Nova Spivack, please stop scanning my brain.

Last year, I started having a flood of ideas about how the future’s technology will enable fascinating new ways for humankind to work together and communicate, and how society will be fundamentally altered as a result.

Then a few months ago, I discovered something very disconcerting: There is this guy named Nova Spivack in California, and he is scanning my brain, stealing my ideas, and passing them off as his own. I know you probably don’t believe me, and now I wish I had placed dates on my pages of notes, because from now on nobody will believe that I thought of these things before Nova wrote about them.

I figure I’d best put some of my notes here, before he claims to have come up with them first. So far, I don’t think he’s stolen these particular ideas yet:

(by the way, I’m just kidding. Nova is an amazing person, and I think he will go down in history as someone who helped bring about the biggest revolution, ever, in human communication. I’m just a little jealous, that’s all.)

The language of thought

(future-y, vision-ey stuff)

How many times do we have an awesome idea or a vision of some grand achievement… yet cannot find the words to describe it? Our words often, literally, fail us.

Each of us, every day, translates the language of our thought into words or pictures or gestures or inflections. Is it worth considering, even for a minute, that maybe someday all of us, globally, will communicate in our most-native of languages?

Our own rational minds have learned to make best sense of our own creative ideas. How possible is it that, using some kind of future interface, we may someday learn to make sense of everyone else’s creative thoughts?! The benefits to mankind would be so great that it is worth considering.

What would such an interface be? Will it employ nanotechnology? Some form of non-invasive brain imaging?

Regardless of the architecture, the “software interface” will need to be formed. It will probably be nothing like today’s software… owned and created by big companies. It will be an evolving, collaborative, living thing… much like spoken language today. Except new ideas and techniques and creativity will propagate as fast as our minds can collectively know them. Humankind will become like one organism, taking care of itself, nurturing itself, making decisions, making life better for every part of itself, since every part can be felt. Even the smallest itch can be scratched.

Ideas about this future interface

(what we should be trying to achieve)

Not every item needs to be explicitly described, in the same way that describing them to a friend does not need to be an absolutely complete item-for-item essay.

First, a friend knows generally what a sunset or a swing set or a park bench looks like, what attributes it typically has… these common human concepts and experiences are already fundamentally understood. Only a little categorization needs to be added to the already-understood concepts…

a blue park bench with an old man on it

an orange and cloudy sunset above the Rockies

a rusty old swing set with broken chains and mud puddles.

Second, a friend knows you and your experiences to a degree, so descriptions of your children or your high school need only be provided once, if ever. Later, the meaning-rich phrase “Zander in shorts with Jasmine in his lap” automatically and powerfully paints a picture in only eight words!

The best interface will be “smart” enough to know that horses can run or stand, people have eyes with certain colors, Marilyn Monroe had blond hair (usually), I lived in Colorado when I was young, my brothers and parents and children all have the same eye color as I do, and sunshine cannot be black in the natural world.

All this, because it was told once and it remembers… globally, for everyone!

Listen to what I mean, not what I say!

Many years ago, my wife Jennifer was explaining something to me and she accidentally used the wrong word to describe a concept. I knew what she was trying to say, yet I couldn’t resist suggesting the word that she should have used. Somewhat embarrassed and with a sheepish look, she said: “Listen to what I mean, not what I say.”

That made me laugh and smile. What an interesting thing to say. I’ll never forget that.

But then, recently, I realized that her amusing request is actually a very powerful statement of the quality of human interaction, and is the very thing we should be demanding of the Internet.

~

When Jennifer said “Listen to what I mean, not what I say,” she was simply asking me to stop paying attention to how she was talking, and start listening to what she was actually saying. This is not a difficult feat for me — or any human — to pull off. And of all the people in her life, I — her husband — can probably do this best. I have known her for many years. I know her desires, mannerisms, dreams, and nuances.

Okay, I must admit, her mother easily holds #1 spot in this category. I don’t even try to keep up. And when I have those silly or deep conversations with my brothers, she surely wonders which planet we are from. But both of these situations illustrate my point: The best conversations happen when we don’t have to pay attention to how we talk. We just express ourselves.

When we listen to a friend excitedly share their thoughts and experiences, we are not computing the exact literal meaning of each word as they speak. We are, ultimately, listening to the meaning behind their words. The words themselves are merely an attempt to translate another level of rich meaning and emotion that resides in our friend’s mind. If we are engaged in the conversation and truly interested, it really doesn’t matter if they use improper english or a wrong word. We just know what they are saying.

~

Isn’t this what we expected when we typed a question on our very first visit to Google, MSN, or Yahoo? Isn’t this what we hoped would be going on when we first heard about the Internet?

We aren’t there yet. Our current internet is an unprecedented revolution in society’s ability to communicate, to be sure. But as amazing and powerful as it is, searching for and finding what we want takes skill. We must learn a sort of language for effective searching. Even so, a search for child swallow poison drano yields hundreds of results. Clearly, there are situations where the potential of the Internet to just give us the answer is largely unfulfilled.

The Internet is a huge store of extremely valuable information, but it is a huge mess. If not for today’s powerful search sites, most of us would surely have given up on it. But today’s Internet experience is still somewhat like asking a geek librarian for books about growing vegetables and receiving from him every book in the library that happens to contain those words. Sure, he instantaneously sorted them by popularity and proximity of words, and opened them to the correct pages. That’s pretty nice, but this mindless librarian just delivered nearly 2 million books to our desk.

What kind of librarian is this? Is this some kind of joke? How did he get hired here? Is there anybody here that can just give us a few really good books about growing vegetables? I don’t know about you, but I’d surely be telling him to listen to what I mean, not what I say!

~

Within 10 years, you will start to see this level of understanding from the Internet — or whatever it will be called. Pockets of researchers and scientists and visionaries are already discussing it. Some of the technologies and standards have even begun to emerge.

The day will come when you can simply type (or speak) a question and receive a meaningful, relevant answer, just as if you were talking with a very intelligent, trusted “iFriend”… We’ll call him Fred. Fred will have a familiarity with your interests, your style of speaking, and what you mean by “that hotel we stayed at in Memphis.”

Fred will also understand the combined knowledge of millions of other people like you who share their knowledge with the World. This is somewhat similar to how Wikpedia works today: Thousands of people, Worldwide, concentrate information in one place, adding new information by the second, and refining it over time.

But here is the most awesome part: instead of sitting at a computer screen with a mouse and keyboard “searching the net”, you can interact with Fred from wherever you are in the world — on the bus, snow-skiing, or working in your garden — via your hands-free virtual heads-up interface. You will talk to fred about differing views on how the French Revolution affected modern society. You can ask him how many other people around the World are skiing at this very moment and what tips they have to improve your technique. Or you can talk about which vegetables have grown best in your geographic area, and whether you should worry about those brown spots on your beet plants.

Like any decent friend, the Internet will listen to what you mean, not what you say. This future is going to happen, and my deepest ambition is to be a part of it.

A new chapter

On May 19, we will pack everything we own into a truck. Six hours later we’ll start a new chapter of life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

There are two reasons for this big change. First, we can barely keep afloat in our sea of expenses. We had to find a cheaper way to live.

Second, I have ideas. I have ideas about the future that make me, at my core, so excited that I literally hop up and down in my seat. In 30 or 40 years when my time is winding down, I want to recall a life of initiative and contribution… of progress toward my deepest goals.

And now is the time. This is my chance.

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