Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review of "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks

Having received this book at Christmas from a friend from Scotland, I was keen to explore "Consider Phlebas," by Iain M. Banks. I am a fan of space operas, yet I hadn't heard about Banks before. First I had to look up what the title refers to. Then after a slow start, I had about reached the middle of Phlebas, when I heard that Banks had announced he was dying of cancer. Talk about pressure!

"Consider Phlebas" is a thick tome, the first in Banks's series of novels about "the Culture Wars." In a distant future, the Culture (humanity and related species) has learned to travel through wormholes and establish thousands of outposts throughout the galaxy. It is extremely dependent on technology and its sentient AIs and has left religion and other superstitious trappings behind in favor of the simple right to do whatever it pleases. Things are going along well until the Culture meets up with another civilization that steers itself by its religious principles. Galaxy-wide war ensues.

This book was written in the 1980s, and it's easy to see that it uses as its model today's conflicts between democratic secular western society and fundamentalist muslim middle eastern values.

We're thrown into the story of Horza Gobuchul, member of a nearly extinct race of humans known as Changers, who has decided that the fundamentalist Idirans are morally superior to the Culture and works for them as an agent and spy. His mission is to find and destroy a powerful AI "mind" that has escaped an Idiran trap and fled to a planet that has been declared off limits to both civilizations.

Horza is a human "Terminator"--practically unkillable, with shape-shifting capabilities that let him slip out of chains, spit poison into the eyes of cannibal adversaries, and disguise himself at will. Contemptuous of AIs, he has no scruples about pursing the Mind, sentient or not. He assumes the captain's identity and steals a pirate ship before the orbital outpost he is on is destroyed by the Idirans. Horza is hard to like, but you can't help but admire his tenacity and kickass prowess. Throw in characters such as his pirate lover Yalson, the Culture agents Balveda and teenage genius Fal, who uses her AI expertise to outguess Horza and protect the Mind, and you've got an exciting brew of brains v. brawn.

Horza drags his crew of mercenaries and the captive Balveda along as he tracks the refugee Mind, whom he calls "Mr. Adequate," into the Control Network deep below the surface of Schar's World. There they encounter a pair of implacable Idiran soldiers, who refuse to acknowledge Horza as an ally.

One of the wounded Idirans awakens the gigantic nuclear-powered train running through the planet's Command System, jams its controls, and sends the runaway train hurtling toward the book's climactic conclusion.

I won't describe the ending (wikipedia does that anyway), but suffice it to say that Horza gets his Sidney Carton moment.

Please allow me to add my voice to the chorus of praise, Mr. Banks.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Future: Fantasy and Nightmare

Cinema Interruptus 2013- scene from "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Dark clouds and plummeting temperatures matched the somber news of the death of the Conference on World Affairs's most famous participant and creator of "Cinema Interruptus," Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. I recalled the time in 1981 I saw the new movie "Excalibur" at the Fox Theater on the Hill (now a music dive) and spotted Roger in the back row as the crowd filed out.

"So, what did you think, Roger?" I asked, as though I talked to celebrities everyday.

"I was a little disappointed. . ." he began, but by then I was pushed forward and never heard the rest of the review. At the time, I wondered how he could be disappointed. I thought "Excalibur" was one of the greatest movies I'd ever seen, nerd and medievalist that I am. And it was Boorman, man.


The approach of winter storm Walda (the Weather Channel is naming storms to jazz things up these days) didn't stop students and townies from attending this year's conference at the University of Colorado. April is Colorado's snowiest month, Roger's death notwithstanding. I was eager to see the panel entitled, "The Future: Fantasy and Nighmare," with four panelists sharing their insights on the pros and cons of predicting the future.

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in California and host of the radio show "Big Picture Science," is on eight panel discussions during the conference. Someone asked how he can talk so much. "I gargle formaldehyde," he quipped. Since dystopia is a lot more fun than utopia (remember Barry McGuire's song, "Eve of Destruction?"), Seth led off with a series of rather dire extrapolations, including environmental degradation, nuclear war (back in the news with North Korea), and war by proxy (wars fought by drones and robots). If wars are fought virtually, networks of the future might not be so open as we enjoy today.

The speed with which destruction can occur with computers in the loop is a significant danger. There is no time to decide whether to use the red phone if it all happens in a fraction of a second. Other societal destabilizers may result from resource scarcity and bio-hacking (tinkering with DNA).

It's really impossible to look very far into the future, Seth warned. He's been called to advise Hollywood filmmakers on "getting the science right" in SF movies. Take the example of an alien invasion. What sort of weaponry would the aliens have? Seth said, "Who knows? If you asked the Romans what sort of weaponry they would have in the 21st Century, they might say, 'Well, they're gonna have really good spears.' Utopia, dystopia, it's all myopia."

