Memia Labs Monthly Digest – April 2017

This month: 
// Virtual + augmented realities
// Parallel cyrptoeconomies
// Neural lace (...really?)
// Federated machine learning
// ...and Neo-generalists.

Here’s the regular roundup of what Memia Labs has been reading and thinking this month at the confluence of future technology, business and society. As always please let me know what you’d like to hear more of next…

This selection of links is taken from our the regular Memia Labs Premium* subscription service – if you’re interested in more information please get in touch.

Ben Reid
Consulting Director

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“Implicit in VR is the fact that everything – without exception – that occurs in VR is tracked. The virtual world is defined as a world under total surveillance, since nothing happens in VR without tracking it first.”
Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable

Virtual Reality is quickly developing proven real-world applications
This short film from the BBC shows just how far VR has come in the last year – showing applications for charity fundraising, treatment of PTSD, depression, teaching surgeons and, movingly, allowing hospice patients to experience their bucket-list items from their hospital bed.

Augmented Reality is already here, it’s just not widely distributed yet
Last year’s standout AR success of Pokemon Go (doubling Nintendo’s market capitalisation to $42Bn in months) and newly-IPO’d Snap’s continued AR innovation with it’s expanded World Lenses offering – commercial Augmented Reality is already mainstream, but still confined to the ghetto of social media and entertainment (and the under-20s).

@a16z’s Benedict Evans chronicles the end of Smartphone innovation, as the next mass technology platform – AR – rises to take its place in a classic disruption S-curve.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Economies, Cryptocurrencies

As VR and AR technology develops at an amazing rate, the themes that are explored in scifi novels such as Ready Player One and Reamde – where entire parallel realities have developed with their own rules of society, politics and economy – are starting to eventuate.

In addition, the evolution in blockchain-based cryptocurrencies provide a more reliable and permeable substrate for real-virtual-real-world currency transactions than those traditionally backed by the game makers themselves.

Escape to another world
As video games get better and job prospects worse in the real world, this sympathetic article from the Economist’s 1843 magazine profiles the young men dropping out of the job market to spend their time in an alternate, gaming, reality. A justified escape “for those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game”?

Parallel economies in virtual gaming worlds have been around for over two decades now – early versions of World of Warcraft launched in 2004 saw the advent of Gold Farming – developing world cybercafes full of virtual “farmers” would churn out higher-level characters with pockets full of virtual “gold”. This practice was since regulated by WoW maker Blizzard but in-game and real-world purchases of virtual world assets are now commonplace across many virtual reality worlds – either using an in-game auction mechanism or using a direct exchange-rate – eg ~256 Linden dollars to one US$ in Second Life (registration required).

The World’s First Cryptocurrency Hedgefund
While not particularly focused on virtual-world currencies, a few months ago saw the unveiling of the world’s first blockchain asset hedgefund, Polychain Capital – with investment from Andreesson Horowitz and Union Square Ventures). Polychain founder Olaf Carlson-Wee is interviewed in a recent @a16z podcast: fascinating.

Can’t not mention Neuralink
More hyperactivity from Elon Musk (who incidentally also believes that we’re already living in a virtual world). Following on from his impromptu musings at last year’s Code Conference about Iain M Banks’ “Neural Lace” concept, he formally launched his new company Neuralink at the end of March. Plenty of noise, not a lot of substance at this stage.

An entertaining readup of Musk’s logic here from WaitButWhy:

Privacy Concerns
Who owns your face? – Modern advanced face recognition lets police identify people (and groups) from far away and without interacting with them. Yet, unlike fingerprinting, in the US no federal law governs face recognition in 2017.

Federated Learning: Collaborative Machine Learning without Centralized Training Data – A gnarly privacy issue of machine learning is that private data has always needed to be processed centrally (and hence may not be kept private any more). Here Google Research outline their solution: all the training data remains on a user’s device, and no individual updates are stored in the cloud. Good stuff.

Other Bits And Pieces
And here are some other links we bookmarked this month:

In Our Time: The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum – The BBC’s Melvyn Bragg is one of those polymaths able to eloquently explore complex ideas across literally any domain of knowledge or culture. This podcast is a fascinating looking back at the fossil record to predict what is likely to happen as a result of current global warming trends – with some scary speculations at the end.

A New Li-Fi System That’s 100 Times Faster Than Wi-Fi – providing speeds of 42.8 Gbit/s over a distance of 2.5 meters – but still about 5 years away from being consumer-ready.

GitHub now lets its workers keep the IP when they use company resources for personal projects  – common sense prevails…

Personally I’m still challenged to find a concise answer when a family member or friend asks “so what exactly do you do in your job?” Apparently this is a classic problem for Neo-Generalists – “…living in an era still dominated by hyperspecialism and experts with ‘the one right answer’, the N-G defies easy classification – tricksters who traverse multiple domains, living between categories and labels.” As one reviewer put it, the book “forces us to re-evaluate traditional career trajectories and consider what it means to live, learn and lead in the 21st century.” Worth a read.

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