Academy of Finland is doing a series of interviews of people who have previously placed in the top ten in their high school science competition Viksu. My interview is now up at the "Mitä kuuluu nyt Viksu" section of the Viksu site. Unfortunately for some of you the interview is in Finnish, but it's there to check out for those who can handle the moon language.
I decided to spend the last weekend in a bit of an unorthodox way - instead of celebrating May Day along with the rest of the country, it was game development time for me. I've been hanging out on the IRC channel of Ludum Dare for a long while now, so it was high time I finally gave the 48 hour game development competition a try.
Ludum Dare, which was organized for the 20th time, isn't quite as large of an event as the Global Game Jam, though the rules and 48 hour time limit are similar. And unlike the very social game jam, Ludum Dare's main event is a solo competition, a challenging test of individual skills. I think I managed okay overall, with an end result that can well be considered a complete game. I even composed a small piece of background music, something I've never done before. Oh, and don't worry, the music can also be turned off.
My game Lasers are Dangerous is in Flash, and can be played at http://oletus.fi/static/lasersaredangerous/. Read past the break for a short post mortem.
In 1900, the remaining life expectancy for a thirty-year old male in the United States was 35 years. Thanks to advances in medicine, that number is now nearing fifty.  A solid 15-year increase in lifespan isn't bad at all - actually, I find it pretty impressive. A longer lifespan might mean prolonged disease and disability for many, but at least it opens the possibility for many additional active years too. If one plays his cards right and has a bit of luck, it's not unreasonable to expect to become a healthy centenarian. I'm not planning to pass up that chance.
And the upward trend in life expectancy is continuing. Looking at the chart, the lines start to rise slightly faster after the 1970s, thanks to more advanced drugs, improved public healthcare and new technology like MRI. That means we're conquering old age faster and faster. Right now, the outlook for the start of a new rise is better than ever. Stem cell treatments, advanced artificial organs and prostheses, genomics, robotic surgery, personally tailored medication and increasingly accurate medical imaging and computing... the list of amazing medical technologies being researched just goes on and on.
These technologies have the chance to lengthen healthy life, but of course they also share one common problem: their cost. There's no time to constantly doctor everyone, and we only have a limited amount of natural resources. I bet the treatments are going to be optimized and automated, but simply relying on society and technology to fix all problems isn't responsible. Living healthily also means staying stronger, enabling work and play at 70 years and beyond. That applies whether or not new medical technologies will work as miraculously as expected. Technology is only good for you if you live long enough to see it.
Humans have just been beaten in our own game. Valentine's Day 2011 will go down in history, not because of the record amount of greetings sent via social media, but because of the first airing of Watson taking on two guys in Jeopardy. Like chess master Garry Kasparov, the two human contestants are famous champions in their game. Kasparov was awed in his first match against IBM's Deep Blue in 1997, because he "could smell a new kind of intelligence across the table". In fact Deep Blue merely calculated chess positions really fast and was relatively stupid, but the new Jeopardy champion Watson is something more remarkable. It's amazing how human-like the answers from a computer can seem. This is Wolfram Alpha taken to the next level.
Automated general knowledge processing has some really far-reaching implications. If I ever fell seriously ill, I would much rather go to a doctor with a machine like this compared to a doctor without. If I ever had a large amount of money to invest, I'd rather take advice from IBM than from anyone on Wall Street. What does that make of IBM as an investment, I wonder? Daily arbitrage-seeking dealings in the financial world are one area where specialized AIs have already largely taken over. No living person could ever hope to learn as much as these systems are able to learn in just a year or two, and no living person could ever hope to make informed decisions as fast. Watson's grasp of language might not be too complex, but the width and speed make up for that.
As Gordon Moore famously predicted in 1965, the amount of computing power we can inexpensively cram in a computer has grown exponentially for quite some time now. However, after 50 years of steady doubling, there are now doubts about how long this development can still continue. We are approaching the physical limits of silicon-based integrated circuits, and some slowdown is already apparent. Making a few billion tiny transistors without a single defect isn't an easy task, and it's a small wonder we're capable of that. The complexity and scale involved are mind-boggling.
Some futurists like Ray Kurzweil argue that the law of ever-cheaper computing holds across past technologies right down to mechanical computers, and will likely continue to hold on future technologies - the attached chart is modeled after one by him. This might be so on the long term, but the road ahead won't be smooth, and we have already run into a few bumps along the way. Making circuits with 45 nanometer half-pitch a few years ago meant inventing new materials so that electrons leaking due to quantum effects could be prevented. As more nanometers are shaved off, continuing this kind of basic research will be required.
