Book Review: 2312 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Any avid reader knows that good books come in many forms.  Some are fast, accessible, satisfying stories that demand little from the reader yet present exciting adventures and creative new ideas.  Many SF writers are masters of this form, including (but not at all limited to) Spider Robinson, Richard Morgan and hundreds of others.  I love reading their books when riding the bus, flying or otherwise wanting an excellent novel that doesn’t make me work too hard.  Other writers are masters of the sprawling story full of overlapping complex ideas that demand the reader slow down, pay close attention and absorb every detail.  I am convinced Kim Stanley Robinson fits well within the latter category, and when I undertake to read one of his books I know that my work is cut out for me – and that my work will be paid off beautifully.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson is a brilliant, thought-provoking novel of humanity’s near future.  His commitment to plausibility and realism combine with a thorough consideration of the dramatic changes that our species is creating combines with some very likely problems we will face because of, and with, our growing technological prowess.  At the same time Robinson manages to create very real characters with whom it is easy to empathize and even worry about.  Swan er Hong’s rebelliousness and Wahram’s dogged stolidity are wholly realized and enjoyable to observe as they navigate the challenges of their era.

The novel’s main weakness is in its slow pacing, which I suspect was a deliberate choice by the author.  It stands to reason that a story told through the perspectives of people well into their second centuries is not going to have a sense of frantic urgency.  Even when they respond to genuine emergencies, it is with a pragmatism that would only grow with experience and age.  Robinson has done a masterful job of presenting believable characters who have lived a lot, yet are not remotely feeling or approaching ‘old’.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the gradual evolution of a very believable love interest between two of the characters, over the course of many years.

2312 is a well worth the read.  It is definitely what I call a bedside table book, meant to be enjoyed slowly, over many readings.  When I pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson novel I know that I am starting a large project, but that I will like the result.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys serious science fiction.

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Drones versus Humans: The End of Navies

Image from Future Atlas.

Over at Future Atlas, a very real question is raised about the viability of hugely expensive nuclear submarines in a future environment that includes autonomous underwater drones like the one above.

I would go one step further and ask about the viability of any military vehicle larger than a drone or occupied by a human.  My country seems hellbent on purchasing a bunch of the F-35 ‘5th generation’ fighters at great expense, but I can’t help but wonder how many drones could be bought for the same price. Future Atlas makes the point:

After all, with Moore’s Law in the drones’ corner, a submarine becomes a larger and larger piece of information to hide.

How many $5000 lightweight drones would it take to find and destroy a multi-billion dollar submarine?  How about an aircraft carrier?

In the air, how many autonomous drones, with maneuverability far beyond anything holding a fragile human, would it take to make a particular volume of airspace non-survivable for a fighter plane or a bomber?  What is the relative cost of each?

In WWII, the Americans actually had weaker tanks than the Germans.  Ditto the airplanes, at least most of the time.  We just had so very many more than they did.  Even then, the soldiers operating the tanks and airplanes had an interest in surviving an engagement.  Drones would have no such concern, and combat would be a simple cost-benefit analysis.  And a drone is much, much cheaper than anything carrying a human (not to mention the obvious interest of the human in question).

Militaries are known for their tendency to prepare to win the last war instead of the next one.  They are also prone to become over-committed to their existing strategies and hardware.  I suspect the dominant military of the future will have most of its humans safely hidden away while the robots and drones do most of the damage.  But that won’t stop current military efforts to continue operating on the same assumptions.

Navies as we currently think of them are essentially doomed, or at least going to change a lot as technology surpasses their ability to control the air and water around them.  I suspect air forces are similarly doomed in their current form.  That said, most current conflict is not between technology rich forces, but between a dominant military and a resistance of some kind.  Drones are already playing a large role in these conflicts, and I suspect that will expand exponentially.

Of course, Stanislaw Lem predicted this decades ago in his book One Human Minute, (The second story, The Upside Down Evolution) but that was his way.


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Self Driving Cars, SF and Reality Overlap Again

BBC reports that Science Fiction is overlapping with reality again, this time in the form of self-driving cars.  Nevada has just issued a license to the first self-driven vehicle, a Google car.

The practical, safety oriented part of me thinks that computers will make much better drivers than most humans.  Computers will never be distracted by a phone call, changing radio stations, tired, drunk, impatient or any of the other failings we flesh-based machines possess.  I have no doubt that there will be software glitches somewhere along the way, but the risks posed by those glitches will be minor compared to the current level of hazard that exists on most roadways.  California is also moving towards allowing self-driven cars.

