Category Archives: Far from the Spaceports

Embleton Bay (and an extract from Far from the Spaceports)

Dunstanburgh Castle, from Embleton Bay
Dunstanburgh Castle, from Embleton Bay

Last weekend I was up in Northumberland, and on the last day – Sunday – visited Embleton Bay. The last time I was here I was walking the Northumberland coastal path, heading north towards Lindisfarne. This time it was just a short walk along the beach, and for some of the family, a splash in the sea.

Embleton Bay is one of the many scallop shaped dips in the northeast coastline. It is low, with dunes on the landward side rather than cliffs, and the view to the south ends with the splendid ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, dark against the vivid blue sky.

Embleton Bay, looking south
Embleton Bay, looking south

Embleton Bay happens also to be the location of one of the flashback scenes in Far from the Spaceports. Here, we meet Mitnash and Shayna camping (in what is admittedly a very high-tech tent), before Mit gets sent offworld to the asteroids called The Scilly Isles. Looking at the view last Sunday, it was not too difficult to imagine the two of them pitched here on the border between dunes and beach. It was a last opportunity to enjoy each other’s company – and in Mit’s case, the delights of open air and water – before being parted. I’ve added an extract below…

Shayna has probably had the thin end of the story so far, but as and when I write the third book in the series, provisionally called The Authentication Key, she should get more narrative attention!

And just to keep the Northumberland theme going, here’s Mark Knofler from YouTube, with a rather different mood than his better known riffs…


And here’s the extract…

I was away in the Northumbrian national park, walking the Bernician Way with nothing but one of the recent model v-tents and Shayna. Neither of us were at all interested in walking long-distance footpaths, but we both liked the absence of neighbours. A couple can make a lot of noise out in a national park, without thinking someone else might be disturbed.

But there it was, that morning, the message alert blinking silently on my shirt lapel where I’d discarded it for swimming in the North Sea last night, almost hidden by Shayna’s NuFleece. She might not like long distance walking, but she loved the prospect of skinny-dipping in sea water not far above freezing, and then thinking of inventive ways to warm up. That was so much easier when you could come out of the water and straight into a v-tent micro environment set at whatever climate you wanted. Right now we were in a Middle Egyptian May – temperature, humidity, everything.

Shayna liked to say that the chosen location was part of her genetic heritage, and she was in search of her roots. I was never sure about that, but I had no great preference myself. She had configured it just as soon as I had set the tent up, and it had taken under a minute to climatise itself.

So all through the night, with a North Sea winter gale blowing up and down outside, there we were in the Valley of the Kings. You didn’t mind so much going into cold water with all that warmth waiting. We’d polarised the fabric, silver from the outside and clear from the inside, and we lay together watching the half moon slide in and out of the curving clouds.

We’d arrived at low water, but I’d pitched the tent well up the beach, on a strip of pale sand between some levels of flat rock. High tide was in the early hours of the morning, and the waves had washed close up against us in the cosy dark.

I scowled at the lapel badge, wondering if there was any way to pretend I had not seen it. There wasn’t, not really. Slate would have acknowledged receipt of the incoming at the same time as redirecting it, and would have tagged its reception with all kinds of logging. It was far too late for me to try hacking anything. The real question was whether I could get away with avoiding it for more hours than I had already, but I already knew the answer to that one as well.

I tapped the lapel, and listened to the message sullenly. Recalled to London… first opportunity… Twelve hour SLA. I sighed, and entered the release commit. Slate would do the rest for me. Then I turned to look at Shayna. There she was in the morning light: brown skin enjoying the warm air, dark hair spilling over the pillow, and dark eyes opening with an air of frustration as she saw me working the lapel.

“I suppose you’re going to say there’s no more holiday now.”

I nodded.

“Recall at first available. Back to London for me.” I paused. “You could stay here?”

“Oh, Mit. Where’s the fun in that?”

She closed her eyes again briefly, but I could see the little muscle movements in her face as she interrogated her Stele. Rocky, she called him, and he was male in persona as well as voice. It was fair enough: Slate was undeniably female.

“We have three hours before the east coast express stops at Alnmouth. A quarter hour to pack up, half an hour to Craster, quarter hour transfer. That gives us another swim and time to warm up again afterwards.”

I loosened a vent a notch or two, listened to a sudden gust of wind, imagined what the air and water would be like.

“We could miss out the swim and just stay warm?”

