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Wednesday
Mar252015

READING AND OTHER VISUAL STUFF

According to surveys, print books are still not being replaced by e-books, even in this digital age. In spite of the availability of e-readers and the lower price of e-books vs. paper, most of us still prefer to have the hard copy version. Studies have shown that our memory of the things we read is better if we’ve read a hard copy. Researchers think it’s because our spatial memory comes into play—we picture where the desired information was placed on a page. For example: if we’re asked to remember what car James Bond was driving in a particular scene in a book (presuming his Aston Martin is in the shop) we may recall seeing that information in the second or third paragraph of a left-hand page. We can vaguely picture the page so we find it easier to recall the words in that spot. If we want to remember what his latest Bond girl was wearing…no, scratch that, they never wear anything for long. But the point is that e-books don’t offer the same visual cues, not to mention assorted other sensory elements like the feel of good paper, the smell of fresh ink, or the actual weight of an epic novel, that impact the pleasure of the reading experience.

It made me think about the future of data entry and retrieval. Will physical keyboards and text on a screen really vanish, as so many science fiction movies seem to suggest? I suspect that something like the hard copy reading effect will apply.

Futuristic films and TV shows often show people moving their hands through the air to interact with large 3D  screens or holographic displays. Think of the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report or Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV. Much of the technology is already available. Will such things really take over from clunkier input devices like keyboards? I’m not so sure. I think physical cues are important. Often when I’m typing I’ll realize that I’ve hit the wrong keys by misteak mistake by the feel, maybe even the sound, before I see the error appear on the computer screen. I also know that using a holographic display in a room of co-workers, there’s a good chance I could miss a key piece of data if it appeared in front of the office hottie walking by in a tight skirt.

When I watch Star Trek reruns, part of me says every member of the bridge crew should be manipulating holo displays instead of buttons and dials. But really, projecting technological progress two or three hundred years into the future, there would be no bridge crew at all. The captain would just tell the computer where to fly the ship and who to shoot at. Not much fun to watch on TV. I can’t see us making the choice to go that way either.

Star Trek’s holosuites take virtual reality to the limit, but don’t expect holographic presentations to offer stimulation to our senses of touch, taste, or smell anytime soon (chairs you can sit on and cars you can drive? Don’t think so.) For that the computer simulation will have to hack directly into the sensory centres of our brain to control what our brain thinks we’re touching and tasting, seeing and doing, whether we’re standing, sitting, or lying down. A full-body sensory illusion. While that could very well be possible within the next century or two, I’m willing to bet that frequent use of such tech would be a serious mental health hazard, causing us to lose our ability to distinguish between reality and simulations (a half-hour of being James Bond a day—that’s my limit).

The truth is, we’re wired to orient ourselves by sensory cues from a physical environment, and to judge our progress by the extent to which we affect that environment through our actions. Millions of years of evolution made us this way, and it will take a long time to change that. I don’t think we’ll truly want to.

For now, I’m content with my keyboard and screen. Just don’t ask me to go back to my Underwood typewriter.

Thursday
Mar122015

THE PURPOSE OF SCIENCE FICTION

When I stumbled onto an article on the website BuzzFeed called “27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012” it got me thinking about that term “science fiction”. What the writer meant (I assume) was that these 27 things that had previously only been predicted had at last become reality (except that’s not nearly so catchy as a headline). Not everything was gadgetry or bioscience. The article mentioned the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle—theoretical physics, yes, science fiction, not really. Still, I expect most people think of SF as a literature that’s about predicting new technology. It can, and often does, but that’s not really the point. The most interesting science fiction extrapolates how such developments will change our lives.

As an example, the article describes the newest prosthetic limbs operated directly by the patient’s brain, and electronic implants that give sight to the blind. Well, SF predicted high-tech prosthetic devices decades ago, but the stories arise from trying to foresee how the arrival of such technology will affect our world. The implications and ramifications are what’s interesting.

I mentioned in a recent post that such high tech devices can often be hacked—let your imagination run on that possibility. Will the proliferation of “bionic” limbs and eyes and ears create a new class of citizen? Before you laugh, consider that governments love to require us to have special licenses to operate complex devices. Are you sure robotic legs would be any different? And is it much of a stretch to say that such specialized licenses might imply defined categories of personhood? If prosthetics do end up providing an advantage in strength and speed (like the Six Million Dollar Man) then people with them will be in demand for certain activities and likely banned from others (in the interest of fairness). Will you need to get special insurance for your electronic eye? Will your life insurance policy pay out if your mechanical leg fails while you’re crossing a busy street? We can assume there would soon be a black market for prostheses and their parts. Would there be a thriving used market, too? What would happen to people whose body part replacements need maintenance or repairs for which they can’t afford to pay? Repossession? Perhaps indentured service until the debt is repaid?

