Far from the Spaceports is vintage Richard Abbott, a splendid good read, even if it is science rather than historical fiction, the genre of his three previous novels… you have Mit, who uses computer programming the way Indiana Jones uses his whip. You also have Mitnash’s “persona,” Slate, a fascinating AI computer who combines some of the aspects of the HAL “2001: A Space Odyssey” computer with what can only be termed sexy geek girl partner… Add to this a number of well-drawn supporting characters (including the dashing South Asian spaceship captain Parvati and her partner Maureen, and Mrs. Riley, who is more than just an old lady B&B proprietress), a non-obvious economic mystery to unravel, and an ugly little persona that hacks in to Slate, and you have a nifty and entertaining short novel with much room for further adventures, possibly the best thing the author has done to date.
Also, for those on Facebook, there is a book launch evening coming up on Monday December 7th between 7pm and 9pm UK time. All are welcome.
Carrying on the series about human-machine relationships, today’s topic is intimacy. I’m not proposing to talk about sex specifically – nor do I in Far from the Spaceports – but a much wider spectrum of close relationships.
In the book, Mitnash has a long term human partner back on Earth. She’s called Shayna, and we only actually meet her in one scene near the start, though she is a regular background presence throughout.
The main relationship that we see is with Slate, his working partner, who also happens to be female gendered. She has no physical form that would distinguish her from any other virtual persona, and with a bit of preparation can adapt herself to a wide range of available hardware.
So their relationship is not on the basis of bodily shape – I didn’t want to write an android book, and the difficulty of getting Slate close enough to the action to be useful is an important narrative ploy. But clearly they are a close-knit couple. As Slate comments to Mitnash about a particular data file she has intercepted,
“there’s actually more about me in the packet than Shayna.”
To which Mitnash replies,
“best not to tell her that, if you don’t mind.”
Their intimacy, the way I see it, rests on two things. Firstly, they share intense and difficult experiences together, supporting one another in them to the best of their ability. But secondly, they communicate with one another in a direct, constant and intense manner. Use of a cochlea implant and subvocal transmitter – originally simply to avoid having to speak out loud in situations where this would be awkward – means that Mitnash communicates not only what he is consciously framing in thoughts, but also a whole other level of half-framed thoughts and ideas.
“Slate, how much do I talk to you without knowing it?”
“All the time, Mit. You murmur to yourself while you’re thinking, and you subvocalise throughout the day. There’s very little about your thought life I don’t know. Or your fantasy life. You’re whispering to me almost all the time.”
“I suppose that means you know all sorts of things I have never told Shayna.”
We are clearly a very long way from this level of artificial intelligence just now. All of the major players in today’s online world have been working on this – Apple’s Siri is probably the best known, but there are many others. At the moment they are all quite gimmicky – after asking Siri what the meaning of life is, and showing your mates that you can send messages and be reminded about events, most people get bored with him (or her in some countries) and the level of interaction drops. Siri and that whole current generation of virtual assistants are just not interesting enough.
Sounding relational, as opposed to encyclopaedic, is a really hard problem in machine intelligence. I think most people remember with dislike Microsoft’s Office Assistant, with its cheerful chatter like, “it looks like you’re writing a letter… can I help?”. I actually thought it was a brave effort back then, but obviously I was in a minority and the whole idea was quietly dropped for another day.
The single best known benchmark for all this is the Turing test – basically you are allowed to chat without being able to see the other person, and have to decide if you are talking with a person or machine… without asking leading questions like “what are you made of?” Part of the test – certainly in the way it is conducted nowadays – is seeing how the entity at the other end deals with abrupt changes of direction in conversation, with ambiguous or poorly defined statements, and with questions where the speaker cannot possibly know the answer.
To date, nothing yet built does very well at the Turing test, despite massive improvements and changes in recent years. As I said, it is a really hard problem, and the numerous “digital assistants” already in use, succeed primarily because they are operating in a very limited domain, with a very constrained set of questions. Do I think we will get there one day? Yes indeed, but I don’t think it will be for a few years yet.
I thought for the next few blogs I’d talk a little bit about artificial intelligence, seeing as how the relationship between the human investigator Mitnash and his virtual partner Slate is at the heart of Far from the Spaceports. Quite a few years ago now I used to work in AI, though at the pattern recognition end rather than personality creation.
