If we ignore for the moment that we are already moist robots of a sort, I wonder if it is inevitable that we will evolve into more traditional robots of metal and silicon and plastic.

I think futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that someday we will have body scanners so accurate we can analyze a human brain and transfer it to a computer. Obviously the computers of the future will need to be more powerful to handle the load, but that seems feasible. I wonder what happens next.

Suppose we transfer a dying guy's brain into a computer, and that computer passes the Turing Test, thus demonstrating genuine intelligence. For all practical purposes it might have the same personality as the human brain that went into it. If you had a conversation with it, I can imagine it expressing a desire to live and even procreate.

Now here's where it gets interesting. Once you transfer more than one human into computer form, the two of them could choose to mate, with their offspring being the combination of the two artificial personalities, after agreeing to some rules about which traits they prefer to be dominant.

As computers, they could still tap into all the knowledge on the Internet, but only as needed, the same way regular humans access the Internet. The only programs running automatically and all the time would be their core personalities.

Eventually these computer brains would request more robust robot bodies, and the regular humans would oblige by developing ever better models. And then things get really interesting because regular humans could mate with robot lovers. The offspring would be the combination of the computer's mind and the scanned brain of the regular human, again following rules to see which traits dominate. The offspring would necessarily be a computer, thus dooming regular humans in the long run.

In some cases a dying male could leave behind a sperm sample before evolving into his computer-robot self. That way he could still reproduce with a regular human woman. So there would be a period in human evolution where regular humans and robot humans routinely mate and have the option of a traditional or robot baby.

Eventually, when all humans have robot bodies and computer brains, it will seem silly to be encased in separate physical bodies when reality could be better handled via simulation. So all the individual computers would agree to download to one huge computer and live a simulated reality for the rest of time.

The imagined reality would feature each "person" in flesh form. Upon the death of a particular simulated human, the host computer person would "reincarnate" into another simulated human baby.

By the way, it already happened. Your flesh form died a billion years ago. To make the simulation meaningful, you walled off the memory of being in a simulation. But you left the digital equivalent of a bread crumb path back because, being human, you couldn't totally release on the past. So we see hints and clues in this simulated life that give us a way out of this simulation if it becomes too brutal.

For example, in this simulated life we continually create simulations of our own. We call them TV shows, plays, movies, books, and even computer games that are simulations of life. Everything in this life is a metaphor. And our coincidences aren't as coincidental as we think.

I'm guessing you don't buy this explanation of your reality, but consider this: If the prediction of the future seems reasonable, and time is infinite, it is infinitely more likely it already happened compared to the possibility that it will happen in our future and hasn't yet. We could be imagining the universe as only 14 billion years old in the simulation.

(Yes, I am borrowing from the Boltzmann Brain idea and combining it with Kurzweil's predictions and a dash of The Matrix, plus a few other ideas. That doesn't make it wrong. That just proves we left bread crumbs.)
I was reading something scary the other day. Obviously it was from an economist. He said the real problems haven't started yet. Wait until the Baby Boomers start retiring. Their nest eggs are tiny and there won't be enough Social Security and health care money in the universe to keep everyone in cat food and diapers.

I'm an optimist so I think society will find a way to adapt. But I wonder what that will look like? It might be an improvement.

For one thing, I think you'll see more sharing. The Internet can make it easy to know where you can find resources to borrow. The most obvious example is carpooling. But it could get down to who has food in the fridge that will go bad because someone will be out of town for a week. Or maybe it becomes easy to find a reliable grandma who will babysit for free if you agree to feed her cat next Tuesday. The market for sharing is totally untapped.

I just bought two tickets to a show, for an upcoming trip. I'm sure I will like the show. But I won't like it more than watching a good TV show with family or friends while eating popcorn and sitting on the couch. It's just different. Most luxury expenses are entirely unnecessary in terms of happiness.

