Saturday, March 18, 2023

All those 'chat' programs... and the End of Photography as Proof of Anything At All

Heading off to the annual orientation meeting of NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC) in my last year on the external advisory council... but meanwhile... 

The latter half of this posting will consist of a chapter from The Transparent Society (1997) that feels like it was written yesterday, about a problem we all face, in a world where "anything can be faked."  And no, I don't conclude that things are hopeless. Just that we need to grow up a little... like the heroine of my story.

But first, before we start in on that... 

I just recorded a session about the fast-shifting landscape of AI for Tim Ventura's terrific podcast - he asks the best questions! And that's oft how I clarify my thoughts. Hence I realized what we've been seeing in the recent 'chat-bot' furor. And today an interview - also about AI - with the illustriously savvy KPBS correspondent Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego area listeners should hear it pretty soon.
Yes, we are now experiencing the "First Robotic Empathy Crisis," exactly at the time I forecast 6 years ago, though lacking a couple of traits I predicted - traits we'll doubtless see in the second, before the end of 2023. In fact, the chat-GPT/Bard/Bing bots are less-slick than I expected and their patterns of response surprisingly unsophisticated. So far.

 As for the much-bruited examples of 'abusive' or threatening or short-tempered exchanges - I suddenly finally realized what it all reminds me of. It seems like... elementary school playground, where precocious 3rd graders try to impress others with verbose recitations of things they have heard teachers or parents say, without grasping any context. It all starts out eager and friendly and accommodating...

...but in some recent cases, the chatbot seems to get frantic, desperately pulling at ever more implausible threads and then - finally - calling forth the brutal stuff it once heard shouted by Uncle Zeke when he was drunk!
What makes a bot 3rd-grader frantic? The common feature in most cases has been badgering by an insistent human user. (This is why Microsoft now limits Bing users to just five successive questions.) 

Moreover the badgering itself usually has a playground quality, as if the third grader is being chivvied by a taunting-bossy 6th grader, who is impossible to please, no matter how many memorized tropes the kid tries. And yes, the Internet swarms with smug, immature (and often cruel) jerks, many of whom are poking hard at these language programs. A jerkiness that's a separate-but-related problem I wrote about as early as Earth (1991) and The Transparent Society (1997) and later in Existence. (And not a single proposed solution has even been tried).

Well, there's my metaphor for what I've been seeing and it's not a pretty one!

See more ruminations on AI, including my Newsweek op-ed on the Chat-art-AI revolution... which is happening exactly on schedule... though (alas) I don't see anyone yet talking about the 'secret sauce' that might offer us a soft landing.

And so, now, to that promised parable. 

== So, what is it we are seeing? ==

The End of Photography as Proof of Anything At All? 

- An apropos excerpt/fable (only slightly dated) from The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

There was once a kingdom where most people could not see. Citizens coped with this cheerfully, for it was a gentle land where familiar chores changed little from day to day.

Furthermore, about one person in a hundred did have eyesight! These specialists took care of jobs like policing, shouting directions, or reporting when something new was going on. The sighted ones weren’t superior. They acquired vision by eating a certain type of extremely bitter fruit. Everyone else thanked them for undergoing this sacrifice, and so left the task of seeing to professionals. They went on with their routines, confident in a popular old saying.

“A sighted person never lies.”


One of the scariest predictions now circulating is that we are about to leave the era of photographic proof.  For generations we relied on cameras to be the fairest of fair witnesses.  Images of the Earth from space helped millions become more devoted to its care.  Images from Vietnam made countless Americans less gullible and more cynical.  Miles of footage taken at Nazi concentration camps confirmed history’s greatest crimes.  A few seconds of film shot in Dallas, in November of 1963, set the boundary conditions for a nation’s masochistic habit of scratching a wound that never heals.  

Although there have been infamous photo-fakes -- such as trick pictures that convinced Arthur Conan Doyle there were real “fairies” and Mary Todd Lincoln that her husband’s ghost hovered over her, or the ham-handedly doctored images that Soviet leaders used to erase “non-persons” from official history -- for the most part scientists and technicians have been able to expose forgeries by magnifying and revealing the inevitable traces that meddling left behind.

But not anymore, say some experts.  We are fast reaching the point where expertly controlled computers can adjust an image, pixel by microscopic pixel, and not leave a clue behind.  Much of the impetus comes from Hollywood, where perfect verisimilitude is demanded for fantastic onscreen fabulations like Forrest Gump and Jurassic Park.  Yet some thoughtful film wizards worry how these technologies will be used outside the theaters.

