Online Radio with DJ Mixes?

Here’s another idea I came up with.  We have online radio stations, like Spotify, Last FM, and Jango.  They stream songs based on our preferences, and they learn what we like.  Occasionally, these guys throw a new song at you for you to try out.

Then we have the Youtube, Reddit, 4Chan, Facebook crowd.  They take stuff from the internet, mess with it, and upload it.

Then you have all these “download Youtube as MP3”, “convert MOV to WAV” and all those guys.  Binary manipulation backend, website up front.

By putting these things together (“I am the weaver!”) we could revolutionise online radio.

Here’s How It Works

You sign up for your radio station, add a few bands like any other online station, and sit back and listen.  But there’s an extra option – “Mixed”.  You switch it on, and the station plays a steady stream of music, like a DJ at a club.  Not just dance music either.  Hendrix mixed into Beethoven, then mixed into Jamiroquai, and on and on…

These mixes, or links, could be stored separately as actions on the server, and applied to the audiotracks live, or they could be stored as two half-tunes (e.g. the last half of a tune and the first of the next).

If you’re a DJ, you can take two songs from the playlist, and you get a bunch of online tools like a crossfader, a scratching interface, tempo controls, a sequencer/drum machine etc to play with.  You mix one tune into the other as best you can, and you save your mix.  Mixes are “scrobbled” just like tunes, with users getting rated for the best mix.

If you can’t DJ, but you’d love two of your favourite songs mixed, you can click “request a mix” and it will show up on an inspiration list for DJs to scroll through.  The Beatles to Mr Scruff.  Mozart to Motörhead…

Of course, there are a lot more potential links than there are songs, and some simply won’t have mixes.  In this case, an automatic crossfade could suffice.  In fact, a few tools could automate mixes of songs that are drastically different – like a simple(!) beat analysis and a back-spin, or a prepared drum machine with a tempo change every sixteen beats.  Even a few Pink Floyd style tricks could be employed, like a “rushing wind” sound quickly fading in after a brief pause.  Users could rate the automatic mixes too, in case a really great mix happens automatically.

A station like LastFM could start out by hiring a couple of DJ’s to do a few mixes of random and popular tunes.  Then it could be added as a new feature for everyone.

Because all the mixing will be actions on online audio, rather than download/upload, there should be no problems with copyright holders on top of the ordinary streaming technology.  It could also be seen as a benign form of DRM – like when the a radio DJ talks over the beginning or end of a track so you can’t “tape it off the radio” as easily.

The inspiration for this idea comes from a few places.  One is the movie It’s All Gone Pete Tong, where the movie soundtrack, an operatic choiral classical thing gets mixed into a banging acid house track (it’s the “comeback” scene).  Another is a small piece of freeware I used to love, called MDJ, which was the first MP3 DJ software I’d ever seen (they also made an amazing 303 type machine called Rubberduck, but that’s besides the point) which had an auto-mixer.  Mixxx, the open source DJ tool is another reason why I think this will work.  Also credit has to be given to all the nights I’ve sat up partying to Youtube videos and Jango and would have killed for a decent mix.  Some of the hour-long uploads of mixes on Youtube and Soundcloud by DJ’s are great, but they always play songs you’d have banned yourself.

Could this be the new way to enjoy online radio?  Could it spawn a new generation of online radio DJs?  What do you think?

 

How I feel about Atos, Workfare, and Benefit Sanctions

Today, I am ashamed to be British, European, and in a way, to be human. A travesty is occurring under our noses.

Atos, workfare, and benefit sanctions are a disgusting evil in the world today.  Overreaction? Liberal nonsense? Stay with me.

Benefit Sanctions

Yes, we are in a recession. It’s bad for both rich and poor. Yes, we have a large unemployment problem costing us huge amounts of money. There may even be (and I seriously doubt it, but bear with me) a culture of laziness. A work-shy section of the population who do not want to work.  What should we do? There may even be disabled people who should be working. I think I even agree with that.

Now laziness isn’t the worst crime in the world. Murder is worse. What do we do with citizens of our country when they murder?  We lock them away from society, then when justice has been done in that way, we feed them, and clothe them. Why do we feed them?

Because not to do so would be disgusting.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, we give them a fair trial, and we feed them.

So for a country to remove access to food for nothing more than laziness is despicable.  The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

There’s also another reason why we feed criminals. It’s because our justice system sometimes fails, and innocent people are jailed. We never know if a piece of crucial evidence will turn up and set a conviction on it’s head. When that happens, it may be horrible, but at least we didn’t starve them. So, if just one family who wants to work is sanctioned and goes hungry, the system has failed completely.

What do we do with lazy people?  We feed them. Why? Because not to do so is reprehensible. Benefit sanctions are simply wrong.

