lyrics sites are still kind of dumb

Tim Lee is 100% right to situate Genius within a long and failed utopian tradition of annotating the web.

Earlier today I complained about one class of hopeless apps that often applied for grants from Sunlight. It eventually became clear to me that web annotation tools were another. That’s not to say that they weren’t cool–heck, we even built some ourselves. But it’s definitely a low-percentage play.

Consequently I think that Genius’s efforts to expand into a news app are probably hopeless (there’s no money in news apps to begin with, and probably even less in this one). But that doesn’t mean the site hasn’t done something clever.

In particular, they’ve paired excellent technical execution with even better timing. It seems clear that lyrics sites can make at least some money–the web is littered with heaps of garbage like They’re benign parasites, the geothermal vent-hugging tubeworms of the internet, thriving in an ecological niche made possible by larger, more popular cultural phenomena. The Genius guys picked just the right genre (hip hop, with its closely associated and copyright-averse mixtape and sampling cultures) and just the right moment (when noncorporate reproduction of others’ IP became a part of everyone’s daily communication habits). This let them become a more polished operation than the fly-by-night SEO lyric farms that had lived and died by the whims of record company lawyers and Russian webhosts. And that, in turn, has let them take investors along for what looks like a pretty fun ride.

The calculated executive outrageousness and appearances on various future-of-news plenaries are meant to distract you from a business model that has always been founded on accidental Google traffic and encouraging visitors to click on popup ads.

Perhaps there’s a plausible escape route. But what seems more likely is the story we’ve seen again and again on the internet: somebody builds a business next to an existing one, the incumbent waits until revenues appear and then throws a fit, and the courts decide if it’s Napster time or Spotify o’clock. Usually it’s a more interesting underlying industry and a less compelling product. But we’ve been here before.



Vox has a nice piece about the nonsensical nature of “detox” diet regimens.

The idea can be opened up a little more, though. I think “auto-intoxication” is a mental tic that goes way beyond our physical well-being. That we are polluted with something that diminishes us is a pervasive kind of neuroticism, one arguably present in everything from dietary concerns to Scientology’s body thetans to the doctrine of original sin. I’ve come to believe it’s an evolutionary feature of humans, one related at the very least to our tendency toward spirituality and perhaps even to the kind of mammalian restlessness that we call “work ethic.”

When applied to food and health this drives me nuts, in no small part because I have had to grapple with my own relatives’ inventions in this genre. For years dad wouldn’t go to a conventional doctor for his disorientation and memory problems thanks to my aunt’s diagnosis of mercury poisoning, which proved robust despite various disconfirming test results. It doesn’t take much to sustain these suspicions. In his case, merely anecdotal observation of how symptoms (sometimes!) responded to nutritional supplements and, perhaps, the ecclesiastical satisfaction to be had through near-hourly observance of my aunt’s prescribed chelation regimen.

In the last few days I’ve seen these mystical habits of mind on a less worrying scale, as a guy I like and respect translated his negative opinion of Wal-mart–developed, presumably, because of their effects on workers and the economy–to guess that the chain’s produce might be particularly riddled with glyphosate, the purported negative health effects of which he had recently been reading about.

Some of this is probably due to the media’s translation of statistical accounts of epidemiological phenomena into stories that are causally simple enough to be understood by everyone. Something does something or it doesn’t; confidence intervals and statistical significance are the first thing to go when we compose a mental synopsis.

But I think much of it is in-built: an inherited need to seek personal purity (even if only in relative terms). I suppose there are worse ways for this to manifest than time spent in Whole Foods.

advertising seems hard

I was saying something dumb on Twitter and stumbled across an old post about the constricting array of tools available to advertisers as consumers become ever more attuned to manipulation. I’m now less sure that this idea isn’t just a product of my own limited imagination. Still, an observation in its favor:

banana republic instagram ad featuring a puppy from the humane society

This is the first Instagram advertisement I’ve seen that attracted anything less than intense vitriol in its comments (“why the fuck is this in my feed”, etc). And you can see why: it’s barely an advertisement at all. It’s just a photo of an adorable puppy (people like puppies) and an invocation of the idea of saving puppies (people like pretending that media consumption can be a form of altruism).

In one sense: congratulations, Banana Republic #brand managers! You’ve cracked the code. This is going to make for a great SXSW panel.

