Tag Archives | science

When Roombas Attack: The Singularity

My next novel has a comedic take on the Technological Singularity, so I thought I’d start to do some more posts about the topic here on The Skwib. The following video is a kind-of companion piece for a Time article that came out earlier this year about the Singularity and one of its main proponents, Ray Kurzweil. It is presented by the Earth’s “premier science comedian”. I’m not sure what the hell that means, but it is funny!

The Frankenstein myth predates the story told by Mary Shelly, incidentally. A form of it is as old as Prometheus, in which the Titan steals the secrets of civilization and gives it to human beings. (Zeus doesn’t like this very much, and punishes Prometheus by forcing him to donate his liver to a large avian of the family accipitridae on a daily basis.) In Jewish folklore there is the golem, which is created from clay and in many accounts destroys its creator, largely because it’s so difficult to find a decent corned beef sandwich in medieval European cities.

In most of these stories, at heart is the idea of human hubris — an overweening pride or arrogance that defies the gods, or in modern stories, reality. Well, that and dodgy meals.

Hubris has always been a component of the human heart. Without it we wouldn’t try to create things, but if we rely on it too much, we can get ourselves in trouble. Most of our problems with technology stem from this irrational confidence that we can control our own creations — something that is manifestly untrue. If you ever get the feeling that our technology is out of control, you’re not alone. And you’re more sane than those who believe technology is something we command at will. It’s a bias we all have, because it’s rational.

We can control individual technologies, in the absence of other technologies and systems. But once they start to interact, they become more difficult to understand. The very rationality that allowed us to create science and technology in the first place now undercuts our ability to understand the gestalt of many technologies and systems interacting. That is not to say we shouldn’t TRY to understand them, but it is to say we should show more humility with the further creation of new technologies.

I will now demonstrate a complete lack of humility by inserting a cartoon of a monkey pirate. You didn’t see that coming did you?

Alltop is funnier than monkeys, pirates and robots combined. Originally published June, 2011.

Why Everyone Should Read Cat’s Cradle

“Now I will destroy the whole world.”
– What Bokonists say when they commit suicide, Cat’s Cradle, Chapter 106

Cat's cradleYou’d think a story about the end of the world – not just the world of one person, or human civilization, but all life on the planet – would be a grim affair, but Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is replete with wit, wry humour, and a touching compassion for human frailty.

Vonnegut’s book is no bright dystopia, like the one portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor is it as unrelentingly dark as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s our world that Vonnegut so amusingly satirizes, a world in which human beings are awfully good at creating doomsday devices (atomic bombs, religions), and lying to themselves.

Many have said this is a story about the insanity of the Cold War, but I think it’s a short history of human stupidity. And it is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1963. The plot follows a narrator who is writing a book about one of the creators of the atomic bomb and in the process discovers the scientist has also made Ice-9, a substance with the potential to turn all water into solid ice. Why invent such a dangerous thing? Come on, science can’t be held back by such existential worries – it’s progress, baby.

Our world is beset with climate change caused by our technologies. As a species, we’re on the cusp of massive changes that could exceed the pace of evolution – whether from genetic engineering or through fusing our biology with information technology – and this is precisely the kind of book that everyone needs to read.

We need to think about what we are doing with our scientific power, not just proceed blindly.

Cat’s Cradle is the book that helped me find a way I could be a writer: it’s literary, but it plays with science fictional tropes; it’s funny, but there’s a point to it all. In it he invents a religion, Bokonism, that is both humane and ironic, and that puts the lie to all other human religions. He spoofs geopolitics as easily as he skewers human egocentrism. And he does it all with humour and prose that’s accessible and well crafted. It’s deceptively simple, in fact. You can’t help but be moved, and then you think, “How did he do that?”

The short chapters are perfect for today’s attention-deficit-disordered readers (at least, until we have our concentration chips implanted), so it works as a book that everyone at university could read.

Not to mention all the great ideas (foma: a harmless untruth) and kickass existential “Calypso” lyrics from the Book of Bokonon:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself, he understand.

Alltop enjoys a good apocalypse. Originally appeared on The Mark in 2010, and thanks to Nodoca for the photo.

The Future Is Frenzied

Chad gets ready to test the Frink Dojigger 12...Professor Albedo-9000 Frink (the Third) was justifiably proud of his invention. It had taken him nearly 300 years of his genetically enhanced life to construct the Frink Dojigger 12. (Experimental models 1-11 proved un-viable.)

Using only the finest Moussorgsky rodent filaments and all the heavy element Poutinium available in the Liquid Fermentation Galaxy, he had constructed the first Pan-Dimensional TeleKinetic Operating System known to man.

It wasn’t perfect yet, by any means. The Moussorgsky rodent filaments only worked when fed a steady diet of Hermelin cheese and light Russian opera. And the Poutinium was playing hell with the customized Evacuation Module he’d purchased from Googlishus Industries.

And of course, he had no idea what the Frink Dojigger did yet, but he was pretty certain the twelfth model the wouldn’t de-molecularize its operator.

Pretty sure. He still thought it prudent to get his latest grad student, Chad, to try it out first.

Alltop loves light Russian opera! From Toulouse Le Grandfig in the Land of the Future | photo by Victoria Peckham. Originally published in November, 2007.

Fiction Fridays: Scientific dating

are you real -- plastic lipsJeremy Butler, venture capitalist and shallow bastard, was ready for his next foray into the dating world. He’d read the latest studies, and he had a strategy.

Instead of giving lavish gifts that had material value (diamond bracelets, sports cars, fur coats and the like) he was going to spend on ‘worthless’ experiences.

He was still going to be classy. Jeremy had lots of money to blow, and he was going to blow it. But on experiences — opera, exclusive clubs, gourmet dinners — not on things.

The mathematicians had it all figured out. From their study, they showed that gold-diggers would not stick around for experiences. They would only stay for things.

That night he went out with Suziku, a cute Japanese woman who worked for Sony. It went splendidly. She was engaged by his exciting tales of venture capitalism. He adored her demure nature and lack of interest in drinking expensive champagne. In fact, Suziku didn’t eat anything. Perfect.

They arranged to go out again, and Jeremy was thrilled, at least as thrilled as his shallow soul would allow.

On the next date, he took her to the opera, and he was surprised to discover that in addition to speaking Japanese and English, she was also fluent in Italian. In fact, she translated for him, whispering in his ear at such a low level that only he could hear.

It never occurred to him that he did not feel her breath on his cheek as she did so.

This third date went even better; he walked her home and they kissed. Her lips were strange. Plasticky tasting. Was this one of those weird Japanese things — lipstick that tasted of plastic?

She invited him in; they kissed again, this time more passionately, and Jeremy thought it was odd that her tongue was completely dry. But by then, he was not thinking clearly. His shallow bastard had come to the fore, and he wanted only one thing. She led him to her bedroom, where she undressed for him, clumsily, but adorably so.

His excitement turned to fascinated horror as he gazed upon Suziku’s nether-regions; it was like he was a kid again, sneaking a look his sister’s Barbie doll. There was nothing there but smooth plastic. Suziku was some kind of advanced gynoid!

Jeremy figured would just have to make do — nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Originally inspired by:Japanese develop ‘female’ android, and more about gynoids at Wikipedia here. | Worthless dating tips. Cool photo, “Are you real” by cazucito. Yes, originally published in 2005!