As if making chips work wasn't hard enough, there is also another problem: actually manufacturing them in large quantities. Using laser-printing to make features that are smaller than the light wavelength of 193 nanometers involves some impressive optical trickery. Lasers with a smaller wavelength are still in their infancy, and if they ever become practically feasible, they will use considerable amounts of energy. We might be able to make smaller chips with them, but at a high price premium. The insurmountable laws of physics are attacking the industry from every angle.
The Global Game Jam weekend is now over. 6535 registered jammers worked on 1492 games. The spirit of the event hasn't changed from last year: it's a worldwide explosion of creativity unlike anything else in my experience. People work at an unhealthy pace for two days straight, creating something new, unique and fun. The event connects people from all parts of the world, and creates a bunch of new friendships at the local level. People argue over gameplay mechanics and laugh at a slew of newly created in-jokes. The Global Game Jam is something to be celebrated.
At the FGJ Tampere jam site, the organizers' experience from last year showed: the first evening we were mostly ahead of schedule, and it would be hard to come up with a single complaint. And oh, the people were amazing, as games industry types tend to be. This goes doubly for the lone person who introduced himself as a sound designer, who consequently had a lot of work thrust upon him. I wonder why the sound guys haven't found the event, at least here in Tampere?
Our team's game, Rhythm of the Stars, was very successful: we were among the winners of Gamesauce Challenge, and were nominated for the Finnish Game Jam best game award. You can go play the flash game right here at the Rhythm of the Stars home page or if you prefer, at Kongregate. Also see our Global Game Jam page, where you can also comment on and rate the game. I'm very happy with how Rhythm of the Stars turned out, thanks for that for our competent programming team, and especially our designer and musician Juho Korhonen.
About a thousand new games are going to be made this weekend. I'm going to be making one of them.
That's the plan, anyway. What I'm talking about is Global Game Jam 2011, of course. People all over the globe are gathering together to form teams, come up with ideas and make games all in 48 hours. Last year was intense and inspiring. I'm hoping this year will be even better.
I'm also going to use the event as a learning opportunity for Flash game development. I've been planning to study Flash for some time now, and last year's experience shows that it really should be the platform of choice for the event. Sure, there are lots of other platforms that are just as well suited for rapid prototyping, but Flash, and other web-based platforms like Unity have one major advantage: they also enable rapid, no-hassle publishing. In an event where getting the game packaged also has a deadline and participants will be too tired to go through a long-winded install process afterwards, that can make a world of difference. The journey might be more important than the destination, but the end product also counts for something.
Machine translators are learning fast. And they're not only translating text better, the past few months have given them the ability to translate both audio and video on the fly (read past the break for the second demo video). For the common man, reading a menu in Japanese or bargaining for a mat in Arabic is becoming an obsolete skill, a 20th century relic. Why bother with all the time and effort, when you can just delegate the job for the assistant in your pocket, more commonly known as a cell phone?
However, I don't think this means people should stop caring about teaching languages, or that translators should worry about their jobs. Conversely, if the amount of language students does decrease, expert-level skills might even rise in value. The data for the translation systems has to come from somewhere, and the need for quality translations will not go away. It'll take more than Google to translate a novel or even subtitle a movie. Like on every other area, machines are tackling the boring jobs better and better, while humans can enjoy the more interesting and specialized avenues of work. And while technology is punching holes in language barriers, cultural understanding becomes increasingly important.
This past year has been pretty great for graphic design buffs. First PhotoShop CS5 dropped jaws with its Content-Aware Fill algorithm - "magic" being the most common word that's been used to describe it, even outside marketing talk. The tool is by no means perfect, and most practical editing tasks still require some manual labor, but it's easier to use than the clone brush and can easily cut the workload in half. See the above video for making the most famous bridge in the world disappear in just over a minute.
But that's not all. The open source side of things is stirring too. Blender has gotten a great user interface overhaul in version 2.5, getting more competitive with costly professional tools. Even GIMP shows some long-awaited progress with its new single-window mode. Oh, the old guys churning out upgrades is all well and good, but what about all the new guys on the block?
Yesterday, I helped a group of high school students to finish a heap of research projects. May sound a bit boring, but damn, it was awesome.
I don't know what was the best part. Coming up with ideas at the start of the project course was a time filled to the brim with scientific creativity. Or maybe the highlight was those frantic last few hours before the deadline for competition submissions, everyone being completely engrossed in the task at hand. Even filling up web submission forms becomes exciting when a few absent-minded students are still at the task on the last possible minute - speaking quite literally at that.
The topics ranged from the societally important to the eccentric: one student thoroughly examined a suggested change in the Finnish parliamentary election system, another measured how players of machine dance games move their feet. Did you know that a moderately experienced player's feet routinely reach acceleration of 30m/s^2? Now you do.