Archive for the ‘fiction’ category

(Dis)embodied futures?

December 13, 2013

Haven’t posted here for a while, but this is kind of futures related, so I’ll put it here.

Below is the text of a talk a gave in Birmingham as part of this interesting event in the terrific new Library of Birmingham.

It involved various cunning artistic responses and representations to famous dead thinkers – I was responding to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. None of us quite knew how it was going to go, I think. But the whole set of talks ran twice, and having heard them all, at the second round I realised that the question I was trying to ask, or answer, had crystallised more clearly: how close can we get through representations, especially new digital representations, to an actual person who is no longer around? That seemed to be the main theme of the day. My subsidiary question, as it were, was how our view of the answer to the big question is affected by whether we think it is essential for persons that they are embodied, or that some kind of encoded form of a person can be substrate independent.

That said, this was my slightly rambling response, more or less as given – (there were some pics but I’ve left those out here because copyright)

Hello,

I’m here to tell you about life after death. I’m going to look at some varieties of immortality, taking my cue from Mary Shelley and trying to think through what might have been added to the discussion of how we cheat death since her time.

There are a range of options for maintaining some sort of presence in the world after your normal lifespan – lets take the biblical standard of three score years and ten as a starting point – as in fact we’ve just seen.

If you are one of a select few, and Mary is, you might achieve literary immortality, fascinating us with the works you left behind. You might do so, as she did, by writing a story which is itself about immortality, of another kind, involving body parts reassembled and reanimated. Or, as when we heard from Mary just now, you might be recreated digitally, another way of speaking to people who never met you in the flesh.

Let’s start with the story she created, long before digital technology was thought of. Frankenstein has a number of overlapping themes. That’s one reason it has endured for so long, in so many re-tellings. An important one, for me, is our ambivalence about the effort to eliminate the imperfections of humanity. That seems, at first blush, a highly desirable thing to do. But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch). The effort to make us more perfect can only be made by humans as they are now, imperfect as we know them to be.

The rather large imperfection of mortality is, as it were, the major sub theme here. And the Frankenstein plot revolves around the first ideas about how to overcome this which were drawn  from science, as opposed to involving supernatural power. Delving into the secrets of the body, and of electricity, Dr Frankenstein achieves – well, not immortality, but reanimation or resurrection. That is a step beyond exhumation, the option highlighted in our title today, but which – strictly – has the drawback that simply being exhumed doesn’t stop you being dead.

Is this immortality, though?  The creature is not a continuation of some former person – the other subplot of failed parenting requires him to be, in effect, a newborn in monstrously enlarged adult form.

His limbs and organs are alive again, but he has no memory or personality. Indeed, he is patched together, one gathers, somewhat randomly from gathered parts, so is a composite in any case. His mind, apparently new, is formed by, among other things, reading many of Mary Shelley’s favourite books. So the good old technology of print is already, as we might now think of it, functioning to externalise memory. It can be used to furnish a mind with ideas which are themselves reanimated when they are active in a new brain.

The modern version of a Frankensteinian revival is perhaps resurrection after cryogenic preservation. The idea is that your body or –  if you have less cash or are indifferent to what happens below the neck – just your head is placed in cryogenic suspension. You become a corpsicle. If you have arranged to keep up the payments on the freezer, you will stay there until future technologists are clever enough to repair whatever killed you, along with the incidental cell damage caused by the freezing, and you will live again. Since technologies that can do that (nanobots that get inside the cells to fix them are the current favourite speculation) will be effective at preventing normal wear and tear, So you’ll probably be immortal this time around. 

This scenario is speculative, but the freezing part, at least is non-fictional. The scheme was first proposed by Robert Ettinger in the 1960s. He founded the Cryonics Institute in Michigan in the 1970s, had his mother and two wives put in storage, and when he died himself in 2011, aged 92, he was frozen, too. So, one day, maybe, he’ll come back to say, “I told you so!”.

On the face of it, this version of immortality is firmly focussed on the body. But there is, I think, a strong strain in the advocacy of cryonics that the body has a basic design flaw – it runs down – which needs fixing. The revived body, I suppose, would operate pretty much like it did before (perhaps with invisibly resident nanobots).

That might not be good enough, of course. Ettinger was preserved at 92 A lot of people over 80 have dementia, so this route to new life raises serious questions about when to go into suspension, or whether externalised memories, perhaps preserved digitally, would need to be on hand to restore a sense of self to the revived brain/mind.

