Category Archives: Science

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!

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 3

This is the third and final part of Left Behind by Events, in which I take a look at my own futuristic writing and try to guess which bits I will have got utterly wrong when somebody looks back at it from a future perspective! But it’s also the first of a few blogs in which I will talk a bit about some of the impressions I got of technical near-future as seen at the annual Microsoft Future Decoded conference that I went to the other day.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

So I am tolerably confident about the development of AI. We don’t yet have what I call “personas” with autonomy, emotion, and gender. I’m not counting the pseudo-gender produced by selecting a male or female voice, though actually even that simple choice persuades many people – how many people are pedantic enough to call Alexa “it” rather than “she”? But at the rate of advance of the relevant technologies, I’m confident that we will get there.

I’m equally confident, being an optimistic guy, that we’ll develop better, faster space travel, and have settlements of various sizes on asteroids and moons. The ion drive I posit is one definite possibility: the Dawn asteroid probe already uses this system, though at a hugely smaller rate of acceleration than what I’m looking for. The Hermes, which features in both the book and film The Martian, also employs this drive type. If some other technology becomes available, the stories would be unchanged – the crucial point is that intra-solar-system travel takes weeks rather than months.

The Sting (PInterest)
The Sting (PInterest)

I am totally convinced that financial crime will take place! One of the ways we try to tackle it on Earth is to share information faster, so that criminals cannot take advantage of lags in the system to insert falsehoods. But out in the solar system, there’s nothing we can do about time lags. Mars is between 4 and 24 minutes from Earth in terms of a radio or light signal, and there’s nothing we can do about that unless somebody invents a faster-than-light signal. And that’s not in range of my future vision. So the possibility of “information friction” will increase as we spread our occupancy wider. Anywhere that there are delays in the system, there is the possibility of fraud… as used to great effect in The Sting.

Something I have not factored in at all is biological advance. I don’t have cyborgs, or genetically enhanced people, or such things. But I suspect that the likelihood is that such developments will occur well within the time horizon of Far from the Spaceports. Biology isn’t my strong suit, so I haven’t written about this. There’s a background assumption that illness isn’t a serious problem in this future world, but I haven’t explored how that might happen, or what other kinds of medical change might go hand-in-hand with it. So this is almost certainly going to be a miss on my part.

Moving on to points of contact with the conference, there is the question of my personas’ autonomy. Right now, all of our current generation of intelligent assistants – Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Home and so on – rely utterly on a reliable internet connection and a whole raft of cloud-based software to function. No internet or no cloud connection = no Alexa.

This is clearly inadequate for a persona like Slate heading out to the asteroid belt! Mitnash is obviously not going to wait patiently for half an hour or so between utterances in a conversation. For this to work, the software infrastructure that imparts intelligence to a persona has to travel along with it. Now this need is already emerging – and being addressed – right now. I guess most of us are familiar with the idea of the Cloud. Your Gmail account, your Dropbox files, your iCloud pictures all exists somewhere out there… but you neither know nor care where exactly they live. All you care is that you can get to them when you want.

A male snow leopard (Wikipedia)
A male snow leopard (Wikipedia)

But with the emerging “internet of things” that is having to change. Let’s say that a wildlife programme puts a trail camera up in the mountains somewhere in order to get pictures of a snow leopard. They want to leave it there for maybe four months and then collect it again. It’s well out of wifi range. In those four months it will capture say 10,000 short videos, almost all of which will not be of snow leopards. There will be mountain goats, foxes, mice, leaves, moving splashes of sunshine, flurries of rain or snow… maybe the odd yeti. But the memory stick will only hold say 500 video clips. So what do you do? Throw away everything that arrives after it gets full? Overwrite the oldest clips when you need to make space? Arrange for a dangerous and disruptive resupply trip by your mountaineer crew?

Or… and this is the choice being pursued at the moment… put some intelligence in your camera to try to weed out non-snow-leopard pictures. Your camera is no longer a dumb picture-taking device, but has some intelligence. It also makes your life easier when you have recovered the camera and are trying to scan through the contents. Even going through my Grasmere badger-cam vids every couple of weeks involves a lot of deleting scenes of waving leaves!

So this idea is now being called the Cloud Edge. You put some processing power and cleverness out in your peripheral devices, and only move what you really need into the Cloud itself. Some of the time, your little remote widgets can make up their own minds what to do. You can, so I am told, buy a USB stick with trainable neural network on it for sifting images (or other similar tasks) for well under £100. Now, this is a far cry from an independently autonomous persona able to zip off to the asteroid belt, but it shows that the necessary technologies are already being tackled.