In another: what’s the point? I won’t pretend this ad hasn’t manipulated me to some degree. I no longer have enough faith in human cognition to muster that level of self-flattering defiance. But even if some part of me now feels better about Banana Republic–if we grant that some hypothetical fMRI study could now show a slightly stronger correlation in metabolic activity between my Sweater Cortex and my Puppy Striatum–how easily can this be converted into cash money? There is, after all, a gulf between getting someone to agree that a thing is nice and getting them to give you money for it. I doubt that Instagram clients are keen to reinvent the nonprofit fundraising industry.

Perhaps this boils down to the same old unanswerable questions about mindshare and brand awareness–ideas that, to an untrained observer such as myself, sure sound like the kind of bullshit you invent when you can’t show your boss any concrete results.

And yet every year the same Coca-Cola ads featuring Santa and, more recently (and pan-religio/culturally) polar bears–issued, presumably, from the vast bunker beneath the Masonic Temple in Alexandria. They must think they know something we don’t about making us know things we don’t think we know. Right?

terror from the skies

Steph got me a quadcopter and it’s awesome.

I haven’t gotten to the point of the manual where they teach you how to add a horrible electronic music soundtrack, so this will have to do for now.

using others’ information

stylized photo of malcolm gladwell

There are defensible reasons for disliking Malcolm Gladwell (too glib!) and bad reasons for disliking him (too successful!). But this is the reason that irritates me the most:

Gladwell has used information from others without attribution, often in language that closely resembles the source. […] There is one possible escape clause for Gladwell here–something that could absolve him of any guilt or plagiarism charge. Many journalists–especially magazine writers–have for decades subscribed to the idea that the use of established facts does not require attribution. […] I’ve long been troubled by the use of unattributed material with the excuse that it’s already been disseminated and established. When does the need for attribution fall away? Where do we draw the line?

The example cited is about the specifics of an old public works project–a particular tunnel’s length and cost, its difficulty and progress. It’s taken from a hard-to-find book of economic history by John E. Sawyer, which was published in 1952. Gladwell could have and probably should have provided attribution to Sawyer–it’s hard to see what the downside would have been.

But it’s also hard to see the downside to what happened. Jack Sawyer has been dead for twenty years. Gladwell’s offense, if there is one, has been committed against our collective sensibilities, not against a person.

There are good reasons to consider plagiarism bad. Enforcing rules of fair play within the writing professions makes sense as an economic necessity. But proof of copying is not proof of deprivation. Adding a moral dimension to the prosecution of victimless crimes requires an unpleasant meanness of spirit.

I feel a bit sad whenever someone is drummed out of office for, say, a lifted graduation speech or some other misappropriation that isn’t the crux of their job. I’m sure that I, too, would be disappointed to learn that the greatness of words I admired was borrowed, and I would want to punish the speaker, to reclaim my misapplied esteem. But why? We can make all the words and esteem we want.

The idea that facts belong to someone is crazy. It’s a fiction we use to ensure that fact-creators keep creating facts. The usefulness of this game of make-believe is obvious enough to have been pithily expressed hundreds of years ago. Maybe it’s because it’s such an old story that so many people have started to believe it’s real.

Perhaps I’ve been radicalized by work–the nonsensical nature of database licensing agreements could drive anyone mad. Ignore, for a moment the impossibility of conjuring a coherent line between “a bunch of facts” and “a legally protected database”. There are other problems!

These licensing agreements invariably prohibit some uses of the knowledge contained in the database, and these prohibitions rarely make much sense. When read with eyes too inexperienced to know what not to see, the text often outlaws the very thing the database is meant to facilitate. When you ask the salesperson about this, they assure you that what the agreement says is not what it means. And they’re right. What it means is: make sure we can keep getting paid. You can let people have this information but not, you know, let them have it. Make sure you tell it to them in a way that ensures they will pretend not to know what they know.

I don’t begrudge this approach. What else can they do? These databases are expensive to create and maintain, and we should all be glad that someone is doing this work. It’s a fiction that we navigate and treat with respect. But it is pretty absurd.

When the process is complete–when the tunnel is done, its specifics related, its chronicler dead–we can drop the pretense. And we should. It’s disappointing to see those who esteem ideas arguing that they ought to be more scarce.

I went to UVA

It was the best school that I could afford, and I think it gave me a good education. But it was never a great fit for me. I met some people there that I really liked and many more that I didn’t. I identified with these kids, not the ones in ties at football games. I seemed to be the only person thrilled that Stephen Malkmus had gone to UVA (including Mr. Malkmus).

