Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.


Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.


The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

By 2014: According to Asimov and Clarke

asimov_clarkeAmongst the sci-fi greats of old, there were few authors, scientists and futurists more influential than Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And as individuals who constantly had one eye to the world of their day, and one eye to the future, they had plenty to say about what the world would look like by the 21st century. And interestingly enough, 2014 just happens to be the year where much of what they predicted was meant to come true.

For example, 50 years ago, Asimov wrote an article for the New York Times that listed his predictions for what the world would be like in 2014. The article was titled “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014”, and contained many accurate, and some not-so-accurate, guesses as to how people would be living today and what kinds of technology would be available to us.

Here are some of the accurate predictions:

1. “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use.”
In short, electroluminescent displays are thin, bright panels that are used in retail displays, signs, lighting and flat panel TVs. What’s more, personal devices are incorporating this technology, in the form of OLED and AMOLED displays, which are both paper-thin and flexible, giving rise to handheld devices you can bend and flex without fear of damaging them.

touch-taiwan_amoled2. “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.”
Oh yes indeed! In the last thirty years, we’ve seen voicemail replace personal assistants, secretaries and message boards. We’ve seen fax machines replace couriers. We’ve seen personal devices and PDAs that are able to handle more and more in the way of tasks, making it unnecessary for people to consult a written sources of perform their own shorthand calculations. It’s a hallmark of our age that personal technology is doing more and more of the legwork, supposedly freeing us to do more with our time.

3. “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.”
This was a popular prediction in Asimov’s time, usually taking the form of a videophone or conversations that happened through display panels. And the rise of the social media and telepresence has certainly delivered on that. Services like Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime and more have made video chatting very common, and a viable alternative to a phone line you need to pay for.

skypeskype4. “The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”
Multitasking is one of the hallmarks of modern computers, handheld devices, and tablets, and has been the norm for operating systems for some time. By simply calling up new windows, new tabs, or opening up multiple apps simultaneously and simply switching between them, users are able to start multiple projects, or conduct work and view video, take pictures, play games, and generally behave like a kid with ADHD on crack if they so choose.

5. “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
If you define “robot” as a computer that looks and acts like a human, then this guess is definitely true. While we do not have robot servants or robot friends per se, we do have Roomba’s, robots capable of performing menial tasks, and even ones capable of imitating animal and even human movements and participating in hazardous duty exercises (Google the DARPA Robot Challenge to see what I mean).

Valkyrie_robotAlas, he was off on several other fronts. For example, kitchens do not yet prepare “automeals” – meaning they prepare entire meals for us at the click of a button. What’s more, the vast majority of our education systems is not geared towards the creation and maintenance of robotics. All surfaces have not yet been converted into display screens, though we could if we wanted to. And the world population is actually higher than he predicted (6,500,000,000 was his estimate).

As for what he got wrong, well… our appliances are not powered by radioactive isotopes, and thereby able to be entirely wireless (though wireless recharging is becoming a reality). Only a fraction of students are currently proficient in computer language, contrary to his expectation that all would be. And last, society is not a place of “enforced leisure”, where work is considered a privilege and not a burden. Too bad too!

Arthur-C-ClarkeAnd when it comes to the future, there are few authors whose predictions are more trusted than Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to being a prolific science fiction writer, he wrote nearly three dozen nonfiction books and countless articles about the future of space travel, undersea exploration and daily life in the 21st century.

And in a recently released clip from a 1974 ABC News program filmed in Australia, Clarke is shown talking to a reporter next to a massive bank of computers. With his son in tow, the reporter asks Clarke to talk about what computers will be like when his son is an adult. In response, Clarke offers some eerily prophetic, if not quite spot-on, predictions:

The big difference when he grows up, in fact it won’t even wait until the year 2001, is that he will have, in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but at least a console through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in a complex modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house.

internetIn short, Clarke predicted not only the rise of the personal computer, but also online banking, shopping and a slew of internet services. Clarke was then asked about the possible danger of becoming a “computer-dependent” society, and while he acknowledged that in the future humanity would rely on computers “in some ways,” computers would also open up the world:

It’ll make it possible for us to live really anywhere we like. Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through his device like this. And this is a wonderful thing.

