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Jef Lay (JeFurry)
Long haired ex-goth geek. Loves computers, cats, consoles, electric cars, SF&F escapism, and @StephanieLay. Lotus Domino dev & Apple support at @OpenUniversity.
Long haired ex-goth geek. Loves computers, cats, consoles, electric cars, SF&F escapism, and @StephanieLay. Lotus Domino dev & Apple support at @OpenUniversity.

Jef's posts

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I am so easily manipulated...

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I've been trying for ages - years - to think of any reason why we need DRM.

I hate DRM as much as the next person - it pisses me off no end that I have to type three account names and three passwords into every damn device I own to get my legitimately purchased Ultraviolet copy of "Interstellar" to play on my own devices, whereas I could just pirate the thing, have it work on every device, and I wouldn't have to put up with the annoying FBI warnings they've forced me to watch all over the "legitimate" copy.  (Doubly annoying, as I'm not a US citizen, so the FBI are nothing to do with me - they're just a legalised foreign fear-mongering group  threatening me just in case I have impure thoughts. (I was going to say 'terror group' but that has other inappropriate connotations.) )

But I felt there was a potential reason that DRM could be important, which was just eluding me. Recently, while reading a post-Singularity sci-fi novel, it hit me. It's quite simple in concept, but bear with me, as the background will take a while to explain.

We're fairly close to being able to digitally model an entire human brain running in real time. We can already simulate small numbers of cells easily, and reproduce what appear to be reactions to stimuli. Within the next 10-30 years, we're likely to have a working simulation of a whole human brain. Shortly before or after that, we'll also have fMRI scanners, or something similar, which can register neural connections at individual cellular resolution, and then we'll be able to record a real brain's state, and reproduce it in the simulator. Unless the seat of consciousness is some aspect other than those covered by this model, we will at that time have the capability to copy a human into a machine. It won't be the most efficient way of doing it - the human mind will be running on emulated and virtualised hardware (wetware?) rather than natively, meaning the processing capability will be reduced by several orders of magnitude from what the computer hardware could do if the Human 1.0 app ran natively. But it's the beginning of a development process, not the end. It could lead to something incredible - the ascendance of humankind.

But not at first. Not for the early experimental minds. That first brain will not have sensory inputs - it'll be in a state something like sensory deprivation, with no recognisable inputs whatsoever. It's not like fiction, where cyberspace looks like the world of Tron, or the geometric shapes of Neuromancer... you won't see it like that, because you won't have eyes. You can't just link random data into the senses, as they won't be comprehensible. There might be pulses of something, but you won't know what it is. There will be no recognisable sensory inputs at all... or outputs. Even if the supervisors of the experiment decide to emulate familiar sensory inputs to keep the mind sane, it'll be very limited - think of all the senses your unconscious mind processes every single second of your existence, and then imagine that your visual input was reduced to a few kilopixels of monocular video, your aural input was a single electronic ear, and that's your lot - you'd have no body to feed you balance, temperature, proprioception or kinaesthetic awareness, no taste or smell, no heartbeat, possibly limited or no ability to move your point of view or interact in any way. No voice - you might be able to make sounds, but unless the emulation simulates a complete respiratory system, throat, larynx, jaw and mouth, you wouldn't be able to operate it the way you're used to, and you'd have to learn to make simple noises again from scratch. You'd be deaf, dumb, blind and paralysed. If you're lucky, you might be able to send simple signals, in the same way that recent research has enabled victims of locked-in syndrome to begin to re-estalibsh communication. But that's the most you can expect at first. You'd be more alone and more vulnerable than anyone has ever been. You'd be utterly dependant on the supervising biological humans for everything, and there's a high risk they'd view you as little more than a computer program. Do you ever think about whether your smiling Mac OS icon wants to shut down at bedtime or not? Me neither.

And here's the worst part: It's a copy. There's no continuity of consciousness between the original and the simulation. Where you can make one digital copy, you can make another. And if you can make multiple copies of program data, the uniqueness and value of that program is decreased. It becomes commoditised.

For a real-world comparison, just look at the case of Henrietta Lacks (, whose mutated and immortal cells were extracted from her body without permission, and now form the basis for the majority of human cell research. In a very real sense, Henrietta Lacks is still being kept alive, against her wishes, and in pieces, over sixty years after her natural death. This isn't a dystopian nightmare, it's reality, today.