As far as I can see, there is a much bigger cause of unemployment – there are simply not enough jobs to go around.  In 2011, the figures stood around 5 unemployed people to every job.  It was about 6 people to a job when I last looked.  Every unskilled job that is advertised WILL be filled. However, forcing lazy people to look for work under those circumstances means that people who do want to work have to compete with people who don’t.

Is this how we want our workforce built? People driving our buses, making our coffees and working alongside us who don’t want to be there? A lax attitude is more of a problem in the world of work than on the dole queue!

Until there’s actually enough jobs for everyone, any argument about a culture of “expectation” is moot.  Any chase after “lazy” people is a complete and utter waste of your tax money. You want to know something?  We need more engineers. How about some entry-level training and some decent apprenticeships for all? It’s not like there isn’t other work to be done, either. Hospitals need built. Schools, roads, housing, that sort of thing.  These are all jobs, create them, and fill them.

We need to stop throwing tax money after a cause that is a simple mathematical impossibility (not enough jobs), and instead, work on raising the number of available jobs, and provide the training in fields that are crying out for workers. Duh.

When everybody who wants a job can get one, and there’s enough education and opportunities for everybody, then we’ll be able to know exactly how many real lazy people there are. Until then, it’s a ridiculous waste of public money.

Even if there were millions of lazy people, “milking the system” – why should their families be penalised?  Why can’t children of “lazy” parents grow up with food in their stomachs and a productive future?

And where does these “lazy” people’s free money go?  Into shops. Food, drink, cigarettes, electricity, gas, phone bills, nappies, petrol… Other industries who need customers to pay their employees. Who all pay income tax. It makes no sense to make our poorest citizens even poorer. Perhaps if they were industrious, and not lazy, they might be growing and catching their own food, brewing their own tax-free beer and saving their benefit money for holidays abroad.  The irony is, if everybody did that, we’d be ruined.

Poor nutrition brings poor health. If a sanction makes one person ill, we’re talking thousands of pounds worth of healthcare costs – to the taxpayer.  Poverty and desperation also causes crime. Which is also incredibly expensive to the taxpayer.

If there are any lazy people in society, it makes sense to simply give them a little money to live on and put back into the economy, and leave them be.

The Workfare Program

What about workfare?  Surely it makes good sense to give someone the “experience” of work, make them give back to the community, for their welfare?

No. Compulsory unpaid labour is slavery. “Oh, but it’s not compulsory!” People say. That is nonsense. A benefit sanction threat is a threat of hunger. Working under the threat of hunger is slavery. It just is. You won’t change my mind on that, and if you support unpaid labour under the threat of punishment by hunger, you are a disgusting human being in my eyes, and you should redeem yourself now somehow.

If you’re still thinking “why should my taxes feed the lazy?”, think about this: for-profit companies are using workfare labour, for free. If workfare labour is available, why advertise for paid positions at all? Congratulations, now a big company can profit from your taxes, and the number of people on benefits stays the same.

Yes, companies have been laying off paid staff, and conscripting (under threat of hunger) these people without giving them jobs. Some people have even ended up workfaring in the same companies they were laid off from. Living off your taxes, when they could be living off the company’s payroll. Poundland, Shoezone, Asda, the list goes on.

So although the government is claiming unemployment is down, it does nothing at all to the amount of public money spent on welfare. Public money goes down, and the number of available paid jobs also goes down. It’s a lose-lose situation. In fact, it’s already cost us millions to try and implement.

Did I mention that many people believe it’s also ethically revolting?

As work experience, it leaves out the one experience that really gives a person work satisfaction – the pay-cheque. It’s mainly uninspired drudgery.  Stacking shelves and sweeping floors. That is NOT going to cure anybody of laziness.

It’s also an echo of the indentured labour that spawned full-on slavery in America, and of prison colonies, and a Dickensian work-house Britain.  These are parts of our history we’re ashamed of, and rightly so.

So, with starving our poor countrymen and slave-labour under our national belt (remember, there still aren’t enough actual jobs), a campaign which is costing money while deepening the welfare crisis, here’s Atos.

Atos – Compounding the Problem

Atos is an IT company, paid lots and lots of taxpayers money to decide which of our currently signed off citizens (signed off by doctors), are actually fit for work.

The list of sick and disabled people living under threat of sanction is growing. Yes, people with cerebral palsy are being used as slave labour under the threat of hunger. And jobs are scarce enough as it is for people who CAN work.

The crazy thing is, there are sick and disabled people who actually want to work, and can! But now they have to compete with other disabled “job-seekers” being forced into work for no pay. Disabled and sick people can be productive and successful if given every chance to be. Most of them even want to!