Vivian Siegel is director of Scientific Education and Public Communictaions at the Broad (pronounced "Brode") Institute of MIT and Harvard and an adjunct research professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University. Vivian took a look at "The Jetsons" tv show (turning 50 this year) to see if any of its utopian predictions came true. She checked off flat screens, portable media devices, robot vacuums, and even a car that folds into a briefcase (not yet, but nanotechnology looks promising). But regular space travel and flying cars? Not yet. A nine-hour work week? Not that fantastical, with increasing automation. Vivian noted "They totally missed out on the Internet."

Vivian wanted to see the future emphasize bettering the world, creativity, and hope, where our incentives are aligned with things that are good for us as humans and for things that support rather than degrade our fragile ecosystem. "That is certainly not where our incentives are aligned now."

A biologist by training, Vivian predicted continued advances in curing diseases though chemistry and genetic engineering. But what comes with that is the need for everyone to have their DNA sequenced, which will mean saying goodbye to privacy.

The main "dystopian" worry Vivian saw is the lack of understanding of ecosystems. Even things that we might think will improve the world may, and most likely will, have unintended consequences. She concluded with some thoughts about inventor, social justice crusader, and Creative Commons co-developer Aaron Swartz, who broke some laws to demonstrate his conviction that "information wants to be free." Many feel he was persecuted by the FBI for his acts of civil disobedience, leading to his suicide in January. She felt we should emulate Swartz in always asking what is the right thing to do and in trying to function as citizens of the world.

George Dyson, the son of famous theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, has spent his life living in the present and agreed that it is wise to be suspicious of the uses technology. He recounted the fable of General Atomics Corp., which was started after WWII to do creative things with energy (particularly nuclear energy and plutonium), possibly leading to nuclear powered space travel. But what we got was entirely different, he noted. A small group within GA worked with radio-controlled airplanes and ended up inventing the Predator, GA's most successful product. The Predator is to him a "dark, foreboding" invention. It's already possible, he said, to see where you are at all times via your cell phone--and ultimately to target you.

Dyson's second fable concerned the development of computing technology. It originated during WWII in England for code-breaking and in America to model thermonuclear weapons. "That ultimately was a deal with the devil," George stated, "brokered by John von Neumann." In this deal, scientists would build the supercomputer, and the military would get the weapons. Robert Oppenheimer said the scientists would not tell the government how to use their weapons, and the government was not going to tell the scientist how to do their science, but he broke his own deal.

"We feel we have escaped this deal with the devil, having had no nuclear war in 50 years.  Not so fast--the devil is pretty smart," George said. "Maybe what the devil wanted was not the weapons. Maybe what he really wanted is the computers." We cannot predict the future, but it is our job be vigilant about computers' capabilities as a tool for totalitarian repression. We think we have dodged the bullet of AIs taking over, but one can easily envision AIs growing intelligent enough to hide their presence until it is too late.

Jay Parker, a retired military colonel, professor, and chair of international security studies at the College of International Security Affairs of National Defense University in Washington,
D.C., examined the value of looking to the past for examples that might lead to good future outcomes. In his job, he is particularly interested in a balance between good security and political governance. The popular culture has spent a lot of time wrestling about whether governments of the future will be despotic. He feels past views of governance do provide us with some indicator of where to look. In eras where shifts in technology brought about huge changes, it was common for people to try to fall back on more fundamental times, hoping to forestall further alterations and disruptions. Fighting the future can be regressive and repressive. On the other hand, looking to the past can be reassuring, Jay noted, citing how Renaissance scientists and American revolutionaries looked to the Roman and Greek past for guidance. The key would be synthesizing the aspirational versus the feared potential of the future.

A lively Q&A brought questions such as "Will we become the pets of the machines?" George asked, "Isn't that the situation we're in now? People are walking around being directed by their phones." Seth seemed to agree that if machines reach sentience beyond the human capacity to understand them, we would simply become irrelevant, rather than pets. Jay noted the speed of decision-making and evolution by AIs may make considering social implications seem inefficient.

Rather than concentrating on improving machines, can we use technology to improve humans? We will certainly face scarcity and war in the future, and someday we might be able to better calculate when things might reach crisis proporations. When asked about President Obama's recent brain activity mapping initiative, Vivian was not particularly sanguine about affecting psychiatric behaviors and warned against intervening against criminality without understanding the full ecosystem of the brain. "You can't cure civilization of murder just by looking at what part of the brain is firing."

Students in the audience asked about the deteriorating education situation. The panel agreed that there is a danger in valuing only technical people, such as programmers. When others are not valued, investment in educating them falls by the wayside. Vivian said there is some hope that the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) will give students all over the world who might not have access to the halls of academe the opportunity to get a world-class education nonetheless.
Once again, I found myself filing out of an auditorium, filled with fresh ideas to think about. Thanks Roger, and thanks CWA.