She reached past me and tapped the door release, inviting the gust inside the tent where it contended unsuccessfully with the thermal regulation.

“Wherever it is they are going to send you now, you won’t have water like this. Out you go and enjoy it one more time.”

I shook my head, but got out and stood up anyway, naked in all that volume of cold rushing air. The tide had fallen again, and the sea froth was a little way down the beach. Shayna pushed past me and ran, arms waving above her head, shrieking with excitement as the wildness of the wind encircled her soul. I followed on, but she reached the water well before me, and threw herself in to the tumble of the waves.

Twenty years ago I would never have done this, but things had changed. Anyway, she was right: wherever I was going, it wouldn’t have wind and waves like this. I followed her.

It had been a long day. An icy bathe first thing in Embleton Bay, followed by Egyptian warmth. Then down to London for the first briefing, and some intense training sessions on commodities. Slate had uplinked a whole library of reading material on the subject, from finding the stuff right through to trading it. But I stopped at the point of trading, and even today I have very little idea how rare earths are actually used. But by the end of the journey I would sound totally convincing on the important parts of the subject. Finally, a second briefing with Elias, and a scramble to Euston to catch the overnight to Findhorn.

I had intended to gaze forlornly out of the window as I hurtled past Alnmouth again, this time heading north. However, fatigue had got the better of me and I was dozing at the time, propped up in a corner. I surfaced again somewhere well north of Dundee, just as it was getting light. On the east coast line, most of the trains stopped in Edinburgh, but this was the Spaceport Special, non-stop right the way through.

 

A first Audiobook review, plus… British Spaceports

Audiobook cover
Audiobook cover

This week I saw the first review of the Audiobook version of Half Sick of Shadows, and very pleasing it was too: “Half Sick of Shadows… takes Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallott” and gives it a speculative twist, keeping the measure and wonder of the original, but suggesting a plausible (perhaps) root to the story, in the vein of Jules Verne. The writing is lovely, in Richard’s mature and manly style, and with obvious care. The narration in the audio version by Menna Bonsels has a lovely Welsh lilt that brings the setting alive“.

And if you wanted to set up an Audible account, I suspect that Amazon’s Prime Day is a good time to do it. You can use it out for free for a trial period, get yourself Half Sick of Shadows as your first listen, and see how you like it. Links are Audible UK or Audible US, and here is the free sample…

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Now, in Far from the Spaceports I presumed that there would be a spaceport in the British Isles. From there, Mitnash would catch some sort of shuttle to make the trip up to his deep-space vessel, the Harbour Porpoise.

Finally, a second briefing with Elias, and a scramble to Euston to catch the overnight to Findhorn.

I had intended to gaze forlornly out of the window as I hurtled past Alnmouth again, this time heading north. However, fatigue had got the better of me and I was dozing at the time, propped up in a corner. I surfaced again somewhere well north of Dundee, just as it was getting light. On the east coast line, most of the trains stopped in Edinburgh, but this was the Spaceport Special, non-stop right the way through.

Catching the shuttle was slightly less exciting than boarding the train at Euston…

Now, at the time of writing there were several sites being considered, several of them in Scotland. So I picked the Findhorn peninsula, and assumed that our current East Coast railway line from London via York, Newcastle and Berwick up to Edinburgh, would simply be extended northwards around the Cairngorms to give a high-speed link.

Artist's impression, Sutherland Spaceport (The National Scot)
Artist’s impression, Sutherland Spaceport (The National Scot)

This week, however, I saw two news items indicating different sites. One is indeed in Scotland, but right up at the extreme north coast. The plan for Sutherland is specifically for a vertical take-off site, in the way we have become used to see rocket launches. The development would mean a lot for local employment and development, but will be balanced against environmental concerns. Follow this up in The National Scot newspaper.

Artist's impression, satellite launched from winged booster (Cornwall Live)
Artist’s impression, satellite launched from winged booster (Cornwall Live)

But at the other end of the country, Newquay in Cornwall has been chosen by Virgin Orbit as a launch site. Here, the initial plan is for horizontal launch – a satellite with booster rocket is first carried to high altitude on a winged craft which takes off and lands conventionally (check out the video below). This certainly makes the transition from airport to spaceport easier, and leaves vertical launches open as an option in the future. Follow this one up at Cornwall Live, or (perhaps more excitingly) at Pirate FM.

