Video Review: Star Trek: Picard

With only two episodes released, it may be early to give a serious review but there are things I feel I can comment upon.

First, Wow… this is so much better than Discovery!

Some things I like, it expands the canon rather than messing with it.  The dialog feels better.  What violence exists moves the plot rather than the other way around.  In just two episodes, we have been introduced to both the longer term plot and to interesting characters, with the promise of more to come.

But there are some silly tropes that I reacted very negatively to.

First is the horrendously dumb visual trope of transparent displays.  As a display technologist and inventor, this just bugs me and I’ve explained why before, but the second episode really demonstrated why its so dumb.  In one scene we have a double agent spy master with open windows viewing a video call on a transparently projected virtual screen with an incredibly low contrast because one can see the brightly lit view of the sunny view outside the window competing with the image on the screen.  Please, please, can we dump this dumb trope?  It’s as dated as silver lame clothing as a SciFi movie trope.

Next is the anachronistic presence of a mid-20th Century lamp shade in a Star Fleet office.  What would a spy master’s minimalist office decor be doing with such lamp shades in the late 24th Century?  Design usually follows function and technology. The modern lamp shade is a late 19th Century invention that came about because of the introduction of bright filament incandescent light bulbs.  Yes, we saw lots of such lamps and shades in Picard’s home.  But then, he is an antiquarian living in a home filled with antiques.  They made sense there.  But not elsewhere

What also didn’t work for me is Picard’s vineyard.  Amazing how much France looks like California’s wine country, complete with dry wild oats between the rows and a California live oak visible in the distance.  Perhaps I’m the only one who even noticed, but it pulled me right out of the story seeing my local wine country being used as a set for France.

Finally, why antagonize the SciFi reading audience with Picard, who is one to read Shakespeare, who refered to Azimov’s robot series as “the classics”, saying that he didn’t “get” science fiction?

Gravitic Engineering: The Next Technological Frontier?

Is it “anti-gravity”?  Ummm… No!  There’s no such thing, and given our present understanding of general relativity, there never will be.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t develop technologies that use gravitational gradients in a loosely analogous manner to the way that we use the electromagnetic force gradients.

Before I launch into my own speculative “inventions” in gravitics, it is incumbent upon me to tell you about the man who was likely the true father of gravitics, Robert L. Forward.  He invented the rotating cruciform gravity gradiometer or ‘Forward Mass Detector’, for Lunar Mascon (mass concentration) measurements.  This device is so sensitive that it can detect the gravitational gradient of an object as small as a fist held near it.  His 1965 physics doctoral thesis was Detectors for Dynamic Gravitational Fields, for the development of a bar antenna for the detection of gravitational radiation.  He was an inventor with eighteen patents.  Learning of his ideas by reading his science fiction novels shaped my own.

So, can we build something that looks like antigravity (but isn’t)?  Yes we can, in theory.  First, imagine, if you will, finding a mountain of solid heavy metal, uranium will do.  If you dig a tunnel under it, the gravity there will be lower than on the surface because of the huge mass above.  But only by a tiny fraction.  Sorry, no antigravity hoverboard.

Anything else?  Why yes.  Here’s my idea for a gravitically propelled orbtal transport ship.  I apoligize in advance, the explanation of how it works gets a bit technical and requires a good grounding in basic physics and orbital mechanics.  But bear with me.

First, lets imagine a space station that is built like two Eiffel towers stuck together by their feet.  Such a huge structure, built in orbit, would experience tidal forces that would tend to tidally lock its rotation to match its orbital period.  (I did warn you that this would take some understanding of orbital mechanics, right?).  That is to say, that it, like the moon which is also tidally locked, will always point toward the center of the Earth unless something is done to change that.  Oh, and just for fun, and to make it even more likely to become tidally locked, we put big masses on each end of this long structure.

Now imagine putting a set of huge gyros on this structure.  It’s placement probably wouldn’t matter, but for simplicity, lets place it at the center of the structure.  Once spun up, gyros have the convenient property of resisting a force that would change its axis of rotation.  Satellites often have gyros to aid in pointing them where we want them to point.  Now imagine what would happen if, after they have been spun up, the gyros were to be locked to the structure so that it resisted the tidally locked rotation.  That is to say, we attempted to make it point at a single star in the far distance, instead of rotating to always point to the center of the Earth?

Can you guess?  Well first, the rotation would have to be stopped… so lets just assume that we did that.  OK, now what?