AI has been a key strand in science fiction for many years, long before it came anywhere near possible in reality, and there is a long history of making entirely wrong guesses. Asimov’s earlier books certainly saw a key role for AI, and his Three Laws of Robotics rapidly became a basis not only for his mobile robots but also as a framework for the way other people thought about AI. But for what you might call serious work, like managing a company or a nation, Asimov was locked into the idea that the machines would be physically huge, filling whole buildings, and would need whole squads of highly specialised operatives to make them work. The concept of virtual environments which were geographically dispersed, like a company network, or indeed the Internet as a whole, escaped him.
Other writers or film makers had different blind spots. One often comes across fictional computers which are able to carry out vastly complicated calculations, analyse and direct the course of spaceships or the economies of worlds – yet output the end results of their deliberations on paper tape. It seems that the hardest things to get right are the interfaces that connect the human and machine worlds.
Often, authors have signalled the presence of artificial intelligence by means of stilted or artificial speech, failing in various ways to match human expectations. The android Data, in Star Trek, could never manage verbal contractions, so always said things like “I can not” rather than “I can’t”. This failure to attain informal speech lasted until the installation of an “emotion chip” which among other things upgraded his language faculties. Apparently verbal contractions are emotional rather than grammatical!
So I wanted to portray the relationship of Mitnash and Slate as one of normal intimacy between friends and coworkers. Each has the advantages and limitations of their particular “physiology”, and hopefully each emerges as a distinct personality. This led to a number of specific choices in the book, a couple of which I want to expand on today.
1. Slate, and the other personas, have a definite gender. Slate happens to be female, while some of the others are male. I’ve left it to readers to decide what this means, since she has no external biological indicators of gender. Some people will like the ascription of gender to machines, and no doubt some will not. There’s a sense in the book that machine gender is a relatively new advancement – Slate describes one particular persona they meet as “male, but only just”.
2. I didn’t want the baggage of clumsy language to get in the way of the relationship. So Slate is chatty, informal, but technically skilled and quirky in the way that a professional human coworker would be. Her communication is not only verbal in the strict sense, but includes a number of nonverbal noises that communicate things like satisfaction, frustration, encouragement etc – again, just like a human colleague does.
In terms of current technology we are a very long way from actually developing a persona like Slate. In recent years there have certainly been substantial breakthroughs in both hardware and software, but nothing I have yet seen persuades me that we are going to see virtual intelligences of this quality in the next decade or so. Within a century, perhaps – though this guess may be as far from the truth as guesses that others have made in the past.
Don’t forget – Far from the Spaceports is now on preorder: follow links to
The actual release date is set at Monday November 23rd. The paperback copy will be along at about the same time depending on the vagaries of the process. And here also for your pleasure is the cover, created for me as usual by Ian Grainger. With real asteroidal textures from Vesta and elsewhere blended in to the image.
Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space
Welcome to the Scilly Isles, a handful of asteroids bunched together in space, well beyond the orbit of Mars. This remote and isolated habitat is home to a diverse group of human settlers, and a whole flock of parakeets. But earth-based financial regulator ECRB suspects that it’s also home to serious large scale fraud, and the reputation of the islands comes under threat.
Enter Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate, sent out from Earth to investigate. Their ECRB colleagues are several weeks away at their ship’s best speed, and even message signals take an hour for the round trip. Slate and Mitnash are on their own, until they can work out who on Scilly to trust. How will they cope when the threat gets personal?
This is a development on from my earlier blog on this topic which generated a number of interesting comments at different places. The issues which aroused comments were mainly to do with the numbers quoted:
Dawn achieved an acceleration of around 1/100,000 that of Earth’s gravity…I am assuming that advances in technology bring that up to 1/20 gravity, which leads to a top speed around 130,000 m/s.
First, the top speed I was thinking about relates to my Earth-asteroid belt journey, not any sort of absolute maximum. My main concern when I wrote it was that it was a tiny fraction of the speed of light. Even for an Earth-Pluto trip the turnover speed is only about 1% of light speed – which makes life and calculation a lot simpler. If you were able to carry on with the drive over a period of months or years – say in an attempt to travel to a nearby star – then you would have to take Einstein’s relativity into account.
A brief digression on how rockets work. Basically you propel something in one direction in order to travel in the opposite one – the larger the objects you throw out, the faster you get to go, but on the other hand you run out of fuel quicker. Or, the faster you propel them in that direction, the faster you go, but that needs good engine design. In principle you can throw large objects very slowly, but it would be a frustrating business – much better to throw small objects very fast! The fastest ‘propellant’ would be a beam of light, and the most efficient engine would completely transform some piece of matter into that light energy. The Dawn probe used atoms of xenon as propellant, on the grounds that they are easy to ionise (and hence use as propellant) and are also unreactive while being stored prior to use. The exhaust velocity was in the region of 20,000-50,000 meters per second.
