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Far from the Spaceports
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Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space
Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space

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A selection of recent news about Far from the Spaceports, and its forthcoming successor, Timing...

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Check out the review at
http://srutis.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/book-review-far-from-spaceports-by.html,
followed by the first part of the interview...
Read up, the first part of the Interview with Richard Abbott, author of 'Far from the Spaceports.' To come up, with a concept such as this is a brilliant matter, in itself. It might be all about space and AIs, yet it is not. There are so many sub-plots, and so much more to understand in this book, that you might just not ask, Scotty to Beam you up, after all, and instead ask Richard Abbott to Folks...

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Read an author interview, and some curious facts about Far from the Spaceports
An author interview on Don Massenzio's eclectic blog, focusing on Far from the Spaceports...

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News from the asteroid belt

(full blog with pictures in sequence at http://richardabbott.datascenesdev.com/blog/index.php/2016/04/26/news-from-the-asteroid-belt/)

I thought it was about time for another space-themed blog today, so here are some interesting recent finds.

First, here is a high-resolution NASA picture of Haulani Crater on Ceres, taken from an orbital altitude of under 400 km. The crater is about 21 miles in diameter, so would comfortably fit inside the M25 motorway around London. The level of detail is quite extraordinary, showing not only surface features such as landslides, but also allowing some inferences about the relative age of the different portions.

The scattering of bright spots on the surface of the asteroid has excited a great deal of conversation since they were first identified as Dawn drew closer on its long journey. Even with the close-up views, uncertainty remains, and probably will do until such point as something can actually land there. Meanwhile, the best guess is that they reveal traces of chemical deposits, probably some kind of salt. When you read of the asteroidal settlements called the Scilly Isles in Far from the Spaceports, imagine scenes like this out on the surface…

Atmosphere! When you read old science books, or old science fiction, most moons and similar small objects were believed to be completely airless bodies. Atmospheres were thought to be the province of “real” planets. But the more we have been able to get a close view, the more we realise that atmospheres are the rule rather than the exception. This image shows the view of Pluto captured by the New Horizons probe as it receded further away from the sun – the atmospheric haze extends out to about 80 km, considerably further than anybody had expected.

These atmospheres are generated by a whole mix of local conditions. These include the effects of the distant sun’s warmth driving chemical reactions, nearby bodies flexing the surface slightly, and so squeezing gas out of the rocks, as well as internal chemical or seismological actions. Now, it’s as well to remember the vast majority of the gases found are not only toxic, but also far too thin to be of much use… nevertheless finding them at all has been a surprise.

Finally, Mars. A good chunk of my forthcoming book (which currently has working title Timing) is set on Mars and one of its moons, so naturally I have been following discoveries there with interest. Now, our present selection of gadgets on Mars, while extremely clever and carrying out their missions in exemplary manner, come a long way short of what I have in my fictional imagination. Mars in the new novel has a wide variety of different communities, from a financial training college out near the giant mountain Olympus Mons, through to an anarchic and hedonistic settlement at Elysium Planitia. We are some way from achieving those yet, but there’s plenty of time…

That’s it for today. There seems to be plenty to discover out in the solar system. Some of the findings reinforce what was previously believed, but others open up whole new and unexpected areas. Happy reading – both fact and fiction.

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Making Companionship, a brief look at some of the past and future of our desire to make an artificial companion...
Full post with pictures at
http://richardabbott.datascenesdev.com/blog/index.php/2016/03/23/making-companionship/ "...But for some reason, as a species many of us have been perennially disappointed and frustrated with relationships with one other – a sorry trend for which one can very easily find counter-examples, but which has fuelled many of history’s conflicts, both national and personal. Perhaps the autonomy and potential for disagreement in another individual is too disconcerting. Whatever the cause, the idea of building some sort of mechanical person goes back into the ancient world..."

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How far away is Artificial Intelligence?

(original post with more pictures at http://richardabbott.datascenesdev.com/blog/index.php/2016/03/08/how-far-away-is-artificial-intelligence/)

Over the next few days, Google’s Go-playing algorithm, AlphaGo, will take on the current world Go champion, Lee Se-dol. It is an event which is being watched closely by both Go players and coders, since until very recently Go was thought to be a game intractable for machines to play competently.

