Literature was the first truly verifiable, repeatable and effective form of magic. Picture how it must have impressed ancient people to look at marks – on papyrus or clay – and know they conveyed the words of scribes and kings long dead. Knowledge, wisdom and art could finally accumulate. Death was robbed some of its sting. Writing still is magical. To create strings of black squiggles that millions of others skillfully de-code with just their eyes – into emotions and thoughts, or the struggles of believable characters – or spectacle beyond Hollywood’s wildest dreams.
Are we overthinking the dangers of artificial intelligence? On Gizmodo, George Dvorsky interviews me about the potential dangers and benefits of AI… and other future hazards. Will the dystopian nightmares of sci fi flicks come true? Or might those warnings actually help prevent the worst mistakes? The whole idea behind dire warning tales is that such ‘self-preventing prophecies’ might help us evade terrible errors, poking sticks ahead of us as we rush into the future, finding and discussing and avoiding the mine fields and quicksand pools and snake pits as we hurry toward a possible better era.
What do you find that has changed in the past ten years that is leaning towards your own fictional work?The trend toward transparency being crucial to our survival and freedom has been in my fiction and nonfiction for decades and it is coming true. Last year, largely unheralded by media, saw the most important civil liberties decision in thirty years, when the courts and the Obama Administration separately declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a right to record their interactions with police, in public places. Of course there will be tussles over the details for years. I'll talk later about how we must also watch the watchers of the watchers.
We authors, especially in science fiction, are the greatest and most consistent magicians. We concoct long incantations — chains of spaces and black squiggles (a million of them in Existence) — and skilled recipients of the spell (well-educated readers) proceed to scan those squiggles with their eyes, decrypting them swiftly into clever dialogue, deep emotions and insight, or star-spanning explosions. This partnership of spell-weaver and incantation-user is stunning, and remains far more effective for the full-rich texture of invented worlds than any competing medium.
From its very beginnings, science fiction has been transfixed by the eerie notion that human beings may someday pick up the Creator’s toolkit and start “making life,” even new kinds of intelligent life. Robots and super-smart computers make up part of this tradition, but there is another side. Perhaps the most important “technology” ever discovered was the domestication of animals to serve human purposes. Ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, countless science fiction tales dealt with our ongoing temptation to meddle with other creatures. Many authors such as H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelly, and Cordwainer Smith explored the concept of of “uplift” — genetically engineering other animals to bring them into our civilization with human-level powers of thought. Most of those writers hewed to the same story-line, suggesting that this process would be abused by madmen who impose a slave-master relationship on the newly risen beings.
It’s a daunting possibility, isn’t it? Either way – if we seem to be alone, or if we make contact with neighbors out there – either way, the universe is sure to be unnerving as we forge outward. No wonder some of our fellow citizens quail from thinking about the cosmos, or the future, and some even deny there will be a future at all. It arises from a desperate unwillingness to think about the grand context for all our little struggles.
Existence portrays a near-future world, roughly 2050, in which terrible things have happened, but guess what? People reacted by coping, as they always have. Only now you can scroll through all the overlays of augmented reality that lay upon the surface world of the “merely real.” Google’s Project Glass was announced the same day Existence came out, taking us a step in that direction. I take it 40 years into the future.
The book is set against a puzzle of our age, the Fermi paradox—that the universe ought to be filled with all sorts of lifeforms, species that came onto the galactic stage before us. Yet we see no signs of them, not even in the rocks beneath our feet. Earth was prime real estate for 2 billion years, with an oxygen atmosphere and nothing living on land higher than slime molds. Visitors who flushed a toilet or tossed a Coke bottle would have changed everything in ways we’d notice. The great silence—or absence—is mystifying.
The new science fiction novel by writer and futurist David Brin paints a complex picture of the world just 40 years from now. It's at once familiar and shockingly unraveled. Into this broken-down version of the planet, a new element is introduced from beyond our world. And it's left up to the reader to discover if that element saves, destroys, or transforms the earth.
Technology might change the future of our everyday lives…a lot!Oh, all right. Let me ask you (and the reader) this: have you ever flown through the sky? Or walked into a dark room and made light happen, with the flick of your fingertip? These were exactly the powers of gods! So why don’t you feel like one?