“The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error,” said California state Senator Alex Padilla, when he introduced the legislation.

“Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analysing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely.”

In a near future scenario, what does this mean?

  1. The transport trucking industry is likely going to change dramatically.  Sufficiently sophisticated software will be able to replace most, and eventually all, freight drivers.  Exceptions will likely be in remote and/or extreme locations (such as ice roads in the North).
  2. Vehicle fatalities will likely go down dramatically.  Human error is the single largest cause of almost all fatal accidents.  Accidents will still happen, but not as often.  On the other hand, when things do happen they will likely be more dramatic and get more attention in the media.  Currently, accidents happen all the time and rarely make the news.  A fatal accident that includes a digital driver will be a cause for a media frenzy, which will likely create a perception of hazard that is opposite of the truth (like the fallacies about seat belts that persist in the face of evidence).
  3. Anyone who has read Robopocalypse will look on their cars with suspicion.  Anyone who has read SF in general will have their doubts.  All software is vulnerable to hacking, and that becomes a more significant issue when the software is moving massive pieces of metal and steel around in public places.
  4. Fuel efficiency will likely go up dramatically as self-driving cars become commonplace.  With reduced risk, much of the current (perceived need) for heavy components and frames will become unnecessary.  Light, fast and efficient vehicles will become the norm.  Additionally, one assumes that robots will operate at maximum efficiency, unlike we humans who irrationally squander our fuel in lunatic accelerations and decelerations (i.e. in a single block between two stop signs).
  5. There will likely be a transitional period where we all insist on having the ability to take control of the vehicle at any moment.  Before long we might not even have seats facing forward.

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Robot Surgeons

IO9 has an article about robot assisted surgery showing better outcomes that straightforward human-only surgery (specifically on the prostate).  While our natural inclination might be to prefer a human surgeon, I think that surgery (like car driving) is something that will likely be done better by a machine with an unlimited attention span.

Read the IO9 article here.  Read the original research here.

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Robot Prison Guards

Any science fiction fan can see all kinds of potential dystopian downsides to this sort of application. That said, things like this are inevitable with increased automation.

Being somewhat uncomfortable with incarcerating ever-growing percentages of the population, I am inclined to wish that our societies would find other ways to reduce the cost of prisons. However, these guards aren’t likely to be bribed or to smuggle any weapons into the prison, which is probably a good thing.

The robots in the video are fairly benign. Six generations down the line is where I will get concerned – nobody needs a robot gun turret guarding anything without some serious dangers arising.

via Extremetech

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Multimodal Hexapod Robot

This hexapod robot is somewhat alarming while also being very cool and exciting.  There are so many interesting developments in robotics these days that I suspect our lives are on the brink of being changed (even more) dramatically.  Hopefully in a good way.

via Geekologie

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The Milkman`s Robot

Paleofuture has a brief article discussing the disappearance of the milkman, in contrast to how our predecessors anticipated the job of the milkman changing. As always, I find historical predictions about the future both charming and alarming.  For many years, we saw the existence of milkmen as permanent and unchangeable – how else would we get fresh milk, after all?

The milkman’s robot helper of the future as imagined by illustrator Arthur Radebaugh (1961)

I suppose the rate of change has increased to the point that we are more capable of assuming the future will be unpredictably strange, even in the near future.  Yet we still sign 25 year mortgages, save up for retirements that we assume will occur as far in the future as this milkman is past.  This despite the simple fact that any adult over 35 (including myself) grew before the internet existed in any significant sense.  Whatever assumptions I had about the future did not include the internet, cell phones or GPS or anything that has cascaded from those developments.

I’m sure not one single futurist of any stripe predicted the antics of Anonymous or anything like the Arab Spring.  Instead, most of us look at the world around us and make a big assumption that despite accelerating change most of our lives will not change in any significant way.  The now-comical concept of a robotic helper following a milkman on his daily rounds effectively kills that assumption dead.

Unless we imagine that the milkman is being given `busy work` as a suicide prevention policy in a world where robots and AI  do everything of importance.  Instead of letting us wallow in ennui, our AI overlords might create `work` programs to keep us busy.

It wouldn`t take much modelling or testing to formulate an optimal level of work and challenge for a particular individual.  A truly clever AI would be able to come up with ways to convince us that our work is actually important and necessary.  We will all spin on our obsolescent hamster wheels, while the AI gets on with the business of the grown-ups.

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