28 Apr 2009
Interview with Curious George..........The Genius
There are the ahead of the curve on Second Life, and the very astute and the very Brilliant.
All of these qualities are in abundance in one of Second Life’s most illustrious residents, Curious George. He actually raises the world we are in simply by being so much a part of it. He is one of the driving forces behind The Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA) a professional scientific and educational, non-profit organization based in virtual worlds. George is a Professor of Astronomy and a Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Computing Research (CACR) at Caltech. I had the great opportunity to sit down recently on StellaNova which is the base of MICA operations on Second Life with the man I call………….The Genius.
Curious George: Please, sit down.
Pooky Amsterdam: Beautiful furniture this is very comfortable.
Curious George: Thanks! That's the idea behind StellaNova, make it a pleasant place for discussions and communication.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes the ability to 'make one comfortable ‘really on a visual plane helps the mind extend itself.
Curious George: So aside from a few major venues - the amphitheaters, the seminar room - we have several of these discussion circles scattered through the sim.
Pooky Amsterdam: Do you have any other venues which stimulate discussion- the club room is a classic do you have for example a pod in the midst of the galaxy?
Curious George: No, we did not want to do any "space Disneyland" stuff -- plenty of that around. The idea is to have a natural and realistic park-like setting, the groves of academe if you will.
Pooky Amsterdam: Classical in that sense and open air as well. Your goals of having a sim to foster discussion of the kind you just mention are important.
Curious George: Yes, the idea of openness is conveyed throughout - no hidden spaces.
Pooky Amsterdam: Though we do have hidden regions of the mind that thought & of course discussion will illuminate.
Curious George: (smiles) Some of them, anyway.
Pooky Amsterdam: How long have you been open?
Curious George: We opened on Jan. 30, and we are starting to have a full schedule of events including the workshop tomorrow. (For a full schedule of workshops and calendar of events http://mica-vw.org/)But we certainly use the sim for our meetings, and I have seen many visitors come through.
Curious George: We welcome anyone, and the environment is meant to be used for any and all scientific and scholarly interactions, discussions, etc.
Pooky Amsterdam: Did you ever envision that you would be teaching, learning and collaborating on a place or platform such as this?
Curious George: Now I of course see that, but before being introduced to VWs about a year ago, I was skeptical, like most academics, I think.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes of course- you have achieved a great thing here through your willingness to be open to it and will certainly lead the way. How are people you work with reacting to this.
Curious George: It's fun to be exploring new and unknown territories, and VWs certainly are that. Most academics are oblivious to the change that this technology brings, so it will take a few years.
Pooky Amsterdam: There really is little corollary in real life- lets all go on an overseas voyage & see what we want to discuss about, the universe?
Curious George: Right now, most people assume that this is just some silly video games for adults. But that will change, as the VWs technology becomes more pervasive and people start discovering its utility.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes but have you been able to bring your colleagues into this- have they been intrigued? You work at one of the nations most prestigious universities in terms of technology. Are you vetting your colleagues before you approach them?
Curious George: Not vetting, I just know who might be interested to try this, and I tell them about it. Some of them have already. We ask people to give MICA seminars and/or public lectures. Some colleagues, yes, but these have been selected as being potentially open to this kind of thing.
Pooky Amsterdam: Great- this was my next question- you are using it both for international collaborations and also to bring events to the more general science community.
Curious George: There is also the obvious use of SL as a collaboration platform, and I have used it for my research group meetings. As for the people we bring in as speakers, some remain active, and some don't. And we are about to start using SL for meetings of an international collaboration we are now starting, with groups at Caltech, in Italy, and in India. Telepresence technology like this makes a lot of travel unnecessary, and it is a very green technology because of that. And on a subjective level, as you know, it works better than the usual video- or teleconferencing setups.
Pooky Amsterdam: Do you find that new people, new scientists are amazed at how they might "extend themselves" into an avatar?
Curious George: Those who really take to it, yes.
Pooky Amsterdam: Do you find it is a love it or don’t get it kind of thing?
Curious George: Not sure, there is probably a spectrum of reactions. The technology is still fairly primitive. It will get a lot better, and then more people will "get it". What I mean is more effective 3-d graphics, and haptic computing to capture motions and facial expressions. And this will happen, for commercial reasons, probably first driven by entertainment, but then becoming ubiquitous in the same was as the web did, and perhaps even more so. Right now we simply transfer the ways we do meetings and lectures in RL into SL. We may yet discover better and new uses.
Pooky Amsterdam: Hmm, how much does facial expression affect a lecture in RL? Will be very interesting to have a motion capture animation for a professor giving a lecture.
Curious George: Yes, body language and facial expressions are crucial parts of our communication, and yet somehow, these cartoony and limited avatars do work better than videoconferencing.
Pooky Amsterdam: We accept their limitations more readily somehow.
