Category Archives: Science fiction

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!

Last year on Goodreads

At the start of every year I have a quick look back at the handy Goodreads stats to see what I read in the previous 12 months. And so this time it’s the turn of 2017…

In 2017 I read (or at least, recorded in Goodreads) 42 books. That’s the same as 2015 and a few less than 2016. Apparently that was around 10,500 pages, down from the 12,000 or so I read in each of the previous two years. Since I’ve been doing more Alexa work, that comes as no great surprise!.

Goodreads 2017 stats
Goodreads 2017 stats

In terms of ratings, I’m very consistent – slightly over half 4*, slightly under half 5*, and a tiny handful of anything less than that. That’s partly because I don’t persevere with something I really dislike, but mainly because I’d rather not give bad ratings to books. I’d rather stay silent than give 1 or 2*, and even 3* reviews are rare.

The main change over the last few years has been the ratios of different genres. I always have – and no doubt always will – read occasional fascinating non-fiction books. Last year, The Genius of Birds, and The Ancient Paths definitely fitted that bill. But for fiction, things have shifted noticeably.  And in case it’s not obvious, I should say that the majority of fiction books I read are indie.

Back in 2015 I read about 1/2 historical fiction, and 1/6 each science fiction and fantasy. In 2016 this had moved to about 1/4 each historical and science fiction, and 1/6 fantasy. And in 2017 the same trend continued to be about 1/4 each science fiction and fantasy, and 1/6 historical fiction, with another (say) 1/8 alternate history. I think this is probably going to be a fairly consistent pattern now – but in a year’s time we shall see.

Variations on history

Last week I spoke about science fiction and fantasy, and the crossover world between them. Today I want to look at another genre which offers a twist on the normal world. Many of my author friends write historical fiction – stories based around real historical contexts or people.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

My own series of Late Bronze books, which were my first real foray into writing books at all, fit neatly into that category. Kephrath, the town at the centre of those three books, is a real place, and the wider events fit in with one interpretation of the scanty historical record. The people I describe are credible for their place and time, but they are imaginary. Obviously I’d like Damariel, the village priest and seer, to have really lived in history, but we don’t know, and probably will never know for sure.

Now, by setting those books at the end of the Late Bronze Age – around 1200BC or so – I gave myself a huge advantage. This wasn’t my original motive: I simply liked that part of history and wanted to approach it in fiction. But the unexpected advantage is that our knowledge of that time is very scant.

Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)
Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (Wikipedia)

Serious academic debates take place over how to understand particular texts, or how to reconcile apparent contradictions. The regnal dates of Egyptian pharaohs are often speculative by years or even decades (despite the seemingly definitive values often written in books or web pages), and that uncertainty multiplies when you look to other nations. Accurate details of anybody lower in rank than the most elite are extremely sparse. So I am writing in a place where fixed facts are scattered very sparsely.

Now many of my friends do not have this luxury. They are writing in places and times where recorded facts hem them in on all sides. Their stories are still fiction, but their characters often have little freedom of action in their densely packed surroundings.

This wouldn’t matter so much – after all, a story is a story, you’d think. But a small number of reviewers are ruthless in their critique of perceived anachronisms, and waste no opportunity to highlight them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research along with everyone else – but one feels that such reviewers miss the point that they are, in fact, reading fiction. I am sure that this is a tiny minority of the total readership, but they seem to exert undue influence, certainly over the sensibilities and anxieties of authors.

I have every respect for authors who, despite these difficulties, persevere in writing about places and times that they thoroughly love. And I’m certainly not suggesting that those who write other kinds of books are simply trying to avoid trouble: all of us in the indie world write what we do because that’s what we want to write about! But it is interesting that there are other close relatives of historical fiction which avoid some of the pitfalls.

Cover - Pavane (Goodreads)
Cover – Pavane (Goodreads)

There’s alternate history – at some point in the past, events diverged from what we know. A classic of this kind is Pavane, by Keith Roberts, where the timeline branches with the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. But there are many others – probably the best known to many readers of this blog will be Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series. History unfolds a bit like our own… but also a bit different, and depending on the intention of the author either the similarities or the differences can be centre stage. So long as the world is internally consistent and convincing – which is no simple job – it doesn’t really matter if the facts get , let us say, jumbled up.

