Of Asimov, Robots, Artificial Intelligence and What is a Human Anyway


You might say I have too much time on my hands. I would answer that I never have enough time, but my back injury continues and I have had time to think in a few directions.

Whether it is HAL 9000, remember “I’m sorry but I can’t do that Dave” as an answer to “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” from 2001 A Space Odyssey?

If you haven’t tried it, ask Alexa, Siri, Cortana or whatever your speech interface is to the internet, those famous words. “Open the Pod bay doors HAL” If only Arthur C Clarke was around to experience that.

Damn, I just remembered that they had a 4K restoration of the movie at Imax last month for the 50th anniversary of the movie. I was hoping to find someone to go with and then totally forgot about it. That would have been amazing.

AsimovI collect books and in recent years have given away many books that I was never going to read again, but decided to extend my collections of specific writers and starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I looked at what was missing from my Isaac Asimov collection and amongst others bought a copy of The Bicentennial Man.

Asimov is of course famous for the 3 Laws of Robotics. Ironically a lot of people debunked his laws and said they were flawed and used that to criticise him as being unrealistic or perhaps idealistic, which is a trait of many SciFi authors of the 70’s. However, he knew that himself. In many of his stories, robots disobeyed the laws.

There is a great story in this book called That Thou Art Mindful of Him, in which is a play on Psalm 8:4-6, he also infers in some of the stories that he was Jewish through some of the characters and had a keen sense of humor.

In this story (and I’m sorry for the spoiler) a series of robots are produced and given the capability to become self aware, in effect sentient. They redefine what it is to be human and declare themselves as such.

I played with the thought of Singularity and imagined if autonomous cars could pass the Turing Test 

I also looked at what might happen if they didn’t and what hackers might be able to do.

What I keep coming back to and writers like Philip K Dick, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and many others foresaw 50 and more years ago and similar to where the TV series Humans is heading, is that humans are dangerous to the planet.

Now I like being human and I hope that my descendants will have safe and healthy planet for thousands of years from now and many of my little stories are in jest.

BUT, if climate change, plastic pollution, air pollution, brinkmanship politics, drought, famine, and war are the result of how great and committed we humans fancy ourselves to be, would it not be realistic if an Artificial Intelligence was developed to the point of Singularity and able to continue to learn with or without programmed biases, would their logic determine that the human race should either be limited or allowed to exterminate ourselves?

Kurzweil looked at it a different way and said that Singularity would occur around 2045 and potentially be a synthesis between human and machine, in effect human 2.0. He would be about 98 at that point in time, so it will be interesting to see if he is still around and if he is right.

Maybe Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and many futuristic projects should have the last word. He’s pretty successful and walks the talk. DARPA, Rex Bionics and hundreds of companies, universities and other innovators are developing systems that will be able to think for themselves. Yes, for specific purposes, but they are being created.

It’s interesting that in this clip, they say that Science Fiction is usually about 50 years ahead of its time. So back to Asimov, reading him today, especially a book like The Bicentennial Man, where like Stephen King and others, he talks about his stories, was he in fact prophetic?

Yes, maybe I’ve had too much time to think, but do you think we should be thinking about this. Just imagined if a machine, say a Robocop decided that using facial recognition or perhaps racial recognition, that you were, could be, or could become a criminal and then think about biases that go into programming, often of necessity.

What conclusions could an AI start taking when given some information and some bias and then left to learn on the basis of that starting point? Oh and I didn’t even mention George Orwell. He wrote Animal Farm in 1945. Remember “All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others”? Shutting up now……..

 

Authors Complain About Amazon Kindle Unlimited Service


Authors are complaining that the new ‘all you can eat’ service that people can subscribe to for $9.99 a month, gaining access to over 700,000 books on your Kindle device or app according to this article in the NY Times. Kindle

I think the article is very thorough and recommend it if you are interested in ePublishing, an author or just interested in changing business models.

Buying a HouseI’m a Kindle author myself and have also written White Papers and articles about eBooks for many years. I therefore have an interest except that I am more interested in people benefiting from my knowledge than making money out of it. My most recent book is about the use of Location Based Services in Buying a House.

There are a lot of changes in the way people are writing and publishing. Some people are churning out series of books, targeting a youth audience around SciFi, Zombies and Vampires and doing formula writing. They put a lot of energy into the first book, which is often given away for free, finishing like a TV series with a cliff hanger at the end. If you liked the story, you will possibly pay for ongoing series.

Kindle also offers the ability to make offers like Countdown Deals where you can run promotional deals. I’m running one for a week on the above book starting on 30 December when you can buy it for only $0.99, it then goes up by a dollar a day back to full price on the 6th of January 2015. You might like to grab a copy for yourself or someone you know who is thinking about buying a house in the near future. It could save them hundreds of thousands of dollars or a lot of grief.

Anyway, the reason for this blog was to get people thinking about how they market their books and themselves and how they make money. The article compared the royalties from the Kindle all you can eat service to music services like Spotify (which I also subscribe to) and the fact that the songwriters and artists get minute royalties from these services. I doubt that authors get much from libraries either. I didn’t. I listen to eBooks from my local library whenever I’m in the car alone, many are best sellers and I enjoy them for free.

