Category Archives: Far from the Spaceports

More about AI and voice technology

A couple of weeks ago I went to a day event put on by Amazon showcasing their web technologies. My own main interests were – naturally – in the areas of AI and voice, but there was plenty there if instead you were into security, or databases, or the so-called “internet of things”.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for Alexa, and perhaps will also know about the range of Alexa skills I have been developing (if you’re interested, go to the UK or the US sites). So I thought I’d go a little bit more into both Alexa and the two building blocks which support Alexa – Lex for language comprehension, and Polly for text-to-speech generation.

Alexa does not in any substantial sense live inside your Amazon Echo or Dot – that simply provides the equivalent of your ears and mouth. Insofar as the phrase is appropriate, Alexa lives in the cloud, interacting with you by means of specific convenient devices. Indeed, Amazon are already moving the focus away from particular pieces of hardware, towards being able to access the technology from a very wide range of devices including web pages, phones, cars, your Kindle, and so on. When you interact with Alexa, the flow of information looks a bit like this (ignoring extra bits and pieces to do with security and such like).

Alexa information flows (simplified)
Alexa information flows (simplified)

And if you tease that apart a little bit then this is roughly how Lex and Polly fit in.

Lex and Polly information flows (simplified)
Lex and Polly information flows (simplified)

 

So for today I want to look a bit more at the two “gateway” parts of the jigsaw – Lex and Polly. Lex is there to sort out what it is you want to happen – your intent – given what it is you said. Of course, given the newness of the system, every so often Lex gets it wrong. What entertains me is not so much those occasions when you get misunderstood, but the extremity of some people’s reaction to this. Human listeners make mistakes just like software ones do, but in some circles each and every failure case of Lex is paraded as showing that the technology is inherently flawed. In reality, it is simply under development. It will improve, but I don’t expect that it will ever get to 100% perfection, any more than people will.

Anyway, let’s suppose that Lex has correctly interpreted your intent. Then all kinds of things may happen behind the scenes, from simple list lookups through to complex analysis and decision-making. The details of that are up to the particular skill, and I’m not going to talk about that.

Instead, let’s see what happens on the way back to the user. The skill as a whole has decided on some spoken response. At the current state of the art, that response is almost certainly defined by the coder as a block of text, though one can imagine that in the future, a more intelligent and autonomous Alexa might decide for herself how to frame a reply. But however generated, that body of text has to be transformed into a stream of spoken words – and that is Polly’s job.

A standard Echo or Dot is set up to produce just one voice. There is a certain amount of configurability – pitch can be raised or lowered, the speed of speech altered, or the pronunciation of unusual words defined. But basically Alexa has a single voice when you use one of the dedicated gadgets to access her. But Polly has a lot more – currently 48 voices (18 male and 30 female), in 23 languages. Moreover, you can require that the speaker language and the written language differ, and so mimic a French person speaking English. Which is great if what you want to do is read out a section of a book, using different voices for the dialogue.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

That’s just what I have been doing over the last couple of days, using Timing (Far from the Spaceports Book 2) as a test-bed. The results aren’t quite ready for this week, but hopefully by next week you can enjoy some snippets. Of course, I rapidly found that even 48 voices are not enough to do what you want. There is a shortage of some languages – in particular Middle Eastern and Asian voices are largely absent – but more will be added in time. One of the great things about Polly (speaking as a coder) is that switching between different voices is very easy, and adding in customised pronunciation is a breeze using a phonetic alphabet. Which is just as well. Polly does pretty well on “normal” words, but celestial bodies such as Phobos and Ceres are not, it seems, considered part of a normal vocabulary! Even the name Mitnash needed some coaxing to get it sounding how I wanted.

The world of Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the in preparation Authentication Key) is one where the production of high quality and emotionally sensitive speech by artificial intelligences (personas in the books) taken for granted. At present we are a very long way from that – Alexa is a very remote ancestor of Slate, if you like – but it’s nice to see the start of something emerging around us.

