My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the month “March, 2011”

Steam-powered Automata and Machine Intelligence

Over at the S.W.A.G. boards, a discussion popped up that really struck a chord with me, especially the part about machine religion. The question as I interpreted it came down to this: how would intelligent machines behave in the absence of their creators?

Any discussion of machine awareness must also include some discussion of machine learning. What degree of self-awareness is necessary? I can open up my computer’s device manager and I am immediately informed that my computer is aware of what parts compose the whole. It also knows it is connected to the Internet and it’s identity relative to the outside world; it has a name for use in private networking (PsychicToaster) and one for use in the outside world (its IP).

Now, that’s all very well and good, but we still don’t consider that on the same level as our own self-awareness. Why not?
We built machines to think in a way that we do not: sequentially. We have the equivalent of a computer network in our heads, computers have the equivalent of a super-neuron. We do relational thinking, they do sequential thinking. Naturally, any sort of machine consciousness will be different from ours until we build computers more like our own brains. (Actually, there are scientists working on that exact premise)

Artificial intelligence as we know it today is still just a gross approximation. Almost like a model of intelligence rather than functional intelligence. Purpose-built machines can beat people at game shows, but you can’t put Watson in charge of a band saw without completely rebuilding it and programming a new band saw interface. (Although things like the Wolfram Alpha project are trying to address that, too)

There’s also the inherent biases of the creators. We are trying to build machines that are intelligent like us rather than trying to build machines that are intelligent in any way possible. So, we shape their sensory devices around our own, even though a machine could “see” better by a combination of other sensory devices: magnetic resonance, direct electrical stimulation (e.g. a wired internet connection).

There’s a ton of possibility for some truly alien thought processes and reasoning for machines, systems of morality that have no relation to our own, or only a tangential relationship to our intent for them. (I, Robot anyone?)

I don’t think you’d see anything we would consider irrational, such as machine religions, except as a complete inversion of that: some previously unconsidered element is introduced into the program code as axiomatic, forcing the machines to believe it in spite of all evidence. A hyper-rationality based on flawed input, rather than irrational or emotional motivation.

Steampunk Worldbuilding – Lewis Mulligan

Or, How I Built A Steam-Powered Internet

When I set out to write Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine I started by laying down some ground rules. These would be the cornerstones of my world, and any setting I created had to have a way to fit them in.

  1. Nicola Tesla is alive and well. I don’t think it is uncommon among steampunk fans to think Nicola Tesla was slighted by history. Those pads you put your phone on to charge it wirelessly? Yeah, he was doing that a hundred years ago. Even though most common appliances and electronics run on DC power, AC is a lot easier to transmit over long distances. Who do you think invented it? Radio? This has always been a touchy one, even in his day, but it’s safe to say that he and Marconi should at least share credit for certain aspects of it.

    Obvious consequence: If the Nicola Tesla was to play a role in the story, then it must be set in our world’s past. That alone brings with it tons of other baggage: real countries, real cities, real people, real historical events, and real scientific achievements.

    Vindication: Tesla “won” the War of the Currents with Edison, and thus had the capital he needed to develop his Colorado Springs and Wardenclyffe Tower projects sooner and to completion. The handwavium of this setting is that his projects worked so well that they now account for much of the world’s electrical transmission, along with transatlantic communication. One thing I tried very hard to keep faithful to was Tesla’s focus on the future and improving humanity’s lot; I do my best to keep him from becoming a mad scientist, or exploiting his technological development for personal gain.

  2. Charles Babbage finished the Difference Engine. The entire premise of the Pandemonium Engine is that it is a next-generation calculating engine. That means if we’re set in the period of 1890-1910 (due to Mr. Tesla) then the world has experienced at least 60 years of development of calculating engines in business and industry. Also, in more than just a nod to Ms. Lovelace, she lived beyond her premature death and became the foremost authority on the mechanisms.

    Obvious Consequence: 60 years is a long time to have computers. That’s the period between ENIAC and the DotCom bust. Adjust that for: 1) Cost of manufacture, 2) Physical limitations of the devices, 3) Lower global population, and suddenly you have a completely different flavor of information revolution.

    Not so obvious consequence: Combine this with the twist from above, (computing engines + wireless, transatlantic electrical transmission and communication) and you now have the stage set for a proto-Internet. What would an 1890’s world do with the Internet? This was an age of robber barons and titans of industry where they now control the means of production and the means of communication. I don’t delve too deeply into dystopia with this book, but I think I laid the groundwork for it unintentionally. I may explore that in the future. Instead, I take a different angle on it and explore the backlash against such an eruption of technology from the church who finds artificial intelligence to be an abomination.

  3. Zeppelins are pretty damn cool. Does anything else need to be said? Rather than generic aerostat dirigibles, I bump Zeppelin’s work up by a few years in light of all the rest of the industrial development.

    What if? The major limitations of aerostats is power supply and lift gas. Helium is safe, but it is expensive and (for the time period) extremely rare. However, electrolysis of water can provide a great deal of hydrogen in flight if you have water on board. But electrolysis takes a lot of power for the amount of hydrogen that needs to be liberated for an airship. Where can we get near-limitless power, anywhere in the world, even in flight? Mr. Tesla, I’m looking at you.

  4. One of the main characters is a creation of Dr. Frankenstein. The concept of the golem has always fascinated me, whether we’re talking the historic Kabbalah or modern androids. Some time ago I was in a stage performance of Frankenstein by Marty Duhatschek. It was an original reinterpretation where the monster named himself Adam upon reading the Bible and learning that Adam was the name of the Creator’s first creation. Likewise, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein included a sapient “monster”. I couldn’t resist adding one of my own.

    Don’t cross the streams! I realize there’s some uncertainty about introducing fictional characters alongside fictionalized characters. Why care about the verisimilitude of the other elements of this list (such as the plausible technologies of Tesla) if I’m just going to introduce plainly fictional elements? Well, let’s think about this a little more closely. We can already revive people through defibrillators. Medical science has already achieved a head transplant (even though nervous system control is questionable). Cryonics. Part of the horror of Shelly’s story for modern audiences is that it has actually become more plausible since it’s initial publication.

    (Geek note: whenever I play D&D, I always play a class capable of creating constructs. It’s never about pets, its about creating.)

  5. This is still for young adults. One of the advantages of setting this in the real world is that I can take advantage of the narrative to introduce younger audiences to some of the really cool stuff history missed out on by taking a different course: Gurney cars, Tesla’s world electrical grid, Babbage’s engines, and so on. I do my best to keep faithful to the original design and intent of these things so as to minimize any misunderstanding between the real thing and my fictionalized account.

What can you take away from all this

  1. Each setting choice has a consequence.
  2. Self-consistency is crucial to making things believable. If the world has readily available electricity without the need to plug in to a grid, all kinds of free standing devices become possible.
  3. Steampunk is alternate history, or an alternate world altogether. Things don’t need 100% historical accuracy.
  4. Technology brings social change, even if it is subtle. Without the need to run cables, home electricity in rural areas becomes feasible decades earlier. What kind of change would that cause?
  5. Things are allowed to be different, just remember 1-3. If you introduce the luminiferous aether, then Einstein’s theory falls apart and you’re dealing with a variable speed of light. That is bound to introduce some very, very strange things, so consider the consequences carefully (If your sky isn’t rainbow colored, why?), but don’t be afraid of it.
  6. Just remember the Rule of Cool. (Warning: Contains a link to TV Tropes. Do not click unless you have an abundance of time on your hands.)

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