Category Archives: Science fiction

Where are they now… Margaret Cavendish

For today, a blog which I wrote for The Review and reposted here…

If I asked you to name some early science fiction writers, I’m guessing you’d think of Jules Verne or HG Wells, who established in the 19th and early 20th centuries so many of the conventions and themes of the genre.

Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)
Portrait of Margaret Cavendish (Wiki)

You probably wouldn’t think of going back to 1666, and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. But in fact, in the same year that the Plague was raging, and London experienced the Great Fire – only some 50 years after the King James Bible was translated, and Shakespeare was writing plays – Margaret Cavendish published her novel The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. It has been called “the only known work of utopian fiction by a woman in the 17th century, as well as one of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘science fiction’ — although it is also a romance, an adventure story, and even autobiography“.

Margaret Lucas was born in 1623, the youngest of eight children, and had a lively childhood, partly spent with Queen Henrietta Maria in exile in France. In 1645 she married William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was a staunch royalist and reasonably successful military commander (so had had a difficult few years until the Restoration of Charles II). He was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, which is perhaps why he and Margaret formed a happy couple – her lively and wide-ranging intellect would undoubtedly have attracted his attention. He was devastated by her death in 1673, and died just three years later.

Cover - The Blazing World (Wiki)
Cover – The Blazing World (Wiki)

She was not only an author of fiction, but also wrote over a dozen original works in diverse fields – poetry and plays, as well as a number of early scientific and philosophical treatises. The Blazing World was routinely distributed with her non-fiction Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, thus combining imaginative and scientific discourse. She was the first woman to attend meetings of the Royal Society, and engaged in debate with leading figures of the time such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. She was not shy about disagreeing with the thinking of the age when she felt it was in error, a habit which brought her criticism and conflict.

The Blazing World is, by modern standards, a slightly odd book. The protagonist, a lady whose name we never learn, is abducted by an impatient suitor, but her virtue is preserved by divine intervention which diverts the ship towards the north pole where the wickedly motivated men all perish. The lady herself is rescued by creatures which are man-like but with animal qualities – once in the Blazing World proper, she will meet Bear-men, Fox-men, Fly-men, Bird-men, Fish-men and so on. Her rescuers take her through a narrow passageway which connects our world with The Blazing World. Since there is only one such passage, and the celestial view in her new home is entirely different, a modern author might well describe this as a wormhole connection rather like in Stargate.

The Emperor of this world is smitten with her, and after a very short interval the two marry. There is then a long passage in which the new Empress quizzes the various theoretical and experimental factions in her new home – clearly satirising the state of affairs in the Royal Society, though many of the barbs evade recognition by today’s reader. Part of this section describes the creation of a array of miniature universes, each intending to explore some particular theme, and most of which are unstable and collapse again because of their own inconsistencies. It sounds very like an early exploration of what we now call the Anthropic Principle – the laws of the universe are constrained by the fact that intelligent life has arisen in it.

Portrait -Margaret Cavendish - © National Portrait Gallery
Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, (by Pieter Louis van Schuppen,
after Abraham Diepenbeeck, line engraving, late 17th century, NPG D30185, © National Portrait Gallery, London

In a way that would now be considered rather shockingly indulgent, she then as author brings herself in as a character – a sort of muse and scribe to the Empress. The two become exceedingly close friends. We are assured that the relationship is entirely platonic, but the degree of closeness far exceeds anything else in the book except that of Margaret to her husband.

The second half of the book describes a kind of interplanetary war – the Empress learns that her original native country is under attack by a large alliance, and decides her duty is to help. So she devises a kind of blitzkrieg strategy including air power (the Bird-men) and submarine warfare (the Fish-men) to overwhelm the assembled enemies. The combination is unstoppable, and it is clear that if she wanted, she could assume control of our world as well. Being of a restrained disposition she does not do this, but withdraws again once victory is assured.

The book closes with William and Margaret gaining inspiration for certain changes to their own estates on the basis of what they have seen in the alternative world, and a commitment to ongoing friendship and communion between the two worlds.

Margaret Cavendish and her writing went off everybody’s radar for many years, with the rise of the true novel. However, after a considerable time of obscurity, she has started to resurface. In 1997 the Margaret Cavendish Society was formed to encourage academic study of her work. The blend of feminism, science, philosophy, fantasy and interpersonal relationships has found a resonance in our own age.