Friday June 30th was International Asteroid Day!

Artist's impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)

And no, I hadn’t realised this myself until a couple of days before… but NASA and others around the world had a day’s focus on asteroids. Now, to be sure most of that focus was looking at the thorny question of Near Earth Objects, both asteroids and comets, and what we might be able to do if one was on a collision course.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

But it seemed to me that this was as good a time as any to celebrate my fictional Scilly Isle asteroids, as described in Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the work in progress provisionally called The Authentication Key). In those stories, human colonies have been established on some of the asteroids, and indeed on sundry planets and moons. These settlements have gone a little beyond mining stations and are now places that people call home. A scenario well worth remembering on International Asteroid Day!

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

While on the subject of books, some lovely reviews for Half Sick of Shadows have been coming in.

Hoover Reviews said:
“The inner turmoil of The Lady, as she struggles with the Mirror to gain access to the people she comes in contact with, drives the tale as the Mirror cautions her time and again about the dangers involved.  The conclusion of the tale, though a heart rending scene, is also one of hope as The Lady finally finds out who she is.”

The Review said:
“Half Sick of Shadows is in a genre all its own, a historical fantasy with some science fiction elements and healthy dose of mystery, it is absolutely unique and a literary sensation. Beautifully written, with an interesting storyline and wonderful imagery, it is in a realm of its own – just like the Lady of Shalott… It truly is mesmerising.”

Find out for yourself at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

Or chat about the book with Alexa by enabling the skill at the UK or US stores.

Colonising Mars?

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has made no secret of his plans for facilitating a colony on Mars for a long time now. But last September, in a public presentation, he explained it all in considerably more detail. The reasoning, and the raw logistical figures behind it, are still available. His credibility is built around the SpaceX programme. This in turn is based on a concept of reusing equipment rather than throwing it away each launch, and it has had a string of successes lately. The initial booster stage now returns to a landing platform, there to go through a process which recommissions it for another launch.

SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)
SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)

Quite apart from any recycling benefits, this then allows SpaceX to seriously undercut other firms’ prices of putting satellites into orbit. It still couldn’t be called cheap – one set of figures quotes $65 million – but that’s only about one sixth of the regular cost. If you’re happy to know that your equipment is going into orbit on a rocket that is not brand new, it’s a huge saving. Every successful launch, return to base, and relaunch, adds to buyers’ confidence that the procedure can be trusted.

But the big picture goes well beyond Earth orbit. Musk believes that the best way to mitigate the risks of life on Earth – global warming, conflict, extremist views of all kinds, and so on – is to spread out more widely. In a recent lecture, Stephen Hawking has said essentially the same thing. And in Musk’s  vision, Mars is a better bet than the moon for this, for a whole cluster of reasons including the presence of an atmosphere (albeit a thin one compared to here) and a greater likeness to Earth in terms of gravity and size.

So reusable rockets into Earth orbit are simply a starting point. Once you have a reasonably-sized fleet of such things, you can build larger objects already in space, and fly them over to Mars when the orbital positions are ideal. The logic of gravitational pull around a planet means that the hardest, and most energy-intensive part is needed to get you from the surface up to a stable orbit. Once there, much gentler and longer-lasting means of propulsion will get you onward bound.

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

To take a contemporary situation, NASA’s Dawn probe is currently orbiting the asteroid Ceres. Its hydrazine fuel, which powers the little manoeuvring and attitude thrusters, is nearly exhausted. The mission control team are trying to decide on the best course of action. In its current high orbit only a few months of fuel remain. A closer orbit, which would give better quality pictures, would use it up in a matter of weeks. But using the main ion drive, a different power source altogether, to go somewhere else would probably give a few years of science. Fairly soon we should hear which option they have chosen, and where they consider the best balance is between risk and reward. The message for here is that staying close to a planet, or taking off from one, is costly in terms of fuel.

