Ted Chiang’s hot takes are like his short stories—punchy, powerful, and thought-provoking.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
Monday, March 30th, 2020
Living Through The Future
You can listen to audio version of Living Through The Future.
Usually when we talk about “living in the future”, it’s something to do with technology: smartphones, satellites, jet packs… But I’ve never felt more like I’m living in the future than during The Situation.
On the one hand, there’s nothing particularly futuristic about living through a pandemic. They’ve occurred throughout history and this one could’ve happened at any time. We just happen to have drawn the short straw in 2020. Really, this should feel like living in the past: an outbreak of a disease that disrupts everyone’s daily life? Nothing new about that.
But there’s something dizzyingly disconcerting about the dominance of technology. This is the internet’s time to shine. Think you’re going crazy now? Imagine what it would’ve been like before we had our network-connected devices to keep us company. We can use our screens to get instant updates about technologies of world-shaping importance …like beds and face masks. At the same time as we’re starting to worry about getting hold of fresh vegetables, we can still make sure that whatever meals we end up making, we can share them instantaneously with the entire planet. I think that, despite William Gibson’s famous invocation, I always figured that the future would feel pretty futuristic all ‘round—not lumpy with old school matters rubbing shoulders with technology so advanced that it’s indistinguishable from magic.
When I talk about feeling like I’m living in the future, I guess what I mean is that I feel like I’m living at a time that will become History with a capital H. I start to wonder what we’ll settle on calling this time period. The Covid Point? The Corona Pause? 2020-P?
At some point we settled on “9/11” for the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (being a fan of ISO-8601, I would’ve preferred 2001-09-11, but I’ll concede that it’s a bit of a mouthful). That was another event that, even at the time, clearly felt like part of History with a capital H. People immediately gravitated to using historical comparisons. In the USA, the comparison was Pearl Harbour. Outside of the USA, the comparison was the Cuban missile crisis.
Another comparison between 2001-09-11 and what we’re currently experiencing now is how our points of reference come from fiction. Multiple eyewitnesses in New York described the September 11th attacks as being “like something out of a movie.” For years afterwards, the climactic showdowns in superhero movies that demolished skyscrapers no longer felt like pure escapism.
For The Situation, there’s no shortage of prior art to draw upon for comparison. If anthing, our points of reference should be tales of isolation like Robinson Crusoe. The mundane everyday tedium of The Situation can’t really stand up to comparison with the epic scale of science-fictional scenarios, but that’s our natural inclination. You can go straight to plague novels like Stephen King’s The Stand or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Or you can get really grim and cite Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you can go the other direction too and compare The Situation with the cozy catastrophes of John Wyndham like Day Of The Triffids (or just be lazy and compare it to any of the multitude of zombie apocalypses—an entirely separate kind of viral dystopia).
In years to come there will be novels set during The Situation. Technically they will be literary fiction—or even historical fiction—but they’ll feel like science fiction.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster having the same feeling. It was really happening, it was on the news, but it felt like scene-setting for a near-future dystopian apocalypse. Years later, I was struck when reading Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz-Smith. In 2006, I wrote:
Halfway through reading the book, I figured out what it was: Wolves Eat Dogs is a Cyberpunk novel. It happens to be set in present-day reality but the plot reads like a science-fiction story. For the most part, the book is set in the post-apocolyptic landscape of Prypiat, near Chernobyl. This post-apocolyptic scenario just happens to be real.
The protagonist, Arkady Renko, is sent to this frightening hellish place following a somewhat far-fetched murder in Moscow. Killing someone with a minute dose of a highly radioactive material just didn’t seem like a very realistic assassination to me.
Then I saw the news about Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who died this week, quite probably murdered with a dose of polonium-210.
I’ve got the same tingling feeling about The Situation. Fact and fiction are blurring together. Past, present, and future aren’t so easy to differentiate.
I really felt it last week standing in the back garden, looking up at the International Space Station passing overhead on a beautifully clear and crisp evening. I try to go out and see the ISS whenever its flight path intersects with southern England. Usually I’d look up and try to imagine what life must be like for the astronauts and cosmonauts on board, confined to that habitat with nowhere to go. Now I look up and feel a certain kinship. We’re all experiencing a little dose of what that kind of isolation must feel like. Though, as the always-excellent Marina Koren points out:
The more experts I spoke with for this story, the clearer it became that, actually, we have it worse than the astronauts. Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true. Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.
Whenever I look up at the ISS passing overhead I feel a great sense of perspective. “Look what we can do!”, I think to myself. “There are people living in space!”
