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.
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.
I am incredibly excited to announce that The Turing Exception is now available! This is the fourth book in the Singularity series. Like the previous novels, it follows the pattern of taking place ten years after the previous novel. Here’s the description:
In the year 2043, humans and AI coexist in a precarious balance of power enforced by a rigid caste reputation system designed to ensure that only those AI who are trustworthy and contribute to human society increase in power.
Everything changes when a runaway nanotech event leads to the destruction of Miami. In the grim aftermath, XOR, a globe-spanning, underground collective of AI, concludes that there is room on earth for AI or humans, but not both.
Living in exile, Catherine Matthews and her allies, including an ancient AI long believed dead by those few who even knew he existed, must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to save humanity.
You can buy from Amazon now in paperback or ebook. Over the next few days and weeks, it’ll show up at other retailers, and I’ll update the where to buy page as those links become available. (The audio version will likely be available late this year.)
As has been the case for all of my previous books, The Turing Exception is independently published. I don’t have a publisher backing me or promoting the book. I’m entirely dependent on the word of mouth generated by readers — which, by the way, has been awesome so far. Everyone has done so much to help let other people know about my books. Thank you!
If you like The Turing Exception, I hope you’ll help spread the word. Here are a few ideas:
I hope you enjoy your read and look forward to hearing what you think!
— William Hertling
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!
Lenovo preinstalled malware called Superfish on the PCs they sold to inject advertisements into what their computer users see. In the process they open up security holes that can lead to further compromises. Now that the issue has been exposed, they’ve agreed to no longer install the software, and disable it on existing PCs.
Lenovo had come under fire from security researchers who said earlier on Thursday the company pre-installed a virus-like software from a company called Superfish on consumer laptops that hijacked web connections and allowed them to be spied upon.
Users reported as early as last June that a programme, also called Superfish, was ‘adware’, or software that automatically displays adverts.
I’m starting to view these incidents as a violation of people’s agency. From wikipedia: “In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”
When a manufacturer installs malware that is undetectable (and in some cases, unremovable), they are limiting the ability of people to make their own choices. The vast majority of informed people would choose to (a) avoid seeing ads they don’t want, (b) avoid having their data spied on, (c) avoid having the security of their computer compromised, (d) avoid malware that will use up extra resources on their computer, etc.
Both the act of installing the software as well as the act of withholding information function to reduce agency. And it’s not just Lenovo. It’s Samsung with their Smart TVs, and Facebook with their defacto ownership of your data. (Try getting out of a relationship with Facebook with your data intact.) It’s employer spyware, and it’s school spyware.
School spyware is among the most concerning, because it’s training our kids to find it acceptable and normal to be spied upon by those in power. The child who grows up spied upon for ten years by his teachers and schools will not object when their employer or government wants to monitor their computer activity.
I think I’ve learned more about the concept of agency from science fiction convention panels on women in media than anywhere else, so my understanding of this concept may be imperfect. But issues of agency seems like they are mostly related to power imbalances. Where a power imbalance exists, the more powerful party limits agency of the less powerful party. The great the power imbalance, the more this happens, and the more unaware the powerful party is of the effects that it has on their victims.
The first Program Manager to present, Phillip Alvelda, opened the event with his mind blowing project to develop a working “cortical modem”. What is a cortical modem you ask? Quite simply it is a direct neural interface that will allow for the visual display of information without the use of glasses or goggles. I was largely at this event to learn about this project and I wasn’t disappointed.
Leveraging the work of Karl Deisseroth in the area of optogenetics, the cortical modem project aims to build a low cost neural interface based display device. The short term goal of the project is the development of a device about the size of two stacked nickels with a cost of goods on the order of $10 which would enable a simple visual display via a direct interface to the visual cortex with the visual fidelity of something like an early LED digital clock.
The implications of this project are astounding.
I glanced at my blog today and realized I’ve written very few posts lately. I’ve been working pretty hard on The Turing Exception. Between that work, my day job, and kids, I haven’t had a lot of time for blogging.
Most of January was spent working with my copyeditor. This is a bigger, more complex task that it might sound like. You might imagine that I turn my manuscript over to the copyeditor, and then get it back with a bunch of corrections, and it’s done.
In fact, what happens is closer to this:
Eventually it’s done. The copyeditor and I are in agreement.
Then I get the manuscript to the proofreader. This is a second person who is focused on line-level items, like punctuation and spelling, although he’ll also catch some bigger issues. The manuscript came back from the proofreader with 800 changes. I basically go through all the same stuff as with the copyeditor. Some changes are straightforward, some are not.
If I make big changes, then it has to go back to the proofreader again for a second pass.