The BuzzFeed article also touched on an experiment that extended the lifespan of mice to three times their normal age. That’s science. The science fiction writer would explore how our society would be changed if certain members of it, through wealth or privilege, could live three times as long as the rest of us. There would be no question of different classes then. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few would make today’s wealthy one percent look like pikers. Inheritance laws would be thrown into chaos. The long-lived might have to escape the wrath of normal people by changing their identity several times throughout their lives. Could we expect marriages to last more than two centuries? Would they become afraid to take risks with so much more life to lose?

I don’t claim that any of my speculations above will come true, but that’s when science fiction is at its best. Not so much predicting technology or other developments, but helping us to see what the implications of such things might be so we can make choices about them in advance before hard decisions are thrust upon us.

And let’s face it, for both writers and readers, the speculating is just plain fun.

Saturday
Mar072015

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE INVITED KIND

I’m a supporter of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It’s worth devoting resources to find out if we humans have company in this universe in the form of other intelligent life forms. There are lots of good reasons to want to know, especially if it doesn’t require us to do more than look and listen for signs of other civilizations. But recently some scientists have become impatient that SETI hasn’t detected anything in the past thirty years, and feel that we should be more proactive about the search. That impatience is understandable. SETI methods are painstaking. Space is vast. Even though our ability to search the skies has increased enormously over the decades, SETI astronomer Jill Tarter is quoted in an excellent Washington Post article about the subject, saying, “We’ve explored one eight-ounce glass of water out of the ocean”.

So the impatient scientists believe we’ve been going about things the wrong way. Since the Kepler Space Telescope and other projects have now identified more than a thousand likely planets circling other stars, and a fair number might be the right distance from their star to provide conditions that support life, these folks think we should start beaming strong radio signals toward those star systems, inviting any alien civilizations there to become “part of a conversation”.

Now hang on just a minute. Imagine yourself taking a walk in a strange neighbourhood at night. Would you keep your ears tuned to hear if anyone was around? Sure. Would you jump up and down and yell, “Helloooo! Anybody out there? Anybody feel like getting together for a coffee?

I don’t think so.

For one thing, who do you figure is most likely to respond to your invitation: Mr. and Mrs. Nice-to-know-you, or the neighbourhood muggers?

I’ve always wanted to believe that a species advanced enough to travel between the stars would be peaceful. But there’s no evidence to support that, and plenty of evidence from human history to suggest that I’d do as well to believe in unicorns and leprechauns. Humans advanced enough to travel between continents certainly weren’t peaceful. Ask native North Americans or the Aztecs. In fact, experience on this planet has shown that technological progress is most often for reasons of aggression. Should we compare the research and development budgets of the military around the world to private R & D spending? And of all the reasons for expending resources to get into outer space, population pressures and a desire to exploit what we find rank high. Making new friends probably isn’t even on the list.

Even if extraterrestrial travellers weren’t malevolent, they would surely be so far ahead of us that we’d be curiosities by comparison, or even lab rats worthy of further study but certainly no treatment as equals. The knowledge of their existence alone could destroy all motivation for the human race to make progress of our own.

The point is that we have absolutely no way to know if intelligent aliens would be nice, or very, very bad. But once we let them know we’re here, there’s no putting the cat back in the bag.

Some 28 (so far) notables in the scientific community, including Elon Musk and David Brin, have signed a petition condemning so-called active-SETI. Stephen Hawking thinks it’s a crazy idea. Even the originator of the SETI movement, Frank Drake, believes it’s too soon and a waste of time.

As we venture out into interstellar space on our own we may discover we’re not alone, but by then we’ll be much better equipped to deal with whatever—and whomever—we find. For now, let’s be content with paying attention and not calling for attention.

Saturday
Feb282015

HACKING THE HUMAN BODY

A radio program this past week was both an eye opener for me, and confirmation that a novel-in-manuscript of mine is not far-fetched at all.

On a show called “The Current” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation a guest named Mark Goodman spoke about the frightening prospect of computer hackers gaining access to high-tech medical devices implanted into human bodies. This wasn’t science fiction. He’s a futurist who’s worked with the FBI. Such hacking is possible right now, because so many of such devices use WiFi or Bluetooth signals and may be connected to the internet. Pacemakers are WiFi-enabled to allow a doctor to remotely trigger a strong jolt of current and save your life if you have a cardiac episode. A great idea, unless a hacker gains access to your pacemaker. Then your life is in their hands, whether for ransom or some kind of sick sport. The insulin pumps of diabetics could be triggered to deliver a fatal dose. Or imagine the horror of feeling your bionic arm or leg controlled by someone else. Hearing obscene or threatening messages in your cochlear implant.

