Musings

It’s a Land of Confusion… and it always has…

The modern world is indeed a land of confusion, a frightening place that seems out of control and spiralling into the abyss. We’ve got teenage activists telling us off for ruining the environment, we have constant attempts to impeach the American president, and fear of a nuclear war in the middle east is growing. There are constant cries of:

“The climate will be irreversibly damaged with a 1-degree Celsius rise in global temperature!”

“The president is an idiot and could start a nuclear war!”

“Fossil fuels are the problem!”

“Trees are being destroyed at an alarming rate!”

“Creatures are going extinct at an unprecedented rate!”

It's a land of confusion for teenage climate change protesters
It’s a land of confusion for teenage climate change protesters

Do these sound familiar? Yes, we hear them regularly on the news. For those who are young, they are the words of doom and gloom. They sow the seeds of fear for the future. Of the belief that their parents’ generation has messed things up beyond salvation and it’s up to the youth to set it straight. For those, like myself, who are old enough and with enough interest in attempting to accurately remember the past, they sound oddly familiar. That’s because they are almost the exact same words used to frighten us when we were young.

…back in the 1980s, we were told that a 1-degree rise in global average temperature would be catastrophic…

On the chance you have trouble believing me, I offer the following bit of 80’s pop culture as evidence.

Land of Confusion by the British rock band Genesis. This song was released during the Reagan administration in 1986. It expresses almost all the fears of the modern world (especially that of an ignorant president who might accidentally destroy the world). The line “I won’t be staying home tonight, my generation will set it right” in particular should stick in readers minds as matching the thoughts of youth, and the activist culture, of today.

Global Warm…um…Climate Change

When I was a teen, back in the 1980s, we were told that a 1-degree rise in global average temperature would be catastrophic, leading to destruction and death on a worldwide scale. Since then the temperature has increased one-and-a-half degrees and it’s life as usual.

Even the ozone hole, which was the big issue at the time and appeared to be resolved through the concerted actions of concerned nations, can now be understood to have already on the way to solution before any political action had been taken. Although it was political action around 1990 that put the final nail in the coffin of CFCs, the last major ozone-depleting material in use, that class of substance had been in massive decline for decades prior to this (according to the ozone data access center as presented by the Gapminder Institute).

The Wrong President

While the president, any president, has the power to start a nuclear war… and there are many crazy leaders who might be goaded into triggering it, we haven’t yet had a president who wanted to use nuclear weapons other than under the gravest of conditions (WWII, although we may have come close a few other times). Remember, the president also lives on the planet and they want it to continue for their children. Also consider that there are only two countries that exist with substantial nuclear arsenals and, if nothing else, I’m convinced that leaders of level 4 countries learned from WWI that when empires collide it doesn’t go well for either of them (all four empires that collided in WWI were altered beyond recognition and although England came out the best, even the British Empire was set on the road to dissolution).

Fossil Fuel Usage

When I was a kid, we were told that we had to stop using fossil fuels because the world supply would run out shortly after 2000 (Yes, really. Seems kind of stupid now, doesn’t it?). Now we have an explosion of them and we’re told to stop using them because they are toxic and dangerous to the climate.

While the new issue is, undoubtedly, true we’ve developed methods to clean up emissions to amazing levels and constantly developing technology improves this all the time. I’m all for moving to different energy sources for a variety of reasons, however, when we box things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we stop thinking outside of that box.

Developing nations that don’t want to be dependent on richer countries, require the use of fossil fuels to start their economies, which would then hopefully transition fairly quickly to less-destructive fuels by example from us, rather than by being beholden to us. Richer countries should attempt to develop and move on to greener technologies when they are ready, leaving fossil fuels to developing nations to kick-start them. In this way, the amount of fossil fuel emissions would stay below a threshold level and would eventually fade as all global economies reach a certain level.

Depletion of Forests

I was also told, as a kid, that we were in danger of depleting the world’s forests. While it’s true that might have been a real possibility if left unchecked, it didn’t take much to bring us to a situation where we now have more trees on the planet than we did 100 years ago. Industrial self-interest had something to do with it as wood-based companies needed to replant in order for their industry to continue, as did government projects to ensure sufficient green areas in cities, and NGOs encouraging tree planting by citizens. The point here is that something amazing has been done with a small application of will that didn’t require people glueing themselves to a road.

Conclusion

I could go on with other examples of how the world has been made better not by alarmism and protests, but by the intelligent action and guidance of people who actually went out and did something constructive.

We have crossed the event horizon toward the technological singularity with pocket-sized personal computers and constant interconnectivity via high-speed internet and social media and, instead of concerted efforts to understand how to manage this amazing new aspect of our world and learn how we can effectively use it to bring all peoples of the world into the conversation, we spend the entire time squabbling and pointing fingers like toddlers.

There are always challenges in the world, but it’s only someone truly naive or blind who is unable to realize that human actions have made our world a much better place than that of our ancestors even 100 years ago — and that’s on the scale of a single human life.

So, while it is a land of confusion, and it probably always will be, so far we’ve managed to muddle our way through it to better and better places. I, for one, keep the hope strong that cooler heads will eventually always prevail and humanity’s path will stay in a positive direction despite the hardships and doomsayers along the way.

Alternate Futures

Humanity’s Endgame

On Crossing the Event Horizon

Having crossed the event horizon of the technological singularity we’re beginning to see many social and technological effects of this convergence – some predictable, some not. Increasingly, we see stories of robotics and artificial intelligence as the former becomes more generally practical and the latter increasingly exceeds humans in endeavours from war games to art and writing to biomedical research. If the Turing test hasn’t been passed yet, it’s only a very short amount of time until that fateful day. These examples are on the predictable, or, ‘I told you so’ front. Less predictable have been the social changes that have come with the 2nd and 3rd level combination of technology. Of course, I’m referring primarily to the Internet, social media, and pocket-sized computing devices of great power and utility.

The Technological Singularity – a period in human history when technological development is so rapid that the developments arising from it alter society in ways we cannot predict beforehand.

While few will dare suggest which technological advancements will remake our world next (cheap space-based internet, neural-link interfaces, driverless cars, AI, quantum computing, moon bases…), fewer still would argue against us being in the midst of species-changing events. This has also meant no shortage of doomsayers. These days, pick any topic from climate change to gender identity to the political far left or far right and you’ll find someone who will suggest it will bring about the end of the world. With this global pessimism, it’s not a large stretch to begin contemplating the actual paths of humanity’s endgame. After all, even the dinosaurs, who existed for several hundred million years, all but disappeared – and they didn’t have nukes or other world/species-altering tech.

Note: While it’s true some species that existed at the time of the dinosaurs – such as crocodiles, turtles, and sharks, still exist, and birds are now known to have evolved from certain species of dinosaurs, the vast majority of the dinosaur species are now extinct. In the case of birds, it can also reasonably be argued that their ancestors are extinct as the forces of evolution have turned birds into a genetically distinct species.

The 3 possible futures of humanity: Extinction

One certainty of the universe is death. Plants die, animals die, people die, civilizations die, species die, planets die, stars and solar systems die, galaxies die, and even universes might die (the jury is still out on that one). Everything dies (sorry for the downer). But on an up note, it’s all part of a cyclical process of renewal. Without the death of the parts, the whole cannot be renewed and the entire natural system would fail. So, the human species is doomed to die also. The only questions are ‘how?’ and ‘what legacy will we leave?’