Staying with bodies for now, the next set of routes to immortality are simpler, in one way – they involve not dying. There are people now who  believe this is a realistic scientific and technological prospect, not merely a perennial wish. The most often heard from is Aubrey de Grey, proponent of SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence). As this suggests, it would prevent ageing, so not guarantee immortality – violent deaths would still happen. But others would simply go on living as long as they wanted. An important aspect of this is that they would not, as many stories of longevity suggest, have to endure extended decrepitude. Rather, they would have an indefinitely prolonged middle age.

De Grey’s programme is basically to accelerate a bunch of lines of biological research which would allow us to prevent various kinds of cell damage and cell death. It is not that far from conventional medical research on diseases of the elderly. Western medicine, essentially, is oriented to preventing death.  a clear descendant of the Frankensteinian project.

Alternatively, and here we move closer to the digital world, there is another set of routes to prolonging life through technology. They share an attitude to the body apparent in the advocates of biological life extension – that it is a flawed piece of engineering, a collection of evolutionary kludges, splendid in its way and on its day, but in need of fixing for the long term.

The engineer’s approach here is to go down the road of prostheses and implants toward a full-blown cyborg. If missing or malfunctioning body parts can be replaced with non-biological components, perhaps in the end we merge completely with our technology. There are a range of endpoints here, depending on whether the brain ends up maintained in an artificial body, or is itself replaced by some kind of electronic substitute.

If you could do that, then you would have yet a further range of options, digitally speaking. That electronic substitute would have to be programmed, and furnished with memories. If these are somehow obtained from a living brain, and encoded in digital form for transfer to the new medium, then we’ve achieved a real version of the Cartesian separation of mind and brain. And mind, perhaps, can be given independence – analogous to software – from the hardware (presently wetware) in which it is operating.

Is this taking the computer metaphor for the brain too far? Time will tell. But there are those who believe in immortality achieved by a kind of resurrection through digitisation.

The best known is Ray Kurzweil, who argues it will be possible to record the contents of a brain, and then “upload” the mind it supports into a computer. This would be immortality sans body (though presumably simulating all the experiences which go with having one, if desired). Consciousness reborn in this form might go on for ever, or at least until the cosmos runs down which is quite a long time.

Kurzweil wants this, not for future beneficiaries, but for himself. Meantime, he is also at work building an avatar of his late (40 years dead) father, now using a pre-digital archive. He is compiling all the letters, documents and pictures he can, to use in programming a computer which will think and talk like his dad.

With much more extensive digital recording, it seems, once we have mind uploading technology, perhaps we can can also construct a simulacrum of a former mind, using whatever information we can gather about the contents of that mind.

And if the actual mind hasn’t been dissected and digitised, there might be enough on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to generate, well, something.

A provocative example: a robot made a few years ago which looked and spoke like the science fiction Author Philip K Dick. Dick left millions of words of text, which were uploaded into intelligent software and used to generate new conversations with people who spoke to his new avatar. Sometimes they made excellent sense, sometimes not – quite like the man himself.

The whole project is documented in David Dufty’s splendid book Losing the Head of Philip K Dick. That story ends when the head is indeed lost, in an airport. However, the creator has since made another, better version – so the digital resurrection of Dick has itself been resurrected!

That result: now you see him, now you don’t, here he is again – reminds one of a lot of science fiction where the mind uploading trope is now taken for granted. There are a host of stories where people routinely make backup copies of themselves, and hardly anyone ever dies – they are just rebooted. It is contemporary science fiction’s advance on cloning, which is a way of replacing yourself but of course requires all the Frankensteinian chores of education and training to furnish the clone’s mind with the same experiences as the original “authentic” person.

SF loves to play around with such notions – once the idea is articulated, then never mind the technical obstacles. Lets just leap forward to a world where it has been perfected and see what plots it helps create.

From our present day perspective, though, it is clear there will be many, many steps on the road to this kind of digital revival. So let me finish be mentioning one very interesting recent fiction which works with a partial, and seriously malfunctioning, version of digital re-creation.

 The young British novelist James Smythe’s The Machine features a traumatised war veteran who has his worst memories erased by the eponymous machine, and the gaps replaced with a narrative he ought to find it easier to live with.

