You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2012.

Not yet, but the time is coming, apparently.

Philip Parker, a professor at Insead business school, has over 100,000 titles listed on Amazon, all non-fiction on a huge array of subjects.  Each one supposedly took less than an hour to write, because most of the work was done by a computer.  There’s nothing new there, it’s all existing information, just compiled into one place.*

But it’s not just non-fiction that has to worry about competition from computers.  Poetry written by machines already exists, and in some cases is hard to tell from the work of humans.

Is it possible for a computer to write a novel?

There are any number of “easy methods” to write a novel out there, but can they be written into a computer program?  For some genres, I can see it working.  The easy-reading type of books that people read just to relax – they don’t want complex or surprising storylines or new styles of writing.  They just want to sit down and allow the cares of the world to fall away.

But for some genres, especially those where innovation is key, I can’t see it happening.  Can you imagine a science fiction novel, dealing with a completely new concept, being written by a computer?  Or an emotion-driven, heart-wrenching tragedy which brings tears to your eyes and an ache to your heart?  I can’t.

Some day, perhaps, when we have true AI, but not yet, and not for a long while.

It’s a good job really, or there might be a revolt among authors!

 

 

* On a side note, I went to look, and “Philip M Parker” does have a rather large number of titles available.  They range from Webster’s Faroese – English Thesaurus Dictionary to Ankylosing Spondylitis – A Bibliography and Dictionary for Physicians, Patients, and The 2007 Import and Export Market for Toilet or Facial Tissue Paper Stock and Towel or Napkin Stock in Finland.  A riveting read, I’m sure.

Each one sells for at least $20, so even if he’s only making 20% on each sale, and selling one copy of each book every two years, he would be making $200,000, or around £125,000 per year.  Not a bad payoff for a computer program, although one has to wonder what the point of some of the titles is.

 

I read this article on the BBC today.  It sounds like fiction (very much so, as we will discover later), but predictive analytics technology – the ability to predict where and when crime will occur – already exists.

The computer program does it by analysing past crime stats, police activities, and various other things.  It will tell you things like “a violent assault will occur in such-and-such a neighbourhood in the next few hours”.  Not very specific, but enough to get increased police patrols in that area and hopefully stop the crime before it starts.

It was towards the end of the article that I started to get flashes of déjà vu.  They began discussing CCTV and how it could be used to fight crime (though opinions, of course, vary on how effective it is).  And then they suggested that combining CCTV footage with predictive analytics might give good results.  A small scale version is already in operation in the US, run by a company called Trapwire.

And then I read this:

The firm collects data from CCTV cameras and number plate readers in an attempt to forecast acts of terrorism.

And I began to think that all of this sounded very very familiar.  As in:

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up…we’ll find you.”

Which is the voice-over from the title sequences of “Person of Interest”.

The concept is simple: when Harold Finch (not his real name) worked for the government, he built a machine which uses CCTV footage, government databases, and so on, to predict violent crime.  It was only supposed to predict terrorist plots, but he made it too well.  The government just ignores all of the other crimes the machine predicts, but Harold had a crisis of conscience and wanted to do something about them.  He built a back-door into the machine, and every day it provides him with the social security numbers of people who will soon be involved in violent crime.

He and his partner, John Reese (former Green Beret, may or may not be his real name) then spend the episode trying to save the person involved.  Or stop them.  Sometimes the machine gives them the number of the bad guys, and they don’t have any way of knowing which they have until they start investigating.

The show is a fun romp – crime drama with a little something extra.  They so far (and I’ve only watched half the first season) have managed to throw enough twists in that each episode is different.  I particularly enjoy the slightly adversarial relationship the pair have with the local cops.  One dirty cop, who they’re blackmailing to help them, and one clean cop, who is determined to catch the vigilantes and arrest them.  And when the clean cop’s number comes out of the machine, well, that episode was highly entertaining.

I have a horrible feeling that the hints of meta-plot that keep appearing are going to get in the way of the fun, but maybe I’ll be wrong.  Only time will tell.  On the whole, though, definitely one to watch. 

The planet loomed large in Goldie’s viewscreen.  She zoomed out a little and sat back to study the latest adventure opportunity.  The planet was pretty big, especially compared to the other planets in the system.  She was puzzled – why were the orbits of the others not affected more by this planet?  How did they all manage to survive in the same orbit anyway?  Everything she had ever learnt about astrophysics told her this should not be possible.