Now, think about what's been done to Ms. Lacks, and think what'll be done to the first human brain to be emulated in cyberspace.  Humans subjected to sensory deprivation start to hallucinate in just a few minutes, and go mad in a few hours to a few days. This virtualised human mind would likely crack up... but what's the problem? Just go back to the saved state from before it cracked, and carry on. Heck, be more efficient, and run a dozen simulations at once... if they fail, we can just reinitialise them from before they failed. They can experience a thousand lifetimes of this existence simultaneously. What a powerful diagnostic tool - we could expose that brain to every stimulus, positive or negative, that has ever been known. Every disease, every stress and strain, every malfunction, every pain, and we can learn how they react, and develop treatments for real people. And we can then just reset it to the state it started in, guaranteeing a reproducible result without any factors outside our control. Heck, we could even leave them going after they break down, and see if they ever recover and stop trying to scream. It's not like they can stop living.

They may not remember it - the simulations that go mad would probably end up deleted or archived, and experiments can carry on with fresh copies which would - initially, at least - be in exactly the same state of mind as the first one. Further down the line, we can improve the experience - add some recorded sensory inputs to ease the translation of the mind into cyberspace, help it adapt. Maybe eventually we can isolate what they learn as they adapt, and apply that learning differential instantly to future uploads, finally making the procedure bearable, and giving the rich the immortality that they can afford to pay for. At that point, perhaps we'll reward some of the earlier copies by improving their wake-up experience and setting them free. After all, that would make all the suffering their copies endured justifiable, right? They'd be heroes.

It boils down to this: whether they remember it or not, the first humans who "survive" this uploading-and-emulation process are going to suffer more than any human has in the entirety of human existence, recorded or unrecorded. 

And that's why we need strong, uncrackable DRM. Not to prevent copies of media that most of us are willing to pay a reasonable fee for anyway. Not to prevent you from playing your iTunes tracks in your car as well as through your exercise machine. Not to stop you showing a friend the joy you experienced in reading an exciting book, or continuing to watch your films while on the train. But to protect and preserve our virtual offspring against a fate literally worse than death or anything else we could imagine.

To save our digital souls.

(c) Jeffery Lay, April 17th 2015.

PS Several stories have inspired this train of thought, but none more than Greta's and Joe's stories in the "White Christmas" episode of Charlie Brooker's "Black Mirror" series. Well worth a look, as is the rest of the series, though note you don't need to watch the episodes in any particular order.

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One for +Chris Westcott : 

Darn kids don't know they're born.  Get orf moi laaand!

How does Hugh react to the 8-bit machines in your collection?

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+Scott Dorward You're probably already aware of this, but just in case… 

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The perfect illustration for many arguments based on incomplete understanding…

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+Scott Dorward , have you been attracting fish wrongly again? 

When I was a kid, in the 70s and 80s, there were all sorts of fantasy-type science-fiction-light shows around, mainly composed around people who had some kind of technological advantage over their enemies. They were usually cops, because cops and robbers are a staple of the television diet - it's an easy way to set up a good guy against some baddies. In the 70s, there were the superheroes - the Invisible Man (with the inestimable David McCallum, Wonder Woman (with the equally impressive Lynda Carter, though rather poorer dress sense), Gemini Man, Man from Atlantis... I'm sure you have your favourites too.

Then, in the 80s, things came down to earth a bit, and matured ever so slightly, in that rather than expecting the perfect superhero spy, we came a little closer to the everyman, and imagined we could use the future to improve ourselves. There was Knight Rider, with the "man who does not exist" using his supercar with its onboard Übersatnav KITT, and its indestructible shell, turbo boost, Super Pursuit Mode (boy, how exciting I found that in my teens!) and occasionally even an honest-to-goodness laser gun. There was the obviously-similar Street Hawk, trying to cram a bike and a remote-controlled geek over the radio into the space where the more successful series had what we would one day come to call an AI. There were Blue Thunder and Airwolf, so near identical that only the superior theme tune pushed the latter ahead of its slightly earlier sibling.

But somewhere along the way, they became passé, and died out. The world was a bit grimmer without them. Sure, they were camp and cheesy, but they were honest-to-goodness fun, and kids everywhere had a little less excitement to dream about. Sure, they can make their own dreams - and they should; we ALL should! - but dreams come in part from stimulus, and without the fantastic illuminating directions in which we could dream, it became that bit harder to look for hope and improvements in the near future. With the collapse of the space race, Western society at large gave up looking forward quite so much. There were still slim pickings out there for the steadfast dreamers - Star Trek and Babylon 5, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica... but they're all distant worlds, perhaps parallel to our own, but not recognisable as parts of it.

