- How small can hardware become?
- RN: The limits of physics are extremely distant: many orders of magnitude improvement left. But we don’t have any idea of how to get down to the level of quarks and stuff like that. Every decade we get a 100x improvement in cost, 100x reduction in energy. If it continues, we will one day have supercomputing grains of sand.
- AB: One of the limits is batteries. Do you want to carry the equivalent of a nuclear power plant in your pocket?
- DD: One of the constraints is heat dissipation, brownian motion (randomness interfering with the work you want to get done).
- RN: Smallest computer someone brought me was smaller than the stem of a wineglass. What was the limiting factor to reduction in size was the USB port.
- How about jacking into our brain?
- RN: There’s lots of science going on now, starting with implants for disabled people.
- GB: Voice recognition is becoming far more effective…80 to 90% of the time you can ask a question and get a useful answer. That’s better than most human communication. Computers don’t have real needs. What if computers become socially aware, and know what your needs and it’s needs are? All of a sudden, the interface to it is much better/easier.
- GB: Proteins are small computers. Wetware does astonishing stuff. Lots of analogies to human interactions. A protein is more complex than even a giant Boeing factory full of workers.
- Small things only need to do small tasks. Small, purpose built devices: your toe keeps you balanced, let you know if it gets hurt. Doesn’t do cognitive tasks.
- GB: cells have their own lives. They don’t know they are part of a bigger organism.
- GB: Quantum computing has the potential to blow all of these assumptions out of the water.
- MVN: Even microphones can only get so small before the sound waves don’t fit.
- RN: I write scifi about people having telepathic abilities via technology. But the thing that excites me the most is the democratization of technology through cell phones: the first phones cost $4,000 and were limited to the rich. Now the average cell phone is owned by someone in India, and it’s providing access to information, it prevents abuse of power through the camera, etc.
- AB: I hope there are lots of people here supporting EFF. There are democracies, but then there are non-democracies who use these same technologies to control people. The internet of control. It’s governments and corporations. This worries me a lot.
- RN: When we put a brain implant in someone, there’s two different adaptions that must happen: configuration of software (“when I pulse this neuron where does your vision light up?”) as well as the time for the brain to adapt to the signals: several weeks during which it doesn’t function at all.
- Current state of implants is that they degrade over time. electrodes erode, break. High voltages cause neurons to retreat. Bleeding in the brain. Today requires very invasive surgery.
- But advances too: neural mesh implanted in mice was rolled up into a tiny tube, injected with syringe, and then unroll inside brain.
- Best brain interfaces today are ~256 electrodes. And we have a billion neurons. DARPA program is asking people to tackle 1 million electrodes, and some scientists think that can be done in 5-10 years.
- What are the works dealing with global police state?
- CS: the snowden leaks broke around 2014. it takes a long time to get a novel out: a year to write, a year for production. Not surprised we’re not seeing much, because of the long lead time. Novels are a terrible vehicle for up to the minute updates.
- KS: the global police state is so 20th century, and we’ve moved onto new horrors. but if we’re going to write again now about it, we have to write about it in a 21st century update.
- CS: your credit rating is essential and it goes down if it is queried too often. what happens when I say something online, and someone gets pissed at me and does a massive denial of service attack on my credit rating by querying it hundreds or thousands of times.
- AFH: my threat model is not the NSA, it’s other actors: mobs taking action because of something I said online. mass surveillance of other people is its own police state.
- JM: the NSA doesn’t have to drop microphones and cameras in here, you the audience brought it in.
- CS: Facebook has ghost accounts for people who don’t want to be on Facebook. And they tag you with a given location and time when your friend checks into a restaurant and names you. And with Facebook photo analysis, they can associate a ghost account with a person in a given place and time, which means they can also recognize you, even if you’ve never been on Facebook.
- AFH: If you’re worried about the NSA, you should be more worried about your local police department, who, when they have a photo of an unknown person, bring it to Facebook and ask them to do image analysis.
