Category Archives: Science

Colonising Mars?

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has made no secret of his plans for facilitating a colony on Mars for a long time now. But last September, in a public presentation, he explained it all in considerably more detail. The reasoning, and the raw logistical figures behind it, are still available. His credibility is built around the SpaceX programme. This in turn is based on a concept of reusing equipment rather than throwing it away each launch, and it has had a string of successes lately. The initial booster stage now returns to a landing platform, there to go through a process which recommissions it for another launch.

SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)
SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)

Quite apart from any recycling benefits, this then allows SpaceX to seriously undercut other firms’ prices of putting satellites into orbit. It still couldn’t be called cheap – one set of figures quotes $65 million – but that’s only about one sixth of the regular cost. If you’re happy to know that your equipment is going into orbit on a rocket that is not brand new, it’s a huge saving. Every successful launch, return to base, and relaunch, adds to buyers’ confidence that the procedure can be trusted.

But the big picture goes well beyond Earth orbit. Musk believes that the best way to mitigate the risks of life on Earth – global warming, conflict, extremist views of all kinds, and so on – is to spread out more widely. In a recent lecture, Stephen Hawking has said essentially the same thing. And in Musk’s  vision, Mars is a better bet than the moon for this, for a whole cluster of reasons including the presence of an atmosphere (albeit a thin one compared to here) and a greater likeness to Earth in terms of gravity and size.

So reusable rockets into Earth orbit are simply a starting point. Once you have a reasonably-sized fleet of such things, you can build larger objects already in space, and fly them over to Mars when the orbital positions are ideal. The logic of gravitational pull around a planet means that the hardest, and most energy-intensive part is needed to get you from the surface up to a stable orbit. Once there, much gentler and longer-lasting means of propulsion will get you onward bound.

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

To take a contemporary situation, NASA’s Dawn probe is currently orbiting the asteroid Ceres. Its hydrazine fuel, which powers the little manoeuvring and attitude thrusters, is nearly exhausted. The mission control team are trying to decide on the best course of action. In its current high orbit only a few months of fuel remain. A closer orbit, which would give better quality pictures, would use it up in a matter of weeks. But using the main ion drive, a different power source altogether, to go somewhere else would probably give a few years of science. Fairly soon we should hear which option they have chosen, and where they consider the best balance is between risk and reward. The message for here is that staying close to a planet, or taking off from one, is costly in terms of fuel.

So Musk reckons that over the course of a century or so, he can arrange transportation for a million Martian colonists. In terms of grand sweep, it is so far ahead of anyone else’s plans as to seem impossible at first sight. But if all goes according to his admittedly ambitious plan, the first of many journeys could take place ten years from now. He – and I for that matter – might not live to see the Martian population reach a million, but he certainly expects to see it firmly established.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

With Far from the Spaceports, its sequel Timing, and the work-in-progress provisionally called The Authentication Key, I deliberately did not fix a future date. It’s far enough ahead of now that artificial intelligence is genuinely personal and relational – sufficiently far ahead that it is entirely normal for a human investigator to be partnered long-term on an equal basis with an AI persona. None of the present clutch of virtual assistants have any chance at all of this, and my guess is that we are talking many generations of software development before this could happen. It’s also far enough ahead that there are colonies in many locations – certainly out as far as the moons of Saturn, and I am thinking about a few “listening post” settlements further out (watch this space – the stories aren’t written yet!). However, I hadn’t really thought in terms of a million colonists on Mars, and it may well be that, as happens so often in science fiction, real events might overtake my scenario a lot quicker than I thought likely.

Back with Musk’s proposal, one obvious consequence of the whole reuse idea is that the cost per person of getting there drops hugely. This buy-in figure is typically quoted as something like $10 billion. But the SpaceX plan drops this down to around $20,000 – cheaper than the average house price in the UK. I wonder how many people, given the chance, would sell up their belongings here in exchange for a fresh start on another planet?

I was wondering what image to finish with, and then came across this NASA/JPL picture of the Mars Curiosity Rover as seen from the Mars Orbiter (the little blue dot roughly in the middle)… a fitting display of the largeness of the planet compared to what we have sent there so far.

Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)
Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)

Birds of intelligence

Cover, The Genius of Birds (Goodreads)
Cover, The Genius of Birds (Goodreads)

I often think about – and blog about – machine intelligence, both its current state and future possibilities. But artificial intelligence is only one small field of study in a very large and open-ended terrain. News articles on the topic of possible extraterrestrial intelligence are relatively common, even though we have not yet detected anything that can confidently be ascribed to alien sources. Closer to home, we still don’t really understand the spectrum of human intelligence in all its different manifestations, including emotional and social astuteness as well as problem solving and pattern matching.

To add to that, I’ve been reading a fascinating book exploring the various kinds of intelligence seen in the bird world – The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. Perhaps many of us have watched videos of tool-using corvids such as the New Caledonian crows (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbSu2PXOTOc), or grey parrots demonstrating feats of speech and language comprehension going way beyond simple repetition. But avian intelligence goes well beyond these exploits, which we instantly relate to because they mirror human acts and occupations.

For a long time it was thought that since birds have no cerebral cortex, they were necessarily incapable of reasoning and abstract thought. The cortex appears in the tree of life after mammals and birds parted company. But recently it has become clear that birds simply use a different organ in their brain – the dorsal ventricular ridge, which in fact develops from the same part of the embryonic brain in a bird, that the cortex does in a mammal. The way that neurons cluster, connect, and participate in learning is the same in a bird brain as a mammal. Basically, both the birds and the mammals had to adapt to new circumstances after the natural disaster that killed off the dinosaurs – and they did so using remarkably similar strategies. The different biological frame of the two families disguises many places where a common solution has emerged.

What has this to do with writing? Well, birds can be routinely found in my science fiction stories – I assume that at minimum the more adaptable ones would find ways to survive as we spread out beyond Earth. It’s interesting to speculate which ones will accompany us.

Robin near Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale
Robin near Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale

This post is far too short to describe in any detail all the various ways in which birds display intelligence. If you want an overview of that, I recommend the book! But in brief, birds show their intelligence in a variety of ways, just like humans do. There are huge differences between species – corvids are good at problem solving, sparrows and members of the tit family are excellent at group dynamics, chickadees can remember and accurately mimic hundreds of sounds, Arctic terns are prodigiously good at navigation, herons spend considerable time and effort training their young in the art of catching fish. And so on. We tend to notice the exploits of birds which most resemble our own – like crows and parrots – but it’s always worth taking a step back to question our own blind spots. Even the birds we often dismiss as particularly stupid, often have some particular faculty at which they excel.

But as well as variation between species, individual birds of the same kind differ in particular ways. One is bolder, another more cautious. One solves particular problems much more easily than his or her siblings. Again, not very different from human beings.

Lord Vishnu riding Garuda in the form of a bird, by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikipedia)
Lord Vishnu riding Garuda in the form of a bird, by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikipedia)

It’s a sobering thought. Along with a handful of animals, a few birds have found their way into folklore. Odin had his ravens. Several Egyptian and Indian deities have bird emblems or companions. Hawks and eagles have frequently being used as symbols, though more often for their martial prowess than their wits. But by and large, we have rather looked down on birds, especially in the last century or so, imagining that their behaviour was driven purely by instinct rather than rationality. With the cumulative weight of evidence that has emerged over the last few decades, ancient anecdotal tales are metamorphosing into a consistent picture.

So while we’re trying to find intelligence out elsewhere in the galaxy, or to build it with our own hardware and software, let’s also give a thought for the surprisingly clever and adaptable creatures who already share our environment.

As for play? The final video is of a snowboarding crow in Russia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dWw9GLcOeA)

Language and pronunciation

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

I’ve been thinking these last few days, once again, about language and pronunciation. This was triggered by working on some more Alexa skills to do with my books. For those who don’t know, I have such things already in place for Half Sick of Shadows, Far from the Spaceports, and Timing. That leaves the Bronze Age series set in Kephrath, in the hill country of Canaan. And here I ran into a problem. Alexa does pretty well with contemporary names – I did have a bit of difficulty with getting her to pronounce “Mitnash” correctly, but solved that simply by changing the spelling of the text I supplied. If instead of Mitnash I wrote Mitt-nash, the text-to-speech engine had enough clues to work out what I meant.