Shrugging off the mystery for now, she brought up the sensor analysis of the planet.  The atmosphere was good, mostly oxygen and nitrogen.  A little thicker than she would expect, but nothing too unusual.  There was a smattering of plant matter, mostly small things, but the sensors couldn’t see any animal life.  Half the time the sensors couldn’t pick up animal life when she was over inhabited worlds, though, so that didn’t mean anything.

Idly she wondered when they were going to invent better sensors.  With all the advances they were making in other fields of science she couldn’t understand why sensor technology was so bad.

Well, she wasn’t going to find out anything more about the planet from up here.  She slid along the console to the flight controls and tapped in some commands.  The ship began to descend towards the planet.

When she was still a couple of miles off the surface, Goldie became aware of a strained whine coming from the speakers.  She glanced at the engine logs and noticed that they were straining slightly.  Ever since the 21st century and the advent of the electric car, people had known that engine noise was important.  Originally, it had been so that people noticed the near-silent vehicles, but pretty soon people had realised that the driver got a lot out of it too.  These days, engines made “noise” inside the control room of spaceships to give pilots another way of monitoring what was going on.  Goldie couldn’t remember how many times engine noise had caused her to find a problem that she wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

The straining wasn’t too bad, though she would have to have a look at the engines before she tried to take off again.  It was probably just one of the drive pods drifting out of alignment again.

Soon she was setting down on the planet.  There hadn’t been any particular features to aim for on this one, so she was in the midst of a large open savannah.  She would take some samples and have a quick look around.  If none of the plants turned out to be toxic this might make a good planet for a colony.

Pulling on her spacesuit, Goldie checked that the bot was fully loaded with supplies.  Gesturing it to follow her, she stepped into the airlock and touched the controls.  Air began hissing out around her, and she stood briefly in a vacuum before the planet’s air began to fill the chamber.  When the cycle was complete she opened the outer door and stepped through.

As soon as she left the spaceship the artificial gravity fell away and she felt a crushing weight pushing down on her.  She staggered and her vision went a little grey around the edges.  The bot, less at the mercy of whimsical human biological responses, merely shifted its weight to compensate for the new circumstances.  After a moment she was able to stand up straight, but she could tell that she would be tiring quickly and the continued greying of her vision was a problem.

The high gravity worried her.  None of her scans had implied that there would be anything like this level of force at surface level.  The size of the planet meant it should be higher than Earth Standard, yes, but not this high.  She took some readings on her data slate.  4.6 times ES!  No wonder she was having trouble standing up.  She couldn’t stay here very long.  She was already going to have a whopping headache from this.  Considering her options, she gratefully decided to go back inside straight away.  She could send the bot out to get the samples.

Head spinning, she stepped back into the airlock and felt the blood rush back to her head.  Instructing the bot to leave most of its supplies in the airlock, she gave it the sampling kit and sent it with the instructions to walk a hundred metres before taking a sample of the earth and the vegetation.  As soon as it stepped outside of the airlock she started the cycle and was soon making her way back into the comfort of the main cabin.

After she stripped off her spacesuit, she focussed the viewscreen on the bot.  It was making slow but steady progress towards its target, so she decided to spend the time checking over the engines.  She headed out of the main cabin and into the bowels of the ship.  The engine room was right at the back, well away from the main cabin.  The door swished open as she approached and she surveyed the room.  Nothing appeared to be out of place, but the sounds she had heard on the descent were more consistent with small mis-alignments than large problems.  She was going to have to check each component individually.

Sighing, Goldie reached for the toolbox that was strapped to the wall by the door and set to work.

—-

Goldie sat back on her heels with a groan, rubbing the small of her back with one hand.  She had found and corrected two minor problems with the engines, but neither of them were large enough to have caused the pained whining from earlier.  She frowned thoughtfully while she put the tools away.

Back in the main cabin, the bot was standing by the airlock, having stopped there after it returned.  It was still holding the samples it had collected, and Goldie examined them carefully before storing them in the lab for later analysis.  For once, it seemed, the bot had done its task well.

Well, if she couldn’t go outside, there was nothing keeping her here.  Perhaps the next planet would be more hospitable and she could have a true adventure.  Slipping into the command chair, Goldie set a course to leave the atmosphere.