So, if there are no jobs, it’s all a big waste of money, and it’s damaging lives – why the hell is it happening?  Emotions. Anger, frustration, revenge. Irrational, childish, human emotions. Honestly, this “culture of expectation” stuff. Are they psychic? Do they know what poor people are thinking? No. Laziness? Prove it or shut up.

The country’s in trouble. People see others living on benefits while they work hard for very little. But while it may be frustrating, this angry revenge war on poor people is not going to help. There simply needs to be more jobs. If there isn’t we feed the poor, no questions asked.

Because the alternative is disgusting.

All Moaning, and No Offer of Solution?

So what can we do about the unemployment figures? First, we can look at other ways to make money.  Like prisons.  No, not prison labour (although I have nothing against that as long as it’s voluntary and paid). I mean the ridiculous amount of people in prison who are of no threat to society.  Release them all. They’re a huge drain on resources.  Honestly, they’re cheaper for the taxpayer on the dole than in prison.  Tag them if you have to, fine them, whatever. But if they don’t need to be locked away from the rest of us, what’s the point?

Tax the rich! It sounds obvious to some, but it’s complex. Big companies like tax breaks for encouragement to set up in a country, which brings jobs and overall wealth. Fine, I understand that, but don’t be a tax haven about it!  We need to change the laws and loopholes that allow companies like Starbucks to pay only two percent tax.

They’re not breaking the law, either, so I can’t judge them for that. It’s the laws themselves that need to be changed.  And taxing the rich only has to go on long enough to sort us out.  When the economy is better again, the well-off can enjoy tax breaks and bonuses. But not while the poor are going hungry and there are no jobs.

As for laziness, I personally do not believe that a healthy person wants to sit around all day and do nothing. I have never met a “lazy” person. I’ve met people worried that getting a minimum-wage job will make their family worse off. I’ve even met people who are learning skills in their own time because they would never thrive in a “normal” job. A lot of people on benefits also volunteer for charities. Not really laziness.

Try these things first:-

1. Fill the vacancies we do have properly. Big data is growing, tech companies are on the climb. Programmers, engineers, and system administrators are needed. So some basic training and apprenticeships are the way forward.

2. Make some jobs. Population is growing, do we have enough schools, teachers, hospitals? Can we encourage foreign businesses better? I could forgive a large company for (legal) tax dodging if it was using that money to create good jobs with training and prospects, and everybody involved was paying fair income tax. There may be no jobs, but there is work to be done. Whose fault is that?

3. Rearrange the benefits system. Feed, house, and clothe the poor, maybe with a food stamp system, but also a little cash to encourage saving and spending in the economy. Add a little bonus for those looking for work. Add a little more for those on training schemes. Make working beneficial with a logarithmic scale, so a two-hour job still pays well, and so that millionaires don’t get child benefit.  As soon as somebody can afford to live without benefits, they can be removed from the system. After that, it’s capitalism all the way up. With taxes high when the economy needs it, and low when it can afford it. Give all poor people the same basic level of support and dignity, whether they’re sick, able and willing, just plain lazy, or even a criminal.

4. Sort out the lazy. Only when all the above are sorted, mind (feed everyone!). To be honest, I’m not even convinced there are real lazy people. Depression, confusion, sickness, dejected hopelessness, or simply being a dedicated stay-at-home parent can all look like laziness to the outside observer. But assuming there are lazy people, what do we do with them? First, we look at what they do do.  Do they sit around all day playing guitar? Would they like a course in recording? Can they teach? Can we give people small, casual jobs where they’re allowed to keep the money?

It’s important, even if you think laziness is wrong, to remember that scientific consensus in every field relevant finds punishment ineffective, and a reward system to be better. This is true of animals, of children, of criminals, and lazy people. “You tried work? Well done. Here’s some money. How does that feel? Come back if you want more.”

And it’s not like there aren’t jobs for “lazy” people!  Night watchmen, firemen, receptionists – all involve, and sometimes require, sitting doing nothing. An efficient datacentre administrator will have automated everything, and will sit around doing nothing, poised for emergency. I’m not saying these people are really lazy at all, they work hard and deserve their money, but if chilling with your mates shooting pool for most of the time with a bit of excitement thrown in sounds good, and you like to keep fit, it may be that you’re not work-shy, you’re a potential fireman. Like to work hard but don’t want to be tied down to just two weeks holiday a year?  Work in a school!  There’s a job for everybody, if only people could be given a little assistance and a little hope.

Rockstar North just advertised for “video games testers”. I mean, come on. Ask every “unwilling” person you find if there was one thing they would work their arse off at, and ask yourself if such a job exists, and if it does, help them to it. Reward good behaviour with hard cash, and watch unemployment drop. Many people who were previously unemployable have gone on to be successful entrepreneurs, creating jobs that didn’t exist. What can we do for these people? Training courses. Apprenticeships and on-job training.