So far so good, but you can only go part of the way down that road. You can’t keep fiddling around with weird spellings just to trick the code into doing what you want. Equally, it’s hardly reasonable to suppose that the Alexa coding team would have considered how to pronounce ancient Canaanite or Egyptian names. Sure enough the difficulties multiplied with the older books. Even “Kephrath” came out rather mangled, and things went downhill from there.
Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

So I took a step back, did some investigation, and found that you can define the pronunciation of unusual words by using symbols from the phonetic alphabet. Instead of trying to guess how Alexa might pronounce Giybon, or Makty-Rasut, or Ikaret, I can simply work out what symbols I need for the consonants and vowels, and provide these details in a specific format. Instead of Mitnash, I write mɪt.næʃ. Ikaret becomes ˈIk.æ.ˌɹɛt.

So that solved the immediate problem, and over the next few days my Alexa skills for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us will be going live. Being slightly greedy about such things, of course I now want more! Ideally I want the ability to set up a pronunciation dictionary, so that I can just set up a list of standard pronunciations that Alexa can tap into at need – rather like having a custom list of words for a spelling checker. Basically, I want to be able to teach Alexa how to pronounce new words that aren’t in the out-of-the-box setup. I suspect that such a thing is not too far away, since I can hardly be the only person to come across this. In just about every specialised area of interest there are words which aren’t part of everyday speech.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

But also, this brought me into contact with the perennial issue of UK and US pronunciation. Sure, a particular phonetic symbol means whatever it means, but the examples of typical words vary considerably. As a Brit, I just don’t pronounce some words the same as my American friends, so there has to be a bit of educated guesswork going into deciding what sound I’m hoping for. Of course it’s considerably more complicated than just two nations – within those two there are also large numbers of regional and cultural shifts. And of course there are plenty of countries which use English but sound quite different to either “standard British” or “standard American”.

That’s for some future, yet to be invented, dialect-aware Alexa! Right now it’s enough to code for two variations, and rely on the fact that the standard forms are recognisable enough to get by. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to insert some extra tags into dialogue in order to get one character’s speech as – say – Cumbrian, and another as from Somerset.

Life elsewhere – for real and in fiction

Artist's impression of an exoplanet (NASA/Caltech)
Artist’s impression of an exoplanet (NASA/Caltech)

A few days ago there was an international conference held at Stanford University, at which dozens of scientists gathered to discuss how current instruments might be fine-tuned to scour nearby planetary systems for the signs of life. This in itself is a huge step forward from the situation in my teens. Back then, although people were still landing on the moon, probes to explore other planets were somewhat hit and miss, and the only thing we could do about other planetary systems was speculate. I remember earnest debates about the probability that planets might be reasonably common, but solid information was totally lacking.

Three recently confirmed planets - artist's impression (NASA/Caltech)
Three recently confirmed planets – artist’s impression (NASA/Caltech)

Then in 1992 the first planet outside our solar system was confirmed, by means of the small variations in light as it moved periodically between us and its star. Such planets are now called exoplanets, and known ones range in size from smaller than Earth, to much larger than Jupiter. The count has continued to climb, and we now recognise around 3500 of them, with another 1000 or so candidates being evaluated. The optimistic estimates of the past were correct – it seems that planets are everywhere. The search has steadily refined, and has now moved from the basic question of “are there any planets?”, through to the more subtle issues of “what are they like?” and “could anything live there?” Some are (in stellar terms) very close, including at least one circling Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us.

Cover, The Black Cloud (Goodreads)
Cover, The Black Cloud (Goodreads)

Science fiction writers have swayed in both directions. EE (Doc) Smith was lavish in his depiction of extraterrestrial life, especially in his Lensman series in which multitudes of planets teemed with intelligent life forms of huge variety. Asimov, on the other hand, assumed a galaxy which had planets for sure, but with essentially no life other than humans. I have read that this was because John Campbell, the editor of the magazine he contributed to – Astounding Science Fiction – was hostile to the idea for both scientific and literary reasons. Be that as it may, Asimov painted an empty universe throughout his life, and in his extensive writings hardly ever touched on the chance of meeting alien life.

