Andron Ocean

Fiction and speculation about science, technology, and the future of humanity

Author: Andron Ocean (page 2 of 3)

Mail from Mars

Atop a pillar of smoke and flame, the rocket rose into the blue October sky. The vibration of its engines shook the ground three miles away, where Arthur McLaren stood watching his wife leaving the Earth.

“It’s only five years,” she had said as they embraced one final time beneath the launch platform. A crowd of others saying their own goodbyes surrounded them, and the scent of kerosene and metal was heavy on the air.

“I know,” he said, and smiled to disguise his pain. “Five years of hopping over Martian sand dunes looking for fossil bacteria, while I sit at home running conference calls and weeding the garden.”

“Don’t pull all the weeds. They’ll be a rare sight when I get back,” she joked.

You better come back, he thought. “I will miss you,” he said, and kissed her fiercely, pulling her orange jumpsuit–clad body tight against his for a long moment. Then it was time. She had waved to him as the elevator took her and her nine fellow voyagers up to the shuttle, and he boarded the bus to return to the observation center to watch the launch.

And now the shuttle was gone, and the trail of smoke drifted away in the wind. A bell sounded, and a voice (was it human? Or computerized? It was hard to tell nowadays.) announced that the shuttle had achieved orbit. The time was 10:43 am, October 5, 2041. Arthur left the observation center, took a cab to the airport, and caught a flight back home to Virginia.

He ate a lonely dinner that evening, knowing it would be the norm for eighteen hundred nights to come. He was making tea afterwards when a call came in. Samantha McLaren, read the message on his watch. He went to the viewscreen overlooking the kitchen counter and turned it on. His wife’s image appeared. Continue reading

When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Bierce was being funny when he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, but his definition of history seems pretty well on target. Or so we might think, given the usual portrayal of history as the speeches, battles, and poor-to-middling decisions of kings, beggars, and senators making the same mistakes over and over again.

That “over and over again” is a problem. If history were just about the decisions of individual human beings, we’d expect their actions to look like chaos on all scales. That doesn’t happen. We see plenty of chaotic behavior in normal life, but the further we zoom out, and the larger the time scale we examine, the more regular and repetitive history appears. To explain this regularity, people have proposed plenty of theories of history, ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. One problem with most of them is that they tend to be qualitative, or concept-based, rather than quantitative, or based on consistent relationships between numerical data. When you’re trying to systematically predict or describe events, a quantitative theory goes a lot further than a qualitative one.

So I was pleasantly surprised several days ago, when I stumbled across this post on the Long Now Foundation‘s blog: Conway’s Game of Life and Three Millennia of Human History. The post briefly describes a remarkable computer simulation of 3,000 years of Eurasian history, recently conducted by ecologist Peter Turchin and his colleagues.

Simulation? History? That means a quantitative model. I was curious.  I dove into Turchin’s report, which you can read here, along with its supporting documents.

Turchin and company created their simulation very simply: they took a map of Africa and Eurasia and chopped it up into “cells” of 100 kilometers square. Each cell was classified as sea or land; land cells were assigned elevation and further classified as desert, steppe, or agricultural land. Every agricultural cell was supplied with a “community” that could possess two types of social traits: military technology and ultrasociality. (Ultrasociality, as the study defines it, is humans’ “ability to live and cooperate in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals.”) Agricultural cells were randomly populated with ultrasociality traits, while military technology traits were granted initially to cells bordering the steppe, and spread outward from there (a way to simulate the effect of the steppe highway on the transmission and development of military techniques, most notably mounted warfare). The cells were programmed to attack their neighbors. Victorious cells built multi-cell empires, imposing their ultrasociality traits on the vanquished. Victory was more probable over cells with low elevations and fewer ultrasociality and military technology traits than their attackers. Continue reading

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible? Continue reading

If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.

However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.

In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.

With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.

The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.

Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society. Continue reading

Readers rejoice! I have a new (better) posting schedule.

When I began this blog, I decided (with great enthusiasm) that I would post two to three times each week. Recently, however, I’ve gone through a work transition, and I am now much busier. That’s a good thing for me, but it has messed with my ability to post here regularly over the last several weeks. I’ve been worse-than-irregular with public and private communications.

Now, my life and work have stabilized enough for me to schedule weekly writing periods for this blog. Henceforth, I will publish a new story or nonfiction piece once each week. You can look for my updates here, in your inbox, or in your feed reader during the latter half of each week—most likely on Thursdays. In addition, I may occasionally publish shorter posts early in the week when my schedule permits.

As always, I will announce new content on Facebook and Twitter as it appears. I’ll be continuously in touch with those outlets, as well as with blog comments and email. I have learned a great deal about blogging in the last couple months, and I am very excited to continue building and evolving my work here. Thank you to everyone who is following along with me on this journey! I am happy to have your company.

Until next time,

Andron

The Gods’ House

The gods’ house was unguarded. Toima knew this was unthinkable; it was the blood-duty of a single warrior to guard it from sun’s rise to twilight. Yet before her the house stood, a strange and unnatural structure rising out of the forest like a gigantic metallic mushroom, its tarnished, ovoid body perched atop a perfect cube of white stone. No one present. Beside the featureless metal door in one side of the cube-base, the place where the warrior always sat was shockingly empty.

I shouldn’t be here. The truth of the statement echoed in Toima’s every bone, and she clutched the clay water-pot closer to her thin chest. She had been going to the springs, like she did every day to fetch water for her mother. One could glimpse the top of the gods’ house from the path, but not since she was very small had she sneaked away, through thickets and cane-brakes, to peek at the house. It was improper. Everyone knew the gods did not want humans interfering in their affairs. Therefore, the house was guarded. Why had she risked discovery to spy on the place now?

