Consuming Inspiration

We eat food to fuel our bodies, but I read nonfiction essays and watch documentaries to feed my soul.  Every day I consume inspiration like a vampire consumes blood.  Inspiration keeps me alive.

A Powerful Punch in the Gut

The older I get the more aware I am of my inevitable fate of a long lingering death.  Few people like to dwell on this future.  Most hope they will go quickly, or quietly in their sleep, but it’s doubtful that modern medicine will allow that.  Last night I saw Life and Death in Assisted Living on PBS Frontline via my PBS Roku channel.  They reported that as much as 67% of assisted living residents have some kind of dementia, and although these facilities weren’t meant to be nursing homes, they’ve become essentially unregulated care for the dying.  The show attacks the big business practices of making fortunes off of end-of-lifers, but that’s not what inspired me about the show.  I watched its videos seeing the elders as explorers of territory I must one day travel myself.  To live with any kind of dignity while dying requires enough health to keep saying fuck you to fate.  Once you are condemned to a wheelchair to be cared for like an infant it’s very hard to find meaning in life.  Although I’m an atheist I’m praying like crazy for the acceptance of euthanasia by the time I get feeble.  At some point before I forget too much I’ll need to get a tattoo over my heart that says in big letters:  DNR.  But as long as we do live, we have to keep finding inspiration and ways to make ordinary daily living meaningful.

 

John Green, An Impressive Young Man Who Speaks to Millions

I’m very grateful to The New Yorker for publishing “The Teen Whisperer” about John Green, the author of The Fault in Our Stars, and for putting the full article on the web so I can link it to my friends.  I read The New Yorker via Next Issue on my tablets, and it’s always depressing to read an inspirational essay and not be able to share it with friends.  Next Issue is the Netflix of digital magazines offering 135 titles for $15 a month.  I wished Next Issue had a desktop web app, or Windows application like Spotify, that made sharing fantastic reads easier with fellow members.

But back to John Green.  Read the Margaret Talbot article linked above to see just how cool John Green is as young writer and internet entrepreneur.  Green’s web presence allowed The Fault in Our Stars to be a bestseller long before it was published and gave him the opportunity to autograph the entire first printing of 150,000 copies of his book before they went on sale, which cost Green ten weeks of time and a lot of physical therapy.  Green and his brother Hank also produce the Crash Course series on YouTube.  Between those educational courses and his Nerdfighter followers, Green has a fandom to make anything he writes an instant hit.

If you haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars then you’ve been staring at your iPhone way too much.  The book is magnitudes more powerful than it’s hype, so go get a copy if you haven’t.  By the way, be prepared to cry your guts out, and that even applies to macho moronic dickheads.  In Norway the book was titled Fuck Fate, so don’t think of it as just another YA teenager read.  I don’t know if Green has lasting literary talent, but he certain Babe Ruthed one out of the park with The Fault in Our Stars.

 

Worry Less About The Future

Right-wing conservative global warming deniers all cry in Chicken Little unison that doing the right thing about climate change will destroy our economy.  Well, Ramez Naam points out  in his essay “Reducing Carbon Emissions Will Be Cheaper Than Expected – It Always Is” that in the past after everyone ran around crying the economy would collapse, it didn’t. 

economy and environmental costs

We need to do something about CO2 pollution, and we need to do it fast.  Probably if we spent as much time and money on converting energy sources as trying to build the F-35 fighter we’d be mostly done by now.  We could fix the carbon pollution problem in a decade if we applied ourselves.  Much could be done with just conservation, and a tremendous lot could be accomplished by switching energy sources.  Anyone should be able to see that altering the environment is dangerous, and burning coal is stupid.  The goal should be something like converting carbon to coal and burying it, not burning it.  Coal was nature’s way of getting rid of CO2 in the first place.

Policy makers talk about making changes by 2050.  That’s bogus shirking the responsibility.  We should clean up our mess before we die, by 2025.  Besides converting to a new clean economy will stimulate the economy, not kill it.  Anyone who thinks otherwise lacks inspiration.

 

Makers and Robots

I find people who make things inspirational.  And the Maker movement is a nice antithesis to digital life.  Forbes covers “Maker Movement Fuels Apps, Robots, and Internet of Things.”  This is a movement that is growing so rapidly that I even hear non-Geeks are talking about it.  If I was a kid today I’d be totally into the FIRST Robotics Competition.

