Sunday, December 15, 2013

Science Fiction Wonders

First (bear with me) a slug of Brin-news….
David-Brin-2050A series of interviews with thought leaders at the European Union's recent ICT conference in Vilius are now available for viewing, including half a dozen short, topical segments with yours truly on topics like the future of information technology, challenges for privacy, how to prevent bad futures and how to strive for good ones.  Others offered views on the "future of the Cloud," Big Data,  Peace and conflict, and the search for aliens!
The new incarnation of Amazing Stories -- the latest version of the oldest and greatest name in science fiction -- is now online as a free social-sharing-fiction site.  I gave an extensive interview to the two bright fellows who are performing this resurrection.  (Typically, I do go on, at-length, in I-hope interesting ways.)  Have a look at this bold endeavor.
Shadows-New-SunThis long review offers you a glimpse at a terrific holiday gift, the tribute anthology Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe, containing stirring tales by Gaiman, Swanwick, Resnick, Haldeman, Kress, Dietz and others, dedicated to honoring the science fiction grand master Gene Wolfe.  The reviewer lingers over my own contribution to this (otherwise excellent) volume, filled with darkly-inspiring explorations of possibilities at the edge of wonder. Click here to order!
Best of all… The latest edition of Starship-Sofa features a wonderful reading-podcast of my creepy and chilling short story "Mars Opposition." Truly, it is a great audio version and perfect for that commute…
… oh!  It has cameo appearances by great authors and scientists like Joe Haldeman and Bruce Murray… and… you'll see why it's resonant with my earlier post (and reiteration below) urging you all to put your names on the New Horizon mission to Pluto.
Be brave.
== Phew… now on to important news ==
Okay two words: Christopher Nolan.  Now add the name of his next picture: "Interstellar."  Do you need anything more?  Could any of you possibly need anything more?  That's three words: total. If this were a Kickstarter I would be all-in.  Heck if this guy needed bone marrow, I'd volunteer. He is that irreplaceable.
Here's a terrific interview with the great space artist Jon Lomberg about his recent talk here at UCSD, about the New Horizons Message Project, in which a million Earthlings might upload their names to the New Horizons spacecraft after is flashes past Pluto in 2015.  Want YOUR name aboard our fifth interstellar probe?  Learn more! 
In collaboration with the Society for Science & the Public, ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination and the Intel Foundation, The Tomorrow Project has announced an innovative fiction competition geared at 13- to 25-year-olds worldwide, asking them to contribute science fiction stories, essays, comics and videos to explore the kinds of futures we want to work toward together. Deadline is Dec 31, 2013. Short stories or essays have a 3000 word limit maximum.
And related news from those busy folk at ASU. The Hieroglyph site for optimism in science fiction visions of a human-made tomorrow keep getting better.
Sometimes nepotism proves itself utterly justified! (Hey, I would do it, too: though satiably.)  You really need to watch this terrific example,  Jonas Cuarón, son of "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer of the feature's script, wrote and directed a six-and-a-half minute companion short, "Aningaaq," which reveals the other half of the conversation that Sandra Bullock's character has with a man down on Earth, gaining comfort from the sounds made by his dogs. Beautiful and moving.
Warp your kid's mind with some gray Sci-Fi this holiday season: here's a delightful Christmas guide to favorite sci fi books for children, by NPR reporter Jason Sheehan. (Or see my own list of Favorite Science Fiction Novels for Young Adults.)
make-it-so_175x263In the visions of future shown by Sci Fi movies, the future is blue… or at least the screens or technology interfaces shown in 99% of movies. This is one of the observations from a recent book: Make it So: Interaction Designs from Science Fiction, by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel.
One more tech breakthrough making animation cheaper and easier. Soon, writer-centered teams will be able to storyboard-mockup an entire 90 minute movie, including music and voices... and such small teams will then present studios with a rough cut vastly more advanced than today's screenplays. The mockups will themselves be works of entertainment-art, with media attention and awards. And fans will vote by their interest as to which ought to be made into live-action versions.
Invasive-speciesJust released: Joseph Wallace's Invasive Species is an apocalyptic thriller wrought from plausible science, medicine, and natural history, that takes a world perched on a technological precipice and shows what happens when a single explosively spreading organism exploits human society's every vulnerability. "A novel that gets under your skin with an 'it could happen here' kind of chilling grace."-- Caroline Leavitt.  Learn more about this chillingly plausible story at
== Testing Scientific Claims ==
A Dutch teenager has floated an idea that has many scientists, oceanographers and environmental activists swimming.  Set up active buoy-based collectors to rid the ocean of much of our plastic garbage. He envisions "an anchored system of floating barriers and platforms that can be dispatched to some of the most notorious waterborne garbage patches, where plastics tend to accumulate in massive currents known as gyres. After being arranged so that they transect one of these gyres, the floating barriers can then be angled in such a way as to create a funneling effect—gradually directing debris toward the platforms, where it can then be stored before being transported to land-based recycling facilities."  How wonderful. If we did this, then maybe the secret alien observers would let us into the Club of Sapients, at last.
Does the idea sound great? Ah but alas, it may sound better than it is. Cool ideas need to be scrutinized and this one may come apart under light.  See some critiques here.
Indeed, here are Twenty tips for reinterpreting scientific claims, including: Extrapolating beyond the data is risky, Dependencies change the risk, Extreme measurements may mislead…and more.
==And More Science==
Surgical 3D printing: Handheld BioPen writes in bone, nerve and muscle.
Cyborg cockroach biobots could swarm over disaster sites -- to aid in search and rescue missions.
Top-Fifty-innovationsJames Fallows offers an interesting rumination on "The top 50 inventions of all time."
A novel method to rapidly and cheaply 3D-print electrical circuits has been developed by researchers from Georgia Tech, the University of Tokyo, and Microsoft Research. For about $300 in equipment costs, anyone can produce working electrical circuits in 60 seconds.
Another miracle material?  Calculations suggest that a single layer of tin would be a topological insulator (100% efficient) at and above room temperature. Adding some fluorine atoms the mix might extend its 100 percent efficiency operating range to at least 100 degrees Celsius.
what-should-we-be-worriedWhat Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night, a new anthology edited by John Brockman, with dire scenarios imagined by scientists including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, George Dyson, Lisa Randall  and others.
And finally… thanks to the fine folks at io9 for this lovely way to skip a meal and lose a pound.  Ick… an exploding whale….