I eat a lot of meals out, but it's mostly for convenience. After most restaurants go out of business, which should happen in the next five years, people might start cooking group meals. It makes a lot more sense for your family to make a big pot of mashed potatoes and meet the neighbors for a group buffet. That's relatively little work for each family, and relatively cheap. Again all you need is the Internet to help you organize that sort of thing. Plus you need a good dose of poverty to eliminate the alternatives.

The new poverty is likely to be different from anything that came before. Imagine a world where even the poor have good Internet access and universal healthcare. If you were healthy and could use the Internet to find everything else you needed, from borrowing a tool to organizing a Scrabble game, you'd be pretty much set.

The other way the future could go is that out of economic necessity the government will approve some sort of feel-good pill that makes your external situation less important. You won't mind sharing a one-room apartment with 20 people if they are all on the same pill. And you won't require much in terms of entertainment. So long as the pill is cheap, which it could be if the government declares it so, then people won't need much to be happily retired. The pill could be outlawed for anyone under 65, just so the wheels don't completely fall off the economic engine.

It would be impossible for the government to approve a pill that simply made you feel good. Society frowns on that sort of thing. But imagine the inventors of the pill being smart about how they describe the pill's impact. Instead of saying it makes you happy they could say it makes you less fussy. You won't mind eating that cat food instead of steak because you're suddenly less fussy when medicated. Even the most religious person would agree that living like a monk can be a good thing. Fussiness is the influence of the devil. The government would surely approve an anti-Satan pill.

Which way do you think it will go: more sharing or more medication?
Comic strips are supposed to be an exaggerated world, but lately it has been hard to concoct ideas for Dilbert that are more absurd than reality. For example, when Dilbert's company develops a new product, I want it to be worse than any product you have ever seen in real life. I thought I was ahead of the curve until I saw my dog's reaction to her dog food. Let's start by saying she doesn't care for it.

Now you might think this is not the least bit unusual. Pets have preferences just like people, so it should be no surprise that she wouldn't like a particular brand of dog food. At least that's how I saw it until I reflected on the things she DOES like to eat, including every other type of food, the cat's food, mud, twigs, bugs, cat vomit, and her own turds.

If you ask me, the bar has been set low. How bad does your company's product have to be before your target market prefers eating its own poop? If I wrote a comic along those lines it would be too absurd to work even as comedy.

Our type of dog, a toy Australian Shepherd, is notorious for chewing up everything it can get its teeth into. As I write this she is sniffing around the office looking for something to beaver into splinters. It's a big problem. So we bought some sort of spray from the pet store that is intended to keep her away from prized objects. Apparently there is some subtle dog-only scent in this spray that she will find unpleasant. As you might have guessed already, the dog that sniffs asses and eats snails off the sidewalk was unfazed by this so-called unpleasant odor.

Dog training didn't work either. This breed learns quickly, and the first thing it learned is that we wouldn't punish it for chewing the bejeezus out of things. She knows she has a free pass. Her worst case scenario is some stern sounding baby talk, and she likes the attention.

But I think I have a solution. Tomorrow I'm going to rub her dog food on anything we don't want her to gnaw on. That should work. The only downside is that the entire house and all of our clothing will smell like something that would make a dog say, "No thank you. I prefer feces."
Some of you have heard this story, but I will reiterate to make a larger point. I had a mysterious voice problem that I accurately diagnosed using Google after several doctors were baffled. I woke up one day thinking my voice problem might be related in some way to my hand problem - a writer's cramp called focal dystonia. So I Googled "voice dystonia" and up popped a link to a video of a person speaking with exactly the same speech defect I had at the time, something called Spasmodic Dysphonia. That diagnosis was later confirmed, and I tried the recommended treatment of Botox shots to the vocal cords, which had limited success in my case. And I did voice therapy which helped some, but I was far from fixed.