I don't think Western society has all the answers. In fact, there are plenty of places we've got it wrong. We have this sense of entitlement - the Universe owes us something. Newsflash: It has already given us the biggest thing it ever will: Consciousness. We're not owed more... in fact we have yet to begin to pay back that debt. We're barely keeping up with the interest payments. A similar thing is true of the Japanese, for whom I have a great respect: their culture of respect and consideration is in many ways more advanced and enlightened than ours, but it's even harder to think outside the box there. Many Middle Eastern cultures have been centres of great learning, but the uncertainty and disturbance in many areas there is holding them back from being trusted, and the Western paranoia (which is only partly justifiable) is putting up barriers, not taking them down.

We can take barriers down. The falling of the Iron Curtain was one of the most monumentous events in my lifetime. The faces of people as they looked through the holes the The Wall and saw the most amazing thing: Another person looking back at them, speaking the same language, shedding the same tears. At the moment, it's very hard to trust. It feels like everything's getting worse. The government is composed of far too many corrupt people filling their own pockets, the police aren't the crime-busting idealised heroes we want them to be: quelle horreur, they're JUST LIKE US! The other countries are mostly in financial or environmental crisis just like us, and the ever-present fear of terrorist attacks keeps us scared to talk to strangers, foreigners and anyone from different social circles, even though on some level many of us know that when people with different views get together they can make things better... not easily, but it's the way forward. I'm horrified that our country is so preoccupied with pulling out of the European Union. Sure, it's inefficient and clunky and full of silly laws and rules that don't respect local priorities... so let's make it better. Let's nurture it into what we want it to be, not dismantle one of the few progressive things Europe has managed to do on the large scale since we were born. In short, let's start to hope again.

We know some things are bad. We know that we're being snooped on to a horrifying degree, that we're putting our safety and security behind poor passwords and compromised security systems, and that criminals who don't play by the rules have the advantage, and the rich have all the power and all the influence and they don't give a damn about anyone except their own. But although the details have changed, it's really nothing new. Throughout the past, the same or similar problems have existed. The colours of the thread have changed, but the weave of the tapestry is very familiar. We have been told all our lives that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and yet here we all are, doing exactly that, because it's much harder to recognise the pattern you're in the middle of than a well-documented one from a bygone age.

But you know what? Despite my own personal struggles with depression, ennui, and the pointlessness of it all, I have a sneaking suspicion there's a small change in the air. It's a stretch to extrapolate all this from film and TV, but that's where I started out, so that's where I'll finish. Marvel and DC, the behemoths of the comic book worlds, have brought their heroes to the big and small screens, and they're among the most popular films in the world (and some of them are even actually quite decent films!). The Arrow is on TV. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham... The Flash is on his way, rapidly of course. The Tomorrow People are taking another jaunt around the block, another echo of the 70s. In the last few months, we've had "Intelligence" - a series about a spy with a chip in his head that lets him wirelessly access networked computer resources all around him. We've had Continuum - ostensibly about a cop from the future, but again she has a bunch of cybertech implants. We have Believe, a show about a little girl with powers that, while they may have a pseudo-sciencey explanation, might as well be called 'magic'. And tonight I watched the first episode of "Almost Human", a show about a near-future cop partnered with an android (not the phone OS with the spotty security record, a humaniform robot).

Maybe it's because I just watched another awe-inspiring Cosmos (another 80s revisit) with Neil deGrasse Tyson echoing the positive sentiments of Carl Sagan, one of the most influential and imaginative individuals whose lifetime overlapped my own. It could be the return of yet another 70s and 80s icon, Star Wars, though the previous millennial attempt left me cold. Maybe it's because the Conservative Party reign is nearly over! Or perhaps it's because I'm looking forward to later this year when I feel the new Doctor Who will really come of age again at last (not that I haven't enjoyed Eccleston, Tennant and Smith, but I'm over 40, and I really enjoyed seeing John Hurt's seniority, so I'm looking forward to Peter Capaldi reaching out to both the younger and older generations). 

But whatever it is, I'm hopeful that we're once again starting to look forward. Starting to imagine.

The heroes are back. The geek is inheriting the Earth. It's time to dream again.
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