Dec 31, 2009

Wearable Technology in Fiction

Maybe the decade from 2000 to 2009 could be called the Dick Tracy decade. Mobile phone technology finally caught up with the Dick Tracy science fiction wrist phone of the early 1940s.

I suspect that when our grand children look back, they will view these times as a series of Digital Decades that will have come to comprise a Computing Century. I think computer miniaturization and mobility are the number one digital development for the past decade, but Web 2.0 technologies like wikis, blogs, Facebook and Twitter come in a close second.

Another piece of wearable technology from the golden age of science fiction is Isaac Asimov's "temporal field generator", which is a plot device used in Asimov's time travel story, The End of Eternity.

For Asimov's imagined time travel technology, most paradoxes are avoided by supposing that a new Reality is created if you go back in time and change the course of events. As long as you wear your "physiotime field generator" you will not be erased from existence by killing your own grandparent.

Noÿs asks: "And what if they make the Change while you’re there?”

Andrew replies: “It won’t catch wrist generator keeps me in physiotime so that a Change can’t affect me, you see.”

We still have a long way to go in order to have a real "physiotime field generator", but wearable technology already includes some devices for monitoring and controlling physiological processes. Some people wear heart rate and blood pressure monitors.

In The Start of Eternity, during the early days of time travel there are no personal physiotime field generators. R. Nahan travels back in time to save Gohrlay, but he is "caught" in the Reality Change and erased from existence. Asimov imagined time travel technology coming into existence several centuries in our future, but he also played around with the idea of taking knowledge of time travel into the past in order to speed the development of time travel technology. Why did Nahan never get help from his future self? I blame the Huaoshy.

If time travel is possible, what would keep the past from being over-run by meddling time travelers? Asimov imagined a future time in which humans decided that time travel was a BIG MISTAKE, so they eliminated the technology. But if a technology is discovered once, can you really prevent it from being discovered a second time? A "sure fire" way to make time travel impossible is explored in The Start of Eternity.

Images. 1) The Dick Tracy "wrist radio". 2) A modern wrist phone. 3) Wearable heart rate and blood pressure monitor. 4) Time travel kettle (for image credits click here).

Dec 26, 2009

August Sennor on Time

...nothing in a Reality made un-Real can be detected - August Sennor
In Isaac Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity, things are made un-Real by Reality Changes. However, what happens when something passes from one Reality into another? Where does one Reality start and the other end?

Asimov's basic strategy for dealing with time travel paradoxes is to assume that that there are multiple Realities, or time lines. If you travel back in time and change something, then you create a new Reality...sometimes. Asimov made a distinction between "micro-changes" and Reality Changes.

Even Eternals sometimes forgot the difference between micro-changes (small “c”) and Changes (large “C”) which significantly altered Reality. -the thoughts of Andrew Harlan in The End of Eternity
The Reality Change that is of most concern is the Change that destroys Eternity, the time travel machine itself. When that Reality Change takes place, the time travel kettle that carried Andrew Harlan and Noÿs Lambent back in time disappears. However, the two time travelers are protected by a field-generator, "surrounded by an aura of physiotime (an effluvium, so to speak, of Eternity) and therefore protected from any of the effects of Reality Change", as described by Asimov. They remain to live out their lives in the new Reality.

In The Start of Eternity I show R. Nahan traveling back in time. He repairs the positronic brain of R. Gohrlay, a change which is a "large C" Change. In the Reality where Gohrlay's positronic brain is irreversibly damaged, Nahan goes on to develop the technology for time travel. In the new Reality that is created by the time traveling Nahan, Gohrlay recovers her positronic brain functions and she goes on to lead the way in developing time travel technology. In that new Reality, there is no need for Nahan to travel back in time. Unfortunately for the noble time traveling Nahan, the "physiotime field-generator" has not yet been invented. According to the "logic" previously used by Asimov, I assume that the time traveling Nahan will disappear, just like the kettle did. However, can anything from the old Reality remain in the new reality?

Clearly, according to Asimov, the effects induced in a new Reality by time travelers can remain after a Reality Change occurs. This seems like a recipe for miracles. A time traveler goes back in time, makes a change to the course of events, causes a new Reality to come into existence, then disappears. The cause of some events in the new Reality has disappeared.