Because we gave these powers to freaking-everybody, that’s why. The moon landings seemed less marvelous because we all shared it. The fantastic images that our space probes have taken of solar system glories would seem magical and almost religiously marvelous if you and I had to sneak into the palace to view them, or must crack open a wizard’s secret grimoire.
Take the palantir from Lord of the Rings, a crystal window on Gandalf’s desk with which he can explore ideas, gather information, communicate instantly across great distances…there are only three differences between that and your laptop. (1) the wizards and $%$$! Elfs kept that wonderful thing for themselves, (2) the result was calamity and horrible war and near-loss of everything, and (3) it sure makes a romantic story, captivating millions.
The shorter answer? Hell yes. Get ready to be even more godlike! If we’re lucky, it will be shared with everybody and so you won’t notice! But we’ll be wise.
I am concerned about one thing, above all, understanding how and why humanity escaped (at last) from its old, vicious cycle of feudalism and began a tremendous enlightenment. One that included vital things like science, democracy, human rights and science fiction. I've come to see that openness -- including openness to free-flowing criticism -- has been the key. Secrecy is the thing that makes every evil far worse. And it is especially pernicious when practiced by the mighty
Writing is a worthy calling that at times ennobles the human race. Still, in fairness, writing was not my own first choice as a profession. I wanted to be a scientist, foremost. And I became one, through hard work. I also had this hobby though – writing – which provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I’d write a few stories a year… a novel every few years… while mainly working to become the best scientist and teacher I could be.Don’t mistake this for modesty! It’s just that I perceive science – the disciplined and honest pursuit of truth – to be a higher calling than writing stories, no matter how vivid, innovative, or even deeply moving those stories may be. I know this may be an unconventional view, because society puts out a lot of propaganda that entertainers are close to being gods. But don’t you believe it. Other people have changed this world far more, through their skill and dedication to truth.
I'm part of a long tradition of pro-environmental science fiction novelists. Early in the Twentieth Century, Olaf Stapledon predicted that civilization might collapse from resource depletion, something hardly mentioned anywhere else at his time.
Advising us that "criticism is the only known antidote to error" and that the best technique for integrating AI into our civilization is to raise them as our children, David Brin sat down with OMNI to discuss the worlds of science, science fiction, and fantasy. In this exclusive interview, OMNI was fortunate enough to pick the brain of everyone's favorite scientist. And yes, we did just give him that well-deserved title.
A theme that has long entranced me is adolescence, and how we individually—or as a species—wrestle with the dilemmas of growing up. Of deciding to be responsible, even if barely in the nick of time. (Which is how nearly all teenagers finally do it.) We are picking up the Tools of Creation now, in real time. And the possibilities for blowing it—for burning our fingers or maybe burning down the lab—are all around us. The universe may not care if we make it. Or else, perhaps it is holding its breath, waiting for us to decide whether we truly want to be apprentice gods.
All human civilizations invested heavily in prediction. In the past, shamans read goat entrails or the stars. Our current society employs millions to engage in this kind of work, from stock market analysts to politicians and business leaders whose job -- after all -- is to appraise approaching needs and opportunities, allocating resources accordingly. Trained as a scientist, I tend to view those professions as ill-disciplined! But even science can be murky as it looks ahead.
It is in my role as a science fiction author that I get to stretch a bit, peering beyond the typical five-year horizon. It is the sort of long-gaze shown by the medieval cathedral builders. In science fiction we seldom try to "predict" the future, so much as illustrate trends, extrapolate possibilities… and occasionally to issue stark warnings. George Orwell's classic novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was a "self-preventing prophecy" that stirred millions of terrified readers into action, working to prevent the author's vision from coming true.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Discipline. Not only in avoiding distractions and focusing on my work. But also controlling my tendency to pour too many excited ideas into a novel or story. When I give in to that temptation, it can become a jumble. And my pre-readers (fifty of them) tell me! Editing down to a level where the ideas are still rich, but fade into the background of an exciting adventure? That’s the hardest thing, and it requires real work.
Greg Bear, Gregory Benford and David Brin signed with Harper Collins and the Isaac Asimov Estate to write the second Foundation Trilogy: three new novels in Asimov's Foundation universe. Here the three authors discuss writing with moderator Joseph Miller at the Eaton Conference. How did they wrap up the loose ends in Asimov's universe...and carry the epic series to a logical and satisfying conclusion?
