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, December 16th, 2019
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
I’m really enjoying this end-of-the-year round-up from people speaking their brains. It’s not over yet, but there’s already a lot of thoughtful stuff to read through.
Only a few years ago, I would need a whole team of developers to accomplish what can now be done with just a few amazing tools.
And I like this zinger from Geoff:
What you need to build a great website is restraint.
Sunday, August 4th, 2019
Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. Film cameras become rarities, but not cameras. Typewriters disappear, but not typing. And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.
Monday, May 6th, 2019
A cli-fi short story by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Thursday, February 21st, 2019
Speculative fiction as a tool for change:
We need to think harder about the future and ask: What if our policies, institutions, and societies didn’t have to be organized as they are now? Good science fiction taps us into a rich seam of radical answers to this question.
Sunday, December 9th, 2018
This is the best explanation of quantum computing I’ve read. I mean, it’s not like I can judge its veracity, but I could actually understand it.
Sunday, November 25th, 2018
Given the nature of the long bet I’ve got running, I’m surprised that the Long Now Foundation are publishing on Medium. Wanna bet how long this particular URL will last?
Sunday, August 5th, 2018
From Frederik Pohl’s 1966 novel:
The remote-access computer transponder called the “joymaker” is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.
Essentially, it is a transponder connecting you with the central computing facilities of the city in which you reside on a shared-time, self-programming basis.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
2001 + 50
The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.
The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.
When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.
Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.
When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.
But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.
Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.
To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.
I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.
On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.
Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.
Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018
Here are Luke’s notes from the talk I just gave at An Event Apart in Seattle.
Friday, March 9th, 2018
I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
Kevin Kelly’s thoughts at the time of coining of this term seven years ago:
No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.
Thursday, March 8th, 2018
James is writing a book. It sounds like a barrel of laughs.
In his brilliant new work, leading artist and writer James Bridle offers us a warning against the future in which the contemporary promise of a new technologically assisted Enlightenment may just deliver its opposite: an age of complex uncertainty, predictive algorithms, surveillance, and the hollowing out of empathy.
Thursday, March 1st, 2018
Gene Wolfe: A Science Fiction Legend on the Future-Altering Technologies We Forgot to Invent | The Polymath Project
We humans are not good at imagining the future. The future we see ends up looking a lot like the past with a few things tweaked or added on.
Thursday, January 18th, 2018
The transcript of a talk by Charles Stross on the perils of prediction and the lessons of the past. It echoes Ted Chiang’s observation that runaway AIs are already here, and they’re called corporations.
History gives us the perspective to see what went wrong in the past, and to look for patterns, and check whether those patterns apply to the present and near future. And looking in particular at the history of the past 200-400 years—the age of increasingly rapid change—one glaringly obvious deviation from the norm of the preceding three thousand centuries—is the development of Artificial Intelligence, which happened no earlier than 1553 and no later than 1844.
I’m talking about the very old, very slow AIs we call corporations, of course.
Saturday, December 30th, 2017
Six excellent mini essays from Lauren Beukes, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken Liu, Hannu Rajaniemi, Alastair Reynolds and Aliette de Bodard.
I particularly Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughts on the function of science fiction:
Here’s how I think science fiction works aesthetically. It’s not prediction. It has, rather, a double action, like the lenses of 3D glasses. Through one lens, we make a serious attempt to portray a possible future. Through the other, we see our present metaphorically, in a kind of heroic simile that says, “It is as if our world is like this.” When these two visions merge, the artificial third dimension that pops into being is simply history. We see ourselves and our society and our planet “like giants plunged into the years”, as Marcel Proust put it. So really it’s the fourth dimension that leaps into view: deep time, and our place in it. Some readers can’t make that merger happen, so they don’t like science fiction; it shimmers irreally, it gives them a headache. But relax your eyes, and the results can be startling in their clarity.
Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
Dave applies two quotes from sci-fi authors to the state of today’s web.
A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.
The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future, but to prevent it.
Monday, September 11th, 2017
Most technologies are overestimated in the short term. They are the shiny new thing. Artificial Intelligence has the distinction of having been the shiny new thing and being overestimated again and again, in the 1960’s, in the 1980’s, and I believe again now.
Rodney Brooks is not bullish on the current “marketing” of Artificial Intelligence. Riffing on Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, he points out that AI—as currently described—is indistinguishable from magic in all the wrong ways.
This is a problem we all have with imagined future technology. If it is far enough away from the technology we have and understand today, then we do not know its limitations. It becomes indistinguishable from magic.
Watch out for arguments about future technology which is magical. It can never be refuted. It is a faith-based argument, not a scientific argument.
Sunday, May 7th, 2017
A minority report on artificial intelligence
Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.
It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.
At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.
Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.
The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.
But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:
It helps not to think of them as human.
To which the response is:
No, they’re so much more than that.
Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.
Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.
Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.
Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.
Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.
When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.
Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…
Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.
At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.
Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.
There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.
The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:
SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.
Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017
Science fiction isn’t about technology, it’s about people …and how people change in response to technology.
So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
It has been exactly six years to the day since I instantiated this prediction:
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
It is exactly five years to the day until the prediction condition resolves to a Boolean
If it resolves to
true, The Bletchly Park Trust will receive $1000.
If it resolves to
false, The Internet Archive will receive $1000.
Much as I would like Bletchley Park to get the cash, I’m hoping to lose this bet. I don’t want my pessimism about URL longevity to be rewarded.
So, to recap, the bet was placed on
It is currently
And the bet times out on