In the case of Nahan and Gohrlay, Nahan uses nanites to repair Gohrlay's positronic circuits. The nanites themselves must disappear along with Nahan when the Reality Change occurs. However, I suppose that the nanites can leave behind some information from the future for Gohrlay in the form of alterations to her memory circuits. It seems miraculous...I wish that August Sennor were here to check my "logic". Asimov showed Sennor making the argument that time travel paradoxes are impossible because something always changes in Time so as to avoid any potential paradox. Unfortunately, even if that is true, it does not tell us exactly what is allowed for time travelers. How does the universe "know" if the kettle is part of the old Reality or if it has become part of the new Reality? If Nahan writes his name on the wall, "Nahan from the 57th century was here", that inscription could exist as part of the old Reality, just as Cooper's magazine ad did, as a "micro-change". How does the universe distinguish between micro-changes and a Reality Change? I guess this is where we have to take Asimov's advice. Time travel as a plot device is supposed to be fun. Don't ruin it by asking too many questions.

Image. August Sennor

Dec 23, 2009

From Star Wars to Race Wars

While developing The Start of Eternity, I've been thinking about how Isaac Asimov might have written aliens into his stories about a fictional universe where humans colonize the galaxy. I think we can make some educated guesses based on the way he wrote robots into the Foundation Saga, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Racism in Science Fiction. Asimov rather famously wrote about his disgust with John W. Campbell, who apparently preferred science fiction stories in which white Europeans always came out on top. Apparently Campbell's racism was a major motivation that led Asimov to imagine and write about an "all human galaxy". Asimov did not want to argue with Campbell about the absurdity of imagining that no alien could get the better of a human.

I was stimulated to write this blog post by When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"? Annalee Newitz discusses stories like the one in the movie Avatar for which critics don't enjoy seeing some "white guy" help people from a technologically weaker culture resist the encroachment of a stronger culture. So, is Avatar just an example of a racist genre where, "The main mythic story is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it"? Newitz seems to be asking: if authors like Nalo Hopkinson can provide us with different types of stories, then why must big $$$ science fiction remain contaminated (or dominated?) by tired old themes like "white guilt"?

I have not seen this movie, but I've felt for a while now that one of the strongest forces behind the commercialization of science fiction is that by crafting stories about aliens it remains possible to continue to explore (and profit from) certain themes that would be branded "politically incorrect" (or otherwise diverted from the goal of making $$$) if presented in more conventional (non-SciFi) ways. I don't buy the argument that "everything is about race". Just because you can draw parallels between conflicting species from different planets (or political conflicts, tribal conflicts, national conflicts, etc) and conflicts between human groups with different racial identities, that does not mean that Avatar is about "white guilt" or that it will make big $$$$ because of "white guilt".

It's the $$$, stupid. I've never really understood Hollywood nor do my tastes in science fiction match up well with the types of movies that make big money. I think there is a real division between movies that mindlessly milk a science fiction setting for cash and movies that try to tell a new and imaginative science fiction story. The people who invest large amounts of money to make a movie can be expected to care more about what will sell tickets than about selecting a "good" science fiction story.

My personal interest in what I like to call the Exodemic Fictional Universe is a major influence on what I consider to be good and interesting in science fiction. Some people and some science fiction stories seem to cling to the idea that humans are the center of the universe. If you want a paying audience to fork over their money after seeing a 30 second trailer, then it makes sense to not wander far from familiar day-to-day experience where humans are the center of most people's experiences. However, if you accept the idea that good science fiction can make people think outside the box of conventional experiences then I think you can agree with Annalee Newitz and her dream of moving commercial science fiction beyond producing "the same old story again and again".

I think both Arthur Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Trek franchise provide good examples of commercially successful science fiction that can constructively move people away from their comfortable "humans are the center of the universe" perspective. I'd love to see film versions of little-known science fiction stories such as Assignment Nor'Dyren, but I can well imagine how folks in Hollywood might respond to what I view as "good" science fiction. I think the story of Assignment Nor'Dyren would be of interest to critics of Avatar. Assignment Nor'Dyren has a "white guy" going to live with (and help) an alien species, but there is no hint of colonialism lurking in the story. Of course, there are no battles or wars, either, so the chances of a Hollywood movie treatment of Assignment Nor'Dyren is next to nothing. I'm not sure that you can make a 30 second trailer for Assignment Nor'Dyren that would motivate enough paying customers to spend their money on movie tickets or a DVD. And that is why Annalee Newitz is "doomed to see the same old story again and again".

