Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Will AIs want to kill us?

There’s a lot of fear around about Artificial Intelligence. South Koreans recently flipped out when Google’s AlphaGo defeated their Grand Master at the national board game. But will AI usher in the end-times for humanity?

Certainly Hollywood seems to think so. Cue: Skynet, Age of Ultron, Transcendence, The Matrix, War Game; or, even earlier, Colossus: The Forbin Project; hell, even as far back as Metropolis in 1927! And who can forget Hal 9000’s chillingly calm, ‘I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that’ when he refuses to open the pod bay doors for marooned astronaut Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

The equation seems clear: the first thing self-aware computers will decide to do is kill us. The most consistently upbeat portrayal of AI and humanity living side by side is in Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. The ‘Minds’ of the Culture are true artificial intelligence that would make Skynet look – and feel – like an abacus. And that’s the important difference: Banks’s AIs have feelings. To be self-aware is to have an opinion, to be drawn towards some things and repelled by others, and, consequently, to create and be guided by a moral and ethical landscape.  The vast majority of humans are not homicidal psychopaths, so why should artificial intelligences be any different? Okay, some Culture AIs are crazy, or mildly anti-social ‘rogues’, but the other Minds keep them in check.

What Banks’s AIs value is uniqueness. Each Mind is constructed with a certain degree of randomness built in. They are all individuals, which is another requirement of true self-consciousness. The inescapable logic of this is that they also value the uniqueness of the human mind; for example, in Consider Phlebas the far more advanced Minds acknowledge that the character of Fal ‘Ngeestra has a way of looking at problems that is very useful. The Minds are partners with the people of the Culture, with each side bringing something important to the table. As a result, the whole civilisation is better for it. Maybe ours will be too.

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

Review - World of Trouble - Ben H Winters

World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3)World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed the single-minded investigations of Hank Palace, resolutely sticking to his job while society disintegrates around him in the face of an impending and world-ending meteor strike, and World of Trouble rounds out the trilogy nicely. Ben Winters has done a tremendous job balancing light and dark throughout the series and he nails the ending, delivering something that manages to be both uplifting and consistent with the journey we've tagged along on. It's a really clever and well-crafted piece of writing. I can't recommend this series highly enough.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Free SF short story collection - Out There

New subscribers to my Beyond newsletter can now download Out There a free ebook of my collected short stories including:
'... They First Make Mad' - Travel advisory: time-travel can seriously damage your health.
'To That Which Kills' - Is humanity only good for destroying things?
'A Mirror, Darkly' - Isobel didn't want to be lonely any more. Her mirror had other ideas...
Beyond is delivered every two months by email and includes short articles on science fiction and science fact, a roundup of Australian speculative fiction publishing and other articles and links for lovers of all things SF.

You can sign up to Beyond at http://eepurl.com/btvru1

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review - Use of Weapons - Iain M Banks

Use of Weapons (Culture, #4)Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Use of Weapons marks a departure for Banks from the more linear storylines of Consider Phlebas and Player of Games to what is effectively a character study of Cheradenine Zakalwe: a non-Culture human who has been recruited by Special Circumstances to... do what SC do.

There were a lot of elements I liked about the book, providing as it does a better look at the imperatives and motives of Special Circumstances and - by extension - the broader Culture, and there were some funny and often gut-wrenching set pieces along the way, but the overall effect (including the disorienting time jumps to different epochs in Zakalwe's long and dangerous life and the barely explained 'shock' ending) was not as satisfying as a more conventional approach to storytelling could have been. As a result, the book felt more like it was trying to make a point at the expense of entertaining the reader.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Deadly supernovas

Richard Cowper’s 1974 science fiction novel The Twilight of Briareus is one of the weirdest alien invasion stories I’ve read. It made a big impression on me as a teenager, and the central idea of the book is still very strong (although when I re-read it recently its storytelling hadn’t stood the test of time). The Briareus of the story is a star 130 light years from Earth that goes supernova. When the wavefront finally hits our planet it causes immediate climatic events, including storms and tornadoes that lash the British coastline, and the slow onset of a mini ice age. But that’s only the visible effects. Soon it’s discovered that the entire human race is now sterile, and certain people – including children conceived at the time of the Briareus event – have telepathic abilities. One scientist begins to suspect that alien entities have used the supernova to take over humanity…

It struck me on first reading as a very ‘left field’ concept, so it was interesting to read the latest studies about an actual event that occurred in our galactic neighbourhood during human pre-history. Two supernovae exploded several hundred light years from Earth about two million years ago, leaving radioactive traces that can still be detected on the ocean floor and the surface of the Moon. It’s been theorised that both these events could have affected the development of homo erectus, who was busy descending from the trees at the time.

Certainly the increase in ambient light – the supernovae would have been as bright as the Moon for at least a year – would have affected the behaviour of animals that take such cues to navigate or mate or lay their eggs; and we can only wonder what our ancestors made of it, perhaps inventing stories of sky gods and titanic battles in the heavens. Luckily the wave of radiation that followed – approximately five hundred years later – was relatively weak, raising background radioactivity to only three times what it is today. That’s a small amount, likely to increase the risk of cancer, for example, by only three per cent.

So we dodged a bullet two million years ago. And in case you’re wondering, the risk of another nearby supernova happening today is less than one in several billion.

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review - The Circle - Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a pretty chilling extrapolation of what might happen if the geek inherited the Earth: the overpowering tyranny of a single mindset with the grunt of a global tech company (a lot like Google) behind it, that decides privacy and secrets are bad and full access to everyone's data is good. The descent into dystopia is presented through a series of reasoned arguments - who wouldn't want to protect children from child molesters - nicely balanced with the real-world implications of the suggested 'solutions' to such problems for the rest of us.

As a polemic against the potential excesses of digital entrepreneurs, it's a powerful piece of writing. The narrative strand with new employee Mae Holland being sucked into The Circle and coming to embody its insidious philosophy is less compelling, but still handled well.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The internet is not your friend

Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s classic novel The Space Merchants posited a future where it was impossible to escape advertising, with marketing messages beamed directly onto our retinas. But they didn’t foresee how big data could be used, or misused, in the real world. Or how lethal the whole system could become.

Your mobile phone carries a great deal of information about you, including your browsing and internet purchasing history which, if accessed by marketers, can be used to build up a profile of the type of person you are: male, female, new parent, teenager, Ford driver, etc.

Each phone has a unique ID that marketers can use to gather this information. As well as this ID, if you’ve ever permitted an app to know your location then the marketers can also see where you are at any particular time and send ads that will show up while you browse Facebook, for example when you’re enjoying a drink at a cafĂ© or bar, to tell you a shop is nearby that sells stuff you are interested in. This is called geo-fencing, where your phone’s location triggers an ad to be sent your way. It all sounds slightly creepy.

But it became even creepier when an anti-abortion group in America contracted a marketer to geo-fence abortion clinics. As a result, phone owners who had been profiled as female and young, based on their browsing history, and who were present (with their phone) at the clinics were sent anti-abortion/ pro-choice adverts. This is not an invasion of privacy because the marketer didn’t know who they were, but browsing histories create uncannily accurate virtual profiles.

Of course this is a fairly unsubtle use of what could be an infinitely more delicate and insidious tool. In Horizon, governments waged ‘information wars’ to sway public opinion and leave countries ripe for takeover without a shot being fired. Misinformation is already becoming a problem on the internet and it is only going to get worse.

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