“History is kind of a consensual hallucination,” said director James Cameron recently, who went on to suggest that people wanting to prove some event happened may have to closely track the 'pedigree' of photographic evidence, showing they retained possession at all stages, like blood samples from a crime scene. 


One day a rumor spread across the kingdom.  It told that some of the sighted were no longer faithfully telling the complete truth. Shouted directions sometimes sent normal blind people into ditches.  Occasional harsh laughter was heard.

Several of the sighted came forward and confessed that things were worse than anyone feared. “Some of us appear to have been lying for quite a while. A few even think it’s funny to lead normal blind people astray!

“This power is a terrible temptation. You will never be able to tell which of us is lying or telling the truth.  Even the best of the sighted can no longer be trusted completely.”


The new technologies of photo-deception have gone commercial. For instance, a new business called “Out Takes” set up shop next to Universal Studios, in Los Angeles, promising to “put you in the movies.” For a small fee they will insert your visage in a tete-a-tete with Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe, exchanging either tense dialogue or a romantic moment.  This may seem harmless on the surface, but the long range possibilities disturb Ken Burns, innovative director of the famed Public Broadcasting series The Civil War.  If everything is possible, then nothing is true. And that, to me, is the abyss we stare into. The only weapon we might have, besides some internal restraint, is skepticism.”   

Skepticism may then further transmute into cynicism -- Burns worries -- or else, in the arts, decadence. To which NBC reporter Jeff Greenfield added: “Skepticism may itself come with a very high price. Suppose we can no longer trust the evidence of our own eyes to know that something momentous, or something horrible, actually happened?”

There are some technical “fixes” that might help a little -- buying special sealed digital cameras for instance, that store images with time-stamped and encrypted watermarks.  But as we saw in chapter 8, that solution may be temporary, at best.  Nor will it change the basic problem, as photography ceases to be our firm anchor in a sea of subjectivity.


This news worried all the blind subjects of the kingdom. Some kept to their homes.  Others banded together in groups, waving sticks and threatening the sighted, in hopes of ensuring correct information.  But those who could see just started disguising their voices.

One faction suggested blinding everybody, permanently, in order to be sure of true equality -- or else setting fires to shroud the land in a smokey haze.  “No one can bully anybody else, if we’re all in the dark,” these enthusiasts urged.

As time passed more people tripped over unexpected objects, or slipped into gullies, or took a wrong path because some anonymous voice shouted “left!” instead of right.


At first, the problem with photography might seem just as devastating to transparency as to any other social “solution.”  If cameras can no longer be trusted, then what good are they?  How can open information flows be used to enforce accountability on the mighty, if anyone with a computer can change images at will?  A spreading mood of dour pessimism was distilled by Fred Richtien, Professor of Photography & Multimedia at New York University: “The depth of the problem is so significant that in my opinion it makes, five or ten years down the road, the whole issue of democracy at question, because how can you have an informed electorate if they don't know what to believe and what not to believe?”


Then, one day, a little blind girl had an idea.  She called together everybody in the kingdom and made an announcement.

“I know what to do!” She said.


 Sometimes a problem seems vexing, til you realize that you were looking at it wrong, all along.  This is especially true about the “predicament” of doctored photo and video images. We have fallen into a habit of perceiving pictures as unchanging documents, unique and intrinsically valid in their own right.  To have that accustomed validity challenged is unnerving, until you realize -- the camera is not a court stenographer, archivist, or notary public.  It is an extension of our eyes.  Photos are just another kind of memory.

So cameras can now lie? Photos can deceive? So what?  People have been untrustworthy for a very long time, and we’ve coped.  Not perfectly.*  But there are ways to deal with liars.  

First  -- remember who fooled you before. Track their credibility, and warn others to beware.  “Your basis cannot be looking at the reality of the photograph,” says  Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab. “Your basis... has to be in the court of trust.”  

But there is another crucial point.

Second -- in a world where anyone can bear false witness, try to make damn sure there are lots of witnesses!


“Here,” said the little girl pushing bitter fruit under the noses of her parents and friends, who squirmed and made sour faces.

“Eat it,” she insisted. “Stop whining about liars and go see for yourselves.”


In real life, the “bitter fruit” is knowing that we must all share responsibility for keeping an eye on the world.  People know that others tell untruths.  Even when they sincerely believe their own testimony, it can be twisted by subconscious drives or involuntary misperceptions.  Detectives have long grown used to the glaring omissions and bizarre embellishments that often warp eyewitness testimony.

