Longform Reflections

Bringing the Dead Back to Life



Escaping Biology  

Ray Kurzweil is convinced that his father is going to come back from the dead.

He’s also convinced that he will be one of the people who will help bring him back. His father died when he in his early 20s, and they have not seen each other in 40 years, but Ray has kept enough of his old documents, and photos to remember his father by.

He’s not going to wait with a cache of relatives around the decayed body of his father, and apply electrical currents that will bring the blood racing back into his father. His father will not stumble around the room, dazed at the years he would have missed. They are never even going to physically touch, or look at each other. Instead, they’ll interact with glass screens.

His father will be a virtual avatar that will so closely resemble the biological consciousness that defined Ray Kurzweil’s fantastic quest, that Ray will not know the difference between his virtual and biological father.  It will be programmed through past artifacts to act, and think about the future like his father would have. His virtual father will be one of the holy grails of computing theory, an artificial intelligence that will have passed the Turing Test of being indistinguishable from a human.

Ray graduated from M.I.T, and he is now the Director of Engineering at Google, which puts some of the fiction out of the science component of this idea. He has been the leading proponent of the technological singularity, a moment in time when artificial intelligence will begin outpacing human intelligence, and where society will be upended by the combination of man and machine. As technology has gradually accelerated, the clarity of the vision of virtual life becomes more and more well-defined. Smartphones with more processing power than the supercomputers of years past are now the norm. Is it unfathomable that robots with human-like minds and spirits could be so far off?

Ray’s alma mater is a driving force behind this powerful thought. Every day, almost unbelievable things are accomplished through the manipulation of scientific research at M.I.T, from computers that can convey the sense of touch over different continents, to printers that will be able to spit out entire houses. It has been described as a “Hogwarts” for Muggles, a place where “magic” is common-place.

The metaphor is a beautiful one, but it begs another comparison that may not be so flattering. In the Harry Potter series, we are confronted with the search for the Deathly Hallows, among one of which is the Resurrection Stone. The Stone is able to bring the dead back to life, but at a terrible cost. The reincarnated dead are never truly like they were in life, which leads to a sense of dissonance from the living. This ironically leads to death for all, as the living choose to join the dead in their true form, rather than to accept living with a broken figment of a departed soul.

Questioning Identity

Will virtual intelligences ever be anything more than a figment of a real person? The question examines everything humans have always assumed about human nature: that we are unique, and that we are defined by our uniqueness against non-humans. We possess a strange combination of social interaction, physical manipulation, and processing power that is hard to define, so we often use comparisons to living things that are distinctly not human to define ourselves.

We are not cows. We are not dolphins. We are not chimpanzees, even though that is getting uncomfortably close.

The closer robots get to piercing that space, the more uncomfortable humans get with them. This is the “uncanny valley”. The more robots look, and act like humans, even if we distinctly know they are not, the more we revile them. Like the broken souls of the Ring, poorly designed robots can lead us to hate, and to pain, because they lead us to question who we truly are.

Virtual life that humans can accept must pass the Turing Test. It must fool a human into thinking that it too is a human, that it is really he or she. When Ray sits down to talk with his reincarnated father, he cannot be talking with a robot, but with a real, living human being that he has been yearning to speak to for forty long years.

Ray Kurzweil believes that will happen within a couple of decades.

That robot masquerading realistically as a human being will have all of the characteristics of the thoughts and patterns laid down by his father ages ago. It will be, Ray observes, more like his father than his father truly was due to robotic precision.

This is where the discomfort truly sets in. If robots can so accurately simulate the human condition, what truly makes us human?

The definition of human nature, and what is human or not has important implications. It is hard to imagine that the atrocities of the 20th century could have ever occurred if groups of humans regarded other groups with the basic respect and dignity they accorded to their own group. Indeed, the victims of atrocities have often been relegated to sub-human status: recall the Hutus of Rwanda who insisted on calling their Tutsi victims “cockroaches” during the infamous Rwandan genocide.