Building robots is becoming a mania.  Make Magazine even recommends “10 Ways to Make Your Robot More Humanlike.”  Building a robot teaches us about how bodies work.  Building an AI will teach us how the mind works.  If you aren’t paying attention, you might someday be shocked when humans are no longer the smartest beings on the planet.  Creating an AI mind should be possible but it’s going to be really hard.  O’Reilly.com says, ‘“It works like the brain.” So?’  Computers can already out-do us at many intelligent tasks now.

I expect someone to invent a cyber-cortex any day now that allows machines to learn and eventually become self-aware.  Maybe it will be a maker or one of those kids building robots.  Maybe they will be inspired by ODROID Magazine.

 

JWH – 6/4/14

Birds and Robots

The goal of AI scientists is to create an intelligent robot but many people feel that goal is impossible.  These people believe that the human mind is beyond nature and contains a soul that transcends our physical world.  If that is true, then the goal of silicon life is probably a fantasy.  However, if men and women are merely the most complex example of intelligent beings and leaves behind a trail of previous experiments by mother nature to fashion biological machines that can think, then there is a good chance we may one day give birth to our evolutionary descendants.

Folks who believe that man is different from the creatures of the Earth do so because they believe that animals lack our kind of intelligence and self-awareness.  Animals studies are showing more and more that our relatives on the tree of life often show cognitive traits that we once defined as the sole providence of human nature.  As intelligence and awareness are explored we’re starting to see that we homo sapiens are not that unique.

What we are learning from both robotics and animal studies is intelligence is a huge collection of tricks.  To be human actually means many things, including a fantastic repertoire of abilities, any one of which standing alone can be faked by machines or revealed in animals.  Robots can be programmed or designed to do one thing we can, and even do it better, like playing chess, but that doesn’t mean the robot is intelligent.  The same can be said of animals and their special traits.

Animals far exceed what any robot can do today, and they too are collections of abilities.  We’re starting to see robots that do more than one thing in a way that makes us see ourselves in their struggle to evolve.

Look at this video of Snowball, a head-banging Cockatoo and ask yourself if this bird is not enjoying himself rocking out to the music, and how is his response to music different from yours.

Snowball keeps better time than I do and I can’t match his dance moves.  Building a robot to dance to the beat probably would be easy for today’s robot engineers, but could we build a machine that enjoys a good downbeat as much?  Snowball stands above anything we’ve done with robots as people tower over ants.  Right now each artificial intelligence experiment struggles to create a single intelligent function that works in the most minimal of fashion.  Most people won’t think that Snowball perceives reality like a person, but if we make a list of all the things this bird can do and compare it with what we can do, there is a huge overlap.

Now look at this violin playing robot.  The robot is not aware of playing music, but it can do something that most humans can’t.

But can we say that Snowball is aware of music?  For all we know, the dance to the beat the bird is doing might be its way of showing pain, and we’re just anthropomorphizing that it’s getting down with the tune.  I don’t think so, though.

Now look at this news story about artificial intelligence to get some idea how complex the challenge of programming abilities into a machine.

Notice how many different projects this news story covers where the robot just does one simple thing.  Snowball and you have subsystems to do thousands if not millions of functions that could be considered an intelligent reaction to reality.  How did evolution program all those functions?

Now look at this video of Alex the talking parrot.  This bird seems to think.  Alex even asks for things it wants.  This is way beyond what robots can do, even though some of Alex’s tricks have been pursued in AI studies.  The question becomes can a robot ever think for itself?  Can a robot be created that learns from interacting with its environment like Alex the parrot?

Here’s a collection of videos that shows off robotic abilities.  None of these robots think for themselves, although some give the illusion they do.  Are we just highly evolved illusions?  There is a difference between perceiving or reacting to reality and being able to think about and understand reality.  Anyone who knows people who have suffered strokes or live with dementia know how fragile our unique abilities are, and how they can be taken away.  We also know how severely the body can be damaged and yet the mind inside can soar to brilliant levels, like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking.  We have no idea what’s going on inside of the mind of an animal.  Dolphins could be just as aware and intelligent as humans.  How will we know when a robot becomes aware?

Robotics is the one area of science fiction prediction that is rushing ahead as fast as science can apply itself.  It’s not costly like manned space exploration and the general public anticipates more benefits of its results, especially in Japan.  Theoretically, an AI intelligence could be created by a high school kid in his bedroom.  How soon will we see an AI robot that has the intelligence of Alex the parrot?

