A fortnightly biography of an intriguing individual from British history. Each episode in the podcast is a biography selected from the Oxford DNB - the authoritative collection of more than 56,000 lives of men and women from around the world who have shaped Britain’s history.
Tagged with “sci-fi” (159)
Four friends/fledgling entrepreneurs, knowing that there’s something bigger and more innovative than the different error-checking devices they’ve built, wrestle over their new invention.
Discussing David Brin’s novel Existence (2012) with the author.
What’s the point of thinking? Brin sees the future as a pressing threat, and Existence speculates that the reason we don’t see evidence of life on other planets is that no species survives its technological adolescence. The solution? We need to be smarter than our parents and work to give our kids the tools to be smarter than we are. In the book, the ultimate hope comes from a concerted effort to develop and diversify the coalition of Earth’s intelligent life, to make “humanity” encompass more than just the biological humans that we currently are.
In our present political difficulties, Brin sees the solution as positive-sum games: institutions like science and markets that (are supposed to) result in everybody benefiting overall. We need to keep elites (whether corporate or governmental) from screwing these games up, and to use technology to foster reciprocal accountability. The government is illicitly spying on people? Spy back and call them out when power is abused! Instead of vainly trying to hold back technology, just make sure that it’s not restricted to elites, that there can be effective debate re. its uses.
The point of thinking for Brin is to “be a good ancestor.” Philosophy and science fiction can help through thought experiments that visualize the outcomes of our ideas and can help in developing scientific theories. Philosophy’s most Brin-approved task is to promote the critical argumentation needed for reciprocal accountability. The “examined life” is not just for navel-gazers, but for societies prone to catastrophic mistakes.
I turned the tinted glass tablet over in my hands, looked at the perfectly ground edges, felt the silk-like quality of the cool surface and finally held it up and looked though it. The effect was astonishing, unreal, unexpected.
“I suppose you’re going to tell me that this is some sort of quantum shit?”
The suited executive at my side smiled a pained, corporate smile and looked around nervously — as though he expected the chaos of the kitchen to have suddenly sprouted thrusting microphones and whirring news cameras.
“I’m not going to tell you anything, John — and I advise you not to ask. The terms of this demonstration are clearly laid out in the agreement, and we are paying you after all …”
More free stories from Nature Futures
Oh, yes — they were paying all right, a sudden windfall that had landed on my kitchen table like manna from a clear blue sky. Enough money to let me finish the book, buy in some kit for the next project and maybe even fix the chimney.
I gently placed the tablet back in its foam-padded case, it made me nervous just holding it. “Does this stuff at least have a name? I’ve got to call it something in the report.”
He gave me a sheepish look. “We’re calling it ‘OwlPlex’ … Sorry, marketing seemed to think the military would like it.”
Yes, I’m sure the military will like it. A sheet of glass, barely a centimetre thick, with no wires or power supply — yet it acted as the highest resolution, most powerful, colour-perfect image intensifier I’d ever seen. And I’ve seen a few, in a shadowy technical career that I no longer like to think about, let alone talk about. I still had some questions though — whether he wanted them or not.
“Where does the power come from? It can’t do this without any input.”
He smiled again and pointed out of the window, across the beach and towards the hills. “Sunshine. It soaks up energy when light falls on it, then releases it slowly as the light fades — augmenting the photons that are passing through it at the time. And before you ask, I really can’t say any more. Oh, but don’t drop it — it’s the only prototype …” He stood up, made some pointed comments about security and edged his way to the door. “I’ll be back next week. Remember, we are looking for insights here. Novel applications, things the kids in Development haven’t thought of.”
It stayed on the table for four days before I worked up the courage to test it fully. At nightfall I eased the tablet from the case, gripped it carefully in one hand, and turned off the light. One side of the glass glowed like a backlit laptop screen, bright but not too bright, showing me the litter on the floor under the table — including a half chewed mouse that the cat had left there. Making a mental note to clean up, I opened the back door and allowed myself a slow, tuneless whistle as the garden and hillside erupted on the screen into glorious deep autumn hues. The effect was startling, addictive — and I knew exactly what everyone was going to want for Christmas this year.
I awoke in full daylight, with the cat pointedly stropping the end of the sofa in a way that meant he was hungry and wanted feeding now. As he ate, I looked around the room wondering what novel ideas I could come up with to justify my fee. The wall next to the fireplace was home to some of my favourite photographs, shot on 5 × 4 film to get the maximum quality. Pictures of the surrounding countryside: the headland with its granite cliffs, the tranquil sweep of the beach where the seals haul out with their pups, the pattern of dry stone walls enclosing bog cotton and coarse grasses.
The old madness returned. It took only an hour to kludge together a holder for the tablet and secure it like a filter to the pin-sharp prime lens of the ancient technical camera. The fridge still held a box of slow, fine-grained monochrome film, so as darkness fell I loaded up the dark-slides, then hefted the tripod onto one shoulder, picked up the camera and set off.