The ship slowly took off – more slowly than normal, she thought, and increased the power from the engines.  That whining was back, too.  She must have missed something when she did the inspection earlier.  Well, she couldn’t fix it while in flight, so it would just have to wait.

The whine increased in volume and when she glanced at the instruments she saw that the ship had slowed down again.  They were barely a mile off the ground, when they should have been ten by now.  Even as she watched the speed dropped another notch.  She boosted the power to the engines.

Now running at full speed, the engines were definitely complaining.  What on earth was going on?  She checked the controls again.  Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a red flashing numeral, and glanced at it.  What?

The gravitational force on the ship was now 10.3 ES and climbing.  How was that possible?  She spared a moment to thank whichever deities were listening that it hadn’t been that high while she was outside, then turned her attention back to the problem at hand.

If the gravity was fluctuating, that could be causing the problems with the engines.  They weren’t built to deal with gravity that was so strong.  She glanced at the gauge.  11.8 ES.

Briefly, she considered going back to the surface and waiting until the gravity went back to normal.  But what if it continued to increase?  The ship’s artificial gravity was only built to withstand 20 ES, and if it died she would be crushed like a bug. There hadn’t been any sign of strain while she was in orbit, so hopefully when she got back there whatever effect this was would stop and she would be free.  She was just going to have to push on.

Overriding some safety alerts, she pushed the engines to 110% of their normal maximum.  When the ship started to gain some height she pushed it further.  120%.  130%.  The whining was becoming louder, and she slammed the mute button.  At this point all it was telling her was that the engines were being pushed past their limits, which she knew.

The ship was, incredibly, slowing again.  She glanced at the gravity monitor and winced.  18.9 ES.  If this didn’t let up soon she was going to have problems.  Worse ones, anyway.  She watched with a kind of sick fascination as it ticked upwards.

Just as it reached 19.7 the ship lurched so much that she felt it, and rocketed away into space.  The gravity monitor was saying zero, and the engines were quickly winding down to normal levels.

Wait.  Zero?

Even in deep space there was always something going on, some star exerting force.  Had the exertions of the planet broken her sensors?

Even as she watched, the monitor went into negative figures and the ship began moving away from the planet.  Eyes wide, Goldie stared in disbelief.

Reaching a swift decision, she cut the engines off and allowed the gravitational forces to push the ship away.  She chuckled slightly when she noticed she was being pushed towards the next planet in the system, one of only two she had yet to explore.

Eyes on the controls, alert for any changes to the gravity waves, Goldie rode the storm towards her next adventure.

Sort of.

It’s not quite “So long and thanks for all the fish”, but this beluga whale has learnt to mimic human speech.  Go on and take a listen.

The whale doesn’t have a firm grasp of sentence structure, phrasing, or even vocab, but the sound patterns he emits are closer to human than beluga in rhythm and acoustic spectrum.

I’m reminded of the dolphins living on Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, which had been transplanted there with the rest of the colonists after humans recognised them as a sentient species and they learnt to speak English.

How long do you think it will be before that happens in reality?

 

Japanese phone users will soon have the option to have their conversations translated as they talk, using the new app from NTT Docomo, one of the country’s mobile networks.  The app provides a translation, both written and spoken, after a short pause.

They aren’t the only ones working on this, either.  France’s Alcatel-Lucent is developing a version for landlines (more tricky because of the lower sound quality), and their ultimate aim is to be able to do conference calls with many people, in many different languages, with each person hearing the conversation in their own language.  They even have a project to make a synthetic voice that sounds like your real one.

This is beginning to sound like an episode of Star Trek.  All we need now is for it to be able to analyse new languages and learn them on the fly, and we’ll be set to go!

Some people are not holding their breath, though.

“These kind of real-time technologies have been ‘two to three years away’ for the past decade,” said Benedict Evans, technology expert at Enders Analysis.

 It does bring to mind another question, though.  Language learning, so we are told, helps to stave off the effect of Alzheimer’s.  If we invent technologies which eliminate the need to learn new languages, are we contributing to the declining health of the human species?

In addition to that, there is the consideration that speaking to someone in their own language can be seen as a sign of respect.  One which would be lost if everyone had access to Universal Translators.

What do you think?  Is the ability to communicate with anyone more important than the effort involved to do so?

I haven’t managed to get this week’s installment finished yet, at least not to a state where I’m happy to share it.  Goldie will continue her adventures next week, however in the meantime, please accept this haiku in her place.  Warning: contains spoilers for next week’s episode!