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

I’ve been deliberately vague about how far into the future Far from the Spaceports, Timing, and the sequels in preparation are set. If I had to pick a time I’d say somewhere around the one or two century mark. Although science fact notoriously catches up with science fiction faster than authors imagine, I don’t expect to see much of this happening in my lifetime (which is a pity, really, as I’d love to converse with a real Slate). I’d like to think that humanity from one part of the globe or another would have settled bases on other planets, moons, or asteroids while I’m still here to see them, and as regular readers will know, I am very excited about where AI is going. But a century to reach the level of maturity of off-Earth habitats that I propose seems, if anything, over-optimistic.

That’s it for today – over the next few weeks I’ll be talking about other fun things I learned…

News and updates

This week’s blog is a collection of bits and pieces.

Half Sick of Shadows cover
Half Sick of Shadows cover

First, there’s a reminder that at the Before the Second Sleep blog alongside the review of Half Sick of Shadows there’s a giveaway copy to be won – just leave a comment to be in with a chance in the draw, which will take place sometime in November.

Secondly, for a bit of fun here is the link to the Desert Island Books chat which appeared on Prue Batten’s blog. What ten books would you take if you were going to be stranded on a desert island for a period of time. Well, you can find out my choices at that link – it’s a right mixture of fiction and non-fiction. And I got to pick my very own desert island, and with a minor stretch of credulity I selected Bryher, one of the Isles of Scilly. There are a lot worse places that you could get stranded…

The north end of Bryher
The north end of Bryher

What about space news?

Artist's impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Dawn at Ceres (NASA/JPL)

Well, there have been recent updates to two of my favourite NASA missions. The future of Dawn, which has been orbiting the asteroid Ceres for some time, after originally studying Vesta, has been in question for some time. Basically there were two choices – leave the craft in orbit around Ceres until the onboard fuel supply runs out, or move on to a third destination and learn something there. Either way, the plan for the end of life has always been to avoid accidentally contaminating Ceres or anywhere else with debris. Well, the decision was finally made to stay at Ceres, carry out some manoeuvres to increase the scientific and visual return over the next few months, and then shift to a parking orbit late next year. The low point of the orbit should be only about 120 miles from the surface, half the height of the previous approach.

New Horizons badge (NASA)
New Horizons badge (NASA)

And finally, New Horizons, which provided great pictures of Pluto and Charon a couple of years ago, has been woken from its standby mode in order to carry out early preparations for a planned encounter in the Kuiper Belt. The target this time goes by the catchy name of 2014 MU69. Pluto is on the inside edge of the Kuiper Belt, whereas 2014 MU69 is in the middle. But although there are a fair n umber of bits of rock scattered in this disk-like region, it is still vastly empty, and the chances of New Horizons colliding with a previously unknown body are very slim. If all goes according to plan, the craft will navigate rather closer to 2014 MU69 than it did to Pluto – a necessary action, as the light levels are considerably lower. Since we know very little about the body, this does present a level of risk, but one which is considered worth taking. There are a few course corrections planned for late this year, then it’s back into sleep mode for a few months until the middle of next year. Flyby should happen on January 1st, 2019. And after that? More targets are being explored, and the power supply and onboard systems are reckoned to have another twenty years of life, so we could be in for more treats…

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.

Left behind by events, part 1

This is the first part of two, in which I look at the ways in which books show their age.

I read a lot of science fiction, and I watch a fair number of science fiction films and TV series. The latest addition is Star Trek Discovery, the latest offering in that very-long-running universe. For those who don’t know, it’s set in a time frame a few years before the original series (the one with Captain Kirk), and well after the series just called Enterprise.

Discovery bridge (TrekNews)
Discovery bridge (TrekNews)

Inevitably the new series has had a mixed reception, but I have enjoyed the first couple of episodes. But the thing I wanted to write about today was not the storyline, or the characters, but the presentation of technology. The bridge of the starship Shenzhou looked just like you’d imagine – lots of touch screen consoles, big displays showing not just some sensor data but also some interpretive stuff so you could make sense of it. And so on. It looked great – recognisable to us 21st century folk used to our own touch screen phones and the like, but futuristic enough that you knew you couldn’t just buy it all from Maplin.