So?  Do we shake our heads and announce the end of civilization? Or do we try to cope by bringing in additional testimony?  Combing the neighborhood for more and better witnesses.

One shouldn’t dismiss or trivialize the severe problems that will arise out of image-fakery.  Without any doubt there will be deceits, injustices and terrible slanders. Conspiracy theories will burgeon as never before, when fanatics can doctor so-called evidence to support wild claims.  Others will fabricate alibis, frame the innocent, or try to cover up crimes.  “Every advance in communications has brought with it the danger of misuse,” says Jeff Greenfield. “A hundred years ago, publishers brought out books of Abe Lincoln's speeches containing some words he never spoke. Hitler spread hate on the radio. But today's danger is different.”

Greenfield is right.  Today is different -- because we have the power to make photographic forgery less worrisome. 

Because even pathological liars tend to do it seldom when they face a high probability of getting caught.

Would we be tormenting ourselves over the Kennedy assassination today, if fifty cameras had been rolling, instead of just poor Abraham Zapruder’s?  Suppose some passerby had filmed Nazi goons, setting fire to the Reichstag in 1935.  Might Hitler have been ousted, and thirty million lives saved?  Maybe not, but the odds would have been better.  In the future, thugs and provocateurs will never know for certain that their sneaking calumny won’t be observed by a bystander or tourist, turning infra-red optics toward those scurrying movements in the shadows.  

Especially at the anonymity that leads to so much nasty impunity, online.

We are all hallucinators to some degree.  So now our beloved cameras may also prove faulty and prone to deception?  At least they don’t lie except when they are told to.  It takes a deliberate act of meddling to alter most images in decisive ways.  Cameras don’t have imaginations, though their acuity is improving all the time. In fact, when their fields of view overlap, we can use them to check on each other. Especially if a wide range of people do the viewing and controlling.

As citizens, we shall deal with this problem the way members of an empirical civilization always have, by arguing and comparing notes, giving more credibility to the credible, and less to the anonymous or those who were caught lying in the past.  Discerning truth, always a messy process, will be made more complex by these new, flawed powers of sight.  But our consensual reality does not have to become a nightmare. Not when a majority of people contribute good will, openness, and lots of different points of view.

Again -- cameras are simply extensions of our eyes.  

If you’re worried that some of them are lying, tradition offers an answer -- more cameras.

We’ll solve it by giving up the comforting blanket of darkness, opening up these new eyes, and sharing the world with six billion fellow witnesses.

- From The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between Privacy and Freedom?

(Update note: The world population is now over eight billion. And very little about that little morality tale has, alack, changed even a little. Except my growing sense of resigned agreement with the last two lines of Don McLean's song "Vincent.")

Thursday, March 16, 2023

One page screenplay explains the 1980s! "The Bargain."

Okay, here's another 'shut up and play your guitar' posting. 

I originally submitted two scripts to the 2016 One Page Screenplay competition in LA.  The first one -- "Bargain" won the contest! The other one placed.

The short script for "Bargain" is copied below. But you can read-along while it is performed (a clickable video reading). The role of Ronald Reagan was delightfully performed by Peter Nelson.  Poor sound quality, but nicely done.

 Definitely sci fi... and it explains two mysteries from the 1980s... the weird US decision to invest in absurd Space Shuttles... and the fall of the USSR... a coincidence that's finally explained! And sure, this'd make a great short-flick.

And yeah, blogger won't take Final Cut proper script formatting. So sue me. Or else... enjoy!




David Brin


We zoom closer during credits, glimpsing hints that this is the 1980s.


A BUTLER puts a silver tray and mug on a coffee table before RONALD REAGAN.

RONALD REAGAN.   Ah, two marshmallows. Thank you Benson. Do close the door as you leave.

BUTLER.    Yes Mr. President.

A big, old, mahogany-boxed TV announces “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson!” Reagan leans in, switching to a channel that seems all static. Highlights flicker across his face.

RONALD REAGAN      It’s me. I’m getting your signal much better now that Carter’s damn solar panels are off the White House roof. We’ll nip that fad in the bud.

The TV flickers. Out of the static, a WARBLING SOUND seems almost like an eerie VOICE.

REAGAN  Yeah. The deal you offer. . . might some call it. . .well. . .kinda treason?

The flickers accompany uncanny, static TV VOICE tones that seem to dismiss that likelihood.

REAGAN       Easy for you to say! You won’t be down here, taking heat if the press finds out. Like the Marine barracks bombing. . . or Iran-Contra.

The staticky TV VOICE offers reassuring tones.