In nature, there is only ever one endpoint for life and that is death. However, there are two fundamentally different legacies to that death and, as the only self-aware, technological species we know of, we are unique in being at the stage of development where we can choose our legacy.

Legacy 1: Progenitor

Humans have gone boldly and bodily into space and have stepped foot on another celestial body, albeit very briefly in regards to the long span of time (we’ve used automated vehicles for most of the other visitations). Finally, after forty-five years, it does seem that corporate (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and others), political (the China / India space race is pushing the US), and social interests (Planetary Society, British Interplanetary Society) are again moving us toward a presence in space on extraterrestrial worlds. In my personal opinion, there are many reasons why this is crucially important and I’ll detail some in future posts. However, what’s important for the sake of this discussion is the long-term consequences.

By leaving our planetary nest and taking our first steps into the greater universe we take the first steps toward our own maturation as a species. Just as a child will leave the home, find a partner, and produce offspring, so too will the version of humanity that leaves Earth. While the humans of Earth are the parents, the various colonies will be as our offspring until they too mature, which will be increasingly easy after the first effort of the Terrans. So why does this lead to extinction?

Earth is a very hospitable environment. Space and other worlds are not. Even the few that might be will have different environmental conditions to Earth. Regardless of how similar they seem while viewing them from here at the very least, their biosphere will be strikingly different (if it isn’t, that will begin an entirely new existential crisis in humanity and especially the sciences). What this means is that a new strand of human evolution will begin from the first generation born on that colony. On every colony.

Given the distances of space and the time it takes to move between colonies, interstellar isolation would mean those new strands of evolution would diverge from the parental strand (humans) until they are no longer genetically close enough to breed productively. As humans, as we currently define them, become a smaller and smaller proportion of the galactic population, they may eventually give way entirely to the newer species or, at the very least, be effectively consigned to their Earthly domain.

Legacy 2: Dead End

Simply put, humanity, for any number of reasons, may either choose not to leave the planet or may wait too long to leave the planet and have the decision removed from us. If this happens, our species will either stagnate before ‘giving up’ and dying (something that appears to be a natural in-built mechanism of renewal and possibly overcrowding as suggested by the Mouse Utopia Experiment) or we will turn on ourselves, imploding in an orgy of horror and destruction. My bet is actually on the first one since there is already some evidence we are headed that way and that, even if it doesn’t lead to our physical extinction, remaining forever locked to the planet will lead to a kind of psychological extinction.

Legacy 3: Vastly Increased Human Diversity

The final possibility, lying between the other two extremes but still extreme in itself, is that humanity incorporates the divergent evolutionary strands from different colonies into itself to evolve, with uniform possibility, into something more than we are now.

This would seem to be the least likely possibility at the moment, given our current understanding of the universe. It would require the development of propulsion techniques that could shorten the immense travel time between stars from generations to days or weeks allowing humanity could travel between worlds and interbreed before interstellar isolationism resulted in new species.

Given that our galaxy is 100,000 light-years across our current most optimistic estimate of being able to travel at 10% the speed of light would still mean it would require one million years to cross our galaxy. Even travelling to the nearest star would require forty years or at least one generation (and the birth of humans on generation ships brings entirely new issues, discussed fictionally by Kim Stanely Robinson in his book Aurora).

So, with our current understanding of the universe, the chance that humanity could naturally evolve, incorporating all the disparate new evolutionary colonial strands within one genetically-consistent framework is incredibly unlikely (even if it would be great). Of course, increases in biomedical and genetic knowledge may allow technology to take over where natural evolution falls short, so this still may be a viable hope.

Conclusion

As with an individual’s life, so too the life of a species by which I mean, it’s not the duration of the life that matters as much as the quality and the legacy left behind. The odds are that humanity will go extinct eventually and probably much faster than the dinosaurs did (to be fair, the term ‘dinosaurs’ encompasses and wide range of species, and ‘human’ just one). What is most important will be the legacy we leave behind.

We are the first species we know of that actually has the possibility of consciously spreading our descendants to the far reaches of the galaxy. It would be an amazing legacy to leave the universe that spawned us. Or, we could let our fear and self-loathing confine us to the Earth where we will eventually die out, forgotten by all as another failed experiment. The choice is ours.

Alternate Futures

Review: Nexus by Sasha Alsberg & Lindsay Cummings

Nexus (The Androma Saga #2)

by Sasha Alsberg & Lindsay Cummings
Publisher: Harlequin TEEN
Release Date: May 7th 2019Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Synopsis:
#1 New York Times bestselling authors Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings deliver the dazzling finale to the acclaimed Androma Saga, where stunning betrayals and devastating secrets send an embattled galaxy spiraling into the ultimate nightmare.
Her ship is gone, her crew is captured and notorious mercenary Androma Racella is no longer the powerful Bloody Baroness, but a fugitive ruthlessly hunted across the Mirabel Galaxy. The bloodthirsty Queen Nor now rules most of the galaxy through a mind-control toxin and she’ll stop at nothing to destroy her most hated adversary.
Andi will risk anything, even her precious freedom, to find a cure. Stranded with her unlikely ally, Dex, on the unforgiving ice planet of Solera, their plan to infiltrate a black-market city proves dangerously irresistible.
Back in Arcardius, Nor’s actions have opened Mirabel to invasion. As Andi’s crew fights to regain their freedom, Andi and Dex discover a threat far greater than anything they’ve faced before.
Only by saving their mortal enemy can the crew of the Maraudermake one last desperate strike to save the galaxy—unaware that a shattering, centuries-old secret may demand the most wrenching sacrifice of all.

My Take on Nexus

To begin with, it’s important to note that I haven’t read the first book in this duology, Zenith. I received Nexus to review from the Fantastic Flying Book Club. Despite this, however, information from the first story was woven subtly but completely enough into Nexus that I felt I had a good understanding of what happened without feeling like I’d been force-fed an infodump.

Nexus follows several characters – sometimes feeling a bit like Guardians of the Galaxy meets Star Wars – although the Bloody Baroness, space pirate Androma Racella is the main character. Following events of the previous book, she’s been brought low and has lost almost everything, very nearly including her life. The majority of the small Mirabel galaxy is now under the compulsion of queen Nor, with the help of her brother Valen, who controls the will of the people completely. Worse, she intends to tear open a rift in the dark void that would allow an alien race into the galaxy. It falls to Androma and her aptly-named right-hand man, Dextro, with the timely help of the mysterious Arachnid, to save the galaxy.

Nexus is a well-written story that moves along at an engaging pace. It’s been some time since I’ve read a science fiction novel that kept me turning the pages like this one. The main characters are interesting and each one feels unique. Both heroes and villains are well developed and we come to understand them as three-dimensional beings. The galaxy, although small, has had sufficient thought put into the world-building such that each system feels unique. This is, however, very soft-science fiction, with a great deal of magic masquerading as species traits. That’s not bad, and it plays an integral part in the story. It’s just useful to know before reading as some SF fans can be very selective about their sub-genre.