It’s great for storytelling – but it’s also great for the space industry in the UK. We make a lot of space equipment here, especially in Glasgow and the home counties, but in order to actually launch it we’ve had to ship the finished products to launch sites in other parts of the world. Hopefully, by 2020 we might be launching from home soil. Mitnash may well be able to take the train from London to his shuttle launch site before much longer, though it might be a bit further north than Findhorn!

AI in space… or, how close are we to Slate?

There has been a whole bundle of space news this week – so much, in fact, that I had to temporarily postpone my series of going through how the different planets have been portrayed in fiction. Instead, I picked a couple of key stories which most appealed.

The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

The first – and much the shorter – is to do with the Dawn space probe. Readers may remember that a few months ago, the decision was taken to use the remaining fuel to lower the orbit as far as safely feasible. This means better images (and results from other instruments) as the orbit now goes down as low as about 20 miles. The first pictures have started to appear, and very striking they are, and over the next few months I expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the surface chemistry. The first approach to Ceres revealed enigmatic bright spots on the surface (known as faculae), which are now recognised as salty deposits of carbonates – the largest such deposits away from the Earth, in fact. But do they ooze up through cracks and fissures from deep underground, or is there a reservoir of brine just below the surface? It is possible that the new low orbit wil shed light on this.

But the main story-telling event of interest was part of the contents of the Soyuz shuttle which docked with the ISS a little while ago. As well as three crew and a bunch of science experiments, a mobile AI called CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile Companion) arrived…

CIMON - the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)
CIMON – the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)

CIMON is powered by the IBM Watson software, has a digital “face”, and is capable of interacting with the Station crew via facial expressions, emotions, and voice.  Excitingly – so far as I am concerned – CIMON is European in origin, having been developed by Airbus. The enclosing shell was 3d printed, and weighs about 5kg (which only matters if it collides with something, as the ISS is routinely in microgravity). It wil remain free-flying and able to navigate to the various parts of the ISS at need.

CIMON has several purposes – first, it gives the internal neural networks plenty of new material to learn from, but the intention is that the crew will work with the AI to find collaborative solutions to problems. The science objectives are listed as:

The Pilot Study with the Crew Interactive MObile companioN (Cimon) is a technology demonstration project, and an observational study, that aims to obtain the first insights into the effects on crew support by an artificial intelligence (AI), in terms of efficiency and acceptance during long-term missions in space. Spaceflight missions put the crew under a substantial amount of stress and workload, and it is thought that AI could provide operational support to crew members.

So although CIMON can certainly provide early warning of particular categories of technical problems, and will assist with a number of predefined experiments, the goal is to provide social interaction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Which brings me, naturally, to Slate! Slate, the main persona AI in Far from the Spaceports, is several generations of AI beyond what we enjoy today. Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana and so on are currently Earth-tethered in the sense that the software and database needed to comprehend and respond to a user’s request lives in cloud-based servers here on the planet. Even a trip to the moon (just over a second light signal time each way) would seriously strain conversational ability, and a trip out to the asteroids – say half an hour signal lag – is entirely out of the question. I don’t know whether CIMON relies on Earth-based data to understand what the astronauts will say, or whether a data source has been uploaded to the ISS itself. Keeping tethered to Earth would certainly be feasible at the ISS orbital height – but to go further afield we will need to crack the problem of large-scale localised data storage (maybe using DNA?).

I’ve never committed to an exact year for the events of Far from the Spaceports or Timing, but my feel is something like a century. I feel that probably I have been a little too cautious with this, and that in reality there’s a fair chance that AI having close to Slate’s capabilities could be around within my lifetime. On the other hand, my guess is that human colonies out at and beyond the asteroids won’t be around for a few years after my guess, so maybe it evens up!

Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video (at https://youtu.be/KnpJI3WeiBg for those getting this through email) showing part of CIMON’s development…

 

 

Planet 9?

Another space blog post today, complete with some thoughts about life out there, and an extract from my work-in-progress The Liminal Zone.

First, though, the elusive Planet 9. For some time now, astronomers and space scientists have been speculating that an additional planet, of considerable size, lies out beyond Pluto. The evidence is indirect, in that such a planet has not been observed via telescope. Hence the matter is currently unresolved. But a recent paper argues that its presence would solve several unexplained issues, while its absence would create several more.

Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)
Orbital resonance in the moons of Jupiter (Wiki)

So what are the problems? Essentially, they come down to the logic of orbital dynamics, which says that you can’t just put a bunch of planets in random orbits around a star and expect them to be stable. Even though the gravitational attraction between two planets is small, it nevertheless exerts a steady regularising influence on the two paths around the sun. So the orbits of our sister planets show all kinds of patterns of ratios which at first sight seem remarkable (they’re still remarkable when you take gravity into account, but in a different way). And the more patterns that you see, the more you can infer about things you can’t see.

This, for example, is how the outer planets beyond Saturn were deduced before they were observed. The planets from Saturn inwards have been known since prehistory. But when careful observations with a telescope could be made, small but noticeable perturbations in their tracks were found. These pointed to the existence of unknown planets further out. The same principle explains why the orbits of Neptune and Pluto are synchronised – two of Pluto’s orbits match 3 of Neptunes. So, although Pluto dips inside Neptune’s orbit for a couple of decades every 248 years (one Pluto year), they are never at risk of colliding. These synchronisations happen all over the place – for example within the moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn, within the asteroid belt, or forming the delicate internal patterns of Saturn’s rings.

Now, Pluto is the first major body in the Kuiper Belt, a disc of space outside Neptune which we now know contains a decent number of small asteroids and similar objects. So it starts around 30AU from the Sun (AU = Astronomical Units, the distance between Earth and Sun). But it then Belt stops, quite abruptly, around 50AU. Why should this be? Why not feather off gradually?

Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)
Trans-Neptunian Object orbits (LIve Science / ESO)

Additionally, as we have built up a catalogue of these asteroids, a picture is emerging in which a surprising number have orbits around the sun which are aligned with each other. The simplest way to explain this is to suppose that some sizeable, but as yet unknown, object is synchronising them.

So, why has it not yet been found? Well, first of all, as Douglas Adams said, space is “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 8). So although the potential planet is several times larger than the Earth, it is on average 20 times further from the sun than Neptune is – 600AU – with an orbit that is quite noticeably elliptical rather than circular. That means that there is a lot of space to search in, and also that it is dark and cold out there. There is not a lot for optical or infrared telescopes to detect. But each new discovery helps narrow the search window down, and some lucky group of astronomers may well announce a discovery soon.

Or, of course, not. It may be that the apparent alignment we see will be eroded by more observations. Which would be a bit of a shame, in that it is always nice to have unknown things to discover. It would also leave several other problems unresolved. Other things being equal, I’d like Planet 9 to be found!

Artist's impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)
Artist’s impression, Planet 9 (Live Science / JPL-CalTech)

So, what might it be like to live there? For one thing, cold and dark. Our sun is still the nearest and brightest star by a huge margin. But at 20 times further away than Pluto, it gets just 1/400 of the solar radiation of any kind. Or if you like, 0.0003% of what we enjoy on Earth. You’d want to know you had reliable sources of heat and light, if you went there. And it will take a long time to get there. It is not a place for a quick jaunt. For reference, Voyager 1 is a little over 100AU from Earth and has spent about 40 years getting there.

Could there be indigenous life out there? Well, life as we know it depends on liquid water, and the surface of Planet 9 is way too cold for that. But possibly, there could be subsurface heat turning ice into water at some depth? Or perhaps, there might be a moon which would be subject to gravitational flexing, just as happens to the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This could – maybe – provide enough heat to give us water. We’ll have to wait and see.

I haven’t yet written anything going that far out from the sun. In the universe of Far from the Spaceports, an Earth-Mars trip takes a couple of weeks. An Earth-Pluto trip takes a few months. An Earth-Planet 9 trip would take anywhere from seven or eight months up to just over a year, depending on whereabouts in its orbit it happens to be. Not a journey you’d make lightly.