So Musk reckons that over the course of a century or so, he can arrange transportation for a million Martian colonists. In terms of grand sweep, it is so far ahead of anyone else’s plans as to seem impossible at first sight. But if all goes according to his admittedly ambitious plan, the first of many journeys could take place ten years from now. He – and I for that matter – might not live to see the Martian population reach a million, but he certainly expects to see it firmly established.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

With Far from the Spaceports, its sequel Timing, and the work-in-progress provisionally called The Authentication Key, I deliberately did not fix a future date. It’s far enough ahead of now that artificial intelligence is genuinely personal and relational – sufficiently far ahead that it is entirely normal for a human investigator to be partnered long-term on an equal basis with an AI persona. None of the present clutch of virtual assistants have any chance at all of this, and my guess is that we are talking many generations of software development before this could happen. It’s also far enough ahead that there are colonies in many locations – certainly out as far as the moons of Saturn, and I am thinking about a few “listening post” settlements further out (watch this space – the stories aren’t written yet!). However, I hadn’t really thought in terms of a million colonists on Mars, and it may well be that, as happens so often in science fiction, real events might overtake my scenario a lot quicker than I thought likely.

Back with Musk’s proposal, one obvious consequence of the whole reuse idea is that the cost per person of getting there drops hugely. This buy-in figure is typically quoted as something like $10 billion. But the SpaceX plan drops this down to around $20,000 – cheaper than the average house price in the UK. I wonder how many people, given the chance, would sell up their belongings here in exchange for a fresh start on another planet?

I was wondering what image to finish with, and then came across this NASA/JPL picture of the Mars Curiosity Rover as seen from the Mars Orbiter (the little blue dot roughly in the middle)… a fitting display of the largeness of the planet compared to what we have sent there so far.

Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)
Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)

Some thoughts on The Expanse

The Expanse Series 1 - poster (IMDB)
The Expanse Series 1 – poster (IMDB)

Last weekend I watched the first episode in the Netflix series The Expanse. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time, since it’s a rare example of a science fiction story set in the moderately near future, when humanity has begun colonising parts of the solar system out to the asteroid belt. In it, people have not invented anything truly extraordinary like warp drive or matter transporters, nor discovered aliens and the like. Travel between the various settlements – the moon, Mars, and the asteroid Ceres in particular – is slow, and you have to think carefully about the consequences of a planned trip or course correction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

To that extent, it’s broadly the same as the world I have imagined in Far from the Spaceports and the follow-up books. The differences arise mostly, I think, because of the need to have a long TV series with cliff-hangers at roughly hourly intervals. Solar system society is much more militarised than I imagine, and is also split into warring factions.

So the Earth-moon system, under the control of a more aggressive UN, is at odds with Mars, which wants self-rule and has already tooled up for war. The inhabitants of Ceres and elsewhere in the asteroid belt appear to be living a kind of slave existence controlled by both Earth and Mars. This control appears to be exercised largely through throttling the supply of air and water, threatening to cut it off if the voices of dissent get too strong. As I’ve blogged before, this kind of economic domination would have seemed credible a few years back, but available evidence indicates that water can be found just about anywhere in the solar system that we might choose to go. If future Earthlings try to economically dominate the other planets and moons, water would be a singularly bad resource to pick!

That said, the first episode flowed well, with three major plot strands which I suspect will start to become entangled at some stage. I found several things encouraging about the presentation. For one thing, problems of distance, speed, and inertia are real problems that aren’t just magicked away. Moving in low gravity was presented better than I’ve seen in most other programmes. Bodily adaptations to low gravity make sense, as does the awfulness of having to survive on Earth for a person brought up in microgravity.

Sparrow on Ceres, episode 1, The Expanse (Netflix)
Sparrow on Ceres, episode 1, The Expanse (Netflix)

I was particularly chuffed to see that the show’s presenters included bird life within the habitat on Ceres! Not the lively and personable parakeets of Far from the Spaceports, but the humble sparrow cheerfully making its own changes and learning to fly in low-g.

