Does the Future Need Us Now?


CNN ran an article a couple of days ago titled "Is AI a threat to humanity?" These articles are usually a roundup of other recent articles suggesting we ought to consider the risks of complex autonomous -- or even self-aware -- systems before we go ahead and build them. The articles cited in this piece are interesting in that many of them were by eminent scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek (who say "Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, little serious research is devoted to these issues") or by academic organizations such as The Cambridge Center for Existential Risk, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute.

Another interesting element of this article is that although it mentions highly publicized material such as
Elon Musk's tweets about the danger of artificial intelligence and Ray Kurzweil's hopes of machine-human symbiosis and the Singularity, it also describes some much more prosaic, shorter-term risks. Even semi-autonomous machines could (and already have) put millions of humans out of work, as their increasing capabilities allow them to move from "blue-collar" to "white-collar" work. In Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland told the story of computerized e-discovery: how a law firm given a week to sift through 570,000 documents used Clearwell software instead of the dozens of associates and law clerks they would have put on the job a decade ago. Although machines taking human jobs is nothing new, we used to be able to tell ourselves that these were just the low-end jobs. Grunt-work that people would be better off not doing. The displaced workers could retrain themselves and enter the information economy. But as Jerry Davis and others have argued, "knowledge-work" can now be outsourced to cheaper markets. Ultimately, software could replace people in call centers, banking, insurance, and a lot of the bureaucracy that we call government.

Similarly, as Hawking and his coauthors point out, a machine doesn't have to be super-intelligent like The Matrix or Skynet to kill you. Our military already has machinery that can be
programed to identify and eliminate human targets. The UN and Human Rights Watch are pushing for treaties to ban the use of such weapons, but what do you think the chances of the US signing on are, if we have a decisive lead in this technology?

What I find most interesting, though, is how unpopular these types of warnings are among the technorati. Folks in the Silicon Valley are happy enough to coexist with the
Singularity University and dream about merging their minds with super-intelligent machines (they generally pass over the question of how few people this technology would be made available to if it ever became real, and what would happen to the rest of us), but Elon Musk took some heat for tweeting his concern. This has been going on for a long time. Fourteen years ago, in April 2000, another über-geek, Bill Joy (Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, inventor of Java) wrote a cover article for Wired Magazine called "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." It's still worth reading.

2049 London: SO Cool

SO I've just finished reading the 4 books of Peter Watts's Rifters Trilogy. It's a good read, and there's a lot of interesting science behind the world-building. Thankfully, Watts cites a lot of his sources at the end of the fiction, so the reader can understand what he's basing his extrapolations and conjectures on. I've also just started reading Salman Rushdie's new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, after reading an interview of Rushdie in which he basically says his approach is to try to merge realistic and unexpected elements. To take more or less regular people and see how they respond to abnormal (but not entirely fantastical) circumstances. This approach goes back all the way to Midnight's Children, in which a cadre of children born on August 15, 1947 at the stroke of midnight: the moment when India gained its independence from the British Empire. These kids develop a range of powers (think Heroes), but they remain rooted in a realistic world much like our own.

I think of this type of writing as science fiction. Not fantasy, where all cause-effect bets are off, and not HARD sci-fi, where everything must be explained in terms of natural laws we can at least wave a hand at right now, even if we don't completely understand them. Rushdie allows himself to invoke the supernatural, but as Arthur Clarke observed, that could just be nature we don't yet understand. So he's at least as much a sci-fi writer, in my mind, as anyone who includes the Singularity or faster-than-light travel in their stories.

But back to Watts. He waved a hand at European cooling (and lots of giant squids) in
Behemoth: Seppuku, and then gave two references to articles in Science Magazine from 2002 and 2004. I jumped onto JSTOR and checked these out (LOVE that academic access!). They talk about increasing river discharge in the Arctic messing up the thermohaline circulation that brings warmth to northern latitudes. The basic idea is, the Gulf Stream stops (or is blocked at the other end) and Europe cools down. In Watts's story, Western Europe becomes Siberia.

Of course, the articles that Watts cites are a decade old (
Seppuku came out in 2005), so I wondered what scientists are saying now. Many, as it turns out, suggest that we don't yet understand enough about the potential tipping points of the thermohaline system, and that the possibility of its collapse was rather sensationalized in the British press (at least relative to other possible problems like the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet). Sensational or not, though, I found this article from the Royal Society. It's about the same age as Watts's citations, but it has cool maps including this one:


The place to be in 2049, it seems, is Southern England and Southern Scandinavia. Maybe also the west coast of Greenland. They could use a little warming there. The Amazon basin also seems to get way hotter than average, which could cause problems. But this is just a map of temperature -- the next step would be to consider how this might affect rainfall. Probably changes it, which even if it's not a net negative, changes the game for people who live in particular places and expect water (think eco-refugees). On the bright side, maybe coolness in the center of Greenland will prevent the ice from melting completely there.

In any case, it's a lot to think about, especially if you're interested in reading or writing stories that happen in the future. Or just wondering what type of world we might be leaving to our kids. There have been a spate of sci-fi stories recently that -- even if they're not directly about climate change -- are set in story-worlds influenced by climate change. In a sense, a hypothetical environmental history of the future. Might be interesting to track the changing zeitgeist among sci-fi authors and readers, and see how their futures develop.