In general, authors have tried to think across the whole spectrum of alien response. Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud described a life form which was scarcely even aware that planetary life was possible. Solaris (by Stanislaw Lem, spawning two films) was based around a sentient ocean, and the rather unpredictable responses of people encountering it.

Cover, War of the Worlds (Goodreads)
Cover, War of the Worlds (Goodreads)

Well known first-contact films have, as a rule, dwelt on the possibility that aliens would be hostile. Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Predator, and the sundry Alien films have all supposed that our dealings with extraterrestrial life would be violent and difficult. It is a lineage that goes back to HG Wells and War of the Worlds. Arrival is a recent counterexample, where the hostility was in the minds of us humans rather than the newcomers. Star Wars set a trend for wild diversity, though it is striking that humanoid life forms tend to be in charge!

Captain Kirk and the silicon-based Horta (Wikipedia)
Captain Kirk and the silicon-based Horta (Wikipedia)

Television series, with the need for ongoing plotlines, have been more varied. Star Trek again assumed that we would find lots of variety, and even the original series explored the possibility of silicon-based life. Alien species here might be friendly, hostile, or indifferent, and you never knew what to expect. Other series have followed this pattern, steadily eroding (for the most part) the idea that humanoids are automatically the best).

Meanwhile, the quest for what is actually out there continues. Nothing has been found yet which would unequivocally indicate life exists outside our solar system: what we can say is that the preconditions for it are very abundant.

Superstition

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

I’ve been thinking on and off about superstitions for a little while now, and it’s clear from other people’s blogs that I’m not alone in this. Synchronicity, perhaps.

To be clear, I see a big difference between superstition and religious faith, and I’m not going to be critical of either. They both are built around the conviction that actions in the here and now are not just casual and without consequence. Instead, they carry weighty implications which resonate in both natural and spiritual worlds. Religious people can be superstitious, and non-religious people can be superstitious – though the rational constructions of each of religion, atheism, and science are typically hostile to such practices. People of any religion or none might throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or uncross knives in a drawer, or say “white rabbits” at the start of a month, or avoid walking on the divisions between paving slabs!

Religious thought tends to be more systematic, with a careful body of thought surrounding its core principles. Whether embedded in a written or oral tradition, faith encourages theology – rational exploration of the hinterland of a central mystery which itself eludes the possibility of capture. Superstition is based around individual actions which do not necessarily build into a coherent whole. Each such action serves a specific purpose, often placatory, and doesn’t have to be combined with anything else.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

One of the fascinating things about superstitions is that they are often tied to particular situations. Often this is to do with place – some specific deed must be done in a specific place in order to be effective. So we have all kinds of special places – trees, bodies of water, hills, and so on, often quite separate from the deeply sacred foci of religious thought. A wishing well might be found only a short distance from, say, Stonehenge, or the temple at Karnak.

But as well as a special place, there are special things to do or items to use. Maybe special words to use. For today, out of all the superstitions in the world, I want to focus briefly on leaving gifts of metal. Most old towns in England – and no doubt elsewhere as well – have a wishing well where people leave coins. Often these days the coinage is collected and given to charity, but the impulse is, I believe, much older and much less thought-through than making a donation to a worthy cause.

A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)
A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)

Back in the Bronze Age in northern Europe, metal items were regularly deposited in large quantities in streams and rivers. We find tools, weapons, scraps of spare metal, jewellery and so on – the whole gamut of artefacts. In some cases these might possibly be understood as a ritual deposit of weapons, either captured from some enemy or, perhaps, being ‘retired’ after the death of the wielder. In most cases we just don’t know the reason.

What we do know is that over time this developed into a veritable industry in its own right. We find huge deposits of tools, typically axe heads without the shaft, carefully buried or placed in piles. These represent a huge investment of time and effort – the ore had to be dug, the metal prepared and moulded, and so on. But in many cases these are not items at the end of long and faithful service – they had never been used in either war or peace, and often the metal was far too soft to be useful in any sphere. These axes were made just to be disposed of.