Curious George: There is probably some good research to be done on this, by the people who study human perception, vision, etc.
Pooky Amsterdam: Perhaps we are more exacting for "completely realistic." You have opened fairly recently here, what program have you been most excited about and what events are you looking to broaden your calendar with?
Curious George: Well, MICA has been around since last April or May (2008), but StellaNova is new. We have started two new research discussion groups, in collaboration with KIRA, which is Piet Hut's other SL playground.
Pooky Amsterdam: A playground for the mind so to speak
Curious George: One is a group to investigate the use of OpenSim and WVs generally for numerical stellar dynamics. The other is a group called "Relocatable Laboratories in Metaverse", and the name explains it. These have weekly meetings I would like to start a couple more things soon. And another one will be a series of roundtable discussions on topics in computational science and technology.
Pooky Amsterdam: Brilliant & again I would think that would need also graphics or some kind of representation.
Curious George: One group we plan to start would be a research forum on immersive data visualizations.
Pooky Amsterdam: Can you tell me about it what people will be looking forward to on Stella Nova. Do you find people open up that is become more inspired with out the barrier of the physical body? Is this more a purer mind experience- the ideas generate exponentially? What is KIRA?
Curious George: OK, since you have been asking new questions as I have been typing the previous answer, let me rewind and answer the new ones in order: "what is KIRA?”: It is Kira Cafe, a group run by Piet Hut / Pema Pera, and it deals with matters of philosophy, spirituality, etc., and some aspects of science.
Pooky Amsterdam: Fractals are for example, a program which generates images based on a specific kind of randomness , e.g. found in nature when you say you are looking at computations, I think why not use a scripting program to set up the parameters for what you want to see something like that or am I completely off the loop here. Would you use something like this?
Curious George: I really don't understand the question, but let me say what we actually do:
Some of us do modeling of stellar systems, e.g., star clusters, and there is some randomness in that, but it is all rigorously well understood and controlled; and then the output of these simulations needs to be visualized. Another aspect is visualizing highly complex data sets - some of which may appear random, but a goal of science is to discover patterns and structures.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes of course.
Curious George: I am not sure if that answers your question, but to more on, "what people will be looking forward to on Stella Nova"? Well, several things: We continue our program of popular and technical lectures, We have these new interest groups that I mentioned, and more to come, We will be organizing interdisciplinary meetings to exchange ideas with scientists and scholars in other fields, and the workshop tomorrow is a bit like that. And finally, it is an open and inviting environment for people to come and use for their discussions, and hopefully make new contacts.
Pooky Amsterdam: You “exponentially” broaden your idea group when you do this.
Curious George: Yes. Now, "do you find people open up that is become more inspired without the barrier of the physical body?" I don't know about that, and I kind of doubt it, but there are a couple of effects: First, it is easier to establish contacts and communication with other people here, perhaps because there is no "social cost". Second, perhaps it is easier to focus on the exchange of ideas, since there is no physicality to distract you. But on the other hand, there are distractions peculiar to SL, so... it is complicated. The upshot is, it is somehow easier to communicate with people who were perfect strangers just a few minutes earlier, to establish genuine rapport, and quickly; and in the first place, you would never have met in RL....
Pooky Amsterdam: I find that fascinating & strangely enough builds some measure of trust so it has all the hallmarks of a great laboratory in this sense people accepting that "all in this together" and loosening up.
Curious George: Speaking very generally, facilitating exchange of ideas is one of the most powerful engines of progress - in science, art, politics, and civilization in general. And SL is really good at that as this is all about human interactions. Now, the purpose of MICA is all that, but also something else.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes indeed I see a kind of renaissance happening because of this.
Curious George: We need to establish such "scientific use cases" in order to bring in more skeptical academics. We need to find out what else is this good for, aside from the human communication aspects; so, for example, effective data visualization is a major scientific need - could this be a really good tool for it?
Pooky Amsterdam: That is my question about scripting, that is can you run a script on this engine to determine patterns.
Curious George: What you may be thinking of is what goes under a generic name of "data mining." And indeed, good data visualization is a key component of discerning patterns in the data.
Pooky Amsterdam: To program a script to actually give interaction maybe more of a regression analysis type of engine.
Curious George: There is even an emergent field of "visual data analytics". Computing within SL is not very efficient - it is not meant for that.
Pooky Amsterdam: Ok I trust you on this one.
Curious George: A more efficient approach is to do the computing on another machine, but visualize and interact in SL (or OpenSim, or some other VW environment).
Pooky Amsterdam: People are more open & more willing to share here- so surely the collaborative aspect is going to "pay off" for lack of a better word.
Curious George: I should point out that MICA is not SL-specific, we use SL as the most convenient platform for now, but we are really interested in a broader issue of the use of VWs for science and scholarship. OpenSim is thus one direction we are exploring.
