Are we in base reality?

Every year, late July, I meet with my geek friends at euskal.org, a computer enthusiasts party where we share our love for computers, undersleep and follow a strict diet of pizza and energy drinks.

Last year I was able to play with an HTC Vive Virtual Reality headset, and I’ve been wanting to get one ever since. The VR experience was amazingly immersive.

I played “starwars, trials on Tatoonie” and by putting my headset on I was no longer in Spain, I was in the desert of Tatoonie, I could look around me and see everything as I would expect to see in normal reality. By putting the headphones on, the immersion was complete. Not only could I see things, but I also could hear R2D2 and Han Solo speaking to me, the Millennium Falcon engines roar and the hum of my lightsaber.

Elon Musk thinks there is a “one in Billions” chance our reality is not a simulation. At the rate of advance of technology, simulations and videogames are becoming every time more realistic, from pong being two lines and a dot 40 years ago to the photorealistic games we have today.  We are clearly in a trajectory to build games that are indistinguishable from reality. Maybe it could take us 10.000 years to get there, but on a cosmic timescale this is not much time. If we accept we will at some point be able to create a simulated reality, with individuals existing within its confines, then, since mathematics will be the same, at some point the inhabitants of this sub-reality will themselves be able to create a sub-sub-reality, and so on indefinitely. Once you accept this argument has no flaw, the next logical question is: are we in a simulation? are we in base reality?

A hypervisor is a piece of software that sits between the hardware and the operating system of a computer, providing it a simulated hardware. The operating system does not know it is running within the confines of a virtual machine.

In 2006, Joanna Rutkowska presented at the Black Hat Briefings an attack named “blue pill rootkit” against the Windows Vista kernel protection mechanism. This attack moved Windows to a virtual machine, so the operating system seemed to run normally, but in reality the machine was owned by the hacker, who could run other software on the hardware outside of the virtual machine.

Rutkowska also developed “red pill”, which would allow an operating system to know whether it was running within the confines of a simulation or on real hardware.

If one of the simulated realities was able to detect whether or not it was living within a simulation, similar to “red pill”, it could communicate with the outer environment, even hack into it running arbitrary code. God could be hacked.

redpill

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Surviving Artificial Intelligence

“The ever accelerating progress of technology … gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” – John Von Neumann

 

In 1997, Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess by calculating using brute force the possible next moves and choosing the best one. No human will ever be able to beat A.I. at chess.

In March 2016, Google’s AlphaGo software beat Lee Sedol at Go, using a new method called “deep learning”.  This new technique enabled a computer to learn on its own, playing against itself to improve its game.

One of the few games humans are still undefeated by machines at is crosswords, because machines still find it difficult to infer that a three letter whiskered animal that hunts mice and loves milk is a cat. However even here AI promises to beat us in the near future. Currently Google Translate’s AI is capable, after being taught to translate from English to Japanese, and from English to Korean, to translate directly from Japanese to Korean, without using English. This means the AI has created its own language!

Moore’s Law observes that computing capacity doubles every year. Seeing where we are today and projecting this accelerating rate of advance into the future, it is probable that at some point we will be able to create an AI which is as smart as a squirrel. Some time after that as smart as a chimpanzee. At some point AI will reach human intelligence, but there is no constraint stopping it there. Once AI is capable of enhancing itself past the level of human intelligence, very fast we humans will be closer to the intelligence of a squirrel than to the AI.

The implications of this computer superintelligence are equally fascinating and concerning:

  1. How can we ensure this AI has human values? In order to fulfil any task the AI may set out to solve, human interests may be in the way. When asked about the implications of Artificial Intelligence, Stephen Hawking said: “You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants”.
  2. If AI is capable of running the world, performing every single job. What will humans do? How will income generation and inequality look like in a world with no jobs? Bill Gates proposes that companies which use robots pay taxes for them. Elon Musk points towards a basic income which governments would have to pay citizens .
  3. If this AI goes astray, can we turn it off? Probably we will have become so dependant on it that turning it off would not be simple. Where is today the off switch to the internet?
  4. How will humans interact with this AI? Will a human marry an AI? Will we have AI CEOs or presidents? Will this AI colonize and terraform other planets for us?