If I had any criticism of the story, it would have to be the weaker combat scenes. The authors seemed to shun writing in any detail about the combat to the point that I sometimes had trouble visualizing what was actually happening. Instead, each time they seemed to spend most of the conflict concentrating on the thoughts and feelings of the main characters. For me, this slowed down what should have been fast, dramatic scenes. However, these parts were few and far between and the true power of Nexus was in the intrigue built around the main plot. Especially, regarding the villains.

Overall, Nexus was a very enjoyable read and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys space fantasy – especially if you like ancient mystic powers, space pirates, and galactic-level threats.

Sasha Alsberg is the #1 NYT Bestselling Co-Author of ZENITH: The Androma Saga.
When Sasha is not writing or obsessing over Scotland she is making YouTube videos on her channel Abookutopia. She lives in Massachusetts with her dogs, Fraser and Fiona
For her writing, she is represented by Joanna Volpe at New Leaf Literary.

Lindsay Cummings is the #1 NYT Bestselling co-author of ZENITH, along with her duology, THE MURDER COMPLEX from Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins, and the MG trilogy THE BALANCE KEEPERS, from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. She is represented by Pete Knapp at Park Literary in NYC.
Lindsay deals with chronic fatigue, writes full time from her home in the deep woods in North Texas, and loves to chat with fellow book nerds. Lindsay created the #booknerdigans hashtag.
She’s still waiting on her letter from Hogwarts–it was probably just lost in the mail. You can follow Lindsay on twitter @authorlindsayc or on instagram @authorlindsaycummings

Fact

7 Areas that Could See Massive Benefits from Artificial…

There’s a lot of discussion regarding the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the consequences for human society. Such concerns hit the media in waves, generally around some new success by AI in the latest human competition. I’ve covered a few of these recently, including games, biochemical research, and writing. Most of the discussion centres around the negative implications because, let’s face it, humans don’t like change, as a general rule. Change means uncertainty, and uncertainty means things could get worse.

But what about the chance that AI makes the world better?

Here are seven areas where AI could greatly aid humans.

1. Personal Assistant

The artificial home personal assistant is already a huge growth area as devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and the many competitors surge into the marketplace to be devoured by consumers. It seems we’ve finally found the market for voice-activated devices. However, as amazing as these devices are, they are still very primitive in regards to their potential.

The AI Jarvis, from Marvel’s Age of Ultron.

Advanced artificial intelligence could soon be incorporated in personal assistants in such a way as to make them very much like Jarvis from the Iron Man movies. Not only would they be able to store and retrieve the information we want, but they would learn the nuances of our individual speech patterns, and our daily schedules, to anticipate our needs. Everything from better understanding our accents to reminders to buy groceries and prepare for meetings. Eventually, they could be good enough to prepare presentations and documents based on our person style from a few seeded keywords.

If this sounds creepy, consider that the wealthy and powerful already have human versions of just this type of assistant. The only difference now would be that everyone could have one.

2. Personal Educator

I’ve been saying for almost a decade now that universities are on the losing side of history. Not only are many departments (and entire universities) failing in the mandate to properly educate their students, but they’re actually introducing and even enforcing socially harmful, and factually incorrect, ideologies. Add to this the rise of online education and it seems reasonable to expect that the university as we know it, with the possible exception of STEM fields, is already obsolete as a place of education (research remains another matter). Filling this void in higher education to an increasing degree are online courses.

Currently, online classes are created by one of three types of people. Either professors from prestigious universities who have put their class online, entrepreneurs who cover niche topics in enough detail for their students to become proficient enough they can also make money in that area, or online child education for home-schooled children or those needing/wanting extra tutelage.

But all of these area require the individual to discover the course, assess the best one, and then sit through all the material to get the bits relevant to them. In addition, it requires the courses be created, often at significant expense. But imagine what an AI tutor could do!

Using a regular series of assessments that could range from tests to simple questionnaires, a personal AI tutor could identify the areas a student is weak in, or an individual wishes to learn about and, determining their level of competence, an AI could pull together relevant information from the net and compile it into a training course personalized to that individual.

My thoughts are that, maybe twenty to thirty years in the future, AI will be the dominant teaching method in advanced countries. Teaching by humans will then fall into two categories: research and management of social development. If the majority of families still have both parents working by that time, schools will be sites that have a combination of self-directed AI learning centres combined with team-building and social development activities moderated by human instructors.

3. Financial Management

Ask people in the West what their greatest fear is and, after climate change, they will most likely say financial collapse. Our well-being relies on the smooth functioning of a complex global financial system that not only appears fundamentally unstable but seems ripe with manipulation leading to regular periods of boom and bust (approximately every 18 years). So it’s no surprise that the majority of the public don’t have a lot of confidence in the continued functioning of such a system.

But what if there is a better way? What if there is a technology that could actually determine and act on all the variables to create a stable financial system? Ignoring the fact that there would be significant resistance to this from the financial sector itself, artificial intelligence would seem to be the perfect solution. Ideally designed to determine patterns and connections between immensely complex data sets, it would seem that, once properly trained, an AI would be the ideal tool for such an endeavour. Furthermore, it should have the added bonuses of being immune to human manipulation while being able to respond to potentially disastrous trends or changes very quickly.

4. Disease Management

Disease management is one area of scientific research that almost no one will worry about an invasion of AI in. The potential benefits to human health and welfare are so great that most objections are quickly swept away and with good reason. Computers have been incredibly important aids in everything from drug development to data analysis and patient management for decades now. However the standard ways of using computers are not meeting the needs of the next level of advancements we need to make in understanding complex diseases and disorders.

Disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons, even cancer, can be managed to some small degree with modern treatments. However, the complexity of these, and many other disorders, which can result from the failure in any of dozens of biochemical pathways and often in the interaction between those pathways, necessitates a level of analysis that is difficult if not impossible for the human mind to manage. A modern, heuristic AI, however, is designed to be able to make sense out of such complexity. So, once the technology matures, we could be seeing huge advances in medical sciences due to AI, potentially even leading to an extension of the human life-span.

Interestingly, just recently, DeepMind has announced being close to releasing, commercially, a device using their software that can diagnose eye-related illnesses, from a 30 second scan, to a degree of accuracy rivaling the top specialists in the world.

5. Climate Change

Much like the complexity of the human body, concern over climate change is an example of humans trying to make sense of an incredibly complex system with only limited awareness of its full scale. We have numerous models being created and updated each year, which is evidence of just how little we actually know — if we understood the climate we wouldn’t have a need for more models!

Once again, if trained properly (no small challenge given the limited data), the complexity of climate is just the type of challenge that an AI could excel at understanding. Of course, an even bigger challenge would be to convince humans to act, or not, on the results (especially if the results go against the prevailing ideology).

One potential positive secondary consequence of using AI to study climate change could be in regards to developing models and technologies for the eventual terraforming of planets we are looking to colonize.