Clarke certainly had a point about computers giving us the ability to communicate from almost anywhere on the globe, also known as telecommunication, telecommuting and telepresence. But as to whether or not our dependence on this level of technology is a good or bad thing, the jury is still out on that one. The point is, his predictions proved to be highly accurate, forty years in advance.

computer_chip1Granted, Clarke’s predictions were not summoned out of thin air. Ever since their use in World War II as a means of cracking Germany’s cyphers, miniaturization has been the trend in computing. By the 1970’s, they were still immense and clunky, but punch cards and vacuum tubes had already given way to transistors, ones which were getting smaller all the time.

And in 1969, the first operational packet network to implement a Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was established. Known as a Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), this U.S. Department of Defense network was set up to connect the DOD’s various research projects at universities and laboratories all across the US, and was the precursor to the modern internet.

In being a man who was so on top of things technologically, Clarke accurately predicted that these two trends would continue into the foreseeable future, giving rise to computers small enough to fit on our desks (rather than taking up an entire room) and networked with other computers all around the world via a TCP/IP network that enabled real-time data sharing and communications.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out the Clarke interview below:


Judgement Day Update: Artificial Muscles for Robots

artificial-muscle-1It’s a science fiction staple, the android or humanoid robot opens up its insides to reveal a network of gears or brightly-lit cables running underneath. However, as the science behind making androids improves, we are moving farther and farther away from this sci-fi cliche. In fact, thanks to recent advancements, robots in the future may look a lot like us when you strip away their outer layers.

It’s what is known as biomimetics, the science of creating technology that mimics biology. And the latest breakthrough in this field comes from National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Engineering where researchers have developed the world’s first “robotic” muscle. Much like the real thing, this artificial tissue extends to five times its original length, has the potential to lift 80 times its own weight.

???????????????????????In addition to being a first in robotics, this new development is exciting because it resolves a central problem that has plagued robots since their inception. In the 1960s, John W. Campbell Jr, editor of Analog Science Fiction magazine, pointed out this problem when he outlined a scenario where a man is chased across rough country by a mad scientist’s horde of killer robots.

In this scenario, the various models that were chasing the man were stymied by obstacles that the he could easily overcome, such as sinking in mud, jumping over logs, getting around rocks, or tangled up in bushes. In the end, the only robots that were capable of keeping up with him were so light and underpowered that he was able to tear them apart with his bare hands.

robot_muscleThis is a far cry from another science fiction staple, the one which presents robots as powerful automatons that can bend steel girders and carry out immense feats of strength. While some robots certainly can do this, they are extremely heavy and use hydraulics for the heavy lifting. Pound for pound, they’re actually very weak compared to a human, being capable of lifting only half their weight.

Another problem is the fact that robots using gears and motors, pneumatics, or hydraulics lack fine control. They tend to move in jerky motions and have to pause between each move, giving rise to a form of motion that we like to call “the robot”. Basically, it is very difficult to make a robot that is capable of delicate, smooth movements, the kind humans and animals take for granted.

kenshiroFor some time now, scientists and researchers have been looking to biomimetics to achieve the long sought-after dream of smaller, stronger robots that are capable of more refined movements. And taken in tandem with other development – such as the Kenshiro robot developed by roboticists at the University of Tokyo – that time might finally be here.

Developed by a four-person team led by Dr. Adrian Koh – from the NUS Engineering Science Program and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering – the new artificial muscle is an example of an electroactive polymer. Basically, this is a combination dielectric elastomer and rubber that changes shape when stimulated by an electric field. In this respect, the artificial muscle is much like an organic one, using electrical stimulus to trigger movement.


robot-arm-wrestling-03-20-09Robots using artificial muscles would be a far cry from clanking mechanical men. They would be much more lifelike, capable of facial expression and precise, graceful movements. They would also have superhuman strength, yet weigh the same as a person. In addition, the polymer used to fabricate the muscles may have more general applications in machines, such as cranes.

An added bonus of the polymer is that is can convert and store energy, which means it’s possible to design robots that power themselves after charging for only minutes. In a statement released by his department, Dr. Koh highlighted the benefits of the design and what it is capable of doing:

Our novel muscles are not just strong and responsive. Their movements produce a by-product – energy. As the muscles contract and expand, they are capable of converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. Due to the nature of this material, it is capable of packing a large amount of energy in a small package. We calculated that if one were to build an electrical generator from these soft materials, a 10 kg (22 lb) system is capable of producing the same amount of energy of a one-ton electrical turbine.