When I read the Rolling Stone article, I believed it. I had known and disliked the callous frat culture. I had been disgusted by the university judicial system’s failure to grapple with the beating of Sandy Kory, and was unsurprised to hear that it had failed Jackie, too. And I believe that sexual assault is an enormous problem on American college campuses. I didn’t bother to finish reading the story, to be honest. It only took a few hundred words to bring me to despair, and I knew what the rest would say.

When critics raised doubts about the story, I believed them, too. I knew and was friends with people in frats — the stoner and geek frats, but frats nonetheless. I even rushed one, briefly! At a school like UVA these connections to the Greek system are all but unavoidable, particularly if you are underage and keen on drinking. Although their culture was sexist and aesthetically distasteful, it never seemed violent to me. Individuals behaving despicably was and is all too believable. But a premeditated, group-level endorsement of predatory violence seemed unlikely, particularly given the frats’ years of experience projecting the most upstanding image they could manage to help keep the party going.

And of course there were other problems, some of which will only make sense to alumni. Gawker’s dismissal of the timing of fraternity rush as a salient factor seems unwarranted, for instance.

I was unsure what to think. Because of conflicting evidence and heuristics? Only superficially. In truth, it’s because I have competing self-conceptions that can justify themselves in different ways depending on what we collectively decide this episode’s moral will be. I am a supercilious iconoclast who disdained the frats, even as he let them buy him oceans of beer. And I am a UVA graduate who thinks but does not say the phrase “public ivy” and who doesn’t want people to think of rape when he tells them where he went to school.

My thoughts are ambivalent but they are uniformly tainted by emotion and vanity. And although their reasons are different, I think this true for most people discussing this case, and everything else, on the internet.

How could it be otherwise? We don’t have enough information to judge the truth. There are endless explanations and additions that could modulate every atom of the narrative, but no amount of reporting is likely to let us access them satisfactorily. Luckily, we don’t care that much. Instead we will settle for asserting, by fiat, how the world must have worked in this instance, reasoning from first principles: we are good, and the people we dislike are bad, and reality, in the long run, must surely reflect this distinction.

I no longer believe that I have a right to hold an opinion about what it was or when it happened, but I am pretty sure that something very bad happened to Jackie and that she’s suffering because of it, and because of this she deserves sympathy and help. I believe it’s her right to go to advocates for support or to the police for justice, but I don’t believe that the rest of us deserve to continue gawking at her horror — particularly now that the conversation surrounding it has lost any plausible claim to preventing future violence.

genies, bottles & GPS

Over the past few months I’ve been idly picking my way through You Are Here, a review copy of which was generously sent to me while I was still at Sunlight and in the wrong industry to review it. It’s enjoyable!

Inertial navigation — tracking position by keeping a careful tally of acceleration (originally, by using gyrocopes) — is particularly badass.


This is even more amazing now that we have solid-state accelerometers in our phones and wiimotes and laptops.

The RoomScan app uses these techniques to let you build accurate models of interiors by sliding your iPhone along the wall. Using it during the home-buying process was an I’m-living-in-the-future moment. (Making light saber noises is also good.)

The two things that jumped out at me from the book were about the GPS system and the silliness of politics. First, on the popular myth that Ronald Reagan’s bold vision is the reason the military-built GPS system was opened to civilian use:


And second, on the idea that Bill Clinton’s brave decision to unlock the GPS system’s full precision to civilian uses is what delivered our current era of accurately-positioned benefits:


It turns out various other agencies were successfully building systems to defeat selective availability, too, notably including the FAA. But good for you, Coast Guard. This might have been the highest-altitude DRM system of all time, but it didn’t work any better than the rest.

Our positioning is going to get even better, incidentally. iPhone chips can already use not only GPS signals but those of GLONASS, Russia’s competing (and never-crippled) system. The EU is launching Galileo, which promises to improve accuracy even further. In fact, its (paywalled) commercial version will allegedly deliver precisions of just a few centimeters.

Flickr users are wrong

creative-commons-flickrA lot of people are upset about Flickr’s plans to begin selling prints of user photos that are available under Creative Commons By-Attribution licenses.

Some people have told me that Flickr’s plans bother them because it changes their understanding of their relationship with the company. Companies are not people, and I will gently suggest that it is unwise to cultivate emotional relationships with them. Doing so invites disappointment or manipulation.

So let’s look at the other reasons that people are upset about this. I think that many people are either behaving irrationally or do not understand what free culture licensing means.