Who we are, and what we are here for defines a large part of the human condition. Any threat to the stable framework we have evolved of what is human and what is not represents a seismic change that brings opportunity, and risks.

How many among us would not want to hear the thoughts of Martin Luther King Junior on the civil rights issues of today—the thoughts of Harvey Milk on gay rights in present-day America, the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln on how he would run the country today, the thoughts of Kurt Vonnegut on modern-day warfare—how many among us would want to bring a loved one back, if only for one conversation, nevermind an infinite many…

Yet a virtual intelligence that can evolve beyond our comprehension, and that threatens the very foundation of our identity is nothing to be trifled with. It may be inevitable, but the ramifications are unclear. All that can be known, from a human perspective with our limited processing and predictive powers, is that there will be change of some sort.

Human Change

I would bring my grandfather back. He raised me when I was a baby, and he was ahead of his age. He insisted that my mother and her sisters get an education, even if that was not a popular view at the time. He survived fighting World War Two with his spirit intact. He is a large part of who I am, even if we never got the chance to have a full conversation.

When God burned down Sodom in Genesis, he commanded that the people not look back. In many ways, this command is a wise wall to insulate one from the tragedy and certainty of death. Nevertheless, it is a wall we have all attempted to scale, one way or another.

Lot’s wife famously disobeyed this command, peering back at the ruined city. As punishment, she was turned into a pillar of salt. As Vonnegut wrote, “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.” So it goes.

Even if we are all turned into pillars of salt by this new possibility and the desires it creates, it occurs to me that nothing could be more human. Knowing that a part of you, and your loved ones endures, even if you do not, is something that is a constant desire of human nature. It is why we plant stones in the ground for those who passed, why in Chinese tradition we burn food and money for our ancestors, and why we build things for the future we will never enjoy ourselves.

In creating virtual reincarnations of the dead, we will be satisfying the most human of urges: the desire that you and the people you love will endure, and leave a legacy of ideas for future generations.

It may very well be the one defining trait that distinguishes us as humans.


Want to check out more of Ray Kurzweil’s story?


Want to know more about the technological singularity?


Inspired to pick up coding and understanding machines?


Learning Lists

Five Brilliant Resources for Learning How to Code, Design, and Think

When I first founded my tech startup, I did it without any technology knowledge. I’ve now firmly realized that this was a mistake—but perhaps in many ways a benefit, as I have been forced to learn the importance of coding, and design, and how it can frame one’s mind into thinking a certain rational way that will help not only with coding websites, but with how to consider and reflect on a whole host of problems, and communicate solutions to them effectively.

Here are five great resources I used along the way to help my journey along from being a total code novice to being able to understand and communicate web technology.

1-      Bentobox.IO (full repository of links to different coding schools)


Bentobox is a comprehensive walkthrough on how to learn how to code multiple languages, and the fundamentals of the web. A great starting point to see where you should start if you don’t know anything at all about coding.

2-      Hacker News (reddit-like technology subsection focused on startup enterpreneurs)


The virtual forum of the world-famous Y Combinator, I find it is a great resource for discussing with tech-minded individuals, and for seeing what’s going on in the technology space from people working on it every day. I guarantee that you’ll feel more at ease with technology and new ideas if you browse through it daily.

3-      Hack Design (emails sent to your inbox full of design goodness)


When you think design, you might think of pretty pictures fitting together in beautiful ways, but it is so much more than that. Design is really placing yourself in the shoes of someone else and ensuring they have a great experience, instead of the experience you think they should have. Design is me saying this should help you, instead of me saying this helped me. For all of that good stuff, and pretty things falling together in pretty ways, check out Hack Design’s emails.

4-      CodeAcademy (gamified version of learning how to code)


Get a handle on how to think like a coder, and how to build some projects, all while having fun! You’ll have a blast running through CodeAcademy, and it definitely will help you understand the common logic that unites most coding languages, and to get a handle on how to go about building your first projects.