Ethan Bradford said...

You say that a mono-atomic layer of tin would be a "topological insulator". I think you meant "topological superconductor".

Ethan Bradford said...

Sorry for that comment; the term is "topological insulator", even though the cool thing is that it is (at its edges) a superconductor.

David Brin said...

Quoted from the article… which was not totally clear.

Alex Tolley said...

re: the screens or technology interfaces shown in 99% of movies.

My sense is that most SciFi movie interfaces are about visual eye candy, not about sensible design (although if used in a tv series, regular actors make the interface usage consistent, even if the writers don't care). Although I am a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Donald Norman explains the awfulness of the information displays in the book, "HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality", edited by David Stork.

Interestingly enough, even though we may assume real world interfaces for aircraft might be expected to be highly evolved for efficiency, often they are not, and faulty mental models of their operation have been responsible for accidents.

Joel Greenwood said...

I have a father-in-law who job it is to ensure airplanes continue to match the specifications they had when they left the factory to be licensed to fly (unlike say, cars). Software on a plane is just as buggy as any other software, and pilots are required to know various work-arounds to fly the aircraft.

Last night my Android phone rebooted twice for no reason. On Friday my top-of-the-line laptop at work started grinding its hdd which required a hard reboot.

The latest aircraft from Boeing and Bombardier are completely reliant on software. There is no "Manual" mode any more.

Alex Tolley said...

Software on a plane is just as buggy as any other software

And I thought TSA kabuki was bad.

Do you happen to know which language[s] avionics software is written in currently? Is military aircraft avionics software less buggy than commercial S/W, or the same?