Cover - The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)
Cover – The Lions of Al-Rassan (Goodreads)

Another option is historical fantasy – a setting from history is chosen, but with a twist. The twist can be to take seriously beliefs and assumptions of a past age – such as the reality of magic, for example. Or it can be a much more radical departure. Guy Gavriel Kay, in The Lions of Al-Rassan, presented what was essentially the complex political and religious situation in Moorish Spain as Christianity started to recover territory. And yet… it also isn’t that. The world isn’t quite true to that portion of our own history, but has its own quirks and direction. (I read it with a book club, and it didn’t quite work for me as a novel, but I have every admiration for the feat of imagination involved.

Science fiction occasionally gets in on the act, as well. Ursula LeGuin used her considerable knowledge of sociology and anthropology to root her alien cultures in a credible past. So one of the cultures in Rocannon’s World is a bit like meeting Medieval Europeans… but again, it’s not quite like meeting them. And fantasy novels of course need a plausible culture to root themselves in, whether that be the familiar territory of elves and orcs, or something from elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, of course, there are those brave souls who set their books in this world, in a real part of history, and with their characters surrounded by real historical individuals. For my part, if and when I return to history from the intoxicating world of science fiction, it will probably be back in the ancient past – much longer ago than the comparatively recent times of the Late Bronze Age. We shall see.

Science fiction and fantasy

Over the weekend I came across one of those many internet tropes – a quote from someone, on a pretty background, with no interpretive comment by the poster. I must admit that normally I ignore these and scroll past them to a post which has more engagement with a real person. But this one did actually catch my eye, mainly because it resonated with what I was already thinking about.

Here’s the quote (without the pretty background)

“Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities” (Miriam Allen deFord)

Cover image - Xenogenesis (Goodreads)
Cover image – Xenogenesis (Goodreads)

Of course I started worrying at this, like a lively dog chewing at a toy. Leaving aside the rather pleasing symmetry of words, did I actually agree with it? The lady to whom the quote is attributed was an American writer whose main activity was in the mid-twentieth century. She was roughly contemporary with EE (Doc) Smith, a generation down from HG Wells, and rather older than Isaac Asimov. Most of her writing was in the form of short stories for magazines, though she wrote a few novels as well. She straddled the genres of mystery writing, true crime accounts, and science fiction – for the curious who don’t want to shell out real money, several of her works are on the Project Gutenberg site.

Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia)
Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia)

So, did I end up agreeing with the sentiment? Well, not really. Miriam Allen deFord was writing in a time when genres were quite strictly defined, especially by those individuals who ran the magazines of the day. Those people were hugely influential within their sphere, and were instrumental in founding the writing careers of a lot of people. But their personal likes and dislikes shaped what was written. Allegedly, Isaac Asimov almost never wrote about alien life because John Campbell, editor at Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog), had a personal antipathy to that kind of storyline. In Asimov’s case, the habit was so strong that, so far as I can recall, aliens appear just twice in his writing – in a parallel universe in The Gods Themselves, and in an enormously far ahead future in The End of Infinity.

Cover - The Buried Giant (Goodreads)
Cover – The Buried Giant (Goodreads)

We live today in a different world. Genres do not create such important divisions. This is most true in the indie world, but successful authors in the trad world also experiment with crossing genre boundaries. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro has explored several non-standard plotlines and combinations. But many indie authors positively revel in creating books which don’t fit traditional pigeonholes.

Nowadays, science fiction and fantasy are often bundled together under the joint heading “speculative fiction”, with less perceived importance on whether the particular book fits one side or the other of some imaginary line. To be sure, there is still a spectrum of actual content, from “hard” science fiction in which the science bit seeks to be as credible as possible, through to fantasy which does not even seek a rational justification for actions or attributes. Most of my science fiction writing leans towards the geeky end of that spectrum, with Half Sick of Shadows a striking exception. Anyway, within that spectrum there are enormous areas of mixed colour – plot elements for which either a scientific or fantasy explanation might be found, and about which perhaps different characters in the book might hold different opinions. I think that’s fine, and a sign that the whole field has matured from a kind of binary opposition.

Next time – another crossover category…

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.

