It’s time to talk computers, and how we’re going to be dealing with them in the future. In our next segment on modern sci-fi, we talk about the future of the human-computer interface.
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Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The Bobiverse books by Dennis E. Taylor
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The WebMage Series by Kelly McCullough
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Person of Interest
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser: Astronomycast episode 471. Modern Sci-Fi for the Science Lover, Part Three. Welcome to Astronomycast, your weekly facts based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Director of Cosmoquest. Hey Pamela. How you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing Fraser?
Fraser: Great. Is this gonna be our final show of the year or are we gonna do one more before the new year? How you feeling?
Pamela: I think we can record next Friday, so it’s the final edited recording of the year.
Fraser: It is the pan ultimate episode of the year.
Pamela: And there will be one more recording, but it will go out in the new year.
Fraser: Right. But clearly, in our minds, we’re already on holiday. So I apologize in advance. But we’ve picked a topic that’s gonna get me completely riled up and furious, so hopefully that will allow me to bring the energy to this episode while the nog is having its effect on us all.
All right. So time to talk computers and how we’re gonna be dealing with them in the future. In our next segment on modern sci-fi we talk about the future of human-computer interface. Well, how do you like this genre? Where do you put this genre, from thrilling space opera, to cool materials engineering, to human computers?
Pamela: So, I think nowadays the idea that there’s going to be a computer out there that has some sort of a personality we’re forced to interact with, whether it be actually sentient or programmed to be sarcastic, we all know that Siri can be passive aggressive. We know that this is what our future will be. And so I think nowadays if you want to write realistic, near future, far future stories, of any kind, you have to include some element of how we’re going to be interacting with software and hardware.
Fraser: And I read a great piece, it was like an opinion piece, it was a couple of years ago, and I apologize in advance, I don’t remember but the idea about this was just that this idea of the technological singularity where we get to this point where computers are making computers and they’re making the computers so quickly that we don’t really know what’s going on, and beyond that moment is impossible for us to predict.
Pamela: And we’re getting there.
Fraser: Sure. We’ll still on our way towards the technological singularity, but that that point that this singularity in science fiction as well, because — and we’re experiencing this every day, as I talk to — “Hey Google, what time is it?”
Computer: It’s 12:12.
Fraser: So — right? So we are surrounded by computers that are listening and interacting with us and destroying us in chess and Go! and drawing pictures of celebrities that we haven’t even imagined before, and making people speak — like there’s technical demonstrations that allow, like Barack Obama, they — it makes him — it talks with his voice, but it’s not him, set to the video of him — anyway, it’s just, it’s just terrifying.
So — and this is a huge challenge for science fiction writers, that the technological singularity provides this line that it’s really hard to predict the future when you’ve got this.
So we’re just gonna smash ourselves against the singularity today and see where we get.
Pamela: And what I love is, in the olden days, before people really realized “Oh, this is how it’s gonna happen,” you have folks like Frank Herbert with Dune saying “And there shall be a future where computers are bad, and we just do things with the human brain.” And then, of course, you have Battlestar Galactica, which is my favorite, where you inadvertently get cylons, which may be the future we’re headed towards, and therefore you ban all AIs and all internet and things like that, just to prevent the computers from continuing to take over.
Fraser: Yeah, you’re not allowed to plug one computer into another. That’s forbidden, because that’s how you get AIs.
Pamela: But, what was it, last week, two weeks ago, Google announced that when a Google’s AIs had written new AIs that were better at image analysis than the parent AI did, so our AIs are getting AIs now.
Fraser: Right. So let’s talk about some sci-fi that we think does a great job of handling this. Do you want to go first? You got one?
Pamela: I do. Have you read Old Man’s War a by John Scalzi yet?
Fraser: I have.
Pamela: The brain pel. This is the thing that I have a feeling is probably the closest to happening where we’re starting to get to the point that people can control artificial limbs with their brains, we have cochlear implants, people are working on vision implants, it’s only a matter of time before they start importing the computer, just stick the whole thing in there.
