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Posts tagged as “Building Science Fiction Worlds”

The Nebulas, Embodied AI, and Unsolved Social Navigation

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Hey folks, another "sticky post" for my next three events: The Nebula Conference, the Embodied AI Workshop, and the Workshop on Unsolved Problems in Social Robot Navigation!

Coming up is the Nebula Conference, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's conference, where again I'll be talking about artificial intelligence and signing books!

  • Thursday, June 6th: 2:30pm: Anthony Francis Meet-and-Greet Table E Pasadena
  • Saturday, June 8th: 10:30am: Why AI Needs Humans Pasadena

There will also be office hours but I think you have to sign up in advance for those, and we have a scheduling snafu regarding those anyway.

After that is the Embodied AI Workshop on June 18th, hosted at CVPR, the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition Conference, where I am the lead organizer, though you'll probably only hear me yapping for any extended length of time if you show up in the first ten minutes - I give the intro talk at 8:50am.

Finally is the Workshop on Unsolved Problems in Social Robot Navigation, held at the Robotics, Science and Systems Conference. Our paper deadline is coming up June 7th, and the workshop itself will be held July 19th at RSS in the Netherlands. I'm an organizer for this one, but I'll only be able to attend virtually due to my manager (me) telling me I'm already going to enough conferences this year, which I am.

After that .... Dragon Con!

-the Centaur

Pictured: More from the archives, until I fix the website backend.

Guest Post on The Neurodiversiverse at Cat Rambo’s Blog

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Hey folks! I have a guest post on The Neurodiversiverse up at Cat Rambo's blog! Check it out:

In it, I talk about the aliens in science fiction, the origin of The Neurodiversiverse, about neurodiversity and representation, and about some of the cool stories that we are featuring in the anthology!

Cat is not just an author in The Neurodiversiverse, she's also the author of the space opera You Sexy Thing and lots of other cool stories and novels. Thanks to Cat for the opportunity!

The Kickstarter runs for just 3 more days, so please read, like, back and share!

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day ninety-eight]: no, the anthill doesn’t come back stronger and better designed

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Above is what looks like a massive anthill at the border of the "lawn" and "forest" parts of our property. It's been getting bigger and bigger over the years, and that slow growth always reminds me of Mr. Morden's comments in Babylon 5 about the Shadows' plan to make lesser races fight:

JUSTIN: "It's really simple. You bring two sides together. They fight. A lot of them die, but those who survive are stronger, smarter and better."
MORDEN: "It's like knocking over an ant-hill. Every new generation gets stronger, the ant-hill gets redesigned, made better."

Babylon 5: Z'ha'dum

But the Shadows were wrong, and what we're seeing there isn't a redesigned anthill: it is a catastrophe, a multigenerational ant catastrophe caused by climate, itself brought to light by a larger, slow-motion human catastrophe caused by climate change.

Humans have farmed, built and burnt for a long time, but only now, in the dawn of the Anthropocene - that period of time where human impacts on climate start to exceed natural variation of climate itself, beginning roughly in the 1900s - have those effects really come back to bite us on a global, rather than local, scale.

For my wife and I, this took the form of fire. Fire was not new in California: friends who lived on homes on ridges complained about their high insurance costs as far back as I can remember. But more and more fires started burning across our area, forcing other friends to move away. Then three burned within five miles of our home, with no end to the drought in sight, and we decided we'd had enough.

We moved to my ancestral home, a place where water falls from the sky, aptly named Greenville. And we moved into a house whose builders knew about rain, and placed it on a hill with carefully designed drainage. They created great rolling lawns, manicured in the traditional Greenville "let's fucking force it with chemicals and lawnmowers to look like it was Astroturf" which we are slowly letting go back to nature.

In this grass, and in the absence of pesticides, the ants flourished. But this isn't precisely a natural environment: they're flourishing in an expanse of grass that is wider and more rounded than the rough, ridged forest around it. In the forest, runoff from the rains is channeled into proto-streams leading to the nearby creek; at the edge of the lawn, water from the house and lawn spills out in a flood.

Each heavy rain, the anthills building up in the sloped grass are washed to the mulch beds that mark the boundary of the forest, and there the ants start to re-build. But lighter rains can destroy these more exposed anthills, forcing them to slowly migrate back up into the grass. That had already happened here: that was no longer a live anthill, and unbeknownst to me, I was standing in its replacement.

No worries, for them or me; I noticed the anthill was dead, looked down, and moved off their territory just as the ants were swarming out of their antholes, fit to kill (or at least to annoyingly nibble). But the great red field there, as wide as a man is tall and twice as long, was not a functioning anthill: it was the accumulated wreckage of generation after generation of ant catastrophes.