The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)
The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)

The Liminal Zone takes place on Charon, the main moon of Pluto. The New Horizons probe returned some fascinatingly detailed pictures to us of these two, transforming them from hazy blobs to detailed worlds. New Horizons is currently en route to an object further out in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69, popularly known as Ultima Thule, and is due to arrive early next year. Finding a second destination more-or-less on the flight path after Pluto was a remarkable thing in itself, as objects are so exceedingly thinly spread out there. Anyway, The Liminal Zone is not a financial fraud book like Far from the Spaceports or Timing – it’s more of a voyage of discovery, both personally for the main character, Nina, and more generally for the society she is part of. So here is a short extract – Nina is talking to Percy, one of the Charon residents, about events surrounding an emergency several years ago…


Something about his expression made Nina stop.
“But you didn’t actually see anything?”
He drew back a little.
“Seeing’s not everything. Haven’t you ever just known something for sure?”
His eyes held hers, suddenly very intense, and she felt a little internal quaver run through her body. She had hoped it wouldn’t show, but then she saw the trace of a smile cross his eyes.
“I’ve got Welsh blood, you know. It helps me comprehend things which maybe can’t be seen with the naked eye. And what about you, Nina? Where do you come from?”
She went blank.
“I grew up in Lacus Gaudii. On the Moon.”
He shook his head.
“Not that recent. Go back a few generations. Where did your family live? Before they came up to settle in that lunar lake of yours.”
The noise of the kettle was maddening. She withdrew inside herself, trying to escape the pressure.
“I… I don’t know. I suppose I could find out. It’s never mattered.”
He looked away, letting the moment pass.
“Ah, but it just might make a difference here.”
She took a long breath and tried again.
“But did you actually see anything?”


I’ll be posting more on progress into The Liminal Zone as it comes along…

Where would be a good place to live?

Cover - Perelandra (Goodreads)
Cover – Perelandra (Goodreads)

It’s a question which besets many science fiction writers! Now, in the former days of the 20th century, when not nearly so much was known about other star systems, writers were free and easy with their destinations. C.S. Lewis, who anyway had other motivations in his writing than script scientific accuracy, cheerfully placed parts of his science fiction trilogy on Mars and Venus. E.E. (Doc) Smith had alien habitations all over the solar system, with a wild array of biological adaptations to high gravity, strange atmospheres, or whatever. And when writers got their characters out of the solar system into the galaxy at large, the diversity just kept on growing (except for those authors like Asimov, who for various reasons carefully avoided alien life altogether).

But these days we have a vast amount of data to steer our fiction. In some cases this means that environments get excluded – it would be a brave author indeed who would place a novel like Perelandra on the surface of Venus these days (unless they have a back-story of extensive terraforming). On the other hand, new opportunities for life in previously unconsidered places have emerged – like high up in the Venusian atmosphere, or in liquid oceans underneath the ice coatings of various outer system moons. These are not likely to be, as they say, life as we know it…

Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)
Schematic of habitable zone sizes (Penn State University)

On a wider scale, we have a good idea what to look for as regards planets that might support life. Most thinking on the subject supposes that liquid water would be necessary – it’s just too useful a chemical in all kinds of ways to see how it wouldn’t participate in life’s chemistry. So we can plot the Goldilocks Zone for any given star (too close in, and water boils and evaporates… too far out, and it freezes)… but we know from our own solar system that this does not cover all the bases. Close-in planets are probably tidally locked to their sun, and so have a cooler side. Far-out planets may well have orbiting moons with sub-surface water, kept from freezing by a variety of factors.

Back in the day, people used to look for stars relatively similar to our own sun, on the grounds that we kind of knew what we were looking for. But these days, following the extraordinary success of planet-hunting space missions like Kepler (soon to be followed by TESS), we know that many planets circle dim red dwarf stars. For sure, the heat output is much less, but that just means that the Goldilocks Zone huddles close in. And red dwarf stars are immensely long-lived, which gives life time to develop. On the other hand, many red dwarfs also go through erratic flare cycles, potentially blasting their associated planets with X-rays. But for my money, the first place we may find life elsewhere is likely to be circling a red dwarf.

So from the writer’s point of view, it’s a great time to be postulating life elsewhere, but also a rapidly-changing one. New data is pouring in, and new ways of analysing and comprehending that data. It all adds up to a wealth of new ideas and imaginative leads…

Artist's impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, planets discovered by TRAPPIST orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years from Earth (NASA/JPL)

An interlude – some space news

I thought that this week I would have a quick break from the Inklings, King Arthur, and such like, and report some space news which I came across a few days ago.

Polly Reads Alexa Skill Icon
Polly Reads Alexa Skill Icon

But first, an update on my latest Alexa skill – Polly Reads. This showcases the ability of Alexa’s “big sister”, Polly, to read text in multiple voices and accents. So this skill is a bit like a podcast, letting you step through a series of readings from my novels. Half Sick of Shadows is there, of course, plus some readings from Far from the Spaceports and Timing. So far the skill is available only on the UK Alexa Skills site, but it’s currently going through the approval process for other sites world-wide. **update on Wednesday morning – I just heard that it has gone live world-wide now! ** Here is the Amazon US link ** 

Now the space news, and specifically about the asteroid Ceres (or dwarf planet if you prefer). Quite apart from their general interest, this news affects how we write about the outer solar system, so is particularly relevant to my near future series.