Original series Enterprise bridge (PInterest)
Original series Enterprise bridge (PInterest)

But herein lies the problem. Look back at an old episode of the original series, and the Enterprise bridge looks really naff! I dare say that back in the 1960s it also gave the impression of “this is cool future stuff”, but it certainly doesn’t look as though it’s another decade or so on from the technological world of Discovery.

Space 1999 paper output (http://catacombs.space1999.net)
Space 1999 paper output (http://catacombs.space1999.net)

Basically, our ability to build cool gadgets has vastly outstripped the imagination of authors and film makers. Just about any old science fiction book suffers from this. You find computers on board spaceships which can think, carry out prodigiously complex calculations, and so on, but output their results on reams of printed paper. Once you start looking, you can find all manner of things like this.

Forbidden Planet - The Tempest in space (DenOfGeek)
Forbidden Planet – The Tempest in space (DenOfGeek)

Now, on one level this doesn’t matter at all. The story is the main thing, and most of us can put up with little failures of imagination about just how quickly actual invention and design would displace what seemed to be far-fetched ideas. On the whole we can forgive individual stories for their foibles. If it’s a good story, we don’t mind the punched-card inputs, paper-tape outputs, and so on. We accept that in the spirit that the author intended. Also, many authors are not so very interested in the mechanics of the story, or how feasible the science is, but in different dimensions. How might people react in particular circumstances? What are the moral dimensions involved? What aspects of the story resonate most strongly with present-day issues?

The particular problem that Discovery has is simply that it is part of a wider set of series, and we already thought we knew what the future looked like! A particular peril for any of us writing a series of books.

Now it’s not just science fiction that can be left behind by the march of events. Our view of history can, and has, changed as new evidence comes to light. Casual assumptions that one generation makes about past societies, interactions, and chronology may be turned over a few years down the line. Sometimes we look at the ways in which older authors presented things and cringe. Historical fiction books might easily be overtaken by research and deeper understanding, just as much as science fiction. It’s a risk we all face.

Next time – some thoughts about my own science fiction series, Far from the Spaceports, and the particular things in that story that might get left behind. And also, the particular problems of writing about the near-future.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

 

Can handwriting survive?

I’ve been thinking for a little while now about reading and writing, and decided to convert those thoughts into a blog post. I used to reckon that reading and writing were two sides of the same coin. We teach them at broadly the same time, and it seems natural with a child to talk through the physical process of making a letter shape at the same time as learning to recognise it on a page.

Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor
Cartouche of Rameses at Luxor

But lately, I’ve been reconsidering this. My thinking actually goes back several years to when I was studying ancient Egyptian. It is generally understood that alongside the scribes of Egypt – who had a good command of hieroglyphic and hieratic writing, plus Akkadian cuneiform and a few other written scripts and a whole lot of technical knowledge besides – there was a much ĺarger group of people who could read reasonably well, but not write with fluency or competence. A few particularly common signs, like the cartouche of the current pharaoh, or the major deity names, would be very widely recognised even by people who were generally illiterate. You see this same process happening with tourists today, who start to spot common groups of Egyptian signs long before they could dream of constructing a sentence.

Hieratic Scribal Exercise
Hieratic Scribal Exercise

The ability to write is far more than just knowing letter shapes. You need a wide enough vocabulary to select the right word among several choices, to know how to change each word with past or future tense, or number of people, or gender. You need background knowledge of the subject. You need to understand the conventions of the intended audience so as to convey the right meaning. In short, learning to write is more demanding than learning to read (and I’m talking about the production of writing here, not the quality of the finished product).

Roll forward to the modern day, and we are facing a slightly different kind of question. The ability to read is essential to get and thrive in most jobs. Or to access information, buy various goods, or just navigate from place to place. I’m sure it is possible to live in today’s England without being able to read, but it will be difficult, and all sorts of avenues are closed to that person.

But the ability to write – by which I mean to make handwriting – is, I think, much more in doubt. Right now I’m constructing this blog post in my lunch hour on a mobile phone, tapping little illuminated areas of the screen to generate the letters. In a little while I’ll go back to my desk, and enter characters by pressing down little bits of plastic on a keyboard. Chances are I’ll be writing some computer code (in the C# or NodeJS computer languages, if you’re curious) but if I have to send a message to a colleague I’ll use the same mechanical process.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then again, some of my friends use dictation software to “write” emails and letters, and then do a small amount of corrective work at the end. They tell me that dictation technology has advanced to the stage where only minor fix-ups are needed. And, as most blog readers will know, I’m enthusiastic about Alexa for controlling functionality by voice. Although writing text of any great length is not yet feasible on that platform, my guess is that it won’t be long until this becomes real.