So that’s it. Stop Atos, stop workfare, stop benefit sanctions. It’s not good for the rich, or the poor, or the nation itself. It’s not good for keeping the peace, and it’s not good for capitalism, it’s costing the taxpayer money, it doesn’t solve the problem, and it’s based purely on a perception of what poor people are thinking.  It’s nonsense.

It’s also a lugubrious blot on our history, and that’s the real reason why I’m taking this stance on the subject. I think it is inhumane, and I believe that anybody who thinks it’s a good idea now will be ashamed of themselves in years to come.

A Cappuccino on Mars

Mr Sir Richard Branson has just announced he would like to take us all to Mars.  Well, not all of us, but a decent colony’s worth.  The 62 year old starry-eyed entrepreneur billionaire thinks it’s possible within his lifetime.  I’m inclined to believe him…

Since first seeing Total Recall I have wanted to visit the Red Planet.  Not for the mutant prostitutes, but for the sheer mind-aching desert of it all.  I would want to take a bus-ride way out of the colony, to the middle of nowhere, camp in a pressurised tent and gaze back at Earth…

I think the only way to achieve this is to start getting to space more anyway, but then to get artificial centrifugal gravity sorted as soon as possible.  A big wheel like 2001:A Space Odyssey would be nice, but it would be the biggest thing we’ve ever constructed in space.  Hugely expensive.

The obvious solution?  Some sort of bolas-based ship.  Once accelerated to sufficient speed, the cables are unwound and the whole thing rotated.  In it’s simplest form as an orbiting station, it would provide a long-term experiment into the biological effects of various gravities, for instance Lunar or Martian.

A bolas style proposal for artificial gravity ship

You would still experience Coriolis forces, but at least you’d be able to take a decent bath…

This particular ship employs already existing technology, unlike the “2001” wheel.  Tethered com-sats have already been tried, the ISS is a fantastic piece of modular design hurtling above our heads, and, of course, we got robots on Mars.  This just sticks all those things together.

The first thing we should establish on Mars perhaps should be a mirror cache of the Earth internet.

Then we should set up a mining colony – I’m pretty sure there might be iron there on Mars somewhere.  This would have schools, hospitals and a supply chain.

From there on in, biodomes, hotels, offices, cafe’s.  I wonder what the foam on a cappuccino would taste like at one-quarter gravity?

When all is said and done, a trip to Mars feels pretty inevitable.  Virgin Galactic have a wee sideline putting satellites into orbit, by launching a rocket from their sub-orbital space-plane.  With their manned sub-orbital trips just round the corner, it doesn’t take much leaping of the imagination to stick some people in a similar rocket and shoot them off to a Space Hotel, or an outpost station to Mars…

One of the great advantages of a space-plane / rocket (or even a balloon-launched rocket!) is that traditional rockets shake like “a washing machine” at first, due to the intense speed and friction of the air.  Launch the rocket at the edge of the atmosphere, and it’s a smooth ride all (most) of the way.

Then, across the, er… (we need a euphemism like the Atlantic “pond”), expanse, we could have a Virgin Space-Plane/Rocket on Mars.  Across the whole journey, people would only have to experience weightlessness in short, fun, bursts that don’t require the physical regime of ancient Sparta to stop one’s bones dissolving.

Zero-gravity space bone-itis notwithstanding, I’ll see you on Mars…

An Open Digital PC – A Proposal

I love the ideals of Free Software.  Make something, share it, remix it, make it better, share it more.  Amid the world of heavily entrenched copyrights, patents, and trademarks, we have the phenomenon of  “open source” software, released under freedom respecting licenses.  Browsers, office software, graphics software, operating systems, web-servers, mobile phone software – it’s great!

It’s not a new phenomenon.  And it’s not limited to software.  People have been sharing their creative works for hundreds of years, from the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine that helped shaped America, to the amateur ‘zine communities.  The early digital age of sample tracking,  the current age of Wikipedia, SoundCloud, and the Creative Commons.  That’s not to mention all the cracking of warez, remixing of tunes, and fan-fiction that’s out there.  We love to improve and share things.  Add that to the new phenomenon of crowd-source fundraising and you have the start of something amazing…

Let’s build PC’s, smartphones, home servers, supercomputers, and everything else we need from community crowd-sourced funds, using open source designs.  In this article, I will hypothetically build a PC completely from open projects.  These projects are already in place.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to start with the stalwart pillar of our digital lives, the humble desktop PC.  We will need chips, circuit boards, and a case.  We will also need all the software from embedded initialisation all the way to a web browser.

