Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Silent Running

The 1972 film Silent Running imagines a future where Earth is so polluted that the last forests have been blasted into space in environmental domes to preserve them. Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern, is forced to kill his fellow crew members to save the forests when the order comes through to destroy the domes and return the space fleet to commercial operation.

Like most science fiction, Silent Running is not concerned with accurately predicting the future. The film was made before climate-change fears, so even though there are no forests on Earth, people’s lives are not particularly affected by rising sea levels or runaway temperatures. On the contrary, it seems the planet has been tamed. The temperature is a constant seventy-five degrees planet-wide, and everywhere you look everything is the same.

That’s probably the most chilling aspect of Silent Running. Humanity has lost something irreplaceable, and most of them don’t even think about it. As Lowell says:

Every time we have the argument, you say the same thing to me, you give me the same three answers all the time, the same thing, “well, everybody has a job,” that’s always the last one. But, you know what else there is no more of, my friend? There is no more beauty, there is no more imagination, and there are no frontiers left to conquer, and do you know why? Only one reason why.The same attitude that you three guys are giving me right here in this room today, and that is: nobody cares.

The parallels with what is happening on our planet right now are devastating. Silent Running is available to buy or rent on Google Play. I recommend it.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Towards a Practical Utopia

If you’re a regular reader of Beyond you’ll know that AI is quickly becoming smarter than we are, beating our best players of games like Go and chess; and that robots in the workplace will be here sooner than most governments anticipate (especially the current US administration). Studies show that 46% of all American jobs and 54% of jobs in the UK are at high risk of being usurped by machines in the next twenty years. How do we get to the kind of sci-fi future of Star Trek’s Federation where, as Jean Luc Picard says, ‘The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity’?

Increasingly there are calls for some kind of universal basic income. This isn’t a new concept, and in his book Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman argues that it makes economic as well as social sense. The bureaucracy of the ‘welfare state’ is incredibly expensive. Countless studies show that providing a basic income without all the oversight and ineffective programs is cheaper, and – contrary to what some politicians say – the number of recipients who ‘rip off’ such a system is vanishingly small. Basic-income recipients spend the money on better accommodation and education, not drink and drugs. Providing a basic income in the US would cost US$175 billion, less than 1% of GDP or a quarter of (pre-Trump) military spending. It’s certainly a more humane way to go than the current trend to demonise welfare recipients as ‘bludgers’ and punish them with mandatory drug tests. We should be proud of the support we give the most vulnerable members of our society, instead of making them feel ashamed about it.

If a basic income becomes a reality, we will still need to change the way we think about our lives. Arthur C Clarke said, ‘The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play’. But many people continue to equate self-worth with selling their labour. Changing that mindset could be our biggest challenge yet.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review - The Stars Are Legion - Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are LegionThe Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Stars Are Legion is refreshing on so many fronts. Firstly it's a stand-alone not a trilogy, so not weighed down with all that entails. Secondly the world building and technology is visceral - literally: bio-organic spray-on spacesuits,walls and floors on the 'spaceship/worlds' of the Legion that feel moist to the touch, petal-like doors that unfold, cephalopod guns, willing dolphin-like attack craft that you sit 'on' rather than 'in', interchangeable wombs that grow people and ship parts - it's as if Cronenberg wrote an SF novel. Thirdly the writing is fresh and tight and the characterisation and plotting is intriguing.

Zan wakes with no memory on the ship/world of the Katazyrna. But she has been here many times before, and she's told by Jayd, daughter of the Katazyrna leader, that she has failed once more in a plot they share to gain control of the free ship/world of Mokshi and must try again. It's up to Zan to learn what is true and false in the worlds of the Legion and what really matters.

Paranoia and treacherous intent build beautifully under Hurley's tight control and the worlds of the Legion get weirder and weirder as Zan discovers the truth of the spaces they inhabit and what has happened during her countless previous failures.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Big Data has you

As the World Wide Web turned 28 years old on 12 March, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet while working at CERN in 1989, warned that the rise of fake news, political advertising and misuse of personal data threatens to damage the potential of the internet to be a tool that ‘serves all of humanity’.
 
‘Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups,’ he wrote. ‘Is that democratic?’ I’d go further and ask, is it ethical?
 
Clearly Berners-Lee’s remarks were targeted at the big data business that backed the Trump and Brexit campaigns: a company called Cambridge Analytica. But just where did this frightening scientific success story come from?
 