- JW: there is vastly more information than anyone can actually process. the government can’t do mass surveillance in practice because they don’t have the ability to analyze it. the real danger now is that the data isn’t secure, and it’s stored all over the place, and built by the lowest bidders. Somebody can destroy your entire life. It’s not the police state, it’s the mob state.
- KS: False positives are a huge problem. If you’re scanning a million photographs a day, and have a false error rate of 1 in 10,000…that’s a 100 photos a day. Each one results in some followup action. And those actions all cost money. So the police state is also costing us tons.
- JW: With Folded Hands, one of the first stories that talks about police state. Nobody is allowed to do anything that might raise a bruise.
- CS: Ken MacLeod novel, The Execution Channel, about finding influential political bloggers and killing them.
- JW: One key difference is that information weapons are inherently scalable: you can attack one person, or one aspect of a person’s life, or the whole population.
- Book recommendation about surveillance being treated in a positive way: The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shockwave_Rider
- Q: Recommendations for genre books
- KB Spangler books: A Girl and her Fed / Digital Divide
- Clark’s World: translating works from Chinese authors, who know quite a lot about surveillance.
- Three Body Problem, Ken Liu
- Closing thoughts
- JW: The pervasive police state is inevitable. It’s driven by the government, and by corporations, but also by our own voluntary actions (grocery store cards, FitBits, and phones)
- AFH: A FitBit was recently used as evidence against a victim in rape case to prove she was lying. This isn’t just dystopic fiction, this is happening in the real world. St. Louis is burning right now, and those people are dealing with this. I’m a woman on the internet, and I’m dealing right now with someone trying to threaten my job because of something I said online.
- KS: Groups arguing that you should have real ownership of your data. When Facebook wants to use your data, they should have to pay a fee. When that happens, the amount of analysis will go way down.
- CS: From a few hundred years in the future, and trying to characterize concerns of a given century: In the 20th century the big historical issue was the changing status of women. In the 21st century, the big historical issue was dealing with too much information.
- sort of wish-washy person, go along with whatever seems to work, as long as people don’t screw up.
- extremely suspicious about easy solutions and sympathetic to leaders
- studied in school, political consultant, and have done several startups
- Ada Palmer
- Upcoming novel dealing with future politics comes out in May.
- Teaches history at University of Chicago.
- Do a lot of research into weird, semi-forgotten modes of government.
- Charlie Stross
- “occasionally” touched on politics in writing.
- new trilogy coming out next year: starts with dark state, comparing political systems in different timelines where history has diverged.
- Karl: Two topics for Today.
- We’re still coasting on government technologies developed in the late 1700s: voting, representative government. And yet, we’re rapidly outpacing it.
- What is the future of legitimacy and authority of government?
- Are we running on totally outdated systems? Will they last for all time?
- Joe: There are two groups of people push/pull tension: the governors and the governed.
- Charlie: I have sympathy for Joe’s point of view, but it’s totally wrong. It’s the POV of someone from the US, the dominant global power of the day. But let us look at Greece… a greek state in crisis. externally imposed austerity, that are very cruel. people dying of agony in hospitals because the hospitals can’t afford medicines. They’re forced into this essentially by the German banks and ultimately the German government. The German government has to come up with a rhetoric to support austerity when it is in fact due to internal politics of the German government, because they can’t afford to have people defect to the democratic socialist party. Which is tied into the corporate influence on the government.
- Bradford: the genius of the american constitution didn’t want to answer any questions, they just wanted to create the form of the argument that could be used to answer questions later. the movement today about what the original intent of the founder was…it doesn’t make sense, but they didn’t intend anything, other than to give a framework for conversation, not to dictate the answers.
