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Tuesday
Oct282014

CATCHING UP ON MY READING

When I buy books I like to support real book stores because I don’t want them to disappear, but I have to say that when I visit the Science Fiction section of our local Chapters store (Chapters-Indigo is the big book chain in Canada) I’m pleased to see many of the classics of the genre and also disappointed to see how many of the newer books are novelizations from the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, or other media. Here are some that aren’t.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym) is the oldest of my recent reads, published in June of 2011. It’s a really well done space opera. If you like stories of adventure in space with high stakes on the line, memorable characters in tough scrapes, and believable settings without a lot of hard science, there's nothing wrong with that and this book will satisfy. It's well written, and you'll probably want to know what else is in store for these characters, which is just as well because it's the first of a series called The Expanse that now includes three sequels and two other novels set in that universe.

I’ve always been a Larry Niven fan, and Ringworld is one of my all-time favourites, so when I saw Niven back in the giant-artefact-building game in collaboration with another great writer, Gregory Benford, I figured it would be a must-read. Bowl Of Heaven came out in 2012 and it’s second half Shipstar a few months ago. They are two halves of one book—you can’t read one without the other. This time the mega-world is a giant bowl cupping a sun and using plasma sprayed from the sun for propulsion. There’s a gargantuan landscape, vivid and imaginative aliens, lots of hard science, and yet, as some have commented, it feels as if Bedford and Niven are inventing ever-more-strange aliens by the end just because they didn't know how to otherwise resolve the plot's main questions. I originally gave the books three stars, but I think I’d bump that to 3 ½ just to recognize their prodigious imaginations.

I’d probably give that same rating to another Larry Niven collaboration, this time with Matthew Joseph Harrington. The Goliath Stone is about another big thing: an asteroid being brought to Earth by newly-aware nanobot entities following their original programming with a twist of their own. A lot of the story is also about how nanotechnology could transform our own bodies. And the science is detailed, but never bogs down the plot, which is lightweight anyway. What makes The Goliath Stone a great choice for a quick read is that it's that rare animal: a science fiction thriller of sorts that's loaded with humour—sly witticisms, bad puns, sex jokes, and tons of pop literary references that will keep you amused all the way through.

Which brings us to the heavy lifting of the recent crop, and also my favourite. I’m a longtime fan of Peter Watts, the Canadian marine biologist-turned-author, and his Blindsight was an amazing book, so I was excited to learn there was a sequel on the way. Echopraxia doesn’t include any of the same characters but it tells the story of Blindsight’s alien incursion into our solar system from a different perspective. Watt's books are wedged full of hard science and ingenious speculations drawn from it, yet this book is very strongly about faith (OK, even if God is compared to a virus). It also features zombies and vampires, but they’re not anything you’d recognize from TV shows. The main character, Brüks, is a top research biologist, yet he’s the slow-learner in the cast. The scope and breadth of Watts' research and the searing edge of his prose are nothing less than stunning, but I sometimes feel you'd need a Mensa IQ to truly get all of it. I enjoy it, and recommend it to any hard SF fan, but don’t ask me any questions about it for a while. At least until my brain cells stop smoking.

You can read more of these, and other reviews anytime at my Goodreads page.

Monday
Oct202014

THE COMET: FRIEND OR ENEMY?

This past Sunday the Comet Siding Spring gave Martians a scare, buzzing the Red Planet at over 200,000 kilometers per hour just over 139,000 kilometers away. OK, maybe buzzing is a bit of an exaggeration, but that distance is ten times closer than any known comet flyby of Earth. The comet’s tail was enough of a concern that NASA and other space agencies arranged to have their Mars orbiters in hiding behind the planet when the dust particles arrived. NASA’s three spacecraft have all got a clean bill of health, and hopefully within days we’ll begin to see some of the information they collected about Siding Spring as it zipped past. The comet came from the Oort Cloud, a vast area of space beyond Neptune and Uranus filled with dust and, well, comets…and very little else.

This coming November 12th the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will make the first ever attempt at a soft landing on a comet (you can even enter a contest to name the landing site). Since arriving near the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on August 6th, Rosetta has been moving closer and will drop its landing component, called Philae, down to the surface. The lander’s instruments will get to work analyzing the comet and keep working until a few months after the comet has made its closest approach to the sun (August 2015) and is heading back out into deep space. If the comet tolerates it for that long. It’s always possible that, while “catching some rays”. the comet could have a serious gas attack and Goodbye Philae.

Apart from both of these events being significant “firsts” in the history of spaceflight, what makes them important over the long term?

