Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Welcome (redux)

SF and Nonsense recently became a featured blog for two of the big three print SF magazines, Analog and Asimov's. I could not be more delighted. If you arrived at my modest blog from one of the zine’s websites, today’s post is especially for you.

This blog captures my thoughts (and occasionally rants) about the state of science, fiction, and science fiction. I'm a physicist and computer scientist; I worked in high-tech for 30 years; I’m now a full-time SF author -- I figure I’m qualified. If not, well, electrons are recyclable.

If you're an Analog reader, you're probably familiar with my writing – a lot of it appears in Analog. My most recent Analog science article was in the September, 2008 issue. My latest short fiction is in the current (Jan/Feb 2009) issue. If you’re an Asimov's reader, my stuff appears there, too, although not (yet) as frequently. My latest Asimov's appearance was in February 2008. That said, I don't limit myself to the short form: I've had two new novels released recently.

However you arrived, it's good to see you. Look around, check out previous posts (and comment away), drop by my website, send me an email.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (AI)

Artificial intelligence is another old favorite of SF authors. Using ourselves as proof by example, intelligence is possible. So why not artificial intelligence? AI feasibility seems like a (pardon the expression) no-brainer -- except for the fact the research community has been on the verge of AI since computers were invented.

Maybe it would help if we could agree what intelligence, awareness, or consciousness mean. In the absence of agreement, we fall back on the Turing Test. We'll have AI when we can't tell an AI from a human on the other end of a comm line. Like beauty and obscenity, intelligence is in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps our anthropomorphism is the problem. As the hero in my book Fools' Experiments opines of the Turing Test:

What kind of criterion was that? Human languages were morasses of homonyms and synonyms, dialects and slang, moods and cases and irregular verbs. Human language shifted over time, often for no better reason than that people could not be bothered to enunciate. "I could care less" and "I couldn’t care less" somehow meant the same thing. If researchers weren't so anthropomorphic in their thinking, maybe the world would have AI. Any reasoning creature would take one look at natural language and question human intelligence.

I don't think AI is a trope -- just that we need to approach the problem a different way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Writer Beware

Many readers aspire to be writers. Every big SF con has panels for aspiring writers. Every book signing I do, I'm asked about getting into writing.

Writing, like any business, has its quirks. One unfortunate quirk, alas, is an overabundance of people ready to exploit would-be authors. Scams abound.

Happily, resources also abound. Among the best resources is a website supported by the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

To wit, Writer Beware -- with a name that needs little explanation.

I'll also mention the insensitively titled but very insightful two-part article "The Clueless" in the August-September and October-November issues of the SFWA Bulletin. The Bulletin is available to non-members, and many libraries subscribe.

Another popular resource for aspiring writers is Preditors & Editors.

Want to write professionally? These sites are worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fools' Experiments

Fair warning: This is a commercial message.

Following two recent collaborations with Larry Niven, my latest solo novel, Fools' Experiments, was released today.
Charles Darwin wrote, “I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”
Why would a computer-and-physics guy like me dabble in biology? The force of evolution drove life from the simplest of single-celled critters to sequoias and whales and people. Evolutionary techniques can also be applied to developing software -- and as with anything involving computers, the changes can come rapidly.
And Fools' Experiments? Consider well-intentioned but ultimately misguided scientists evolving software -- evolving artificial life forms -- and my authorial interest in the Darwin quote should become clear. Who says viruses, worms, and Trojan horses need be the last word in malicious software?

We are not alone, and it’s our own damn fault.
If you're curious about artificial life or the novel, Tom Easton (the long-time reviewer at Analog) offers this interesting discussion. And not surprisingly, the publisher has a bit to say.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

This dark universe

As SF fans (and everyone following modern physics) know, under prevailing theory the matter and energy we can see and feel -- the stuff like us -- is a mere 4% percent of the universe. To explain the motion of stars within galaxies, and of galaxies within clusters, dark matter is invoked. That’s 22% percent more of the universe. To explain the overall expansion of the visible universe, dark energy is invoked, accounting for the remaining 74% of the universe’s content. And most recently, some distant galaxies are seen to recede faster than dark energy can explain. Dark flow is now described as the visible manifestation of stuff so distant that it falls outside the visible universe, but which exerts an influence (likely gravitational) on remote objects we can see.

In all three cases, physicists infer the existence, and speculate about the nature, of unseen stuff. It’s that, or revisit the foundations of physics -- our understanding of gravity, for example -- to reinterpret their findings. Newton’s model of gravity turned out to be incomplete. Einstein’s is too, still disconnected after most of a century from quantum physics.

It’s not unreasonable, at least to me, that a future model of quantum gravity will necessitate a new look at all this inferred, anonymous, dark stuff -- including a new look at how much of it is really there.

That’s one curmudgeon’s opinion ...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (telepathy, part II)

I recently opined that natural telepathy is a trope and not speculative science, for lack of evidence or reasonable theory.

Technological telepathy is, IMO, another story (heh). EEGs already pick up something from neural activity. More sensitive electronics will, presumably, discern more. More advanced computers will, presumably, separate more (and lower amplitude) signals from the overall noise. Thereafter, the signal(s) can be sent anywhere using garden-variety comm technology. Somewhat more speculatively, the process can be reversed -- electrical fields impinging on synapses to influence the state of neurons.

And the reading and writing electrodes need not operate at a distance, separated from the brain by skull, scalp, and hair. There has already been experimentation with electrodes surgically inserted into the brain of a monkey. The SFnal next step is nanotech forming finer -- and many more -- electrodes in situ within the brain.

But will machine-aided telepathy "read minds" or "project thoughts"? Not any time soon, I suspect. Raw sensations, perhaps. Emotional states, maybe. The more complex the information one seeks to transfer, the more challenging. And might individuality bollix up the works? We're all wired slightly differently, for reasons genetic, environmental, and learned.

So technological telepathy? Not easy -- and for hard SF, still a bit of a stretch -- but by all means, fair game for the genre.