One massive planet
We cannot escape the well
Too large for Goldie

Apparently I have been tagged in a thing.  How exciting!

Here’s how it works:

1.  Give credit to the person who tagged you.

That would be Matt Williams, whose blog contains vast quantities of posts about science fiction, advances in technology, books, and movies.  Not to mention his own fiction, which is an exciting read.

2. Explain the rules.

Ok, so I’ve done two of them now.  You should keep reading to find the rest.   There are four.

3. Answer the ten questions about your current WIP.

I would point out at this point that in the post I was tagged from there were only nine questions…  Also, “Work In Progress” may be too strong a phrase.  “Work Only Just Commenced” would be a closer description.

  1. What is the working title of your book?
    The Three
  2. What genre does the book fall under?
    Fantasy Adventure
  3. Which actors would you choose to play your characters for the movie rendition?
    Hum.  Well, the three main characters are identical, so it would have to be someone with a good repertoire.  Perhaps Kyle Schmid – clean-shaven and looking young.
  4. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
    Three young men, physically identical but otherwise wildly different, must find each other and unite to save the kingdom.
  5. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
    In an ideal world, represented.  We’ll see.
  6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
    Come back in a few years and I might be able to tell you the answer to that.  Alternatively, if you can provide me with a time machine and a few days to experiment, I’ll be sure to let you know.
  7. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
    I would like to compare it to anything by David Eddings, but I think that might be insulting to Mr Eddings.
  8. Who or What inspired you to write this book?
    Weirdly, Harry Potter.  I’m not quite sure how that happened.  They really have very little in common.
  9. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
    The book is about balance – good and evil, male and female, magic and science.

4. Tag five other people and link to their blogs so we can hop over and meet them.

Ok, five people…  Hmmm.

Rosie Oliver (because I want to know if there are any more sequels to CAT coming)

David Higgins (yes we are related)

Sieni Madison

Miriam Joy

Kari Fay

So there we are.  I hope you’ve all had fun.

Two things have caught my attention today.

The first is this, an article about the skydiving record attempt that Matt Williams talked about on his blog.  However, in contrast to most mentions of it, this one is about how he smashed the record for most live streaming views on YouTube.  It’s nice that they have their priorities straight.

The second is the attempt by the US Navy to produce a robot that acts like MacGyver.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, as you might expect, the robot will not be able to prevent nuclear explosions using only a shoe lace and a piece of chewing gum, or escape from madmen using duct tape and a false eyeball*.  But stacking boxes to climb and building a functional bridge out of debris are no mean feat for a robot, which will need to both recognise the objects and figure out whether they are strong enough to hold its weight before combining them to create the solution.

 

* I have no idea whether these are actual MacGyver plots or not, but they sound plausible, don’t they?

 

Goldie manuevered the spaceship carefully.  She was aiming for a specific landing spot, near some excitingly human-looking structures.  Too close and she would destroy them before she got a chance to explore.  Too far and she would have to walk for hours and not have time to explore.  As she descended towards the planet the clouds parted around her, revealing the ground below.

It looked just like a scene from Old Earth, after they’d cleared out the northern continents and turned them into nature reserves.  The savannah spread into the distance, where it blended into a mountain range.  In the other direction a lake glinted in the sunshine.  Long grass undulated in a gentle breeze, giving the impression of movement to the ground.  It was perfect.

She slid lower, and pulled up the structures on the viewscreen.  The  nearest of them was like something out of an old movie – ahaybarn she thought it was called.  It was large – large enough to fit maybe two small houses in, with an opening on one end.

“I’ll park near there,” she thought.  “Have to be careful not to get too close, though, I don’t know what that thing is made of.”

She aimed towards her chosen spot and gently set the craft down.  Grinning happily at the thought of exploring something new, she quickly suited up and hopped into the airlock.  The bot followed on behind.

The first thing she noticed when she left the airlock was the ground.  It was soft and squelchy, every footstep she took filling with a thin layer of water as soon as she moved on.  Still, it wasn’t too bad.  She set off for the buildings.

The sun was gentle on her back, barely felt through the space suit, and the bobbing grass lulled her with its sameness.  It felt like she walked for hours and didn’t get anywhere, but when she checked her chrono she discovered it had only been twenty minutes.