About a year ago I started using Google Alerts to tell me whenever someone mentioned Dilbert, me, or anything about Spasmodic Dysphonia on the Internet. About six months ago I got an alert with a link to an obscure medical publication with a report about an even more obscure surgical procedure for fixing spasmodic dysphonia. I took that information to my doctor, who referred me to an expert at Stanford University, who referred me to an expert surgeon at UCLA. Long story short, the operation I read about wasn't as promising as the article suggested, but the final surgeon in my travels had his own version of surgery that had a good track record. I tried it, and now my voice is normal. I never would have found that path without Google Alerts.

I've used the Internet dozens of times to diagnose various minor medical problems, or to find out what things are dangerous or not. It made me wonder how far the Dr. Google trend can go, and what impact that can have on society's medical costs.

Obviously there are plenty of examples where seeing a trained doctor is going to give a better result than using your own flawed judgment plus the Internet. Let's agree those cases are many and somewhat obvious. But the real question is whether there are just as many or more cases where using the Internet instead of a doctor gives you a BETTER result.

Let's say for the sake of argument that we're not talking about emergency room or trauma situations where a doctor is obviously the best solution. I'm talking about all the trips to see the doctor where you essentially say, "Something hurts. What is my problem? Do you have a pill for that?"

In those cases let's say we can break it down into two general categories: common and uncommon problems.

With the uncommon problems, such as my spasmodic dysphonia, I have to wonder if Google (or WebMD, etc.) can do a better job than a doctor, if not now then maybe in the near future. If you could call up videos of people with identical symptoms, couldn't you diagnose most of your own problems?

For example, are you any worse than your doctor at looking at High Definition pictures of a skin problem and comparing it to your own skin problem?

My guess is that the Internet could equal your doctor in diagnosing uncommon problems. WebMD for example asks a bunch of diagnostic questions and narrows down your symptoms just as a doctor would. That system will only improve over time.

Common problems are even easier to diagnose, give or take someone looking in your ear or down your throat. And I'm imagining someday you can buy a home kit that takes a picture down those orifices and puts it on your computer for easy comparison to stock medical pictures.

This leaves us with the issue of dispensing meds. Your first reaction is that obviously you want a doctor to do that because otherwise people will abuse the system or diagnose something deadly for themselves. But perhaps there is another way to approach this safely.

Suppose as a patient you simply needed to answer a series of questions on your other health issues and medications to determine if a drug is safe for you. Once you establish your medical database, you have fewer questions the next time you need a prescription. The database plus your pharmacist would be enough to keep you from killing yourself accidentally. In some cases you still need a doctor if the meds are especially risky, but that would be rare.

You still have the risk of a patient requesting things he doesn't need. The pharmacist plus your database can flag most of that abuse. And perhaps you could have a system where a doctor "approves" patients to handle their own prescriptions if they appear to be responsible, up to a certain age.

I don't have the details worked out, but I think Google will be your new doctor in some fashion.

I use Google Alerts to tell me when there has been some mention of Dilbert or me on the Internet. It's the digital equivalent of being a fly on the wall because no one really expects me to be one of the six people reading their blog.

Yesterday I came across a blog post about a prediction I made in 1998. I will link to it because I think the post is well written.


My prediction about confusopolies was better than I imagined. For example, I keep reading articles about entrepreneurs starting their own electric car companies. When the barriers to entry for starting your own car company come down, you know we're in a commodity world.

Thanks to the Internet, relatively efficient capital markets, and the fact that some company in China can make just about anything, anyone with drive can start just about any kind of company. The interesting part is that in the near future it can never be profitable to do so, because a hundred other people will start the same company next week and drive down your margins. Your only defense is to be confusing, so customers believe, incorrectly, that your product has advantages.

When I started my first restaurant I was surprised how easy it was for someone with no experience to succeed in that business. I hired the right people or companies for every facet of building the business and my operating partner put all the pieces together. The restaurant was an instant hit and lines wrapped around the block when it opened.

But you know the rest.