Now, so long as you have fuel, you can go on accelerating, and since your ship is continually getting lighter as you burn fuel, the acceleration tends to increase, unless you throttle back to achieve greater efficiency. The next question is – how long does your fuel last? There’s a trade-off here – if you had a more powerful engine then it would use fuel at a higher rate, but since you get to your destination quicker, you might still come out ahead. When Dawn left Earth orbit, about 1/3 of the mass was fuel (a little over 400kg), but then the engines have been used multiple times to achieve all kinds of exploratory moves.
A solution which is popular in science fiction is to gather your fuel as you go along, typically by sucking up interstellar hydrogen in an arrangement of electromagnetic fields called a Bussard collector – the theoretical science is real, though to date we have not actually built spaceships which use it. Star Trek’s Enterprise claims to be equipped with these, alongside the vastly more exotic warp drive to achieve faster than light travel.
If you had a total conversion engine firing, let’s say, a laser beam from the ship, your fuel cost is very minimal for journeys within the solar system – the Earth-asteroid trip costs you only a few grams of propellant, which presumably you would just carry in your pocket. In Far from the Spaceports I have deliberately not gone to that extreme. Nor, in fact, have I quantified the mass required for these journeys, but have made the assumption that it is a real though not dominant consideration. Mitnash has to purchase “reaction mass” at a spares yard after arrival at his destination St Mary’s, but the design of his ship, the Harbour Porpoise, is not overwhelmed by fuel tanks. Imagine something like a few tens of kilograms of fuel – say the equivalent of a few large suitcases.
Finally, none of these figures take into account getting away from the surface of a “proper” planet like Earth. That is a separate problem, involving high impetus. An ion drive is fantastic at maintaining low impulse for long periods of time, but nearly useless at the high levels of thrust needed for lift-off from a planet. I have assumed that there are regular shuttles of some design which take travellers from Earth’s surface to Low Earth Orbit (broadly speaking at a similar altitude to today’s International Space Station), and that the ion-drive ships take over from orbit on the long haul trips.
It’s been a busy week here, with lots of behind-the-scenes work on Far from the Spaceports – mainly the work of getting the print-ready PDF file laid out properly.
As well as that I have been helping my friend David Frauenfelder get his latest book ready for epublication: The Staff and the Shield, Book II in the Master Mage of Rome Series – more news of that in a few weeks’ time.
And finally I contributed an article to the Review Group’s Commemorating Agincourt – 600 years series of blog posts. I don’t know huge amounts about Agincourt itself so focused on the history of the bow.
The bow is at least 10,000 years old – some evidence suggests over 70,000 – and through all that time has served as both hunting tool and weapon of war. Early arrow heads are found quite often, but bows are less long lived, and the earliest European bow discovered so far dates from around 6000BC. The technological challenge in all that time has been how to gain more power. More power equals more range, or more destructive effect at the same range. But the basic design has remained the same…
The solar system is a big place, and journey time is a big issue with present technology. The Apollo capsules took just over three days to go from the Earth to the Moon, and the several current proposals for sending people to Mars involve months of travel time. The New Horizons probe which recently flew past Pluto took the better part of ten years to arrive there after leaving Earth.
Now, for narrative purposes in Far from the Spaceports, I wanted journeys between planets to last weeks rather than months or years. This gives a reasonable sense of remoteness, without the drawback of having settlements separated so far from each other as to make meaningful interaction virtually impossible.
Almost all contemporary space journeys are based on the principle of critical burn points. The vehicle performs a small number of high energy rocket firing sessions at key stages of the trip, typically at start and end, with smaller mid-journey corrections. The rest of the time is spent in free fall, unpowered. This saves fuel, and is the only feasible journey choice for chemically based rockets.
Here, for fun, is a NASA artist’s impression of the Dawn probe using its ion drive near Ceres.
But this occasional burn pattern also means that speed is limited, especially for human travellers. A person can only withstand acceleration of a few multiples of Earth’s gravity, and the total change in speed is therefore limited. You are stuck at whatever speed your short burns can achieve. Logically, it is far better, once away from the immediate vicinity of Earth, to maintain a low acceleration rate all the time. This doesn’t appear to do much over the course of a few seconds, but the cumulative effect adds up to something quite impressive. There have been experiments with this already, using a technology called the ion drive, of which more later.