I’ve worked in various ways with AI over a lot of years now, so thought it was high time I wrote about it here. Far from the Spaceports, and the in-progress follow-up By Default, have human-AI relationships at their heart. Mitnash, a thoroughly human investigator and coder, has Slate as his partner. Slate is an AI – or persona, as I prefer to use in the books – and the two work together in their struggle against high-tech crime.

How far are we away from this? In my opinion, quite a long way. There have been huge advances in AI during my working life. This has largely been made possible by corresponding advances in the speed and capability of the hardware systems on which they run. However, creative ideas for how to code learning algorithms and pattern recognition have also come taken huge strides. Nevertheless, I don’t think we are very close to working with Slate or her fellow personas just yet.

Of course, you have to be mindful of a quote attributed to Bill Gates: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” But that said, I still think we’re some way off.

There are a lot of different, and very useful, ideas as to what constitutes intelligence, but for the purpose of this blog I am largely focusing on the abilities to learn and then detect meaningful patterns, work usefully with inconsistent or poor quality information, and communicate about all this with another individual in such a way that both parties can revise their opinions.

Part of the problem is that most people are working on a very small part of the problem, and the organisation paying them only really wants quite a specific outcome. So one team might be working on machine health monitoring and fault prediction, to improve aviation safety. Another will concentrate on whatever is needed to identify objects in photographs. Another on voice recognition. Another on being able to beat human champions at a specific game. And so on. Comparatively few are integrating all this into a single entity.

Human intelligence is also noteworthy for being able to adapt flexibly to new situations, calling for similar but not identical responses. So my guess is that Lee Se-dol probably also plays an outstanding game of chess, or Senet, or any of dozens of board games. At a guess, he could probably hold his own very well at some game he had never seen before, after a comparatively brief explanation of the rules. I have serious doubts as to whether Google’s codebase could make such a transition.

Another issue is repetition and predictability. If you’re coding a safety system, you really want to know that the same set of circumstances will lead to the same consequences. Quite apart from giving confidence to your immediate users, there is the whole matter of getting the system qualified for use. Imagine your system has failed to recommend replacement of a critical component. There has been a crash, and you are at the investigation. “Why did your system fail to recommend that the component be changed?” And you reply, “Oh, I don’t know – it says something different every time.” I can’t imagine this going down very well with the investigation committee. For the reaction of a friend, however, unpredictability is part of the fun.

We find it difficult to define what intelligence really is, or which part of our being is responsible for it. Recent comparative studies in which bird and primate intelligence are contrasted, have questioned the idea that it is seated in the cortex: birds don’t have such a thing. In the light of such basic uncertainty, corporate reluctance is understandable. It is hugely easier – and hugely more cost effective – for an organisation to say “build me a system which can identify patterns of word use by different authors” than “build me intelligent partners for my human staff.

As someone working in a tech industry, I am keenly aware of, and excited by, the possibility of AI. How would my team carry out quality assurance for such a system? It’s often hard enough to do this for a complex but entirely rule-bound application. The challenges are immense.

But as an author, I am entirely free to suppose that all that has been done, and focus on the storytelling issues of how such a relationship would work.

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Basic elements - Communication

Today's basic element is communication, and thousands of years of human development has shown that this indeed is a crucial feature in building society.

(Original post with more images at http://richardabbott.datascenesdev.com/blog/index.php/2016/02/24/basic-elements-communication/)

Before that, though, a quick mention of some author readings for Far from the Spaceports - whether you like YouTube, (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnOumzDzWL1SuheEPp5D_0wBz7zGzJg7L) Daily Motion (http://www.dailymotion.com/playlist/x4cg3g_RichardBAbbott_far-from-the-spaceports-playlist/1#video=x3sug4n) or Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/album/3804946), you'll be able to find them.

So, communication. It's fair to say that as a species we have been quite obsessive in extending the scope and accuracy of our attempts to communicate. What began as an immediate interpersonal exchange has grown in range, variety, and diversity over the years. Nowadays, many people find themselves disoriented and frustrated when they cannot, virtually instantaneously, access the information they want.