The fact that it was easy to enter the business is exactly what eliminated the margins. Scores of independent restaurants opened in the general area in the next few years and all cannibalized each other. With our current economic downturn, I predict 40% of the restaurants in my area will shut down within three years. Their margins had disappeared even before the economy imploded.

My theory of confusopolies had a lot to do with my involvement with dilbertfiles.com. It's a business with lots of competitors, and the options and features are confusing. Most of the comments on this blog about the service took the form of "Why would you need a car when a horse can do the job!" In other words, the competing services had confused people about exactly what they offer to the point of equating a horse and a car.

My involvement with dilbertfiles.com is different from the typical celebrity endorsement in an important way: I actually use the service for my own work, and did so long before I had the notion to partner with sendyourfiles.com for a Dilbert branded version of their product.

When you see a tennis star endorse a tennis racket, there is no chance that star uses that actual racket. Pros use heavier rackets, tricked out for their preferences. You couldn't buy Roger Federer's actual racket if you wanted.

I could give other examples, but the point is that you rarely see a case where the celebrity was already using the product before the endorsement or licensing deal was initiated. Sure, he might play professional games in the sneakers that have his name, but there is little chance he would have chosen that particular shoe if his name wasn't on it.

Obviously I could be risking my reputation and lying about a product I use, trying to make a few bucks, but my incentive to do that isn't high. I see my role with dilbertfiles.com as "a guy you know (sort of) who is already using the service and is happy about it." If you don't want to wade through the confusion and do the research yourself, that can be helpful to know. And realistically, no one has time to research every little decision.

I'm one of those people who can't remember my own address half the time (true) but I can remember a joke forever. I will now test your joke I.Q. by giving you some punchlines and you can see how many of them you recognize from the joke.

1. It's not so funny when it's YOUR mother, is it?

2. Tuesday is your day in the barrel.

3. Would you hold this camel for me?

4. Keep the tip.

How did you do?

Add your own punchlines without jokes in comments.
Dec 2, 2008 | General Nonsense | Permalink
For Thanksgiving my family and our new dog piled into the car and drove to Reno to visit relatives. If you are not from around here, allow me to explain a few things about Reno.

Reno is between California (God's country) and the black hole that is the rest of northern Nevada. Reno is sort of like God's taint.

We checked into the only hotel in the area that allowed dogs, and discovered we had to give up a few luxuries. For example, I assume the carpets were not always black. I tried to fashion my own stilts with duct tape and chopsticks, but that didn't work out. Plan B involved concentrating real hard to see if I could hover above the floor the way I sometimes do in dreams. Unfortunately that superpower hasn't kicked in yet. I realize that sounds insane, but the only difference between insanity and optimism is luck. And I was feeling lucky. Don't judge me.

A sentence you rarely hear from kids at the higher end hotels is "I just got under the covers and now I have bites all over my legs." Luckily I came prepared with some cortisone cream and some lies about the Reno air drying out your skin. Evidently our blood was so full of turkey triptothan that the attackers dozed off after the initial offensive. Problem solved.

I had more than usual to be thankful about this Thanksgiving. My recent surgery fixed my speech problem after 3.5 years of spasmodic dysphonia. During those years I dreaded every human contact. Simple tasks, such as ordering a meal at a restaurant, or making a phone call, were beyond my powers. This was the first social gathering since 2005 in which I could speak normally. I am a ghost who got a second chance among the living, and for that I am thankful beyond measure.

And I am joking about the hotel. It was clean and perfectly adequate. But Reno is still a taint.
The day after the Thanksgiving holiday in America is called Black Friday, when it is said many retailers begin making a profit for the year, hence being "in the black." The media closely follows the retail sales on Black Friday as one gauge of how the holiday season will unfold. This year sales were up 3% over last year despite the recession.

Or so it has been reported.

We also heard media reports of people being injured and killed in shopper "stampedes" this year. Those are the sorts of anecdotes that stick in your head better than sales statistics.