6. Government Management

I’m certain I’m not alone in my poor view of political options both in my own country and around the world. Perhaps it’s just tunnel vision and the world has always been this way, or perhaps it’s the end of an era, but these days regardless of where one looks, there seems to be no good options for national leaders. Perhaps this is a sign we’ve let the wrong people dominate power for so long, or maybe it’s a sign of the increasing complexity of the world. When I think of the type of lifestyle, and the vast number of decisions and considerations a national leader encounters in a given day I’m amazed anyone would want the job – let alone that anyone might be remotely capable of actually doing it.

Scene from the game Civilization 6

This, then, seems to me another field ripe for experimentation with AI, and I’m not alone on this thought. Numerous groups have sprung up over the last few decades that have AI at the centre of their social restructuring policies. Furthermore, given the DeepMind AI training strategy, which is to begin with human input, and then train the AI against each other in numerous rapid simulations, I could even see an AI United Nations existing. If Google ever encounters this article, I’d like to put forth a request. I’d love to see such an AI united nations publicized as a reality show using a system like the game Civilization as a backdrop to their decisions.

7. Interplanetary Exploration

Advanced Engineering is a field that stands to gain tremendously from the application of artificial intelligence. Everything from driverless cars and hypersonic aircraft design to the guidance of nanite construction swarms and fully functioning robots can see the benefits of an infusion of AI. One area I’m particularly excited to see AI applied to is in the development and construction of advanced propulsion systems and ship structures for interplanetary travel.

Artistic representation of Interplanetary Superhighways as calculated by NASA scientist

The complexity of physics on both large and small scales, and the application of principles marrying the phenomenon to real-world space travel would seem to be an excellent direction to turn AI lose on and the potential benefits could literally determine the future of our species.

Conclusions

There are a great many fields that artificial intelligence could by applied to for the benefit of humanity. An interesting idea to ponder is whether any of these applications are already being attempted behind closed doors. After all, our governments hardly tell us everything and, even more importantly, we’re not the only ones in the game.

Next –> AI: What If It’s Not Ours?

Alternate Futures

Review and Giveaway of Dimension Drift prequel Umbra

Umbra
Christina Bauer
(Dimension Drift Prequels, #2)
Published by: Monster House Books
Publication date: March 26th 2019
Genres: Dystopian, Fantasy, Young Adult

A prequel novella to the new series from USA Today’s ‘must read YA paranormal romance’ author, Christina Bauer.

One day, eighteen-year-old Thorne will be the Emperor of the Omniverse, the single being who rules countless worlds. Trouble is, his father Cole–who’s also the current Emperor–is a sadistic freak.

In fact, Cole won’t even keep his promises to the very humans who got him his throne.

Thorne won’t stand for it. He decides to travel to the human world and make good on his father’s promises. What he doesn’t count on is falling in love….

My Take (Review)

Umbra is the second prequel in the Dimensional Drift series by Christina Bauer, although it’s the first book I’ve read in the series. This series is a YA science fiction romance series, with fairly heavy empahsis on the romance, if Umbra is representative.

Umbra features the story of Thorne, third in line to the crown of the omniverse and weakest Sentient user in his family. Thorne and family use their connection to technology called ‘sentients’ (there are multiple types) to drift between Earths of different universes in the multiverse and stop calamaties, often caused by their enemies. On one such Earth, while aiding the humans who gave his father the Crown Sentient, Thorne encounters Meimi, the main character of the Dimensional Drift series. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t read the series, their relationship grows in ways that are important to the fate of both worlds.

Umbra features some very interesting worldbuilding, of which I would have liked to have seen more. Thorne’s imperial world that rules the omniverse should have a great deal of imperial intrigue happening. And what about dealing with other races in an advanced universe? Or the king training his sons in the ways of the court to prepare them to take over from him? Unfortunately, we see very little of that here (although I can’t say for other books). What we do see, however, is still fun and interesting, as we watch Thorne manipulate his sentient in order to solve crises on multiple Earths – until he becomes romantically entangled with super-genius Meimi.

This is where I found the book to be at it’s weakest. However, bear in mind I’m not a fan of romance novels. And don’t get me wrong, there were times it was fine. However, I found Thorne almost too cringy to read during many of his dealings with Meimi. I felt this was played in such as way as to suggest it was meant to be romantic, but it just felt wrong as he continually objectified her in a possessive manner.

Nevertheless, the story was interesting, well-written, and moved at a good pace. It ends where it needs to in order to lead into the first book, however, as a stand-alone this feels like an unsatisfactory point to end the book as nothing has been resoved (it’s all left for the main series). I do recommend Umbra, but I would also recommend trying to get it as part of a boxset or discounted with the rest of the series (or in the Giveaway below!).

Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / iBooks / Kobo / Google Play

Author Bio:

Christina Bauer thinks that fantasy books are like bacon: they just make life better. All of which is why she writes romance novels that feature demons, dragons, wizards, witches, elves, elementals, and a bunch of random stuff that she brainstorms while riding the Boston T. Oh, and she includes lots of humor and kick-ass chicks, too.

Christina graduated from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School with BA’s in English along with Television, Radio, and Film Production. She lives in Newton, MA with her husband, son, and semi-insane golden retriever, Ruby.

Be the first to know about new releases from Christina by signing up for her newsletter: http://tinyurl.com/CBupdates

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Fiction

How Captain Marvel could have been the MCU’s Wonder…

To begin with I’d like to state that this critique will not involve any discussion of any of the controversy surrounding the Captain Marvel movie or Brie Larson. I intend this to be solely an exploration of how the rather lackluster movie could have been so much stronger. Frustratingly, I believe this could have been easily achieved by changing the emotional arc of the story while maintaining most of the scenes that already exist.

The Challenge

Captain Marvel has had a troubled history for much of the last twenty years. In the comics, the character has been rebooted anywhere from 7-12 times (depending on who does the counting). Yet Marvel Comics continues to try and find a way to make this character work. The probable reason is not surprising – a strong female superhero that shares the company name is a highly desirable marketing tool. Still, the comic division of the company appears to have failed repeatedly in their attempt to ingratiate this character with the hardcore fans.

Enter Captain Marvel, the MCU version. Yet another attempt to ‘get this character right’. Wtihout going into details of the internet battles fought around this character and the movie, certain promotional choices made by Disney/Marvel suggested they never truly had confidence in this version of the character either.

They didn’t let the movie evolve organically from the characters and it shows.

After seeing the movie, I believe they were right to be concerned — at least with this entry into the MCU franchise. My take on the movie is that it probably could have been at or near the top 5 MCU movies, instead of languishing around 14th place, if the directors/producers would have realized what movie they were actually making and play to its strengths instead of attempting to force the movie into the story they thought they wanted to make. That is, they didn’t let the movie evolve organically from the characters and it shows.

Let me explain.

How to Improve The Movie

Needless to say, if you haven’t seen Captain Marvel yet…

***** SPOILER ALERT ********

Yes, really. A lot of spoilers.

But that should be obvious.

Are you sure you’re ready?

Okay then, on with the discussion.

***** SPOILERS BELOW ********

The Wrong Emotional Arc

The biggest problem with the Captain Marvel movie is that the directors/producers attempted to force the story around the wrong emotional arc. That led to too little time develop the necessary emotional aspects of the story they wanted to tell, and too much time developing the emotional aspects of the story they weren’t telling. But a bit more on the movie to help you understand what I mean.