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

Many readers will know that the NASA Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Ceres for some time now – nearly three years. This has provided us with some fascinating insights into the asteroid, especially the mountains on its surface, and the bright salt deposits found here and there. But the sheer length of time accumulated to date – something like 1500 orbits, at different elevations – means that we can now follow changes as they happen on the surface.

Now the very fact of change is something of a surprise. Not all that long ago, it was assumed that such small objects, made of rock and ice, had long since ceased to evolve. Any internal energy would have leaked away millennia ago, and the only reason for anything to happen would be if there was a collision with some other external object like a meteorite. We knew that the gas giant planets were active, with turbulent storms and hugely powerful prevailing winds, but the swarms of small rocky moons, asteroids, and dwarf planets were considered static.

Ceres - Juling Crater (NASA/JPL)
Ceres – Juling Crater (NASA/JPL)

But what Dawn has shown us is that this is wrong. Repeated views of the same parts of the surface show how areas of exposed ice are constantly growing and shrinking, even over just a few months. This could be because new water vapour is oozing out of surface cracks and then freezing, or alternatively because some layer of dust is slowly settling, and so exposing ice which was previously hidden. At this stage, we can’t tell for sure which of those (or some third explanation) is true.

Composite view of Aruna Mons (NASA/JPL)
Composite view of Aruna Mons (NASA/JPL)

The evidence now suggests that Ceres once had a liquid water ocean – most of this has frozen into a thick crust of ice, with visible mineral deposits scattered here and there.

Certainly Ceres – and presumably many other asteroids – is more active than we had presumed. Such members of our solar system remain chemically and geologically active, rather than being just inert lumps drifting passively around our sun. As and when we get out there to take a look, we’re going to find a great many more surprises. Meanwhile, we can always read about them…

How close are personable AI assistants?

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me an article talking about the present state of the art of chatbots – artificially intelligent assistants, if you like. The article focused on those few bots which are particularly convincing in terms of relationship.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Now, as regular readers will know, I quite often talk about the Alexa skills I develop. In fact I have also experimented with chatbots, using both Microsoft’s and Amazon’s frameworks. Both the coding style, and the flow of information and logic, are very similar between these two types of coding, so there’s a natural crossover. Alexa, of course, is predominantly a voice platform, whereas chatbots are more diverse. You can speak to, and listen to, bots, but they are more often encountered as part of a web page or mobile app.

Now, beyond the day job and my coding hobby, I also write fiction about artificially intelligent entities – the personas of Far from the Spaceports and related stories (Timing and the in-progress The Liminal Zone). Although I present these as occurring in the “near-future”, by which I mean vaguely some time in the next century or two, they are substantially more capable than what we have now. There’s a lot of marketing hype about AI, but also a lot of genuine excitement and undoubted advancement.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

So, what are the main areas where tomorrow’s personas vastly exceed today’s chatbots?

First and foremost, a wide-ranging awareness of the context of a conversation and a relationship. Alexa skills and chatbots retain a modest amount of information during use, called session attributes, or context, depending on the platform you are using. So if the skill or bot doesn’t track through a series of questions, and remember your previous answers, that’s disappointing. The developer’s decision is not whether it is possible to remember, but rather how much to remember, and how to make appropriate use of it later on.

Equally, some things can be remembered from one session to the next. Previous interactions and choices can be carried over into the next time. Again, the questions are not how, but what should be preserved like this.

But… the volume of data you can carry over is limited – it’s fine for everyday purposes, but not when you get to wanting an intelligent and sympathetic individual to converse with. If this other entity is going to persuade, it needs to retain knowledge of a lot more than just some past decisions.

A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)
A suitable cartoon (from xkcd.com)

Secondly, a real conversational partner does other things with their time outside of the chat specifically between the two of you. They might tell you about places, people, or things they had seen, or ideas that had occurred to them in the meantime. But currently, almost all skills and chatbots stay entirely dormant until you invoke them. In between times they do essentially nothing. I’m not counting cases where the same skill is activated by different people – “your” instance, meaning the one that holds any record of your personal interactions, simply waits for you to get involved again. The lack of any sense of independent life is a real drawback. Sure, Alexa can give you a “fact of the day” when you say hello, but we all know that this is just fished out of an internet list somewhere, and does not represent actual independent existence and experience.

