Computers, science fiction, the way ahead?

OK – the relationship of humans with computers as a topic in science fiction, science and general discussion seems to have gone viral. We have Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary Justice winning the Clarke award and jointly winning the BSFA award. It’s also up for a Hugo. The latter two are winning by popular vote. We have Transcendence with Johnny Depp doing the rounds in the cinemas. Now we have articles in newspapers from the likes of Steve Hawking (yes the noble laureate) saying that AI could be dangerous to use.

Even C.A.T. has got in on the act, more from a computer viewpoint, mind.

So what the heck is going on?

Well, I think it’s the general realisation that we don’t really understand computers. We have even less understanding of how the could, let alone will, develop in the future. With this comes the danger that they could develop into something anti-human.

But this potential danger was known about since the 1940s when Isaac Asimov worked the three laws of robotics. He subsequently added the zeroth law, which is what a lot of commentators are missing out on. So even he realised that his original three were inadequate. Nobody has yet been able to come up with the coding to enforce the three laws, which incidentally depends on what and how the computer assesses the situation. Science fiction has since gone on to deal with computers in a wide variety of ways, including a whole cyberpunk movement started by William Gibson’s Neuromancer. There are obedient computers like K9 in Dr Who, more intelligent complicated robots like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars and Data in Star Trek, human cyborgs, chips in the brain networking humans together (see John Meaney’s To Hold Infinity for a really good rendition of the impact of this – and yes his day job is dealing with computers).

Of course science continues developing computers, which means the effects computers have on our lives will be greater and more varied. Whilst the computer specialists  set out to make computers more like humans in the 1950s, they realised they are making something very different from what they expected, but very useful nevertheless. This realisation set in in the 1980s when there was a surge of innovation, which coincided with the start of cyber-punk and the Terminator series.

So why the interest surge in what computers can do to us now?

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that computers have continued to develop in both expected and unexpected ways. We’ve now realised that the unexpected ways have diverged so much that they are making a significant difference to our previous expectations of them, so we have to look at the new computers again.

Also as we see and feel the results of the computers and their expected developments, we realise that our new now hands-on experience with them is different and far more real, hands-on, influential in ways we never understand even of the science fiction writers got it right. To experience things is not the same as being told about them.

Combine these two factors and you get the general response, what the heck? Let’s find out more about this.

This opens up a vast field of variation and potentiality for science fiction writers. If you want a very tiny part of the field, go over to C.A.T.’s article. It actually hides another vast untapped field that science fiction should be looking into… which reminds I must get on with writing my story…


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