Not Yesterday's Tomorrow


Watched the movie Tomorrowland twice this weekend. Kudos to Disney. Best film I've seen in a while. And best Disney movie since Tron Legacy. But that's another story. The story today is that this movie was pretty well hated by reviewers and the public. People complained about a muddled plot, and I agree there were holes (scroll to the end, but be warned: spoilers). But they were no bigger than the plot holes in any other movie you can name, that people missed because they were comfortable with the movie's theme. I think the real issue was that this movie made people squirm a bit. Especially in the climactic scene, when David Nix, the boss of Tomorrowland and the guy we had assumed was the villain says this:

Just imagine --
If you glimpsed the future, and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? Would you go to...who? Politicians? Captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck.
The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if...
What if there was a way of skipping the middleman and putting the critical news directly into everyone's head?
The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up, and the only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they had ever known or loved?
To save civilization, I would show its collapse.
And how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom?  
They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair. They didn't fear their demise. They repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, as books, movies -- the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon.
Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one.
Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you, the coalmine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint.
In every moment, there is the possibility of a better future, yet you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it, you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So you dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it, for one reason.
Because that future doesn't ask anything of you today.
So, yes. We saw the iceberg, warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why?
Because you want to sink. You gave up. That's not the monitor's fault. That's yours.

The premise of the movie, established brilliantly in the first few seconds of dialog, is that the future isn't what it used to be. This idea is familiar to the science fiction crowd, who have been asking "where's my flying car?" for some time now. There are a lot of reasons the Tom Swift future gave way to the cyberpunk future. It wasn't a technically feasible future. It wasn't a particularly environment-friendly future -- if there was even an environment in it. But in my opinion, the main reasons were technocracy and inequality. The future was something that was going to be made for us by smart people. And, as William Gibson famously said, the future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed.
Both of those problems are present in some degree in the
Tomorrowland future. The creative people have actually found a place (unexplained, but apparently a pocket universe or a separate/parallel dimension) where they can be free to create without constraint. It's almost a Galt's Gulch, except that they had intended to bring the rest of the world along with them, or at least to share the fruits of their creativity. The Frank character is a bit complicated, and it's unclear why he was banished long before the story begins. He's clearly not in a sharing mood when we first meet him.
But those issues don't really detract from the point that Nix made. The signs are there, but the stories we're telling celebrate the post-apocalyptic struggle because that allows us to wait for the apocalypse. And let's face it, even if Tina Turner is singing "We Don't Need Another Hero" in the background, Mad Max is still doing all the work for us.
So the challenge, I guess, is to imagine a future that acknowledges the problems we face but retains some hope we'll figure them out. I thought
Tomorrowland made a decent start on that road. Gotta make sure I try and do the same, when I build Part Two of my Environmental History class and textbook.

The plot holes? I thought they were forgivable, and ironically probably due to the fact that Disney knew how unpopular their  theme was going to be. The biggest plot error is that after giving that intelligent and obviously caring speech, David Nix tries to shoot Frank and ends up killing Athena. This is ridiculous. Nix likes Frank, and he loves Athena. And he has just explained the situation with the monitor. He wasn't trying to destroy the world, he was trying to save it. He believes the monitor can't be turned off, not that it shouldn't be. So it's entirely out of character for him to act the villain at that point. It advances the action, but makes it a bit nonsensical.

The Water Knife

Just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's 2015 novel, The Water Knife. It's a futuristic thriller, set in a dystopian Nevada and Arizona. How distant the future setting might be is not specified, and I suppose depends on your opinion of how quickly the water is going to run out in the Southwest. However, it's not the remote future. Texas refugees are the "Okies" of this story, called "Merry Perrys" due to their irrational belief that if they just pray hard enough, the rain will come.


Bacigalupi is the former Web Editor for High Country News and lives in Colorado, upstream from the action of the novel. Unlike some of the other sci-fi books I've been reading this summer (Seveneves, The Three Body Problem, Howey's Silo Series, and even Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl), there's not a lot of really out-there speculative science to grab onto here. There are Arcologies, but that's not so undoable in today's world. The only tech we don't have might be the growth-hormone drip the protagonist uses to recover from being shot full of holes.

So this is a story about the present, disguised as a story about the future. An interesting solution to the problem another of the main characters has in the book, when a scary "executive" from a California water company suggests she "could write about anything I wanted, but maybe I should stop worrying about what California was doing here or there and spend more time worrying about other things." (p. 164) Later in the story, the reporter agonizes over the stories that don't get written. Made me wonder whether Bacigalupi or any of his journalist friends had ever had a conversation like that. Also reminded me of why my revenge novel about the 2000 Cochabamba Water War is still in a drawer. Needs to become a little more fictional.

The most interesting but also LOL aspect of the book, for me, was the constant reference to Marc Reisner's Environmental History classic,
Cadillac Desert. The evil water-queen of Vegas has a signed first edition. A mid-level Cali water exec also has a copy, in which he hides the document everybody is looking for. And close to the end, the protagonist says to the reporter:

Every water manager, every bureaucrat--even you got that damn book. All of you with your nice hard-copy first editions, all of you pretending like you know shit…Acting like you saw this shit coming…That guy Reisner now, That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They're the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren't listening back then.

So. We can consider ourselves warned.