My assumption was that the tablet would allow a constant exposure, but after the first few photos it was clear that the tablet was fading from a lack of daylight. Cursing, I increased the shutter timing to compensate — guesstimating a 30-second exposure to harvest a final image from the rapidly dimming tablet.
After development, the images were as sharp as I had hoped — with none of the raster artefacts I would have seen from a conventional system. The content of the last image was, like everything to do with the tablet, unexpected. After a few moments of silent thought I wandered out into the kitchen for tea and a long, long ponder — strongly regretting that I’d given up drinking.
As I looked out over the long-deserted beach in the dawn light, I tried to visualize it as the tablet had imaged it: wooden fishing skiffs hauled out on the shingle, nets drying on the close cropped turf beyond, a single row of whitewashed cottages with split-stone roofs and racks of drying fish. The scrunch of gravel told me that my executive friend was returning, and I was wryly pleased that I’d found his killer application.
I made a bet with myself that no one had taken a time exposure through the fading glow of dying OwlPlex before. Developers today are too hasty, you see — you need to take a long view, just as OwlPlex itself does in those crucial seconds as some weird internal field collapses. In retrospect though, a less distracted man wouldn’t have left the tablet so close to the edge of the table. It was all the opportunity the cat needed.
Folks looking for a lighter take on the problems of designing for an imagined future might want to screen “Desk Set,” a romantic comedy from 1957 starring Tracy & Hepburn. It concerns a group of researchers at a national network (a thinly disguised NBC) who fear being replaced by an “electronic brain” named EMERAC. Although its name is very similar to the University of Pennsylvania’s ENIAC, EMERAC is really more like Remington Rand’s UNIVAC—the first widely available mainframe.
Considering the fact that this “sci-fi” is set, not in a world centuries beyond the Eisenhower era, but in a world we can now easily recognize as the mid-1960s, it’s amazing how much the writers, designers and set decorators got wrong. By the late ‘50s, it was already apparent that transistors would make mainframes ever smaller, yet EMERAC is gigantic, easily dwarfing every other element on the set. Granted, the size of EMERAC may have more to do with the idea that technology was a huge threat to the “ladies” of the research department. Its size was merely the physical embodiment of what the electronic revolution would mean to people who earned their livings with pencils and paper.
In spite of the laughable beeps, boops and groans emitted by EMERAC (at one point it actually vents steam), a critical scene absolutely nails what the computer/Internet revolution would mean to clerks and librarians. The president of the network challenges the researchers to retrieve an obscure statistic about damage to U.S. forests caused by the spruce bud worm. We’re informed in an aside that it had taken weeks to find the information with traditional, library-based methods. The nerdy mistress of EMERAC sits down at a keyboard and types in: “How much damage is done annually to American forests by the spruce bud worm?” Almost instantaneously EMERAC spits out the answer.
The original Broadway playwright, William Marchant, clearly saw where the world was headed, because we all do pretty much the same thing every day with Google.
Vinge began by declaring that he still believes that a Singularity event in the next few decades is the most likely outcome— meaning that self-accelerating technologies will speed up to the point of so profound a transformation that the other side of it is unknowable.
And this transformation will be driven by Artificial Intelligences (AIs) that, once they become self-educating and self-empowering, soar beyond human capacity with shocking suddenness.
He added that he is not convinced by the fears of some that the AIs would exterminate humanity.
He thinks they would be wise enough to keep us around as a fallback and backup— intelligences that can actually function without massive connectivity!
(Later in the Q&A I asked him about the dangerous period when AI’s are smart enough to exterminate us but not yet wise enough to keep us around.
How long would that period be?
“About four hours,” said Vinge .)
Since a Singularity makes long-term thinking impractical, Vinge was faced with the problem of how to say anything useful in a Seminar About Long-term Thinking, so he came up with a plausible set of scenarios that would be Singularity-free.
He noted that they all require that we achieve no faster-than-light space travel.
The overall non-Singularity condition he called “The Age of Failed Dreams.”
The main driver is that software simply continues failing to keep pace with hardware improvements.
One after another, enormous billion-dollar software projects simply do not run, as has already happened at the FBI, air traffic control, IRS, and many others.
Some large automation projects fail catastrophically, with planes running into each.
So hardware development eventually lags, and materials research lags, and no strong AI develops.
To differentiate visually his three sub-scenarios, Vinge showed a graph ranging over the last 50,000 and next 50,000 years, with power (in maximum discrete sources) plotted against human populaton, on a log-log scale.
Thus the curve begins at the lower left with human power of 0.3 kilowatts and under a hundred thousand population, curves up through steam engines with one megawatt of power and a billion population, up further to present plants generating 13 gigawatts.
His first scenario was a bleak one called “A Return to MADness.”