However, for science fiction fans who still read, there are wider horizons than what Hollywood will ever explore. In The Start of Eternity, I've been trying to provide an example of an "alien contact" story that does not fit into any conventional mold. Asimov was motivated to create his newfangled robot stories when he grew tired of the conventional robot stories that he grew up reading. I hope Asimov would have enjoyed the approach taken to including aliens that is found in The Start of Eternity.

Ideas for a fan fiction sequel to Assignment Nor'Dyren

Image. This is used in the spirit of fair use for discussing the movie Avatar.

Dec 20, 2009

Too much of a good thing?

Isaac Asimov imagined a future in which robots served to help humans reach the stars. Then, it all went terribly wrong. On the spacer worlds, there were more robots than people and finally, humans mutated into a new form of life that lost the desire to spread itself across the galaxy.

In Asimov's future history, when it comes to robots, there can be too much of a good thing. Not because robots turn into rampaging monsters, but, rather, because they create an environment within which humans fail to thrive.

So, what is a robot graced with the Zeroth Law and telepathy to do? Of course, Giskard must find a way to balance humanity on a knife edge between too many and too few robots. Twenty thousand years later we find Daneel still playing the balancing game and just enough robots on hand so that Hari Seldon can fall in love with one who helps him create the Foundations.
Thus, Asimov told the story of how robots helped humanity through two chaotic attractors (the Earth/Spacer conflict and the Foundation/Galaxia vortex), but what about the story of the origin of the very first positronic robot? How was the first robot with human-like behavior created?

We might assume that the very first positronic brain was built by U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., but did Asimov ever really show how to pull that rabbit out of a hat? And what about the Laws of Robotics? Asimov showed the "first three" Laws arriving wholly formed and then the "Zeroth" law being artificially grafted on later.

The Start of Eternity gives a more detailed account of the origins of the Laws and the first human-like robot with a positronic brain. The key assumption is that there was never any group of computer nerds who sat down, at U.S. Robots or any where else, and just "slapped together" a robotic brain that could produce human behavior. And just as Daneel was the "story behind the story" of how the Foundation was created, another telepathic robot, R. Rycleu, was working secretly on Earth in the 20th century to make it possible for positronic brains to be manufactured on Earth. But those were not the first positronic brains.

R. Rycleu is introduced in the first two chapters of The Start of Eternity. The story of the true origin of positronic brains is shown right at the start and then the origin of the Laws of Robotics and telepathy is described in the final part of The Start of Eternity.

Images. Top: the creation of the R. Gohrlay, the first positronic robot with human-like cognition. Credits. The second image shows the structure of time in the Foundation Reality. Larger version.

Related Reading: Time Travel, five years ahead.

Dec 11, 2009


Isaac Asimov grew up amidst the high unemployment of the Great Depression and I wonder how that influenced his science fiction stories which depict the rise and fall of robots on Earth. Will people always welcome and make use of machines with human-like abilities or will humans eventually feel so threatened by them that laws will be made to prevent us from having to compete against truly intelligent machines?

So far our robotic machines have mostly taken over the more dull, repetitive and dangerous jobs. I think this article does a good job of summarizing the trend. Whenever machines replace human laborers there always seems to be more work for people to do. The shifting of people to new jobs is facilitated by putting more of our resources into the development of an educated work force that can do more than just simple robotic tasks. However, we have not yet crossed the threshold that Asimov imagined, that magic point where robots become as intelligent and as cognitively flexible as humans.

Asimov imagined important roles for robots, such as helping with dangerous tasks during the initial exploration of outer space. He wrote a story (Escape!) about a "supercomputer" with a positronic brain that was responsible for inventing the "hyperdrive" that makes interstellar travel possible. Ultimately, robots were written out of the daily lives of the humans in Asimov's future history and by the Foundation Era, robots were the stuff of legends. That rise and fall of positronic brains and robots in his fiction reminds me of how Asimov used his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, as a way to write time travel out of his fictional universe.

Apparently John Campbell had a major influence on Asimov and the kinds of science fiction stories he wrote. Asimov started his writing career with stories about a galaxy that contained alien beings and his robot stories were filled with robots who were smarter and more decent than humans. Campbell put an end to all that by insisting that humans always come out on top. So, Asimov switched to stories about a Galactic Empire that had only humans...the robots and aliens were dropped.

Decades later, when Campbell was dead and Asimov returned to his "future history", he wrote robots into the Foundation saga even though the first three books in the Foundation Series made no mention of robots. Asimov showed R. Daneel Olivaw secretly guiding humanity, first towards the formation of a Second Galactic Empire based on the Foundation and then, after abandoning the Foundation, towards Galaxia.

