Jaron Lanier "You Are Not a Gadget": Transcript of TEDxSF Talk

Jaron Lanier
“You Are Not a Gadget”
TED x SF [San Francisco] Talk
x = independently organized TED event
December 15, 2010

Robot: Jaron Lanier is an American computer scientist, visual artist, and author. Born in New York City, he popularized the term “Virtual Reality” for a field in which he was a pioneer in the 1980s. Time magazine named Jaron one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. His book “You are not a gadget” was also released in early 2010. Jaron writes and speaks on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technological practices, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism. Jaron’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Discover, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harpers Magazine, Wired Magazine, and Scientific American.

Announcer: Please welcome to the stage Jaron Lanier.


Jaron Lanier: I play music too. I don’t know if the robot said that. Anyway, I brought one of my weird instruments to play and I’ll tell you about it in a second.


So this is a called a khene. It’s from Laos, and I brought it because, so far as I can tell, this design is the origin of digital information. This is a very old design. We think maybe about 8000 years. It’s best known in a Chinese variant which is called a sheng. But this one might be older. It’s the first human-made thing where you have an orderly row of objects that are either on or off. So these are the first bits, the notes on this. It is an instrument that has a remarkable history in cross-cultural influences. In ancient times it was traded across the Silk Route. The Greeks knew about it. The Romans copied it. In ancient Rome there was a giant version of this created for the coliseum called the hydrolus that was used to accompany slaughter in the coliseum. The hydrolus was so big that it had to be powered by steam. It was so big that you couldn’t operate the little holes with your hands anymore, and there were these panels operated by slave boys. Those panels became the keyboard. And the hydrolus evolved into the pipe organ. Another thing happened, though, which was that the hydrolus could sometimes be played semi-automatically, where a bunch of its proto-keys could be lifted and closed at once, and this gradually turned into automatically playing organs with a little stream that coexisted with organs from the beginning, and eventually evolved into the player piano when organs turned into pianos. The most sophisticated of the player pianos could actually improvise -- a little-known device which inspired a guy named Jacquard to make a programmable loom, which inspired a guy named Babbage to make a programmable calculator, which inspired a guy named Turing to formalize the whole thing with math so we could have computers. So it’s not the only story one could tell of history, but a potentially reasonable story is that this is the origin of computers. Now...do you believe that one? OK, good, good.


Now, I’m going to tell a story about a different, related, technology which is the history of avatars that actually is bound up with instruments. As it happened, my little team in the early 1980s invented avatars. We made the first virtual reality machines, which is people embedded in simulations who could see each other in a social setting, and in order to see each other we have to turn into something, and thus was born the avatar. And ever since, of course, avatars have become a cliche in pop culture, and there’s that movie about the blue aliens and all that. So the idea of the avatar has become extremely well-known. And yet the science of avatars and the cultural potential of them is amazingly obscure still, because almost nobody’s experienced being one. Now I know you’ve experienced maybe making your avatar in Second Life or something like that or in an online gaming world. But actually being in [a] 3D one where you actually see other people in real space and time, you’re in this other creature—that’s a whole other thing. And it’s more of a different thing you can know until you try it. It’s been deeply frustrating to me, the sort of slow-motion way in which some of these technologies open up. I’ve been waiting for 30 years now to get virtual reality as I understand it out to people. Back in those days I used to predict that 2020 or 2025 was when virtual reality would really hit for people, and I still think that’s about right. So we’re not there yet.


But let me talk to you a little bit about the avatar experience. In the early days, and in fact these early days continued until precisely last week because something happened about a week ago that’s extraordinary, that’s changed everything. How many of you know what I’m talking about? OK, well you’ll figure it out. Alright, I’ll get there. But the thing that...the problem until last week was that, in order to measure your physical body to turn you into an avatar in real time, required that you get into this special suit. And in the early days these suits were incredibly inconvenient. It would take like 20 minutes to put it on then an hour to calibrate it. And then after you used it you’d end up with these gashes and marks all over your body—sort of like tribal markings. And these things eventually evolved into better suits which are these days known as mocap suits and are used in computer special effects all the time. For like the Gollum in Middle Earth you had an actor wear one of these things. But they were originally used for realtime avatar control. What changed a week or so ago is, there’s a thing called Kinect, a consumer gadget for measuring somebody’s full body pose, and it goes with X-Box. And I should disclose I’m doing my research in Microsoft research now which made that thing, so there might be some bias here, but I’ve been working on this since before MSR existed, so I’m not really swayed by it. But the Kinect camera is this $150 thing you can buy and it instantly will measure your full body pose, so now you can actually measure everything your body’s doing without wearing one of these suits. That’s never been true before. So suddenly the avatar experience can open up.