  1. Flickr users are under no obligation to add a Creative Commons By-Attribution (CC-BY) license to their work. It is and has always been easy for users to retain complete control over distribution of their photos if they care to do so.
  2. Just as easily, Flickr users can select a CC-BY-NC license, which allows reuse of their work for noncommercial purposes.
  3. Right now, CC-BY images on Flickr are often used for various commercial purposes. There is nothing stopping anyone, anywhere, from selling a print of your CC-BY licensed work, nor from downloading your CC-BY licensed photo and making a print for themselves.
  4. Flickr’s sale of prints does not deprive photographers of their work or money. Users have the same ability to use their work that they always had. The vast majority would never have taken the steps necessary to profit from their work, so print sales do not deprive them of money. When a user really expects to sell prints, they should avoid Creative Commons licensing, which, as I’ve mentioned, is easily done.
  5. Flickr’s sale of prints provides benefits to other people. People who work for and own Flickr make money. The vendors producing and delivering the prints make money. And people who buy prints get to enjoy works of art.
  6. Some people have earnestly-held beliefs about this last point amounting to a bad thing. But not very many (it’s a difficult trick to pull off without also rejecting most aspects of global civilization). Most people think these are good things.
  7. I suspect that many Flickr users agree that the things in point 5 are good. It’s just that they’d like to have control over when they happen. Maybe it’s okay for the local coffeeshop to use your photos on a flyer, but it’s not okay for Archer-Daniels-Midland to put them on a billboard. I suspect this is how a lot of people feel, because I used to feel this way, too. But if you insist on control, those good things in point 5 usually won’t happen, because it’s too hard to ask for permission every time you want to use a piece of culture. This is one of the main reasons why Creative Commons licensing was invented.

Open licensing is about giving up control so that other people can benefit. That’s all it will cost you: control. Having control feels nice. But you should ask yourself what it really gets you. And you should think about what others might gain if you were able to let go.

Think carefully and decide what you need. No one is going to make you tick that Creative Commons box. But when you do, it’s a promise.

LEDs for halloween

I’ve continued to drift away from my commitment to dressing as villains. In my defense, Cyclops is kind of a jerk.

I worry that I’m beginning to stagnate: my palette of duct tape, under armour and LEDs is flexible enough for a variety of comic book characters. If augmented with adhesive velcro strips and the choice of a pouch-laden Rob Liefeld character, it’s even sort of convenient.

The LED components are always a hit, and I’ve seen more costumes incorporating them in recent years. I’ve added light to my costumes with a variety of different systems in the past, but they always had shortcomings. This is the first year that I achieved a well-engineered yet simple implementation, so it seems worth writing up how best to do it.

LED strips

China now produces these in great volumes, and they’re both cheap and easy to work with. Tons of different colors and configurations are available from eBay and Amazon, invariably arriving on black plastic spools and with peel-off adhesive backing. Besides color, you’ll have to decide on brightness, which varies both LEDs per meter and LED type, and waterproofing. For a halloween costume, pretty much anything will be fine — which is to say blindingly bright.

The strips can only be cut in certain spots, but these are clearly marked. Solder tabs are present if you want to connect strips together. You’re going to need a soldering iron to connect the strip to power, but it’s about the simplest soldering job imaginable.


The strips aren’t just LEDs: they also have integrated resistors that are rated for 12 volts, presumably because this is the voltage at which automotive systems run. That’s what you’ll need to supply to the strip. You have a few options:

  • Batteries’ voltage is summed when wired in series. Alkaline batteries like AA cells, AAA cells and D cells are all 1.5 volts per cell, meaning that 8 placed in series will give your LEDs the power they need. You can find appropriate battery cases at Radioshack or eBay (you might need to chain two four-battery cases together). This is arguably the easiest of the approaches listed here, but also the shortest-lived and the one most likely to cause problems if asked to power too many LEDs (particularly with AAA cells, which I don’t recommend).
  • Lead-acid batteries are rechargeable, can hold a ton of power, and come in 12 volt or 6 volt varieties. Avoid the latter, buy a cheap trickle charger, and connect directly to your LEDs. The downside, as the name suggests, is weight (and price — a small battery will probably run $30). Any lead-acid battery is likely to be 10 or 15 pounds. For the right costume, this is no problem. For others, it’s a huge pain in the ass. If it suits your needs, though, a lead-acid battery can be a handy thing to have around: keep one charged and one of these doohickeys on hand and you’ll be able to power your cell phone for a solid week when civilization finally collapses.
  • Lithium-polymer USB batteries are rechargeable, pack a lot of juice, are compact and lightweight, and can now be had for less than ten bucks. They’re ideal for costumes, and they often wind up being useful cellphone supplements after the holiday. Their downside is complexity. USB power is always 5 volts. That’s not enough for a 12 volt LED strip. Chaining these batteries together isn’t a great idea, either. There are already electronics in play in those enclosures; and anyway 12 isn’t divisible by 5. We need a way to turn 5 volts into 12.