Wind back to the Late Bronze Age, and things were very different. The majority of people stayed within a short distance of their birthplace, and had direct contact only with the towns and villages in the neighbourhood. There were exceptions, and we do know that some people were well-travelled. Messengers, envoys, scribes, and traders would all be acquainted with a much wider scale of vision.

An army commander or religious leader might be called upon to travel to, or describe, remote locations, and the accuracy with which they could do this might make a world of difference to the outcome. We have topographical records and route lists from the ancient world, itemising the important features of a strange land, and how to navigate from the familiar into the unknown. And "travellers' tales", with vivid and usually speculative descriptions of other lands, have been a favourite story-teller's ploy throughout history. I sometimes wonder if this accounts for today's popularity of science fiction and fantasy - with so few unknown places left on the planet we know, we are easily persuaded to look into other realms.

There was, essentially, no way to send a message to some distant place other than making a physical journey, either in person or by proxy. On a battlefield, some orders might be signalled by horns or other instruments, or by flags and banners, but the intent had to be simple and easily understood. Right through until the modern era, the dust and confusion of battlefields has led to endless confusion and lost opportunities. On the political scale, the various empires of the ancient world struggled to keep a balance between the expansionist mindset of rulers, and the sheer practical difficulty of keeping hold of territories once acquired. The Persian empire - which would be swept away by Alexander the Great - had a complex and largely effective system of messengers and roads, but an independently-minded ruler of a remote city-state would still enjoy a very large degree of freedom.

It is hard for us to comprehend just how vast the world has seemed throughout history, if you think in terms of sending a message. Less than a century ago, some of my family members were posted to Singapore for a time. The rest of the family treated the event as though it was a permanent goodbye. True, there was surface mail, but it was extremely slow, and erratic at best. So it was safest to assume that this could be a one-way journey. Fast forward to 2015, and I was able to use my mobile phone to call my parents in England, from a hotel room near Delhi, India, to make sure that they had made a safe transition from place to another. The worst problem I faced was that the connection was a bit crackly.

Moving on again, into the time of Far from the Spaceports, we have again lost the possibility of talking real-time to people. Even when the Apollo spacecraft were going to our moon, we had to learn to get used to about a second and a half lag in the signal. As we go further out, the lag gets longer, as signals travel at the speed of light back from the craft. When the New Horizons probe was passing Pluto and sending images back, the signal lag was about 4 1/2 hours. The corresponding time for Voyager, much further out again, is about 18 hours. Even the relatively modest distances that Mitnash and Slate have travelled out to the asteroid belt mean that they have somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 hour delay each way, depending on the relative positions in their orbits. It can take an hour for Mit to get an answer to a simple query.

How will we readjust to a lifestyle where almost instant communication is no longer possible? It's a strange middling position between our present day, when we can chat in real time without hindrance to a person anywhere in the world, and where we were before radio, when carrying a message to another country could take weeks or months. It is clearly a limitation that science fiction film makers find frustrating.

The universe of Star Trek, while acknowledging that physically going from place to place takes time, tends to show instantaneous real-time chat between the ships concerned and the headquarters back on Earth. For Trek geeks, there is a lot of online chatter about how this might happen, most of which seems to me to simply push the problem around without solving it. The basic idea that moving objects takes time, but moving information happens without delay, seems to go back (at least in fiction) to Ursula LeGuin's Rocannon's World, when Rocannon sends an instantaneous message back to Earth with the coordinates of the enemy base: "They can send death at once, but life is slower..." (it's a fine book, and well worth reading for lots of reasons).

Mitnash and Slate, however, work within the constraints of what we know. I have not assumed that some extraordinary scientific breakthrough will change all this just yet (though I aware of, and intrigued by, current ideas for using quantum mechanical entangling to send instantaneous signals). So their world is one that has to manage with chat lag - and this affects their personal relationships as well as the simple acquisition of information. What kind of friendship and intimacy is possible when every communication is frustrated by long gaps? People - and I suppose artificial intelligences - can handle enforced separation for long periods of time and remain loyal to each other. But what about situations where you can almost have a conversation, but not quite?


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Basic Elements - Celebrations

A slightly different angle on basic elements today, partly inspired by the fact that it was Valentine’s Day last weekend.