If you’ve studied this concept at all you’ll know it’s not something that will be programmed.  Someone needs to invent an artificial brain that learns, and pattern recognition is the key.  Vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell are all sensory inputs that process patterns.  The brain appears to be general purpose enough to adapt the same kind of physical neural structures to handle each of these sensory pattern types.  Are we, that is our minds or our souls, a byproduct of pattern recognition?  What abilities do Alex the parrot have that scales up to become us?  Alex can hear questions, observe something in his field of view, and reply correct.  Do you see that trait in the robot films?

Spend some time and watch the film of Alex over and over.  Also watch the robot films carefully too.  Do you see patterns of behavior?

JWH 1/21/9

Science Fiction in My Lifetime

When I wrote this title I intended it be about science fictional predictions coming true in my lifetime, and especially what might still happen before I die.  Then I realized it could also imply I was writing about the great science fictional books that came out in my lifetime, leaving me room to speculate on what far-out ideas could appear in the near future.  Over at Visions of Paradise, Bob Sabella chronicles seven waves of science fiction since H. G. Wells, and wonders when a new wave will hit.  I’ve lived through three of waves Bob describes, the 1950s transition from pulp mags to book SF, the 1960s New Wave and the most recent Cyberpunk movement, but I think we all live in a reality partly shaped by Herbert and Jules and their literary descendants.

Right now the science fiction scene is dormant.  Most of the new books in the science fiction section at your favorite bookstore are fantasy books, or adventures set in classical science fictional worlds, like Baroque art encouraged by the Catholic Church.  No radically new science fiction concepts have been created since the 1990s with the concepts of mind uploading and the singularity.  What I’d like to do is recap the big SF ideas of the 20th century and then try to predict where science fiction might go in the 21st century.

How many grand ideas imagined in science fiction stories will become real in our lifetimes?  Humans landing on the Moon is the shining example for science fiction stories going back hundreds of years.  Before that, submarines and airplanes were predicted long before they became a reality.  Some concepts are harder to judge.  Many science fiction stories were written about overpopulation, terrorism and running out of natural resources after the year 2000, and some of those dreary predictions are coming true, just read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.

How likely will the exciting, positive concepts of science fiction, bear fruit in our lifetimes?  Some people are anxiously awaiting flying cars and rocket backpacks.  Other fans are expecting alien visitors, while some folk can’t wait to go where no man has gone before themselves.  How many science fiction readers hope life-extension will keep them reading science fiction until the 22nd or 23rd centuries?  I know, I’d love my own Jeeves the robot.

I keep writing about the science of science fiction over and over again, but what really are the odds of these fantastic things happening before I die?  I had a revelation in the shower this morning.  Science fiction’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last 35 years not because of the validity of it’s ideas, but because the story telling has gotten dramatically better and thus appeals to a wider audience.

I thought my wife and lady friends were getting more and more into the ideas of science fiction when it became obvious they loved SF movies because of the hot actors and thrilling story telling.  Most people have zero expectation from science fiction, it’s just good fun.  They don’t want to homestead Mars, or expect the galactic overloads to come save Earth from ourselves.

I’ve been reading a number of classic science fiction novels from the 1950s this year and I’ve been amazed at the ideas, but disappointed with story telling aspects – it’s no wonder that science fiction had limited appeal back then.  I keep reading for the ideas and predictions, judging the science of science fiction, but the real success of science fiction in the last few decades has been in telling better stories.

I’m happy for that, but I want to focus on the science fiction ideas.  What are the likely odds for many of science fiction’s most popular visions coming true?  Let’s use the year 2050 as a cutoff.  If I could live to be 100, it would be 2051, so that’s close enough to call 2050 the end of my lifetime.  The odds I list are just my best-guess hunches because there is no way for anyone to really calculate them.  As far as I know, there are no bookies taking bets on these future endeavors.

Colonizing the Moon – 1 in 10

It’s been over 40 years since man has walked on the Moon, so this almost seemed a dead dream until China, India and Japan took a interest in the Moon and started up their own space programs.  This is very positive, except that the world-wide recession might slow things down.  Still the Moon is the logical base to start a beachhead on conquering space.  Colonizing the Moon is the cornerstone of all our science fictional dreams about space travel.

I think Robert A. Heinlein owned the Moon fictionally, with classics like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit-Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, The Menace From Earth, The Green Hills of Earth, Rocket Ship Galileo and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  John Varley and Rudy Rucker are modern writers who have been homesteading the Moon in recent years, giving it a twist with mind uploading, cloning and mad robots.