Future Possibilities 2

The second part of this quick review of the Future Decoded conference looks at things a little further ahead. This was also going to be the final part, but as there’s a lot of cool stuff to chat about, I’ve decided to add part 3…

Prediction of data demand vs supply (IDC.org)
Prediction of data demand vs supply (IDC.org)

So here’s a problem that is a minor one at the moment, but with the potential to grow into a major one. In short, the world has a memory shortage! Already we are generating more bits and bytes that we would like to store, than we have capacity for. Right now it’s an inconvenience rather than a crisis, but year by year the gap between wish and actuality is growing. If growth in both these areas continues as at present, within a decade we will only be able to store about a third of what we want. A decade or so later that will drop to under one percent.

Think about it on the individual level. You take a short video clip while on holiday. It goes onto your phone. At some stage you back it up in Dropbox, or iCloud, or whatever your favourite provider is. Maybe you keep another copy on your local hard drive. Then you post it to Facebook and Google+. You send it to two different WhatsApp groups and email it to a friend. Maybe you’re really pleased with it and make a YouTube version. You now have ten copies of your 50Mb video… not to mention all the thumbnail images, cached and backup copies saved along the way by these various providers, which you’re almost certainly not aware of and have little control over. Your ten seconds of holiday fun has easily used 1Gb of the world’s supply of memory! For comparison, the entire Bible would fit in about 3 Mb in plain uncompressed text, and taking a wild guess, you would use well under that 1 Gb value to store every last word of the world’s sacred literature. And a lot of us are generating holiday videos these days! Then lots of cyclists wear helmet cameras these days, cars have dash cams… and so on. We are generating prodigious amounts of imagery.

So one solution is that collectively we get more fussy about cleaning things up. You find yourself deleting the phone version when you’ve transferred it to Dropbox. You decide that a lower resolution copy will do for WhatsApp. Your email provider tells you that attachments will be archived or disposed of according to some schedule. Your blog allows you to reference a YouTube video in a link, rather than uploading yet another copy. Some clever people somewhere work out a better compression algorithm. But… even all these workarounds together will still not be enough to make up for the shortfall, if the projections are right.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Holiday snaps aside, a great deal of this vast growth in memory usage is because of emerging trends in computing. Face and voice recognition, image analysis, and other AI techniques which are now becoming mainstream use a great deal of stored information to train the models ready for use. Regular blog readers will know that I am particularly keen on voice assistants like Alexa. My own Alexa programming doesn’t use much memory, as the skills are quite modest and tolerably well written. But each and every time I make an Alexa request, that call goes off somewhere into the cloud, to convert what I said (the “utterance”) into what I meant (the “intent”). Alexa is pretty good at getting it right, which means that there is a huge amount of voice training data sitting out there being used to build the interpretive models. Exactly the same is true for Siri, Cortana, Google Home, and anyone else’s equivalent. Microsoft call this training area a “data lake”. What’s more, there’s not just one of them, but several, at different global locations to reduce signal lag.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Hopefully that’s given some idea of the problem. Before looking at the idea for a solution that was presented the other day, let’s think what that means for fiction writing.  My AI persona Slate happily flits off to the asteroid belt with her human investigative partner Mitnash in Far from the Spaceports. In Timing, they drop back to Mars, and in the forthcoming Authentication Key they will get out to Saturn, but for now let’s stick to the asteroids. That means they’re anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes away from Earth by signal. Now, Slate does from time to time request specific information from the main hub Khufu in Earth, but necessarily this can only be for some detail not locally available. Slate can’t send a request down to London every time Mit says something, just so she can understand it. Trying to chat with up to an hour lag between statements would be seriously frustrating. So she has to carry with her all of the necessary data and software models that she needs for voice comprehension, speech, and defence against hacking, not to mention analysis, reasoning, and the capacity to feel emotion. Presupposing she has the equivalent of a data lake, she has to carry it with her. And that is simply not feasible with today’s technology.

DNA Schematic (Wikipedia)
DNA Schematic (Wikipedia)

So the research described the other day is exploring the idea of using DNA as the storage medium, rather than a piece of specially constructed silicon. DNA is very efficient at encoding data – after all, a sperm and egg together have all the necessary information to build a person. The problems are how to translate your original data source into the various chemical building blocks along a DNA helix, and conversely how to read it out again at some future time. There’s a publicly available technical paper describing all this. We were shown a short video which had been encoded, stored, and decoded using just this method. But it is fearfully expensive right now, so don’t expect to see a DNA external drive on your computer anytime soon!