Now why is that a big deal? In order to begin to explain that, I will tell you about a bug that occurred in our...well, I could call it our lab, but it was really a garage in Palo Alto, as it always is. Almost 30 years ago. Um, I had a...I was an avatar. I think just something humanoid, something boring. And accidentally my hand was a mile long. You know, just one of these typical bugs. It was probably only one, you know, extra zero. And I curled my finger and suddenly this gigantic finger swooped in and swallowed me and I was inside my fingertip. And, so, you know, the first thing one thinks is this thing will be a good story, but let’s fix it and move on. But something very interesting happened. People in the garage started playing with distorted avatars and discovered something extraordinary, which is that you can be a really weirdly-shaped avatar and still control your avatar body quite well. You can start...You can instantly adapt to weird body shapes. And so then we got interested in this question of, well, how weird can they get? And we started turning into all kinds of different animals and aliens and weird fantasy creatures. And some of them didn’t work; some of them did. A famous early one was designed by a woman named Dawn Lesco [phonetic?] that was a lobster. And the thing about lobsters, if you’ve ever taken a close look at them, they have extra arms—there’re these three little arms on the side. And there’s this question, well how would you control them with just your physical body? That’s all you have to start with to control an avatar. And it turns out, by pulling bits of data from different parts of your body and combining them, like a little bit of wrist, a little bit of ankle, a little bit of hip to control, say, the middle little arm joints on the left side, you could suddenly learn to control extra limbs. Which was really pretty strange. Not something you’d expect. So, a friend of mine, biologist Jim Bower, saw this phenomenon. He said this actually makes perfect sense because the nervous system has evolved though all of these different body shapes through deep time, through deep phylogenetic time. The same nervous system we have, had evolved to swim, to crawl, and in fact everything in biology is preadaptive for evolutionary designs that don’t exist yet. And, in a sense, when we make weird avatars, we’re putting the brain in a time travel machine for a species that might evolve to be able to control in the future. Everything in biology’s always preadaptive. So this is time travel for the brain across tens of millions of years, hundreds of millions of years.


So, the phenomenon is called homuncular flexibility. The homunculus is the part of...is the mapping of your motor cortex onto your body. It’s usually visualized as this weird obscene impish thing stretched across, under your scalp, under where a mohawk would be, more or less. It’s got an extra big tongue and extra big thumbs. It looks really sort of bizarre. There’s this avant-garde or conceptual art project of making an avatar that is exactly a homunculus that nobody’s done yet; I really want to do that one.

And, um, now what might be important about this? In order to explain why I think this might be important, I want to go back to musical instruments. I play piano, and I improvise at the piano. And anyone who studies improvising at the piano will notice that there’s a certain special point in your studies where, all of a sudden, you notice: “Wow, my hands just seem to solve this complicated harmony and voice leading thing that my brain can’t even follow.” What just happened? And I’ve seen the same thing in great athletes, in basketball players. I’ve seen it in great pilots. I’ve seen it in great surgeons. Um, and what’s going on there. It’s not that your hands are smarter than your brain precisely. It’s that the part of your brain that’s running your hands is actually capable of complex problem solving. And it’s doing it in a different channel than the sort of verbal/symbolic temporal lobe stuff that we’re mostly used to. And it happens a little less consciously. But it’s a real phenomenon. And so then the interesting question is how far could that go. That’s the kind of question that really excites me, because when I look at progress and technology, I’m really interested in opening up new continents of human potential. I’m really interested in how we can wake up aspects of human character that might actually be functional, that we’ve never even noticed before. That’s what really gets me going, so, um, there’s this enormous part of the brain—the motor cortex—that usually we think of as being this thing that just gets us around. But if we can apply it to complex problem solving, could it do things we can’t do in this sort of verbal-symbolic way that we’re used to? Or could it augment the usual way we do things? Or something, we don’t know what.