All of these things are possible now, or soon will be.

Cochlear implants are directly connected to the brain. Experimental eye replacements will be, too, and some prosthetic limbs will have direct neural control. My manuscript (working title: Augment Nation) postulates a time coming soon when brain computer interfaces will take over from smartphones as the must-have accessory. If such devices are left vulnerable by inadequate software, the implications are horrific (worthy of a science fiction novel!) We’ve seen far too many examples of how our laws and law enforcement methods have not kept up with cybercrime, and the cost is huge. We don’t dare let security measures for high-tech medical devices fall behind in the same way.

Potential victims are numerous: powerful politicians, bank managers, corporate CEO’s, aircraft pilots (military and civilian), missile silo operators, security staff for bio-tech labs…it takes no effort to imagine dozens of scenarios in which hackers could use deadly leverage to achieve almost any goal. Terrorism? Let’s not even go there. And that’s not mentioning the threat from people who are simply twisted, or psychopathic.

Feel the urge to unplug your house and curl up under a blanket?

Our society already has many regulatory structures in place to ensure that new medical treatments do no harm. For instance, drugs have to go through numerous levels of testing before being approved for the general population. Harmful side effects or interactions with other medications prevent approval. It’s not a perfect system, but it certainly helps. Why not require security safeguards for medical technologies: refuse to approve their use unless they meet a certain standard of cyber-security? There may be no such thing as an “un-hackable” device, but encryption and well-scrutinized code can go a long way.

For once, let’s not wait to play “catch-up” with the criminals. Let’s get ahead of them and make sure that the benefits of brilliant new technology aren’t undermined by vulnerabilities.

It’s the right prescription.

Tuesday
Feb172015

SPACE SUBMARINE OR QUIXOTIC COLONY?

The space news that catches your interest this week will probably depend on whether you think space exploration requires direct human involvement or not. If you feel that it just isn’t the real deal unless humans in space suits are landing a rocket ship on another planet, then you’ll probably be most interested in the latest from the Dutch non-profit organization known as Mars One.

In case you’ve forgotten, Mars One is the groups that plans to start sending astronauts to colonize the planet Mars, four at a time, beginning in 2024. The catch is, it’s a one-way trip; the would-be colonists will never be coming back to Earth. If things go according to plan, they’ll get new companions (and supplies) every two years, but no return flight. The selection process for the astronaut colonists has involved applications from around the world—more than 200,000 of them to begin with, which was whittled down to 1,000, then 660. And now the final 100 have been chosen. So here’s where the real circus—I mean, science—begins, as the finalists try to survive in a mock Mars habitat while the cameras roll to produce a reality-TV show (one of the methods of financing the project, don’t you know). You can watch a promo here. Oh, did I mention that one of the finalists is a 38-year-old from Poland who calls himself “M1-K0” and claims to already be a Martian?

A very different space story involves NASA’s release of a video featuring a concept submarine proposed for the exploration of the hydrocarbon oceans of Saturn’s giant moon Titan. Titan is a strange place, with a largely nitrogen atmosphere, a landscape of dunes, frozen methane snow (and a little water ice) plus large lakes or small oceans of a hydrocarbon mixture. Even so, many scientists feel Titan may be a good candidate to find forms of life, probably in those oceans. So it would be most helpful to have a space probe that could explore beneath the surface. Hence this submarine proposal. But before you go picturing a space-suited Captain Nemo piloting the sub through undersea canyons and past bizarre creatures, the truth is the probe will be robotically controlled. It’ll surface from time to time to send data back to Earth, but no astronaut submariners will be involved. And the mission is still a good number of years away, with some pretty big hoops to jump through first.

I’ve said before that I think the Mars One project is doomed to fail, hopefully before any volunteers commit elaborate suicide by rocketing off toward the red planet. If I were a betting man, my money would be on the Titan submarine mission as the one more likely to succeed. BUT, speaking as a fiction writer, there’s only so much drama I can create around a robot probe in a sea of frozen BBQ fuel, whereas dozens of novels could be written about the Mars One venture.

So let’s keep our fingers crossed for the success of the cautious, well-reasoned-and-researched approaches to the exploration of space, and leave the dramatic failures to the world of fiction.