Microsoft data centre (ZDNet/Microsoft)
Microsoft data centre (ZDNet/Microsoft)

The benefits purely in terms of physical space are colossal. The largest British data centre covers the equivalent of about eight soccer grounds (or four cricket pitches), using today’s technology. The largest global one is getting on for ten times that size. With DNA encoding, that all shrinks down to about a matchbox. For storytelling purposes that’s fantastic – Slate really is off to the asteroids and beyond, along with her data lake in plenty of local storage, which now takes up less room and weight than a spare set of underwear for Mit. Current data centres also use about the same amount of power as a small town, (though because of judicious choice of technology they are much more ecologically efficient) but we’ll cross the power bridge another time.

However, I suspect that many of us might see ethical issues here. The presenter took great care to tell us that the DNA used was not from anything living, but had been manufactured from scratch for the purpose. No creatures had been harmed in the making of this video. But inevitably you wonder if all researchers would take this stance. Might a future scenario play out that some people are forced to sell – or perhaps donate – their bodies for storage? Putting what might seem a more positive spin on things, wouldn’t it seem convenient to have all your personal data stored, quite literally, on your person, and never entrusted to an external device at all? Right now we are a very long way from either of these possibilities, but it might be good to think about the moral dimensions ahead of time.

Either way, the starting problem – shortage of memory – is a real one, and collectively we need to find some kind of solution…

And for the curious, this is the video which was stored on and retrieved from DNA – regardless of storage method, it’s a fun and clever piece of filming (https://youtu.be/qybUFnY7Y8w)…

 

Future possibilities 1

This is the first of two posts in which I talk about some of the major things I took away from the recent Future Decoded conference here in London. Each year they try to pick out some tech trends which they reckon will be important in the next few years.

Disability statistics by age and gender (Eurostat)
Disability statistics by age and gender (Eurostat)

This week’s theme is to do with stuff which is available now, or in the immediate future. And the first topic is assisting users. Approximately one person in six in the world is considered disabled in some way, whether from birth or through accident or illness (according to a recent WHO report). That’s about about a billion people in total. Technology ought to be able to assist, but often has failed to do so. Now a variety of assistance technologies have been around for a while – the years-old alt text in images was a step in that direction – but Windows 10 has a whole raft of such support.

Now, I am well aware that lots of people don’t like Win 10 as an operating system, but this showed it at its best. When you get to see a person blind from birth able to use social media, and a lad with cerebral palsy pursuing a career as an author, it doesn’t need a lot of sales hype. Or a programmer who lost use of all four limbs in an accident, writing lines of code live in the presentation using a mixture of Cortana’s voice control plus an on-screen keyboard triggered by eye movement. Not to mention that the face recognition login feature provided his first opportunity for privacy since the accident, as noone else had to know his password.

But the trend goes beyond disabilities of a permanent kind – most of us have what you might call situational limitations at various times. Maybe we’re temporarily bed-ridden through illness. Maybe we’re simply one-handed through carrying an infant around. Whatever the specific reason, all the big tech companies are looking for ways to make such situations more easily managed.

Another big trend was augmented reality using 3d headsets. I suppose most of us think of these as gaming gimmicks, providing another way to escape the demands of life. But going round the exhibition pitches – most by third-party developers rather than Microsoft themselves – stall after stall was showing off the use of headsets in a working context.

Medical training (Microsoft.com and Case Western Reserve University)
Medical training (Microsoft.com and Case Western Reserve University)

Training was one of the big areas, with trainers and students blending reality and virtual image in order to learn skills or be immersed in key situations. We’ve been familiar with the idea of pilots training on flight simulators for years – now that same principle is being applied to medical students and emergency response teams, all the way through to mechanical engineers and carpet-layers. Nobody doubts that a real experience has a visceral quality lacking from what you get from a headset, but it has to be an advantage that trainees have had some exposure to rare but important cases.

Assembly line with hololens (Microsoft.com)
Assembly line with hololens (Microsoft.com)

This also applies to on-the-job work. A more experienced worker can “drop in” to supervise or enhance the work of a junior one without both of them being physically present. Or a human worker can direct a mechanical tool in hostile environments or disaster zones. Or possible solutions can be tried out without having to make up physical prototypes. You can imagine a kind of super-Skype meeting, with mixed real and virtual attendance. Or a better way to understand a set of data than just dumping it into a spreadsheet – why not treat it as a plot of land you can wander round and explore?