5-      JQuery’s user interface documentation (simple instructions and copy+paste on how to build in cool things into your web projects)


Are you past the point where you can scurry around HTML and CSS with no pain? Wondering how to go about doing the really cool things web developers do—those datepickers, and autofill fields? Did you ace the JQuery track of CodeAcademy?

Before you go off wandering too much into Javascript land, check out the JQuery user interface. JQuery is a simplified library of code that allows you to take certain common features of a website and replicate them without knowing too much about Javascript. It takes many lines of codes in Javascript, and turns it into one word you can play around with. Playing around with it will allow you to firmly get the principles behind front-end code, and will allow you to build cool projects quickly.


Nothing beats trying to build your projects out and marshaling whatever resources you can to get that done, once you’ve finished all this. People often have a misguided notion of how hard this can be coming from a non-technical background. I graduated in business, and I can firmly tell you that I fundamentally believe that everybody can understand the basics behind the web—and that they should attempt to do so. Good luck on your journey!

Technology and Society

A Moral Opinion on Bitcoin

Why ultimately the ideals of the system may triumph over its’ practicalities

On this, the 100th anniversary of the Federal Reserve System’s founding, it is worth remarking upon the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto and his bitcoin creations.

Are bitcoins prone to speculative excess, are they under-regulated, do they have some aspects of a Ponzi scheme? Do they represent the same tired attitude of having to burn societal value (in this case electricity, processing power, and fans) to gain private value? Is it possible Satoshi will come back and show us all his true face, while taking the system away with him?

Yes to all.

However, the ideals behind bitcoin represent the technologist’s perspective on how to cut the bloated financial sector to size. Bitcoin allows for individuals to use digital means to escape the real pressing needs of dealing with conventional banking systems (such as privacy, and avoiding the double-count of money). On that rationale alone, I can support Bitcoin in principle. Bitcoin may have had its’ Silk Road, but Wachovia had the Mexican drug cartels.

If only the penalties for those responsible were equivalent. Wachovia, after all, was fined a small percentage of its’ yearly profits and allowed to largely maintain “business as usual”. In contrast, Silk Road was shut down, and its’ owner was arrested. It is abundantly clear where government power fears to tread. Eric Holder, attorney general of the United States, put it best when he declared that some banks were becoming “too big to prosecute”.

Major banks have been caught in the last five years laundering drug money, laundering money for terrorists, forging foreclosure documents, manipulating markets, manipulating key interest rates, pushing shoddy products on clients, taking on unneeded risk due to Excel errors (London Whale), and generating a whole host of economic bubbles that put food and commodities away from the reach of those that need them most. The most infuriating aspect of this is that most of the time, they did this while they were under taxpayer protection and funding.

The Federal Reserve System, while nominally supposed to act as a check on the banks, has become dependent upon them to a point where it is abundantly clear that alternatives to the bloated financial sector must be considered. While bitcoin may be imperfect in terms of some of its’ practicalities, ultimately the ideal behind bitcoin stands out as a laudable cause that will triumph in some form, sooner or later, if we properly apply the lessons we should have learned in the last 100 years.

Technology and Society

The 21st Century Prisoner’s Dilemma

Decreasing labor in order to salvage profits, to the detriment of both

A prisoner’s dilemma is when two groups that would be better off cooperating in order to achieve a higher coordinated payout choose instead to sacrifice their better aggregate payouts because their individual incentives lead them to forgo cooperation.

Typically represented in a matrix form, one way to conceptualize it is to describe the following scenario: I and Stephen Colbert are both in prison for being fearless conservatives.  We are given the choice to either be silent or to cooperate with the statist authorities by informing on the other. If we are both silent, we would get two years each in prison, if we both informed we would get three years in prison, and if one of us cooperated and the other remained silent, the one cooperating would be free, while the other who was silent would get five years.

It is in both of our private interests to inform on the other, because then we face a choice between freedom if the other was silent, and three years if the other informed, rather than in the case of if we choose to be silent, in which case we face either two years in prison if the other was silent, and five years if the other informed.