I'm reminded of Vernor Vinge's description of S/W in his "Zones of Thought" series where there is layer upon layer of S/W as no-one rewrites the old code, so it just accretes new layers. Now if those layers are buggy, that would be an awful mess.

Maybe civilization grinds to halt as resources are increasingly spent fixing bugs (and defending against attacks).

David Brin said...

I am still hoping that Ben Goertzel or someone will provide us with a list of the five or six General Approaches to developing AI, from fact-and-syllogistic types like IBM's Watson to evolving or emergent systems and so on. I would then add my own... the physical experience approach, which would allow us to "raise" young robots to think they are human.

There are so many aspects to all this... thought the most urgent is (I believe) to cancel Wall Street's headlong rush toward building AI that is rapacious and predatory-parasitical at its very root and core.

As for programming AI to be "friendly." we need to remember;

Software does not advance incrementally, like hardware. Software is vastly harder and it goes in fits and starts and punctuation equilibria, as when humanity had successive leaps 400k years ago then 40kya and 10kya and 500 ya.

Alex: "I'm reminded of Vernor Vinge's description of Software in his "Zones of Thought" series where there is layer upon layer of Software as no-one rewrites the old code, so it just accretes new layers. Now if those layers are buggy, that would be an awful mess." Well guess what?

Asimov's Robots Universe assumes the opposite situation, in which civilization keeps investing in refining and perfecting the underlying code for AI, while weaving into that code a set of laws so interwoven and repeated that no subsequent designers will ever be able to get rid of it. That is the notion of the "friendly AI" folks and it is naive. Society will not invest those kinds of resources. Not until something truly awful happens.

Indeed, even if such efforts at embedding happen, won't some humans try to install trap doors that let them come back and exploit the system?

Alex Tolley said...

Asimov's Robots Universe assumes (...) civilization keeps investing in refining and perfecting the underlying code for AI, while weaving into that code a set of laws so interwoven and repeated that no subsequent designers will ever be able to get rid of it.

I'm not sure I would fully agree with that statement. Asimov had somewhat different universes for his robot stories.

I would agree that there appeared to be a presumption that robots had a finite positronic brain capacity that could be tinkered with to add new skills on the production line (although not the case in the Bicentennial Man?). What I liked was the assumed complexity would need a robot psychologist to interpret defects, rather than programmers. This seems consistent with current ideas of required complexity and the need for brains to develop, rather than be fully formed and functioning with pre-programmed skills.

It does seem as if some basic approaches are working. We have the power of "deep learning" systems for unsupervised pattern finding. We have symbolic processing algorithms to solve particular problems. We have very rudimentary algorithms for analogy making. Natural intelligence is constrained by the evolutionary constraints on brains, constraints that are absent in our artificial brains.

While most of the focus on AI is plastic learning, to mimic the human cortex, I also think that innate behaviors are fascinating as the brains have apparently been able to wire themselves without training. Then of course, we just had a "sensational" report that mice can pass on olfactory memories to their offspring. If that gets confirmed (and I am not betting it will) that would certainly require some interesting genomic mechanism, which could shed light on innate memories.

Tony Fisk said...

New research finds that stimulating a specific part of the brain can increase appreciation of certain types of art.

I recall reading about an unusual form of dementia in which the person becomes increasingly compelled to make art. Their skills in this one activity become superlative, even as their other faculties fail.

David Brin said...

look at the map

Robert said...

One thing to consider with that "teacher pay" website is the average cost of living in those regions. Because you can buy a house in some of those low-pay states for half of what it costs in Massachusetts. Or less. So the cost-of-living ends up being lower and that "reduced wage" goes a bit further.

Another thing to consider is how much the schools have for finance and how well funded they are. Sadly, textbooks and the like don't scale according to the region so poorer regions end up having inferior or older textbooks and the like.

Interesting about Alaska though. That is definitely a Supply and Demand issue: supply of teachers is quite low, so teacher pay is higher to lure people with teaching certificates into the state.