Cover, The Naked Sun (Goodreads)
Cover, The Naked Sun (Goodreads)

Now most of these have been explored in fiction several times, with both their positive and negative connotations. And I’m sure that a few of these will turn out to be things of the moment which don’t make it into everyday use. And right now the dinky headsets which make it all happen are too expensive to find in every house, or on everyone’s desk at work – unless you have a little over £2500 lying around doing nothing. But a lot of organisations are betting that there’ll be good use for the technology, and I guess the next five years will show us whether they’re right or wrong. Will these things stay as science fiction, or become part of the science of life?

So that’s this week – developments that are near-term and don’t represent a huge change in what we have right now. Next time I’ll be looking at things further ahead, and more speculative…

 

 

Left behind by events, part 2

So, picking up the story where l left off two weeks ago, it’s time today to look at science fiction set in the near future from its author. Last time the focus was mainly on stories set hundreds of years in the future, where the problem is often that the technology seems pitched at too low a level. But there are different pitfalls with telling a tale in the next couple of generations. Here, an author may well assume that all kinds of things will happen quickly, when in fact they take much longer.

Flying car from Bladerunner (PInterest)
Flying car from Bladerunner (PInterest)

Flying cars are a stock image for a lot of stories, including Back to the Future and Bladerunner. Now, cars have changed in lots of ways over the span of my lifetime, but they don’t fly (and we still don’t have hoverboards). Yes, periodically there are optimistic announcements that they’re in development, but they certainly aren’t normal consumer items. The future bits of Back to the Future are set in 2015, and the original Bladerunner in 2019, so both are very contemporary.

Interceptors from moonbase in TV series UFO (PInterest)
Interceptors from moonbase in TV series UFO (PInterest)

Likewise, lots of science fiction authors assumed that we would have a moon base well before now, and that manned space missions would have visited other places in the solar system. One of my favourite books, Encounter with Tiber, written in 1996, thought it credible we would have a lunar base by around 2020.  Space 1999 and the TV series UFO were even more optimistic. The prominence of the ISS, orbiting a mere two or three hundred miles from the Earth, was not often imagined, nor the enormous success of unmanned exploratory probes. Missions like Dawn, to the asteroid belt, or New Horizons, to Pluto and beyond, don’t feature. Still less the Hubble space telescope, or the LIDO gravity wave detector, which spectacularly hit the news this week.

Social change seems profoundly hard to predict. Orwell’s 1984 still has the capacity to grip us with its stark picture of state control, but actually its vision of the future is wrong in all kinds of ways. A great many authors assumed – with good reason – that a third world war would take place in the 20th century. EE (Doc) Smith’s Triplanetary simply had “19–?” as the setting for an atomic missile war, following after “1918” and “1941”. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the short story behind Bladerunner) presupposes a war and heavy resulting pollution behind the drive to spread to other planets, and the construction of android replicants as labourers.

But all of these stories remain worth reading. We often judge the value of a story more for its human drama, and its ability to convincingly present a human response to crisis, than for the accuracy of its timeline. That is as it should be, I think.

Film Swordfish (IMDB)
Film Swordfish (IMDB)

I sometimes read criticisms of fiction which focus on the correctness or otherwise of minute details in the text, and sometimes they miss the point. Most of us don’t know the exact terminology of the parts of modern American handguns, and most of us wouldn’t know if the wrong word was used – yes, I read a scathing comment from one reviewer on just this subject a while back. But if the story holds up, most of us don’t mind. Then there’s my own area of expertise – programming. I find it hilarious when expert coders are depicted in films as hammering out on a keyboard at lightning rate without looking at either their hands or the screen. We just don’t work like that. A great deal of time is actually spent in copy-and-paste from geeky sites like StackOverflow (followed by a fair amount of careful reconfiguration). But if the story’s good, I’ll happily overlook that.

There’s certainly a place for research, and good research, in any area of fiction, but not pursued, surely, at the cost of the story and all of its other dimensions alongside the factual ones. So yes – science fiction stories set in the near future often do get things wrong, but often that doesn’t really matter.