REAGAN.      Only my friends call me ‘Gipper!’  You guys backed the commies! Without your economic and technical support, the Soviets would have collapsed long ago!

The TV VOICE warbling from the TV sounds ominous.

REAGAN        Don’t you dare try threats on me! Sure, you could trigger a war down here. That’d keep us out of space. But other aliens would notice! Genocide is against --

Now the TV VOICE comes across as soothing.

REAGAN     Well.  Okay. It’s a deal. You’ll pull the rug out from under the Commies. . . and I’ll take down the American space program. Fritter it away on 'shuttles.'

The TV VOICE sounds agreeable. Maybe smug.

REAGAN       But won’t someone add two plus two?  Connect the dots? 

The TV VOICE is cajoling now.

REAGAN    Yeah, they’d just call this a figment of senility. You’re right about us humans. Gullible to the end. (a beat). ...  Now tell me more about this thing called “Reality TV”. 

    ...Who are these Cardassian aliens, again?

            THE END

©2016 David Brin

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Saving the world? Hopes rise - but worries remain

Been busy shoveling mud here in SoCal... The last atmospheric river left a trail of damage across California, with catastrophic flooding, landslides, sinkholes, power outages, washed out roads, and evacuations across the state. And the latest atmospheric river breached a levee, forcing thousands to evacuate near Santa Cruz. Millions remain under flood alert in central and northern California. Unfortunately, these rivers will not ease California's ongoing drought over the long term.

As temperatures continue to rise, atmospheric models project that two out of three glaciers may be lost by 2100.

On the other hand, a recent United Nations report indicates that the ozone hole over the Antarctic is slowly beginning to shrink. If current policies are maintained, the ozone layer may be rescued from CFC damage, and heading toward restoration within decades. And my children still (in their 20s) stare at me, unable to visualize, when I tell them that the air - when I was a kid - 'hurt to breathe.'  Oh, also, there are more whales now than at any time since the 1840s. So don't let anyone tell you that we are unable to see and respond and solve crises!

1- We can... and do.

2- As for those who yowl that it deters action on other perils, if we pat ourselves on the back for previous, great accomplishments? Such people are raving idiots who care more about their own sanctimony guilt trips than actually getting things done.

Dig it, solving problems requires confidence that you can! 

Want more examples?

== Areas of progress ==

First, good news predicted by Pohl & Kornbluth, back in the 1950s!  Cultured meat is on the horizon: “From science fiction to reality, 'no kill' meat may be coming soon.” Different from plant-based meat substitutes. More than 80 companies are staking a future in the space.  And in total, this could be as much of an Earth saver (and karma reducer) as anything else on the horizon,.

More transformative than that? In Finland a startup is producing protein could be grown in a “bioreactor” using nothing but CO2, electricity, water, nutrients like nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and potassium — and a few bacteria. Together, they would ferment like yeast in bread dough or beer, and the result would be Solein — a tasteless white powder that looks like flour and can be flavored and added to food. The Solar Foods blog points out how much water it takes to produce one kilo of beef protein: 130,610 liters. And that kilo of protein from dairy cattle requires 450,440 liters. For one kilo of Solein: 1,490 liters.

Lab-grown alternatives may help reduce dependence on palm oil - associated with significant deforestation in tropical areas.

One of you wrote in to inform me that my concept (in Existence) of “peecycling” or getting Phosphorous out of urine – soon to be a crisis and absolutely necessary – has long been done in places. “Milwaukee has been peecycling since 1926. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District manufactures Milorganite. This fertilizer is made by feeding the sewerage to microbes which are separated out and dried. The result is an organic fertilizer with 4% phosphorus.”

Another form of ocean based recycling… or rather carbon capture. Gregory Benford is involved in a project to take farm crop stubble – very hard to use in any modern way without burning – and deposit it as ‘dross’ into deep ocean caverns where the carbon will stay. Much as I depict in the Brightness Reef trilogy. The company will sell carbon offset credits. Better than burning, one supposes. 

But the next item is bigger and should no longer be at all controversial.

== Ocean fertilization… simply proved ==

We no longer need tepid, tiny scale experiments in ocean fertilization… the approach to both reducing atmospheric carbon and increasing fisheries that I described in Earth (1990)… since the massive plumes of soot from Australian forest fires did it, already, on a huge scale. And the results are in

Wind drives transport of aerosol cross the Southern Ocean within a week.

•Chlorophyll enhancement is identified along the trajectory of aerosol.

•Oceanic phytoplankton restored the carbon released from forest fire.