Margaret is quite open about her purpose in writing the book, and her pride in being its creator: “…you may perceive, that my ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World… in the formation of those worlds, I take more delight and glory, than ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world… concerning the Philosophical-world, I am Empress of it my self; and as for the Blazing-World, it having an Empress already, who rules it with great Wisdom and Conduct, which Empress is my dear Platonick Friend; I shall never prove so unjust, treacherous, and unworthy to her, as to disturb her Government, much less to depose her from her Imperial Throne, for the sake of any other, but rather chuse to create another World for another Friend.”

Stirring words, indeed, and ones which many an author would identify with!

 

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…

Goodreads annual stats and other things

A quick blog today, focusing on a couple of things. First, like most of us, my annual Goodreads statistics appeared, telling me what I had read in 2016 (or at least, what GR knew about, which is a fair proportion of what really happened).

Cover - The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)
Cover – The Recognition of Shakuntala (Goodreads)

So, I read 52 books in the year, up 10 from 2015 (and conveniently one a week). but the page count was down very slightly. I guess I’m reading shorter books on average! Slightly disappointingly, there were very few books more than about 50 years old, with Kalidasa’s Recognition of Shakuntala the outstanding early text. This year, I have a target of reading more old stuff alongside the new. In 2016 there was also more of a spread of genres, with roughly equal proportions of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction (aka “geeky”), contrasting with previous years where historical fiction has dominated.

I also recently read that Amazon passed the landmark of 5 million ebooks on their site in the summer, slightly ahead of the 10th birthday of the Kindle itself. The exact number varies per country – apparently Germany has more – but currently the number is growing at about 17% per annum. That’s a lot of books… about 70,000 new ones per month, in fact. Let nobody think that reading is dead! As regards fiction, Romance and Children’s books top the counts, which I suspect will come as a surprise to nobody.

Finally, we have just had a space-related anniversary, namely that of the successful landing of the ESA Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14th 2005. An extraordinary video taken as it descended has been circulating recently and I am happy to reshare it. Meanwhile the Cassini “mothership” is in the last stages of its own research mission and, with fuel almost exhausted, will be directed to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere later this year. I vividly remember the early mission reports as Cassini went into orbit around Saturn – it’s a bit sad to think of the finale, but this small spacecraft has returned a wealth of information since being launched in 1997, and in particular since arriving at Saturn in 2004.

(Video link is https://youtu.be/msiLWxDayuA?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZpKPaDTVy36z0U8GxoiIkZa)

Celebrations

Christmas pudding and whisky
Christmas pudding and whisky

It’s a time of the year when we think about celebrations. Midwinter is an important time for several different religious reasons, but nowadays the main focus is on family and social events. To some extent, the spiritual roots of the festival as a time when new beginnings are stirring in the darkness of the year – at least, for those of us living in the northern hemisphere – have been overlaid with a focus on much more immediate pleasures. We meet as families, we eat and drink, we play games. In many workplaces the office party provides an arena in which normal hierarchies can be set aside for a while.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand (Photo by Justin Ng)
Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Thailand (Photo by Justin Ng)

My guess is that even at times when religious observance was more common than now, these more visceral elements were still an important part of the winter festival. Human beings may be rational animals (the saying goes back to Aristotle, some 350 years BC) but we are also playing animals, and fun-loving animals. Go back through the sacred calendars of the world’s religions, and you will find plenty of opportunities to celebrate as well as be solemn. Hardship and deprivation hardly ever erase the human desire to make meaning by way of groupish events.

Of course, the very same things which make an event good for one person might be difficult or painful for another. The celebrations that a group of people chooses can serve to reinforce difference, rather than undo such barriers. We may be good at finding causes to celebrate, but we’re also good at finding ways to include and exclude others from our celebrations. It would be nice to think that opportunities for inclusion might outweigh exclusion as we move forwards.

I see the act of celebration as one of the great unifying threads holding humanity together, whether you look back into the remote past or forward into the distant future. Whichever of these I am writing about, there will always be group events! However challenging the times, however alien the setting, it’s hard to imagine a society which has no provision for communal events.