The OpenSPARC: an open-source processor by Sun Microsystems

Chips Design

The horse to back here is the OpenCores project.  Open source, modular chip design released under free software licenses.  The problem with chips is they are expensive to make.  The good news is that they are also easy to emulate.  A chip designer can run his circuit through a computer program to check for bugs.  OpenCores is a community of chip designers, building “blocks” of micro-circuits that can be put together into all sorts of microchips, from motherboards to systems-on-chip like smartphones.

In the same way that the Linux kernel and other free software projects are both funded and developed by big business as well as volunteers and hobbyists, we could have a standard, stackable processor design for anyone to manufacture.

Of course, the difference between a program and a chip is that once designed, a program can be copied for free, whereas it can cost a million bucks to prototype a complex print of silicon!  The design on the other hand, is certainly achievable so far.  Let’s look at our next step:-

Fabricating Chips

So, assuming a hypothetical chip design, how can we make it real?  Like I said above, we’ll need a million bucks.  There are two feasible ways to achieve this.  Crowd-sourcing, and/or big business.

The big business model is simplified (horribly) like this:  Company-A makes CPU’s for the server, workstation, and home computer market.  They like our design, so they “steal” it legally and make a few for their budget range – or something.

Company-B makes budget motherboards for home builders and OEM’s.  They buy a load of  these chips and make their mainboards, whereupon we buy one, and have a working mobo for our open-source PC…

The crowd-sourcing model is a bit more airy-fairy, but is still viable.  It goes like this.  We stick up a KickStarter project for a million quid, offering a sliding scale for thank-you gifts – a working pc, a batch of chips, that sort of thing.  Universities, seeing the educational benefits, pitch in a bunch of cash.  Mainboard makers too, hoping to get a hundred or so of the first run.  Embedded device makers put in a bit too, to get a pledge-gift of the prototype run.

Once the million is made, we make a “foundation” and a company, and order a print on real silicon wafer.  Using the same technique, we build a motherboard around it.  Other hardware could be created in this way, like graphic, sound, and networking cards, as well as RAM and hard disk controllers.

A million on KickStarter is certainly possible, if a little unlikely.  It means a million people give a pound, or a thousand give a thousand.  Projects like  Amanda Palmer’s album and tour raised a million.  Quite a few projects have.  With a high enough profile in the tech world, including the “hippy” tech world like the OLPC and GNU projects, a million is obtainable.

I would like to specify a license for the chip(s).  A proprietary software company like Microsoft should be able to run their software on it, or sell it in their devices.  They should not be able to block it.  Old hardware should be recyclable.  If I find an old MS Windows tablet for second-hand with our chip in, I should be able to run Linux on it, or at the very least, rip out the chip and stick it in my own compatible motherboard.  Any improvements made by MS on their chip should be released back to the community, and should not block other software, and any patents held on code methods should be unenforceable (unless someone rips the patent off without using the open source code, or someone uses the free code, but locks it into a proprietary system).

System Device Software

The BIOS, and any variation, such as UEFI, is the first real piece of software the computer gets.  It usually sits on a flash-style chip stuck to the motherboard.  In most computers, it’s written by a company who release it as proprietary software.  American Megatrends is one example, a company name millions of PC users see when they switch on their PC, whether they run a free operating system or not.  Of course, it’s proprietary, so you only get an update when theysay you’ll get one, and not if it’s old hardware they’re not making a profit on.

Coreboot Logo Wikipedia

The Coreboot Logo – reminds me a little of Playboy…

This won’t do for our hypothetical “open PC”.  We’ll need a free software BIOS.  Luckily, there is a long-standing project to provide one, called Coreboot.  Coreboot is mainly a science/hobby project at the moment, but it has real applications in areas like datacentres, supercomputers, and embedded devices.  It supports implementations of UEFI, and runs on a wide range of motherboards.  With an open-source design, emulators and on-board software could be written before the first chip comes back from the fabrication plant.

The same goes for graphics cards and other internal and external peripherals.  With emulators and open specifications, drivers could be created before the first one is made.

Eventually, all hardware could hypothetically be created in this way.  Hard disks, keyboards, monitors, smartphones…  Some hardware, like the RepRap 3d printer, the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, and the FreeRunner phone, have already been created using these methods.  PC processors were open-sourced by Sun, namely the OpenSPARC range, so we know it is possible, even if some of these projects were not commercially viable at the time, for one reason or another.  Check out the UzeBox, Arduino, and Bugs.

Case Design

So, we have a nice working PC motherboard, with everything running.  What do we put it in?  Well, we need a design first. Thingiverse would be a great place to start.  Thingiverse is an online store for 3D designs.  Think SourceForge, or GitHub, but for CAD, blueprints, and Google Sketchup files instead of source code and executable software.