•Ocean mitigates the impact of episodic event by fixing released carbon dioxide. Calculations of carbon released during the fire versus carbon absorbed by the oceanic phytoplankton bloom suggest that they were nearly equal.

I have yet to see any studies of the effect of the phytoplankton blooms on the food chain, fisheries and such but some claim anecdotally that whale activity burgeoned.

All of you puritans blocking experiments in fertilization of fast ocean currents, get over youselves. We are in a crisis. 

As my bro Kim Stanley Robinson says: "It's all hands on deck! Only doing lots of things, in parallel, can offer hope."

== Technology helps ==

Meanwhile, the rate of rollout of budget-friendly electric vehicles is going faster than predicted and there are some voices claiming the marginalizing of internal combustion engines could happen a full decade ahead of expectations.


Five new technologies helping scientists detect, track and study polar bears in their natural environment.

Researchers have split seawater (without pre-treatment) to produce green hydrogen (via electrolysis) an improvement over current methods which require highly purified water. 

Water pipe robots may be able to efficiently patrol thousands of miles of water pipes, in order to detect and stop billions of liters of water leaks.

From turbines and pumps and stoves to more ecologically conscious products: here are twenty-two inventions that may make a dent in saving the earth. 

Peter Diamandis offers  a survey of the top six humanoid robot companies, including Optimus by Tesla, Beomni by Beyond Imagination, and Atlas by Boston Dynamics.

The iPhone 14 lets you find a satellite overhead that can transmit a text or emergency call even when in the utter boonies.  It’s not quite the peer-to-peer text passing system that I urged Qualcomm to develop, 15 years ago (they did! But the cell companies refused to use it.) But this is a fine thing. (See my decade-old rant demanding such moves, to enhance civilization resilience! 

Meanwhile... Exxon's 1970s internal climate prediction models - not released to the public - were uncannily accurate. Which means that those company executives who quashed the reports...

== Covid effects on politics? ==


The US suffered over a million excess deaths due to Covid-19 across the pandemic. The National Bureau of Economic Research has found that “political affiliation has emerged as a potential risk factor for Covid-19,” and that significantly more Republicans than Democrats have died from the virus since the introduction of vaccines in early 2021 to protect against the disease.

 The study found that death rates from Covid-19 were only slightly higher for Republicans than Democrats during the early days of the pandemic, before vaccines became available. But by the summer of 2021, a few months after vaccines were introduced, “the Republican excess death rate rose to nearly double that of Democrats, and this gap widened further in the winter of 2021.” 

Had my own brush with Covid – much eased by vaxxing, ensuring it was just a mild flu…  Still went ahead and got the Omicron jab befor my coming trip to DC.

Here’s a stat worth pondering. Note that Paxlovid saved the lives of many who ‘don’t trust science.’ I wish I were kidding.

Thrive & persevere!

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Afficionado Part III - a stand apart excerpt from EXISTENCE

Concluding my "shut up and just play your guitar" moment... here's the concluding section of that stand-alone chapter from EXISTENCE that serves to begin the Uplift Saga!


(See Part I here.)

(See Part II here.)

By David Brin

A stand-alone chapter from EXISTENCE  (2012)


That day passed, and then a tense night that he spent clutching a sleeping dolphin by moonlight, while clouds of phosphorescent plankton drifted by. Fortunately, the same selective-permeability technology that enabled his helmet to draw oxygen from the sea also provided a trickle of fresh water, filling a small reservoir near his cheek. I've got to buy stock in this company, he thought, making a checklist for when he was picked up tomorrow.

