Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: Declaration by James Patrick Kelly

Spoiler alert: I give away events unfolding in Kelly's story. It appeared in the March 2014 edition of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

"Declaration" is a thought provoking extrapolation of existing trends. In the style of Spinrad, I will use this review as an excuse to jump up on a soapbox and deliver my own opinions.

In this tale more and more people are dwelling in softtime. Softime is what today's internet might evolve into, a shared online virtual reality. Depending on sophistication of interface, the virtual reality can be fully immerseive.

A significant part of the population are severely disabled and can't interact with the world using their meat bodies. These disabled people are known as stash. They are more or less stashed in coffin like life support cubicles.

The government mandates that everyone spend an allotted time in hardtime, a.k.a. reality. Stash revolutionaries want to spend all of their existence in softtime. The story title Declaration refers to the revolutionaries' Declaration of Independence. They want to sever their connections with the real world.

But would the revolutionaries become independent of hardtime? In Kelly's story, that's not clear. Are the stashed people dependent parasites or do they provide services and do meaningful work? Robots are ubiquitous in the story but I get the impression machines haven't fully replaced humans. There still seems to be need for meat to interact with the world to maintain infrastructure and take care of business. For example the main character turns her stash brother to prevent bed sores, even though the brother has a carebot.

Primitive versions of these interfaces already exist. For example motion capture sensors control virtual puppets in movies like Shrek or Avatar, as well as virtual avatars in computer games.  Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has implanted a Brain Machine Interface into the cortex of monkeys that they've used to control virtual avatars.

From inner space back to outer space

Virtual avatars aren't the only puppets controllable by motion capture or brain machine interface. Nicolelis' monkeys have also used their cerebral implants to control remote robotic arms. A paralyzed person using a Nicolelis exosuit did the opening kick in the 2014 World Soccer Cup. Surgeons use motion capture sensors to operate surgical telerobots.

Kelly's story has robots as well as a sophisticated brain machine interface. Given telerobots, exosuits, and robotic prosthetics, the boundary between hardtime and softtime blurs. There are hard as well as soft avatars.

Telerobots are becoming major game changers. They are doing work in places too hard to reach or dangerous for humans. British Petroleum uses them to build oil drilling infrastructure on the seafloor. Planetary Resources hopes to use them to mine the asteroids. Paul Spudis and Bill Stone hope to use robots to prospect and establish mining infrastructure on the moon.

Kelly is correct a severely disabled person would want to use a Brain Machine Interface every waking hour whereas a healthy person only a fraction of the time. I believe the severely disabled will be the most practiced users of telerobots. They could be the most intrepid explorers, the most able builders, the heroes of a coming age.

Fashions in Science Fiction

A Brain Machine Interface story from yesteryear was Anne McCaffrey's hopeful and uplifting The Ship That Sang. More recently we have Kelly's bleak dystopia Declaration.

Kelly's story has a lot of currently fashionable themes: overpopulation, terrorism, limited resources, alienation, inevitable decay. More often than not modern SF is gloom and doom exploring catastrophic failure modes of technology. Such storites are worthwhile, we should certainly try to anticipate and avoid possible calamities.

But we also need stories exploring technology's potential for good. I yearn for a return to tales about new frontiers and the triumph of human spirit over adversity.

We need hopeful as well as cautionary tales. Without hope there is no reason to get up in the morning.

7 comments:

Nyrath said...

Another related science fiction short story is "Cocoon" by Keith Laumer. (1962)
http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?57896

People live in amniotic tanks, interacting via a television system attached to their face.

Rick said...

currently fashionable themes ... doom and gloom.

This tension has been in SF forever, or at least as long as SF has been around. In the midcentury era there was a stark divide - at least in perception - between most written SF and Hollywood scifi; now both run the gamut.

Interestingly, though, only a few years ago I read the observation that Heinlein's classic YA novels often had quite dystopian settings, disguised by the simple fact that the protagonists - not stereotype angsty teens! - took their world for granted. (They always wanted to get away into space, but basically just because space was Cool.)

What is unfortunate today, or so I gather, is that SF fandom has become so overtly politicized that Hugo nominations are now put up as campaign slates. Or maybe it was ever so, and the only difference is that in the Internet era I don't need to be active in fandom to hear about it.

Felix R. Savage said...

Thank you for this post. I found your blog through Rocketpunk manifesto and have bookmarked it as a motherlode of plausible sfnal speculation. "Less doom and gloom, more optimism!" is pretty much my manifesto. The genre has got into a mental rut of underestimating humanity's capacity to thrive *and stay cheerful* under empirically dire circumstances -- perhaps because it's been a couple of generations since Western societies have actually experienced dire circumstances? We've begun to see nimbuses of colorful failure modes around everything new under the sun. But if history is any guide, the future will not be utopian OR dystopian. It'll "just" be interesting and exciting in new ways. The job of science fiction IMO is to imagine how things might REALLY shake out.

In response to Rick, I agree politicization is part of the problem. Political agendas poison speculation at the root.