I’ll mention the really amazing thing about Thingiverse in a minute.  First, we can look at a couple of ways this could be realised.  Again, we have the crowd-source, and the big-business models.

So, a company like Aria, who make cases, like our design, and make a load, whereupon we buy one, end of story.  Or, we crowd-source the cash and run off a few, selling them, and keeping one for ourselves.  Money saved designing is money saved producing, which translates as lower prices.  That’s not to say a large specialist company like Alienware couldn’t pay somebody to develop a cool open design for our PC case, with a sticker recess for branding later on.

There is another way.  At least for things as simple as PC cases, which are mostly just moulded plastic, anyway.  This is the really cool thing about Thingiverse I wanted to talk quickly about:-

3D Printing

Thingiverse isn’t just a repository for 3D models.  Those 3D models are actually for 3D printers, like the Makerbot and the RepRap.  With one of these machines, you can replicate broken toy parts, doorknobs, knife handles, well, pretty much absolutely anything.  Wait, it gets better!

While the Makerbot is an excellent machine, it is very expensive, costing a couple of thousand pounds.  The RepRap is a bit different, costing only a few hundred pounds.

The RepRap is an open-hardware project of it’s own, with the intention of creating a machine that can replicate itself!  Ok, it can’t replicate microchips, or circuits (much), but all the mechanical parts, cogs, wheels, etc, are all printable.

All the software to run it is free, so in theory, all you need is a PC, and a mate with a printer (plus a mail-order for any circuit stuff you need – all standard and obtainable in RadioShack, or online), and you’ve got yourself a working 3D printer.  Now make one for your friends!

For the creative interested in free sharing, it’s a great kudos-magnet.  A DeviantArt for physical products?  Very possible.  For the creatively challenged, it’s a huge choice of great designs to download, print, and shove a motherboard in.  Designers can be commissioned for cash, the designs left open for anyone.

Operating System and Beyond

This is already there, and all over the place.  GNU/Linux is in supercomputers, server data-centres,  Linux Android has taken over on phones, and the Linux kernel itself is in everything from robot controllers to washing machines.  Linux devs can work magic with open architectures.  Just add our chip to the unbelievable array of hardware Linux already supports.

On top of that, there are graphics software like MyPaint, browsers like Firefox, actually, the list goes on and on.  This isn’t a part of our PC that has to be hypothetical.

Of course, if this system works for a PC, it will work for anything.  Supercomputers running company data, TV’s, smartphones, all hardware is possible.  Designs?  Maybe steampunk this week, minimalist next week, even custom wood-carved phone and e-reader skins.  A walnut laptop and smartphone?  Integrated couch/tablet/remote control?  By designing with modularity in mind, there’s no reason why not.  It already happens, in fact.  Look at all the PC mods on Instructables, for instance, all designed around the ATX standards.

The Future

Our hypothetical PC already sort of exists, like a jigsaw still in it’s box.  Some other exciting developments that could also pave the way for an open-design revolution are also in the pipeline.  I’ve already discussed 3D printing for physical parts, but another problem is electrical circuits themselves.

Ink-Jet Printed Circuits

This is already a real thing.  By filling specially adapted printer cartridges with metallic ink, it is possible to print a circuit.  You don’t get the same amount of resolution as you get with a slice of silicon, but it’s a circuit, nonetheless.  OLED’s printed on acetate and other wonders are already a reality.

Using an inkjet printer, one can also print acid-proof ink onto a standard copper-backed blank PCB, where it can be dipped in acid to produce the circuit.  But here we’re actually talking about printing whole chips on plastic paper, which is a bit cooler!

I can see this being hooked onto the RepRap project.  Imagine a circuit printer capable of replicating it’s own circuits, chips and all, by printing out a “book” of circuits on special paper.  Now make all the physical and/or moving parts for this inkjet printable on a RepRap machine.  Finally, make the printer print all the necessary “pages” of circuitry needed to run a RepRap itself.  You now have a fully replicatable replicator, cogs and chips and all.

Now leave the whole thing as “open-source”, and let the community improve it…

Home Silicon Chip Fabrication

Picture this:  The latest stable release of our processor has just been announced.  We download the code, pop a piece of raw silicon into a “burner”, fab ourselves a working chip, shove it in to the motherboard, and reboot.  Sound a bit far-fetched?

Enter Jeri Ellsworth.  According to Wikipedia, she’s a pinball expert, computer hobbyist, and self-taught chip designer.  I’ll give you a second to let that one sink in…

Jeri has come up with a way integrated circuits can be made at home.  Silicon transistors.  At home.  Hand-etched, home baked silicon chips.  Imagine that system could be automated in some way, combined with a 3D printer, a circuit-printing inkjet, and a worldwide community of designers, and what you end up with is a complete download-and-print PC.