Unfortunately, the machine erases his mind entirely, and the novel relates the efforts of his wife to rebuild it, with the aid of an illicitly acquired machine of her own. It is a pretty compelling story, as what she creates seems to take on a life of its own, and has some excellent twists I won’t spoil. The blurb describes it as “A Frankenstein tale for the 21st Century”. So it is. I think Mary Shelley would have loved it.

Thank you.

The whole day was immense fun and I enjoyed being able to revisit some ideas from a book on the Frankenstein myth I did in 1998 – it seems a long while ago now – with references to a novel that appeared in 2013. Thanks to Jason and Samara for having me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science fiction and innovation – nearly there

March 24, 2013

future-cover2

Seems a while since I trailed the project I did for NESTA on science fiction and innovation, but it is now about to be published.

I’ve commented on retro-futures here quite a bit. For this piece, I  assembled a little composite, to enliven the beginning of a long review paper. Here it is, as a taster for the whole (quite big) thing.

As you sip your perfect coffee, you scan the morning’s personalised news on your vidscreen. Finance: yields on your undersea city bonds look poor after the pressure seal scare on the prototype dome, but asteroid mining shares are up. Win some, lose some.

Your wrist phone chimes with a message from your spouse. Her business trip to review the Sahara forest project will finish early and she ought to make the noon hypersonic shuttle and be home by teatime. Maybe you can still make the premiere of that new zero-G dance show tonight.

Time to leave. You signal the table to resorb the scant remains of your nutritionally balanced breakfast. The kids couldn’t wait. They are already in the media room for the day’s first lesson – their artificially intelligent tutor-cum-playmate is conducting a virtual reality tour of the first Olympic Games, reconstructed from the latest time probe results. You don’t want to interrupt, so you record a farewell reminder to check their gear for the afternoon’s sub-aqua games at the local leisure park.

The autopilot banks your flying car over the scattered houses, course set for the city, and you see clouds breaking up as the neighbouring county’s early morning shower clears on schedule. Here, robot cultivators tirelessly tend the fields below. On the horizon the nuclear reactor that powers them all gleams in the sun…

And so it never quite came to pass. We slightly jaded, technology fatigued, 21st century citizens recognise the story I have just invented as a parody of the future as it used to appear. Some of the inventions that earlier writers conjured up really exist. Some don’t. Some they never imagined have also entered our lives. But everyday life is as gloriously imperfect as ever, and few expect that to change.

What does science fiction have to do with any of this?

My answer appears on Thursday, along with a second paper from a team at Sussex U answering the same question. I’ll put up a link then for the download.

 

Nanotech, terraforming, geoengineering – facts and fictions entangled.

July 26, 2012

I have, I reckon, a pretty good grip on the distinction between science fiction and reality. I read a lot of non-fiction along with my fiction. Without diverting into epistemology, I see a difference. Also, reading and writing about science for a few decades encourages you to develop a good working bullshit detector.

I am even inclined to react to the common 21st century observation that we now live in a science-fictional reality with the raised eyebrow of a simple soul pedant. If it’s reality, it ain’t fictional.

But working on the current project for NESTA on SF and innovation has brought home more strongly that fact and fiction are deeply interwoven in some areas of science and technology.

The prime exhibit here, I think, is nanotechnology. It is a hard case to analyse clearly because the term is so vague. It is partly an extension of materials science, with finer control over the composition of the product, down to the molecular or even atomic level. It is also a label for a much broader collection of ideas, involving nanometre scale devices – equipped with some power source and computing and communication capacity – which would be able to do many wonderful things. The ostensibly non-fiction accounts of the latter prospectus often draw on science fiction tropes, a habit that extends on occasion to government reports.

These science-fictional roots of the more exotic possibilities of nanotechnology have attracted much attention. Conclusions about their significance differ widely. Some say that nanotechnology concepts are inherently science fictional, and this is a bad thing. Others maintain that it is true but does not matter. Science fiction either helps or hinders funding, confuses or informs policy-makers, inspires support, or raises unrealistic expectations and evokes public fears. Maybe all of these things have been true at some point, I don’t know. But it seems inescapably true that discussion of nanotechnology and its potential has always been a science fiction discourse, even when the point being made is that some claims are “science fiction” and therefore illegitimate. I like Chris Toumey’s formulation here: “Nanotechnology needs a language that describes the future because, no matter how good the science is now, most of the technology is still over the horizon.” That language is inherently science-fictional.