Finally (for today – there are lots of other things that might be said) today’s skills and bots have a narrow focus. They can typically assist with just one task, or a cluster of closely related tasks. Indeed, at the current state of the art this is almost essential. The algorithms that seek to understand speech can only cope with a limited and quite structured set of options. If you write some code that tries to offer too wide a spectrum of choice, the chances are that the number of misunderstandings gets unacceptably high. To give the impression of talking with a real individual, the success rate needs to be pretty high, and the entity needs to have some way of clarifying and homing in on what it was that you really wanted.

Now, I’m quite optimistic about all this. The capabilities of AI systems have grown dramatically over the last few years, especially in the areas of voice comprehension and production. My own feeling is that some of the above problems are simply software ones, which will get solved with a bit more experience and effort. But others will probably need a creative rethink. I don’t imagine that I will be talking to a persona at Slate’s level in my lifetime, but I do think that I will be having much more interesting conversations with one before too long!

Bits and Pieces (2)

A follow-up to my earlier post this week, catching up on some more news. But first, here is a couple of snaps (one enlarged and annotated) I took earlier today in the early morning as I walked to East Finchley tube station.

Jupiter and Mars, annotated
 The Moon, Jupiter and Mars, annotated
The Moon, Jupiter, and Mars
The Moon, Jupiter and Mars

All very evocative, and leads nicely into my next link, which is a guest post I wrote for Lisl’s Before the Second Sleep blog, on the subject of title. Naturally enough, it’s a topic that really interests me – how will human settlements across the solar system adapt to and reflect the physical nature of the world they are set on?

In particular I look at Mars’ moon Phobos, both in the post and in Timing. So far as we can tell, Phobos is extremely fragile. Several factors cause this, including its original component parts, the closeness of its orbit to Mars, and the impact of whatever piece of space debris caused the giant crater Stickney. But whatever the cause… how might human society adapt to living on a moon where you can’t trust the ground below your feet? For the rest of the post, follow this link.

And also here’s a reminder of the Kindle Countdown offer on most of my books, and the Goodreads giveaway on Half Sick of Shadows. Here are the links…

Half Sick of Shadows is on Goodreads giveaway, with three copies to be won by the end of this coming weekend.

All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at £0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively – but once again only until the end of the weekend. Links for these are:

Science fiction series
Far from the Spaceports UK link and US link
Timing UK link and US link

Late Bronze Age historical fiction
In a Milk and Honeyed Land UK link and US link
Scenes from a Life UK link and US link
The Flame Before Us UK link and US link

And I haven’t forgotten about the upcoming Alexa news, following recent activity coding for the new Alexa Show (the one with the screen). But that’s for another day…

Bits and pieces

It’s been an exceptionally busy time at work recently, so I haven’t had time to write much. But happily, lots of other things are happening, so here’s a compendium of them.

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

First, Half Sick of Shadows was reviewed on Sruti’s Bookblog, with a follow-up interview. The links are: the review itself, plus the first and second half of the interview. “She wishes for people to value her but they seem to be changing and missing… She can see the world, but she always seemed curbed and away from everything.”

 

Secondly, right now there’s a whole lot of deals available on my novels, from oldest to newest. Half Sick of Shadows is on Goodreads giveaway, with three copies to be won by the end of next weekend.

All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at £0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively. Links for these are:

Science fiction series
Far from the Spaceports UK link and US link
Timing UK link and US link

Late Bronze Age historical fiction
In a Milk and Honeyed Land UK link and US link
Scenes from a Life UK link and US link
The Flame Before Us UK link and US link

Pretty soon there’ll be some more Alexa news, as I’ve been busily coding for the new Alexa Show (the one with the screen). But that’s for another day…

Future Possibilities 3

Today is the third and last post based loosely on upcoming techie stuff I learned about at the recent Microsoft Future Decoded conference here in London. It’s another speculative one this time, focusing on quantum computing, which according to estimates by speakers might be about five years away. But a lot has to happen if that five year figure is at all accurate.

Quantum device - schematic (Microsoft.com)
Quantum device – schematic (Microsoft.com)

It’s a very technical area, both as regards the underlying maths and the physical implementation, and I don’t intend going far into that. Many groups around the world, both in industry and academia, are actively working on this, hoping to crack both theory and practice. So what’s the deal? Why all the effort?

Conventional computers, of the kind we are familiar with, operate essentially in a linear sequential way. Now, there are ways to fudge this and give a semblance of parallel working. Even on a domestic machine you can run lots of programs at the same time, but at the level of a single computing core you are still performing one thing at a time, and some clever scheduling shares resources between several in-progress tasks. A bigger computer will wire up multiple processors and have vastly more elaborate scheduling, to make the most efficient use of what it’s got. But at the end of the day, present-day logic circuits do one thing at a time.

This puts some tasks out of reach. For example, the security layer that protects your online banking transactions (and such like) relies on a complex mathematical problem, which takes an extremely long time to solve. In theory it could be done, but in practice it is impenetrable. Perhaps more interestingly, there are problems in all the sciences which are intractable not only with present-day systems, but also including any credible speed advances using present-day architecture. It actually doesn’t take much complexity to render the task impossible.

Probability models for a water molecule with different energy levels - the atoms are not at fixed places but smeared out over a wider volume (Stoneybrook University)
Probability models for a water molecule with different energy levels – the atoms are not at fixed places but smeared out over a wider volume (Stoneybrook University)

Quantum computing offers a way to actually achieve parallel processing on a massive scale. It relies not on binary true/false logic, but on the probability models which are the foundation of the quantum world. It is as though many different variations of a problem all run simultaneously, each (as it were) in their own little world. It’s a perfect solution for all kinds of problems where you would like to find an optimal solution to a complex situation. So to break our online security systems, a quantum computer would simultaneously pursue many different cracking routes to break in. By doing that, the task becomes solvable. And yes, that is going to need a rethink of how we do internet security. But for today let’s look at a couple of more interesting problems.

Root nodules on a broad bean (Wikipedia)
Root nodules on a broad bean (Wikipedia)

First, there’s one from farming, or biochemistry if you prefer. To feed the world, we need lots of nitrogen to make fertiliser. The chemical process to do this commercially is energy-intensive, and nearly 2% of the world’s power goes on this one thing. But… there is a family of plants, the leguminosae, which fix nitrogen from the air into the soil using nothing more than sunlight and the organic molecules in their roots. They are very varied, from peas and beans down to fodder crops like clover, and up to quite sizeable trees. We don’t yet know exactly how this nitrogen fixing works. We think we know the key biochemical involved, but it’s complicated… too complicated for our best supercomputers to analyse. A quantum computer might solve the problem in short order.

Climate science is another case. There are several computer programs which aim to model what is going on globally. They are fearfully complicated, aiming to include as wide a range as possible of contributing factors, together with their mutual interaction. Once again, the problem is too complicated to solve in a realistic time. So, naturally, each group working on this makes what they regard as appropriate simplifications and approximations. A quantum computer would certainly allow for more factors to be integrated, and would also allow more exploration of the consequences of one action rather than another. We could experiment with what-if models, and find effective ways to deploy limited resources.

Bonding measurement wires to a quantum device (Microsoft.com)
Bonding measurement wires to a quantum device (Microsoft.com)

So that’s a little of what might be achieved with a quantum computer. To finish this blog post off, what impact might one have in science fiction, and my own writing in particular. Well, unlike the previous two weeks, my answer here would be “not very much, I think“. Most writers, including myself, simply assume that future computers will be more powerful, more capable, than those of today. The exact technical architecture is of less literary importance! Right now it looks as if a quantum computer will only work at extremely low temperatures, not far above absolute zero. So you are talking about sizeable, static installations. If we manage to find or make the necessary materials that they could run at room temperature, that could change, but that’s way more than five years away.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

So in my stories, Slate would not be a quantum computer, just a regular one running some very sophisticated software. Now, the main information hub down in London, Khufu, could possibly be such a thing – certainly he’s a better candidate, sitting statically in one place, processing and analysing vast quantities of data, making connections between facts that aren’t at all obvious on the surface. But as regards the story, it hardly matters whether he is one or the other.

So, interested as I am in the development of a quantum computer, I don’t think it will feature in an important way in the world of Far from the Spaceports!

That’s it for today, and indeed for this little series… until next year.