Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Video Games and the Future of Interactive Entertainment

August 2, 2009 3 comments

From the monochromatic charm of Atari’s iconic Pong, to the rotund gluttony of the pill-popping Pac Man, to the world’s most famous mustache festooned beneath Mario’s pepperoni-sniffing proboscis, all the way to the adrenaline-soaked frag-fests of today’s grizzled Halo warriors—video games have come a very long way in the past thirty years, redefining entertainment for an entire generation.

It is therefore surprising that, almost a full decade into the 21st century, video games as a whole continue to be fairly marginalized in American culture, often perceived as a frivolous distraction at best, a menace to society at worst. In many people’s eyes, video games are still geared primarily to hormonal, pimple-faced teenagers, mostly boys needing an outlet for the aggression and pent-up testosterone. However, the facts seem to tell an entirely different story—while the Clearasil demographic continues to be a major force in the gaming industry, recent surveys have offered some fascinating insights into just how deeply video games permeate our contemporary culture. As it turns out, 65% of American households play video games, on either computers or video game consoles such as the Xbox 360. The average gamer is somewhere between 30 and 35 years old, and has been playing for somewhere around thirteen years. 40% of gamers are female, and an astonishing 26% of gamers are over the age of 50. Finally, the growth of video game sales are rapidly beginning to outpace both music and movie industries, and are expected to more than double the revenues from both industries combined by the year 2012, with nine games currently being purchased every second of every day. Following these trends to their logical conclusions, it seems clear that the future of entertainment much more closely resembles Spore, Bioshock, and Grand Theft Auto than it does Jurassic Park, Wall-E, or The Lord of the Rings.

But what new forms will video games take in the future? We have already witnessed the explosive rise of several dozen video game sub-genres, including classic platformers, first-person shooters, military strategy games, epic role-playing games, massively-multiplayer online games, true-to-life flight simulators, open-world life simulators, and many, many more (for a comprehensive list of most known video game subgenres, be sure to check out the accompanying poster, created by Moses, at the end of this summary.) In many ways the video game industry is fueled by innovation, with a constant pressure to outperform last year’s offerings in new and exciting ways—growing from simple pixels, sprites, and 8-bit soundtracks, to a digital symphony of CGI, 3D art, spatial architecture, music, sound effects, acting, physics, artificial intelligence, and interactivity.

As video game technology becomes ever more complex and sophisticated, so does the art of storytelling itself, with new plot devices, narrative structures, and methods of character development being fervently explored by game producers. And while much debate exists within the humanities as to the legitimacy of video games as a narrative medium, or even as bona fide art form, it’s hard to overlook the striking similarity between these discussions and the way cinema was received in the beginning of the 20th century.

Alongside these newly emerging artistic visions, video games also offer enormous potential as educational tools, with a large body of research demonstrating how proficient interactive learning truly is, for kids, teens, and grown-ups alike. Cognitive development, visuomotor skills, analytical and problem solving skills, and even attention spans have all been shown to be notably enhanced in gamers, causing many to consider gaming as a central pillar in educational reformation. Meanwhile, certain games are prototyping radically new ways of learning how to play music instruments, to varying degrees of efficacy: while Guitar Hero only currently offers a loose approximation of playing an actual guitar, it still implicitly trains the gamer with many fundamental basics of music theory. And playing with the plastic drums that come with Rock Band effectively teaches rhythm, syncopation, left hand/right hand differentiation, and pretty much everything else you need to actually sit behind a drum kit.

Add to these artistic and educational implications such new innovations as biofeedback, binaural beats, and Wii-style kinesthetic monitoring, and we begin to see a new role for video games in our lives—as a transformative tool capable of supporting state training and psychological development. As one avid gamer comments, imagine gazing at your opponent through the scope of your sniper rifle, and the only way to stabilize your shot is to actually slow down your real-life heart rate. Or perhaps an online fantasy role-playing games with different “realms” that represent different developmental worldviews, with different value systems actually coded into the gameplay, covertly teaching the player how to interact in a multi-perspectival world.

In this way, games can act as “trojan horses” to deliver sophisticated perspectives, messages, and meanings to the player, without ever knowing he or she is actually learning something worthwhile. As such, video games are rapidly closing the gap between education, recreation, and human development, representing an unparalleled new medium of “enlighten-edu-tainment,” with extraordinary implications for the near and not-so-near future.

Originally published on Integral Life – Video Games and the Future of Interactive Entertainment (w/ Moses Silbiger and Ken Wilber)

The Singularity: Rupture or Rapture?

July 31, 2009 9 comments

There is an old proverb often used as an analogy for technological growth, about an ancient emperor of China and the inventor of chess.  According to the story, once the emperor became aware of the game of chess, he sent a message throughout the kingdom seeking to reward its inventor, offering anything within his power to give for such an exceptional game.  Upon meeting the emperor, the inventor, a poor peasant farmer, thanked the emperor for his generosity, and proceeded to place a single grain of rice in the first square of a chessboard.  He then placed two grains in the second square, four in the third, eight in the fourth, etc., doubling the number of grains for each of the chessboard’s 64 squares.

At first the emperor was fairly amused by the farmer’s request—after all, these were mere grains of rice we were talking about, how much could he possibly lose?  So he allowed the farmer to continue.  It wasn’t until they got about halfway through the chessboard that the emperor began to notice that something didn’t quite smell right in Shanghai.  After 32 squares—32 successive doublings of a single grain of rice—the farmer was up to about four billion grains of rice, the equivalent of a few acres of rice fields.  If they were to continue all the way to the end of the board, the farmer would be owed about 18 quintillion grains of rice, which would require a rice field twice the size of the surface of the planet to produce, oceans included.

From a single grain of rice to a quantity that more than quadruples the total biomass of the Earth, in just 64 steps—this is the nature of exponential growth.  Because we are largely linear thinkers living in an exponential world, this sort of growth can be very difficult to comprehend—or to even perceive—at least until we are plunged headlong into the second half of the chessboard.  Visually graphing this sort of exponential curve [y=2^(x-1), for the mathematically inclined] gives us some insight as to why this acceleration can be so easy to take for granted—for the first half of the curve, progress seems to move almost parallel to the horizontal x-axis, and the frequency of change can seem fairly negligible: from a few grains, to a few bushels, to a few acres, not amounting to much at all.  But once we begin moving into the “elbow” of the curve—about 32 squares, in the case of our increasingly anxious emperor—we begin to see progress truly taking off, eventually becoming more closely parallel with the vertical y-axis.

So what does this anachronistically agrarian metaphor of grains of rice, Chinese emperors, and peasant farmers have to do with today’s digital scurry?

According to Moore’s Law, computational power is doubling every 18 months.  Which means that the year 2000 marked 32 consecutive doublings since the invention of the transistor, while 2006 marked 32 doublings since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958.  We are now living on the second half of the chessboard—and from here on out, things get really crazy.  Turing-approved artificial intelligence, cyborg brain/computer interfaces, nanotechnology, even the possibility of uploading consciousness to digital substrate—all of this “post-human” technology is now becoming increasingly feasible, and there is a very good chance we could see this (and more) achieved within most of our lifetimes.

This rate of acceleration currently shows no signs of slowing anytime soon—if anything, the rate of acceleration itself seems to be accelerating.  (Some critics of Moore’s Law believe that there must be a hard limit at the upper-end of this growth, as defined by the number of transistors you can physically fit upon a single slice of silicon, but others argue that our current technology will eventually be subsumed by a new computational paradigm, such as quantum computing, which will break through this “silicon ceiling.”)  Within the next 30 years we will be able to manufacture $1000 computers that are capable of as many calculations per second as the human brain.  Following this trend as far as we can, we are taken to the limits of imagination itself.  The sheer magnitude of our imminent technological progress is almost impossible to grasp, the implications and possibilities are too far beyond our experience to make any meaningful sense of, at least from our current coordinates in history.

This is what is meant by the “technological Singularity”—like a black hole in time, it represents a point in our not-too-distant future beyond which we simply cannot imagine.  There is no going back, and there is no slowing down—there is only tomorrow’s unfolding, a future pressing into the present through this thin veil of time, a world well beyond the visions of the world’s most inspired mystics, prophets, and science fiction writers.  But while some may rhapsodize about the approaching technological Singularity as some sort of mythic rapture, a kind of digital utopia in which the struggles that have long been at the core of the human condition find instantaneous resolve, there are many others who aren’t so quick to think that we will all “go up in light” with the simple flip of a switch.  And while we could make the argument that technology is the single most influential arbiter of human development, technology does not actually determine human development.  The internet, for example, while representing the legacy of some of the most cognitively advanced minds the world has ever seen, can be used by anybody—in fact, it has become a megaphone for everybody, including Nazis, religious fundamentalists, left-wing alarmists, and Ron Paul supporters.  The same can be said for splitting the atom—anyone smart enough to actually build a nuclear bomb would be the least willing to detonate it, assuming their values are on somewhat equal footing with their cognitive intelligence.  At every moment our world bears witness to the cruelties that occur when the inventions from higher altitudes are used by people at lower altitudes, whether that invention is a computer, an AK-47, or a democracy.

If anything, the Singularity promises to bring as much rupture as it does rapture.  As technological evolution continues to accelerate, our identities, ideals, and values struggle to keep pace, increasing the gap between the hardware of technology and the software of consciousness and culture.  Make no mistake: if it is to truly become the denouement of human evolution, a jumping-off point for an entirely new conception of human existence, the technological Singularity must be accompanied by a cultural Singularity and a conscious Singularity—a Singularity of “I”, a Singularity of “we”, and a Singularity of “it”.  Otherwise it will not be a Singularity at all, but a world-devouring monster at the end of history, threatening to send evolution in this tiny corner of the galaxy back thousands, if not millions of years.

Fortunately, we do see an analog to the technological Singularity occurring within consciousness and culture.  Just as Moore’s Law predicts that each successive technological innovation will take less and less time to emerge, we can actually see the same happening with cultural worldviews.  For example, we can estimate a couple hundred thousand years of tribal cultures, ten thousand years of warlord cultures, a few thousand years of mythic traditional cultures, five hundred years of rational industrial cultures, and just over 50 years of pluralistic informational cultures, each new stage taking only a fraction of the time to emerge as the previous stage.  We are now seeing a new stage of culture and consciousness beginning to emerge—a markedly Integral stage, capable of viewing the world through a meta-paradigmatic and multi-perspectival lens, holding all the world’s knowledge, wisdom, and insight as a single living jewel.  And as more and more Integral individuals come together, a powerful cultural force begins to sweep across the planet—one that is inherently more whole, more balanced, and more capable than anything the world has ever seen.

And to the extent that you are even vaguely interested in conversations like these, you are actually enacting and participating with the Singularity, at least in its conscious dimension. Today’s Integral pioneers are the living ancestors of tomorrow’s post-humans, standing in the convergence of all that is Beautiful, Good, and True.  You are the Singularity, every breath rippling out to the edge of our shared future, echoing back as tomorrow’s possibilities.

Originally published on Integral Life – The Singularity: Rupture or Rapture? (w/ Moses Silbiger and Ken Wilber)