I've never been comfortable with the idea that humanity would simply pass laws forbidding the use of robots, causing them to slip into myth and legend. In The Start of Eternity a new reason is provided for why robots disappeared from human civilization when it spread across the galaxy.

Asimov's early short story about a telepathic robot named "Herbie" (Liar!) has always puzzled me. Herbie's telepathy was supposedly the result of a manufacturing error, an excuse that has always struck me as very odd. Asimov ended that story by simply saying that telepathic robots were useless, so the men in charge of manufacturing Herbie never tried to make another and they did not even try to understand how telepathy was possible. Ya, right.

Asimov later wrote about the origin of Giskard Reventlov, another telepathic robot. Asimov told the story of how a young woman, Vasilia, gave Giskard telepathic powers by playing around with "nice" patterns for positronic brain circuits. Again, miraculously, only one such telepathic robot was made.

Asimov showed Herbie trying to exercise mind control on a human...and failing. However, Giskard was able to not only communicate telepathically but also telepathically alter the thinking of humans...and other robots. In particular, Giskard could give other robots telepathic powers. Daneel became telepathic because Giskard passed on to him that ability.

In The Start of Eternity there is a new explanation for the origin of positronic brains with telepathic powers. I assume that the "manufacturing error" that gave Herbie telepathy must have been caused by another robot that already had telepathic ability and the ability to prevent the humans who knew about Herbie's telepathy from trying to understand telepathy.

In Foundation and Earth, Asimov described how it was possible to transfer Daneel's mind from one positronic brain to another. I assume that the first positronic robot with telepathy (Gohrlay) passed the power of telepathy on to all other robots who had "mentalic abilities". If so, then we need to ask how Herbie might have accidentally been given telepathic powers.

In The Start of Eternity, Gohrlay sends a telepathic robot named Rycleu to 20th century Earth. Rycleu helps humans develop the ability to manufacture positronic robots. Some humans inside U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. might have been allowed to imagine that they were responsible for designing the first positronic brain, but in reality Rycleu was the one who made positronic robots possible on Earth in the 20th century. Rycleu transferred portions of her own mind into the first positronic circuits that were made on Earth.

The question then becomes: what was the origin of the very first positronic brain? I assume that a biological brain, that of a Neanderthal, was used as the original template for positronic brains.

The reason that positronic robots go into hiding is because Gohrlay is doing battle against aliens from another galaxy (the Huaoshy). Gohrlay does not want the Huaoshy to learn about positronics. As depicted by Asimov in his book Second Foundation, telepaths are at risk of having their thought processes disrupted by "telepathic mind static weapons". Gohrlay must work secretly to develop Galaxia, a type of biological group mind that is resistant to "mind static" weapons. Gohrlay believes that only with the completion of Galaxia can humanity be safe from the Huaoshy.

Down with robots! Long live Galaxia! Ya, right.

Image. R. Giskard Reventlov.

Dec 7, 2009

Time Loop

How do I get my ideas? By thinking and thinking and thinking till I'm ready to jump out the window. -Isaac Asimov
I have no doubt that Asimov was a great thinker and blessed with a great memory. He grew up as an avid science fiction fan and claimed to have not just read some of the science fiction pulp magazines but, rather, all of them. How did Asimov's personal experiences in life and his reading influence his writing?

Possibly the most famous single Asimov story is Nightfall. The story idea was given to him by Astounding Science Fiction magazine editor John Campbell. Of course, Asimov created the story, but he had to draw upon his past experiences. Asimov felt that Nightfall was the most original story he ever wrote, but he admitted that there are similarities between part of his own story and a Jack Williamson story that Asimov had read at the age of 14. Asimov was perfectly happy to accept that he probably made unconscious use of elements from the Williamson story.
I suppose that any thoroughgoing scholar who was willing to spend several years at the task could trace about every quirk in Nightfall to one story or another that appeared in science fiction magazines in the 1930s. -Isaac Asimov
In writing The Start of Eternity I wanted to include Asimov as a character in a time travel story that builds upon Asimov's own time travel novel, The End of Eternity. Of course, I could not resist putting Asimov into a time loop where future events have a causal impact on past events.

Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair includes the idea of sending back in time a copy of a play. Imagine that Shakespeare takes credit for the play without having written it. Could that actually be a Shakespeare play? What if the "actual" author of the play could not be found? What if Shakespeare then wrote other plays after having been inspired by the one (from the future) that he never wrote?