Some of these books are among my all-time favorite books, but I’ve got to admit, none of them have approach colonizing the Moon in any serious way.  For such an old subject this leaves lots of room for future science fiction writers to work.

Colonizing Mars – 1 in 100

Growing up in the 1960s I really expected to see manned missions to Mars in my lifetime.  It just seemed such an obvious step after the Apollo program  Men like Werner von Braun and Robert Zubrin made it sound so doable.  Well, it’s not.  If you do the research you’ll find just how tough a job going to Mars truly is, not impossible, but well on the edge of the limits of what humans can do now and the near future.

And I think it’s silly to think about Mars until we can conquer to Moon.  If we can send men and women to the Moon for three years, and prove we have the skills to keep them alive, then it will be time to talk about Mars.  However, colonizing Mars is the next step after the Moon, and for many, it’s the main goal.  On the other hand, I believe the road to the stars is paved with airless chunks of rock and we have a convenient one at hand to practice our space survival skills.

Many scientists have said it was amazing luck that some of the twelve men who made it to the Moon weren’t killed.  Most of their luck came from making short journeys lasting less than 2 weeks.  Moon dust would have ruined their suits, landers and machinery if they would have tried to stay much longer.  Is it possible to build self-contained habitats that will last three years, the length of a Mars mission?

Science fiction has always made the near impossible sound easy.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars have set the standard for Mars colony science fiction.  His work is far more realistic than most SF writers, but still way too full of fantasy.  Science fiction writers might be visionaries, but they have trouble seeing the details.  Speculation on how to build a self-sustaining colony on Mars is wide-open.  Terraforming is a great idea, but explaining how to build a computer on Mars without help from Earth would be magical.

Manned Missions Beyond Mars – 1 in 100,000

Theoretically, it’s well within our means technologically to colonize the Moon and Mars within the next 25-40 years.  We could make some amazing breakthroughs in technology that would allow us to go further, but we need to get busy, and I think public opinion will be against it.  To go beyond Mars will require developing nuclear rocket technology on the Moon or out in space.  Mars is about the maximum range for manned missions using chemical rockets, and that mission would be far easier if we could perfect nuclear rocketry before we try.  The people of the Earth will not let scientists develop nuclear rockets anywhere near our home world.  The Moon is a fine place to work with radioactive elements.  The real future of manned space travel will depend on the industrialization of the Moon.

Asteroid miners have been a staple of SF since the days of John W. Campbell took over Astounding, ignoring the fact that it’s much cheaper to find the same resources locally on Earth, the Moon or Mars.  Unless space ships can be built on the Moon, mining asteroids is silly.  Any colony on the Moon will want organic elements, and especially hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon.  Moonies will probably want to mine comets.

Manned Interstellar Flight – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I guess it’s possible we could discover some magical space drive system that will let us zoom off to the stars before 2050, but it’s highly unlikely.  Personally, I think the only way for humans will travel to the stars will be to build giant generational spaceships that can operate for thousands of years, but even that idea is mostly fantasy.  We might have the will and tech to build interstellar spaceships in a few centuries, but for now the idea is almost pure fantasy.  Star Wars like galactic civilizations are absolute pure fantasy.  Even our very best hard science fiction novels are really just thrilling stories, and are rather pointless for our needs of predicting the near future.  Hard core space opera gives us grand hopes, but the chances of colonizing worlds around other stars is about equal to finding biological immortality.

Intelligent Humanoid Robots – 1 in 5

Asimov, Simak and Williamson ruled the robot stories, but robot stories aren’t as popular today.  Robots and robotics seem to be moving full-steam ahead though, with scientists like Ray Kurzweil predicting an artificial intelligence singularity in the near future.  Hobby robotics is probably much more popular than hobby rocketry ever was.  Anybody with some programming ambition can get into robotics.  And after Spirit and Opportunity’s success on Mars, I can even picture an ever evolving series of robots going where no man can afford to go.  That’s a goddamn shame, but that’s the way it is.  I hope NASA at least starts building in real-time high definition video feeds from it’s metal Martian explorers so us biological creatures back on Earth can feel like we’re walking on Mars vicariously.

Many people believe artificial intelligence is impossible.  I figure if nature can accidentally stumble upon the recipe, than scientists should be able to figure it out sooner or later.  The question is how long.  Robots are cheap enough compared to manned space exploration, so we should see a continual increase in robotic intelligence on space missions, and that might evolve into intelligent robots.  The military is also pushing robots to do more.  The more we ask of robots the more intelligence they acquire.