Fraser: Right. And of course Elon [inaudible] [00:05:07] talked about this neural lace idea, and then he started another company to look into that. There’s some kind of interface between our brains and computers and — and that’s still a pretty big technological challenge, but, yeah, Old Man’s War is great. I think the book that got me, really, kind of thinking about this is Rainbow’s End. Did you read Rainbow’s End?
Pamela: Yes, but I’m drawing a blank on the book. Hold on.
Fraser: The jist of the book is that the main character is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and so he kind of wakes up. Like he’s just saved by the technology, but he spent quite a while in this Alzheimer’s haze, and then they’re able to cure the Alzheimer’s, and then at the same time he then finds himself in a world that has fully embraced virtual reality and these kinds of technologies and what’s great is it allows us, as the reader, to come along and be exposed to all of these different kinds of jarring technologies ad consider the complications when you didn’t, it just didn’t happen.
I mean, again, we are still only 10 years after the iPhone, right? We’re only 10 years into this, and they sucked for the first few. Like, relay, I feel like the modern smartphone is, like, what five years that we’ve been using these things, really, in the level that we do today, so —
Pamela: Yeah, and it’s amazing, it’s breaking old people. I had to go get your yearly make sure your cholesterol isn’t going to kill you bloodwork yesterday, and to sign in, for lab work, it’s just an iPad screen, and you just type information in, no big deal, to me, it was the easiest thing in the world, but old people just want to hurl it out a window.
So we’ve hit the point where humans can’t keep up with the technology anymore because it’s evolving faster than people can afford to keep up with it, and if you’re older and on a fixed income, forget it. It’s just not gonna happen. You’re gonna get completely left behind, culturally, and be able to interact with the world around you.
Fraser: So what’s another one that you liked?
Pamela: Have you read Ancillary Justice by Anne Lackey yet?
Pamela: This is a book that got, like, all the awards. It got the Hugo. It got the Nebula. It got the Isaac Asimoff. I think it’s like one of the only books to ever do that, and it may be the only book to ever do that, and one of the things that they do is they actually download computers into humans, take over their bodies, and so instead of building robots they’re just like “We’re just gonna take over a human. No big deal.”
Pamela: So then there’s the struggle of when one of the AIs decides to go rogue and become its own entity, separate from the collective of its parent AI.
Fraser: Wow. Now we’ve mentioned The Bobiverse, but they’ve done a great job of setting up, essentially, a human being that’s been turned into a computer, and that all of the others go crazy. So the point is all of the pervious people that this was done to go crazy, but he comes up with a fairly novel way to stay grounded and stay sane, which is to create this virtual environment that then makes him feel like he’s a human being again.
Pamela: He snow crashed it.
Fraser: Yeah. Exactly. So he essentially snow crashes his own reality and his own time in this snow crash version. Now why don’t you explain the snow crash reverence in case — because that’s relevant to?
Pamela: So, so Neal Stephenson, in one of his earlier books, he imagines a near future, and you see the same thing in Ready Player One, you see the same thing in the Caprica series for Battlestar Galactica, just to bring that up again, where we reach the point where you put on a VR headset and it taps into your brain so that you have full spatial interactive, touch sensory immersive reality. So you don the headset, you’re in the video game, you don the headset, you go to school, you don the headset, you’re at a dinner party.
And as you interact with it, with snow crash, there’s actually the possibility that you can catch a brain virus, which is kind of amazing to think about. And the story goes into all the different thins that happens with Ready Player One, which is a new book that takes a very similar idea.
It looks at, again, the near future of our cities are getting so massive that humans basically live atop humans in many parts of the world. Here, in North America, we don’t really have any megacities, but you go to Delhi, you go to Agoutis, you go to Mexico City, you go to Rio De Janero, many of these million, million, million people cities, which, like, in China one million people is a small city, it’s almost impossible to get around because the humanity is at such a density that you can’t build infrastructure.
And so, in this overly populated future, in Ready Player One, you don’t have to try and get somewhere, you log in, you don your visor, and you go to school without leaving your home, you go to school without leaving your home. And so you still have humans stacked upon humans, but at least you can escape.
Fraser: Right. Yeah. I mean, Ready Player One — and they’ve got the final, official trailer has come out for it, and I think Steven Spielberg is directing it, so it’s gonna be interesting to see —
Pamela: Oh, wow.
Fraser: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it’s gonna be interesting to see, sort of, what they do with it. I think with Ready Player One it was very heavy handed about the ’80s references. I think there was a part of it that felt almost a little shameless, to go, like —
Pamela: But it was meant to be.
Fraser: For sure.
Pamela: It’s a guy’s love affair with his childhood.
Fraser: Sure. And so it looks like the one they’re doing is references from everything. Like do you remember when you watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And you saw all of those characters —
Fraser: All in there, all at the same time —
Fraser: And you’re just like “This is so great?” Who — the lawyer —
Pamela: How did they license everything?
Fraser: Yeah. Exactly. The lawyers might not have been paying attention today, and that’s what, I think, the Ready Player One movie’s gonna have, because you see characters from Over watch as well as the older stuff as well. So I’m kind of looking forward to that. Less feeling like, I’m getting manipulated for my ’80s nostalgia and more being able to just enjoy all of these different properties coming together in just this massive mayhem. So we’ll see how that works out.
Pamela: But if you are nostalgic for your ’80s childhood, or teeenagerhood, or 20 somethinghood when you were discovering video games, read Ready Player One. It’s totally an inside joke. The entire book is an inside joke.
Fraser: Yep. Got another one for me?
Pamela: Have you read Webmage series by Kelly McCullough?
Pamela: So this one is one of the few fantasy fiction books that I’m bringing in in this category, the idea is that our quantum mechanics notion that every time a decision is made the universe splits is real, and every possible outcome happens in one of these splits. So in these suite of splits that the first book is set in the Greek gods are all real and they’re all still actively engaged and magic has gotten so complicated that they have to use, basically, smartphones, super computers, depending on what level of magic they’re doing, to evoke the magic, and what’s cool is the main character’s laptop converts into, basically, a little gremlin when it needs to do magic.
So it goes from being a happy, little magic doing laptop, to being, like, full-on gremlinly type character. It’s cyberpunk, cross fantasy. It is fabulous and addictive, and the true gods can whistle in binary, and I really want to know what that would sound like.
Fraser: So I’ve got a — oh, man, I’ve got another recommendation, and I never know whether I’m supposed to make this recommendation, which is Ender’s Game, which is — you know, Orson Scott Card, so —
Fraser: Just be aware there’s a huge controversy about Orson Scott Card, and you’re gonna want to look into that make make your own decision about whether to read Ender’s Game, but Ender’s Game’s a really good book.
Pamela: Yes, it’s a really good book.
Fraser: And definitely sort of deals with this idea of computers simulating war as a way of training future generals and giving, essentially, one child the ability to control an enormous fleet of ships from a central place and doing the whole thing remotely.
It’s really this idea of teleprsence, right? That we, as human beings, are limited, in terms of just what we can do physically, but what are the kinds of senses, what are the kinds of manipulators that we can have if you sort of extend things out to computers and robots and machines like that, and — as a way — and this is something that we’re really dealing with with the drone operators, the people that are in the United States and they’re flying lethal aircraft halfway across the world, and dealing with the, sort of, the psychological —
Pamela: It feels like a video game, but real people are dying —
Pamela: And they’re in zero danger.
Fraser: Yeah. And so there is this psychological price that these people are paying to do this work, and yet, as you say, it really feels like a video game, and we have just started down the pathway towards this. I mean, if the drones are that effective you can keep your soldiers and your pilots safe. The next thing is gonna be tanks, and the next thing is gonna be robots that are controlled on the battlefield, even if people are calling for bands. And so you can sort of get a sense of what that’s gonna look like.