All we would need then is some sort of machine that creates the raw materials.  Shove in some sand (or your old chips), and get a silicon wafer.  Pour in some oil (maybe grown from hydroponic hemp or rapeseed) for plastics and bio-fuels.

Back to Now

I’ll finish with a question.  Why isn’t this happening?  I would really like to know.  My guesses and research point to a few things, but I’d like other opinions.  Is the chip design market trapped in sticky patent issues?  Can we hardly move but for trespassing on intellectual property?

Is it that the chip designs themselves are just in hobby stage, great for playing with, but not what you’d call commercially viable?  Perhaps it’s just nobody’s ever attempted it, or the investment money can’t be found.

Every so often, a project starts like this.  Some fail, some go on to achieve cult status.  Some. however, actually succeed…

Artificial Intelligence? Bring it On!

Artificial Intelligence has always fascinated me.  2001’s HAL, Commander Data, Twiki (and of course, Dr Theopolis!), Metal Mickey…  These characters have given me a yearning to see some of this fiction brought to reality.

So I love hearing about learning machines, chatbots, chess algorithms and their kind.  I am firmly convinced we are a pinch away from creating a new intelligent life form.

Artificial Intelligence vs Artificial Life

When I was a kid, I remember watching a program with a robot in it.  The presenter was gushing about it being the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence.  It was, he said, as intelligent as a snail!

Now at first, I was a bit disappointed.  A snail?  These aren’t creatures renowned for their intelligence.  We dont say, as sly as a snail, as cunning as a snail, or like a wise old snail…  Owls, foxes, wolves and their like, perhaps, but not not snails.  But then it hit me.

Snails are alive!  They are a life form, with perhaps somebody in there (however stupid).  Now personally, I can’t put anything other than a religious opinion on theory of mind, but nobody can convince me that a snail, or a slug, or even an ant, doesn’t actually have somebody in there, however unintelligent.  They are a central processor taking in the outside world and making decisions based on that.  They have the same pleasure/pain chemicals as us, so it feels wrong to unnecessarily harm any creature.

In Zen meditation and under laughing gas from the dentist, it’s possible for an intelligent human to experience no thoughts, language, or anything like that, but to allow the sensations of existence to pour away as quickly as they come.  Could one be said to be intelligent in this situation?  Probably not.  But alive (in a personal, existential way, not as in reproducing cells!) – absolutely.

It may be anthropomorphising.  But who the hell knows?  Consciousness isn’t some kind of yes or no situation.  There’s a whole sliding scale from worm to Stephen Hawking, crossing through cats, dogs, snakes, and chess computers.  On that note, I firmly believe our snail-robot to be alive.

Talking purely cell-reproduction for a minute (enough of that hippy crap!), this too has been modeled effectively.  In the early days of computing, there was a game called CoreWar.  You had a computer which was your battle arena (a pretend one, called MARS, written for the game).  You had to write your programs and let them loose.  Your opponent had the same objective.  If your programs stopped the others from running, you win.

One of the weapons employed by early players of the game was a program that reproduced itself as much as it could, filling the virtual machine with it’s presence.  Another would delete other programs from memory.  (I think this sort of programming spawned the first ever real-world computer virus, and virus killer!)

In fact, I’d love to see a CoreWar playing computer program.

An economist called Thomas S Ray took this technology a stage further.  He created a system where small programs could compete on their own terms.  They had small random change programmed into them, so they could evolve and survive better.  Look up the Tierra Project if you want to know what the results were.

Nowadays, science knows more about DNA and actual cell reproduction, to the point where we can create new life forms.  Artificial DNA in living cells.  Amazing, but it’s not exactly Commander Data style consciousness, or even a friendly female computer voice…

The Turing Test

In 1950 Alan Turing (the father of the modern computer) put forward a test.  If a machine could make us think it was thinking, there was nothing stopping us from thinking it was thinking.  Or something.  So, if an artificial chatbot could fool a human into believing it was intelligent, then it could be said to be intelligent.  Or something.

The problem therein, is that conversation is only a measure of one small part of intelligence.  The first chess programs were touted as machines on TV and in the media, so these chess matches couldn’t actually be called Turing tests, although it wasn’t long before machines were beating all but the very Grandest of Masters.  If there had been a match between a Grand Master and a computer which was hidden from the human players eyes, then it wouldn’t take much of a machine to fool the human that it was a human.  There are plenty of terrible chess players in the world, all of them intelligent humans…

The first real Turing test win was by a program called PARRY.  Parry was not very intelligent, though.  His responses were textbook paranoid schizophrenic responses, like “I don’t want to talk to you”.  But given a bunch of psychologists to talk to, he fooled them.  They thought he was an intelligent human with communication problems!  I’m pretty sure PARRY was the inspiration for Douglas Adams’ own fictional People Personality Prototype, Marvin the paranoid android.