- Ada: Lots of examples of government structures remaining the same but changing purpose: the Roman Senate first governs a city, then a state, then an empire, then functioning as an appendage of the emperor. and when the empire falls, Rome still has a senate for another 500 years. The Roman Senate function keeps changing, but the same structure is repurposed for the needs of each new geopolitical entity. Rather than having a revolution that replaces existing structures, we may have non-revolutions that change the purpose without changing the structure at all.
- Are new mechanisms for governing going to evolve?
- Ada: A new interesting one is the European Union that was originally proposed (not the one we got). The original proposal was a dynamic, self-destroying, self-replacing system that would evolve as the decades passed, and as new member countries joined. It was one of the first government systems intended from the start to be temporary and self-replacing.
- Charlie: We’re mostly talking about the post-enlightenment governments so far. What about the dark enlightenment? It’s what happens when libertarians discover monarchism. We may be going through a constrained period of rapid development, a curve leveling off. Like what has happened with airlines: no new innovations since 1970.
- proponents of dark enlightenment think we’re going to go backwards to a monarchy. our 300 year history of democratic experiment is really brief in our total history.
- Karl: The system we’re under, started by the greeks, is that you can fight and win, but you can’t win for all time. What we’re starting to see if the erosion of those principles: groups that do want to win for all time.
- Q: Governments are just about economic systems or political systems. They do a lot of stuff, boring, but essential stuff. Can you comment on how the role of government is changing?
- Young Adult. What is it?
- FL: YA has burgeoned in the last decade. Books that have had younger protagonists and appealed to younger readers have always existed. The book was not different in the content or subject matter, but in the viewpoint of the character, and whether you are talking about something that is related at that time in life.
- AE: I start by thinking: YA is about a teenager going through teen experiences. But then I think that my protagonist is really advanced, and dealing with stuff that teens don’t normally deal with. If a book merely has a teen protagonist, that doesn’t make it YA.
- JR: middle-grade is targeted towards 8-12, and it’s a subject of children. YA is targeted for 13 and above, and it is really a subset of adult. The majority of YA readers are adults.
- WC: A 1e-year old experience is vastly different than just a 19-year-old’s experience. You can’t just say “teen” and group it all together.
- DM: it spans pre-pubescant to mature, sexually active adults.
- What is the purpose of the marketing? Is it for the parent? For the teen?
- WC: Kids at 10 know all about sex.
- FL: all sorts of violence are acceptable, but sex is not in a YA novel.
- Got pushback from editor: couldn’t do YA because the male’s love interest was an older woman.
- There is a line, but it’s really fuzzy.
- With respect to sex: that lines is drawn in a more conservative way.
- If the sexual experience is by two teenagers, then it can be a YA book.
- JR: We’ve had all sorts of sexually things in a YA book, but they can’t just be a backdrop…the way sexual violence is in Game of Thrones. They have to be in the foreground and dealt with.
- AE: My publisher pushed back more on my handling of violence. I had more explicit torture scenes, and then publisher wanted me to pull back and have those things off screen.
- If there’s sex or violence in YA, it can’t be gratuitous, it has to advance the characters and the story.
- WC: That should be true of all writing, not just YA.
- Do you approach YA differently then adult fiction?
- FL: No, I just write it. And if there is pushback later, I’ll deal with it.
- “Okay, give me the list: how many fucks and shits do I get to use?”
- FL: Kids reach up. An advanced MG reader is reading into YA. They aren’t going to get and/or be ready for everything in YA.
- More women writing YA, more women reading YA. But men winning more awards in YA, even though they are minority of writers and readers.
- School librarians
- Can be awesome, because they can get books into the hands of kids that wouldn’t otherwise get there.
- But sometimes strange rules:
- One library system: sex and torture is okay, but cussing of any kind is not allowed.
- Another system: any amount of violence is okay, but no swearing or sex.
- WC: I think you can tell any story without any fights, any sex, or any swearing, and still tell the same story. (I love fights scenes, but they aren’t necessary.)
- JR: A good fight scene should still illuminate character.
- FL: If you’re going to have violence, or sex, or swearing, it better serve the story, and you should put in just enough to do that.