So really, this is just an example of lies, damn lies, and statistics. It fails to account for little details like "cost of living" and how far that paycheck goes. Or in other words, I'd bet that the teacher in Colorado probably lives more comfortably on his or her paycheck than the teacher in Massachusetts.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

Even if 'something truly awful' happens, I think we will still avoid rewriting everything to an Asimov-style AI. It's not that we won't want to do it, but that we won't be able to do it. We will miss something like a Y2K bug.

I suspect the key work to be done for emergent 'raise it like a child' AI's is to further understand how humans accrete language as they mature. We certainly didn't design languages, yet they are at the core of everything we can do that goes beyond what the other animals do. Kids and parents don't really design language learning opportunities either, so I think AI designers are off track. I tend to find Hofstadter's work relating categories & analogies more useful when I think about this stuff. 8)

sociotard said...

Shades of what Brin's proposed inspectorate could become?
Members of the press are wondering whether the Procurador, Alejandro Ordóñez, is now the most powerful person in Colombia.
This week, the Colombian National Procuraduria [a sort of National Attorney General or Inspector General] removed the leftist, democratically-elected mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, from office and banned him from participation in politics for 15 years.

LarryHart said...

An interesting (admittedly off-topic) variation on the whole "voter id" thing.

The team leader on my IT project is, as many are these days, from India. I'm not clear if he's here on a green card or an H1-B visa, but I know he's not a United States citizen.

Today, he has to go in for jury duty. I told him that jury duty is only for US citizens, but he insisted he is supposed to go in anyway. Sure enough, we looked it up on the county website. He will be excused because he's not a citizen, but he has to appear with valid paperwork to prove that he is not a United States citizen. Presumably (not really), if he cannot prove the negative to the court's satisfaction, he could be empaneled on a jury.

I'm not claiminng this is an outrage or anything--it just struck me as ironic and funny.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Joel, 60 Minutes had a bit on the other night which talked about how many pilots of the newer generation were so reliant on software that they failed to notice when the software put them into a dangerous situation. Plane crashes are caused when inexperienced pilots fail to take over from glitchy autopilots. Worse, many new pilots don't have the experience to take over, make quick judgements and correct for bad software.

gedshow: Yet another remake of A Wizard of Earthsea

sociotard said...

And will the inexperienced traders know when to take over from glitch autotraders?

Paul451 said...

No one has time to take over from glitching autotraders.

Joel Greenwood said...

sociotard said...
And will the inexperienced traders know when to take over from glitch autotraders?

The controls or safeguards will ironically probably have to be software based - monitoring software will activate kill-switches should certain parameters be breached. Human beings are lousy managers in general, and all the worse when computers can go ballistic in less time than it takes for the words to be displayed on the screen.

The exchanges have some such kill switches - a trade that is 10% higher or lower than the previous trade will cause a Halt on an individual stock. Those were in place 10 years ago - but like all algorithms, there's always a set of data that will activate the worst case scenario (in my computer science course, we would measure a Sorting algorithm's efficiency using 'O' notation - O(nlog(n) is the worst case to sort a list of length 'n').

Now we need a notation to indicate how financially destructive an HFT algorithm is.

We also need monitoring software to turn it off when extremes are breached. By turning it 'off' however, HFT algorithms pull their orders (eliminating the liquidity they were providing) causing even mor destruction.

Joel Greenwood said...

Re: Tax havens and tax cheats
(where DATCA = domestic FATCA for US banks as part of the reciprical IGA's that are being signed)

" do speculate that a DATCA certainly must have been part of a secret goal of some of the sponsors, as America is the BIGGEST tax haven in the world and the resting place for trillions of dollars undeclared around the world. They wanted to stop that.

Switzerland is a piker by contrast."

Mexico has been asking for this information for decades to go after drug cartel members hiding funds in US banks in Miami.

"According to Florida’s office of financial regulation, the regulation could lead to tens of billions of dollars being withdrawn from Florida banks and moved to overseas accounts. Posey said his Amendment would delay the IRS rule until unemployment drops to 6 percent. The House approved this Amendment with a bipartisan vote of 251-165. "

David Brin said...


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