For the moment just assume that there is a technology able to drive a spaceship with an acceleration of 1/20 the surface gravity of Earth. That gives the occupants a sense of up and down, and generally makes life easier. The recent film The Martian, following from similar ideas in 2001, used a rotating wheel idea to give a kind of pseudo-gravity to the astronauts, but their engine design was on the current occasional burn pattern. But if you had a drive which could be always on at a low level, then the quickest journey time to some remote point is to accelerate at constant rate to the half-way point, and then flip over and decelerate the rest of the journey. With that drive and flight plan, the average Earth-Mars trip takes about a month (just two weeks at the point where the orbits bring the planets closest together). The trip out to the asteroid belt takes four or five weeks, and a trip to Pluto about 4 months. Nicely in the range of what I want in a story.
What about reality? NASA has trialled ion drives on a couple of small probes, notably the Dawn mission which travelled to two destinations in the asteroid belt – the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Currently it is still in orbit around Ceres sending back scientific data. Dawn did not burn its ion drive engines full time, but it did trial them for blocks of hundreds of days at a time. Using this regime, Dawn took around four years to reach Vesta, having travelled inwards towards the sun first to acquire a gravity assist from Venus. After some science work at Vesta, Dawn took about two more years to migrate to Ceres. That’s longer than I want for the book, but it’s a whole lot better than just coasting there after a high-energy burn leaving Earth orbit.
In comparative terms, Dawn achieved an acceleration of around 1/100,000 that of Earth’s gravity, which is roughly equivalent to going from stationary to 60 miles per hour in four days (!). Even at such a low value, Dawn currently holds the speed record for spaceships sent out from Earth, with maximum speed around 11,500 meters per second. I am assuming that advances in technology bring that up to 1/20 gravity, which leads to a top speed around 130,000 m/s. I feel those are credible goals for technological advance of the hardware, given that I am also assuming that we have the ability and motivation to establish settlements on various rather inhospitable locations throughout the solar system.
Now, the actual distances between planets vary considerably depending whereabouts in their orbits each of them are – for example the Mars-Ceres trip can take anywhere between 20 and nearly 40 days with this engine. But the main thing, and the one I really wanted, was that you can go places within a month or so.
A few days ago I finished a complete draft of Far from the Spaceports which I was happy with. It’s not quite a final version, and there’ll be another couple of edit sweeps, but it’s nearly there.
So to celebrate that, here’s a longish extract from near the start, as Mitnash discovers something of why he is being sent out from Earth to investigate some fraud. The scene takes place on Earth, at Mitnash’s place of work in Finsbury Circus, London. The actual release date is a few weeks away yet, as I run through final edits and the process of getting kindle, epub and physical copies ready.
Elias swirled an ident onto the wall screen. It dissolved away the ECRB logo to show instead a top-down view of the asteroid belt, unevenly coloured. There was a deep red area to the left, fading quickly through orange to yellow and green. There were a couple of other red patches, but nothing so striking as the first one. I looked at it for a few seconds. It seemed perfectly graduated at first glance, but as you studied it, little irregularities appeared here and there, anomalies in the superficial smoothness.
Little white blobs appeared roughly where you might expect them. Ceres was well away from the centre of the red area, about a radian anticlockwise. Mars was almost opposite Ceres, as well as a long way in-system. Jupiter and a whole shoal of moons were almost directly out into the cold from that red epicentre.
The Jovian data was almost all green, and bore no resemblance to the glaring red directly inwards. I blinked. Elias laughed.
“Funnily enough, we did think of comparing that ourselves. But full marks for thinking of it.”
“Why the difference?”
“There’s actually no reason they would be the same. The Jovians get a separate feed from any of the belt settlements, or Mars for that matter. Reutberg sends out EOD London rates and benchmarks to all the outstations at the same time, plus all of the calc methodologies to derive the rest. Of course the arrival time varies per station in exactly the way you’d expect, but there shouldn’t be time for anyone to take advantage.”
“This is just arbitrage?”
It sounded a disappointing end to what had started out as an interesting problem. Arbitrage was an old business – it went back at least as far as when our ancestors were trading goats for grain or shiny beads. If you were a shiny bead trader with a quick pair of feet and an appetite for moderate risk, you could juggle the trade in goats and grain to your advantage and – with a good dollop of luck – go home a richer man. But it was hard to do in a massively connected world, and friction in the margins meant that those who tried it today regularly lost the game.
There were no short cut alleyways that the modern shiny beadsman could take to get ahead of his more ponderous fellows. Reutberg sent all the information out in synchronised fractalised packages, all at the same time, and everything went at light speed. The fastest systems available kept all of the triangulated rates aligned. Unless somebody had quietly invented a wormhole, or figured out how to curve space to order, there was no way to get ahead of the system. And if someone had come up with such a thing, I was quite sure they would be using it for more than a bit of petty market fixing in the asteroid belt.
I leaned forward, touched the white blob closest to the red centre.
“I suppose I’m going there? Is that Pallas?”
“No, not even close. Pallas is round again from Ceres, in the bottom right of the plot. Those are called the Scilly Isles. There are a good number of people scattered on those rocks. It should be easy enough for you to blend in. Somewhere on those islands you should find the root of the problem. Or at any rate some good leads.”
“Who am I this time?”
“Bored coder, wannabe miner with what you think is a foolproof way to find precious metals. Rare earths in particular. Learn all you need to about commodities for the rest of today, from extraction to dealing. And it would do no harm to refresh on benchmarks too.”
He looked again at the timepiece.
“Time’s up. You have an orientation session on rare earths from one of our economists in twenty minutes on level five. Then another one with an ex-miner who will tell you all about detectors and display analytics. Then another one with me straight after that, when we’ll go over the details in the secure pod on level three. You leave tomorrow morning.”
Look out for Far From the Spaceports in just a few weeks now…
And here for fun is an ESA picture of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as seen by the Rosetta probe…
It’s a good week for science fiction, what with the film version of The Martian coming out in a few days. Not that I am cashing in on that or anything, and the draft itself is not quite finished, but here is a first cut at the back-cover promotional blurb for Far From the Spaceports. It may well change over the next few weeks… comments welcome.
Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space
Welcome to the Scilly Isles – a handful of asteroids bunched together in space, well beyond the orbit of Mars. They are a good home to a varied and unique group of settlers. But now, someone is accumulating credit by fraud on a large scale out here. Nobody knows how or why, and the reputation of the islands is under threat.
Meet Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate, sent out from Earth to find out what is happening, and fix it in the best way they can. Their colleagues on Earth are several weeks away at their ship’s best speed, and even message signals take an hour for the round trip. Slate and Mitnash are on their own, until they can work out who to trust. Then, as soon as they start their investigation, the threat gets personal.
For fun, here’s a NASA picture of the asteroid Ida, which to everyone’s surprise turned out to have its own little moon, Dactyl.
I am a little behind with the blog this week, largely because I have been making some necessary updates to the various websites that I am responsible for. Anyone who has been following the tech news over the last few years will be aware that the EU has insisted that any site using cookies should have a warning to users about this. They are tightening this right now to require that sites have some kind of popup which requires active user dismissal.
Now, along with most people in the techie world I think this is a silly regulation. There are far more effective and far less obtrusive ways that your online activities can be traced which do not involve cookies at all, so the whole mechanism gives a rather spurious sense of safety. And whatever you think of cookies, at least they can be inspected in your browser and deleted if you so choose. All the really big datasets that hold personal information about you – the ones you might conceivably be really worried about – are tucked away on remote servers to which you have no access.
But, whatever I think of it, it has to be implemented… which all takes a bit of time… which takes away from more exciting things.
Now, along the way I also discovered that several of the sites are way out of date! That is unequivocally my own fault, and I have been building up a rather long to-do list for the next few months.
So for today here is another extract from Far from the Spaceports. In this, Mitnash is also struggling with the travails of coding. Mitnash is not me, but I do have first-hand knowledge of the problems he faces! It’s a minor part of the plot, but will give him the opportunity in a few more pages to speak with a person who has information he needs.
It was time that I learned how to code the NuFleece API. So together Slate and I went through the documentation – as pitiful and contradictory as anything I had met before – and learned how to do it. This involved another trip to Aladdin’s, this time to buy a NuFleece wrap that I could practice on, and then most of the rest of the day first being baffled, then swearing at the painfully slow and irrational logic, and finally crowing with satisfaction.
Mrs Riley called me for dinner just as I got to that point. I bounced into her dining room waving the wrap about, and insisted she watch my trial template teapots drift across the surface of the wrap. They cycled through dimension and hue changes as they did so, and adapted contextually to the base colour stripes as they drifted over them. She watched them for a while as I tucked in to the soup she had brought me.
“Could you do that with pictures, Mr Mitnash? I was thinking it would be nice to have a wrap like that with pictures of the four of us on it. Riley, me, and the two children.”
I was on a real high with the afternoon’s successes.
“Drop the pictures onto this hand-held and I’ll have it done for you this evening.”
As always happens, the API work actually took a lot longer than I had expected. I promised myself again that I would stop giving ambitious estimates. So I worked into the night to get it done, and then at breakfast made a little show of presenting her with her finished wrap. She was delighted, and was still talking about it when I set off…
And here, just for fun, is another NASA image, this time of Saturn and (extremely small) the moon Tethys…