A Brief Summary of the Movie

Captain Marvel begins on the Kree homeworld of Hala with a nightmare/flashback that ‘Veers’ doesn’t understand. to get over it, she wakes her senior officer for a sparing match where he warns her against losing emotions and that she won’t achieve her true potential until she can defeat him without her powers (yes, we see her already with powers from the start).

To make things brief, they go on a mission that is an ambush by the hated Skrulls and she is captured. As they probe her mind we begin to learn about her past on Earth, including short clips of all the times people doubted her abilities, completely devoid of emotion. She escapes, single-handedly battling through the entire ship of Skrulls (it would have been useful if they had the device that stunned her originally) and escapes, plunging to Earth where she crashlands, without a ship, in a Blockbuster store, completely fine and barely even stunned.

She meets Nick Fury and Agent Colson, and chases some Skrulls, before discovering more of her history including a scientist she used to know and the identity of her former best friend (before her amnesia). And a cat. Chased by more Skrulls, they blast off in an experimental ship and land at her old friend’s house to a heartfelt welcome and a heart-to-heart with the head Skrull. He helps reveal her true past and the betrayal of the Kree. They then discover the hidden laboratory they’re looking for is in space, they modify their ship and blast off to find… the tesseract and a ship full of Skrull refugees. Turns out Skrulls aren’t the scourge of the galaxy but relatively innocent victims of the Kree who are looking for a new homeland.

Battles ensue, Captain Marvel is captured by frees herself from the influence of the Kree superior mind after finally realizing the Kree didn’t create her, they’re inhibiting her. She can now fly, is invulnerable and doesn’t require a space suit in space, essentially becoming Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk all combined. She chases off the Kree ships and everyone is happy. Then she flies off to stop the Kree/Skrull war… cue credits.

Despite all the action and all the potential, this movie falls flat. We don’t really care about any of the characters except maybe the Skrull refugees and there’s nothing to interest us in much of the rest of the story, as cool as it sounds on paper. As a writer, I’m very interested in why this movie fell flat and, of course, I think I know or I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Dont’ Fear the Haters

The emotional arc that Disney/Marvel went for in Captain Marvel was essentially ‘don’t listen to the haters’. We eventually learn, through flashbacks, that Carol Danvers has multiple experiences where her abilities are doubted, including as a kid, during military training, and even with the Kree she is constantly doubted by her squad commander. However, not only are these shown through rapid flashbacks, but we rarely see them having any emotional effect on the character, so likewise, we’re emotionally unaffected. Once Carol Danvers learns to grow past those who have held her back (physically represented by an actual inhibitor implanted in her neck) her full power is unleashed and she becomes unstoppable.

If this was truly the character arc the writers/producers wanted to develop, they needed to show us in much greater detail how Carol was affected by the doubters. We needed to see more than just brief flashbacks of those scenes, we needed to actually be there with her for at least one, but preferably several, in some detail. In fact, I would suggest we needed to follow her through some scenes as she grows up and even through basic training.

Instead, the flashbacks all feel quite rushed and we eventually understand what has happened without truly empathizing with her, leaving us to develop no emotional attachment with her.

The Power of Friendship and the Sting of Betrayal

In truth, instead of developing Carol’s ‘insecurity’ arc, the movie spends most of its time – apparently without realizing it – developing a ‘friendship/betrayal’ arc for Carol. We spend a lot of time with Rambeau and her daughter, Carol develops a strong relationship with Fury, she was good friends with Mar-Vel the Kree scientist, and even has very strong camaraderie, laced with a hint of one-sided romantic overtones, with Yon-Rogg her Kree commanding officer and ultimate betrayer, where we also spend much of the early movie. She’s even able to make friends with the Skrull, overcoming her Kree-programmed hatred of them.

The current story structure of the movie leaves us with too little time seeing the impact of the ‘haters’ to empathize with Carol, and too much time developing friendships for us to feel she’s been wronged by the haters. The time spent on each doesn’t appear to match what seems to be the intended emotional arc, leading me to believe that Disney/Marvel didn’t realize which movie they were making and perhaps, which they should have been making.

Rambeau and Danvers walking to their planes.

Instead, if Disney/Marvel would have developed the ‘importance of friendships/avenging a betrayal’ arc, the scenes would have fit much better, albeit in a different order.

I suggest the story should have gone something like this:

We begin with Carol Danvers and Rambeau as friends and pilots who get involved with the strange, secretive plot of their scientist-friend Lawson (Mar-Vel). Before the spaceship chase scene, we develop the friendships fully and hint at a mystery surrounding what Mar-Vel is working on. Things go bad and Mar-Vel needs a way out, Carol offers to fly her out of there and they’re attacked and brought down. Mar-Vel is killed and Carol goes unconscious as the power-source they were carrying explodes. She only sees the attackers identity through a haze.

Next, we fast forward through a montage of ‘rebuilding’ and training years to the the point we start with in the current movie. Carol is beginning to remember things, but the Kree appear unable to explain what she remembers although we get hints they want to keep something from her.

At this point we can follow forward with the story arc of the movie almost entirely as is. Now that we’ve developed the proper emotional arc we will see and feel the horror of the truth that the Kree betrayed her and used her, stealing her away from her home planet and her friends. We will also be continually curious about how she will regain her memories and what her reaction will be. We also meet her without powers and see her character before she becomes the superhero. And the short flashbacks will be useful in the emotional arc, rather than just being there for a bit of the story. In this way, the movie would have much greater emotional depth.

Frustratingly, this is such a small change to the story arc but, I believe, would have resulted in an immensely better movie with a deeper emotional arc.

An Incomplete Heroes Journey

The changes above would have made it much more apparent why this second change would be necessary. A smaller but equally important thing the movie gets wrong is forgetting to finish the heroes journey.

One very specific mistake the movie makes is near the end. Carol confronts Yon-Rogg, her Kree mentor who has constantly taunted her that she won’t truly be ready to lead until she can beat him without using her powers. It’s obvious that his taunt is in large part because he knows he can’t beat her now that she fully come into her powers and her response is to blast him mid-sentence with her pulse beams claiming that she doesn’t need to prove anything to him. I’m not sure whether this was meant to be a ‘girl power’ moment, a ‘stop mansplaining’ moment, or a hat-tip to Indiana Jones, but it fails for one big reason. The showdown with Yon-Rogg is the natural conclusion to her heroic arc. He is the person that gained her trust, lied to her, betrayed her, and then tried to kill her. She’s right that she doesn’t have anything to prove to him, but as a hero she should have a need to prove it to herself. She has to demonstrate to herself that she’s more than just fancy lights from her hands.

When push comes to shove, a hero is not the sum of the powers but the strength of their heart. If their powers are removed they still remain a hero. That’s what we see in Iron Man 1, that’s what we see in Thor 1, that’s what Steve Rogers demonstrates before becoming Captain America, that’s what T’Challa demonstrates in the challenge of Black Panther. Even Dr. Strange has to learn that before he truly comes into his powers (when he’s between the power of his doctor skills and the mystical powers he gains). But Carol Danvers doesn’t. And if the proper emotional arc had been developed in the movie, this would have been self-evident.

In the current form of the movie, we experience almost no heroic qualities from Carol Danvers prior to receiving her powers (except a fairly short flashback with all emotion drained from it) and the only larger-than-life deeds we see her accomplish are with her powers. And she only gets stronger and more invincible as the movie goes on. So we never see her truly challenged. The one chance for this important part of the heroic journey to be fulfilled was in the face-off with Yon-Rogg. A scene that utterly fails to fulfil its purpose.

In Summary

Captain Marvel is an action-filled bore-fest that didn’t need to be that way. The lack of empathy and engagement from the audience comes from the producers failing to develop the proper emotional arc. Frustratingly, this didn’t have to be the case. All the elements were there for a strong story. For whatever reason, the producers just decided to make a different, less engaging story.

Fact

Artificial Intelligence: Wonder Tool or Human Replacement?

As artificial intelligence becomes ever more powerful the fear of whether it will be a tool for good or evil, or even whether it will replace us, becomes increasingly important.

The Issue

Every two years a group of structural biologists (those who study the structure of large biological molecules) have a competition – the Critical Assessment of techniques for protein Structure Prediction, or CASP – to test the software they’ve developed. Their goal is to see who has developed the most accurate tool for predicting the fold of a protein from the amino acid structure and to share new developments or strategies with the wider community of researchers. At the last competition, in 2018, the Deepmind AI called AlphaFold defeated all other challengers, scoring better than the entire competition combined and far better than the second best.


The Importance of Knowing a Protein’s Structure

Proteins are biological molecules composed of amino acid subunits. They can range in size from moderate sized peptide chains (a dozen amino acids) to immense multi-subunit complexes of thousands of amino acids. They are crucial for everything from the structure of our body to the functioning of our life-sustaining chemical processes.

When the first protein structure was determined by Max Perutz and John Kendrew in the late 1950s, the scientific community was dismayed. In comparison to the elegant simplicity of the structure of DNA, determined x years earlier, it seemed ugly and chaotic. Since that time, however, scientists have discovered that protein structures have their own elegance hidden within the jumble of coils, sheets, and strands of amino acids.

False-coloured 3D structures of three proteins. A cartoon viewing mode is used to highlight structural features.

Knowing a protein’s 3-dimensional structure is important for understanding how it carries out its function and for how we might develop pharmaceuticals for biological issues that might involve that protein. Determining a protein’s fold and thereby a more complete understanding of its function is also an interesting endeavour in its own right.


What Happened?

At CASP 2018, challengers were given the amino acid sequences of 90 proteins for which the structures were known but not yet published. In the case of 43 of these proteins, only the amino acid sequence was known (in addition to the unpublished structure). That means things like function or protein classification could not be used to aid the structure determination (certain protein folds are common motifs in certain classifications of proteins). Of those 43 ‘unknown’ proteins, AlphaFold was more accurate in predicting their structure than the competition 25 times. The next best challengers won in only 3 cases.

For an insider’s look at the recent CASP challenge and detailed thoughts on the significance, I recommend a read of M. AlQuraishi’s blog article.

While AlphaFold used computational techniques that have been well-known for some time, because of its nature and the massive hardware investment behind it, its machine-learning algorithms could be trained on vastly larger data sets than ever before. This success has led some to question everything from are scientists obsolete to why can’t big pharmaceutical companies be as successful as an IT company? Especially if they have similar money and have been in the field far longer than Deepmind’s two years.

As with the increasing number of fields where AI is succeeding, the initial shock of many specialists leads to a re-evaluation of what they thought they knew both about themselves, about their field, and about human potential in this technological world (and also their job security). Eventually, however, those who are not too discourages allow their thoughts to settle and come to the realisation that this is just another, albeit very amazing and powerful, tool we’ve developed. And, if harnessed well, it can allow us to do amazing new things.

In Conclusion

For now at least, it remains humans who are the ones making the decisions based on the AI results. As long as that remains the case, artificial intelligence remains a tool and, like any tool, can be used for good or evil. We could see AI used for incredible advances that we had once thought centuries away. Disease cures, human longevity, understanding of the fundamental nature of reality, interstellar travel, we simply don’t know how powerful AI can be and what wonders we can discover and create with it. On the other hand, the potential for restructuring of our societies and sowing political and social chaos is also immense. With each game-changing technology we create comes renewed fear, renewed hope, and ever greater responsibility both on our leaders and on each and every individual.

Alternate Futures

Artificial Intelligence: A View into the New Future

AI and The World of Tomorrow?

A row of cars wait, orderly and patient, as we reach the school driveway. I head for our family Auto, distinguishable by the customized chromo-flex decal on the hood, currently set to cycle through red and black arrows pointing toward the front. It’s supposed to look dramatic, tough, and it might if dad didn’t keep setting the chromo-flex body skin to cycle through a pattern of pale purple and blue.

The two side doors open outward from a centre seam as I come within range of the RFID scanner and flip my hand up, palm facing the door.
Dad’s colours change to an electric blue tech pattern as the Auto says, “Hello, sir, how are you today?” The deep, soothing voice is an immediate comfort after the crazy day.

Will and I reprogrammed the vehicle’s AI for an alternative behaviour pattern when there are no adults about. For one thing, it mimics the Artificial Intelligence that was Manifold’s partner in The Destiny Justice Force, a movie series Will and I were obsessed with a few years ago. For another, mom and dad’s AI is a nanny-bot.

“Fine, Jacob. How are you?” I answer, climbing into the spacious interior and taking a place on the circular sofa.

“As well as always, sir. Master Will, Mistress Annie, will you be joining us today?”

“Sure will Jacob.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Will and Annie climb in, spreading out to get comfortable. Our teachers and parents regularly try to impress upon us what it was like before Autos— autodrive cars— had revolutionalized personal transportation, but it’s just unimaginable. Apparently, there was a lot less room inside the car and parents had to pick their kids up from school— assuming they didn’t take the bus. However, most of the normal population has Autos now, except those in small, rural communities.

“Would sir like the usual visual feeds for the drive home?”

“I won’t be going home just yet, Jacob. Override destination alpha-seven-niner-delta-four. Voice code ‘singularity’ ”. Of course, I couldn’t reprogram the AI without giving myself a backdoor.

“Very good, sir. Your parents have been notified that you and Master Will will be meeting at the library. Where would you like to go?”

“Seventy-three Newton Place. There’s a flash tournament I want in on. Oh, and would you pipe my usual training feeds, please.”

“Very good, sir. Arrival will be in thirteen minutes, twenty seven seconds from the time of departure. Will that be all, sir?”

“You have any snacks, Jacob?” Will asks as I feel the car pull away from the school lot.

The circle of screens surrounding the interior light-up, displaying live streams from the top gaming sites, as well as recordings from the global Regional Championships.

“I have recently been fitted with a prototype organic printer. It makes a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies. They will take five minutes to print. Would you like some?”

“Of course! Bring ’em on.”

The above excerpt is (c) 2019 Edwin H Rydberg

The preceding is an excerpt from a work-in-progress of mine, a near-future world where AI is one all-pervasive technology that is just accepted as common-place. This is, of course, AI as we currently experience it, not self-aware or ‘General’ AI (the development of the latter AI drives some of the above story).

In previous posts (7 areas that could see massive benefits from artificial intelligence, AI – Wonder tool or human replacement?, Fake News is about to get real (prevalent), AI – Boon or Bane?) I’ve written about various developments with AI, so how might they all come together? What might the future be with artificial intelligence?

The Good

As you can see in the excerpt, I suggest humans are adaptable and I believe most humans will adapt to the convenience of pervasive artificial intelligence even at the cost of privacy and security.

As a side note, artificial intelligence is not synonymous with a loss of privacy or security. Those only follow it in our world because of the big companies (and governments) that are behind the development of it. In theory, one could develop their own AI that wouldn’t have such flaws.

AI Assistants

‘Assistant’ AI (advanced versions of Alexa, Siri, or Google@home) will be accessible from every room in a house (except ‘privacy rooms’), in the auto-drive cars, and will eventually enter the workplace by the time today’s toddlers reach adulthood. Combining this with ever-improving speech-to-text algorithms will mean all jobs will experience dramatic change as individuals become one-person departments.

AI for Research

But such simplistic AI barely touches on the true power of the technology. Google’s Deep Mind project has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years tackling everything from strategy games with incomplete information, to the vast complexity of protein folding, to helping manage medical services. Projects I’d love to see them take on (with unbiased training sets) are climate change, global food and water management, government management, space vehicle propulsion, and the use of gravitational ‘highways’ for interplanetary transportation.

The Human Connection

However, back on Earth, once we get over the initial response of ‘massive job loss, computers can do everything better, and the future is no longer human’ we come to realize that it is still humans who act with purpose and direction and this technology will actually allow us to do far more than we ever could without it. After all, the universe is an incredibly complex place and it’s possible our brains are simply not capable of processing that complexity without assistance. The downside is, of course, that we have entered a period in our history where we no longer understand how our own technology works.

The Bad

Pervasive artificial intelligence will, without a doubt, continue the trend toward increasing human laziness and an ever-growing disconnect with both nature and our own past as we move further from both.

Changing Job Market

However, even before that we will see massive changes in the job market. With individuals being able to do more and technologies like auto-drive cars dramatically impacting the transport of goods and people the job market at all levels will change. Professionals like doctors and lawyers won’t be safe either as both of their jobs have a large database retrieval component to them which, at best, would mean a reorientation toward the human-centred part of the job rather than the diagnostic portion. By this time we’ll be long past the point were ‘learn to code’ will be useful advice.

Somewhat ironically perhaps, a consideration of AIs limitations would suggest that jobs in traditional trades (although upscaled for dealing with the installation of new tech) will be the safest and will be among the last replaced.

Fake News

Also, fake news, which is always being discussed these days, will continue increasing in amount and believability as new technologies come online. Not only will AI be able to write amazingly realistic fake news stories, but it will even be able to generate videos of famous people that appear authentic. Bots are already being used to generate fake static facial images for social media, but video is not far behind.

Increasing Vulnerability

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t address an ever-present concern in the increasingly connected world. Specifically that of malicious hackers. Being so dependent on a connected world and the Internet of Things (IoT) necessarily leaves us increasingly open to cyberbullying, cyber-attack, and having our devices used for malicious purposes. Let’s hope the developers consider their builds well, and that our governments don’t try and force them to put in backdoors.

The Strange

All of the above doesn’t even touch on up-and-coming technologies like Elon Musk’s NeuraLink, which intends to build a direct interface between the human brain and technology and could be the beginning steps toward a cybernetic future. That, combined with his global internet called StarLink, of which the early stages are currently being placed in orbit would mean hands-free technology access anywhere on the planet. Something that would forever alter humanity.

And just imagine how AI could aid the new business space-race and the space tourism industry about to take off.

In Conclusion

I, for one, am cautiously optimistic about the future with artificial intelligence and excited about the possible advancement we can make with it — at least until it becomes self-aware. Perhaps I am fortunate to be entering my 50s as the wave of AI comes online, however, it means somehow preparing the children for what’s coming even when we can’t see it clearly ourselves.

We are truly at the event horizon of the technological singularity. As usual, we’ve predicted the existence of something without having any idea of what it actually means. But humans are explorers so let’s travel to this undiscovered country.

Fact

Artificial Intelligence: Fake News is about to get real…

With the coming technological advances and the dearth of investigative journalists in the modern world, fake news is about to explode.

The Issue

Among his many other projects, uber-wealth entrepreneur Elon Musk sponsors OpenAI, a group with the goals of guiding the development of artificial intelligence so that it is ‘nice’ and representative of peoples and positive ideas from around the world. Certainly, this is a laudable goal for the near future, for that period of technological development where artificial intelligence means advanced heuristic systems that can pass the Turing Test but are still just software we can turn on and off. In other words, that period of technological development that we seem to have entered sometime in the last year.

Some of the recent advances in AI (detailed in other posts) included aiding or replacing human health care workers in hospitals, defeating humans at games where incomplete information is a feature (Deepmind vs Starcraft II Pros) and much greater success than human-generated algorithms in regards to the protein folding problem… and now, a highly trained AI author that can mimic genres and styles and even respond to rudimentary questions.

Journalist Activists

Over the last five-to-eight years the Western world has seen a strong and notable shift in the focus of journalists. No longer is the goal of journalism impartial and investigative. No longer do modern journalists feel their job is to get as close to the truth as possible. Instead, most modern journalists seem to feel they already know the truth and instead have taken it upon themselves to share their interpretation of any given story with their audience in an attempt to convince us they are right.

We can argue the why’s of how this shift has happened but what is difficult to argue is how it has changed the news landscape providing the viewing and reading public with a surge in what is now termed fake news. What once was the domain of government propaganda and tabloid rags is now proudly splayed across even what used to be the most respected news franchises.

Modern mainstream journalists are no longer journalists in anything but job title. They’re now primarily activists.

Artificial Intelligence Journalism

Into this landscape, where the truth is already relative and amorphous, enters a project by OpenAI – an artificial intelligence writer. A bot so convincing in its ability to write that it’s virtually impossible to tell it apart from a human.

Open AI has trained an artificial intelligence they call GPT-2 on a huge dataset of writing. The result is yet another AI that we can be afraid of (coming after the Microsoft – Twitter debacle that created a hate-bot, and the Google AIs that developed their own language). GTP2 can write so convincingly in different genres that the creators have decided not to release the code for fear of malicious use. Specifically, they fear its use in the generation of Fake News.

While they should be commended for their sense of social responsibility, OpenAI researchers must realize that their actions are only delaying the inevitable. Currently, most of the visible AI research and milestones are coming from Western organizations. However, we would be naive to think that other nations don’t have their own projects. Russia and China come to mind as two countries who would have the resources to fund such projects and would be happy to use the results to destabilize the fragile West.

Furthermore, the recent results of the investigation into Russian collusion in the US election that revealed no actual collusion with the victor but suggested interference – likely on both sides in an attempt to destabilize the nation – should have revealed to all of us that there are other nations actively working toward the demise of the West.

Given these facts it’s difficult to argue that some malicious power (or even an individual with a basement full of hardware) won’t soon reproduce the OpenAI success. When that happens, we will find a huge proliferation of AI writing bots as the software floods the internet. And then the entire landscape of news, among other things, will change. When this happens it will be more important than ever that each person has done their research and has gathered a network of respectable investigative journalists they feel they can trust to do the research and report honestly on stories. Because the others, the lazy journalists and the activists, are going to do nothing more than muddy the waters ever further in their race for fame and notoriety.

The power and scope of modern heuristic algorithms (AI) is a socio-political game-changer of a magnitude equivalent to fire, the wheel, gunfire, the printing press, and nukes – combined. In a small world filled with the deafening cacophony of every voice on the planet, AI will drown them all out and will change everything we think we know within a matter of decades. And that’s without gaining self-awareness. Never before has human adaptiveness been so tested. The coming years will truly be ‘interesting times’ as Terry Prachet might have described them.

Fact

Artificial Intelligence: boon or bane?

This is the first in a series of posts that discuss the developments, prospects, hopes and fears of Artificial Intelligence in human societies. This is a field of computer science that has been making noticeable strides in recent months and it is therefore important that our societies have a serious and informed conversation about this. So, without further ado, part 1 of my series on AI.


A Recent Development

In the wake of the DeepMind (Alphastar) defeat of professional Starcraft II players the world once again turned its short attention briefly to the discussion of artificial intelligence. Most journalists and news sources aren’t terribly concerned with the event, considering it to be just another sign-post in our technological history. However, others realize that it should be an event that spawns more serious conversation.

The Deepmind project, owned by the parent company of Google, is attempting to develop artificial intelligence agents that can self-learn any game given an initial human example (and life is essentially a game in this context). Known for defeating world champions in Chess and Go, the Deepmind team recently turned its attention to the e-sport Starcraft II. Not only to test its decision making speed, but also to see how well it could understand unit management on a very dynamic field and most importantly, to test whether the AI could learn how to manage decision-making with incomplete information (Starcraft II’s Fog of War).

The initial 10-0 defeat of the human players highlighted its strengths and also an oversight in the training that gave the AI an advantage. However, even when retrained to only use the main camera to make its moves (as humans are limited to) it still performed at a professional level, although it lost 1-0. This second example is all the more important when considering that the agent was trained from novice to professional in only one week.

But surely this is just a gimmick, harmful fun by computer nerds, isn’t it?

One thing that such AI experiments regularly highlight is the unpredictable conclusions that AIs can arrive at when left to train themselves.

It might be just a cool gimmick but for a few important details that highlight a future closer than we might think — or wish for.

Several important points in this latest Deepmind experiment are:

  • after watching the initial set of human games (of all skill levels), the AI was then entirely self-trained, learning only by playing other AI agents in an ‘Alphastar’ league
  • such agents can be trained up a very short time (a week or two is sufficient and corresponds to decades, if not centuries, of human training).
  • while the agents require some serious hardware to be trained on, once developed they can run on a standard laptop
  • while there were some weaknesses in gameplay, the Alphastar agents developed and successfully utilized strategies that humans either hadn’t thought of or had collectively abandoned as sub-optimal.
  • there are organizations in the world that desire, or require (e.g.for their social order to function), such AIs to run, or ruin, countries.
Myths of AI, from the Future of Life Institute.

One thing that such AI experiments regularly highlight is the unpredictable conclusions that AIs can arrive at when left to train themselves. Indeed, when extrapolating this to the running of a society, this unpredictability could lead to greater optimization or it could lead to what the the Future of Life Institute might consider as AIs having ‘misaligned goals’.

That is, when humans consider running societies, we have goals. Some of them are explicit, some of them are implicit, and some of them have to be fought over by the majority in order to have our voices heard. However, while AIs may be more efficient in managing and distributing resources, an AI leader may set up a social structure that misaligns implicit and explicit human goals (more in a moment).

Arnold Swarzenegger as an AI assassin in the Terminator series.

After all, we ourselves are still bumbling through the creation of our social structures, trying to determine what is truly important for our survival and well-being. For example, it’s quite clear that the simplistic view of aiming to maximizing human happiness (a goal of the early Humanist movement) is flawed and would end up likely resulting in a society that collapsed in strife and humans sought to ‘fix’ ever smaller imperfections. So any explicit goals for an AI manager would have to be very carefully chosen.

Insane AI Ultron from the Avengers series.

Hollywood loves to use the obvious example of having an AI created to protect us and then having it decide that we are our own worst enemies. Or that protection means never allowing us to evolve or leave the planet. Let’s look at the considerations of an equally important social discussion underway in Western societies right now.

Vision, benevolent robotic AI in the Avengers series.

Safety and Equity vs. Exploration and Freedom

We are currently embroiled in a *sometimes violent* social debate on multiple fronts that effectively boils down to the right of the individual to be completely safe vs the right to have freedom to take risks and make mistakes. This is a crucial debate because risk-taking can lead not only to great harm and even death, but also great boons for humanity. Without the risk-taking of our ancestors we would not have any of the wonders we have now and it’s unlikely we would even have left our African crib. Furthermore, a safe society, while feeling more humane, is less robust because it loses the ability to adapt to hardships and change as its members expect all their needs to be met by someone else.

Let’s say we decide that humans are unable to come to an agreement on this and we turn it over to an AI for management. What considerations might it make?

Depending on who programmed it it could favour equity and safety over risk-taking and personal freedom. This could be expected to result in short-term survival and even prosperity but long-term stagnation (survival but no growth either personal or social). While our species might survive a long time, they would do so as little more than automatons themselves.

Conversely, too much emphasis on freedom in a hi-tech age could lead to the use by individuals of technologies that might destroy our entire species. Some middle ground is required but, of course, the devil is in the details.

It could be that an AI comes up with an original and wonderful solution to this conundrum. Or it could be that its explicit goals are misaligned with our implicit ones and it comes up with a truly horrendous solution.

For example, let’s say we give an AI like Deepmind past human societies from around the world and across history to base its models on and we give it no human bias regarding the success of those societies so that it can create its own criteria. And let’s say it discovers some patterns of bevaviour or social structures that it equates with social degradation and some with social success. Then it structures our society based on those models. Now, it could be that we agree on the new ideas the AI discovers and love the new society. Or it could be that the AI decides the best society is one of a benevolent dictatorship where a certain segment of the population is given second class citizenship (e.g. from some perspectives a valid line of reason could be made for this to target any of: men, women, certain – or all – religions). It could even be that this latter conclusion is demonstrably, mathematically, superior. Yet most of us today would feel such a regime to be a nightmare scenario.

Catch-22

So we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Try to guide the AI and we introduce human biases that could destroy the experiment, don’t guide the AI and we could get a highly ‘successful’ yet nightmarish scenario. Do nothing and rogue players will force our hand by introducing their own AIs.

The recent Deepmind experiment with Starcraft II has demonstrated that AIs can make successful decisions with incomplete data information and that their goals can align well with the overall goals of the game they’re playing. However, games have simple rules, life and societies do not. With Artificial Intelligence we are entering a period of our history that is truly different from any that have come before. We must tread very carefully on the path forward, all kinds of unknown dangers await.


Next week: Fake News is about to get real (prevalent)

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