Well, that tidal force isn’t going to go away.  As the structure continues in its orbit, the angular difference between where the structure is pointed and where it “wants” to be pointed to reduce the tidal stress will grow.  Now, imagine we suddenly let the structure free.  It would relax the tidal stress and start to rotate, exchanging potential energy for kinetic energy.  Where did that energy come from?  Can you guess?

It came from the potential and kinetic energy of the orbit.  We caused the structure to “drop” into a lower orbit, all without propellent!

The reverse can be done as well.  Consider what would happen if we use motors between the gyros and the structure to force the structure to “lean forward”, as though it was already pointing to a direction that tidally speaking, it will in the future when its orbit brings it to that position.  Now, when we “lean” the structure, we are putting energy into its energy of potential.  But when the structure gets to the point where its tidal forces are gone, as it points to the center of the Earth… oops, the potential energy is gone!  Where did it go?  Can you guess?

Yes, it is in the potential and kinetic energy of the orbit.  We caused the structure to “climb” into a higher orbit, all without propellent!

We can also use this same concept to shift orbits laterally.  So, we can go up, down, and sideways in orbit, all without propellent!

The downside of this technique?  The gravitic forces are very weak, so the change in orbits will be very slow.  Further, the limit to how much angular mementum that can be pre-stored in the gyros to allow a climb limits the orbital altitude that may be gained.   (Angular momentum is still conserved in this scheme, of course.)  The concept might work for station keeping though.  But still, as an excersize in thinking creatively and big, its a great idea.

So, your turn.  Think about gravitics.

(Addendum 1/8/2016:  Exciting new paper, “How current loops and selenoids curve space-time” regarding generating artificial gravity fields using magnetic energy stored inside of electromagnets.  Yes, its real physics, based on Einstein’s General Relativity and the Equivilance Principle.  The effect is REALLY tiny, but may allow us to generate controlled gravity pulses someday:  http://arxiv.org/abs/1504.00333 )

Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat to Humanity?

Recently, pundits and scientists alike have been wringing their hands about the “threat” posed by Artificial Intelligence, even though we seem to be no where near being able to build anything remotely like a super-intelligence.

http://thebulletin.org/artificial-intelligence-really-existential-threat-humanity8577

What I find fascinating is not what is being said by whom, but that those who are talking about this seemingly fail to take note of the fact that Science Fiction has been exploring this issue far longer and deeper than the technologists of today.  Somehow, its as if this topic was totally new, never before discussed.  I find this especially true in the area of ethics.  Seriously, why do we not see any discussion about such concepts as Asimov’s Three Laws?

Also, why is this discussion so pessimistic?  Why is that we don’t see the possibilities that AI will be a boon?  Instead, we see articles that the machines will “take over”, they will make us obsolete, they will self-perpetuate and be selfish, etc.  Why should that be the case?  Have they never read Asimov?  No, they have only seen that rip-off, twisted Hollywood version of I Robot.

Or they react with horror at the thought of super robots and drones in the battlefields of the future… and yet, not one of these pundits seems to have ever read Keith Laumer’s Bolo series?  Never read, Honor of the Regiment?  They haven’t read of the story of the first fully self-aware BOLO that saved a world by refusing a technically lawful, but unethical, order knowing that that refusal would trigger a computer worm that would eventually, in an hour or so, “kill” it?

I see a vastly different future in which AI, based on biomicry of the human (and other species) brain will be partners with us, capable of doing things that we can’t, like survive a thousand year journey to the stars to terraform promising worlds into new homes for humanity.  This is at the heart of my upcoming novel, All the Stars are Suns.

The Naked Brain

In the SciFi novel I’m writing, All the Stars are Suns, set into the future, neuroscience has advanced far enough that we can model and build biomimetic analogs of neural functions, to the point were we can fabricate inorganic artificial brains.  These brains, being biomimetic would even have human emotions, if we so chose.  Sounds too far fetched?  Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be including them in my story.  Although I believe that we are many decades, perhaps even centuries away from truly fabricating human like inorganic brains, the state of the art today is perhaps a lot more advanced than you might think.

For example, take a look a this video from NATURE:

I imagine that someday we will be able to convert images like this into wiring diagrams.  No, I’m NOT a transhumanist.  I do NOT believe that this will allow anyone to “upload” their personality and memories to an inorganic copy of themselves.  Instead, I foresee that through imaging many brains we will come to understand the basic functions of the neural nets and model them, even create physical instantiations of them, which will allow us to fabricate sophisticated neural net computers that function much as our brains do.  With experience, they will learn, just as humans learn.  They will be themselves, not carbon copies of us.  And they will have their own quirks, since they will not have had the ongoing learning experiences while their brains rewire themselves as ours do from infancy to adulthood.  They will be “born” already mature, though untutored.  I’m exploring the ramifications of that type of “growing up” in my novel.

(Addendum 10/8/2015:  Here’s a paper on the development of a computer simulation of a TINY portion of the neocortex of a young rat’s brain.  Note that they needed a supercomputer to run it.  Thank goodness for Moore’s law.  Maybe someday we will be able to run such simulations on computers available on a start-up company’s budget.  Someday, neuroengneering will be a ‘thing’:  http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-10/cp-rba100615.php )

Turing Test

At what point does an Artificial Intelligence become “human”?  Does such a question even have meaning?  Many people half-heartedly consider Siri, or the voice of their car GPS to be Artificial Intelligence, but rarely consider it to be human.  If you were having an online conversation with someone and only  later discovered that you had been interacting with a very clever program with a very large database of knowledge and heuristical adaptive to learn and improve it’s ability to converse with people; would you say that it was intellegent?  Sentient?  Human?  Why not?

What if you met someone, went for a walk, talked to her, felt her touch.  What if you saw that someone cry tears at the prospect of loneliness and the loss of loved ones, and only later learned that she was inorganic; would you say then that they were intellegent?  Sentient? Human?  Why?

In my upcoming book, All the Stars are Suns, this question is at the very heart of the matter… at least for that Artificial Intelligence in question!

Be sure to “Follow” this blog for further updates on my book.  And/Or “friend” me on goodreads.com:

https://www.goodreads.com/friend/i?i=LTM1NjE4OTg3MDU6NDEy

All The Stars Are Suns

All the stars are suns.  It is perhaps the greatest scientific truth that we have learned through astronomy.  It was also the truth that contributed to the persecution and execution by conservative religious authority of Giordano Bruno in 1600.  It is also the title of a book that I am writing.

In high school, I was a member of what was then the largest club on campus, the Los Altos Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.  We published a fanzine, a collection of contributed fiction.  It was very low budget, just what we could scrape up ourselves.  However, we did manage to have in each annual issue, one essay or short story by a “real” author.  Since the club was fairly large (as high school clubs go) not every submission was included.  I submitted two stories, one of which was published, with just my first name, “Candice”.  It was my first published short story.

It has been forty years since then.  I’ve been busy “predicting the future by inventing it” as Alan Kay would have said.  Most of my writing in those forty years has been expository: documenting inventions, writing patent drafts, white papers, a chapter of an industry text book, and a few essays in magazines and journals.  But with more time on my hands now, I’ve returned to writing fiction.

In “All the Stars are Suns”, I am bringing together a number of ideas and inventions that rely on technologies that I believe will exist, but are just a bit too far into the future to be worth patenting today.  Some of the ideas are more speculative, but are solidly grounded in science.  Yet, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Thus, as my future universe unfolds, the story, hopefully to be continued as a serious of novels and short stories, blends elements that would fit into fantasy fiction, if one didn’t know the advanced technology behind it.

If you are reading this hoping for clues of what will be in it, you are in luck.  Just look at some of my previous essays here on my blog regarding going to the stars, psychophysics, biomicry, and futuristics.  In fact, I posted a short vignette titled “The Future in the Rearview Mirror” set in the same universe, but about a hundred years before All the Stars are Suns.

Writing a good book takes time.  I will be posting updates.

(Update 10-28-2015:  I’ve finished the rough draft of Part I of All the Stars are Suns… and sent it off to my editor.  Who also happens to by my husband / ex-journalist / ex-online news editor…  At just shy of 55,000 words, Part I is a novella set in the Solar System.  Part II will be set out in our new (future) colonies.  Stay tuned.)

(Update 7-26-2015:  I thought my concept of having the book in two parts, taking Part I and expanding it a bit into its own full novel, now standing at 75,000 words.  This is a bit short as SciFi novels go, but is now being edited and I sent it to beta readers for their feedback.  I will probably be expanding it further based on that feedback. What I had been thinking for Part II will be a future novel of its own, as a sequel of sorts.  Stay tuned.)