Boost converters do this pretty efficiently, and cost just a few dollars on eBay. You’ll need a few more things to use them, though: wirecutters, a USB cable you don’t mind ruining, and a multimeter. This last tool might sound intimidating, but a crappy $10 multimeter will work just fine.

At this point your mission is to cut the USB cord in half and expose conductive portions of its four wires. Plug the USB connector into the battery and use the multimeter’s probes to test the wires until you find a pair that gives you a reading close to 5 volts (it might not be exact, but it should be within a tenth of a volt or two). If your USB cable was designed by good people, these wires will be red and black, like the probes of your multimeter almost certainly are. But maybe they won’t be. I’ll assume they are.

Disconnect the USB plug from the battery. Then solder the USB wires onto the boost converter. Red is positive; black is ground. They go to the IN(+) and IN(-) solder terminals of your boost converter, respectively.

Now reconnect the cable to the battery and use the multimeter to probe the output terminals of the boost converter. There’ll be tiiiiny screw on top of a plastic box on the boost converter. Turn it while reading the measurement from the multimeter until it reads twelve. It can be tough to do all of this with only two hands, so finding someone to help is recommended.

Once your boost converter is set to twelve volts, you can solder your LED strip’s connection to the output terminals. Simple.

You can avoid the multimeter hassle by buying one of these units and using its integrated display to set the voltage.

This is both more expensive and a waste of energy (the display will remain on while powering your costume). It’s also not something I’ve personally tried — I’ve only used these to step down voltage from 12 to 5, not to step it up. I think it should work, but I can’t make any guarantees.Either way you’ll need to chop up a USB cable. And a basic multimeter is a handy thing to have around.

How Much Power?

It’s a drag, but if you’re powering more than a dozen LEDs, you should do at least a little math to ensure longevity and safety. Batteries can get dangerously hot when they’re drained quickly. Besides, you wouldn’t want to run out of power before the end of the party, would you?

We’re concerned with amperage — milliamperage, to be more precise. A liberal estimate of an individual LED’s power consumption is 30 milliamps. This level of current draw, held for an hour, equals 30 milliamp-hours (mAH). Conveniently, this is also the unit that battery capacity is measured in.

If your battery assembly’s output is 12 volts, the math is really easy: just divide the mAH rating of a your alkaline battery type by the number of LEDs in use multiplied by 30. A typical AA battery might hold 1200 mAH (check the label). Given that rating, a 12-volt assembly of them (8 in series) could power 40 LEDs for an hour.

If you’re using a single lead-acid battery, it’s just the same, except your battery’s capacity might be measured in amp-hours. One amp-hour equals 1000 milliamp-hours. That means a 6 amp-hour lead-acid battery could power 200 LEDs for an hour.

With varying voltages, like we’ll encounter with a USB lithium battery, things get slightly trickier, but only slightly. We need to figure things out in terms of energy, not just current — that means watts, which are amps times voltage. Here’s how it works out:

(5 volts * USB battery milliamp hours) / (12 volts * number of LEDs * 30 milliamp-hours)
number of LEDs

The boost converter we use with the USB battery isn’t perfectly efficient, so we should include a fudge factor. Let’s be conservative and say it’s only 90% efficient:

(0.9 * 5 volts * USB battery milliamp hours) / (12 volts * number of LEDs * 30 milliamp-hours)
number of LEDs

A small USB lithium battery might hold 2400 mAH (the packaging will usually say). Using the above math, that means such a battery could power 30 LEDs for an hour.

Of course, you probably want to power your costume for more than an hour. In fact, you should make sure of it: asking a battery to dump all of its power in an hour is fairly aggressive, and might make it heat up more than is comfortable or wise. Use the above to figure out the capacity you need per hour, then double it. Remember, you can always swap out batteries. Or, for the alkaline and lead-acid otions, you can increase capacity by adding more cells in parallel (don’t do this with the USB lithium option — just plug a new one in, or power different sections of LEDs from different batteries).

