Avatar and the Singularity

James Cameron's film portrays the future of virtual worlds.

1 min read

Yes, Avatar is dazzling.  Make sure you see it in IMAX 3-D, as I did fortunately this weekend.  It is without a doubt the trippiest movie ever made - or since the Wizard of Oz at least. 

It's not perfect, though.  The story thins out too much in parts, and Cameron frequently sacrifices drama for wonderment. 

I was more impressed by something in the subtext - the portrayal, intentional or not, of life in a virtual world.   Cameron is what Ray Kurzweil would call a Singularitarian.  Kurzweil talks about the moment (in our lifetime, he thinks) when humans will essentially upload into the Matrix, and live forever.  Whether you believe that or not, this is what happens in Avatar. 

(Spoiler alert). 

The protagonist is a parapalegic marine who leaves his wheelchair (and body) behind in the end to inhabit his synthetic avatar self.   He uploads for good and possibly forever.  It's not clear whether the aliens can transfer  bodies too.  If so, then they could just keep transfering every time their bodies become sick or boring.  But we humans certainly have the upgrade option when we land on Pandora.  All we have to do is lay down under a phosphorecent tree, and get ensarled by brightly-colored weeds.  Then...snap.  Our eyes open inside a bright blue 10 foot tall Eco.T.

Despite Avatar's incredible - and incredibly expensive - effects, it is sort of a rehash of this quaint old sci-fi idea. Avatar falls neatly in line with all the other VR fantasy films - from Videodrome to Lawnmower Man, Tron to (next year) Tron Legacy.  But it  does the finest job yet of conveying what it feels like to live in a virtual world.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
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Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford
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Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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