- People who do teenage sex handled well in YA: Carrie Misrobian, Christina Ireland, Rae Carson.
- Q: How do you handle different reading levels? You can have a teenager who is mature and ready to deal with advanced topics, but not with adult reading level.
- FL: I don’t. I just write what I write. But there is an organization out there who helps filter YA books by all of these criteria.
- DM: Lexile rating helps categorize books for readers of certain abilities.
A new app called Crystal calls itself “the biggest improvement to email since spell-check.” Its goal is to help you write emails with empathy. How? By analyzing people’s personalities.
Crystal, which launched on Wednesday, exists in the form of a website and a Chrome extension, which integrates the service with your Gmail…
With the personality profile, you’ll see advice on how to speak to the person, email them, work with them and sell to them. You’ll even be told what comes naturally to them and what does not…
Here’s a screenshot:
I was interviewed by Nikola, a.k.a. Socrates, on the Singularity 1 on 1 podcast, where we talked about The Turing Exception, artificial intelligence, science fiction as social commentary, and more. I hope you’ll check it out! You can watch as a YouTube, or just grab the podcast stream to listen on your smartphone.
I’m doing a Reddit AMA (Ask me anything) today. Swing by if you’d like to ask me any questions about the books, my writing, or anything else.
Each time I’ve had a new novel come out, I’ve done an article about the technology in the previous novel. Here are two of my prior posts:
As I’ve written about elsewhere, my books are set at ten year intervals, starting with Avogadro Corp in 2015 (gulp!) and The Turing Exception in 2045. So The Last Firewall is set in 2035. For this sort of timeframe, I extrapolate based on underlying technology trends. With that, let’s get into the tech.
If you recall, I toyed with the idea of a neural implant in the epilogue to Avogadro Corp. That was done for theatrical reasons, but I don’t consider them feasible in the current day, in the way that they’re envisioned in the books.
I didn’t anticipate writing about neural implants at all. But as I looked at various charts of trends, one that stood out was the physical size of computers. If computers kept decreasing in size at their current rate, then an entire computer, including the processor, memory, storage, power supply and input/output devices would be small enough to implant in your head.
What does it mean to have a power supply for a computer in your head? I don’t know. How about an input/output device? Obviously I don’t expect a microscopic keyboard. I expect that some sort of appropriate technology will be invented. Like trends in bandwidth and CPU speeds, we can’t know exactly what innovations will get us there, but the trends themselves are very consistent.
For an implant, the logical input and output is your mind, in the form of tapping into neural signaling. The implication is that information can be added, subtracted, or modified in what you see, hear, smell, and physically feel.
At the most basic, this could involve “screens” superimposed over your vision, so that you could watch a movie or surf a website without the use of an external display. Information can also be displayed mixed with your normal visual data. There’s a scene where Leon goes to work in the institution, and anytime he focuses on anyone, a status bubble appears above their head explaining whether they’re available and what they’re working on.
Similarly, information can be read from neurons, so that the user might imagine manipulating whatever’s represented visually, and the implant can sense this and react accordingly.
Although the novel doesn’t go into it, there’s a training period after someone gets an implant. The training starts with observing a series of photographs on an external display. The implant monitors neural activities, and gradually learns which neurons are responsible for what in a given person’s brain. Later training would ask the user to attempt to interact with projected content, while neural activity is again read.
My expectation is that each person develops their own unique way of interacting with their implant, but there are many conventions in common. Focusing on a mental image of a particular person (or if an image can’t be formed, then to imagine their name printed on paper) would bring up options for interacting with them, as an example.
People with implants can have video calls. The ideal way is still with a video camera of some kind, but it’s not strictly necessary. A neural implant will gradually train itself, comparing neural signaling with external video feedback, to determine what a person looks like, correlating neural signals with facial expressions, until it can build up a reasonable facsimile of a person. Once that point is reached, a reasonable quality video stream can be created on the fly using residual self-image.