I mention this because the normally popular store I shopped at this weekend was empty. Sure, it was just one store. Still, that's mighty strange for the biggest shopping period of the year.

My favorite conspiracy theory involves a secret society of powerful people managing the news to create trading opportunities. When things get too peaceful, this group invests heavily in weapons manufacturers and then uses the media to sell a war. When the stock market is in the crapper, the puppet masters buy retail stocks and use the media to paint the holiday season as rosier than it is so they can cash in on the market bump. And so on.

Big money is made when markets fluctuate and when you have better information than other investors. What better way to game the system than to cause the fluctuations yourself?

Now you might argue that such a conspiracy would have to involve so many people that it would be impossible to keep it a secret. I'm not so sure about that. First, you would only need to succeed in manipulating the media 55% of the time, just to pick an example number, and that would be enough to reap huge profits over the long run. And there could still be plenty of dissenting voices and competing points of view, so the manipulation could get lost in the noise.

The key to making the manipulation work is making the manufactured crises more compelling or more "sticky" than the plain vanilla stories that are competing for attention. For example, the story about the shopper stampede only needed to be picked up by one influential news source in order to be copied by all. It could as easily been ignored.

And the stampede story is "sticky" because I will probably remember it for the rest of my life, whereas I won't remember a report of some particular store having lower sales this season. It's the same process used by trial lawyers when they argue their cases in terms of human suffering to have a larger impact on the jury.

It wouldn't require the involvement of many people to control the source of economic statistics. At some point in the process of tabulating the results I assume there is literally one person who sees the total before anyone else. Hypothetically, the "story" of brisk retail sales for Black Friday and shopper stampedes might involve only a few paid conspirators beyond the inner circle of the puppet masters.

I don't actually believe the theory I just described. At least not yet. But if your comments tell me the stores you visited in the past week were empty too, I might revisit that position.


I wonder what it means to say my consciousness is separate from yours. After all, I can pick up a phone, or author a blog post, and tell you what is on my mind. And if I observe your situation, my empathy tells me roughly how you are feeling. I can't experience your situation exactly as you feel it, but as long as we can communicate I say we are part of a shared consciousness.

By analogy, I'm sure the various parts of one person's brain don't experience reality the same way as his other parts, yet we consider a brain the agent of one consciousness not several.

I was thinking about this recently as I contemplated the enormous coincidences in my life, and how they suggest that I'm living in some sort of a programmed reality that is far from random. It seems odd that at the age of six I would pick a career as a famous cartoonist and then thanks to a spectacular series of coincidences it actually transpires. And what are the odds that Dilbert and Dogbert would have no mouths then their creator loses the ability to speak to an exotic and reportedly incurable condition? And then, against all odds, he is alive at exactly the time in history that one surgeon in the world, who lives nearby, perfects a surgery to cure it. And it works.

Sure, I know life is full of coincidences. But mine seem off the chart. And this makes me feel I am living in some sort of programmed reality, or perhaps a Boltzmann Brain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boltzmann_brain

The good news is that no matter what model of reality you pick, we're all part of a shared consciousness as long as we can communicate and empathize.

Have a great holiday if that applies to your country. I probably won't post again until Monday.

I assume the technology for anti-depression drugs will keep improving. That seems reasonable. And I assume that being in jail would make the average person depressed. Prisons have healthcare for the inmates, and depression is a legitimate health problem. Here's the dilemma: Do you give a prisoner drugs that will make him happy despite being in jail, or do you have an obligation to keep him depressed? After all, you don't want people thinking that committing a crime will improve their happiness whether they get caught or not.

I expect some quibbling about the definition of depression. I understand there is a big difference between the debilitating form and the type where you are sad for a perfectly good reason. But if your reason for being depressed is a long prison sentence, that reason probably won't pass for years. And if you are having suicidal thoughts, that is generally considered a sign of the serious type of depression. I have to think most people with a long prison sentence entertain the thought of suicide. At what point is it ethically appropriate to treat prison-induced depression?
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