Hollister David said...

Felix, thinking about it, I believe you're right. A mix of triumph and tragedy, a mix of utopia & dystopia. That seems like a good recipe for a story with depth and interest.

The November 2015 Asimov's has an interesting essay by James Patrick Kelly. He writes about bionics. Like most of his essays, Kelly provides a wealth of weblinks for further reading. A lot of good stuff on prosthetics, brain machine interface and exo-suits!

Given robotic prosthetics and brain machine interface, telerobots and telepresence seem inevitable.That would really stretch what we consider the boundaries of ourselves. Users will come to regard their remote bodies as part of themselves.

Prior to the 1980's, outer space as a frontier dominated science fiction. Then William Gibson & colleagues gave birth to cyberpunk. Now much of SF is exploration of digital realities.

Initially cyberpunk was a fork in the road leading away from expanding our boundaries in physical space. But now with the rise of telerobots and telepresence, our shared digital reality can include real as well as imaginary places.

There are already branches of social media whose members dwell in imaginary worlds modeled after orbital mechanics and planetary science. The Orbiter and Kerbal Space Program communities, for example. I envision a future where digital communities don't dwell just in shared consensual hallucinations. Through our digitial existence we'll also be working and playing in actual extra-terrestrial settings.

Felix R. Savage said...

Thank you for replying to my comment, David! I agree, it does look as if the future of space exploration may be "manned" only remotely, via telepresence. However, if you extrapolate that scenario, you bump into the elephant in the room: AI. "Consensual hallucinations" (love that phrase) are safe, delinked from real-world knock-on effects (except in terms of their effect on the mentality of the players / workers, which is another interesting kettle of fish). Give telerobots any degree of autonomy combined with advanced functionality -- both necessary for e.g. mining a remote asteroid or operating a Lunar water mine -- and you're already knee deep in the weeds, to switch metaphors.

How much autonomy will we hand over to machines just 'cos we're lazy?

Real-world me thinks "meh, true AI is impossible." Science fiction writer me is convinced that it will happen, and it will be the worst thing that's ever happened to us. But! No doom and gloom here :) In my setting, humanity bounces back from a brush with AIpocalyse by enacting laws to require full-time human monitoring of anything with machine-learning algorithms in it. This of course creates millions upon millions of new jobs. Win-win!

Hollister David said...

Felix,

Telerobots are already building extensive infrastructure in places humans can't reach: Oil wells on the sea floor by British Petroleum. Rio Tinto is using telerobots in mines.

In both cases humans maintain the robots. Also there is no light lag latency, the robot responds immediately. So extrapolating present use, the robots would be much less effective without nearby humans. So what I imagine are sites with human habs and workshops at the lunar poles, near an asteroid or whatever. They stay in the habs and workshops while the robots work in vacuum radiation, temperature extremes.

Having robots and infrastructure onsite could make human presence much less expensive. Presently all our vehicles are disposable, the major factor that makes space travel so expensive. Extra terrestrial propellent would slash delta V budgets and thus also slash the mass fraction that must be devoted to propellent. Vehicles could be single stage and sturdier. Building economical, sturdy reusable vehicles becomes doable.

Extraterrestrial infrastructure and use of in situ resources also eliminates the necessity for lugging massive habs from the bottom of earth's gravity well.

So I see robots and humans as a team that empower one another.

I can see primitive A.I. such as collision avoidance (Google Cars) or balance (Big Dog). These might mitigate light lag latency. Useful for the first pioneer bots that must establish initial infrastructure sans humans. But human problem solving? That's a different kettle of fish. I think we're going to need humans in the loop for some time to come.

I talk about this some at http://hopsblog-hop.blogspot.com/2013/12/who-needs-humans.html

I'd like to read your fiction. Maybe we could trade books? I could send you some of my coloring books (including an orbital mechanics coloring book) in return for your story.

Felix R. Savage said...

I was actually thinking about your coloring books today, David, as I watched my daughter color in yet another picture of Anna and Elsa! I would love to have one of them (orbital mechanics!) but I live in Japan, so people are rarely cool with sending me things. However I would happily send you a digital copy of my first trilogy for nothing, or rather to thank you for keeping this great blog! Just let me know which email address you would like to receive it at, and epub / mobi / pdf. I'm at felixrsavage AT gmail DOT com BTW.

I was indeed thinking of the latency period in speculating that autonomous robots would be a risk. As long as there's a human in the loop in real time, I don't see it being qualitatively different from driving a car. The trouble starts when the robot must respond to unpredictable situations on its own. In your other post you reference Murphy's Law. My version of the First Law of Robotics is, "The more advanced a robot, the sooner something will go wrong with it." And when something does go wrong with it, someone (human!) is going to be legally liable. Horrendous lawsuits would just be the beginning of our troubles! So yes, I fully agree that robots and humans should work as close partners. That's real life me. Science fiction writer me thinks that sheer laziness, technocratic overconfidence, and the desire to cut costs will result in robots being given too much autonomy, with possibly quite horrible consequences.