But before that, quick mention of a fine review that appeared for Far from the Spaceports this week: “lots of believable futuristic technology… a futuristic crime thriller. A science fiction whodunnit if you will… Mitnash and Slate are developed into characters you really care for – and want to learn more about… I can’t wait for the next one in the series…

Back to basic elements. Up until now, the series has focused on some of the physical necessities of life. But as human beings, we need more than the physical to sustain us. We need the metaphysical as well, in order to give lives meaning as well as substance. So for today we are going to look at celebrations – special times and seasons around which we drape our lives.

To set some basis for this, here is a diagram of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of needs’, which he published in 1943 under the title ‘A theory of Human Motivation’. In his scheme, a person could not effectively progress to higher levels of the pyramid, until the lower ones were secure. Now, this scheme can seem artificial, in that people have been known to be highly creative in the most unpromising situations,but broadly speaking it makes sense. According to this, a sense of belonging ranks only just above provision of food, water, and a safe place.

People have throughout history made space for celebrations. As far back as we can tell in the past, there have been events commemorating the natural cycle of the planet – seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. There have also been religious and spiritual special days – fasts and feasts, times to express hope or gratitude, days to commemorate the departed dead or those who lived exemplary lives. Very often we have combined the natural and the sacred together.

My historical writings often feature festival days, particularly In a Milk and Honeyed Land, where events such as the feast of New Wine (in the autumn, marking the start of the new year), midsummer and midwinter ceremonies, and so on, structure the plot. I see them as blending everyday fun with religious devotion, with no particular contradiction between them. The devotions are to the Canaanite pantheon, especially Taliy, who has a high profile in the Four Towns. They are solemn occasions, but they are also (mostly) a lot of fun. They can also be, as such events still are today, a cause for conflict and jealousy.

Today, we have tended to split religious and secular aspects of festivals. Christmas is still a meaningful spiritual event, but for many people the family and friendship aspects of the event have eclipsed any religious meaning. There are, no doubt, people who honour Valentine as a martyred saint, but on the whole his day provides a convenient time for declarations of love, desire and passion… both required and unrequited. These things are worth commemorating at some point in our lives. For many people, the religious times that are remembered are those connected to fun and enjoyment – a secular society is not so eager to remember fasts and times of denial, however meaningful these still are spiritually.

Looking into the future, my belief is that we will continue to need events and occasions which symbolise meaning. A calendar is not just a succession of days, nor an endless loop of time passing. Rather, it is strung between the key days which impart meaning. About two weeks ago, on January 28th, a great many people around the world remembered the 1986 disaster when the Challenger shuttle blew up – not just a tragedy for the families concerned, but a major setback for the chances of civilians going into space. Positive first events such as the moon landing are also recalled each year – becoming more poignant year by year as the number of living astronauts who have ever walked on another world diminishes.

Suppose in time we are able to colonise the asteroid belt, Mars and its moons, and so on. My guess is that as and when this happens, we will continue to have particular times and seasons which are remembered. Whether or not these are considered religious or social – and I am inclined to think that both will continue hand in hand – seems to me less important than the fact that we need meaning to shape our time-keeping, not just succession.

Now, our calendars will become considerably more complicated at this point, with each planet having its own ‘year’, not to mention the vast variety in orbital patterns of the moons around the planets. Will we adopt a Star-Trek style “star date” to enforce uniformity on the system as a whole, or will we need to keep track of any number of local clocks?

Far from the Spaceports did not include any specific festival days, though readers will no doubt remember the concert scene at Frag Rockers Bar. “Special Night” was a regular event there. The in-progress By Default, however, will have some kind of commemorative event – watch this space.

It’s right to finish with a couple of extracts from Buzz Aldrin’s Encounter with Tiber – one of my favourite science fiction books.

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[At the first wedding on Mars, on serving a cake made from soya oil and potato flour, decorated with blue dye] “Something we did today, out of expediency, is going to be fundamental to Martian weddings from now on”… I don’t know if I believed him at the time or not. But twenty years later… that awful cake of Doc C’s has been at every wedding. You can’t get married without having your tongue turn blue…

[Right at the end] This first day on Tiber was more symbol than science, and rightly so, Clio thought. It’s the symbols that we live by.
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More next time, probably on communications.

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Far from the Spaceports reviewed by Ian Grainger

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A review of Far from the Spaceports 
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