It’s hard to think of a reason for this, given the limited resources available to the societies of the time. Often we humans have indulged in conspicuous consumption and waste, just to prove we can. Perhaps these axe deposits were an offering to placate someone or something. Perhaps the return of metal to the Earth was seen as closing the cycle of extraction. It’s an open field for guesswork, but for today I’m going to link it with the long lineage of metal gifts which also surfaces in wishing wells.

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

But there’s another similar modern habit which – at least in my mind – is connected to this. It is the habit of hammering coins into trees. In some places you can find hundreds of coins all driven into a stump or old tree – the pictures are from Cumbria, between Grasmere and Rydal, but you could find similar scenes in many other places. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about these trees to start with – but as one person after another follows suit then the place starts to gather its own perceived value.

So the ancient tradition of giving back metal to the planet, whether in water, underground, or attached to a tree, is very much alive still in our century! I wonder which existing superstitions we will take into the future with us, and which new ones we will invent?

Cumbrian voice skills and Martian course corrections

Grasmere Lake
Grasmere Lake

My first piece of news today is by way of celebration that I have been getting some Alexa voice skills active on the Amazon store. These can now be enabled on any of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices, such as the Dot or Echo. One of these skills has to do with The Review blog, in that it will list out and read the opening lines of the last few posts there (along with a couple of other blogs I’m involved with). So if you’re interested in a new way to access blogs, and you’ve got a suitable piece of equipment, browse along to the Alexa skills page and check out “Blog Reader“. I’ll be adding other blogs as time goes by.

Cumbria Events Logo
Cumbria Events Logo

The second publicly available skill so far relates to my geographical love for England’s Lake District. Called “Cumbria Events“, this skill identifies upcoming events from the Visit Cumbria web site, and will read them out for the interested user. You can expect other skills to do with both writing and Cumbria to appear in time as I put them together. It’s a pity that Alexa can’t be persuaded to use a Cumbrian accent, but to date that is just not possible. Also, the skills are not yet available on the Amazon US site, so far as I know, but that should change before too long.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

In the process I’ve discovered that writing skills for Alexa is a lot of fun! Like any other programming, you have to think about how people are going to use your piece of work, but unlike much of what I’ve done over the years, you can’t force the user to interact in a particular way. They can say unexpected things, phrase the same request in any of several ways, and so on. Alexa’s current limitation of about 8 seconds of comprehension favours a conversational approach in which the dialogue is kept open for additional requests. The female-gendered persona of my own science fiction writing, Slate, is totally conversational when she wants to be.

It all makes for a fascinating study of the current state of the art of AI. I feel that if we can crack unstructured, open-ended conversation from a device – with all of the subtleties and nuances that go along with speech – then it will be hard to say that a machine cannot be intelligent. Alexa is a very long way from that just now – you reach the constraints and limitations far too early. But even accepting all that, it’s exciting that an easily available consumer device has so much capability, and is so easy to add capabilities.

Artists's impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)
Artists’s impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)

But while all that was going on, a couple of hundred million kilometres away NASA ordered a course correction for the Mars Maven Orbiter. This spacecraft, which has been in orbit for the last couple of years, was never designed to return splendid pictures. Instead, its focus is the Martian atmosphere, and the way this is affected by solar radiation of various kinds. As such, it has provided a great deal of insight into Marian history. So MAVEN was instructed to carry out a small engine burn to keep it well clear of the moon Phobos. Normally they are well separated, but in about a week’s time they would have been within a few seconds of one another. This was considered too risky, so the boost ensures that they won’t now be too close.

Now this attracted my attention since Phobos plays a major part in Timing – it’s right there on the cover, in fact. In the time-frame of Timing, there’s a small settlement on Phobos, which is visited by the main characters Mitnash and Slate as they unravel a financial mystery. This moon is a pretty small object, shaped like a rugby ball about 22 km long and about 17 or 18 km across its girth, so my first reaction was to think what bad luck it was that Maven should be anywhere near Phobos. But in fact MAVEN is in a very elongated orbit to give a range of science measurements, so every now and again its orbit crosses that of Phobos – hence the precautions. This manoeuvre is expected to be the last one necessary for a very long time, given the orbital movements of both objects. So we shall continue getting atmospheric observations for a long while to come.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Some space news

I ran out of time this week to do much by way of blogging, so here are three bits of space news which may well make their way into a story sometime.