Now I’m wondering whether there is a category of technologies which are inherently science fiction in a similar way. They would need to be things which were realisable in principle (or someone claims are realisable – which is where many of the nano-disputes arise) but not yet achievable in practice. I’d rule out faster than light travel or time travel, as our current scientific understanding doesn’t offer any basis for thinking they will happen. That may change, but for now they are more simply fictional.

A clearer example of what I mean is terraforming. There are reasonable scenarios for how it might be done. We perhaps know enough geophysics and atmospheric chemistry to map routes to altering suitable planets to make them more hospitable than we find them. The topic remains inherently fictional as we do not have any planets to try out these ideas on.

Set dressing the atmosphere processor for Aliens. We may assume the real thing will be larger.

Or do we? Terraforming as an intellectual problem blends seamlessly with geoengineering, which is still imaginary but could become a usefully real prospect before the century is out. We might need to do some terraforming on Earth.

In which case, it is interesting to ask how SF accounts of refashioning other planets might influence ideas about geoengineering. The same authors have certainly touched on both topics. James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, turned to fiction – with co-author Michael Allaby – to describe the terraforming of Mars. Later on, he proposed schemes for geoengineering on Earth to combat the effects of climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy has probably the most detailed account of terraforming, went on to elaborate some geoengineering scenarios in his subsequent near-future Earth trilogy about climate change. Gregory Benford has written both fiction and non-fiction about terraforming, citing Heinlein as an inspiration there, and was an early proponent of geoengineering as a possible response to climate change, in 1997.

Then there are films, which as usual will have been seen by more people. Does that make them more influential? No idea. Terraforming is going on in Aliens (“we call them shake and bake planets”), and we see a vast industrial plant which is the colonists’ “atmosphere processor”, though don’t get any discussion of what it is actually doing. The wondrously silly scene at the end of Total Recall when Mars has its atmosphere reoxygenated in about half a minute also comes to mind, but only as a cheerful trashing of the laws of physics.

It would be interesting, though, to catalogue these and similar depictions and consider what effect they may have had on broader discussion of the merits of geoengineering. Which other examples should go on the list? Matt Williams has an interesting post on this, starting with Olaf Stapledon and working through Arthur Clarke (who turns Phobos into a Sun!) Heinlein, Asimov and Robinson. Any more?

Up and Atom – robots in Japan

June 6, 2012

While I’m pondering science fiction and technology, and their interaction, one thing which is hard to cover without vast research (and languages I don’t read) is the question of how the influences in either direction might differ between times and places – especially places.

But there is one obvious example where it does seem possible to find reasonably persuasive conclusions. Commentators often say that Japanese attitudes to technology in general are somehow different from those in the West, though usually at the not very interesting level of implying enthusiasm for gadgetry (those elaborate toilets usually get a mention, too). The strongest case, though, seems to apply to one kind of technology, and its fictional representations, in particular: robots.

A tradition of charming automata – related to earlier puppetry, combined with Buddhist and Shinto influences that blur the boundaries between animate and inanimate things, has apparently engendered a largely benign view of robots in Japan. This is reflected in fiction, especially in the two most important creations: Mighty Atom and Mobile Suit Gundam. The first, AKA Astro Boy,  is a super-powered, world-saving, peace-making robot of astounding cutesiness, conceived by Osamu Tezuka in 1951. He looks like this.

The first appearance of Astro Boy

The second, later, label refers to a whole raft of giant weaponised robots, “piloted” by teenagers – who also generally seem to end up saving the world. These anime superstars look more familiar, and less friendly…

Both have inspired big media franchises  – embracing comics, film and TV, toys and kits, and much other merchandise. And both feed into a general enthusiasm for robots and robotics, and research into making new ones.

As one academic engineer put it, “The difference between Mighty Atom and Terminator shows the differences between how Japanese and Westerners view robots. Westerners tend to have this sense of alarm or wariness, Japanese are unique in the world in their unique affinity and love for robots.”

This is an oversimplification, inevitably. Early audiences cheered Arnie’s Terminator, not Sarah Connor. And the print corpus of Western SF, and even film to some extent, includes an enormous range of possible robots, and possible responses to them. Still, there is lots of testimony that many Japanese engineers were enthused by Astro Boy when young, and set out to build something like him when they grew up.