In the quote, Mr. Morden was wrong: knocking over an anthill doesn't make it come back better designed. Justin got it a little better: the strongest and smartest do often survive a battle - but they walk away with scars, and sometimes the winners may just be the lucky ones. Conflict may not make people better - it can just leave scarred soldiers, wounded refugees and a destroyed landscape.

Now, the Shadows were the villains of the story, but every good villain needs a good soundbite that makes them sound at least a little bit good, and it's worth demolishing this one. "The anthill comes back better stronger and better designed" is designed to riff on the survival of the fittest - the notion that creating survival pressure will lead to stronger, smarter, and better individuals.

But evolution doesn't work that way. Those stronger, smarter, and better individuals have to have existed in the population in the first place. Evolution only leads to improvements over time at all if the variation of the population continues to yield increasingly better individuals generation after generation - and that is not at all guaranteed. The actual historical pattern is far closer to the opposite.

Now, people who should know better often claim that evolution has no direction. I think that's because there's a cartoon version of evolution where things tend to get more complex over time, and they want to replace it with another cartoon version of evolution which is blind and random - perhaps spillover from Dawkins' attempts to argue with creationists using his Blind Watchmaker idea.

But that's not how evolution works at all. Evolution does have a direction - just like gravity does. Only at the narrow level of the fundamental laws operating on idealized, homogeneous substrates can we say gravity is symmetric, or evolution is directionless. Once the scope of our investigation expands and the structure of the world gets complex - once symmetry is broken - then gravity clumps matter into planets and gives us "up", and evolution molds organisms into ecosystems and gives us "progress towards complexity".

But the direction of evolution is a lot more like the gradient of air around a planet than it is any kind of "great chain of being". Once an ecosystem exists, increased complexity provides an advantage for a small set of organisms, and as they spread into the ecosystem, a niche is created for even more complex organisms to exceed them. But, just like most of the atmosphere is closest to the surface of a planet, most of the organisms will remain the simplest ones.

Adding additional selection pressure won't give you more complex organisms: it will give you fewer of them. The more stress on the ecosystem, the harder it is for anything to survive, the size of the various niches will shrink, and even if the ecosystem still provides enough resources to support complex organisms, the size of the population that can evolve will drop, making it less likely for even more complex ones to arise - and that's assuming it doesn't get so rough that the complex organisms go extinct.

Eventually, atoms bouncing around in the atmosphere may fly off into space - just like, eventually, evolution produced a Neil Armstrong who flew to the moon. But pouring energy into the atmosphere may slough the upper layers off into space, leaving a thin remnant closest to the planet - and, so, stressing an ecosystem will not produce more astronauts; it may kill them off and leave everyone down in the muck.

Which gives us a hint to what the Shadows' real plan was. They're portrayed as an ancient learned race, so presumably they knew everything I just shared - but they're also portrayed as the villains, after all, and so they ultimately had a self-serving goal in mind. And if knocking over an anthill doesn't make it come back better designed, then their real goal was to keep kicking over anthills so they themselves would stay on top.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Me, near sunset, taking picture of what I thought was a live anthill - until I looked more closely.

[twenty twenty-four day seven]: tylos and dilmun from failaka

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So! I'm working on a series of stories set on a tidally locked moon called Failaka, orbiting a "hot Jupiter" called Tylos around an even hotter star called Dilmun. I don't know if anything like Failaka exists, but Tylos is a real planet originally designated WASP-121b, orbiting a star called, um, WASP-121, about 850 light years from Earth.

Dilmun is a yellow-white star hotter and brighter than our Sun (itself white, not yellow), and Tylos orbits so close its parent star that its orbit takes one and a quarter Earth days, cooking the planet to a sizzling 2500 degrees Kelvin (about four thousand degrees Fahrenheit). Failaka is a cometary remnant, and if it exists, it could only survive in the shadow of Tylos, which itself appears as a bright orange, hot as a hot coal.

SO, to make the story more grounded, I worked out where Failaka would have to be (Tylos's L2 point, currently calcuated as about the distance from the Earth to the Moon), how relatively bright Tylos and Dilmun were, and how large Tylos and Dilmun would be in the sky, as well as their colors.

The above renders this in Mathematica. Tylos is the orange circle partially occluding the white disk of Dilmun behind it, and Failaka is the blue plain of ice below - ice which, if it really was this exposed to Tylos and Dilmun, would be rapidly sublimating away, as the plot demands that the planet "roll" due to an orbital shift, leading to plains of former darkside ice shifting into the light and rapidly disintegrating.

Oh, and the tiny dots to the right of Dilmun? The white dot is the Sun, in natural color. The next dot is the Moon, rendered in grey, as the moon's albedo is actually kinda like charcoal.

And now, a helpful safety tip: do not stand on Failaka where you can see this view of Tylos and Dilmun. The radiation would be thousands of times as bright as the Sun seen from Earth, and you would rapidly have a very abbreviated day.

If you see this unprotected, you will die.

The good news? Cremation is free.

-the Centaur