AI_robotDr. Koh also indicated that robots equipped with these types of muscles “will be able to function in a more human-like manner – and outperform humans in strength.” Theoretically, such polymer-based tissues could extend to ten times their original length and lift up to 500 times its own weight, though the current version isn’t anywhere near that limit just yet.

In the meantime, Dr Koh and his team have applied for a patent for the artificial muscle and are continuing work on it. They predict that within five years they could have a robot arm that is half the size and weight of a human arm, yet could win an arm wrestling match. And the applications are limitless, ranging from robotic servants to search and rescue bots and heavy robot laborers. And let’s not forget that cybernetic arms that boast that kind of increased strength are also likely to become a popular prosthetic and enhancement item.

And for those who are naturally afraid of a future where super-human robots that have the strength to tear us limb from limb are walking among us, let me remind you that we still have Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” to fall back on. Never mind what happened in the terrible movie adaptation, those laws are incontrovertible and will work… I hope!


Judgement Day Update: Using AI to Predict Flu Outbreaks

hal9000It’s a rare angle for those who’ve been raised on a heady diet of movies where the robot goes mad and tries to kill all humans: an artificial intelligence using its abilities to help humankind! But that’s the idea being explored by researchers like Raul Rabadan, a theoretical physicist working in biology at Columbia University. Using a new form of machine learning, they are seeking to unlock the mysteries of flu strains.

Basically, they are hoping to find out why flu strains like the H1N1, which ordinarily infect pigs and cows, are managing to make the jump to human hosts. Key to understanding this is finding the specific mutations that transform it into a human pathogen. Traditionally, answering this question would require painstaking comparisons of the DNA and protein sequences of different viruses.

AI-fightingfluBut thanks to rapidly growing databases of virus sequences and advances made in computing, scientists are now using sophisticated machine learning techniquesa branch of artificial intelligence in which computers develop algorithms based on the data they have been given to identify key properties in viruses like bird flu and swine flu and seeing how they go about transmitting from animals to humans.

This is especially important since every few decades, a pandemic flu virus emerges that not only infects humans but also passes rapidly from person to person. The H7N9 avian flu that infected more than 130 people in China is just the latest example. While it has not been as infectious as others, the fact that humans lack the antibodies to combat it led to a high lethality rate, with 44 of the infected dying. Whats more, it is expected to emerge again this fall or winter.

Influenza_virus_2008765Knowing the key properties to this and other viruses will help researchers identify the most dangerous new flu strains and could lead to more effective vaccines. Most importantly, scientists can now look at hundreds or thousands of flu strains simultaneously, which could reveal common mechanisms across different viruses or a broad diversity of transformations that enable human transmission.

Researchers are also using these approaches to investigate other viral mysteries, including what makes some viruses more harmful than others and factors influencing a virus’s ability to trigger an immune response. The latter could ultimately aid the development of flu vaccines. Machine learning techniques might even accelerate future efforts to identify the animal source of mystery viruses.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicThis technique was first employed in 2011 by Nir Ben-Tal – a computational biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel – and Richard Webby – a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Together, Ben-Tal and Webby used machine learning to compare protein sequences of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic swine flu with hundreds of other swine viruses.

Machine learning algorithms have been used to study DNA and protein sequences for more than 20 years, but only in the past few years have scientists applied them to viruses. Inspired by the growing amount of viral sequence data available for analysis, the machine learning approach is likely to expand as even more genomic information becomes available.

Map_H1N1_2009As Webby has said, “Databases will get much richer, and computational approaches will get much more powerful.” That in turn will help scientists better monitor emerging flu strains and predict their impact, ideally forecasting when a virus is likely to jump to people and how dangerous it is likely to become.

Perhaps Asimov had the right of it. Perhaps humanity will actually derive many benefits from turning our world increasingly over to machines. Either that, or Cameron will be right, and we’ll invent a supercomputer that’ll kill us all!


Judgement Day Update: The Human Brain Project

brain_chip2Biomimetics are one of the fastest growing areas of technology today, which seek to develop technology that is capable of imitating biology. The purpose of this, in addition to creating machinery that can be merged with our physiology, is to arrive at a computing architecture that is as complex and sophisticated as the human brain.

