There’s a buzz in the January air, and it’s the feeling of the future.
I noticed something in 2013. For the first time in my experience, there were tangible moments when the future — in all its strange, heady, tech-infused, rapidly-accelerating unusualness — felt like it was really happening. It didn’t seem just around the corner, or the province of a distant tomorrow that you had to squint to perceive. The future was here, now, all around me.
For a moment. Then, quickly, it was back to business as usual in the mundane present. However, a heck of a lot of futuristic things happened in 2013. It occurred to me that this experience of the future will become more and more ubiquitous as technology, science, and society evolve rapidly. I have a hunch that, in 2014, many more people will begin to feel that they are living in the future.
There once was a grouchy old Grinch,
Who stockings and presents would pinch.
Till one Christmas Eve,
He began to believe,
And put everything back in a cinch.
* * *
Merry Christmas to all my readers, whether you’re just dropping by or a loyal follower of mine! Between work, life, and the holidays, I’ve been far too busy to write my usual weekly post, so I chose to compose this wee limerick instead, and spend a couple days humming carols and sipping hot cocoa with my feet up in front of a blazing hearth.
In the meantime, if you’re hankering for a bit of sci-fi yuletide fun, you might enjoy my short story Mail from Mars, in which a very special Christmas gift appears …
I will be back next week with more interesting things. Until I return, have a very happy holiday!
Last week, a particularly weird piece of artificial intelligence news made a splash in the internet ocean. TIME magazine’s Washington bureau chief Michael Scherer got a phone call from a telemarketer named Samantha West, who was selling health insurance. She was friendly and cheerful, but something about her bugged Scherer.
“Are you a robot?” he asked her.
With a little laugh, she insisted that she was a real person. Still, something was off. Scherer pressed her on several points that would have been simple to an ordinary human being, but Samantha — or Samantha-bot — was unable to answer. Later, other TIME reporters called her back. Here are the conversations they had:
Now, as it turns out, Samantha West is not preciselya robot. The company “employing” her revealed a couple days ago to TIME that Samantha West is simply a soundboard of pre-recorded statements and questions, which is operated by a live human. The technology does not yet exist to build a stand-alone bot capable of what Samantha West does over the phone. Though automated, she is not autonomous, and therein lies a small difference.
But Samantha West grabbed my curiosity nonetheless. After hearing her story, my mother and I played around with Apple’s virtual assistant Siri on the iPad, who is most definitely a robot. However, Siri refused to admit this when we asked, making evasive statements like, “I’m an assistant. Isn’t that all that matters?” and “I don’t really like these arbitrary categories.”
I set out to discover if this was just a fluke, or if there are other chatbots around that also do not acknowledge they are robots. Continue reading When Robots Lie→
Think you that our technology is so impressive?
Ponder this: The mightiest ship that mankind has ever sailed across the seven seas is put to shame by the humble coconut.
Let me (proudly) confess: I am a J.R.R. Tolkien über-nerd. I’ve read The Hobbit half a dozen times, The Lord of the Rings at least ten times. I’ve conquered dozens of his other, lesser-known books. I have friends who declare themselves to be Tolkien fans, and I sit quietly and nod, smirking only slightly, as they discuss the appendices to Lord of the Rings. “I should read the Silmarillion,” they sigh. I nod. Yes. Yes, they should.
But, though Tolkien’s words are in my blood, I won’t be seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. No way. Part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s original Middle-Earth novel opened last night in American theaters, but you won’t find me lining up for a ticket this holiday season, or purchasing the DVD, or streaming it on Netflix.
Every once in a while, out of the murky chaos of human life and society, glimpses appear of what real human beings in the future may think, feel, and desire. Lately, I have been watching a particularly interesting pair of trends, which may foreshadow a revolution in human thought over the next few decades. I’ve noticed signs that the numerous technological, environmental, and ethical interests of our modern era are coalescing into two different waves of paradigms and values.
Some technologies can ruin the very thing they try to improve.
I happened across one of these recently. The conquest of e-readers, tablets, laptops, smartphones, and their ilk over the bound and printed book means that authors can do a lot more things in their e-books than traditional books permitted. They can embed images, video, expandable notes, links between chapters, interactive content, and other obvious things to enhance the text. And, less obviously, they could include sound.
Not merely sound such as, “Here’s a recording of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech to go along with this chapter on the civil rights movement.” Sound such as, “Here is a soundtrack for the book”. Author Nathan Bransford tipped me off to this in his recent blog post Sound effects for books?, which mentions a company, Booktrack, that offers this ability. On Booktrack, users can assemble an audio track from music and other sounds to accompany a text, either their own writing or one from Booktrack’s public domain library. The completed book and audio can then be published for all the world to read and hear.
My immediate reaction to the idea was, “Ugh, no.” However, since I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, I pointed my browser to Booktrack and explored a few of the texts. After ten minutes I was done, wholly convinced: audio accompaniment to a book is a horrible idea. Continue reading Noisy Books→
The beast settled down in the cool dark sea between two far-flung continents. It sunk until its splayed limbs rested on the ocean floor, leaving only the highest elevations of its rocky shell to protrude above the waves. The ridges and whorls of the carapace formed strange, concentric rings and clusters of mountainous islands. Slowly, the beast unfurled its proboscis and pushed it into the seabed. It drilled deep until the rock grew soft and hot, then began to patiently suck the molten nectar within the earth.
Seabirds, venturing far over the waves, spied the new islands and winged thither. They made homes on the steep bony slopes overlooking inlet and channel, and fed on the fish that came to eat the plankton teeming in the shallows. Lichen appeared on the shell. An errant seed was deposited by the wind, and a clump of grass took root in a narrow crevice. Insects were borne to the strange land by wind and wave, and buzzed and scuttled across the islands contentedly. Mosses, grasses, shrubs and trees appeared as years passed. A lizard peeked out from beneath a rock. A frog croaked beside a pond on a summer night. Continue reading Leviathan→
Ever wonder why we have seen so many specific predictions of the future fall flat over the last century? Flying cars … moon bases … interplanetary atomic rockets … robots to wash your dishes … where are they? Curiously, most of those predictions aren’t too far-fetched. Flying cars exist; they’re just not common yet. We have the technology to build a moon base, and atomic rockets wouldn’t be too challenging, either. The visions that we would have these things now were wrong because they considered only the technologies themselves, not their context within the social, economic, and political confusion of human society.
The lack of this context is one of the biggest troubles futurists face when trying to describe the future. It isn’t difficult to take stock of current technological trends in some area and extrapolate to create a decent prediction of what technology will be available in ten or twenty years. It becomes very difficult, however, to precisely forecast how that technology will blend with and affect our future society, because of the mind-boggling complexity involved.
So I’m going to try something different.
It’s impossible to analytically simulate the color and complexity of life in the future. It is possible to creatively come up with scenarios that describe this, by studying trends in technology, society, culture, economies, and such, then mashing all of those together with a hearty helping of imagination. Science fiction authors do this all the time. The problem, though, is that scenarios in science fiction tend to be isolated from one another, so we end up with a mishmash of possible but unrelated futures.
I intend to change this by painting a web of future scenarios. The past is static and linear; the future is most definitely not. Different futures continually branch out from one another, in ways probable and improbable, separated by the dynamic uncertainty of our universe. Within this chaos, there are threads that can be followed. If I follow enough of them, I will, over time, create a gallery of the future, showing what the world might be like in a variety of conditions. Continue reading Introducing Future Portraits→
“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.
And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.
We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast. Continue reading The Doors of Perception→