 

The same way the atom has always been there waiting for humans to discover it, it’s more a matter of when than a matter of whether humankind will be faced with this problem. If we get this right and we manage to survive it, future generations will probably look back and agree this was the single most important thing humans have achieved.

aistartrek

Ethereum, the planetary computer

In the Blockchain world, currently there are thousands of players, each competing to reap the success that Bitcoin has achieved.

Among these players, my favourite by far is Ethereum.

 

Ethereum uses the Blockchain as an infrastructure on top of which it creates smart contracts: Software programs which run on a computer which can’t be turned off, which can’t be censored, which can’t be interfered with, and which can’t be tampered with. This planetary computer enables anyone to write programs which will be able to send or receive money in the form of the Ethereum cryptocurrency.

Historically, applications are centralised, each application can only run on one computer. If this computer becomes compromised or turned off by an attacker, many users and other programs are affected. Ethereum, similar to Bitcoin, uses miners and has a cryptocurrency. What ethereum does differently is that the miners, the nodes in the peer-to-peer network not only build blocks listing transactions, can also run programs received and modify the state of the Ethereum computer.

Ethereum allows anyone to:

  1. Send or receive payments in their ETH cryptocurrency. Currently 1 ETH is worth 68.75 EUR
  2. Easily create their own cryptocurrency (I created Jamoncoin last July. Currently 1 JMC is worth 0 EUR )
  3. Create a distributed autonomous organisation (DAO). A DAO can store cryptocurrency and permit transfers in and out of the DAO through a voting governance.
  4. Use the public Ethereum blockchain, or easily install a private blockchain. (JPMorgan and Santander have left R3 and joined the “Enterprise Ethereum”)
  5. Build any distributed application you may dream of, here are 5 examples of cool things happening with Ethereum:
    1. Slock.it allows a physical lock to be unlocked via payment to a smart contract.
    2. The United Nations have launched a test to distribute aid in Jordan
    3. Augur or gnosis allow crowdsourcing prediction markets
    4. Arcade city: Uber meets Tinder to revolutionise ride sharing
    5. DGX allows you to own gold without the hassle of having to store it

Ethereum is open source, so if you have an idle weekend ahead of you, visit their webpage, and start learning Solidity, the Ethereum programming language 🙂

ethereum

Five ideas to understand bitcoin

Today at lunch I had an interesting conversation with my father-in-law who was curious about Bitcoin. Lately I’ve received curious questions about this from peers, friends and family, so I think it could be a good idea to put my thoughts in writing. If you would like to get a more detailed view, I recommend visiting bitcoin.com or reading “Mastering Bitcoin” by Andreas M. Antonopoulos.

Bitcoin is an algorithm described in 2008 in still anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto’s whitepaper “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”. This algorithm is developed and maintained by the open source community and run by the miners, who get bitcoin as compensation mining bitcoin blocks.

Who creates these bitcoins? can’t this bitcoin creating entity create more and more?

This is a great question, to understand it, first you need to understand five ideas:

  1. What is a hash?

A hash is a function that for an input of any size returns an output of fixed size (256 bits) with 3 very interesting characteristics: 1) this function is calculated very fast 2) a minuscule change in the input (a comma in the bible) produces a radically different output, so there is no danger in mistaking one hash for another. 3) the probability of having two different inputs that produce the same output is similar to finding an atom in the observable universe.

  1. What is a blockchain?

A block is a data structure which holds information of the last transactions that have happened. Within this data structure, one field holds the hash of the previous block. This hash links each block to the previous one forming a linked list, or chain.

If a malicious user wants to modify a transaction which happened in the past, let’s say 30 blocks ago, to record that he received 100 instead of 1, he would need to modify the 30th block on which his transaction happened, calculate the new hash of the modified 30th block, modify the link field of the 29th block with the modified hash of the 30th block, calculate a new hash for the modified 29th block and modify the link field of the 28th block to add this new hash, and so on until the most recent block.