While this might sound the slightest bit anthropocentric, it is important to remember that despite their processing power, supercomputers like the D-Wave Two, IBM’s Blue Gene/Q Sequoia, or MIT’s ConceptNet 4, have all shown themselves to be lacking when it comes to common sense and abstract reasoning. Simply pouring raw computing power into the mix does not make for autonomous intelligence.

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputerAs a result of this, new steps are being taken to crate a computer that can mimic the very organ that gives humanity these abilities – the human brain. In what is surely the most ambitious step towards this goal to date, an international group of researchers recently announced the formation of the Human Brain Project. Having secured the $1.6 billion they need to fund their efforts, these researchers will spend the next ten years conducting research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

This will involve mapping out the vast network known as the human brain – a network composed of over a hundred billion neuronal connections that are the source of emotions, abstract thought, and this thing we know as consciousness. And to do so, the researchers will be using a progressively scaled-up multilayered simulation running on a supercomputer.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTConcordant with this bold plan, the team itself is made up of over 200 scientists from 80 different research institutions from around the world. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, this initiative is being put forth by the European Commission, and has even been compared to the Large Hadron Collider in terms of scope and ambition. In fact, some have taken to calling it the “Cern for the brain.”

According to scientists working on the project, the HBP will attempt to reconstruct the human brain piece-by-piece and gradually bring these cognitive components into the overarching supercomputer. The expected result of this research will be new platforms for “neuromorphic computing” and “neurorobotics,” allowing for the creation of computing and robotic architectures that mimick the functions of the human brain.

^According to a statement released by the HBP, Swedish Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel had this to say about the project:

The support of the HBP is a critical step taken by the EC to make possible major advances in our understanding of how the brain works. HBP will be a driving force to develop new and still more powerful computers to handle the massive accumulation of new information about the brain, while the neuroscientists are ready to use these new tools in their laboratories. This cooperation should lead to new concepts and a deeper understanding of the brain, the most complex and intricate creation on earth.

Other distinguished individuals who were quoted in the release include President Shimon Peres of Israel, Paul G. Allen, the founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science; Patrick Aebischer, the President of EPFL in Switzerland; Harald Kainz, Rector of Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria; as well as a slew of other politicians and academics.

Combined with other research institutions that are producing computer chips and processors that are modelled on the human brain, and our growing understanding of the human connectome, I think it would be safe to say that by the time the HBP wraps up, we are likely to see processors that are capable of demonstrating intelligence, not just in terms of processing speed and memory, but in terms of basic reasoning as well.

At that point, we really out to consider instituting Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics! Otherwise, things could get apocalyptic on our asses! 😉


Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation – A Review

foundation_coversAt long last – after a year of reading it in small snippets between reading, writing and editing – I finally completed Second Foundation. As the third novel published in the Foundation series, it effectively ended the series, though it was followed up by two sequels and several prequels that expanded on the universe further.

However, given that it would be roughly 30 years until Asimov produced another Foundation novel and pressure from the fan community (and a hefty advance from the publisher) were the only reasons for it, many fans come to see Second Foundation as the final installment in what was effectively a trilogy.

I am one such person. And now that I’ve finished Second Foundation, I feel that the series is complete. And I’m rather dying to do a review, seeing as how the books been with me so long and it’s been months since I reviewed an actual novel. On top of all that, its taken me so long to finish this series that I feel a little embarrassed. Thank God the international society of sci-fi geeks doesn’t actually exist, or they’d kick me out for sure!

Sidenote: Before I begin, note the cover art that is featured at the top there. Over the years, many different covers have been produced, and the current cover for Second Foundation is the one you see below. However, I wanted to feature these ones since they give such a wonderful representation to the original trilogy.

In the first, you see Seldon sitting in front of the Imperial City of Trantor in the days before its decline. In the second, you see the Mule playing his instrument, sitting before a Trantor that lies in ruins. In the third and final, you see Arkady Darrel standing on a Trantor that has reverted to its natural state centuries later, the aged ruins lying well off in the distance. Once you read the full trilogy, you can see just how picture-perfect these representations are.

Plot Synopsis:
second-foundationMuch like Foundation and Empire, the book is divided into two parts, with the first dealing with the Mule’s ongoing search for the Second Foundation. This part opens a few years after the Mule’s trip to Trantor, during which time, his identity was revealed and his attempts to find the answer in the Imperial library were narrowly foiled.