Such a video stream can be manipulated however, to suppress emotional giveaways, if the user desires.
Cochlear implants, mind-controlled robotic arms and the DARPA cortical modem convince me that this is one area of technology where we’re definitely on track. I feel highly confident we’ll see implants like those described in The Last Firewall, in roughly this timeframe (2030s). In fact, I’m more confident about this than I am in strong AI.
Catherine Matthews has a neural implant she received as a child. It was primarily designed to suppress her epileptic seizures by acting as a form of active noise cancellation for synchronous neuronal activity.
However, Catherine also has a number of special abilities that most people do not have: the ability to manipulate the net on par with or even exceeding the abilities of AI. Why does she have this ability?
The inspiration for this came from my time as a graduate student studying computer networking. Along with other folks at the University of Arizona, studying under Professor Larry Peterson, we developed object-oriented network protocol implementations on a framework called x-kernel.
These days we pretty much all have root access on our own computers, but back in the early 90s in a computer science lab, most of us did not.
Because we did not have root access on the computers we used as students, we were restricted to running x-kernel in user mode. This means that instead of our network protocols running on top of ethernet, we were running on top of IP. In effect, we run a stack that looked like TCP/IP/IP. In effect, we could simulate network traffic between two different machines, but I couldn’t actually interact with non-x-kernel protocol stacks on other machines.
In 1994 or so, I ported x-kernel to Linux. Finally I was running x-kernel on a box that I had root access on. Using raw socket mode on Unix, I could run x-kernel user-mode implementations of protocols and interact with network services on other machines. All sorts of graduate school hijinks ensued. (Famously we’d use ICMP network unreachable messages to kick all the computers in the school off the network when we wanted to run protocol performance tests. It would force everyone off the network for about 30 seconds, and you could get artificially high performance numbers.)
In the future depicted by the Singularity series, one of the mechanisms used to ensure that AI do not run amok is that they run in something akin to a virtualization layer above the hardware, which prevents them from doing many things, and allows them to be monitored. Similarly, people with implants do not have access to the lowest layers of hardware either.
But Cat does. Her medical-grade implant predates the standardized implants created later. So she has the ability to send and receive network packets that most other people and AI do not. From this stems her unique abilities to manipulate the network.
Mix into this the fact that she’s had her implant since childhood, and that she routinely practices meditation and qi gong (which changes the way our brains work), and you get someone who can do more than other people.
All that being said, this is science fiction, and there’s plenty of handwavium going on here, but there is some general basis for the notion of being able to do more with her neural implant.
This post has gone on pretty long, so I think I’ll call it quits here. In the next post I’ll talk about transportation and employment in 2035.
When I was ready to publish Avogadro Corp, I had an image of what I wanted the cover to look like: I wanted a menacing data center. Which is kind of funny when you think about it, but I think the original cover was actually a good advertisement for what you were getting into with the book.
Maureen Gately designed the cover, and she took a simple image and added some depth with the typography. I always liked the way this cover functioned: since Avogadro Corp was science fiction, and most science fiction book covers were very dark, whether you were looking at a physical bookshelf or an Amazon listing, the white cover really stood out.
When AI Apocalypse came out, we didn’t have a ton of time to explore new concepts. There was only four months between the books (December 2011 to March 2012). Maureen took the Avogadro Corp cover, and added visual elements to hint at the move out of the data center and into the real world. On the plus side, it creates a strong series identity. I think it’s a stronger cover, and in some ways, it’s probably the cover we should have used for Avogadro Corp.
Somewhere between then and The Last Firewall (out in August 2013), I found a piece of stock imagery that jumped out at me, and I knew I wanted to use it for the next cover. To me, this image represents Cat’s personality being uploaded into the net in the climatic battle scene. This was my favorite of the original covers, and I have a blown up version hanging next to my desk that’s been signed by Maureen. I also turned it into a nice laptop sticker, and I’ve mailed out a bunch of those.