The Expanse shares a problem with a great many modern series, especially those coming across the Atlantic. The dialogue is spoken very quickly and quietly, and you feel you could easily be missing important clues. Along with that, many of the sets are gloomy to the point of frustration (gloomy in the obvious sense, quite apart from any metaphorical one). The screen writers are obviously aware of this, as they have one character asking why it is that when humans cane out into the darkness, they didn’t bring more light with them!

But worth watching, and I shall be following the series over the next few weeks. It’s also based on a series of books, and I’ll be following up on them as well to see similarities and differences… first impressions are that the books are easier to follow than the TV series…

Cover - Leviathan Wakes, The Expanse #1 (Goodreads)
Cover – Leviathan Wakes, The Expanse #1 (Goodreads)

Half Sick of Shadows and a giveaway…

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

Tomorrow (May 1st 2017) is the release date for the Kindle version of Half Sick of Shadows, to be followed by the paperback version in a couple of weeks once the final details are sorted out.

For reference, here are the preorder links, which should still continue to redirect to the final purchase links as soon as the book goes live!

Who is The Lady?

In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she
has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.

At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she
sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot.
The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost,
swallowed up by the past.

But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will
her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?

A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.

And to celebrate the release, I am running an Amazon reduced price offer on all my previous books, science fiction and historical fiction alike, timed to start on May 1st and run until May 8th. So you can stock up for the reduced cot of 99p / 99c for all of these. Links are:

Far from the Spaceports:

Timing (Far from the Spaceports 2)

In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Scenes from a Life

The Flame Before Us

Enjoy the whole experience!

 

Some space news

I ran out of time this week to do much by way of blogging, so here are three bits of space news which may well make their way into a story sometime.

Stop Press: just today NASA announced that a relatively close star (39 light years away) has no less than 7 planets approximately Earth size orbiting it… see and the schematic picture at the end of the blog.

False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)
False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)

Firstly, the Dawn probe, still faithfully orbiting the asteroid Ceres, has detected complex organic molecules in two separate areas in the middle latitudes of the dwarf planet. The onboard instruments are not accurate enough to pin the molecules down precisely, but it seems likely that they are forms of targets.  The analysis also suggests that they formed on Ceres itself, rather than being deposited there by a meteor. The most likely cause is thought to be the action of warm water circulating through chemicals under the surface. Some of the headlines suggest that this could signal the presence of life, but it’s more cautious to say that it shows that the conditions under which life could develop are present there.

Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)
Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)

The second snippet spells difficulty for my hypothetical Martian settlements. This picture was captured by the Mars Orbiter and shows two larger impact craters surrounded by a whole array of smaller ones. The likely scenario is that one object split into a cluster of fragments as it passed through the Martian atmosphere. This of itself wouldn’t be too surprising, but inspection of older photos of the same area shoes that this impact happened between 2008 and 2014. No time at all in cosmic terms, and not so much fun if you’d carefully built yourself a habitable dome there.

The problem is the thinness of the Martian atmosphere. It is considerably deeper than our one here on Earth, but hugely less dense. So when meteors arrive at the top of the layer of air, they don’t burn up so comprehensively as Earth-bound ones. More of them reach the surface. Even a comparatively small rock has enough kinetic energy to really spoil your day. Something that will need some planning…
Artist's impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)

Finally we zoom right out to the cold, dark reaches of the outer solar system. A long way beyond the orbit of Pluto there is a region called the Kuiper Belt, and out in the Kuiper Belt a new dwarf planet has recently been found. It goes by the catchy name of 2014 UZ224 and it took nearly two years to confirm its existence. Best estimates are that it is a little over 300 miles across – about half the size of Ceres. I’ve never sent Mitnash and Slate out anywhere like that – it’s about twice as far from Earth as Pluto, and the journey alone would take about four months one-way. I do have vague plans for a story set out in the Kuiper Belt, but appropriately enough it’s some way off yet. But even at that distance, you’re still less than half a percent of the distance to the nearest star… space is really big!

