Communion Of Dreams


Easy to predict.

In Communion of Dreams, I have “experts” who are A.I. assistants. As I describe them in that book when I introduce one as the character ‘Seth’:

His expert was one of the best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

In the world of 2052, when Communion is set, these “experts” are ubiquitous and extremely helpful. Seth is an “S-series”, the latest tech, and all S-series models have names which start with S. I figured that naming convention would be a nice way to track the development of such expert-systems technology, and in the course of the book you see earlier models which have appropriate names.

So when the time came to write St Cybi’s Well, I figured that I would introduce the first such model, named Andi. Here’s the first bit of dialog with Andi:

“Hi, I’m Andi, your assistant application. How can I help you?”

“Andi, check local restaurant reviews for Conwy and find the best ranked Fish & Chips place.”

“You’re not in Conwy. You’re in Holywell. Would you rather that I check restaurants where you are?”

“No, I’m not hungry yet. But I will be when I get to Conwy.”

“Very good. Shall I read off the names?”

“Not now. It can wait until I am closer.”

“Very good. Shall I track your movement and alert you?”

“No.”

“Very good. May I help you with something else?”

“Not right now.” Darnell shut off the app, then the phone, and dropped it back into his pocket. The walk back to his car was uneventful.

Now, I wrote this bit almost eight years ago, long before “Siri” or “Alexa” were announced. But it was predictable that such technology would soon be introduced, and I was amused as all get-out when Amazon decided to name their first assistant as “Alexa”.

Anyway, I also figured that since the technology would be new, and unsophisticated, that Andi would be slightly annoying to use. Because it would default to repetitions of scripts, be easy to confuse, et cetera, similar to encountering a ‘bot on a phone call. And you can judge for yourself, but I think I succeeded in the book — the readers of early chapters thought so, and commented on it.

So this article in the morning Washington Post made me chuckle:

Alexa, just shut up: We’ve been isolated for months, and now we hate our home assistants

“I’m not a bad person,” Angela Hatem said. “I’m so nice to people.” But Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s home devices, isn’t a person, despite how hard “she” tries to emulate one. And coronavirus/self-quarantine/2020 has Hatem feeling a bit stressed out.

“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”

 

Heh. Nailed another prediction.

* * *

It’s the first of the month. That means that both novels and our care-giving memoir are available for free download, as they are the first of each month. If you haven’t already, please help yourself and tell your friends.

Jim Downey

 

 



Except Seth is named “Tim.”

Interesting post on LinkedIn which may sound familiar:

Here’s how Native works: every time I need to do anything related to travel, I just ask Tim to handle it. Tim lives inside Native and while he appears to be a human, I’m not 100% sure he is. For all I know he may be a bot, artificial intelligence, or any number of people working behind the scenes under the persona of the fresh-faced Tim. To be honest, I don’t much care. Every time I need him he’s there, ready to assist me.

For example, I recently had to book a gnarly itinerary in and out of two countries using various airline loyalty points. Normally, booking this sort of trip would have taken me hours of comparing prices, flight times, connection difficulty, and frequent flyer point requirements. Instead, I just opened the app and told Tim what I needed in plain English — like sending a text message. Then, I went about my day and an hour later I received a notification from Tim telling me he found the best two options. Would I like itinerary A or itinerary B? I picked one and he booked the flight. Done!

I didn’t have to use any dropdown menus, sift through hundreds of options, or spend half an hour attempting to pay for my ticket only to learn that the price I wanted was suddenly not available. Nope! I left it up to Tim to handle everything.

Perhaps this will help jiggle your memory a bit:

“What do you want, Seth?”

“Sorry to bother you, Jon, but you’ll need to come back immediately. Business. I’ve made the arrangements. Transport waiting for you in town, take you to Denver. Then commercial flight home.” Audio only. That meant a lot. Tighter beam, easier to encode and keep private. Security protocol.

He wondered if something had gone wrong with the Hawking, the experimental long-range ship undergoing trials, based out at Titan. That was about the only thing he could think of that would require his cutting short his first vacation in four years. No use in asking. “All right. Give me a few minutes to pack my things, and I’ll get started.”

“Understood.”

“And contact my family, let them know I’m on my way back. ”

“Will do. Anything else?”

“Not at present. See you when I get there.”

That’s from page 2 of Communion of Dreams. Same thing, except Seth is named “Tim” in Native.

Hmm … perhaps I should start selling my services as a futurist … 😉

 

Jim Downey
Thanks to my friend and co-author John Bourke for the tip!5



Net worth.

“Here ya go!” said the salesman with almost sincere enthusiasm as he handed the key fob across the desk to me. “Your Googel AutoDrive Sedan is ready and waiting!”

“Thanks,” I said, with little desire to mask my exhaustion. I hated buying cars. I took the fob, stood up to go.