Pooky Amsterdam: What is the benefit there do you think? & then I will ask what are you most looking forward to in the near term either event or program & where do you see MICA in a year.
Curious George: In SL you are limited by the LL servers in terms of the memory (e.g., the number of prims) etc. With your own machine, you can have as much as you can afford to buy, and use the VR visualization engine to look at it, as it were.
Pooky Amsterdam: Are you planning on using prims for experimentation?
Curious George: Let me illustrate this; let's go to the SE corner of this sim. You may have seen this, an early visualization experiment I did with Desdemona Enield. These are real data in a 6-dimensional parameter space plotted here. But there is only about 1000 data points, one per prim. In the data sets we are dealing with nowadays, there may be a billion data points - or even more. That's a bit too many prims for LL servers. So if we want to visualize a data set with more than a few thousand data points, we need our own server.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes why though in 3D for a data point? : I can understand if you needed it to explain something or have more than one set of info in it. Why not a flat picture?
Curious George: We can do experiments in SL to see what works, but then do the real production on a custom machine.
Pooky Amsterdam: It’s fabulous looking.
Curious George: Why not a flat picture? Because the need is to visualize data sets in many dimensions, not just 2 or 3.
Pooky Amsterdam: Ah yes to see where it isn’t spiked or peaked in 3D you see that better this way & may I ask what this data is representing?
Curious George: This is a 6-dimensional data set; we know how to encode maybe a dozen dimensions; but the data sets we are exploring in astronomy now may have hundreds or thousands of dimensions. And in biology, there may be data sets in millions of dimensions. So a flat picture just does not work.
Pooky Amsterdam: Do you think there are hundreds of dimensions? As there are many more colors in the spectrum that the human eye can see?
Curious George: These are dimensions of a parameter space, not real space.
Pooky Amsterdam: Are you sure?
Curious George: String theory says there may be 11 dimensions, but that is a completely different story. What I mean here is: You measure a 100 numbers for each of a million objects, say galaxies, or some medical records, or whatever. Then you have a million data points in 100 dimensions. For this one, you can click on the sign to the left, to get a simple explanation card.
Pooky Amsterdam: It’s a much deeper tool for knowledge & of course pattern mining.
Curious George: Anyway, I hope that we can do much more complex data visualization than this. One advantage SL has is that I can interactively examine the data set, along with my collaborators.
Pooky Amsterdam: It’s a start for this and is a fantastic tool indeed. I’m’ in awe……
Curious George: Well, sit down, don't faint... :) Here's another one of our discussion circles, where people can sit down and talk about whatever data visualization is being displayed there.
Pooky Amsterdam: May I ask you finally where you would love to see MICA in a year?
Curious George: That is a good question, so: I'd like to see a broader buy-in by the academic community, getting engaged, experimenting with immersive VR, and how to best use this technology for its purposes; to have MICA as a forum and a catalyst for interdisciplinary exchanges of ideas in this arena; and also, to have it as a real, legally incorporated scientific institution, with its own funding, staff, etc. MICA is an experiment by itself - an experiment that hosts other experiments.
Pooky Amsterdam: Yes it is and hopefully the rest will follow soon.
Curious George: It aims to answer the question: how would you do research in VWs?
Pooky Amsterdam: It makes this question so relevant because you are asking it as well.
Curious George: Including the relatively mundane issues of having a purely virtual, serious scientific organization, how to run it, etc.
Pooky Amsterdam: And of course this is a laboratory for much in this way of discussion. You don’t need to go to a mesa in Arizona, its incredibly cost effective as a retreat.
Curious George: Yes, and cost-effectiveness is very important especially now, with the funding crisis. Already we can save a lot of research dollars if we don't travel, but meet here.
Pooky Amsterdam: That’s immediate plus you don’t have to bring your suit to the cleaners.
Curious George: Yes, it is a green technology - save the money, and the jet fuel.
Pooky Amsterdam: And in the comfort of your own environment you are able to open up to the shared environment maybe SL is less threatening because of this - you are in your safe space in reality & so on this foundation of personal safety can express yourself more.
Curious George: That's not so important to scientists - and there aren't too many of them who are too shy to express their ideas.
Pooky Amsterdam: Wonderful really this has all the hallmarks of great success I would bet on it if I was a gambling woman.
Curious George: Thanks, let's hope so.
Pooky Amsterdam: thank you for the hour as well.
Curious George: And pleasure talking with you, as always.
Pooky Amsterdam: I will join KIRA .
And I did and have been additionally enriched by the series of talks I have attended there as well. If you are interested in broadening your understanding of scientific and educational research and ideas, I urge you to join too.
And please join MICA to learn more as well. We are very fortunate to have this high level of information available to us, which outside of a university setting, you would be hard-pressed to find. IM Paradox Olbers for this.