed, right?

If Facebook can reproduce the handful of features that G+ has done right, the thinking goes, G+ does not have enough of the existing features Facebook has to compete: Facebook wins. This line of thinking, however, misses the essential difference between Google (not G+) and Facebook.

The "Identity Service" vs. Social Network distinction is meaningful. Both companies want to own data about us, our interests and our relationships to other people in order to make money. In Facebook's case, social networking activity is the only means it has of gathering that data, though they have accumulated an awesome head start.  In Google's case, it has an amazing suite of services and apps which it can leverage to acquire social data by adding value to those services through the inclusion of social functions.

Given the choice, I would much rather be Google.  How many of us would give up GMail to use Facebook Messages?  Or Google Talk to use Facebook Chat? Exactly...

Google was right not to delay the G+ launch until it could match Facebook feature-for-feature.  The initial launch brought in the early adopters in droves. Those of us who already had Google profile pages for personal-SEO purposes found we were already there on day one.  And as we saw with yesterday's homepage promotion, Google has a built-in traffic firehose to bring mainstream consumers into the service whenever they want.  Now imagine deep Android implementation on top of that.

As the recently launched API matures, the content will come. G+ will be an option on Seesmic and Hootsuite; posts from Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr will show up on the service. G+ doesn't need to be the place where content originates as long as it is where it winds up. G+ doesn't have to be the Social Network of choice provided it can become the social activity aggregator of choice. And I think it will.