  1. How are bitcoins generated?

A miner can be any normal person running the bitcoin software in their computer. In the bitcoin network, there are thousands of transactions happening every second, these transactions are communicated to all the miners who compete to be the one to calculate the next block the first. A new block is created by the fastest miner every 10 minutes. In order to be the fastest, the miner has to solve a simple problem which can only be solved by trial and error: create the new block with the pending transactions, fill the salt field with a value of your choosing, so that the first 10 characters of this block’s hash are 0. The algorithm self-regulates the difficulty (number of characters which must be 0) so that a new block is calculated every 10 minutes.

The miner which produces the block the first is allowed to add to the block an additional transaction giving him 5 bitcoins. This answers the original question, “who creates these bitcoins?” the miners. “can’t this bitcoin creating entity create more and more?” No, only the miners can create more by competing for the next block and obtaining the reward.

  1. How can I get bitcoins?

You can either obtain bitcoin from someone who you know has them, in exchange for goods or services, or you can go to a market such as poloniex.com or kraken.com, create an account, transfer some EUR to your account from your bank and send an order in the market to buy bitcoin. Cryptocurrency market orders function the same way as you may be use to buying and selling securities at your bank’s online webpage.

  1. How can I use bitcoins?

Once you have bitcoin, you can store them at your market’s account or you can transfer them to your bitcoin wallet (a software which you install on your computer), you can send bitcoin to any other bitcoin wallet anywhere in the world.

Bitcoin allows cross border, immediate payment without needing to rely in any intermediary institution such as a bank, or an online payment company (paypal).

If you are interested in digging deeper into bitcoin, I recommend you watch this video by Andreas M. Antonopoulos.

aantonop

What would happen if the ECB issued a crypto-Euro?

A hobby of mine is to develop visions of future scenarios. For it you just need to give as certain one event and think about how this event would reverberate in the rest of reality.

For example, what would happen if teleportation was made available? We could imagine that this would immediately be a game changer for the housing sector. Everyone would prefer to live by the coast or in the country, and every morning teleport to work. It would as well change radically the shape of cities, as cars would no longer be needed. CO2 emissions would be reduced, ending global warming. Car manufacturers, taxi drivers, truck drivers would suddenly be jobless as their services would be substituted by teleportation services, both of passengers and things. Country borders would also disappear, as it would no longer be possible to guard them… You get the idea.

Whereas teleportation is not likely in the near future, here’s a more interesting vision to discuss: what would happen if the ECB issued a crypto-Euro? (currently BoE, ECB and FED, among others, are researching the potential)

cryptoeuro

I imagine this would take the shape of a permissioned blockchain where the nodes would be run by the central banks of the euro-area countries. Each Central bank would run one node, and be the issuer of wallets for the citizens of their respective countries. This wallet would probably be embedded into the chip of each citizen’s id card. The ID card would change to hold NFC (near field communication) similar to today’s visa cards that you can pay with just by holding the card close to the point of payment. Through a mixture of fingerprint readers in our iphones (something you are), an NFC ID card (something you have), and a password (something you know), the person could be identified and authorized to operate. This should take care of KYC/AML regulation issues.

Once we can imagine a user is authorized to send a payment through the ECB-run blockchain to another user we have a system where bank accounts would no longer be needed and would be substituted by these wallets. Debit cards would not be needed. As for Credit Cards such as Visa, the credit service would still be useful, and Visa would probably have to start providing their service through this blockchain.

ECB could guarantee a 1 to 1 parity between euro and cryptoeuro. With this, the current extreme volatility that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are facing would disappear. Without fx risk, european citizens would not have issues changing their fiat vs crypto and spending it freely. (Today I’m afraid of spending my bitcoins because in a week they could have increased their value in 30%)

Salaries would be paid in cryptoeuros, groceries would be bought in this cryptocurrency, and slowly but surely, cash in paper or metal would eventually disappear. Having a cashless society would mean more efficient (automatic) tax collection, and less tax evasion, which would allow governments to lower taxes to their citizens.