Driven by increasing environmental stress (that a Singularity might have cured), nations return to nuclear confrontation and policies of “Mutually Assured Destruction.”
One “bad afternoon,” it all plays out, humanity blasts itself back to the Stone Age and then gradually dwindles to extinction.
His next scenario was a best-case alternative named “The Golden Age,” where population stabilizes around 3 billion, and there is a peaceful ascent into “the long, good time.”
Humanity catches on that the magic ingredient is education, and engages the full plasticity of the human psyche, empowered by hope, information, and communication.
A widespread enlightened populism predominates, with the kind of tolerance and wise self-interest we see embodied already in Wikipedia.
One policy imperative of this scenario would be a demand for research on “prolongevity”— “Young old people are good for the future of humanity.”
Far from deadening progress, long-lived youthful old people would have a personal stake in the future reaching out for centuries, and would have personal perspective reaching back for centuries.
The final scenario, which Vinge thought the most probable, he called “The Wheel of Time.”
Catastrophes and recoveries of various amplitudes follow one another.
Enduring heroes would be archaeologists and “software dumpster divers” who could recover lost tools and techniques.
What should we do about the vulnerabilities in these non-Singularity scenarios?
Vinge ’s main concern is that we are running only one, perilously narrow experiment on Earth.
“The best hope for long-term survival is self-sufficient off-Earth settlements.”
We need a real space program focussed on bringing down the cost of getting mass into space, instead of “the gold-plated sham” of present-day NASA.
There is a common critique that there is no suitable place for humans elsewhere in the Solar System, and the stars are too far.
“In the long now,” Vinge observed, “the stars are not too far.”
(Note: Vinge’s detailed notes for this talk, and the graphs, may be found online at: http://rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge /longnow/index.htm ) —Stewart Brand
American science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, best known for his award winning "Mars" trilogy, joins Lucy Sussex at the Melbourne Writers Festival to discuss the inspiration for his work and the problems facing planet Earth.
Robinson explains to his audience why it is important for everyone to know about science, especially in the face of the climate change crisis.
It’s a subject very close to the author’s heart: virtually all of Robinson’s novels have an ecological component with sustainability being one of his major themes.
Robinson also defends science fiction, believing it deserves more attention by literary awards such as the Booker Prize.
After all, if one of his favourite authors Virginia Woolf was a science fiction fan, why can’t contemporary literary audiences appreciate the genre more?
Kim Stanley Robinson is an American Science Fiction writer best known for the multi-award winning "Mars" trilogy.
Other books include "The Years of Rice and Salt" and his latest book "Galileo’s Dream".
In 2008 Kim Stanley Robinson was listed as the TIME "Hero of the Environment".
Lucy Sussex is a New Zealand born writer, researcher and editor. Sussex has published many short stories and a few novels, including "The Scarlet Rider" which won the Ditmar, Best Novel in 1997. She currently writes a review column for "The West Australian" and "The Sunday Age".
China Miéville is probably the best new writer in the ‘new weird’ genre. Hes got a seriously prolific output and he manages to push the limits of fantasy, science fiction and horror to a very appreciative younger audience.
Hes pulled together a whole bunch of skills: fantasy/science fiction writer; would be politician - he ran on the Socialist Alliance ticket for the UK general election in 2001 - and he did his Phd on Marxism and International Law at the London School of Economics. He also draws and writes comics.
He could only be British.
This conversation covers high surrealism, pulp modernism, H.P. Lovecraft, the Call of Cthulhu and a love of garbage, octopuses and trains.
If you dont read his books, your teenage children probably do…and love him.
China is generous with questions from the audience as he should be, they buy his books, but not every writer is; and he seriously addresses the basic structuring of his books in answer to a keen young fan. If you follow him on various blogs, youll notice that he seems very connected to his audience.
Writer James Bradley is in conversation with him at the Perth Writers Festival, and they begin talking about his latest book, Railsea.
Here’s part one of my 2003 short story “Flowers From Al,” written with Charlie Stross for New Voices in Science Fiction, a Mike Resnick anthology. It’s a pervy, weird story of transhuman romance.
It’s episode 6! We’re officially into the high single digits. In this episode, I speak to writer, publisher, producer, maker and all round difficult-to-pigeonhole person, Leila Johnston. We talk about play, and making for the sake of it; that bit in the venn diagram where geeks and sci-fi cross over; the future, and what it means without the past; grassroots movements and the consumer experience; coding because you have to, and experts vs ignorance.
Plus – in what is becoming a regular feature – more holiday tips.
Sandy Noble’s Linear Clock
Leila at TEDx Brighton
Warhammer and Warhammer 40K
Sarah Angliss in Wired
Alex May on the ZX Spectrum
Holiday tips! Acoustic Mirrors at Dungeoness, and Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station, Lizard Peninsula
Leila’s website, Finalbullet.com
Page 1 of 16Older