Pamela: And the other side of it, with Ender’s Game, is this child prodigy at warfare, which is a horrific thing to be. He is struggling with the dichotomy of having to hurt people to advance and there is, essentially, a compassionate video game on his computer that is trying to push him to cope and push him to think, and it, it becomes, in many ways, his truest friend throughout the entire series. And so just this idea that we can write software to help people deal with PTSD and things like that, and the software can, essentially, gain an insight on how to interact with humans that is more than what a human can do.
Fraser: Have you seen the movie Her yet?
Pamela: No, not yet. No. It’s on my list to watch over the holidays.
Fraser: Oh, great, because it — you know, I think it’s one of the best movies that I’ve — I would say it’s one of the best movies that I’ve ever seen that deals with the, sort of, the human-computer interface, sort of the perfect version of the human-computer interface, where — I mean, not the part where it actually gets plugged into the brain and that point forward — and it’s a movie, not a book, but the main character gets a new operating system and everyone uses these little earbused-based operating systems that like “Check my email,” and “What are my appointments today?”
You know, the kind of stuff you can do right now, but I think when they made that movie two years ago they thought it was very futuristic, but it was very robotic. “You got an email from so-and-so. What do you want to do?” “Delete.” “Video from so-and-so. What do you want to do?” “Confirm.” But he gets this new version of the operating system and it learns and talks to him and it’s very conversational and he falls in love with his operating system.
But that way of being able to interact with a computer, to have this entity riding shotgun with you, seeing life, and being able to advise you and help you make decisions, and be able to do things for you, it felt very realistic and it felt like a way that does make a lot more sense. And, after watching that movie, I find myself interacting with the search engines that surround me —
I don’t know if you ever do this — we both wear a similar kind of headset —
Fraser: But you press the button on the side and it goes “boop,” and then you say, like, “What time is it?” and, in your ear, someone tells you what time it is, and it really felt like a great analogy for what the future is. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but I found the ending not the kind of ending I was expecting.
Pamela: Well, and then you have, like in Mr. Robot, where the one, I want to say police officer — I may have the wrong job for her, is constantly talking to Alexa as her best friend, and you can actually hold rather profound conversations with Alexa.
Fraser: I’m not gonna lie. I ditched Mr. Robot halfway through this current season.
Pamela: Oh, I only watched the first season. I started to watch the second; I was just like “Blah.”
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Pamela: Yeah. No, but the first season was so good. And you, have you seen Chappie?
Pamela: That’s another one where you have the operating system essentially becoming sentient and you have the compassionate struggles of an AI.
Fraser: Yeah. So, just a couple more on the TV show front. One that I think is just really good is Person of Interest. Have you ever watched that at all?
Fraser: The first season of it is very much like Mystery of the Week, and the jist of it is that there’s an AI researcher that’s developed this computer for the NSA or some three letter agency, and it sort of does whatever they want, but also he sort of added a compassionate part of it that’s trying to help other people. All of, all of this other — the people who would have slipped through the cracks, this computer’s designed to just send him social insurance numbers that he can then — oh, you call them social security numbers — right? So send you these numbers, and then you can find out if the person’s in trouble.
So it’s a very — it’s very episodic, is the way it sort of begins, but, over time, they sort of make it stretch out more over — that there’s this underlying conflict that’s happening between the AI that he creates and other AIs, and it’s a very realistic take on how these AIs — it felt to me, anyway, kind of might move forward and interact with each other and try to be protected and try to be in control, and be seen as weapons by the agencies that think they’re controlling them, and they did a really good job of transitioning form sort of what was just, like, a gimmick procedural to what the future may hold for this.
Pamela: And it’s such a complex stance that so many people are trying to figure out. What I love is the book All the Birds in the Sky, which is another fairly brand new one that was nominated for a bunch of awards. In this one, you have someone train their AI through conversation with a very lonely teenage girl, and it turns out that when you give the AI the ability to Google and search and research and try and come up with things there’s this transition point where it goes from responding with looked up answers, to asking questions, to, suddenly, one day, actually, the code that it has written for itself, as it trains, makes it essentially sentient.