Now in charge of a vast empire centered on the world of Kalgan, he sets out again, sending his fleet in all directions to locate and destroy this last challenge to his power. Knowing the a confrontation is inevitable, the executive council of the Second Foundation meets and decides to allow the Mule to find them, “in a sense”.

The search begins when Bail Channis, an officer recruited by the Mule because he exhibits an “unconventional mind”. He is sent out with Han Pritcher, an officer the Mule knows to be loyal but fears has been ineffective due to his own influence over the man. Together, they travel to the remote world of Rossem where, following clues left behind by Seldon (that the Second Foundation is at “Star’s End”), Channis believes they are hiding.

foundation_muleWhen they arrive, they find a backward, agrarian world where the locals are hospitable, but very little appears to be happening. Suspecting a trap and that Channis is in fact a Second Foundation agent, the Mule travels in secret to Rossem and reveals himself, thinking he has caught Channis and the Second Foundation off guard. However, he quickly realizes it is he who has stepped into a trap when the First Speaker emerges to save Channis.

The two do battle but in the end, the First Speaker emerges victorious by altering the Mules psyche, which prompts him to return to Kalgan and live out the rest of his days as a benevolent ruler. The story ends with another interlude in which the Executive Council celebrates their victory and now plots to get the Foundation back on track.

Part II takes place sixty years later, and fifty-five years after the death of the Mule by natural causes. The members of the First Foundation, led by Dr. Darrel, are now aware that the Second Foundation is out there and secretly discuss how they are exerting influence over their world. This is demonstrated by conducting electroneurology scans, which shows that key members of government have had their minds altered.

second_foundation_warMeanwhile, the Foundation is also embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the new ruler of Kalgan, who wants to reclaim the glory of the Mule by reconquering the Foundation and subjugating it to his will. Their fleet meets with early success and managed to cordon off Foundation space, but their fortunes soon change when the Foundation fleet surrounds them in a major battle.

In the midst of the war, the Foundation decides to send an emissary – Homir Munn, a noted Mule memorabilia collector – to Kalgan to investigate what the Mule learned about the Second Foundation in his final years. Darrel’s daughter, Arkady, sneaks aboard his ship to accompany him, since she is fascinated by the subject of the Second Foundation and Seldon’s plan, and because she is tired of being kept out of the loop by her father.

secondfoundation_arkadyIn the end, Munn is taken prisoner and interrogated by the Kalganian commander, but gives up nothing beyond stating that his purpose was to find clues to the location of the Second Foundation. Arkady is forced to flee, and on the advice of the Commander’s mistress, heads for the spaceport and flies with a family back to Trantor. To her surprise, she realizes that the mistress is a member of the Second Foundation, and that they are manipulating things on Kalgan.

From Trantor, she sends her father a message and tells him the Second Foundation are on Terminus. Once again going by clues left behind by Seldon, that the Second Foundation was at “the other end of the Galaxy”, she tells him that a circle has no end. Ergo, she concludes that they must have been on Terminus all along, where they could monitor the Foundation and Seldon’s Plan up close. In the midst of this, the Foundation fleet outflanks the Kalganians and wins the war.

With the war over and the Foundation victorious. Munn then returns to Terminus and tells them the Second Foundation could not exist. Darrel rightly then reveals that he has suspected all along that Munn has been manipulated by the Second Foundation, and conducts a brain scan to prove it. He then reveals that his work has yielded a telepathic jamming device, which they then turn on.

foundation_seldonThe 50 or so Second Foundation agents that are on Terminus are thus revealed and arrested. Reasoning that they are now neutralized, and with the war over,  the Foundation is now free to expand and build the Second Empire. However, in a final twist, another interlude takes place where the First Speaker is conversing with a student, where it is revealed that everything has proceeded by their design.

After neutralizing the Mule, the Second Foundation knew that Seldon’s plan was hanging by a thread, hence they manipulated things to ensure that it would proceed on track again. This included pushes the Kalganians into war with them, and then seeing to their defeat, and letting the Foundations find some of their agents and presume to have neutralized with them. It’s also revealed that they had a hand in grooming Arkady Darrel, and that Trantor is the real home, with Star’s End being a veiled reference to the old Imperial saying “all road’s lead to Trantor”.

