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Programming, speculative fiction, science, technology
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The Future of Computers in Fiction and Reality: ArmadilloCon 2003 panel

Participants: Kurt Baty, Tom Becker (Moderator), Alexis Glynn Latner, Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge

Topic, according to the convention program: We just thought it would be cool to have this group discuss future possibilities.

What was said on the panel: Vernor Vinge found irony in the panel's "weaselly" title; are there technical errors in Vernor Vinge's works? When fans find excuses for the writer's technical errors; what are some of the most interesting recent computer-themed SF books? theological value of ubiquitous computing.

Images from ArmadilloCon 2003 can be found in my photo gallery.

Tom Becker. "We can look at near future, far future, human interface, societal issues, different modes of usage in different cultures, different uses for computers in future."

Vernor Vingefound irony in the panel title, as it gives the panelists a lot of leeway by not asking them to specify whether certain ideas they are talking about belong to science fiction or to reality. "I was intrigued by the weasely title of this panel. I use it often as a teacher. Science fiction and reality: as long as we don't tell you which one we are talking about, we're OK." Some of the future computer-related issues he would like to see addressed: "If they [the government?] stopped jostling us about civilians having good crypto, that would be radical." (Laughter, appreciative nods in the audience.) Another thing on Vinge's wishlist is a device that could solve conjectures about prime numbers by inspection.

Bruce Sterling immediately goes off on one of his favorite tangents, "exotic" or rare nations, cultures and subcultures. He thinks Basque cyberculture (he shows the audience a book on this topic) is one of the weirder things in computer culture. Basque terrorists that use internet. The mode of financing Basque terrorism becomes internet-centered. There are Basque offshore servers.

Tom Becker. Uninteded consequences.

Kurt Baty. Yes, internet makes everybody everybody's neighbor.

Tom Becker to Kurt Baty. You are a hardware guy. What's going on in hardware?

Kurt Baty goes on about a super-powerful PC that he recently built, the very best from the parts one could buy at the moment, and now it's obsolete. He throws around a bunch of technical terms. Vernor Vinge asks what kind of CAD tools Kurt Baty uses on his box. Baty mentions some names. The conversation degenerates into a discussion of hardware and engineering applications.

Kurt Baty, Tom Becker and Vernor Vinge

Left to right: Kurt Baty, Tom Becker, Vernor Vinge. More images from ArmadilloCon 2003 can be found in my photo gallery.

Alexis Glynn Latner brings the panel back on topic by mentioning molecular computing. She finds it remarkable that a professor she knows works on mathematical means to program molecular computers without understanding what the molecules are doing. She says we need molecular or quantum computing to circumvent Moore's law. Rice university, where she works, is working on quantum computing too.

Kurt Baty. Science fiction track record on predicting trends in computing is really bad. When you're reading science fiction that deals with computing, you should assume it's all wrong.

Vernor Vinge. Not to mention any names. (Laughter in the room)

Kurt Baty. What's worse, speaking about Vernor's stuff, I don't even know which of it is wrong. (More laughter) It's ridiculous to read about a spaceship 1000 years in the future with big CRT displays.

Bruce Sterling disagrees that science fiction's inability to predict detracts from its value. "Why can't CRTs be big? Science fiction must be entertaining, not an industry report."

Kurt Baty says that the cultural aspects of "True Names" are still good. He thinks less of hardware level and application level of "Deepness in the Sky" -- dust mote computation, etc. The dominant paradigm there is the web. The web won't go away, but it won't be dominant for very long.*

In Vernor Vinge's experience, some readers with technical background will find excuses for the writer's technical errors, explaining them in such terms that it won't seem an error -- perhaps the author simply meant something other than what he said. He says: "If you keep the reader sympathetic, they'll use their considerable technical background to explain your mistakes. For example, they'll say "those were not CRTs!" Those were hologram displays! But you have to make them sympathetic to you."

Kurt Baty. Most interesting panels about computation and science fiction take place not in SF conventions but in computer conventions. In one computer convention there were extrapolations to 10 years in the future, based on well-collected data from 10 years past. They predicted amazing things: 5 years in future we must be able to simulate AI. But as Tom Becker pointed out, every time there's progress in AI, it's taken away from AI and renamed something else. AI is always something you haven't done yet.

Bruce Sterling. I doubt it very much. I would like to see a computer simulating even one cell.

Kurt Baty. It's been done.

(Kurt Baty and Bruce Sterling argue whether neuron simulation has been done.

Bruce Sterling. I'll tell you what's really hot right now: ubiquitous computation, RFID are hot. You go to Walmart, and there's already a rebellion against RFID. We don't want Poindexter to have it!

Vernor Vinge highly praises Karl Schroeder's book "Ventus". Kurt Baty disagrees. In his opinion, for a good portrayal of nanotechnology in science fiction you should read Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age", not "Ventus".

For Bruce Sterling, the most interesting topic is ubicomp. He thinks AI is dead.

Kurt Baty. "He's wrong! AI is waiting to happen!"

Kurt Baty, Vernor Vinge, and Alexis Glynn Latner

Left to right: Kurt Baty, Vernor Vinge, Alexis Glynn Latner. More images from ArmadilloCon 2003 can be found in my photo gallery.

Alexis Glynn Latner. Ubicomp has a huge theological value. When there's processing power in everything, everything has a potential to become "enchanted". Everything can have a "spirit" dwelling in it, since the computations performed by that object lend it complex, perhaps unpredictable behavior, that can be described/interpreted as "spirit". Trees, even cars, can become "enchanted" by embedding chips in them.

A voice from the audience. I work in ubicomp, and it scares me. There's enormous terrorist potential. What if, say, a terrorist turns on all ovens in the city and burns it down?

The topic turns back to Basques.

Kurt Baty. Every technology is used to do the same old things you do. What people do on the Internet? They talk to people, try to find people to have sex with, find places to eat. So if you [he's speaking about the Basques] have goats, guns and computers, you continue have revolutions and terrorism like you did before, only now you use computers to organize them.

A question from the audience. What magazines should I read to keep myself abreast of trends in computing?

Bruce Sterling. "Future Survey".


(I (the author of this article) personally think that dust mote computation is more of an example of ubiquitous computation, which later in the discussion they hail as being the next big thing. So how can one say that web "won't be dominant for long" given that those ubiquitous computing devices will need to talk to each other? They will have to be networked, if ubicomp is to be of any value. So in the basic sense the web can't go away.)