Last week that feeling was still there but it was tempered with humility. Yes, we can put people in space, but here we are with our entire way of life put on pause by something so small and simple that it’s technically not even a form of life. It’s like we’re the martians in H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds; all-conquering and formidable, but brought low by a dose of dramatic irony, a Virus Ex Machina.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.
Monday, May 20th, 2019
Ted Chiang has new collection out‽ Why did nobody tell me‽
Okay, well, technically this is Joyce Carol Oates telling me. In any case …woo-hoo!!!
Wednesday, April 24th, 2019
A terrific six-part series of short articles looking at the people behind the history of Artificial Intelligence, from Babbage to Turing to JCR Licklider.
- When Charles Babbage Played Chess With the Original Mechanical Turk
- Invisible Women Programmed America’s First Electronic Computer
- Why Alan Turing Wanted AI Agents to Make Mistakes
- The DARPA Dreamer Who Aimed for Cyborg Intelligence
- Algorithmic Bias Was Born in the 1980s
- How Amazon’s Mechanical Turkers Got Squeezed Inside the Machine
The history of AI is often told as the story of machines getting smarter over time. What’s lost is the human element in the narrative, how intelligent machines are designed, trained, and powered by human minds and bodies.
Sunday, February 24th, 2019
Programming lessons from Umberto Eco and Emily Wilson.
Converting the analog into the digital requires discretization, leaving things out. What we filter out—or what we focus on—depends on our biases. How do conventional translators handle issues of bias? What can programmers learn from them?
Friday, January 18th, 2019
Raw data is both an oxymoron and a bad idea; to the contrary, data should be cooked with care.
Thursday, December 6th, 2018
Monday, December 3rd, 2018
Absolutely spot on! And it cuts both ways:
Thursday, August 16th, 2018
A step-by-step guide to wrapping up a self-contained bit of functionality (a camera, in this case) into a web component.
Mind you, it would be nice if there were some thought given to fallbacks, like say:
<simple-camera> <input type="file" accept="image/*"> </simple-camera>
Wednesday, June 27th, 2018
Between the utopian and dystopian, which vision of the future seems more likely to you? Which vision seems more true to how we currently live with technology, in the form of our smartphones and social media apps?
Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
A terrific cautionary look at the history of machine learning and artificial intelligence from the new laugh-a-minute book by James.
Saturday, June 16th, 2018
An even-handed assessment of the benefits and dangers of machine learning.
Monday, May 7th, 2018
It’s upsetting to realize that the reason why you’re in a senior position may be because of the system of privilege that got you there. It’s upsetting to realize that there are people who aren’t in that rank who are more qualified than you, but who haven’t benefited from the same privilege you did.
So here’s what I can do about it:
- Start sponsoring members of underrepresented groups
- Listen to marginalized people, and believe them
- Do “the homework” to be a better mentor
Saturday, April 7th, 2018
Cennydd is writing (and self-publishing) a book on ethics and digital design. It will be released in September.
Technology is never neutral: it has inevitable social, political, and moral impact. The coming era of connected smart technologies, such as AI, autonomous vehicles, and the Internet of Things, demands trust: trust the tech industry has yet to fully earn.
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Why building inclusive tech takes more than good intentions.
When we run focus groups, we joke that it’s only a matter of seconds before someone mentions Skynet or The Terminator in the context of artificial intelligence. As if we’ll go to sleep one day and wake up the next with robots marching to take over. Few things could be further from the truth. Instead, it’ll be human decisions that we made yesterday, or make today and tomorrow that will shape the future. So let’s make them together, with other people in mind.
Monday, February 19th, 2018
That’s the web I want; a place with spare corners where un-monetisable enthusiasms can be preserved, even if they’ve not been updated for seven years.
Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017
If research on biases has told us anything, it is that humans make better decisions when we learn to recognize and correct for bias.
Sunday, August 6th, 2017
A series of questions to ask on any design project:
- What are my lenses?
- Am I just confirming my assumptions, or am I challenging them?
- What details here are unfair? Unverified? Unused?
- Am I holding onto something that I need to let go of?
- What’s here that I designed for me? What’s here that I designed for other people?
- What would the world look like if my assumptions were wrong?
- Who might disagree with what I’m designing?
- Who might be impacted by what I’m designing?
- What do I believe?
- Who’s someone I’m nervous to talk to about this?
- Is my audience open to change?
- What am I challenging as I create this?
- How can I reframe a mistake in a way that helps me learn?
- How does my approach to this problem today compare to how I might have approached this one year ago?
- If I could learn one thing to help me on this project, what would that one thing be?
- Do I need to slow down?