In The End of Eternity, Asimov included the "Cooper time loop", by which advanced knowledge from the future was sent back in time in order to allow a time travel device to be built in the past at a time before it should have been possible to build one. Asimov also shows the main character, Andrew Harlan, traveling through time and seeing a "copy" of himself.

Asimov's version of time travel includes the Reality Change. Time travelers can alter events in the past and create a new Reality, a new sequence of events. If a person from one Reality meets his analogue in another Reality it might not actually be "meeting yourself", but it seems close to being so, from a psychological perspective. In The Start of Eternity, Isaac Asimov from 1947 travels back in time to 1939 and meets his earlier self.

If the older Asimov from 1947 gave the younger Asimov in 1939 an idea for a story then I do not think that we would have any hesitation in saying that it was an "Asimov story". However, what if the older Asimov had a close encounter with a robot who transferred memories into Asimov? Further, what if an attempt was made to prevent Asimov from having conscious access to those robotic memories? Would there be anything significantly different about Asimov unconsciously drawing upon those "lost memories" while writing a science fiction story and what he did to write Nightfall by calling upon his experience of reading hundreds of science fiction stories?

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More importantly, is it particularly offensive to have some fun and create such a plot in a piece of fan fiction? If Asimov were here to see it, would he take offense? I hope not. Asimov wrote that time travel seems to defy physics, but science fiction writers just have too much fun with time travel to resist it.

Top Image. Photoshop was used to merge a younger and an older Asimov into one image.

Related ReadingRecursive Science Fiction.

Dec 5, 2009

Time Travel as a Skyhook

One of the exciting results of collaborative fiction writing is that you can find yourself getting dragged out of your comfort zone by a collaborator. For example, The Search for Kalid got me involved with writing about telepathy in the context of a Space Opera story, something that I would not have done on my own. I learned that Space Opera can be fun and discovered a plot device for telepathy that I could live with.

I've long been uncomfortable with plot elements such as faster than light space travel, "mental powers" and trips through time that are introduced into science fiction stories with little or no concern for constructing a hypothetical scientific foundation for them. I recently blogged the mysterious boundary between those plot elements we are each willing to accept in a story and those we object to. In creating The Start of Eternity I feel like I am collaborating with Asimov and being drawn into writing about time travel against my better judgment.

I think my greatest objection to time travel as a plot element is that there is no good way to end a conventional time travel story. If time travel is possible, then our timeline should be full of time travelers. No time travel story can really be complete because someone can just arrive from the future and change the entire course of events. In his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett wrote about the dangerous philosophical implications of ideas that have the power of "skyhooks", beliefs that seem to be able to explain everything. Similarly, time travel as a plot element provides an author with a means to endlessly adjust Reality until any desired outcome of the story is achieved. Yes, you can get involved with various technical limitations on time travel or "time travel police" as ways of imposing artificial limits on time travel as a plot device, but none of those tricks has ever given me comfort.

Asimov's first science fiction story was about time travel, but when Asimov got serious and wrote his time travel novel, I suspect that Asimov may have felt that it was best to create a story in which the technology required for time travel was used to select a Reality in which time travel would not be possible. Asimov then went on to construct his Fictional Universe as a place/time where time travelers never again played a major role in shaping the course of events.

However, I've always been uncomfortable with the way that Asimov "wrote time travel out of Reality". If you assume that there was only one time travel device, then maybe it could have been used to select a future in which time travel was never again possible, but The Start of Eternity explores the idea that the time travel device on Earth was not the only one and that another means is needed to completely prevent time travel.

One of the nice features of Asimov's time travel novel is that he made it a mystery in which the main character did not fully understand time travel technology and could not use time travel as a "skyhook". However, off stage, there were people who could! The Start of Eternity shows those mysterious "off stage" power brokers from Asimov's novel and risks falling into the trap of showing omnipotent beings from the future who can use time travel to accomplish anything that they want to accomplish. However, I feel the need to follow Asimov's lead and not turn the story over to those future beings. I think I'm stuck creating a story that is like a Matryoshka doll. I show the off stage robots who were manipulating the characters from The End of Eternity, but I introduce new meta-manipulators who were playing tricks on the robots. By keeping the "meta-manipulators" off stage, it should be possible to maintain a sense of adventure and not expose readers to the feeling that a skyhook is hovering above.

Image. The image at the top of this blog post is a time traveling robot from The Start of Eternity; see this page for credits. The second image is modified from "sky hook" by zen. Source of the nested dolls.