In 2008 a couple of researchers at Cambridge University in the UK developed a ‘My Personality Test’ app that measures participants on the five key ‘OCEAN’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. After initial trials with the student population the test jumped to Facebook where it really took off.
 
You may have taken one of these ‘fun’ tests yourself to find out what kind of a person you are. The thing is, all the information collected via that app (which is still running today) went into a huge comparative database and ‒ when coupled with additional data-scraping of people’s Facebook likes ‒ it became a scarily accurate predictive tool.
 
Once that data gathering reached a critical mass, the researchers felt confident they could predict a user’s skin colour, sexual orientation, political affiliation, intelligence, religion etc on the basis of just 68 Facebook ‘likes’. As the number of likes by a particular user grew, the tool could divine more about them than their closest friends or partner knew.
 
It was then that a UK company called Strategic Communications Laboratories stepped in and offered to work with the researchers if they would share their data and algorithms. SCL was a behavioural change management company and that’s when the researchers became worried. You see, the thing about knowing exactly what makes a person tick is that it also tells you what buttons to push to influence or change their behaviour. At that point the researchers walked away, but their research was owned by the university, which saw the potential profit in the work. Soon after, SCL changed its name to Cambridge Analytica, the company that provided Trump and Brexit with the big data that allowed them to accurately target individual voters with specifically tailored messaging. The rest is history.
 
Strange coincidence. Billionaire Robert Mercer has a US$10M stake in Cambridge Analytica. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because Mercer is also Donald Trump’s single biggest donor and bankrolled the creation of now-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s (fake) news site Breitbart.
 
Science is neutral. It can be used for good or evil. But next time you think about doing one of those fun Facebook quizzes, you might want to think again.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The strange future of robots is almost here

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin dismissed the idea that robots may soon take over our jobs, saying it wasn’t even on his radar screen for the next 50 to 100 years. But experts say between 20 and 40 per cent of jobs worldwide are at risk of automation by the early 2030s.

The majority of robots today are glorified mechanical arms working in motor vehicle and other assembly plants. And it won’t be long before robots enter all areas of life from self-drive cars to hospital patient care and beyond. But robots are also being considered for applications you may not have thought about.

Interviewing children who are victims of child abuse is not only a confronting task, it’s also full of pitfalls. Children may be unwilling to confide in adult strangers even when they are police officers. It’s also hard for investigators to remain neutral when presented with distressing evidence and their reaction may skew testimony, resulting in bad evidence.

Robots, being emotionless devices, can control their vocal tone, facial expressions and body language much better than humans. Some studies have found that children are more willing to confide in a robot; although others suggest children may be more likely to embroider their testimony to prolong their contact with the robot.

On the other side of the equation, computer-generated children have already been used by law-enforcement agencies to trap and prosecute hundreds of paedophiles in online chat rooms. More controversially, it’s been suggested that child-shaped robots could provide a low-risk avenue for objective study and treatment of paedophiles.

The future of robots will be stranger than you imagine.

This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The dying art of book autographs







I love ebooks. I love their convenience, price and virtual indestructibility. But the one thing they can't give you is that personal author autograph experience. I've been lucky to collect quite a few autographs over the years. You can see some of my favourites in my Google Album

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review - The Silent Invasion - James Bradley

The Silent Invasion (The Change #1)The Silent Invasion by James Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are books you just fall in love with when you read them as a young person. For me they included Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Susan Cooper’s Under Sea, Over Stone and Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Others come to mind that I enjoyed as an adult because they gave me that same kind of feeling: John Christopher’s Tripod books, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and so on, all of them treasured by one generation or another.

James Bradley’s The Silent Invasion delivers just that feeling. A brave young person standing up against the injustices of the world they live in, taking risks to save those they love, being confronted with terrible trials and overcoming them. The story is timeless, but Bradley makes it relevant to now: the idea of a planetary environment that is hostile is – sadly – a very contemporary idea that children growing up now will have to confront as a reality in the not too distant future. The book also riffs on very familiar SF tropes like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids as well as more modern films like Gareth Edwards’s 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters. But it’s all the more compelling for that because the story telling feels so fresh. The plot flies by effortlessly and the writing is clean and compelling – which means Bradley has put a hell of a lot of effort into it – and the ending just makes you want to devour book 2.

Now.

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