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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There have been some great pictures of Mars coming out recently from the Indian Mars Orbiter spacecraft so I thought I’d include a few here, together with an ESA video of a simulated flyby of one of the great valleys on Mars, the Mawrth Vallis.
So here is Phobos, tiny against the curve of Mars and very close in its orbit. Most of chapter 2 of Timing takes place on this moon, partly at Asaph, a (hypothetical) settlement facing away from the planet. and partly at a sort of industrial estate in the Stickney crater facing inwards.
And here is a three-d representation of Olympus Mons, the second highest mountain in the solar system. In the book, there’s a financial training college on the lower slopes of the mountain, roughly in the foreground as you are looking at the picture.
To celebrate all this I am running a science fiction Kindle Countdown offer right now – prices start at £0.99 / $0.99 and slowly increase to the normal price by next Monday. So don’t delay… Links are:
Finally, here’s the ESA video flyby of Mawrth Vallis. It’s one of the various places where – long ago – liquid water most likely ran and shaped the terrain we see. Now it is of course dry, but it’s a place that will be the focus of science at some point in the international effort to explore the red planet.
Many years ago I read a short science fiction story by Isaac Asimov called The Martian Way, which he published in 1952. In this, planet Earth maintained control over ambitious colonies elsewhere in the solar system by means of controlling the water supply. At the start of the story everyone assumed that Earth’s vast oceans were the only source of water available. Whoever controlled the water was in charge. The plot is resolved by the retrieval of a piece of Saturn’s rings the size of a small mountain, made largely of ice. With some modest engineering work this was propelled back to Mars where it was needed. The possibility of autocratic rule based on control of the necessities of life was gone.
It was a good story, and highlights our changing comprehension of the place of water in the universe at large. Go back only a century or two, and there was a widespread assumption that whatever other worlds might exist would be pretty much like Earth. Features on the Moon were called seas, bays, lakes and marshes, presuming that they held open water. Early science fiction writers like Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon) and HG Wells (The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon) took for granted that interplanetary travel would be relatively easy, and that once you landed, you would need no special protection except against low temperatures comparable to the Arctic. When in 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli named features on Mars canali (the Italian word for ‘channels’), nobody hesitated to use the English word canal.
Then came the early days of space travel, along with a dramatic increase in the power and accuracy of telescopes. The lunar seas turned out to be open plains with no running water at all. The surface features on Mars ceased to be seen as artificial water channels, and were reinterpreted as the result of natural weathering on dry rock. The language we used for the planets changed. In 1961, Arthur C Clarke wrote A Fall of Moondust, where the plot hinged on the total absence of water. In 1969, Buzz Aldrin referred to the “Magnificent Desolation” that he saw on stepping out of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Imagery from the Apollo missions – and the personal accounts of astronauts – established the idea in the popular consciousness that the vivid blue of Earth’s oceans was something unique and precious in a starkly barren universe. The image was reinforced by the “Blue Dot” picture taken from the Voyager I probe.
But after that, there was another wave of observations and information. Perhaps water was not so rare after all. The first target was the Moon, and a careful study of places which are permanently shadowed regions. It turned out that ice will tend to aggregate anywhere which is in shadow most of the time. Buzz Aldrin, turning to fiction in Encounter with Tiber, positioned an early lunar settlement at the Moon’s south pole, specifically because of this new-found source of water. The search for ice spread wider, and now it seems that pretty much everywhere we look we find it.
The asteroids have significant amounts scattered here and there, with some impressive finds by NASA’s Dawn probe. Mars itself shows every sign that open stretches of water once shaped the terrain, though accessing it nowadays might be tricky. As I was writing this, NASA reported the discovery of an underground body of ice just under the Martian surface. It seems that Asimov’s water-seeking Martian settlers would not have needed to trek out to Saturn after all. If they did go there anyway, they would find no mile-high ice mountains since the rings are largely made of tiny granules. However, several moons of both Jupiter and Saturn apparently have ice as their surface crust, and liquid water below.
So wherever we look in the solar system we find water, usually in the form of ice. Tomorrow’s space travellers and colonists will not have to worry about having access to water, though they will have to construct specialised equipment to access it. In Far from the Spaceports and Timing, my own fictional inhabitants of the Scilly Isles, somewhere out in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, will have to import many of life’s necessities, but not water – they will be able to find their own local supply.
Asimov wrote The Martian Way just as our scientific understanding was changing – indeed as with some other things he was ahead of his time. Although some of the details of his account would need updating, the basic theme remains sound. If and when we spread around the solar system, finding water is not going to be a problem.
There’s been a whole rush of space news these last few days, and what better place to gather some of it together than here? Most of it has some relevance to the Far from the Spaceports series…
The first item I saw was an update from the Dawn spacecraft, going through a series of changes to its orbit around Ceres. For a long time it was orbiting closer to the asteroid than the International Space Station is to Earth, less than 400km from the surface, and now it is returning to a much higher orbit to complete some science measurements from about 1500km. And as a treat we got back this picture of the Occator crater, one of the main locations for the bright white spots scattered here and there on the surface. More details can be found at the NASA site.
In between I read how Elon Musk is pushing ahead his plans for a privately funded settlement on Mars – the announcement was made back at the end of September but I had not previously followed the details through. His idea is ambitious, involving a fleet of reusable rockets working towards a colony of a million individuals, sent in groups of 1-200 at a time. More details can be found at several places including space.com. According to his figures, the price per individual will drop to around $1-200,000 – a lot of money, to be sure, but not unreachable. His current aim is to get an unmanned version sent on its way in about 18 months, and manned flights within a decade. We shall see…
Then Cassini sent back this splendid picture of Saturn’s north pole. I was especially interested in that, since the planned book 3 following after Far from the Spaceports and Timing will include Saturn – or at least its moons – as a destination. Cassini has returned vast amounts of information about Saturn since 2004, but will run out of fuel late next summer and will be deliberately rerouted to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere. This picture was taken at something like 1.4 mllion km from Saturn – 3 or 4 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. More details can be found at the NASA site.
Finally a science article on a potential new form of spaceship engine has now been peer reviewed and published… Called the EmDrive, it was first worked on about 15 years ago by a British scientist, Roger Shawyer , and has now been taken up by NASA for serious study. The theoretical problem is that nobody has come up with a satisfactory explanation of how it could work: however several teams in the US and China have reported success, so maybe it’s going somewhere. Have a look at this link forthe latest news, or this link for some very sketchy details.
That’s all for today, but I’m sure there will be much more to come…
The giveaway for Timing has started today and runs until November 21st.
Just drop along to https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/211275-timing and click the Enter Giveaway button to be in with a chance of winning a free copy.
When quick wits and loyalty are put to the test
Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.
This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin’s Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate’s fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?
The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary – the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?
Only a short blog this week as lots of other things are pressing in… and it’s all about Timing.
First, paperback copies are now available to go alongside Kindle ones, and Amazon (US, UK and anywhere else) have joined it all up so you can find the different formats easily.
Then The Book Depository is now stocking it, which is good because they do world-wide free delivery. So if you’re not an Amazon Prime customer, or you live somewhere where Amazon charge for delivery, this is an option.
Finally (for today) the first review is now in, at the Breakfast With Pandora blog. Among other nice things, the review says
So here he is, Mit, a dashing yet ethical nerd, threading his way through entanglements virtual, emotional, and both at the same time, while hunting down the shadowy anarchist group “Robin’s Rebels” and sending down versions of new software written on the fly to his superiors, with the obligatory “interim release note.”
The Kindle version comes out on Friday, and the paperback version at pretty much the same time, depending on the Amazon process for printing and distributing copies. Along with that there are samples available in Kindle, epub and pdf format at
PDF sample (https://issuu.com/mattehpublications/docs/timing_sample)
So what is Timing about? It starts with Mitnash and Slate sitting in the Frag Rockers Bar on the asteroid Bryher, a place which features prominently in Far from the Spaceports. They have just arrived back from one of Jupiter’s moons, having had a frustrating time there trying to resolve a scam. Back on Bryher, they hear two pieces of news which are more urgent. A new activist group called Robin’s Rebels has started distributing propaganda, and a former adversary has been reported dead. Is there a connection?
Timing is a blend of near-future science fiction, financial crime, human-AI relationships, set amongst a quirky collection of habitats around the solar system.
A selection of author readings is becoming available – the first is available on YouTube (link), Daily Motion (link) and Vimeo (link). The web page isn’t quite ready yet (link) but the blog page is pretty much there (link). Phew…
Well, Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports, is now available on preorder from Amazon stores worldwide. Release day is October 14th so there’s not long to wait. Paperback copies will be available at round about the same time but I don’t have an exact date yet.
It’s set about a year on from the end of Spaceports, and begins out at the group of asteroids called the Scilly Isles. But there’s more solar system travel this time around including, as the cover would suggest, a trip to Mars and the larger of its two moons, Phobos.
To celebrate this release, all my previous novels are going on Amazon countdown offer from 14th. The length of time varies for each depending on Amazon’s rules for such things – but on 14th you can get not only Far from the Spaceports, but also the historical novels In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us all at reduced prices.
Meanwhile, here are links to an author reading on YouTube (and Daily Motion in case the You Tube one has not yet distributed). It’s the same reading at both sites but more will be uploaded before too long…