Once payments on this blockchain are ubiquituous, the next logical step is to accept that people ( and corporations, and robots, and cars… on the internet nobody knows you are a refrigerator) will give and receive loans on this blockchain. These loans could take the form of a standardized smart contract by which the receiver of the loan would be permissioned to take the funds and the issuer of the loan would deposit the lent funds into the smart contract. Upon interest payment date, the smart contract would send funds from the smart contract to the issuer. It would be the responsibility of the receiver of the loan to ensure sufficient funds are deposited into the smart loan to pay for the interest. In case of default the smart contract could automatically warn the authorities to update the rating of the defaulting party, and trigger if appropriate guarantees from insurers to cover the payment.

Bonds would follow the exact same mechanism, adding the possibility to the lender to unwind his position by selling the bond on a blockchain operated secondary market.

Settlement of all exchanges would be minutes instead of days. No Backoffice tasks would be needed since everything would be automatically settled. Regulatory reporting would become trivial and automatic since all the information would be held in the blockchain.

Security of this system must of course be watertight. A security error could lead to the funds of any individual or corporation being stolen. On a nightmare scenario, an organized cyber-criminal organization could attack every node of the blockchain and delete all possessions, debts and ratings leaving Europe bankrupt, with a clean slate and total chaos.

Of course these scenarios are just science fiction, but the funny thing about science is that any scientific breakthrough was at some point only science fiction before it became science and then reality. Who knows what the future will bring..

Six lessons I learnt from Tetris

I enjoy analogies, establishing parallelisms between unrelated topics but which hold surprising similarities and help gain insight. Here are six lessons that can be extracted from the game of Tetris and applied to our lives at work:

    1. The game doesn’t get harder, it gets faster: Ever since I started working I’ve been doing the same thing: managing other people’s problems. It’s always more or less the same thing, but the speed increases. You have less time to dedicate to each problem. In my first entry-level job as a Middleware specialist I had all the time in the world to learn every detail about the small problem at hand and solve it by applying my detailed knowledge. As I have grown professionally I can dedicate less time to each problem. Decisions need to be constantly taken on what to do next and what to leave for later. Finding the efficient balance between perfection and speed, when something is “good enough” to deliver as to start advancing the next topic.
    2. There is no rival, your limitation is your skill: Just like in Tetris, where you are playing the game against the machine, trying not to be drowned in ill-dropped blocks. In your work, there is no enemy or antagonist that you have to beat. It is your skill which is limiting how well you can do. In 2001, just before the blogging boom happened, 3 friends and I created the first Spanish weblogging community. In our peak we were receiving over 3 million unique visitors per month, not bad for 4 guys in their free time. It was our lack of skill which impeded us from seriously monetising this opportunity before the wave passed on to the next thing (Facebook in this case). At the office, the same concept applies. Your skill will make or break your career.
    3. Don’t think, act: This idea which I strongly believe in often leads to heated debate. Some people are doers and some are thinkers. Doers are the heroes of the business, it’s execution that made Apple Apple, Google Google and Zara Zara, having ideas and not being able to implement them is useless. Mike Tyson, world heavyweight boxing champion and cameo star of Hangover movie has a quote which holds much wisdom “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Unlike chess, you can’t control the board. Random pieces will come and you will need to react to them. Your plan will not resist the “punch in the mouth” of reality. Don’t spend too much time planning.
    4. You never win. No one will tell you you have won: We are running in the rat race, there is no final success. Even Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who could be said to have won the game are still playing. There is always more to do, other people who are doing something better than you.
    5. It helps carrying a big stick: The big stick in Tetris is a life saver, enabling to clear many lines at once. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. At work your stick is your skill, your capacity to solve problems. This big stick will help stop discussion, provide solutions and be a source of light.
    6. Errors pile up, accomplishments disappear: Remember how much effort you put in closing that important contract six months ago? Maybe you do, but nobody else does, people have moved on. On the other hand, that time where you delivered a bad presentation, or when you lost your temper on a meeting? Yep, that’s not going away from people’s memories.

Remember that Tetris is just a game, it should be enjoyed 😉

tetris