The M31 Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye, NASA/JPL
The M31 Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant object easily visible to the naked eye, NASA/JPL

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

Thin slices of intelligence – meet the bot ‘Blakeley Raise’

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

The first part of this blog talks about background, so if you’re keen to read instead about my new chat-bot Blakeley Raise, just skip down a few paragraphs… I’m very excited about Blakeley Raise, and hope you’ll check out the new possibilities. If you can’t wait to give it a go, click here.

So, the background… I had the great pleasure of going to the technical day of the Microsoft  London Future Decoded conference last week. It was packed with all kinds of interesting stuff – far too much to take in in the course of a single day, in fact. There were cool presentations of 3d technology – the new Hololens device, enhanced ways to visualise 3d objects within a computer, and how 3d printing is shaking up some parts of the manufacturing industry. And lots of other stuff.

HAL 9000 from 2001 - A Space Odyssey (Wiki)
HAL 9000 from 2001 – A Space Odyssey (Wiki)

But it all threatened to be a bit overwhelming, so I kept my focus quite narrow and stayed mostly with the AI stream of presentations. Top level summary: Slate (in Far from the Spaceports and Timing) has no need to worry about the competition just yet, but there is some really interesting work going on. It will take a lot of generations for Slate to emerge! But the work that is being done is genuinely exciting, and a mixture of faster hardware, reliable communications, and good programming practice means that some tasks are now trickling into general everyday use.

One speaker used the phrase “slices of intelligence” to capture this, recognising that real intelligence involves not only a capacity to learn tasks and communicate visually and in words, but also to reflect on success and failure, set new challenges and move into new environments, interact with others, be aware of moral and ethical dimensions of an action, and so on. We are a very long way from producing artificial intelligence which can do most of that.

Blakeley Raise icon
Blakeley Raise icon

But within particular slices lots of progress has been made. Natural language parsing is now tolerably good rather than being merely laughable. Face recognition, including both identity and emotion, is reasonably accurate – though the site http://how-old.net/ produces such a vast range of potential ages from different pictures of the same person that one can be both flattered and disappointed very quickly (give it a try and you will soon find the limitations of the art at present). On a philanthropic note, image recognition software has been used to provide blind people with a commentary of interesting things in their immediate neighbourhood: see the YouTube snip at the end of this blog.

Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)
Kinninside Stone Circle at Blakeley Raise, Cumbria (Wiki)

Here’s the bit about Blakeley Raise… For those of us who develop our own software, it is an exciting time. It is extremely easy now to develop a small program called a chat-bot which can be incorporated not just into web pages, but also message applications like Skype, Facebook Messenger, and a host of others. So inspired by all this I have started developing Blakeley Raise, a bot who is designed to introduce potential readers to my books. You can think of Blakeley Raise as a great-great-ancestor of Slate herself, if you like, though I don’t think Slate will be feeling anxious about the competition for a long time yet.

But one of the great things about these bots is that they can be endlessly reconfigured and upgraded. Right now, Blakeley Raise just works by recognising keywords and responding accordingly. Type in “Tell me about Timing” – or another sentence containing the word “Timing” and you’ll get some information about that book. To find out more, navigate your browser to http://www.kephrath.com/trial/BlakeleyRaise.aspx and see what happens. All being well – meaning if I can solve a few technical problems – Blakeley Raise will soon appear on other distribution channels as well. (For those who remember the episode where a Microsoft bot quickly learned how to repeat racist and other inflammatory material, don’t worry – Blakeley Raise does not learn like that)

Finally, here’s a video of one of the more philanthropic spinoffs from Microsoft’s enthusiasm about AI in practical use…

 

Timing now available on preorder

Timing Kindle cover 480x640
Timing – Kindle cover

Well, Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports, is now available on preorder from Amazon stores worldwide. Release day is October 14th so there’s not long to wait. Paperback copies will be available at round about the same time but I don’t have an exact date yet.

It’s set about a year on from the end of Spaceports, and begins out at the group of asteroids called the Scilly Isles. But there’s more solar system travel this time around including, as the cover would suggest, a trip to Mars and the larger of its two moons, Phobos.

Preorder links are:

To celebrate this release, all my previous novels are going on Amazon countdown offer from 14th. The length of time varies for each depending on Amazon’s rules for such things – but on 14th you can get not only Far from the Spaceports, but also the historical novels In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us all at reduced prices.

Meanwhile, here are links to an author reading on YouTube (and Daily Motion in case the You Tube one has not yet distributed). It’s the same reading at both sites but more will be uploaded before too long…