“Oh, one last thing …”

I cringed. Looked at him. He still had a gleam in his eye. Which I knew meant he hadn’t finished toying with me yet. “Yes?”

“In going through your profile, I noted that your credit score was … a tad low.” His smile widened just a bit.

“So? I financed it through MegaLoan. You got your money.”

“Well, yes,” he said. “But I wasn’t talking about the financing … ”

I waited to see where this was going. I was sure it wasn’t going to be someplace I liked.

He didn’t disappoint me. His smile broadened even more. “As you know, the AutoDrive system is programmed to consider every possible factor in road safety and benefit to society — in full accordance with all relevant laws.”

“Yes?”

“Well … how shall I put this … your low credit score means that in some situations, AutoDrive may elect to …” he paused to savor the effect “… maximize the benefits to society in the event of an accident.”

“Sorry?”

“Well, if the situation warrants, someone who has a better credit score … who provides a greater benefit to society, as shown by their assets and wealth creation … may be deemed less expendable than you are.”

“WHAT?!?!?!”

I had hoped my outrage would startle him. Instead, he licked his lips. “Now, now, not to worry. There’s an easy way to mitigate the chances of that happening.”

I sighed. “How much?”

“Well, we have a Net Worth insurance policy we offer which will indemnify society against loss of more valuable citizens, available on a sliding scale …”

 

 

Jim Downey



Well, however you get there, I suppose …

Via Topless Robot, this article/video from the New York Times:

Sex Dolls That Talk Back

Matt McMullen has proved that some people are willing to spend thousands on sex dolls.

* * *
Mr. McMullen’s new project, which he is calling Realbotix, is an attempt to animate the doll. He has assembled a small team that includes engineers who have worked for Hanson Robotics, a robotics lab that produces shockingly lifelike humanoid robots.

Mr. McMullen is first focusing on developing convincing artificial intelligence, and a robotic head that can blink and open and close its mouth. He’s also working to integrate other emerging technologies, like a mobile app that acts like a virtual assistant and companion, and virtual reality headsets that can be used separately or in tandem with the physical doll.

 

It’s accepted wisdom that many new technologies come into their own and are quickly disseminated through the public when a way can be found to use them for sex and/or the depictions of same. Printing. VHS tapes. DVDs. The internet. Smartphone Apps like Tinder or Grindr.

So why not artificial intelligence?

Which isn’t the way I saw the technology for an expert system/assistant like Seth developing, but hey, I suppose whatever works …

 

Jim Downey



Ties in nicely.

This is a good short, and ties in nicely with the end of Communion of Dreams:

 

Jim Downey



A useful swarm.

Another interesting item about developing the technology to create a useful swarm of small robots:

Harvard Researchers Create a Nature-Inspired Robotic Swarm

Some scientists believe that the way to solve the flocking enigma is to replicate it. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) recently developed a micro-scaled robotic technology that enables a controlled, flash mob–like assembly. In August, the team led by Harvard computer-science professors Radhika Nagpal and Fred Kavli demonstrated the ability of 1,000 robots to self-organize into user-selected shapes, such as a five-pointed starfish and the letter K.

* * *

“Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether it’s hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” Nagpal said in the press release. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

One provocative concept is the possibility of building and infrastructure construction that is carried out by thousands of self-organizing modules. Although many technical hurdles remain, this notion is especially intriguing in the case of hazardous and other challenging settings. In the near term, we will likely witness simple, one-story pavilions built from a collection of mobile robotic bricks to create emergency relief shelters following natural disasters.

Hmm … seems I’ve heard about that idea before someplace. Oh, yeah, from Communion of Dreams:

They were, in essence, enclosing the entire planet in a greenhouse of glass fabric and golden plasteel. It was going to take generations to finish, even using mass microbots and fabricating the construction materials from the Martian sands. Tens of thousands of the specially programmed microbots, a few centimeters long and a couple wide, would swarm an area, a carpet of shifting, building insects. As each cell was finished, it was sealed, joined to the adjacent cells, and then the microbots would move on.

But it is pretty cool to see the work being done to bring that about.

 

Jim Downey



It’s a Mil-Tech SF future; we’re just living in it.

Yeah, it’s cool and all, but I can’t be the only one who looked at the news about Google X’s Drone Program

A zipping comes across the sky.

A man named Neil Parfitt is standing in a field on a cattle ranch outside Warwick, Australia. A white vehicle appears above the trees, a tiny plane a bit bigger than a seagull. It glides towards Parfitt, pitches upwards to a vertical position, and hovers near him, a couple hundred feet in the air. From its belly, a package comes tumbling downward, connected by a thin line to the vehicle itself. Right before the delivery hits the ground, it slows, hitting the earth with a tap.

… and thinks “generation 1.0 Hunter-seeker“, right? I mean, this basically jumps from needing a large military drone to having a backpack assassination tool. Why worry about collateral damage with a missile when you can just drop a cigarette-pack lump of high explosive in someone’s lap, using a cell phone and facial-recognition software to make sure of your specific target?

Or how I look at the self-driving car and think “hmm, add a Ma Deuce and/or 30mm cannon, and you’ve a small autonomous tank”.

Yeah, OK, perhaps I’m just too cynical. But human nature being what it is, you’ve gotta think that there was a reason why DARPA has been behind the development of these technologies …

 

Jim Downey

 



Well, it’s not a von Neumann machine*,

nor even a simple ‘microbot‘ from Communion of Dreams, but still, this is pretty cool and could lead to either of those technologies:

Transformer Paper Turns Itself Into A Robot. Cool!

Every so often, a scientific paper just begs for a sexy headline.

Consider this study in the current issue of Science: “A Method for Building Self-Folding Machines.” A bit bland, you’ll no doubt agree. A Real-Life, Origami-Inspired Transformer is how the journal’s public affairs department referred to it. Now that’s more like it.

* * *

It’s now possible to print electronic circuits on a flat sheet of paper. So if you use some clever folding techniques (based on the ancient art of paper folding called origami), you can fold these sheets into useful structures — maybe a crab-shaped robot that could scuttle across the floor, or a swan-shaped robot that could really fly.

 

Kinda like the beastie up above there. The really clever bit was using a thermal-activated material called a shape memory polymer which would cause the paper (or whatever material) to fold as needed. So you basically create flat-pack robots which can be remotely activated into a useful machine as needed.

It’s fun living in the future.

 

Jim Downey

*Named after John von Neumann, who among many other impressive accomplishments was instrumental in developing the concept of  self-replicating machines. The term has been commonly used this way in Science Fiction for decades.



A state of matter, or a state of mind?

From page six of Communion of Dreams:

His expert was one of best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether the experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

 

And, perhaps, physicists:

And while the problem of consciousness is far from being solved, it is finally being formulated mathematically as a set of problems that researchers can understand, explore and discuss.

Today, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sets out the fundamental problems that this new way of thinking raises. He shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment might help to tease apart.

Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

 

Good article. Read the whole thing.

 

Jim Downey

Via MetaFilter.



“I prefer the term ‘Artificial Person’ myself.”

Catch this news this week?

Synthetic biology: New letters for life’s alphabet

The five bases found in nucleic acids define the ‘alphabet’ used to encode life on Earth. The construction of an organism that stably propagates an unnatural DNA base pair redefines this fundamental feature of life.

* * *

Sorry about the sparseness of posting lately. I’ve been … busy. Have had a couple of interesting things happen which could play out in some very good ways. One is still enough in an embryonic stage that I won’t mention anything about it yet, but the other is far enough along that I’ll share: there’s a literary agent who is potentially interested in representing me, something which I have been thinking about for a while.

And it seems like a good enough fit that I took all of last weekend to put together a submission package for formal consideration. That meant going through and doing fairly thorough revisions to the first few chapters of St Cybi’s Well, using the feedback I have gotten from half a dozen ‘beta readers’, as well as composing a formal synopsis of the book. Frankly, both were a lot of work, and somewhat skewed my normal work schedule such that it is just now getting back to what passes for normal in my life.

But it was also helpful, and forced me to clarify some things which I had left unfocused for the rest of the book. Because of the way I am writing this (using Scrivener), it has been fairly easy for me to block out both the overall arc of the book as well as character developments. But doing so has been based on chapter notes more than anything, meaning that it was still somewhat in flux. Creating a full synopsis meant that I had to put the whole thing into one coherent document. And even though it was something of a pain in the butt, the result is helpful.

I’ll keep you posted as to any concrete developments.

* * *

Remember this scene from Aliens?

 

Considered a classic, and rightly so. But I’ve always thought that a big part of the brilliance of it is how it sets up what happens immediately after:

Back at the groups’ table, Bishop holds up his hand and examines a tiny cut closely.

BURKE: I thought you never missed, Bishop?

To Ripley’s horror, a trickle of white synthetic blood runs down his finger. Ripley spins on Burke, her tone accusing.

RIPLEY: You never said anything about an android being on board! Why not?!

BURKE: It never occurred to me. It’s common practice. We always have a synthetic on board.

BISHOP: I prefer the term ‘artificial person’ myself.

BURKE: Right.

 

* * *

Oh, one more thing: in observation of Mother’s Day, the Kindle edition of Her Final Year is available for free download through Sunday, May 11th. If you’re new here, just a quick note: this is our care-giving memoir about the challenges and rewards of caring for someone with dementia, as well as the long recovery/reflection period which comes after. It seems to have helped a lot of people. Perhaps it can help you or someone you know.

 

Jim Downey