Pamela: Yeah. And so just the idea that someone can learn humanity through conversation with someone who’s hurting and alone is such a powerful idea that I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of it in terms of how alien interactions transpire and things like that, but that’s only one small part of the story, so go read it so you can get at all the parts of the story.
Fraser: While we’re talking on television, and I guess this is gonna come up twice, last week we talked about Westworld, the new Westworld as sort of part of 3D printing and, and manufacturing, but another big part of it is just it, as a television show, have these robots that don’t know that they’re robots.
Pamela: And so, yes, and then you have In Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty, which has also comes up multiple times, and is a book, there’s this idea that when you download yourself into a new body, which I know something that you’d like to do, you have the potential that someone can essentially implant into your brain, and that none of us are anything more or less than complex software, which you can add new algorithms to.
So imagine being able to actually go in and review the code of a mind and hack out this thing, and add in this other attribute. So it’s a very interesting concept of once you’re able to download your brain, you can change your brain.
Fraser: Right. And then, are you still you?
Fraser: Well, that’s the question? Now keep a — I want to just sort of make a note, I don’t want to download my body into a robot. I am just willing to do that beyond the alternative, which is just turn into worm food. So —
Pamela: Yes, that’s true.
Pamela: That’s true.
Fraser: So let’s talk of, I guess, I don’t know — should we talk about — all this has been, sort of, fairly happy, and sort of just like “Oh, this is super interesting, and –” but how do we prevent the robot apocalypse?
Pamela: The matrix?
Fraser: Well, the robot apocalypse, right? The matrix should be one example, but just this — that “How do we know that the computers aren’t gonna have a better job to do with us?” You know?
Pamela: The robot apocalypse actually started this week.
Fraser: Oh, did it?
Pamela: I forget exactly where it was, but there were folks — some company that got sick and tired of all the homeless people around their building, and instead of human being out to —
Fraser: I saw this.
Pamela: They sent out a robot —
Fraser: To go nag them to leave.
Pamela: Yeah. And so we now have robots going out because the humans themselves lacked the ability to go out, because they knew they were being mean —
Pamela: So they sent a robot to be mean. And so we are apparently teaching robots to be mean to homeless people.
Fraser: So that, that’s it. That’s the robot apocalypse right there, that all the robots are gonna be mean for us. So if you — you get called into your boss’s office but the robot is sitting there —
Pamela: You’re so screwed.
Fraser: Then you know you’re getting fired, right? Because your boss just doesn’t have the heart to tell you that you’re fired.
Pamela: And I think Clippy was perhaps the first step in the robot apocalypse.
Fraser: It sounds like you’re getting fired. Would you like some help with a new resume? All right. We — you — the — I guess getting me going on the robot apocalypse and the — is a whole other thing that I’m — I refuse to take the bait and go down to — that rabbit hole. We don’t have time for that rabbit hole, so, instead, I think we’re gonna wrap this up. We showed you a bunch of science fiction television and books and hopefully you will make a whole bunch of recommendations to us as well.
I think we’re gonna do one more episode next week. We’re gonna talk about —
Pamela: We’re gonna talk about the bios side of science fiction.
Pamela: But before we go, let’s just remind everyone, we are part of a tax deductible entity. If you’re listening to this and it’s still 2017 when your itemized deductions still matter a lot, if you’re here in the United States, then you can donate and lower your tax responsibility.
Fraser: Yeah. Are you paying too much taxes? Let us help you with that?
Pamela: We are happy to take your donations. Go to Astronomycast.com/Donate and find out how you can help make this more and more a part of Fraser and I’s day job.
Fraser: Right on. All right. We’ll see you next week, Pamela.
Pamela: See you later Fraser.
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Duration: 27 minutes