The nearest of the buildings was set at the top of a slight rise.  As she climbed to it the ground changed from soft earth to hard rock, and the bobbing waving grasses gave way to shorter fronds of something that looked like a cross between grass and moss.  She stopped and took a sample.

The building itself was a disappointment.  As soon as she got close to it, she realised that it was only a shell.  The massive structure appeared to have been built and then left empty.  The ground inside was covered in the same short grass as the rest of the hill, but the walls were bare rock.  There was no sign, apart from the building itself, that there had ever been any intelligent life here.

She looked around a little, and explored the rest of the structures – all different shapes, but all empty.  Eventually she decided to give it up as a lost cause and head back to the ship.

The trip back was as soporific as the trip there, but a growing unease was making itself known in the back of her mind.  The ship looked… wrong.  She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something not quite right about the shape, or the placement, or… She quickened her pace.

Oh.

She stopped and stared at her spaceship.  Or rather, the top of her spaceship.  The entire thing had sunk a good six feet into the ground.  She rushed around to the airlock.  The top foot of it was visible – not enough to squeeze through in her suit, and the bot definitely wouldn’t make it.  She would have to dig it out before she could get inside and see about moving the ship.

The bot was carrying supplies, as it had for the past few trips.  She was grateful that she had thought to put a variety of pieces of equipment in its pack.  She fished out a spade and began to dig.

Almost immediately she encountered problems.  Every time she took a chunk of earth out the hole immediately filled with water.  She was digging blind, creating a pond next to her airlock.

It took a long while, but eventually she had dug down far enough to reach the controls.  She opened the door and watched as a rush of water filled the airlock.  She lowered the bot into the hole – it wasn’t great at climbing or jumping – and then slid in herself.  For a moment she was floating in the water, before she kicked the close button and started the airlock cycling.  It was just as good at expelling water as it was at clearing out the air, and soon she was standing on the floor watching the last of the water pumped out of the airlock.

The inner door opened, and she gratefully stripped off her soaking spacesuit.  They were really not designed for use underwater.

Now, to get out of here before the ship sank entirely under the earth.

She set the bot off cleaning up the mess with the spacesuit, and sat herself down at the controls.  She entered the commands for a vertical take off.  The engines strained but the ship did not seem to be moving.

Fighting down the rising panic, she thought about other things she could try.  She set the thrusters to go forwards and backwards, and began rocking the ship gently.  If she could make the hole bigger, perhaps she would be able to take off.

It took long minutes of effort, first straining forwards, then backwards, slowly increasing the force until finally she felt the ship move.  She wriggled it a few more times to be sure and then aimed for the sky.  And the ship soared.  She was free!

I went to see “Looper” today.  It’s been billed as “this decade’s The Matrix”.  Well… no.  But The Matrix was a very hard act to follow, so perhaps we’ll let it off.

Joe is a Looper – an assassin with an easy job.  At pre-determined times people are sent back in time, bound and disguised, and he kills them.  Apparently it’s hard to hide the bodies in the future.

The looper’s contract continues until they close the loop – which means the person they have just killed is themselves.  They get a huge payout and spend the next thirty years doing whatever they want.  Predictably, when Joe’s turn to close the loop comes, there are a few problems – such as the other end of the loop being Bruce Willis.

It’s not just he wants to live, of course, he has a plan.  The loops are all being closed by the new boss in town, the Rainmaker.  Old-Joe wants to kill the Rainmaker as a child and therefore stop himself being sent back to die.

I won’t tell you what happened – but I will say that there were explosions (one of my two favourite things about Hollywood films), and a lot of people died.  But since Bruce Willis was involved you probably guessed both of those.

There are a few things which puzzled me about the film.  One was the French.  Young Joe was learning French, he said because he was planning on going to France after he closed the loop and retired.  In the scenes we saw from Old Joe’s life, not once was he actually in France, but he said he never regretted learning French.  Not sure what that was all about.

The other thing was the set-up that the bad guys used.  Killing the assassins I can understand, since the whole thing is highly illegal.  But why have them kill themselves?  Set it up so that they worked for a certain number of kills or a time limit, or just until they earned enough.  Then, later, send them back to be killed by somebody else.  They wouldn’t know ahead of time that they would be going to die, and there wouldn’t be the hesitation problem that allowed Old Joe to escape in the first place.

Still, it was a good couple of hours fun.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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