So we’ve taken early baby steps in researching this. I’ve worked with children in making them into molecules to learn chemistry, for instance. So in that case you take a kid and you turn the kid into, say, a glucose molecule. And normally a molecule is very thermal and jiggling around through its degrees of freedom, but in this case it becomes an avatar, so you’re responsible for moving it through its degrees of freedom. And then you can play with docking it. Or you can play with changing your hydration layer distribution. All kind of things. I’ve played with turning kids into triangles. There’s a huge frontier waiting to be explored. I’m really interested in using this for abstract information design—of having your body pose directly map into program structures, data structures, equations. I think we can do all these things. I don’t know what to expect, you know. One wants to be optimistic and say, “Oh suddenly this huge intellectual capability will be revealed for mankind.” Of course one doesn’t know that. I do know one thing, which is that it’s a fantastic educational modality because it leverages narcissism. ‘Cause you become the thing you’re studying, so of course you pay attention, you know. It’s interesting that’s the idea that got the response here. Uh, so, um...I’m not saying anything. And the amazing thing is that we can do this now. I mean, getting a fifth grader into a special body suit for kids takes hours and it’s a real pain in the butt—in every sense, literally and in terms of squeamishness and nuisance value, it’s just terrible. Putting a kid in front of a Kinect camera is really easy. So I’ll let you know about a bit of the current research going on. There’s a lab at Stanford with a wonderful collaborative mind named Jeremy Bailenson that is attempting to draw out an atlas of homuncular flexibility, that is to say how weird can avatars get such that you can still control them. And he puts undergraduates though, you know, strange experiments where they turn into all sorts of things. I’m very pleased to say that we’re about to start a lab based in San Francisco for applications of homuncular flexibility. It’ll be located in a very strange place. It’s upstairs from the Westfield Mall ‘cause we have...if you can believe that. You see, because we have a little Microsoft research spot there, so if you go into the Westfield Mall and you look up at the dome and you sort of look southwest, and just through there there’s going to be a room where people are turning into all of these things. So that’s actually happening. It’s the strangest thing, isn’t it?


I finally wanted to say a little bit about the philosophy of all this. I think Kevin [Kelly] had to take off, but Kevin who just spoke before me [title of his talk: “What Technology Wants”] is a dear personal friend. We’ve known each other for many years. And I have tremendous respect for his work. And yet we disagree profoundly about ideas, which is great. And one of the things...as you might know I have a book out called “You Are Not a Gadget” which is quite controversial and quite a few people disagree with it quite profoundly. And one of the important exercises in having a book like that is being able to maintain friendships with people you disagree with tremendously. So I was very pleased to blurb Kevin’s book and say, you know, you must read this even though I disagree with it terribly, but it’s just so well done, it’s the essential statement of the stuff I disagree with; you must read it. And being able to do that is absolutely crucial.


But just to say a little bit about our disagreement. I think that the perspective of imagining technology as an autonomous force or as something that’s its own center is entirely plausible; we do it all the time. And yet, I don’t think it’s that functional. I think it’s important to always reframe the discussions about technology for its own sake as technology for human sake, or even for Gaia’s sake, and for all sorts of centers one can come up with. It’s not so much that I don’t think technology has a life of its own. But we’re so able to confuse ourselves. We’re so able to reduce ourselves to fit whatever our most recent idea about technology was. Technology design as our most effective way of self-confusion ever. And thus I tend to not be too supportive of a lot of the recent media designs even though in many cases my friends designed them—social networking and tweeting and all this stuff. And the reason why is just I’m concerned that we’re all fitting more and more into database representations of ourselves. I’m concerned that we’re letting algorithms recommend friends and music and movies to us in a way that’s separating us from each other. I’m concerned that we’re creating an economic trap for future generations, because we’ve come up with this bizarre idea that—it must have seemed alien but at some point somehow it just slipped in there—that the right way to do business online is to operate these spying operations where we give people stuff for free but then we spy on them to advertise at them. And I just don’t think it’s sustainable. I think we have to have a different idea in which the whole thing is inverted and becomes very human centered where we’re helping people sell things to each other rather than trying to get everyone to do everything for free. There are two reasons for that. One is that if you have an all-volunteer society, it’s easily corrupted. We found this recently when...Did anybody read the ...the exposé on the Koch brothers in the New Yorker? Yeah, it turns out the blogosphere is really corruptible with a little bit of money because nobody has any clout on it because we’re all working on a volunteer basis. To have a middle class, you have to have a distribution of wealth. That’s just life. And the internet has been drifting radically away from that. The original design of the internet, which was from 1960, was all about creating an online middle class where people could sell each other creative efforts, and I’m certain we have to bring that back, both for spiritual reasons and for political reasons. Anyway, I am so grateful for your attention, and I hope you all have a chance to experience the joy of becoming an avatar. It’s truly one of the greatest gifts you can give your brain, and I bet you’ll be able to do it within a few years. Alright, take good care.

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