There’s a lot of scientific opinion these days that Earth might not be the watery planet we know and love if it weren’t for a heavy bombardment of comets in its early days. It’s even possible that the first components of life arrived via comet express. Paradoxically, comets might also be to blame for some species extinctions over the millions of years before human beings showed up, eventually clearing the path for us to become the top predator on the planet. But what they giveth they can taketh away. A comet strike thirteen thousand years ago may have brought an end to the Clovis people of North America, and a large comet strike now could render homo sapiens extinct, along with most of the species with which we now share the planet.

All of these are good reasons to learn more about comets. Especially the last—if we can really get a good handle on the composition of comets and their life stories, we stand a much better chance of being able to stop a big one headed our way.

There’s another worthwhile reason, though. If we ever do venture beyond the old neighbourhood of the solar system to other stars, our spacecraft will have a heck of a long road to travel with nary a gas station in sight. But they’ll pass through the Oort Cloud which just happens to have lots of these big dusty snowballs with (we think) generous quantities of the hydrogen and oxygen we can use as rocket fuel. Expeditions like Rosetta should confirm this and, if it turns out to be true, we’ll at least know where to look for those vital filling stations in space.

Just watch for the sign that says, “Last gas for 30,000,000,000,000 kilometers!”

Wednesday
Oct152014

WHY A.I.?

So much has been said and written about artificial intelligence (not to mention movies with Haley Joel Osment). What is it, really, and do we even want it? You’d be content with just finding some human intelligence once in a while, right?

Computer scientists seem obsessed with trying to create machines that can think as well as human beings can. It sounds like a lot of trouble to create…a lot of trouble.

Back in June I blogged about a chatbot named Eugene that had supposedly passed the Turing Test by fooling a panel of judges into thinking they were conversing with a human being. It was a very clever trick, but surely not real artificial intelligence in the sense of a synthetic processor that is the mental equivalent of a human. Engineers and programmers can create specialized machines that can outperform humans in any number of areas, except it’s our very non-specialization that makes us special. Any given day we can get ourselves cleaned and dressed, cook and eat breakfast, drive a car to work (and fix a flat on the way, if necessary) where we might teach a class of students about literature in another language. We can discuss geopolitics in the lunchroom, shop for groceries on the drive home, all the while humming a favourite song or even imagining a Stones hit as it might be sung by Frank Sinatra, just for fun. Computers can have software installed to perform a task. Humans use evolved software (memes, instincts) to learn new software (skills) and adapt it to changing needs in ways that might never have been foreseen.

Some experts insist that, as computational power increases, machines are bound to be able to outdo the processing power of the human brain, maybe very soon. Such claims depend on estimates—no-one really knows how much processing the brain accomplishes. Reputable scientists have speculated that the human brain might be a type of quantum computer, in which case potential processing power increases enormously.

We should also make the distinction between intelligence and consciousness. Raccoons are smart (damn them) but we don’t know if they’re conscious. The thing is, no-one knows how consciousness works either, so how can we reproduce it in a machine? Many researchers just seem to assume that, once processors finally get fast enough, consciousness will appear. Maybe it will. But also maybe not.

It’s not impossible to imagine conscious machines—heck, when we’re kids we imagine that our teddy bears have personalities. We anthropomorphize all kinds of things, convinced that our car somehow knows when we get paid a bonus at work, and that storms deliberately target our picnics out of pure malice. The Cog artificial intelligence project at M.I.T. involved a humanoid robot, based on the idea that a machine intelligence could become more human-like through a very large number of interactions with humans, and that a human-looking robot would be more natural for humans to interact with. They might have been right about that, but the project is no more.

We know that every single human being we encounter has a rich inner life of desires, regrets, expectations and speculations, fears and dreams. Is that really what we want from our machines? What purpose would it serve? In fiction, when machines have desires and aspirations it becomes inevitable that those desires will eventually conflict with our own. That’s when the trouble starts. Skynet and its henchmen…er, henchrobots. So why go there?

Let’s be content with producing computers that process information very quickly and problem-solve within carefully thought-out limits. And let sleeping cogs lie.

Tuesday
Oct072014

WHEN SPACEFLIGHT IS ROUTINE

I mentioned in my last post that the human race now has the ability to create our own future, for good or for bad. That means we have to decide the kind of world we want in the years to come and figure out what needs to be done to make that world come about.

It was ten years ago this week (October 4, 2004) that SpaceShipOne, manufactured by Scaled Composites, LLC made its second flight within two weeks to the edge of space to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize. In my future world, travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is virtually routine. Sure, I wanted to be a space cowboy as a kid (with all the poise and composure of Buzz Lightyear, no doubt) but the adult in me can justify it in lots of rational ways. The biggest reason is that, in a universe with planet-killing asteroids and globe-scorching weapons of our own devising, we don’t dare entrust all the forms of life that we know about to one vulnerable planet. We owe it to Life to spread its eggs beyond this basket, whether that means terraforming Mars or building space arks to other solar systems.