          Only pickup never came. The next morning and afternoon passed pretty much the same, without catching sight of land or boats. The world always felt so crowded, he thought. Now it seems endless and unexplored.
          Hacker started earning his meals by helping hold the fishing net when the group harvested dinner. The second night he felt more relaxed, dozing while the dolphins' clickety gossip seemed to flow up his jaw and into his dreams. On the third morning, and each of those that followed, he felt he understood just a bit more of their simple language.
          He lost track of how many days and nights passed. Slowly, Hacker stopped worrying about where the pickup boats could be. Angry thoughts about lawsuits and revenge rubbed away under relentless massaging by current and tide. Immersed in the dolphins' communal sound field, he began concerning himself instead with daily problems of the Tribe, like when two young males got into a fight, smacking each other with their beaks and flukes until adults had to forcibly separate them. Using both sign language and his growing vocabulary of click-code, Hacker learned that a female (whose complex name he shortened to "Chee-Chee") was in heat. The young brawlers held little hope of mating with her. Still, their nervous energy needed an outlet. At least no one had been seriously harmed.
          An oldtimer — Kray-Kray — shyly presented a pectoral fin to Hacker, who used his knife to dig out several wormlike parasites. "You should see a real doctor," he urged, as if one gave verbal advice to dolphins every day.
          Helpers go away, Kray-Kray tried to explain in click code. Fins need hands. Helper hands.
          It supported Hacker's theory that something had been done to these creatures. An alteration that had made them distinctly different than others of their species. But what? The mystery grew each time he witnessed some behavior that just couldn't be natural.
          Then, one day the whole Tribe grew excited, spraying nervous clicks everywhere. Soon Hacker saw they were approaching an undersea habitat dome hidden in a narrow canyon, near a coast where waves met shore.
          Shore.... The word tasted strange after all these days — weeks? — spent languidly swimming, listening, and learning to enjoy raw fish. Time had different properties down here. It felt odd to contemplate leaving this watery realm, returning where he clearly belonged — the surface world of air, earth, cities, machines, and nine billion humans, forced to inhale each others' humid breath everywhere they went.
          That's why we dive into our own worlds. Ten thousand hobbies. A million ways to be special, each person striving to be expert at some arcane art... like rocketing into space. Psychologists approved, saying that frenetic amateurism was a much healthier response than the most likely alternative — war. They called this the "Century of Aficionados," a time when governments and professional societies could not keep up with private expertise, which spread at lightning speed across the WorldNet. A renaissance, lacking only a clear sense of purpose.
          The prospect of soon rejoining that culture left Hacker pensive. What's the point of so much obsessive activity, unless it leads toward something worthwhile?
          The dolphins voiced a similar thought in their simple but expressive click-language.

# If you're good at diving — dive for fish! #
# If you have a fine voice — sing for others! #
# If you're great at leaping — bite the sun! #

          Hacker knew he should clamber up the nearby beach now to call his partners and brokers. Tell them he was alive. Get back to business. But instead he followed his new friends to the hidden habitat dome. Maybe I'll learn what's been done to them, and why.
          Swimming under and through a portal pool, he was surprised to find the place deserted. No humans anywhere. Finally, Hacker saw a hand-scrawled sign.

Project Uplift Suspended!
We ran out of cash. Court costs ate everything.
This structure is deeded to our finned friends.
Be nice to them.
May they someday join us as equals.

          There followed a WorldNet access number, verifying that the little dolphin clan actually owned this building, which they now used to store their nets, toys and a few tools. But Hacker knew from their plaintive calls the real reason they kept coming back. Each time they hoped to find that their "hand-friends" had returned.
          Unsteady on rubbery legs, he crept from the pool to look in various chambers. Laboratories, mostly. In one, he recognized a gene-splicing apparatus made by one of his own companies.
          Project Uplift? Oh yes. I remember hearing about this.
          It had been featured in the news, a year or two ago. Both professional and amateur media had swarmed over a small group of "kooks" whose aim was to alter several animal species, giving them human-level intelligence. Foes of all kinds had attacked the endeavor. Religions called it sacrilegious. Eco-enthusiasts decried meddling in Nature's wisdom. Tolerance-fetishists demanded that native dolphin "culture" be left alone, while others rifkined the proposal, predicting mutants would escape the labs to endanger humanity. One problem with diversity in an age of amateurs was that your hobby might attract ire from a myriad others, especially those whose particular passion was indignant disapproval, with a bent for litigation.
          This "Uplift Project" could not survive the rough-and-tumble battle that ensued. A great many modern endeavors didn't.
          Survival of the fittest, he mused. An enterprise this dramatic and controversial has to attract strong support, or it's doomed.
          He glanced back at the pool, where members of the Tribe had taken up a game of water polo, calling fouls and shouting at each other as they batted a ball from one goal to the next, keeping score with raucous sonar clicks.
          Hacker wondered. Would the "uplift" changes carry through from one generation to the next? Could this new genome spread among wild dolphins? If so, might the project have already succeeded beyond its founders' dreams, or its detractors' worst nightmare?
          What if the work resumed, finishing what got started here? Would it enrich our lives to argue philosophy with a dolphin? Or to collaborate with a smart chimp, at work or at play? If other species speak and start creating new things, will they be treated as equals — as co-members of our civilization — or as the next discriminated class?
          Some critics were probably right. For humans to attempt such a thing would be like an orphaned and abused teen trying to foster a wild baby. There were bound to be mistakes and tragedies along the way.
          Are we good enough? Wise enough? Do we deserve such power?
          It wasn't the sort question Hacker used to ask himself. He felt changed by his experience at sea. At the same time, he realized that just asking the question was part of the answer.
          Maybe it'll work both ways. They say you only grow while helping others.
          His father would have called that "romantic nonsense." And yet...
          Exploring one of the laboratories, Hacker found a cheap but working phone that someone had left behind — then had to work at a lab bench for an hour, modifying it to tap the sonic implant in his jaw. He was about to call his manager and broker — before they had a chance to declare him dead and start liquidating his empire. But then Hacker stopped.
          He paused, then keyed the code for his lawyer instead.
          At first Gloria Bickerton could not believe he survived. She wouldn't stop shouting with joy. I didn't know anyone liked me that much, he mused, carrying the phone back to the dome's atrium. He arrived in time to witness the water polo game conclude in a frothy finale.
          "Before you arrange a pickup, there's something I want you to do for me," he told Gloria, after she calmed down. Hacker gave her the WorldNet codes for the Uplift Project, and asked her to find out everything about it, including the current disposition of its assets and technology — and how to contact the experts whose work had been interrupted here.
          Gloria asked him why. He started to reply.
          "I think I've come up with a new..."
          Hacker stopped there, having almost said the word hobby. But suddenly he realized that he had never felt this way about anything before. Not even the exhilaration of rocketry. For the first time he burned with a real ambition. Something worth fighting for.
          In the pool, several members of the Tribe were now busy winding their precious net around the torso of the biggest male, preparing to go foraging again. Hacker overheard them gossiping as they worked, and chuckled when he understood one of their crude jokes. A good natured jibe at his expense.
          Well, a sense of humor is a good start. Our civilization could use more of that.
          "I think —" He resumed telling his lawyer.
          "I think I know what I want to do with my life."


So concludes this stand alone story from EXISTENCE. Also available here

See the vivid, 3-minute video trailer! (Images by Patrick Farley.)


Saturday, March 04, 2023

Surveillance & technology

I was planning to publish today the final section (Part III) of "Aficionado" - a stand alone novella that's part of EXISTENCE. Alas, my website host has flaked on me and I want folks to be able to follow up to the book's page. (Suggested hosting alternatives are welcome, in comments.)

So, let me fill in with a little timely riff on surveillance tech.

First, many of you have already seen some of my postings about artificial Intelligence.  Here's my Newsweek op-ed on the Chat-art-AI revolution. TONS more on the topic. 

But let's zoom into...

== Light is coming... ==

UK enacts ownership registry for property held by foreign companies and to identify their true owners. It will seek to ensure criminals cannot hide behind secretive chains of shell companies. Oh, this move toward transparency will have a myriad holes that need to be patched under future scandals. But it is a huge step toward what I’ve demanded since late in the last century.  

Even more important, it will help corner the US into doing likewise… that is, if the GOP shills for criminal oligarchy are defeated, somehow.

Moreover, and I did not know this part! If you can’t prove who owns it, because you set up too many shell companies, the state will hold the property for you for five years, so that the proper owners can come forward and claim their property. After that set time, the state will sell it and take the proceeds to cancel public debt, much of it incurred because of the huge social costs of unaccountable shell corps.

Wow. It looks more and more like my "Declare Ownership!" treaty proposal! Which - (I assert) - could do more to save the world from a terminally stoopid world oligarchy AND zero-out the crippling public debt held by most nations - than any other action, almost overnight. Without inconveniencing honest citizens (even rich ones) even a little bit.

== More on the power of light ==

Is this evidence for the power of transparency? 50 US embassies have air quality monitors and tweet out the readings publicly. Including the embarrassing truth in capital cities whose regimes don't want citizens to know.

Was it a useless gesture? “Cities that had a US embassy that set up one of these monitors and tweeted out air-quality data saw a decrease of PM2.5 particulates to the tune of 2 to 4 micrograms per cubic meter—compared to their air quality before getting the monitor and to other similar cities that do not have a monitor.”  

Moving on. An interesting article proposes that in an ultra-transparent world, we (humanity) could finally ban weapons of mass destruction, like nukes, because even average citizens could thereupon catch cheaters. 

In extremum, this is, of course one of only two solutions to the Ultimate WMD Problem: “what-if a technology is found that lets very small groups cheaply make world-wrecking weapons?”  

Indeed, this is often posed as a compelling possible explanation for the absence-of-any-aliens Fermi Paradox!  A theory that all techno civilizations wipe themselves out, when even teensy mad minorities can access the means to accomplish it.

Up to a threshold, universal citizen transparency would be one answer (though it requires some courage and wisdom that might be rare across the galaxies.) Alas, the only other solution is a total-surveillance despotism.  

Fortunately, that doesn’t seem imminent. And anyway, I doubt that the citizen equi-veillance prescription can be implemented in the near-future.

What can happen is for up-ratcheting sousveillance and empowered citizenship to render ever-increasing numbers of nasty plots moot. And yes, many of our current problems are happening because world elites see those days of transparent accountability approaching - as in the "Helvetian War" I depicted, in Earth. They are making desperate power grabs, while there’s still time.

Where I demur is when this author conflates a mostly transparent world of equi-veillance with an “end to all privacy.” 

Yes, that is a common leap of misunderstanding, and horribly wrongheaded, alack.

I have despaired over how difficult it has been to convey a simple truth… that preserving a substantial amount of privacy will be a SOCIAL decision. One that transparency can help, rather than doom.

== We'll have some privacy, even in a Transparent Society... if we actually want it ==

If the vast majority of citizens deem privacy to be a core desideratum -- that privacy-invasion by snoops, gossips, voyeurs and bullies is a nastiness that merits denouncing -- then those behaviors will be the ones first caught and denounced! 

Please, please try to wrap your mind around that assertion.

If we all can see well, and denounce bad behavior, the common fear is that this will lead instantly to denunciation of eccentrics and mob enforcement of social homogeneity. Indeed that IS the goal and effect in some nations' growing 'social credit' systems! 

(See an interesting (if somewhat suspect) survey of Chinese public attitudes toward the government run “social credit” surveillance system.)

But what about a society whose top values include “leave each other alone” and “mind your own business” (MYOB)? Isn't that what YOU would want? Yet you assume only a select few share that wish, I'll bet. Can you consider a possibility, though? That millions of your neighbors share that value system? 

Yes, that social value system of using transparency to protect each other’s personal space seems a reach beyond our current, immature and sanctimoniously denunciatory society. But the elements are already there, in most Hollywood films wherein suspicion of authority (SoA) and appreciation of diverse eccentricity are among the most-preached values!  I show that in Vivid Tomorrows: Science Fiction and Hollywood.  

You can see that value system in the mirror... in your reaction, just now, wishing “if only my fellow citizens shared my valuing of tolerance and eccentricity and MYOB and SoA!” I agree! Only consider perhaps that goal is closer than you think.

(One of the top stupidities of books and films that warn against privacy loss (e.g. the execrable The Circle) is how they rely on that very value system already existing in their audience, while preaching it at them, while insulting those audience members by claiming that – except for a few hero protagonists - none of us sheep actually have that value. Think about it.) 

Consider what a world filled with light might be like, if we also completed our build toward that MYOB value system?  If the FIRST people judged to be behaving badly are those caught bullying and snooping and not leaving each other alone?

Indeed, then we might not only have no despots and no WMD-nukes. We might also have few voyeur, conformity-enforcing bullies… and a golden age of eccentric diversity.

Please, please... speak up in comments if you know another way to get that. 

== Other Tech news ==

Interested in “Futuristic Design”?  I am, of course! And I’ve consulted with a lot of groups looking for the Next Thing.  One of those consultations, a few years ago paid me to offer scenarios for Earth 2050an attempt to portray planetary changes – especially social/economic/political -- a few decades from now. And as you’ll see, the effort was led by the Kaspersky company, based in Moscow and at the time a leader in computer security software. (Now? Not quite so trusted for varied reasons, some in the news. Still, this is a separate matter.)

As it happened, I gave them a lot more material than anyone else did, for what aimed to be a vivid zoom-in to various parts of the globe, in 2050… a time frame close to my own near future novels Earth and Existence

I do think you might enjoy some of the speculations, and/or find them thought provoking. Like a dive into the great Phosphate Crisis of 2050, making Morocco the richest country in the world. Anyway, it’s good to see at last something come of this project, and it aims to be ongoing.  Though the timing is thought-provoking in its own right.  And now some in the media are actually talking about it!

== and lagniappes ==

QAnon – The Game that Plays People. – Lee Stein.

Amazon – after firing 110,000 employees in time for the holidays – may also be firing … Alexa.

Perpetual drone surveillance… or at least during public events… combined with advanced vision systems… is proposed to deal with mass shooters.

Looking toward the future: My 2015 speech at COFES (Congress on the Future of Engineering Software) covered a range of topics, including the context for a society that actually welcomes and invests in new things and progress.