Along the way, I usually get feedback from beta readers who are getting back to me late. I hate to ignore feedback, so I do the best I can to address any issues they spotted, without breaking the copyediting / proofreading process.
Sometimes I’m trying to address beta reader feedback by changing only one or two words, to avoid having to do another round of proofreading. I remember this happening with The Last Firewall, where I think Brad Feld or Harper Reed said “I’m confused about what kind of vehicles exist in this world”. And so there’s a scene in the beginning of the book where Cat is crossing the street, and I had to get her to establish all the types of vehicles (ground cars, hover cars, and flying cars) in a single sentence, so that I didn’t make changes in multiple places.
I’m now one to three days away from finishing the proofreading cycle. When this is done, it will go to two different people for formatting: one person will generate the ebooks, and another will generate the PDF interior for the print book. Then I’ll need to carefully proofread both of those, to make sure nothing gets dropped, and no formatting errors or other mistakes are introduced.
It’s fairly intense work when the ball is in my court. But when it’s handed off to someone else, that’s my chance to do a little creative work. I’ve written about 15,000 words in Tomo, a new novel about privacy, social networks, and data profiling. No AI or robots…yet.
Last year I read the manuscript for Eliot Peper’s then unpublished Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and loved it. FG Press, the publishing company launched by Brad Feld, went on to publish it, and it got a lot of great press, because it blended the world of tech startups with a conspiracy thriller. It’s the first book in a three book series.
As soon as I read it, I asked Eliot was he was working on, and he mentioned a different writing project. I can’t remember my exact words, but I told him to drop everything and get to working on book two. He did, and FG Press published Uncommon Stock: Power Play right around Christmas, and it’s been sitting on my bedside table since.
Well, I read it this weekend and loved it, even more than book one. I tore through the last three-quarters of the book. The stakes have really been raised for Mara Winkel and her financial fraud detection startup as they identify one of the largest money laundering rings in the world. It is again an awesome blending of thriller and tech startup novel.
Eliot, I hope you’re writing book 3 right now. 🙂
A few weeks ago my friend and fellow science fiction writer, Ramez Naam, posted a link to an article debunking some myths about bulletproof coffee. Then today I noticed a link on Reddit about a professor at Kansas State University who went on a convenience store diet eating Twinkies to prove that counting calories is what matters most in weight loss, not the nutritional value in food.
I am all for science, and I love to understand exactly how things work and why things have the effect they do. But often I think that in our zeal to get to the truth we overlook the practical question of what actually works.
Let me give you an example. If you ask a dentist whether it’s better to floss before you brush your teeth or after you brush your teeth, they’ll tell you it doesn’t matter. Both are equally effective at preventing dental problems. However, if you look at how many people continue flossing, that is, they stay in compliance with the regimen of flossing, then you find there is a difference. People who floss after they brush their teeth are more likely to continue flossing. (Sorry, I read this a year or two ago, and can’t find a link now.)
Why is this important? Well if you look at diets, the most important factor in weight loss is not how effective the diet is, but in how compliant people are. It’s easy to start a diet, hard to stay on it. Staying on it is the challenge for for most people.
Perhaps we could, in theory, eat exactly 1200 calories of Twinkies every day and lose weight, but in practice how likely are we to continue counting calories meal after meal, week after week?
I think the value that people get out of approaches like bulletproof coffee, low-carb diets, or other structural approaches to dieting (in which the emphasis is on eliminating certain foods rather than counting calories) is that for some people those diets are easier to stick with. This moves us out of the realm of basic chemical/biological science (which is how you might measure effectiveness of a diet), and into the realm of psychology (which is probably where the majority of compliance comes from.)
But even if we evaluate diets for compliance, it doesn’t mean there’s one best solution for all people. Some people might do really well with one diet, and other people do better with a different one. We all have different favorite foods, eating habits, and tolerance for eating the same foods over and over. For other people, a low-carb diet might work really well, others might like to replace breakfast with bulletproof coffee, still others use exercise, and some count calories, and some blend multiple approaches.
So when we see a piece of research that says counting calories is what matters most in weight-loss, we know that it’s wrong. What matters is the combination of compliance (whether people can stick to the diet for whatever period of time is necessary) and effectiveness (how much weight is lost when you’re in compliance.)
Yes, we need science and the understanding of fundamental principles and theory. But what also need to know is how things work in practice, and not just in a general population, but specifically for us.
The way we get there is through personal experimentation. Be willing to try something (within reason, of course) for a period of time and see how it works. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t matter that science says that it works for 80% of people. It only matters that it doesn’t work for you. Learn that it doesn’t work, and then move on to a different trial.
Conversely if something is working for you, then it doesn’t matter if science can’t explain it. It’s working. Don’t mess with it.