But there hadn’t been a guard today. And Toima did not like the fluttering of temptation in her stomach.

“Why is no one allowed into the gods’ house?” she had asked her mother when she was younger and more ignorant.

“It is forbidden,” came the reply. “Long ago, the gods deemed it improper for the unclean to come into their homes. And so we have obeyed them ever since.”

“But the gods vanished many generations ago,” Toima had said.

“It changes nothing. An immortal god’s rule may not be changed by humans. We do not speculate why they chose to leave us, but their laws will stand forever. Why all these questions?”

Toima had given no answer. She could not explain to herself her fascination with the gods. But her ears had been open to tales of them and their house in the forest. One of those stories she now recalled: an anecdote used by elders to impress upon children the sanctity of the gods’ house. Many years past, the tale went, two boys chanced to find the gods’ house unguarded, and commenced—as boys would—throwing stones at it. The rocks ricocheted off the walls with a noise like the striking of a gong. At last one boy hurled an ill-aimed rock, and it crashed through one of the oval windows ringing the top of the house. The building began to howl, whooping and shrieking so loudly that the din was heard in the village. In terror the boys fled. They confessed their sins in the village circle, and were beaten to death there for the offense. On festival nights, when all sat around a bonfire on the hard-beaten dirt of the dancing-ground, an ancient woman had recited the story to Toima and her friends. “The house’s scream! It sounded like a giant beast. A noise like death! It yanked your heart into your throat and made your skin feel like it was crawling off your body and running far away. Do not go near the gods’ house!” the crone had warned. Continue reading

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

This is the final post in a series of three exploring the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post, discussing regional transportation, is here; the second post examined ideas for local transit.

In this series of posts, I have described possibilities for how people will travel over short-to-medium distances perhaps twenty or thirty years from now. Locally (meaning within a metropolitan area), my bets are on personal rapid transit in the form of podcars (perhaps suspended from guideways like SkyTran) and self-driving taxis. To travel greater distances, between cities in heavily-populated regions, I’ve predicted that we will use something betweeen tube capsules, like in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea, and high-speed rail.

But what about traveling long distances, such as between New York and Los Angeles, or London and Hong Kong? Global transportation is the final tier of future transit technologies. More importantly, when we behold the full picture of local, regional, and global transportation, broad trends emerge that whisper of how we will live and travel in the middle of the 21st century.

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 2035, and you’re preparing to travel to Shanghai, Dubai, Buenos Aires, or some other city on the opposite side of the globe, across continents and oceans. Today, you would almost certainly be boarding an airplane for a not-very-comfortable sixteen-hour sojourn in a cramped seat. For most destinations in the world, I doubt this will change by 2035, and perhaps never will, unless teleportation becomes a reality. (Sorry.) But, to connect certain important regions, pairs of the so-called “global cities“, new methods may appear. Continue reading

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 2

This is the second post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post is here; the third will be published in a few days.

Decades ago, clever people conceived that north-central New Mexico, where I live, could use commuter rail service along the Rio Grande. In 2003, governor Bill Richardson espoused the idea, and over the next five years, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express was planned, built, and opened—with great fanfare. Today, Rail Runner trains whiz every couple hours along a line running from Belen, north through Albuquerque, and up to my home city of Santa Fe. I have never been on one.

Why not? After all, I like trains! I also visit Albuquerque regularly for errands and pleasure. The problem is the location of the stations. In Albuquerque, the rail line runs through older residential and agricultural areas, with the main station downtown: not an optimal situation for this city. Albuquerque is big, sprawling north, south, east and west for miles. Important areas in the city are far apart. The Rail Runner has established bus links to several of these points, and desperate travelers could always call a cab. But taxicabs and buses are slow and expensive, and for someone, like me, who may want to spend the day in Albuquerque, do some errands, and return home in the evening, these options are slow and unforgiving.

This illustrates a decisive factor of regional-scale transport: as nice as the service between cities may be, if it leaves you with few options at either end, the service becomes essentially useless to many people. This is a problem today, and it will be a problem for futuristic systems, like the Hyperloop, that would connect not just towns and cities, but whole metropolitan areas. In my previous post discussing Hyperloop-style transit systems, I speculated how new technologies might change regional transportation, as speed becomes increasingly important to travelers. What happens, twenty years from now, when you disembark from a Hyperloop-inspired capsule, and need to reach your destination several miles away, cheaply and quickly? This is the domain of local transit, and it demands speed and efficiency at least as much as the regional variety. There are a few developing technologies that might foot the future’s bill, and mix things up along the way. Continue reading

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 1

This is the first post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The next two will be published over the coming week.

You’ve probably heard about the Hyperloop. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, made public his concepts for the futuristic transit system eleven days ago, and it has attracted at least as much attention as real megaprojects towards which investors have paid cold, hard cash. First, there was gushing praise and excitement at such a techno-romantic idea, then the critics showed up en masse, armed with those lethal anti-imagination weapons: accounting books and technical data. Who is right? They both are. The Hyperloop proposal itself has flaws, but as an idea, it can tell us a lot about how we might be traveling during the next century.

I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the Hyperloop (I recommend you read Musk’s actual proposal for that), or an involved treatment of its faults (the best I have seen is Alon Levy’s careful analysis over at Pedestrian Observations). Instead, in this and two subsequent posts, I will take you on a tour of possibilities for the future of transportation, and how they might integrate with and transform our society. The Hyperloop’s design offers a nice place to start.

Elon Musk’s inspirations for the Hyperloop appear to have been (merited) frustration with California’s halting, expensive high-speed-rail project, and wanting to seek out a “new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats” that would be safer, faster, cheaper, more durable, more convenient, and more sustainable than current options. Continue reading

With the last light of day,

the coppery sun peeks out

’neath a billow of gilded foam.

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