The result is a wonderfully blended culture of research projects, design exercises, hobby clubs, toys, stories, and commercially available bots. Other influences are easily incorporated. ASIMO (which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, of course), has done a thousand corporate stunts, but there is still something touching about the small figure bringing a bouquet to the bust of Karel Capek in Prague.

But there definitely seem to be specifically Japanese influences at work here. The best source I’ve found so far on this is Timothy Hornyak’s Loving the Machine (where the Prague photo appears). There is some useful incidental stuff in Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, too. Any other useful reading would be good to hear about…

The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future technologies

April 10, 2012

I have a new, and somewhat futuristic project on the go

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NESTA have asked for a review and reflection on the role of science fiction in technological innovation. It will be published in the early Autumn alongside a couple of reports on more, ahem, formal futurological methods. I’ll be blogging thoughts about this here as I go.

Now, though, a simple request for help. There’s obviously stuff I need to know about. I can think of lots of different areas to explore – and will of course be doing a (limited) literature review and compiling a bibliography in academic mode.

But there are too many disciplines relevant here for one person to cover. There is also, I suspect, a fair bit of grey literature – some in print and, perhaps, more on the web.

So a little crowdsourcing seems in order. I’d be very grateful for any pointers to relevant items – research, commentary, discussion, etc – which I should ponder. Assume I will revisit the histories of SF and technology, literature on innovation, and journals in (science fiction) literature, science and technology studies and design. But anything outside those areas which I might miss is of interest.

I am particularly interested in:

  • Robots – as a case study
  • Design fiction/interaction design/speculative design
  • Examples from non-Anglophone countries
  • Projects in which tech development organisations (public or private) have dallied with science fiction in various ways.
  • and, to ensure the project is as much fun as I intended when I pitched for it, exemplary fictions!

And the questions in NESTA’s original call were about:

  • The direct impact of science fiction on those undertaking technological development, and the extent to which it has influenced research, product design, or the ambition and direction of innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the demand for innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the social status of innovation
  • The creative processes and techniques that science fiction writers use to imagine and flesh out possible futures.

You might think, at first look, some of these will be easier to tackle than others. Me too…

If anything comes to mind in response to any of the above, do please take a moment to pass it on. If you use the comment space below, others can avoid repeating if they care to read through.

Thanks!

(working already – WordPress’s auto link search just gave me this…)

Talking about science fiction

June 6, 2011

There’s a teeny bit of me on video in the British Library’s splendid new exhibition on science fiction, Out of This World. I (and others) answered a few more questions, at sound bite length, and the collated results – which evidently didn’t quite fit the finished show – have surfaced on the BL’s website. Like so:

We asked the questions you would have liked to ask! Six short videos featuring:

  • Lauren Beukes: Author of Zoo City, and 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner
  • Sumit Choudhury: Online Editor, New Scientist
  • John Gribbin: Science journalist and science fiction author
  • Alok Jha: Science correspondent, The Guardian
  • Gwyneth Jones: Author of White Queen
  • China Miéville: Author of The City & the City
  • Jon Turney: Lecturer and author of The Rough Guide to the Future

Choose an image to play a video.

Choose an image to play a video.

Launch video 1“What work of science fiction has had most impact on you, and why?”
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Launch video 2“What fictional technology do you look forward to becoming reality?”
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Launch video 3“Who or what has had the most profound effect on the development of science fiction?”
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Launch video 4“What is your personal vision of utopia?”
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Launch video 6“What is it about science fiction that you personally find fascinating?”
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Launch video 6 “If you could be a character from a science fiction story who would you be, and why?”
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Futurist thought for the day

November 9, 2010

The future is not mere space. This is where I part company with a whole variety of science fiction, the imperialistic kind, as seen in all the Space Wars and Star Wars novels and films and the whole branch of sf that reduces technology to hi-tech. In such fictions, space and the future are synonymous: they are a place we are going to get to, invade colonize, exploit, and suburbanize.

If we do “get to” space, it’s not unlikely that we will “conquer” space. But it is not possible that we will “conquer” the future, because there is no way we can get there. The future is the part of the spacetime continuum from which – in the body and in ordinary states of consciousness – we are excluded. We can’t even see it….

When we look at what we can’t see, what we do see is the stuff inside our heads…

Ursula  le Guin, in a small essay on Science Fiction and the Future, dated 1985. A sensible sentiment still, even though since then (I think) the trope of “colonising the future” has gained some currency as a critique of certain style of managing contemporary affairs.