Stop Press: just today NASA announced that a relatively close star (39 light years away) has no less than 7 planets approximately Earth size orbiting it… see and the schematic picture at the end of the blog.

False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)
False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)

Firstly, the Dawn probe, still faithfully orbiting the asteroid Ceres, has detected complex organic molecules in two separate areas in the middle latitudes of the dwarf planet. The onboard instruments are not accurate enough to pin the molecules down precisely, but it seems likely that they are forms of targets.  The analysis also suggests that they formed on Ceres itself, rather than being deposited there by a meteor. The most likely cause is thought to be the action of warm water circulating through chemicals under the surface. Some of the headlines suggest that this could signal the presence of life, but it’s more cautious to say that it shows that the conditions under which life could develop are present there.

Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)
Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)

The second snippet spells difficulty for my hypothetical Martian settlements. This picture was captured by the Mars Orbiter and shows two larger impact craters surrounded by a whole array of smaller ones. The likely scenario is that one object split into a cluster of fragments as it passed through the Martian atmosphere. This of itself wouldn’t be too surprising, but inspection of older photos of the same area shoes that this impact happened between 2008 and 2014. No time at all in cosmic terms, and not so much fun if you’d carefully built yourself a habitable dome there.

The problem is the thinness of the Martian atmosphere. It is considerably deeper than our one here on Earth, but hugely less dense. So when meteors arrive at the top of the layer of air, they don’t burn up so comprehensively as Earth-bound ones. More of them reach the surface. Even a comparatively small rock has enough kinetic energy to really spoil your day. Something that will need some planning…
Artist's impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)

Finally we zoom right out to the cold, dark reaches of the outer solar system. A long way beyond the orbit of Pluto there is a region called the Kuiper Belt, and out in the Kuiper Belt a new dwarf planet has recently been found. It goes by the catchy name of 2014 UZ224 and it took nearly two years to confirm its existence. Best estimates are that it is a little over 300 miles across – about half the size of Ceres. I’ve never sent Mitnash and Slate out anywhere like that – it’s about twice as far from Earth as Pluto, and the journey alone would take about four months one-way. I do have vague plans for a story set out in the Kuiper Belt, but appropriately enough it’s some way off yet. But even at that distance, you’re still less than half a percent of the distance to the nearest star… space is really big!

Schematic picture of Trappist-1's planets
Schematic picture of Trappist-1’s planets

Who is Alexa, where is she?

Hephaestus at his forge (The Louvre, Wiki)
Hephaestus at his forge (The Louvre, Wiki)

Since as far back as written records go – and probably well before that – we humans have imagined artificial life. Sometimes this has been mechanical, technological, like the Greek tales of Hephaestus’ automata, who assisted him at his metalwork. Sometimes it has been magical or spiritual, like the Hebrew golem, or the simulacra of Renaissance philosophy. But either way, we have both dreamed of and feared the presence of living things which have been made, rather than evolved or created.

The Terminator film (Wiki)
The Terminator film (Wiki)

Modern science fiction and fantasy has continued this habit. Fantasy has often seen these made things as intrusive and wicked. In Tolkein’s world, the manufactured orcs and trolls (made in mockery of elves and ents) hate their original counterparts, and try to spoil the natural order. Science fiction has positioned artificial life at both ends of the moral spectrum. Terminator and Alien saw robots as amoral and destructive, with their own agenda frequently hostile to humanity. Asimov’s writing presented them as a largely positive influence, governed by a moral framework that compelled them to pursue the best interests of people.