What’s surprising is I don’t think science fiction has ever done any really good realistic robot stories, either they are people-like and cute, or they are like Gort, all-powerful and scary.  Commander Data was among the best, but not very realistic.  Before 2050 I think we’ll see some pretty amazing robots, and just maybe science fiction will predict what they really will be like.

Visitors From Space – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I’d really love to be proven wrong here.  We could use an alien like Klaatu or Karellen to knock some sense into us, but I don’t think that will happen.  What are the odds of intelligent life developing anywhere in the universe?  What are the odds of intelligent life developing twice and near enough to each other to visit?  It must be tremendous.  I’m not saying it’s impossible.  Let’s say it will be nice surprise.

For story purposes, the concept of visitors from space is pretty tired, although it will remain popular.  The idea has endless possibilities and offers so much fun and thrills.  Essentially, it’s a fantasy concept equal to stories about angels and vampires.

SETI Contact – 1 in 1,000,000,000

Detecting an intelligent signal from space is probably far more likely than having aliens over for coffee.  Detecting intelligent alien life in the universe would have profound philosophical implications to our society, so it’s strange that this topic is so seldom tackled by science fiction.  Often it’s a setup for physical contact or acquiring super-science, like Contact by Carl Sagan.  We need more books like His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem, The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt and The Listeners by James Gunn.

I figured if we were real lucky, and I mean astronomically numbered lucky, SETI would detect a signal from space before I passed on.  That’s the most exciting thing I can practically hope for, but I doubt it will happen.  I think if we build some really gigantic space telescopes we might visually detect artificial elements in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.

Cloning Humans – 1 in 100

I’ve always considered cloning boring.  It’s making a human without sex, but you end up with another human, big whoop. Most science fiction is about 20 year-old cloned bodies grown in a month, which is silly.  Also, the idea of copying the brain patterns of a natural human onto a clone’s brain is also silly.

Uploading Minds – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

Mind uploading is a growing topic.  It’s all part of the Human 2.0 theorizing, and has been slowly emerging in science fiction for decades.

[You can see the complete documentary here, or go to YouTube and watch all the parts.]

Whether you copy my brain to a computer simulation, clone, or android mind, I’m still going to die in the process.  What’s the point?  This is no route to immortality.  I’d much rather design an AI mind than copy my own.  Being alive is about experiencing the now, and that’s not copying memories.  However, seeking to reach Human 2.0 status is where much of the science fictional action will be during the 21st century.

The Cutting Edge

If you really want to explore the frontier of what’s happening scientifically, right on the border of where science meets science fiction, be sure and read the Edge.org.  Top thinkers from around the world examine the most far out ideas on the planet.  Most of the articles are very down to Earth, but some could be used to springboard into science fiction stories.

The Future of Science Fiction

From what I can detect, I’m thinking the appeal of science fiction is even waning, at least for the moment.  I examined many months of book reviews at SFSite.com and only a handful could be considered new breakthrough science fiction.  If the editors there removed all the obvious fantasy titles their site would shrink dramatically.  Many of the titles that most SF fans would classify as science fiction, are really adventure stories set in old comfortable science fiction worlds with few writers trying to imagine anything new conceptually.  Like I said above, science fiction writers have gotten much better at telling stories.

Right now I think of all the predictions dreamed up by science fiction writers, I think robots, AI and Human 2.0 explorations are the ones most likely to come somewhat truer in my lifetime.  SETI contact with alien signals from space is going to be like finding one snowflake in all the snow storms of Earth each winter.  It could happen, it might take a thousand years, or a million years, or it could be next year.

I don’t think we’ll ever seen visitors from the stars, and I doubt mankind will ever be an alien invader.  Science fiction has always been deceptive about interstellar rocketships, implying they’d be something like a new model airliner from Boeing.  That thinking is on the order of asking how fast does Santa have to travel to visit every house on Earth.

Until men and women colonize the Moon and Mars and we learn how to build with materials found in outer space and create a new economy that has no dependency on Earth, we won’t be able to think about traveling further than Mars.

I think the dramatic new ideas that come out of science fiction will be about living on Earth.  The potential of combining the Internet, artificial intelligence, robots, advanced learning techniques, simulated computer worlds, and so on will generate new possibilities for humans.  Science fiction writers need to think very hard about what’s going on in this world.  Sooner or later a new H. G. Wells, Jules Verne or Robert A. Heinlein will show up and surprise us.

JWH 12/28/8