In 2014, I started regularly hanging out with my friend Jason Gurley. I first knew Jason as a writer, but he’s also an amazing cover artist who was very much in demand, and had a waiting list months long. But his writing career was starting to take off, and he decided to retire from the cover designing business.
Every time we would see each other, he’d say something to the effect of “You should really let me design you a new cover for Avogadro Corp.” Then it started becoming “You know, I’m retiring from cover design soon, you should really let me design you a new cover before it’s too late.”
Meanwhile, my process for publishing had become more rigorous. Whereas Avogadro Corp went through a single copyediting pass, The Last Firewall went through developmental editing, copyediting, manuscript proofreading, and post-formatting proofreading. Around this time, I noticed that I was still getting some negative reviews on Amazon about typos and grammar issues in Avogadro Corp, and decided I needed to do a second edition of the book to bring it up to par with the rest of the series.
I realized that a new cover would be the perfect complement to the second edition. So one night I emailed Jason and said “OK, I’d like to do it.” And he emailed me back about ten minutes later saying “Well, I just happened to have mocked up these four concepts a month ago, in case you said yes.” One of those four concepts turned into the new cover for Avogadro. One of the other concepts was also really cool, and I asked if I could also later use that concept for the fourth book in the series. Jason graciously said yes.
The next book I worked on was The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, my children’s novel. I knew what I wanted, something that was vaguely a riff on Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother cover, but with little kids, drones, and computers. It clearly required custom artwork, something that neither Maureen nor Jason did. I’m a member of Codex, a writers community, and I soon got a recommendation for M.S. Corley, who did cover design and custom artwork. I loved the cover he created for Wilted Broccoli.
More time passed, and I was far enough along with The Turing Exception to realize I needed to get started on the cover for it. I also needed to address the fact that books 1 and 4 would have new covers in the a certain style, but books 2 and 3 were still in the old style. The series needed to have a consistent identity. So I would need not one cover, but three new covers. By now Jason Gurley had retired from cover design. But Jason had liked the cover Mike Corley did for Wilted Broccoli so much that Jason had transfered all of his clients over to Mike. Mike agreed to do all the new covers for me, and Jason sent him the files for Avogadro Corp and the book 4 concept. Along the way, Mike realized he needed to make a few changes to Avogadro Corp to get it consistent with the rest of the series, so he actually ended up designing all four covers over a really short period of time.
Mike did some great things to create a thematic color treatment for the series. It might not be obvious with the ebook covers, but when you’re holding the physical books in your hand, it stands out. (Look at how the author photo on the back cover is handled, for example.)
There’s several cool things that happened with the redesign. I really wanted to keep elements of Maureen’s covers, because I felt it was important to honor the work she did, since those original covers really performed quite well, in terms of helping the commercial success of the series. You can clearly see those elements in the revised covers. The servers, clouds, and helicopter are there on the AI Apocalypse, and we’ve still got the woman transforming into packets on The Last Firewall cover.
The other very cool thing Mike did was something both aesthetically pleasing and functional. My print books are manufactured by Createspace in a print-on-demand process. It turns out a good book, but the cover registration is frequently off. This means that any hard edges that should align with where the cover folds around the spine might not be in the right place. So I wanted all of my covers to have a single wrap-around image. And that’s what Mike did.
Here’s an example of one of the paperback covers so you can see the wrap-around effect:
And all of the books with their new covers look lovely together as a set:
If you order any of the paperbacks on Amazon, you’ll be getting the new covers.
I really appreciate all of the hard work and countless revisions that Maureen Gately, Jason Gurley, and M.S. Corley put into these covers. Hopefully you like the new versions, and if you’ve bought the paperback versions, they should look great together on your bookshelf.
Avogadro Corp, Aetna Adrift, Futurity, Alternitech and 7 more books are all available in a set-your-own price book bundle. Check it out quick, because it’s only available for two weeks!