All of this means that while the act of reading will most likely remain crucial for a long time to come, maybe this won’t be true of writing in the conventional sense. Speaking personally, hand-writing is already something I do only for hastily scribbled notes or postcards to older relatives. Or occasionally to sign something. The readability of my hand-writing is substantially lower than it used to be, purely because I don’t exercise it much (and by pure chance I heard several of my work colleagues saying the same thing today). Do I need hand-writing in modern life? Not really, not for anything crucial.

Some devices
Some devices

I don’t think it’s just me. On my commuting journeys I see people reading all kinds of things – newspapers, books, magazines, Kindles, phones, tablets and so on. I really cannot remember the last time I saw somebody reading a piece of hand-written material on the tube.

Now, to set against that, I have friends and relatives for whom the act of writing is still important. They would say that the nature of the writing surface and the writing implement – pencil, biro, fountain pen – are important ingredients, and that bodily engagement with the process conveys something extra than simply the production of letters. Emphasis and emotion are easier to impart – they say – when you are personally fashioning the outcome. To me, this seems simply a temporary problem of the tools we are using, but we shall see.

Looking ahead, I cannot imagine a time when reading skills won’t be necessary – there are far too many situations where you have to pore over things in detail, review what was written a few chapters back, compare one thing against another, or just enjoy the artistry with which the text had been put together. Just to recognise which letter to tap or click requires that I be able to read. But hand-writing? I’m not at all sure this will survive much longer.

Perhaps a time will come when teaching institutions will not consider it worth while investing long periods of time in getting children’s hand-writing to an acceptable standard – after all, pieces of quality writing can be generated by several other means.

Quill pen device for tablet
Quill pen device for tablet

Polly and Half Sick of Shadows

Saturn, from Cassini (NASA)
Saturn, from Cassini (NASA)

Today’s blog is primarily about the latest addition to book readings generated using Amazon’s Polly text-to-speech software, but before getting to that it’s worth saying goodbye to the Cassini space probe. This was launched nearly twenty years ago, has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004, and is now almost out of fuel. By the end of the week, following a deliberate course change to avoid polluting any of the moons, Cassini will impact Saturn and break up in the atmosphere there.

So, Half Sick of Shadows and Polly. Readers of this blog, or the Before the Second Sleep blog (first post and second post) will know that I have been using Amazon’s Polly technology to generate book readings. The previous set were for the science fiction book Timing, Far from the Spaceports 2. Today it is the turn of Half Sick of Shadows.

Without further ado, and before getting to some technical stuff, here is the result. It’s a short extract from late on in the book, and I selected it specifically because there are several speakers.

OK. Polly is a variation of the text-to-speech capability seen in Amazon Alexa, but with a couple of differences. First, it is geared purely to voice output, rather than the mix of input and output needed for Alexa to work.

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

Secondly, Polly allows a range of gender, voice and language, not just the fixed voice of Alexa. The original intention was to provide multi-language support in various computer or mobile apps, but it suits me very well for representing narrative and dialogue. For this particular reading I have used four different voices.

If you want to set up your own experiment, you can go to this link and start to play. You’ll need to set up some login credentials to get there, but you can extend your regular Amazon ones to do this. This demo page allows you to select which voice you want and enter any desired text. You can even download the result if you want.

Amazon Polly test console
Amazon Polly test console

But the real magic starts when you select the SSML tab, and enter more complex examples. SSML is an industry standard way of describing speech, and covers a whole wealth of variations. You can add what are effectively stage directions with it – pauses of different lengths, directions about parts of speech, emphasis, and (if necessary) a phonetic letter by letter description. You can speed up or slow down the reading, and raise or lower the pitch. Finally, and even more usefully for my purposes, you can select the spoken language as well as the language of the speaker. So you can have an Italian speaker pronouncing an English sentence, or vice versa. Since all my books are written in English, that means I can considerably extend the range of speakers. Some combinations don’t work very well, so you have to test what you have specified, but that’s fair enough.

If you’re comfortable with the coding effort required, you can call the Polly libraries with all the necessary settings and generate a whole lot of text all at once, rather than piecemeal. Back when I put together the Timing extracts, I wrote a program which was configurable enough that now I just have to specify the text concerned, plus the selection of voices and other sundry details. It still takes a little while to select the right passage and get everything organised, but it’s a lot easier than starting from scratch every time. Before too much longer, there’ll be dialogue extracts from Far from the Spaceports as well!

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover