Communion Of Dreams


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



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



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

 



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



Touch and go.

OK, this project from NASA is pretty damned cool:

 

Phil Plait describes it:

This is not a special effects scene from a science fiction movie: This is real. It’s a video showing the Morpheus Project prototype vertical takeoff and lander doing its thing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Mar. 5, 2014 (and you absolutely want to make it full screen and turn the sound up to get the full effect).

 

Furthermore, it’s a completely autonomous system — onboard software — doing the take-off and landing.

Impressive.

 

Jim Downey



What kind of future were you expecting?

One with an ‘expert’ like Seth from Communion of Dreams?

Or maybe, a little closer to our own time, say one which includes something like HAL from 2001?

Ha! Sucker. You should know that reality would prove to be more … banal. And corporate. Like this:

The phone call came from a charming woman with a bright, engaging voice to the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer. She wanted to offer a deal on health insurance, but something was fishy.

When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. When asked “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection.

Over the course of the next hour, several TIME reporters called her back, working to uncover the mystery of her bona fides. Her name, she said, was Samantha West, and she was definitely a robot, given the pitch perfect repetition of her answers. Her goal was to ask a series of questions about health coverage—”Are you on Medicare?” etc.—and then transfer the potential customer to a real person, who could close the sale.

Hmm, I think I can still work “Samantha” into St. Cybi’s Well

 

Jim Downey



Sometimes the future is cool …

… and sometimes it is just chilling.

First, meet Seth’s grandpa:

Watson is a cognitive capability that resides in the computing cloud — just like Google and Facebook and Twitter. This new capability is designed to help people penetrate complexity so they can make better decisions and live and work more successfully. Eventually, a host of cognitive services will be delivered to people at any time and anywhere through a wide variety of handy devices. Laptops. Tablets. Smart phones. You name it.

In other words, you won’t need to be a TV producer or a giant corporation to take advantage of Watson’s capabilities. Everybody will have Watson — or a relative of the Watson technologies — at his or her fingertips.

Indeed, Watson represents the first wave in a new era of technology: the era of cognitive computing. This new generation of technology has the potential to transform business and society just as radically as today’s programmable computers did so over the past 60+ years. Cognitive systems will be capable of making sense of vast quantities of unstructured information, by learning, reasoning and interacting with people in ways that are more natural for us.

Next, consider the implications of this idea:

Now think of another way of doing this. Think of a website that is a repository of all these IDs, and is government-owned or certified. Why can’t I just visit a police station once, pay a fee (so the government doesn’t lose money on this), show all my documentation, have the government scan and upload everything so that all policemen and pertinent authorities can have access. Then my car insurance company, my health insurance company, the car registration agency can all notify this government repository if I stop paying, or if my insurance policy is not valid anymore.

Imagine a world in which the police has tablets or smartphones that show nice big pictures of you, in which whatever they currently do secretly with NSA-type agencies they do openly instead. If they find you without an ID they ask, “who are you?”, and once you give your name, they can see your photo and a ton of information about you. It would be so hard for anyone to impersonate you. I find it paradoxical that while some government agencies spy on you and know all about you, others pretend to know nothing until you show them a piece of plastic that if you lose, somebody else can impersonate you with. We need to evolve from this. We need to evolve into a system in which we have no wallets and a safer world!

Yeah, safer

TrackingPoint, the biggest name in “smart” scope technology today, is rolling out their next big project. Not too surprising, it is a military endeavor. Called the “Future of War,” TrackingPoint is gearing up for a new market.

The company has been getting a lot of attention with their high-end big-bore hunting rifles that are designed to track targets up to 1,000 yards away. The “smart” aspect of the scope technology is a host of rangefinders and sensors that, combined with optical image recognition software, calculate the ballistics of the shot and compensate for it automatically.

TrackingPoint’s hasn’t exactly concealed their intentions to develop arms for the military market. That was always a possibility and something they all but confirmed when they began talking about their second-generation precision guided rifle systems that, chambered for .50 BMG, are expected to be effective well over 3,000 yards. The cartridge, .50 BMG, is a devastating long-range anti-personnel and anti-material round.

From TrackingPoint’s website:

Target handoff can be achieved by leader touching a smart rifle icon and map location at which point the designated user will see an arrow in his scope directing him to look at handoff location. Whether from shooter to shooter, leader to shooter, drone to leader to shooter, shooter to leader to drone, handoff is a simple touch interface via a mobile device and mobile apps augmented by the appropriate a la carte communications gear.

Emphasis added, because:

The MADSS is one mean robot. Developed by defense industry leader Northrop Grumman and currently being showcased at the Fort Benning, Ga. “Robotics Rodeo,” the MADSS is a 1 1/2-ton unmanned ground vehicle designed to provide soldiers with covering fire while cutting down targets.

Make no mistake, it’s an automatic shooting machine, But it requires people to operate it and set targets. The MADSS — Mobile Armed Dismount Support System — tracks and fires on targets only once it gets the green light. It won’t shoot unless a soldier is directing it.

It’s half killer robot, half killer giant remote-control car.

But you know, not all cars need someone in control of them these days:

In Silberg’s estimation, the reason is that Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz drivers are “already accustomed to high-tech bells and whistles, so adding a ‘self-driving package’ is just another option.” Throw in the possibility of a special lane on highways for autonomous vehicles and the ability to turn the system on and off at will, and premium buyers were sold on the option full-stop.

Considering that Audi, BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz all plan to have some kind of semi-autonomous, traffic jam assistance feature either on the market or coming in the next few years, and it’s obvious that luxury brands are well aware of what their buyers want.

Draw your own conclusions.

 

Jim Downey

 



Daisy, Daisy …

One of the things I’ve been a little bit surprised by has been just how many people have volunteered to me (or in reviews) just how much they like the ‘Experts’ in Communion of Dreams, and in particular how much of a favorite character Seth becomes to them in the course of the novel.

I don’t mean I’m surprised by how much people like the Experts, and particularly Seth. Hell, I intended the Experts to be likeable. I mean that this is something which people find remarkable enough to, well, remark on it.

That’s because humans tend to anthropomorphize just about everything. Our pets. Our cars. Our tools. Even nature. It’s one of the basic ways that we make sense of the world, as can be seen in religious and spiritual beliefs.  Long before Siri there was HAL, and inasmuch as Communion of Dreams is an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey I knew that Seth would resonate as a ‘real person’.*

So this morning I was amused to hear a story on NPR about how giving computers/robots more human characteristics tends to cause humans to develop a greater sense of empathy and socialization with them. Amused, but not surprised. From the article:

Many people have studied machine-human relations, and at this point it’s clear that without realizing it, we often treat the machines around us like social beings.

Consider the work of Stanford professor Clifford Nass. In 1996, he arranged a series of experiments testing whether people observe the rule of reciprocity with machines.

* * *

What the study demonstrated was that people do in fact obey the rule of reciprocity when it comes to computers. When the first computer was helpful to people, they helped it way more on the boring task than the other computer in the room. They reciprocated.

* * *

“The relationship is profoundly social,” he says. “The human brain is built so that when given the slightest hint that something is even vaguely social, or vaguely human — in this case, it was just answering questions; it didn’t have a face on the screen, it didn’t have a voice — but given the slightest hint of humanness, people will respond with an enormous array of social responses including, in this case, reciprocating and retaliating.”

 

On the NPR website version of the story there’s also this delightful video showing what happens when a robot with cat/human characteristics begs a research subject to not switch it off:

 

Interesting. But again, unsurprising. Consider the whole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL is shut down — a powerful and poignant part of the movie. And referenced at the end of the video above.

Lastly, I laughed out loud once the story was over on NPR, and the transitional bit of music started up. Why? Because it was an instrumental work by the artist Vangelis, composed as the Love Theme from the movie Blade Runner.

Hilarious.

 

Jim Downey

*And for those who have read the book, consider what the role of Chu Ling’s devas are relative to Seth … 😉  We’ll see more of this reference in St. Cybi’s Well.