The above estimates are conservative. Boost converters are generally more than 90% efficient, and the types of LEDs I’m suggesting you use generally draw 15 or 20 milliamps, not 30. But it’s good to employ a generous fudge factor. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how long my batteries hold out. You’ll probably want to give your rig a test run before the party, anyway.


The first time I tried to dim the LEDs in a Halloween costume it didn’t work very well. I had attached a potentiometer: a knob that can add resistance to a circuit when you turn it. Increasing the resistance lowers the voltage that gets to the LEDs. A lower voltage does dim LEDs, but the behavior isn’t very smooth. At first the change is almost imperceptible, then it’s very sudden, and then the LEDs just turn off completely. This is because LEDs emit photons in response to voltage in a nonlinear way; even worse, humans perceive brightness in response to number of photons in a nonlinear way.

The solution is not to alter the brightness of the LED, but to change its duty cycle: how much of the time it’s turned on. If an LED is only turned on every third microsecond, it will appear 33% as bright as if it were on steadily. LEDs turn on and off very quickly, so it’s easy to make them strobe so fast that the human eye can’t notice the flicker.

The way to do this is beyond an introductory blog post, but the short answer is: a MOSFET, an Arduino, and the analogWrite() function. The first two can be had for less than $5 combined, and the last is free. If you decide to try this but have no idea what you’re doing, get in touch with me and I’ll try to help.

A nice side-effect: by adding an Arduino you can easily start programming strobing or fading effects. You could even make your costume respond to the partygoers around you.

EL Wire

LEDs aren’t your only options for lighting a costume. Electroluminescent wire, strips and panels are fairly cheap and generally come with their electrical systems prebuilt, thanks to their unusual power requirements (very high voltage and frequency alternating current at very low amperages). Those power supplies generally run off of just one or two alkaline batteries and can last for many hours.

The downside to EL systems is how difficult they are to manipulate. EL wire and panels can be cut, but they can’t be spliced without unusual tools and more skill than I can muster. The power supplies also tend to be made cheaply, and when they are they emit a quiet but high-pitched whine which might be annoying in environments that are supposed to be silent and spooky, like a haunted house.

building artificial minds is going to be the most important thing our species ever does

And you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

I’m prompted to write this by my friend Tim Lee’s new piece on Vox: Will artificial intelligence destroy humanity? Here are 5 reasons not to worry. It is characteristically smart, but I disagree with most of it.

Tim’s first and second points concern the difficulty of interfacing artificial minds with the physical world. This is accurate, but decreasingly so. The internet now provides programmatic means by which I can command a huge variety of commercial activity (Amazon, Uber, Push for Pizza); puts most of the people on Earth within easy communication range (email, SMS, POTS); and, in rich countries, is increasingly connected to ubiquitous telemetry (traffic cams, fitbit, mobile phone location trackers).

Progress in robotics seems to be accelerating, and is still temporarily constrained by discontinuities between the field’s capabilities and its market size. There are only so many buyers for automotive welding robots and creepy robot dogs, after all. The consumer market is currently mostly about robot vacuum cleaners that sort of work. But we’re on the cusp of ubiquitous robot cars, and it seems plausible that geriatric caregiver bots will be viable in my lifetime. If a machine intelligence has a strong desire to interact with the real world (which it might not), it’s hard to imagine the physical interface remaining a substantial obstacle for much longer.

The third bullet is the meatiest, but also runs into the most problems:

Digital computers are capable of emulating the behavior of other digital computers because computers function in a precisely-defined, deterministic way. To simulate a computer, you just have to carry out the sequence of instructions that the computer being modeled would perform.

The human brain isn’t like this at all. Neurons are complex analog systems whose behavior can’t be modeled precisely the way digital circuits can. And even a slight imprecision in the way individual neurons are modeled can lead to a wildly inaccurate model for the brain as a whole.

Yes, neurons are complex. But their behavior seems to be computable in a Church-Turing sort of way. You can consider digital music playback as an analogy. Music exists as a continuous and extremely complex transformation of air pressure. It is very dissimilar to how digital circuits work. But those circuits can operate so quickly that trains of on/off pulses can recreate an arbitrary piece of music perfectly. So it is, plausibly, with neurons.

