Pity Captain Kirk, For He Has No iPhone: Douglas Preston and John Scalzi at BEA!

John Scalzi and Douglas Preston took to the stage on Thursday at this year’s BEA to talk about the future! Do you ever wonder what it would be like for an artificial intelligence to encounter the internet for the first time? Or whether you’d rather live on Mars than have the internet? Or perhaps you’re concerned about how the digital age will affect the next generation? Fear not! This will soothe your worried heart.

Or it might just leave you with new, more complex questions—the future is difficult that way.

The panel began with Scalzi asking Douglas Preston about the AI entity in his new novel, The Kraken Project, and specifically why he chose to model her the way he did. Preston mentioned reading Alan Turing’s famous paper in which he posited that an artificial intelligence would likely have to be taught, rather than emerging with an instant set of knowledge. It would have to grow and develop. He likened it to HAL in 2001 falling back on nursery rhymes as he is switched off, then went on to explain how that fed into his idea for an AI in his novel: “Here we have an AI that’s being given a course of education, and what if she ends up being a really difficult, reckless know-it-all, sixteen-year-old teenage girl? What if her education hasn’t produced an adult?”

It turns out that his AI (named Dorothy) ends up reaching out for more knowledge when an accident occurs, and runs straight into the questionable arms of the internet. Which, of course, does not go well. “And here she’s horrified and traumatized […] She’s not grown up on the internet the way our kids have. Much of the internet is a wasteland of pornography and violence and hatred.”

The Kraken Project Douglas PrestonThey went on to discuss how many depictions of AI have moments of instant sentience—Skynet in the Terminator films suddenly gaining consciousness and deciding to kill all humans. But from a programming standpoint, creating AIs that have to learn is a more realistic (and interesting) avenue to travel. Preston pointed out that humans don’t walk around with the Library of Congress in their brains, so automatically foisting that on a machine didn’t seem plausible.

This naturally brought both authors to smartphones… effectively walking around with the Library of Congress not in your head, but your pocket. Scalzi mentioned his fifteen-year-old daughter, and how her experience growing up is so different compared to his own due to the commonality of all this technology. He remembered having conversations on the phone that lasted an hour when he was young, but his daughter has conversations with multiple friends via text for hours on end. We were left with the question of whether those two experiences were fundamentally different, or simply the same action through different mediums (or some combination). Apparently, his daughter was computer literate before she could read, capable of putting a Reader Rabbit CD in the computer and starting the thing up at 16 months.

The talk turned to computers, and how access to them has changed the way authors write. Preston admitted to writing his first novel on a mainframe computer before personal computers existed. “I lost 75 pages [of a novel],” he said—apparently the computer crashed and the IT guy had failed to back the information up beforehand. “That was my first experience with technology.”

Scalzi, on the other hand, was fourteen when the first Mac computer was released. He had a friend who owned one, and apparently set up camp in the guy’s room just to use it. “I have never written anything of any sort of substance that hasn’t been on a computer.” When confronted with authors who retyped their drafts each time on a typewriter, Scalzi was forced to admit that he found it utterly mad. “I wouldn’t be a novelist,” he told us. “The way that my writing process is, is so tied into the technology.”

Discussing technology’s effect on us once it becomes commonplace segued perfectly into the mechanics behind Scalzi’s newest novel, Lock In. This tale features an illness that puts about 5 million of the Earth’s population in a state where their brains function, but their voluntary nervous systems are shut down, putting them in a state of “lock-in.” The technology that evolves from there is designed to allow these people to interface with the world, and after a time, it becomes normal for everyone. “The thing is when you create this technology is seems super impressive and everyone’s like ‘wow, that’s cool.’ After five, ten, fifteen years, it’s just a thing—right? Like, we wouldn’t notice anymore that you are being represented by these androids.”

It brought Scalzi back to how completely nuts the invention of the smartphone is—how thirty years ago, if you had told anyone this was going to exist, they would have thought you were a wizard. In a hilarious Star Trek aside, Scalzi mentioned how lame the communicators have become in retrospect. (The fact that those communicators were models for the first flip phones makes it even funnier, really.) On Kirk calling up to the Enterprise, Scalzi said, “It’s a walkie-talkie. It’s a walkie-talkie to space. My phone is so much cooler than your walkie-talkie. I feel sorry for Captain Kirk.”

Captain Kirk, communicator

Captain Kirk is just fine with his walkie-talkie to space, thanks.

The topic of techno rage was next in line, as Scalzi pointed out that you’re not really living in the future until you can get angry at the technology around you (as we often do now). This led Preston to an amusing tale about the old program ELIZA, which was essentially a piece of therapy software; it had no actual intelligence, simply the ability to regurgitate canned replies and generic leads to further the conversation. For example, if you were to tell ELIZA My mother hates me, ELIZA’s reply would be something like Why do you think your mother hates you? Preston got his hands on the code and tweaked it to make ELIZA less friendly: “I rewrote the program so that when you typed in ‘My mother hates me,’ ELIZA would reply, ‘That’s ’cause you’re a putz.’” It would seem that Preston got a friend of his to try it out, and that friend didn’t exactly see the humor in it—he started cursing back at the program. “I think that sort of thing is going to be much more our interaction with computers in the near future,” said Preston.

It turns out that technology is already being built to handle our agitation; Preston brought up how some programs that monitor customer service phone lines for companies can detect anger in a human voice and connect you directly to an operator. (This is super useful for future reference, by the way. Try yelling over the phone.) Also, there is “algorithm trading” on Wall Street where a piece of software gauges the sentiment of our news and the context, and figures out what stocks to move.

John Scalzi Lock InWith that in mind, Scalzi went on to talk about how often people asked him what he thought the future would be like. As a science fiction author he was reticent to give solid answers, citing how much we have already been wrong about—like rocket cars! The world was so taken by the Space Race and the moon landing that our assumptions went to flying motorvehicles. “And we don’t have that future. But on the other hand, we missed this,” Scalzi told us, holding his phone aloft again. “We missed this entirely.”

Evolution wriggled its way into the conversation, specifically on the difference between technological evolution and our evolution. “Technology is this thing that’s on a hyper-accelerated schedule. Humans are the same animal that they have been for the last 100,000 years,” said Scalzi.

“I think we are going to see machine evolution,” Preston offered. “As soon as we have a machine design a machine that’s a little bit better, and that machine can design a machine, we are going to see machine evolution, and I don’t think that’s too far in the future.”

Scalzi posited that the first artificial intelligence might come from something we have already created; he talked of a story by Jo Walton where she suggested it might be Google, and told us that he thought it could end up being spam filters. When Preston mentioned that these might be the machines that rise to either talk to us or kick our butts, Scalzi had a different idea: “I think it will spend a large portion of its life A) trying to figure out what it is, and B) trying to decide if it’s actually worth its time to talk to us at all. Because it’s like, how much time do you spend talking to your cat, and what do you say to it, and what do you expect it to say back?”

Both agreed that the future was going to be exciting and also terrifying… which I think we can all get behind to a certain extent. Are we going to use all this technology responsibly going forward? We’ll find out some day—one way or another.


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