Schematic picture of Trappist-1's planets
Schematic picture of Trappist-1’s planets

Who is Alexa, where is she?

Hephaestus at his forge (The Louvre, Wiki)
Hephaestus at his forge (The Louvre, Wiki)

Since as far back as written records go – and probably well before that – we humans have imagined artificial life. Sometimes this has been mechanical, technological, like the Greek tales of Hephaestus’ automata, who assisted him at his metalwork. Sometimes it has been magical or spiritual, like the Hebrew golem, or the simulacra of Renaissance philosophy. But either way, we have both dreamed of and feared the presence of living things which have been made, rather than evolved or created.

The Terminator film (Wiki)
The Terminator film (Wiki)

Modern science fiction and fantasy has continued this habit. Fantasy has often seen these made things as intrusive and wicked. In Tolkein’s world, the manufactured orcs and trolls (made in mockery of elves and ents) hate their original counterparts, and try to spoil the natural order. Science fiction has positioned artificial life at both ends of the moral spectrum. Terminator and Alien saw robots as amoral and destructive, with their own agenda frequently hostile to humanity. Asimov’s writing presented them as a largely positive influence, governed by a moral framework that compelled them to pursue the best interests of people.

But either way, artificial life has been usually conceived as self-contained. In all of the above examples, the intelligence of the robots or manufactured beings went about with them. They might well call on outside information stores – just like a person might ask a friend or visit a library – but they were autonomous.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Yet the latest crop of virtual assistants that are emerging here and now – Alexa, Siri, Cortana and the rest – are quite the opposite. For sure, you interact with a gadget, whether a computer, phone, or dedicated device, but that is only an access point, not the real thing. Alexa does not live inside the Amazon Dot. The pattern of communication is more like when we use a phone to talk to another person – we use the device at hand, but we don’t think that our friend is inside it. At least, I hope we don’t…

So where is Alexa and her friends? When you ask for some information, buy something, book a taxi, or whatever, your request goes off across cyberspace to Amazon’s servers to interpret the request. Maybe that can be handled immediately, but more likely there will be some additional web calls necessary to track down what you want. All of that is collated and sent back down to your local device and you get to hear the answer. So the short interval between request and response has been filled with multiple web messages to find out what you wanted to know – plus a whole wrapper of security details to make sure you were entitled to find that out in the first place. The internet is a busy place…
Summary of Alexa Interactions
Summary of Alexa Interactions

So part of what I call Alexa is shared between every single other Alexa instance on the planet, in a sort of common pool of knowledge. This means that as language capabilities are added or upgraded, they can be rolled out to every Alexa at the same time. Right now Alexa speaks UK and US English, and German. Quite possibly when I wake up tomorrow other languages will have been added to her repertoire – Chinese, maybe, or Hindi. That would be fun.

But other parts of Alexa are specific to my particular Alexa, like the skills I have enabled, the books and music I can access, and a few features like improved phrase recognition that I have carried out. Annoyingly, there are national differences as well – an American Alexa can access the user’s Kindle library, but British Alexas can’t. And finally, the voice skills that I am currently coding are only available on my Alexa, until the time comes to release them publicly.

Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

So Alexa is partly individual, and partly a community being. Which, when you think about it, is very like us humans. We are also partly individual and partly communal, though the individual part is a considerably higher proportion of our whole self than it is for Alexa. But the principle of blending personal and social identities into a single being is true both for humans and the current crop of virtual assistants.