Although brains are very complex mechanisms, it is overwhelmingly likely that you can strip out much of their functionality without any impact on their computational capacity. Most of the cells in the brain are glia, responsible for things like immune function, garbage collection and building myelin sheaths. As far as anyone knows they’re just there for biological support. How abstract can you make your model’s neurons before they lose any hope of spawning a mind? Nobody knows. Neurons actually are weirdly computerlike, in that an action potential firing down an axon is an all-or-nothing event. But the threshold excitation that triggers firing is manipulated in lots of subtle ways (both temporarily and over longer time periods), and no one knows how many will have to be simulated or how accurately. Still, you can certainly perform recognition tasks with highly stylized approximations of neurons.

It’s also not clear that we need a particularly accurate simulation of the brain to create a mind. Tim:

A good analogy here is weather simulation. Physicists have an excellent understanding of the behavior of individual air molecules. So you might think we could build a model of the earth’s atmosphere that predicts the weather far into the future. But so far, weather simulation has proven to be a computationally intractable problem. Small errors in early steps of the simulation snowball into large errors in later steps. Despite huge increases in computing power over the last couple of decades, we’ve only made modest progress in being able to predict future weather patterns.

Simulating a brain precisely enough to produce intelligence is a much harder problem than simulating a planet’s weather patterns. There’s no reason to think scientists will be able to do it in the foreseeable future.

It’s really hard to predict the exact sequence of a particular weather pattern. But modeling a plausible weather pattern is pretty easy. And neural systems seem to be able to operate in a really huge variety of configurations. Not only is every person’s (presumably) conscious brain different, but they keep operating in mindlike ways after suffering severe alterations to their performance characteristics. Drugs! ALS! Concussions and lesions! Lobectomies, for pete’s sake! Not to mention the seeming likelihood of many or most animals having substantial phenomenal experience despite wildly varying biologies. Once we figure out how to do it, there will probably be a considerable fudge factor in building minds.

Tim’s fourth argument concerns the importance of human relationships. This is fair: there’s good reason to think human social behavior is one of our most evolved and convoluted systems, and one that a machine might have a hard time figuring out quickly. But although our behavior is complex it’s also fairly predictable–we have already systematized a surprisingly large amount of this knowledge in fields like marketing and political campaigning. There’s every reason to think that a machine intelligence that’s immune to fatigue, moodiness, territoriality, jealousy and other human social impairments could master relationship-building.

Tim’s final point is an argument about the falling value of intelligence in a world where superintelligent machines proliferate. I’m not sure it makes a ton of sense to treat cognition as a simple commodity, but even if it does, this ignores the potentially trivial relative value of human minds in such a world.

It’s important to remember just how lousy our neural hardware is. When a neuron fires, it does so by opening channels along its axon, which allows an uneven gradient of sodium and potassium ions (maintained by a ceaseless cellular pump) to equalize between the inside and outside of the cell. This opens up adjacent channels, flowing down the length of the axon, stimulating the release of neurotransmitters at its synapses. The whole thing takes about a millisecond, which is several million times slower than a transistor. That our brains work despite this sluggish mechanism is a testament to the power of parallel computation, of course. And neurons perform analog operations (summing excitation, for instance) that would require many transistor switchings to simulate. And there are about twenty billion neurons in the human brain.

So simulation isn’t easy, exactly. But if a workable hardware configuration can be found, one can imagine scaling scenarios that transcend biological limits on sentience very quickly indeed. If your neurons had the switching performance of contemporary transistors, you could plausibly experience two lifetimes in an hour. You’d also be able to throw away a bunch of subsystems devoted to autonomic processes and other unnecessary biological and social functions, simplifying the problem further.

I have no idea if we’ll build machine intelligences. I think it’s pretty likely that consciousness is an epiphenomenon free-riding on top of a powerful neural network, and that some aspect of causally isolated panpsychism is a basic component of the universe. But there’s a mystic in me that wants the real source of our minds to retreat away from our plausible guesses.

I think he’ll be disappointed, though. If we do create a thinking machine, it’s hard to imagine what it will want or do. It will be designed by our hands, not by evolutionary processes. So I don’t think there’s any particular reason to expect it to want to reproduce or grow or consolidate power or even avoid death. Perhaps it will have no volition at all.

But if it does constitute a conscious being in a way that we can relate to, I think we should expect to be surpassed by it pretty quickly. Whether that presages extinction, irrelevance or transcendence, I couldn’t say. But it’s certainly going to be a big deal.