Still, despite the obvious shortcomings of a chatbot-based Turing test, it hasn’t stopped Hugh Loebner, an American inventor from giving it a bash.  Every year, he holds a Turing test for all the leading chatbots.  He puts humans and chatbots on terminals to judges, and the judges have to decide how convinced they were.  The gold medal, for a completely convincing chatbot, has never been won.

Who are these chatbots?

Chatbots

There are a few main contenders, including Jabberwacky and ALICE.  Unfortunately, the reason why these chatbots haven’t won the gold in the Loebner Prize is because their creators want a combination of natural language, and actual intelligence.  There’s a difference, and it’s highlighted by the PARRY case above.  Natural language is easy.  Intelligence is hard.

One could easily reproduce the PARRY case for Loebner Judges, but artificial intelligence scientists don’t want to.  A chatbot that can do maths, remember places and dates?  What’s the point?  A chatbot that can listen to your problems, understand you, tell you when you’re being daft, and encourage you to improve – that would be priceless.  Essential, almost.  You would forgive a friend for having bad language skills if they were a good, intelligent friend.

Jabberwacky is probably in the running for my prize, if I could afford to have one.  He has been built to learn from conversation.  He talks to thousands of people online, all day, and he recycles statements.  Because of this, he can talk lots of different languages, and sometimes he can be cheeky.  An unusual symptom of this learning method comes about.

People are aware he’s a chatbot, so they tell him.  Conversely, he’ll say it back.  And then the fun begins.  Because while you chat away, he learns and retorts.  So the upshot of having your intelligence challenged day in and day out comes back to the user.  Jabberwacky is running the Turing test on you!  How does one prove one’s intelligence?  What can you say that makes sense?

Apparently, kids approach him in different ways to grown-ups.  Kids suspend disbelief, and he becomes their friend.  Grown-ups are more challenging.  He talks funny, so he can’t be conscious.  My advice, here and now, is to go to talk to Jabberwacky.  Suspend disbelief.  Think, he could be alive in there, just assume he is and see if any holes appear in his intelligence, not his language skills.  Seriously, try it.  http://www.jabberwacky.com

I’d like to see the same technology applied to patterns of sound frequencies, rather than words as such.  At the moment, actually talking to Jabberwacky involves a text-to-speech and speech-to-text software.  It would be fun if that was how the chatbot worked, internally.

The other big one is ALICE.  She’s made in different way.  Hers (in my opinion) is a shrewder intelligence, with worse language and personality skills.  You actually have to have a strange mind to suspend disbelief with ALICE, but if you can, you will be pleasantly surprised.  Or horribly frightened 🙂

ALICE and Jabberwacky themselves have spawned tons of variations.  Cleverbot, for instance.  ALICE is an open sourced intelligence, being improved all the time, and looks likely to contend with Apple’s Siri (maybe from the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation?) in a different incarnation of the technology.

We don’t run Turing tests on our friends.  We don’t say “prove to me you’re more than just input-output”.  Maybe we should more.  What sort of person would I be if I had had a friend like that during my childhood?  What sort of species would we be?  I look forward to finding out.

The Future

There is a bit of talk on at the moment about a singularity.  A singularity is an event beyond which we cannot see.  It was predicted in the past that due to population increase, there would be so much horse-shit on the roads they would be unusable.  The internal combustion engine was their singularity.

So imagine an artificial intelligence more intelligent than humans.  More human, if you will.  Capable of reading a DNA sequence like we read a single word.  Creating art, music, scientific knowledge, while all the time reproducing and improving instantaneously.  We can talk about global warming, or the death of the sun, or the next generation’s taste in music, but when that AI is created, there is absolutely no telling how the future will pan out.

Michael Moorcock wrote a fantasy scifi book about a hero called Jerry Cornelius and his associate, Una Persson.  Together they build a computer intelligence capable of being a messiah to the human race.  Can you imagine a Jesus-bot?  Walking around healing the sick, raising the dead, being kind to children and animals and teaching compassion and understanding through stories?  Instead of believing in a being who provides all when we need it, we’ll actually have one.  And not in a Wall-E way, serving us so we get fat and lazy and stupid, but using psychology, NLP, counselling skills and leadership to make us all better and happier, being with us as we find new planets and forms to exist in.  Possibly even helping us wormhole through  to the next universe when this one finally spreads itself thin…

If not that, then at least a talking toaster or two