There’s also abundant free energy out there. It may not be possible to safely transfer it to the surface of the Earth, but we should at least be taking advantage of it to perform manufacturing tasks that are energy-intensive and use huge quantities of finite and polluting energy resources when carried out down here. The same argument goes for resources of other kinds: minerals and rare earths that we know are available in asteroids and moons, and can be mined without despoiling the environment of the Earth.

It may take significantly more time to accomplish, but the ability to colonize other planets, near and far, would relieve a lot of the pressure on our home world all by itself, as well as providing opportunities we can’t yet imagine on whole new frontiers. Individually and collectively, humans have always been inspired to improve our lot by pushing against boundaries and seeking greener pastures.

To do all of these things we need spaceflight to become cheap and routine. How do we do that?

Government programs aren’t the answer. There is a place for public money to support technological innovation, but bureaucracies and shifting political winds are the enemies of real progress. That leaves private ventures or publicly-traded companies, of which there are now many that are directly involved in space exploration and exploitation (see these lists thanks to The Space Settlement Institute). Among the highest profile examples are SpaceX (with a number of successful supply missions to the International Space Station) and Virgin Galactic (more than five hundred people have booked their sub-orbital flight aboard SpaceShipTwo, hopefully beginning next year). But many of the other players are serious, well-staffed, and well-organized. If you want to do your part to bring about routine spaceflight in your lifetime, consider investing in these companies, either by buying stock or making a donation. Some may invite you to volunteer your time and talent. All would appreciate you urging governments to smooth their path with friendly legislation or funding or both.

Maybe you and I will never get to be space cowboys, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help to put things in motion. Onward and upward, that is.

Tuesday
Sep232014

FUTURE BUILDING 101

Science fiction authors are expected to have a crystal ball. Not with the precision focus of a fortune teller’s, thank goodness, but able to see the broad strokes of the future, mainly from observing social and technological trends. Because, we humans now have the power to shape our bodies, our minds, even our planet, for good or bad. We’re building our future world.

Personally, I’d like a Star Trek future (the optimistic Gene Roddenberry vision) as opposed to, say, a Neuromancer future, or a Blade Runner future, or a MaddAddam future. But if we don’t truly understand what we want, how will we know what to build?

This blog is as good a place as any to look at the future we want and the things we’ll have to do to make it. So I’ll be doing that in coming weeks. Just don’t hold me to any predictions. And don’t ask me for a personal reading.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that one of the most critical needs for our future is clean energy. Coal and oil burning pollute the air and do scary things to the climate. Nuclear fission produces waste that’s radioactive for thousands of years, and its accidents could give us all cancer. Solar and wind energy sources are becoming more efficient, but may never meet all of our needs. So the best bet looks to be (drum roll please)…nuclear fusion.

Wow, I just broke some news that’s been around for a hundred years.

OK, so just because it isn’t new doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Nuclear fusion reactors use fuel that’s in great abundance (usually hydrogen isotopes made using seawater and lithium), produce waste that loses its radioactivity within a few hundred years, not thousands, require few safety measures because the reaction can’t sustain itself, won’t poison the environment with long-lived radio-isotopes in the event of a leak, and produce a lot of energy. Fantastic, right?

Unfortunately the pin that bursts the nuclear fusion bubble is that so far we haven’t been able to produce a sustained fusion reaction that doesn’t use as much energy to keep it going as the amount of energy it produces. Not such a profitable equation. However, many scientists believe the problem is just a question of scale: build a reactor big enough and the thing will work without needing large amounts of energy to keep the flame lit. Based on that theory, a huge facility in Cadarache, France called the ITER Project is being built by a partnership of the European Union (as hosts), the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India, and South Korea. It is a mega-project, after all. Mega as in: an original budget of about 5 billion euros but now projected to reach 16 billion. And that’s just for an experimental reactor that isn’t intended to generate electricity, but simply prove that the concept is viable!

If you get heart palpitations thinking about all of the other worthwhile things 16 billion euros could pay for, remember that if fusion can be made to work on a commercial scale, it could solve nearly every problem related to energy production that we face today, and then, thanks to cheap and abundant energy, go on to solve many other problems (running plants to turn seawater into fresh water, for example).

Fusion energy is the future we want. So the monetary investment is what we need to do to get it.

That’s the way this future-building thing works.