Sunday, June 3, 2018

This sci-fi author predicted everything about the smartphone. Now he says AI is inevitable.

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Science fiction writers are some of the great creative forward-thinkers of our time.


Hard science fiction is the particular category within the genre that matters the most in imagining our shared future, where the laws of physics are adhered to, usually with specified accuracy. The debate here isn’t if this genre is better than other science fiction (SF) work, it’s just different, but it’s the realism that makes the genre interesting, and its focus on the future.


The focus of Star Wars isn’t explaining faster-than-light travel or how The Force works. It’s a space opera about a universe in crisis, complete with action, adventure, Wookies, and explosions in the vacuum of space. Nineteen Eighty-Four is SF also focusing on a crisis for humanity, where the science fiction serves as a natural advancement without needing to explain the science behind what Orwell was cautioning, back in 1949. Both tell us something about the possibilities for our futures. Works from hard science writers tend to be less grand but offer sharp insights into our future.



Works in this genre include the legendary Arthur C. Clarke, and more recently famous books (and Hollywood hits) such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, where explanations of science were rigorously expanded upon.


The thing to remember is that SF takes many forms, arming writers who often have a keen interest in science, engineering, and computing to conjure up ideas and extrapolation of current norms to invoke possibilities for the grand creation of universes, or short stories that are piqued with a single novel idea.


The reason for this background brings us to David Gerrold, and his particularly prescient predictions, put under the spotlight recently by Esther Schindler.



It’s certainly some set of predictions. Gerrold has dabbled in all kinds of sci-fi writing, from the original Star Trek series where he penned the classic episode The Trouble With Tribbles to books to writing for other science fiction TV series including Land of the Lost, Babylon 5, Sliders, and The Twilight Zone.


Consider if you would have placed Gerrold’s prediction in 1999 about the smartphone as we know it today in the hard science category, or categorised it more as fantasy. Even knowing what we know now, Gerrold’s overall prediction, eight years before the iPhone, and nine years before Android existed, is fascinating in its fine detailed accuracy. 1999 was the era of the pager. Netflix posted you DVDs. It was the year that first saw GPS tech in a phone, and the first phone with an MP3 player. But both? In one device? You’d have probably asked what on earth for at that point.



Gerrold didn’t just predict the smartphone in his sharp 299 words. Adding to that achievement was predicting something like Google Assistant, and went as far as noting Google Translate would work in our PITA device, previously the work in SF of something more like Hitch Hiker’s Babel fish. And, his last sentence, also foretold the destruction of our privacy – just one reason why your inbox-swelled with GDPR-related invasion-in-the-name-of-privacy emails.


Gerrold was asked about his comments on CBC Radio in Canada, and was typically dead-pan as he explained it made sense to him: he’d been building computers since 1977, and noted how all previous PC components were separated into different cards, before it all ended up combined on the motherboard.


“It was a question of convergence … I felt was inevitable simply because the technology was going to make it inevitable,” the science fiction writer told As It Happens.


“And [PITA] vibrates. I missed that one. I didn’t realize that we would put vibrators in them!”


What’s next, oh PITA predictor?


While every investor who desperately wants to know the future tries to remember that past performance is no guarantee of future results, anyone who’s anyone wants to know what comes next for us. Gerrold has obliged us by releasing some thoughts on robots, and predictions for AI, noting he feels it is inevitable. Sensibly, Gerrold points out that true AI isn’t possible in the near future, but robots will soon possess capabilities beyond what any human assistant can do.


Android robot

They’ll be more capable than this guy, but only just!



“The robot will require a level of data gathering, pattern recognition, information processing, and decision making that will surpass that of a human assistant.”


“[Robots] will become dance partners, they will play basketball, they will pace joggers, they will walk dogs, they will take on any task that can be defined by a specific set of rules. Robots will assist with the care of the sick and the elderly. They may even end up delivering the mail.”


As for true AI?


“The development of true robots will likely take at least another decade, probably longer. The process will be slow and painstaking—the development of the self-driving car is a good example of the kind of caution necessary. And that deliberate pace of development will give humans plenty of time to get used to the idea.”


Gerrold ends with a warning.


“Here’s the singular caution.


“We must not give up the most essential part of being human: the ability to connect with each other.


“Yes, a robot can rock a baby—but I’m pretty sure the baby would much prefer to be rocked by a human. If we give that up, we create a generation that will never know what it is to be loved.”


Now, after all this, just one request for Mr Gerrold. Can you get back to finishing The War Against the Chtorr? We’ve impatiently waited since 1993 for the fifth book, making George RR Martin look like Usain Bolt in comparison.


Postscript: It’s also incredibly sad news to report that Gardner Dozois died this week. Dozois was one of the true pioneers in science fiction, well before it was anything at all. Originally an excellent writer, Dozois was hugely important as an editor, running Asimov for 20 years, and publishing a definitive annual anthology of the great science fiction published that year in Year’s Best Science Fiction, stretching unbroken from 1984 to 2017.


Gerrold himself published a tribute to Dozois on Facebook, which included the following:


To put it simply, Gardner was one of the people whose respect I wanted to be worthy of. He edited the Year’s Best SF anthology for over three decades. But it wasn’t until number 23 (if I remember correctly) that he finally decided one of my stories should be included. (And then one more time, a couple years ago.) To make it into one of his anthologies had been on my bucket list. I am heartbroken that there will be no more Year’s Best with his name as editor.

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