I can honstly say that after many years of stalling and waiting, finishing the original trilogy was quite the relief. And for the most part, I enjoyed the third installment in the original three-act play. However, there were some weaknesses that did not go unnoticed, and some of Asimov’s little idiosyncrasies which I’ve come to expect over the years.

For example, the first story is somewhat dry. Rather than there being any real intrigue and action, the entire section consists of a sort of final, half-hearted act made up of mind games. This certainly feels like the case when during the final chapter, where both Channis and Pritchard, followed by the Mule and the First Speaker, are embroiled in a type of mind war. It’s a constant case of “I got you”, “no, I got you!” kind of thing.

foundationAnd this is how the Mule is defeated and the greatest threat to Seldon’s Plan is neutralized. After being portrayed in the second book as the one factor that Seldon did not plan for, a titanic force that was overwhelming the Foundation and its armies, his ultimate demise seemed rather undramatic. Granted, this was something that needed to be secretive and behind-the-scenes, but it felt it rushed and kind of forced.

The second story is much better, containing plenty of intrigue, action, and crisis. And the story flowed quite nicely, beginning at a time when the Foundation feels secure in itself, but a small band of specialists understand that this is not the case, and then culminating in a war and a big reveal. And here, the twists serve a better purpose, showing how the Foundation thinks they’ve neutralized the threat, never to learn that they’ve been helpfully misled.

foundation_forwardBut once again, there was a sense of things being forced and rushed. Towards the end, people are once again revealing that they knew things all along, were better prepared than they had any right to be, and could solve everything with the push of a button or a last minute decision. This time around, its the First and the Second Foundations involved in a case of strategic and mental Jiujitsu, and it feels like there’s a few too many reversals.

However, that doesn’t detract much from the ending, which feels like a good completion to the series. After establishing the Foundation in the first book and showing to the progression of Seldon’s Plan, to throwing it into disarray in book two, by this final act, it now appears that the Plan is fully restored and all the principal actors have done their part.

hari_seldonAnd as the book states by quoting the Encyclopedia Galactica, the war between Kalgan and the Foundation would be the last major conflict before the rise of the Second Empire. Ergo, it would smooth sailing from here on in. As I said already, Asimov claimed that the remainder of the series was motivated by pressure from fans and the publisher, so I tend to think of these three books as the series in its entirety. And I think the way he ended it here was effective and satisfying. No need for sequels or prequels beyond this point!

So if you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you get on it. While it may have some flaws and apparent idiosyncrasies, it remains a classic of science fiction and one of the most brilliantly original series available. Hence why I felt I needed to read it, and why you should too. Especially if you consider yourself any kind of sci-fi fan or geek!

The Future is Here: Roboy the Robotic Child!

roboy_splashThe field of robotics has been heated up in recent years. With autonomous killing machines being developed by the USAF, mind-controlled prosthesis for the disabled, juggling robots by Disney, a headless Kenshiro Robot and even 3D printable android, it seems like only a matter of time before Asimov’s Three Laws will need to be applied. Either that, or we might have a Robopocalypse on our hands.

But when you see this latest project in robotics, you might find it hard to imagine an apocalyptic scenario resulting. Forget Terminator, this seems more like something from the realm of Pinocchio or AI. That’s the feeling I get from Roboy, a concept that began back in May of 2012 when the University of Zurich’s Artificial Intelligence Lab committed to creating a fully humanoid robot by March of 2013.

For those doing the math, yes, that is roughly nine months. As if his size and proposed aesthetics weren’t enough, the creators even committed to a timeline that mirrored the time it takes to birth and actual child. And just to complete the illusion, they hope to cover the finished product in a soft, artificial skin. Talk about infanto-centric (assuming that’s even a word)!

But of course, the real breakthrough of Roboy is in the design itself, which borrows from the Kenshiro humanoid and the earlier Ecce model that both rely on artificial muscles to move. At this point, the robot is near completion and should be released next month during the Robots on Tour event in Zurich, Switzerland, providing everything arrives on schedule. At the moment, the long-term purpose of Roboy is to act as a prototype for service robots that will help elderly people remain independent for as long as possible.

I smell another movie reference there, one involving and old man and his friendly robot side-kick. Can you guess which one I am referring to here? Correct, it’s Robot and Frank! And with all the developments in robots happening right now, I’d say we need to do our homework and see all these movies, and reread Asimov’s Robot series while were at it!

And while you’re doing that, be sure to check out this video of the Roboy’s design in action: