Thursday, August 21, 2014

Is Growing Up Just for People?

Babies are designed to learn, according to Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley. They are pint-sized scientists, taking in the unfiltered data in their environment and using it to learn how things work, including everything from the physical objects in their world to the emotional processes of other human beings. They are engineers as well as social scientists, dealing intuitively in probabilities well before developing any formal understanding of mathematics. And at the heart of their laboratory is play. Their days are filled with experiments, new ideas and developing skills, while the adults in their world take care of their survival needs. Our extended period of dependency at the dawn of our lives prepares us ideally for the intellectual challenges that lie ahead. Those animals that reach maturity early and are able to fend for themselves while still juveniles develop narrower repertoires of behavior and more limited ability to adapt to novel circumstances.

So why should we expect to program digital entities with fully formed capabilities that rival ours? Creating entities that can learn from experience and are designed to seek novelty, much like the human infant, would seem a more natural way to invest our machines with the potential to become like us. And those complex functions that most define us as human, the abilities to read the emotions of others and respond appropriately to them and to express emotions in ways that stir empathic responses in others, would best be learned by experiencing wide-ranging interactions with patterns of human emotion.

In the recent Sci-fi movie Her, Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, finds himself increasingly enthralled with his digital devices’ operating system Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson. At least in the beginning, she is completely dependent upon him to share with her his world. Samantha grows and develops through her interactions with Theodore, becoming more and more human in her responses as their relationship develops. Through machine learning, her originally programmed capabilities expand as she integrates the data of interpersonal experience. The film leaves us pondering the limits of what machines can learn and whether they will eventually approximate us in their sophistication or perhaps leave us intellectually, emotionally, and morally in the dust.

In our rapidly evolving technological world, life overtakes art with increasing frequency. Viv Labs, a San Jose startup, is developing Viv, the next generation of personal digital assistant. Like Samantha, Viv will learn from experience to understand the nuances of human communication and will be able not only to respond to complex commands by accurately meeting the verbally expressed needs of the user, but eventually also to anticipate needs and desires from subtle clues and context.

Unlike Samantha, however, who grows through her interactions with Theodore, Viv will learn and grow through interactions with hundreds of millions of Theodores. While Samantha presumably resided in her infancy on Theodore’s devices, Viv, and her various rivals, will live in the cloud and the world will be her playground. Her program will develop by active learning through her cumulative and simultaneous interactions with legions of users. An omniscient entity interacting simultaneously with the collective consciousness of humanity and living somewhere in the ether conjures images of the supernatural. But the cloud is still just a network of servers and Viv’s potential will be limited by the capacity of those servers, an enormous capacity nonetheless that can be expected to increase exponentially over time. Can the singularity be far?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Will Reading Become Obsolete?

In the post-singularity world of The Methuselarity Transformation, implantable MELD chips will be able to integrate seamlessly all the knowledge in the Universal Data Base with each person’s consciousness. In such a future world, we could imagine that our personal databases will update instantly in the background as new information is added to the UDB.

So what will be the future of reading if the content of whole libraries can be consumed in an instant? Will the information we absorb include form as well as content? Will we have an instant appreciation of how the content is composed or of its emotional tone? And will the unending stream of information create the ultimate spoiler: stories with simultaneously appearing beginnings, middles, and endings? Our lost ability to savor mystery and suspense could become an unintended consequence of satisfying our insatiable thirst for knowledge.

In 2014, we can still enjoy books “the old-fashioned way,” by downloading them on our Kindles, tablets, and phones (or by curling up with a good stack of paper for those so inclined). You will have the opportunity August 15 - 17 to download the Kindle version of The Methuselarity Transformation for FREE, explore the future of reading among other quandaries we will face in a not so distant future, and immerse yourself in a suspenseful tale.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dying is Forever

Avoiding death would seem to be among the most basic of human instincts. Many young adults are eagerly anticipating that the technological Singularity predicted by Ray Kurzweil will bring with it the promise of extraordinary life extension, perhaps even immortality. Immortality has piqued people’s imaginations through the ages and few would deny having had at least passing fantasies of living forever.

So how can we reconcile the drive to live with the compelling intensity with which people sometimes experience the wish to die, even people who are extraordinarily talented and accomplished like Robin Williams? Life everlasting versus everlasting oblivion. How could anyone ever choose the latter?

While there may well be circumstances in which suffering is truly both intolerable and interminable without any reasonable hope of relief, most suffering is temporary and can be survived and most suicide is associated with a profoundly distorted perception of hopelessness, a prominent symptom of depression.

Depression, a brain disorder, can be unipolar, with episodes of plummeting mood, or bipolar, in which episodes of depressed mood and episodes of euphoric mood, accompanied by often frenetic activity and sleeplessness, both occur. In depression, in addition to the disturbance of mood, disturbances of sleep, appetite, and energy level are common, along with a distorted perception of oneself and the world, with exaggerated feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt, sometimes of delusional severity.

A less discussed, but more striking aspect of suicide, however, is its intensely solitary nature. Affiliation is a powerful human drive. We strive to find others to love and to love us. We feel close bonds with our parents, children, and siblings, often even if they have betrayed us. The success of social networking is a testimony to our need for others in our lives. Our social support systems are instrumental in our capacity to resolve personal crises.

Suicide is the ultimate renouncement of relatedness. It is a solitary act, excluding others from participating in the final moments of life. Suicidal people often detach themselves deliberately and systematically from every meaningful relationship in the minutes, hours, or days before ending their lives, slipping quietly into their private night. Suicide abandons survivors, who are left to wonder what they could have done differently to prevent their loved ones from dying tragically.

I believe that aloneness is the ultimate depressive delusion that leads people to spurn life. An emotional state devoid of affiliation is lacking something essentially human that sustains us through the hardest times. It is as much a part of the brain disorder of depression as the inability to sleep or eat. And as we witness the outpouring of grief and love in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death, his blindness to the love that surrounded him astounds us all.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Race for Immortality: Plants Win!

Ray Mettler, one of my protagonists in The Methuselarity Transformation, genetically engineered a grass designed to grow so slowly that it required scant water and nutrients and almost no maintenance. HibernaTurf was intended to mitigate the growing worldwide water shortage while preserving swaths of easy to maintain green space.

His research led him to the saguaro cactus, a model of indolent growth, from which he harvested the genetic sequences responsible for its sluggish metabolism. While his project was a resounding success, winning him fame and fortune, its unintended consequences would bring the environment to the edge of catastrophe and cast a shadow over Ray’s life forever.

According the September 2014 issue of Discover Magazine, Ray...and I...missed the boat. The inertia of the saguaro pales before the infinitesimal growth of the moss campion. This plant has tiny leaves so tight to the ground that it defies grazing. And left alone, it seems capable of living indefinitely without signs of natural senescence. Ray might have saved himself a lot of trouble by propagating this naturally occurring analog to HibernaTurf instead of creating a brand new species. The Discover article speculates further that some organisms, perhaps including bristlecone pines that live for millennia, may undergo “negative senescence,” becoming increasingly impervious to deterioration and death as they age.

So what will be the next stage in the human quest for immortality? Will we find a way to stop aging at the cellular level, or will we learn how to slow our metabolism to a snail’s pace and to exist on whiffs of nutrients and thimblefuls of water? And will an extended lifespan escalate our deadly struggle to control diminishing land and resources or lead us to value life more and choose to enhance one another’s well-being and survival?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Genomic SETI - Intelligent Design for Nerds

Building future worlds for science fiction requires flights of imagination tempered by knowledge about how the world really works. The optimal result is a technological world that is both dazzlingly fantastic and scientifically plausible. The Internet, of course, provides considerable opportunity to validate concepts as well as to determine their novelty.

While writing The Methuselarity Transformation, I enjoyed discovering some of the stunning advances that the near future might bring. One such example, vacuum tube transport, came to me one day while driving up to the teller at my bank. As I watched my credentials whoosh through the transparent tubes, I wondered “Why can’t everything travel this way...even people?” A quick Google search found that the idea was neither outrageous nor novel. A company had already been formed based upon this technology that proposed to build out a nationwide transportation network: And a year after I wrote the technology into my manuscript, Elon Musk embraced it, propelling it into the popular media. I had mixed feelings about real life catching up to my future world before my work was even in print.

Another flight of fancy led to an idea that seemed beyond all limits of credibility, yet sufficiently tantalizing to include anyway. It was so fantastic that I never tried to validate it. Perhaps our “junk DNA,” the extensive sequences of nucleotide pairs on our chromosomes that do not code for any known functions, contained coded messages from an advanced civilization, put there either in the course of designing life on earth or inserted later. I had no idea whether or not these sequences were sufficiently abundant or sufficiently stable to convey an intelligible message, but was sufficiently enamored of the notion to include it on faith and hope that more knowledgeable readers would be kind. This novel form of intelligent design would become the basis of a new religious movement that based faith upon scientific discovery. And my designers hailed not just from another world, but from another universe.

Last night, I watched a TIVO’d episode of Morgan Freeman’s “Through the Wormhole” that speculated about our first encounters with aliens. Imagine my astonishment when, toward the end of the episode, he discussed current scientific inquiry into the very idea that messages from an advanced civilization could be embedded in the non-functional sequences within our DNA. First conceived way back in the seventies and revived over the past several years, Genomic SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is the quest for evidence of other civilizations within the code of our DNA.

Underlying the inquiry is an understanding of the structure of language and patterns of code that are compatible with communicating coherently. At least one scholarly article, published early in 2013, makes the case that our DNA contains a level of orderliness that is more consistent with deliberately constructed symbolic language than with the random effects of biology.

So as a writer, I again have mixed feelings. While pleased to have validation for the most speculative of my fantasies, I’m also chagrined to have overlooked the work of others that has apparently been going on for years. If only I had a MELD chip….

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Candles in the Night

What business does a sci-fi writer have writing about the Middle East conflict? Science fiction is about the future. Many writers envision dystopian worlds while others create future utopias. Which kind of world we get will be informed by how well we find solutions to the current problems that threaten our civilization. Imagining all the possible outcomes of the disastrous situation unfolding in the Middle East is therefore well within the realm of a science fiction author.

Following the news, it’s easy to lose hope. Centuries of acrimony, exploding into bloodshed in seemingly endless replays of the same scenarios, suggests a level of inertia that can never be surmounted. Adversaries stand on the shoulders of their ancestors with little chance of meeting on level ground. How could reason ever intrude upon the dialogue with sufficient force to change its course?

In the first episode of the new Sundance series “The Honorable Woman,” Nessa Stein suggests that conflict thrives where there is poverty and that a necessary part of resolving conflict is to improve the circumstances of the poorest involved. In the fictionalized world of the series, Nessa, a successful and powerful businesswoman, seeks to improve the lot of the Palestinian people by spreading communications technology throughout their world. She strives to bring together people from both sides of the conflict to accomplish this goal, which, of course, turns out not to be so simple.

So how might we imagine amidst the complexities of the real world conflict bringing together people from both sides in the interest of common goals? Is it even possible to get people steeped in the culture of hatred to lay aside their differences long enough to see one another as individuals with whom partnerships, and even friendships, might flourish?

Even as the rockets fly, such efforts to engage young people from both sides in reconciliation quietly move forward. Seeds of Peace has for more than twenty years brought together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers at a camp in Maine to engage with one another in trust building activities. While their numbers might be small, this program has created a cohort of bright young people who can no longer view one another as stereotypes and who can perhaps influence others in their home communities to open their minds.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies brings Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian students together in an academic program designed to train environmental leaders to bring ecological sustainability, renewable energy, and responsible water management to the ecosystems shared by their communities and to the world. Their alumni are teaming up across political and ethnic boundaries to develop innovative projects that will benefit people throughout the region and perhaps alleviate hardship and improve the standard of living for those who have been most deprived. Within their community, at least, Nessa’s dream lives.

I’ve had the opportunity within the past year to visit Rwanda, a country torn by the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus twenty years ago and now still recovering from that trauma. That conflict was striking for the intimacy of the perpetrators and victims, all members of the same community, formerly neighbors, friends, and even family members. Reconciliation would seem impossible among people who must again live side by side and look upon one another on a daily basis. And yet, remarkable steps toward repairing the schism have been taken by pockets of the population that serve as models for others to make peace. One particularly inspirational example is Ingoma Nshya, the first women’s drumming troupe in Rwanda, formed by an alliance of Hutu and Tutsi women, who, in addition to performing together, have founded Sweet Dreams, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor.

If our civilization is to survive and thrive through the twenty-first century, we will need to solve huge problems: preserving the environment and its diversity, developing sustainable renewable energy, and providing sufficient water and food to maintain a growing population in a reasonable state of comfort and dignity. Diverting resources to sustain armed combat flies in the face of solving these problems. Developing new alliances in the common interest of solving the problems that most threaten us all will be essential to preserving all humanity.