In aggregate that means instead of having two years in prison if we both were silent, we will both inform on one another and get a negative aggregate outcome of having three years in prison each because it is in our private interest to arrive to this equilibrium, since both of us will seek the better payoff of informing on the other. We will harm each other as we seek to help ourselves.

The 21st century’s prisoner’s dilemma will be that every firm will not want to hire workers, but will want every other firm to hire workers in order to have a consumer base for itself. This is because the private payoff of having less labor (and saving on what for many businesses is the largest cost) is such a powerful private incentive. Despite what other businesses do in aggregate, it will almost always be better for the individual firm to shed workers.

Unfortunately, this will lead to a worse social equilibrium. Castes of the unemployed, political and economic volatility, and staggering inequality may become the norm. Ironically, this economic chaos will then lead to lower profits, as less consumers will be able to buy most products. If left unchecked, lower private costs will be overwhelmed by higher social costs.

The 1950s saw the rise of the Great Society, the establishment of the welfare state, and of mass infrastructure projects that set the foundation of the 20th century. We will have to do even better to build the 21st century, and ensure a balence between private and social incentives.

(Now please help break me and Stephen out of prison!)

Defining the Future

Defining Big Data in Less Than Three Minutes

I remember the first time I said the word “big data” with pride when describing my work. It, like every good buzzword, meant nothing to me, but conveyed a lot to my imagined prospective audience. It said something about my intelligence that I was working in “big data”, plying away at Excel sheets with way too many lines—a sure sign of a “big data” expert!

I know better now. After doing some research, I’m proud to say that I knew absolutely nothing about the topic at the time. In many ways, I still don’t—but I know enough to talk about the basics of “big data” and what it really represents, so you can explore with me.

The first step is to realize that big data represents data that is so large and complex that conventional data tools such as the table-based SQL cannot handle the load. Big data is not simply a big dataset that can be handled with Excel. Think of, for example, someone tracking every time someone commented on Ahnold’s accent on social media, their location, and other user attributes, in a mad quest to find who had the best “get to the choppa!” or “there is no bathroom!” quote variations: you’d quickly go mad trying to pass through every single one of those data points in a relational table or in an Excel file, even if you worked for a large Arnold-watching company, and had a set data process.

An easy rule of thumb to describe this is to say that big data refers to data sets that become difficult for an organization with a conventional data process to handle. This can be on several orders of magnitude. A smaller business may struggle with a lower threshold than a larger one. Nevertheless, it is the beginning of the struggle, and the search for alternatives to bread-and-butter SQL/Excel that is at the core of big data.

Traditional data tends to group data into tables, and operates with a smaller number of servers. Big data tends to ungroup data, and organize and analyze data through parallel processing across a larger number of servers.

When people in the field comment about the possibilities offered by big data, they are espousing the collection of unfathomable amounts of details we are now leaving on the web which was impossible five or ten years ago—because there were not so many details on the web, and there were no tools to collect them. Now with smartphones, sensors, and social media, data points are multiplying on an exponential level. Those who would take a dragnet over all of this data, pry them through tools not traditionally used in data collection that spread the volume and velocity of data over several servers instead of one or two, and then emerge with finely combed and actionable insights despite the overbearingly massive amount of data, are dealing with big data. This includes the NSA, but also data scientists who won the 2012 election, and health analysts working to ensure better care for all.

Please contribute to big data by commenting or forwarding me your terabytes of favorite Ahnold quotes.

It’s probably big data: new tools and terms





Look at me in very not-tabled Javascript Object Notation, a favorite of web-based Big Data databases:


JSON in relation to Big Data


It’s probably not big data

Your Excel spreadsheets of political enemies, no matter how many you have

Your Excel spreadsheets of dateable people, no matter how many you have

Your SQL tables of your favorite Arnold movies, and quotes contained within

Your handwritten list of things you would do for a Klondike bar

Look at me in traditional SQL table form:


SQL in relation to Big Data