More of the "serious" authors are writing SF set in Einstein's universe, for example, without cheats like warp drive and such. Oh, I'll pretty soon write another Uplift Universe novel, with twenty ways to get around old Albert. Great fun! But our most carefully crafted thought experiments — the stuff we write for grownups — these tales try to test reality the way we see it, playing with the hand that nature dealt us.
Lately, a lot of SF has peered at the so-called "Singularity"... the issue of whether exponential increases in computing power might transform us into gods... or unleash AI to leave us in the dust. That's certainly a topic in Existence.
I consider Yoda to be just about the most evil character that I’ve ever seen in the history of literature. I have gotten people into tongue-tied snits unable to name for me one scene in which Yoda is ever helpful to anybody, or says anything that’s genuinely wise. “Do or do not, there is no try.” Up yours, you horrible little oven mitt! “Try” is how human beings get better. That’s how people learn, they try some of their muscles, or their Force mechanism heads in the right direction, that part gets reinforced and rewarded with positive feedback, which you never give. And parts of it get repressed by saying, “No, that you will not do!” It is abhorrent, junior high school Zen. It’s cartoon crap.
Your book is set in 2050. Tell me something hopeful about that time: Citizen power. One of the major themes I spoke about in The Postman and in Earth… and in my nonfiction tome, The Transparent Society. Often missed from discussion of events like 9/11 was how crucial is was that average people behaved so well, that day. Not panicking even slightly and performing countless ad hoc tasks admirably. Here that theme reaches its culmination. Read the excerpt, “The Smartest Mob” – that stands just fine by itself, illustrating where I think individual and self-organizing acting will go, what it might achieve by 2050, as a lone reporter calls for help across the hyper-smart WorldMesh.
Writing was the first truly verifiable, repeatable and effective form of magic. Picture how it must have impressed ancient people to look at marks – on papyrus or clay – and know they conveyed the words of scribes and kings long dead. Knowledge, wisdom and art could finally accumulate, and death was robbed some of its sting. Writing still is magical. To create strings of black squiggles that millions of others can skillfully de-code with just their eyes – into emotions and thoughts, or the struggles of believable characters.
“Truly pervasive sousveillance” could range all the way to radical levels portrayed in Damon Knight’s story “I see you,” in which the future is portrayed without any secrecy or even privacy at all. Knight shows a humanity that is universally omniscient — any human, even children, can use a machine to view through any walls. And Knight depicts us adapting, Getting used to simply assuming that we are watched, all this time.
Now let me be clear, I do not care for this envisioned tomorrow! In The Transparent Society I devote a whole chapter to how essential some degree of privacy is for most people. I argue that in a society full of liberated people empowered with highly functional sousveillance technology, sovereign citizens, able to apply sousveillance toward any center of power than might oppress them, will likely use some of that sovereign power to negotiate with their neighbors, and come up with some way to leave each other alone.
Back in 1999, I forecast that people would shrug off future shock when the big millennium rolled around. At first it seemed that way, as people blithely went about their routines. Now I suspect there really was a 21st-century trauma. Romantic nostalgia is rampant. You find very little interest in the modernist agenda of confident problem solving. Robert Heinlein predicted this, but I didn’t. I also expected a few technologies that never came. For example, lie detection based on involuntary eye movements, a method that ought to work even during a televised interview or press conference. A potential nightmare for deceitful politicians! But I was misled by hope. Other disappointed forecasts include rapid understanding of the immune system and big advances in computerized teaching.
The Serious Author who comments on deep human trends would like to think that he' s grounded by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Popper and Locke. Brunner, Sheffield and Wells. Gilman and Delaney.On the other hand, I can' t write more than a page of heady philosophy or social speculation without starting feeling an itch... the itch to blow something up. To make something exciting happen. Or something fun. That's when I know I' ve been influenced by the storytellers who made SF exciting. Like Poul Anderson or Robert Sheckley. Heinlein or Zelazny. But I guess the ones I revere most are those who briefly left me speechless. Unable to write or even move, because something in a perfect story left me stunned, changed. I guess in that category I' d put Tiptree and Varley. Vonnegut at his best. Shakespeare. And Philip K. Dick.
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