But either way, artificial life has been usually conceived as self-contained. In all of the above examples, the intelligence of the robots or manufactured beings went about with them. They might well call on outside information stores – just like a person might ask a friend or visit a library – but they were autonomous.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Yet the latest crop of virtual assistants that are emerging here and now – Alexa, Siri, Cortana and the rest – are quite the opposite. For sure, you interact with a gadget, whether a computer, phone, or dedicated device, but that is only an access point, not the real thing. Alexa does not live inside the Amazon Dot. The pattern of communication is more like when we use a phone to talk to another person – we use the device at hand, but we don’t think that our friend is inside it. At least, I hope we don’t…

So where is Alexa and her friends? When you ask for some information, buy something, book a taxi, or whatever, your request goes off across cyberspace to Amazon’s servers to interpret the request. Maybe that can be handled immediately, but more likely there will be some additional web calls necessary to track down what you want. All of that is collated and sent back down to your local device and you get to hear the answer. So the short interval between request and response has been filled with multiple web messages to find out what you wanted to know – plus a whole wrapper of security details to make sure you were entitled to find that out in the first place. The internet is a busy place…
Summary of Alexa Interactions
Summary of Alexa Interactions

So part of what I call Alexa is shared between every single other Alexa instance on the planet, in a sort of common pool of knowledge. This means that as language capabilities are added or upgraded, they can be rolled out to every Alexa at the same time. Right now Alexa speaks UK and US English, and German. Quite possibly when I wake up tomorrow other languages will have been added to her repertoire – Chinese, maybe, or Hindi. That would be fun.

But other parts of Alexa are specific to my particular Alexa, like the skills I have enabled, the books and music I can access, and a few features like improved phrase recognition that I have carried out. Annoyingly, there are national differences as well – an American Alexa can access the user’s Kindle library, but British Alexas can’t. And finally, the voice skills that I am currently coding are only available on my Alexa, until the time comes to release them publicly.

Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

So Alexa is partly individual, and partly a community being. Which, when you think about it, is very like us humans. We are also partly individual and partly communal, though the individual part is a considerably higher proportion of our whole self than it is for Alexa. But the principle of blending personal and social identities into a single being is true both for humans and the current crop of virtual assistants.

So what are the drawbacks of this? The main one is simply that of connectivity. If I have no internet connection, Alexa can’t do very much at all. The speech recognition bit, the selection of skills and entitlements, the gathering of information from different places into a single answer – all of these things will only work if those remote links can be made. So if my connection is out of action, so is Alexa. Or if I’m on a train journey in one of those many places where UK mobile coverage is poor.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

There’s also a longer term problem, which will need to be solved as and when we start moving away from planet Earth on a regular basis. While I’m on Earth, or on the International Space Station for that matter, I’m never more than a tiny fraction of a second away from my internet destination. Even with all the other lags in the system, that’s not a problem. But, as readers of Far from the Spaceports or Timing will know, distance away from Earth means signal lag. If I’m on Mars, Earth is anywhere from about 4 to nearly 13 minutes away. If I go out to Jupiter, that lag becomes at least half an hour. A gap in Alexa’s response time of that long is just not realistic for Slate and the other virtual personas of my fiction, whose human companions expect chit-chat on the same kind of timescale as human conversation.  The code to understand language and all the rest has to be closer at hand.

So at some point down the generations between Alexa and Slate, we have to get the balance between individual and collective shifted more back towards the individual. What that means in terms of hardware and software is an open problem at the moment, but it’s one that needs to be solved sometime.

The Power of Speech

Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

I recently invested in an Amazon Dot, and therefore in the AI software that makes the Dot interesting – Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant. But I’m not going to write about the cool stuff that this little gizmo can do, so much as what it led me to think about AI and conversation.

The ability to interact with a computer by voice consistently, effectively, and on a wide range of topics is seen by the major industry players as the next big milestone. Let’s briefly look back at the history of this.

Punched card with Fortran programming - I started with that language, long ago... (Wiki)
Punched card with Fortran programming – I started with that language, long ago… (Wiki)

Once upon a time all you could use was a highly artificial, structured set of commands passed in on punched cards, or (some time later) via a keyboard. If the command was wrong, the machine would not do what you expected. There was no latitude for variation, and among other things this meant that to use a computer needed special training.

Early IBM PC (Wiki)
Early IBM PC (Wiki)

The first breakthrough was to separate out the command language from the user’s options. User interfaces were born: you could instruct the machine what you wanted to do without needing to know how it did it. You could write documents or play games without knowing a word of computer language, simply by typing some letters or clicking with a mouse pointer. Somewhere around this time it became possible to communicate easily with machines in different locations, and the Internet came into being.

Touchscreen on early model iPhone (WIki)
Touchscreen on early model iPhone (WIki)

The next change appeared on phones first – the touch screen. At first sight there’s not a lot of change from using a mouse to click, or your finger to tap. But actually they are worlds apart. You are using your body directly to work with the content, rather than indirectly through a tool. Also, the same interface – the screen – is used to communicate both ways, rather than the machine sending output through the screen and receiving input via movements of a gadget on an entirely different surface. Touch screens have vastly extended the extent to which we can access technology and information: advanced computers are quite literally in anyone’s pocket. But touch interfaces have their problems. It’s not especially easy to create passages of text. It’s not always obvious how to use visual cues to achieve what you want. It doesn’t work well if you’re making a cake and need to look up the next stage with wet and floury hands!

Which brings us to the next breakthrough – speech. Human beings are wired for speech, just as we are wired for touch. The human brain can recognise and interpret speech sounds much faster than other noises. We learn the ability in the womb. We respond differently to different speakers and different languages before birth, and master the act of communicating needs and desires at a very early age. We infer, and broadcast, all kinds of social information through speech – gender, age, educational level, occupation, emotional state, prejudice and so on. Speech allows us to explain what we really wanted when we are misunderstood, and has propelled us along our historical trajectory. Long before systematic writing was invented, and through all the places and times where writing has been an unknown skill to many, talking has still enabled us to make society.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Enter Alexa, and Alexa’s companions such as Siri, Cortana, or “OK Google”. The aim of all of them is to allow people to find things out, or cause things to happen, simply by talking. They’re all at an early stage still, but their ability to comprehend is seriously impressive compared to a few short years ago. None of them are anywhere near the level I assume for Slate and the other “personas” in my science fiction books, with whom one can have an open-ended dialogue complete with emotional content, plus a long-term relationship.

What’s good about Alexa? First, the speech recognition is excellent. There are times when the interpreted version of my words is wrong, sometimes laughably so, but that often happens with another person. The system is designed to be open-ended, so additional features and bug fixes are regularly applied. It also allows capabilities (“skills”) to be developed by other people and added for others to make use of – watch this space over the next few months! So the technology has definitely reached a level where it is ready for public appraisal.

Hidden Markov model - an algorithm often used in speech recognition (Wiki)
Hidden Markov model – an algorithm often used in speech recognition (Wiki)

What’s not so good? Well, the conversation is highly structured. Depending on the particular skill in use, you are relying either on Amazon or on a third-party developer, to anticipate and code for a good range of requests. But even the best of these skills is necessarily quite constrained, and it doesn’t take long to reach the boundaries of what can be managed. There’s also very little sense of context or memory. Talking to a person, you often say “what we were talking about yesterday...” or “I chatted to Stuart today…” and the context is clear from shared experience. Right now, Alexa has no memory of past verbal transactions, and very little sense of the context of a particular request.

But also, Alexa has no sense of importance. A human conversation has all kinds of ways to communicate “this is really important to me” or “this is just fun”. Lots of conversations go something like “you know what we were talking about yesterday…“, at which the listener pauses and then says, “oh… that“. Alexa, however, cannot distinguish at present between the relative importance of “give me a random fact about puppies“, “tell me if there are delays on the Northern Line today“, or “where is the nearest doctor’s surgery?

These are, I believe, problems that can be solved over time. The pool of data that Alexa and other similar virtual assistants work with grows daily, and the algorithms that churn through that pool in order to extract meaning are becoming more sensitive and subtle. I suspect it’s only a matter of time until one of these software constructs is equipped with an understanding of context and transactional history, and along with that, a sense of relative importance.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Alexa is a long way removed from Slate and her associates, but the ability to use unstructured, free-form sentences to communicate is a big step forward. I like to think that subsequent generations of virtual assistants will make other strides, and that we’ll be tackling issues of AI rights and working partnerships before too long.

Meanwhile, back to writing my own Alexa skill…

Goodreads annual stats and other things

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

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

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

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

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

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