So what are the drawbacks of this? The main one is simply that of connectivity. If I have no internet connection, Alexa can’t do very much at all. The speech recognition bit, the selection of skills and entitlements, the gathering of information from different places into a single answer – all of these things will only work if those remote links can be made. So if my connection is out of action, so is Alexa. Or if I’m on a train journey in one of those many places where UK mobile coverage is poor.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

There’s also a longer term problem, which will need to be solved as and when we start moving away from planet Earth on a regular basis. While I’m on Earth, or on the International Space Station for that matter, I’m never more than a tiny fraction of a second away from my internet destination. Even with all the other lags in the system, that’s not a problem. But, as readers of Far from the Spaceports or Timing will know, distance away from Earth means signal lag. If I’m on Mars, Earth is anywhere from about 4 to nearly 13 minutes away. If I go out to Jupiter, that lag becomes at least half an hour. A gap in Alexa’s response time of that long is just not realistic for Slate and the other virtual personas of my fiction, whose human companions expect chit-chat on the same kind of timescale as human conversation.  The code to understand language and all the rest has to be closer at hand.

So at some point down the generations between Alexa and Slate, we have to get the balance between individual and collective shifted more back towards the individual. What that means in terms of hardware and software is an open problem at the moment, but it’s one that needs to be solved sometime.

The Power of Speech

Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

I recently invested in an Amazon Dot, and therefore in the AI software that makes the Dot interesting – Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant. But I’m not going to write about the cool stuff that this little gizmo can do, so much as what it led me to think about AI and conversation.

The ability to interact with a computer by voice consistently, effectively, and on a wide range of topics is seen by the major industry players as the next big milestone. Let’s briefly look back at the history of this.

Punched card with Fortran programming - I started with that language, long ago... (Wiki)
Punched card with Fortran programming – I started with that language, long ago… (Wiki)

Once upon a time all you could use was a highly artificial, structured set of commands passed in on punched cards, or (some time later) via a keyboard. If the command was wrong, the machine would not do what you expected. There was no latitude for variation, and among other things this meant that to use a computer needed special training.

Early IBM PC (Wiki)
Early IBM PC (Wiki)

The first breakthrough was to separate out the command language from the user’s options. User interfaces were born: you could instruct the machine what you wanted to do without needing to know how it did it. You could write documents or play games without knowing a word of computer language, simply by typing some letters or clicking with a mouse pointer. Somewhere around this time it became possible to communicate easily with machines in different locations, and the Internet came into being.

Touchscreen on early model iPhone (WIki)
Touchscreen on early model iPhone (WIki)

The next change appeared on phones first – the touch screen. At first sight there’s not a lot of change from using a mouse to click, or your finger to tap. But actually they are worlds apart. You are using your body directly to work with the content, rather than indirectly through a tool. Also, the same interface – the screen – is used to communicate both ways, rather than the machine sending output through the screen and receiving input via movements of a gadget on an entirely different surface. Touch screens have vastly extended the extent to which we can access technology and information: advanced computers are quite literally in anyone’s pocket. But touch interfaces have their problems. It’s not especially easy to create passages of text. It’s not always obvious how to use visual cues to achieve what you want. It doesn’t work well if you’re making a cake and need to look up the next stage with wet and floury hands!

Which brings us to the next breakthrough – speech. Human beings are wired for speech, just as we are wired for touch. The human brain can recognise and interpret speech sounds much faster than other noises. We learn the ability in the womb. We respond differently to different speakers and different languages before birth, and master the act of communicating needs and desires at a very early age. We infer, and broadcast, all kinds of social information through speech – gender, age, educational level, occupation, emotional state, prejudice and so on. Speech allows us to explain what we really wanted when we are misunderstood, and has propelled us along our historical trajectory. Long before systematic writing was invented, and through all the places and times where writing has been an unknown skill to many, talking has still enabled us to make society.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Enter Alexa, and Alexa’s companions such as Siri, Cortana, or “OK Google”. The aim of all of them is to allow people to find things out, or cause things to happen, simply by talking. They’re all at an early stage still, but their ability to comprehend is seriously impressive compared to a few short years ago. None of them are anywhere near the level I assume for Slate and the other “personas” in my science fiction books, with whom one can have an open-ended dialogue complete with emotional content, plus a long-term relationship.

What’s good about Alexa? First, the speech recognition is excellent. There are times when the interpreted version of my words is wrong, sometimes laughably so, but that often happens with another person. The system is designed to be open-ended, so additional features and bug fixes are regularly applied. It also allows capabilities (“skills”) to be developed by other people and added for others to make use of – watch this space over the next few months! So the technology has definitely reached a level where it is ready for public appraisal.

Hidden Markov model - an algorithm often used in speech recognition (Wiki)
Hidden Markov model – an algorithm often used in speech recognition (Wiki)

What’s not so good? Well, the conversation is highly structured. Depending on the particular skill in use, you are relying either on Amazon or on a third-party developer, to anticipate and code for a good range of requests. But even the best of these skills is necessarily quite constrained, and it doesn’t take long to reach the boundaries of what can be managed. There’s also very little sense of context or memory. Talking to a person, you often say “what we were talking about yesterday...” or “I chatted to Stuart today…” and the context is clear from shared experience. Right now, Alexa has no memory of past verbal transactions, and very little sense of the context of a particular request.

But also, Alexa has no sense of importance. A human conversation has all kinds of ways to communicate “this is really important to me” or “this is just fun”. Lots of conversations go something like “you know what we were talking about yesterday…“, at which the listener pauses and then says, “oh… that“. Alexa, however, cannot distinguish at present between the relative importance of “give me a random fact about puppies“, “tell me if there are delays on the Northern Line today“, or “where is the nearest doctor’s surgery?

These are, I believe, problems that can be solved over time. The pool of data that Alexa and other similar virtual assistants work with grows daily, and the algorithms that churn through that pool in order to extract meaning are becoming more sensitive and subtle. I suspect it’s only a matter of time until one of these software constructs is equipped with an understanding of context and transactional history, and along with that, a sense of relative importance.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Alexa is a long way removed from Slate and her associates, but the ability to use unstructured, free-form sentences to communicate is a big step forward. I like to think that subsequent generations of virtual assistants will make other strides, and that we’ll be tackling issues of AI rights and working partnerships before too long.

Meanwhile, back to writing my own Alexa skill…

Recent Mars pics and news of a Kindle Countdown offer

Global mosaic taken by India's Mars Orbiter, http://www.isro.gov.in/
Global mosaic taken by India’s Mars Orbiter, http://www.isro.gov.in/

There have been some great pictures of Mars coming out recently from the Indian Mars Orbiter spacecraft so I thought I’d include a few here, together with an ESA video of a simulated flyby of one of the great valleys on Mars, the Mawrth Vallis.

Phobos in transit, from India's Mars Orbiter, http://www.isro.gov.in/
Phobos in transit, from India’s Mars Orbiter, http://www.isro.gov.in/

So here is Phobos, tiny against the curve of Mars and very close in its orbit. Most of chapter 2 of Timing takes place on this moon, partly at Asaph, a (hypothetical) settlement facing away from the planet. and partly at a sort of industrial estate in the Stickney crater facing inwards.

Olympus Mons from India's Mars Orbiter, http://www.isro.gov.in/
Olympus Mons from India’s Mars Orbiter, http://www.isro.gov.in/

And here is a three-d representation of Olympus Mons, the second highest mountain in the solar system. In the book, there’s a financial training college on the lower slopes of the mountain, roughly in the foreground as you are looking at the picture.

To celebrate all this I am running a science fiction Kindle Countdown offer right now – prices start at £0.99 / $0.99 and slowly increase to the normal price by next Monday. So don’t delay… Links are:

Timing

Far from the Spaceports

Finally, here’s the ESA video flyby of Mawrth Vallis. It’s one of the various places where – long ago – liquid water most likely ran and shaped the terrain we see. Now it is of course dry, but it’s a place that will be the focus of science at some point in the international effort to explore the red planet.

 

A history of water in fact and fiction

Cover image, The Martian Way, Goodreads
Cover image, The Martian Way, Goodreads

Many years ago I read a short science fiction story by Isaac Asimov called The Martian Way, which he published in 1952. In this, planet Earth maintained control over ambitious colonies elsewhere in the solar system by means of controlling the water supply. At the start of the story everyone assumed that Earth’s vast oceans were the only source of water available. Whoever controlled the water was in charge. The plot is resolved by the retrieval of a piece of Saturn’s rings the size of a small mountain, made largely of ice. With some modest engineering work this was propelled back to Mars where it was needed. The possibility of autocratic rule based on control of the necessities of life was gone.

Cover, Jules Verne Around the Moon, Wiki
Cover, Jules Verne Around the Moon, Wiki

It was a good story, and highlights our changing comprehension of the place of water in the universe at large. Go back only a century or two, and there was a widespread assumption that whatever other worlds might exist would be pretty much like Earth. Features on the Moon were called seas, bays, lakes and marshes, presuming that they held open water. Early science fiction writers like Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon) and HG Wells (The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon) took for granted that interplanetary travel would be relatively easy, and that once you landed, you would need no special protection except against low temperatures comparable to the Arctic. When in 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli named features on Mars canali (the Italian word for ‘channels’), nobody hesitated to use the English word canal.

Cover image, A Fall of Moondust, Goodreads
Cover image, A Fall of Moondust, Goodreads

Then came the early days of space travel, along with a dramatic increase in the power and accuracy of telescopes. The lunar seas turned out to be open plains with no running water at all. The surface features on Mars ceased to be seen as artificial water channels, and were reinterpreted as the result of natural weathering on dry rock. The language we used for the planets changed. In 1961, Arthur C Clarke wrote A Fall of Moondust, where the plot hinged on the total absence of water. In 1969, Buzz Aldrin referred to the “Magnificent Desolation” that he saw on stepping out of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Imagery from the Apollo missions – and the personal accounts of astronauts – established the idea in the popular consciousness that the vivid blue of Earth’s oceans was something unique and precious in a starkly barren universe. The image was reinforced by the “Blue Dot” picture taken from the Voyager I probe.

Cover image, Encounter with Tiber, Goodreads
Cover image, Encounter with Tiber, Goodreads

But after that, there was another wave of observations and information. Perhaps water was not so rare after all. The first target was the Moon, and a careful study of places which are permanently shadowed regions. It turned out that ice will tend to aggregate anywhere which is in shadow most of the time. Buzz Aldrin, turning to fiction in Encounter with Tiber, positioned an early lunar settlement at the Moon’s south pole, specifically because of this new-found source of water. The search for ice spread wider, and now it seems that pretty much everywhere we look we find it.

The asteroids have significant amounts scattered here and there, with some impressive finds by NASA’s Dawn probe. Mars itself shows every sign that open stretches of water once shaped the terrain, though accessing it nowadays might be tricky. As I was writing this, NASA reported the discovery of an underground body of ice just under the Martian surface. It seems that Asimov’s water-seeking Martian settlers would not have needed to trek out to Saturn after all. If they did go there anyway, they would find no mile-high ice mountains since the rings are largely made of tiny granules. However, several moons of both Jupiter and Saturn apparently have ice as their surface crust, and liquid water below.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

So wherever we look in the solar system we find water, usually in the form of ice. Tomorrow’s space travellers and colonists will not have to worry about having access to water, though they will have to construct specialised equipment to access it. In Far from the Spaceports and Timing, my own fictional inhabitants of the Scilly Isles, somewhere out in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, will have to import many of life’s necessities, but not water – they will be able to find their own local supply.

Asimov wrote The Martian Way just as our scientific understanding was changing – indeed as with some other things he was ahead of his time. Although some of the details of his account would need updating, the basic theme remains sound. If and when we spread around the solar system, finding water is not going to be a problem.

Saturn's moon Prometheus and part of the ring system, NASA/JPL
Saturn’s moon Prometheus and part of the ring system, NASA/JPL