Smart bands and gigging artists today use any tools they can to get their music heard, whether its downloads, radio, streaming, services like Spotify, iTunes, CD’s or whatever method so that their music gets heard. They build up a fan base. The real money comes from selling merchandise and from live performances. Look at the money even old bands like the Eagles or the Rolling Stones can make from concerts. It’s BIG money!

There are some smart writers like Scott Sigler who exemplify how this is done. He is on every social media you can think of. He does book signings, you can order autographed copies of books. He has merch including shirts, hats, artwork in an online shop. He offers his books for free in episodes as podcasts and hopes that if you enjoy them, you will buy the audio book so that you don’t have to wait a week for the next episode. He goes to conventions, networks and engages with his readers. Despite giving away product, he is a New York Times best seller. He understands that he is competing on a world market and it is not just a matter of write it and they will buy.

The article implies that writers think they can just write and sit back and watch the money roll in, give up their day jobs and if they don’t get rich, its someone else’s fault. The reality is that the business is tough and always has been, but today making good money through self publishing is possible if you are prepared to do the hard yards, but you need to innovate.

It certainly helps to be a consistently good writer and to provide the form that your audience wants to read. But even a great writer still needs to market themselves and recognise that their fans are individual people. Stephen King is another great example. He totally understands that he is writing to his ‘Dear Reader’ and constantly reinvents the way he publishes his books. He also does merchandise, if you liked his latest novel Revival, you can go to his merch store and buy a I Climbed Skytop T-Shirt. He even has an online forum on his site. He even runs competitions from his site (I wasn’t impressed that it was for US residents only though, that was pretty stingy). The point being, he is one of the great big sellers of the last 20 years, but he works as hard above the line as he does on his writing. It’s a case of the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Having just written all this, I’ve just convinced myself that the $9.99 is great value and I’m probably going to sign up once I’ve read all the Kindle books I have already bought. I paid US$15 for Revival so that’s a month and a half’s subscription on its own. Oh and don’t worry Stephen, I will buy a hardcover for my collection as well, because despite being an eBook evangelist from way back (Fictionwise on my Palm Pilot), I also collect books of particular authors that I like. I’ve given over half of my books away, but still have around 2,000 in my music room.

So if you are an author, wanting to make a living from your craft, my suggestion is to allow as much time for marketing as you do for actual writing. If you don’t know what to do, ask someone, ask everyone, look at what people like Scott Sigler and Stephen King do. Don’t just copy them though, think of other ways you can sell your books. Look at creative things that bands do. There are so many cool things you can do, I can think of dozens of merch ideas that people would buy.

Don’t complain. Do something.

Electricity, disasters and Feed In Tariffs


I’ve been itching to write more about FIT for ages as you will know if you have been reading my blogs. If you didn’t, my last blog was pretty much a summary of my thoughts which started with the Christchurch earthquake.

Prior to that for a few years I have been wondering why a ‘clean green’ country like New Zealand only went so far as to provide subsidies for roof insulation and clean heating. Where is the NZ Green Party on FIT, I asked 2 years ago. I’m not even sure where the party is on much at all at the moment and its election year, when National has launched its new policies on oil and gas and other efficient power sources like coal.

In fairness I do have to acknowledge that Environment Minister Nick Smith did through caution to the wind at the NZ Wind Energy Conference this month, but he also made the point that you need windy places and probably also noted the frequent opposition any time someone wants to set up a wind farm. Personally I like them and if they are silent, I wouldn’t have a problem looking up at them on a hill somewhere.

Dutch windfarm

I have 2 interests here, the first one is renewable energy in the form of solar panels, with the ability to feed power into the grid, but also the ability to make individual households and businesses more resilient in times of crisis.

The common thread anywhere in the world when there is a disaster is that the power goes off. In my recent posts this month I have discussed a whole range of issues where we are so reliant on electricity today that there are a variety of problems after the crisis is over.

I want to again acknowledge the heroism of electricity workers and supporters who risked life and limb to get things up and running as quickly as possible.

Anyway, back to my story. Imagine if we followed on from the subsidies to put insulation into our roofs, by offering subsidies and Feed In Tariffs for installing solar panels on the roofs. This is something we should be doing anyway, but imagine if a large number of people were still able to have at least some electricity when the grid is down. They would still potentially have phone communication, they would have lighting, heating, the ability to wash themselves and much more.

We could find ourselves with a renewable energy source that doesn’t pollute, makes people much more aware of power consumption, involves the community and provides greater resilience while allowing us to get closer to meeting our commitments to reducing carbon waste that we so obligingly adopted with the Kyoto Protocol.

It has been said that I am wont to be verbose. I don’t necessarily want to change that because I am intensely interested in what I write about, however I don’t want to lose you dear reader (borrowed that from Stephen King). So here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to write an new series of shortish blogs on the benefits of FIT for New Zealand in the hope that more people will understand the massive potential benefits to New Zealand and put some pressure on the politicians and energy authorities to do something about it.

I’ve done some reading on the topic and found the paper by Miguel Mendonca of the Birkbeck Institute of Environment, Birkbeck College, University of London particularly helpful. He also wrote the book Feed-in-Tariffs Accelerating the Deployment of Renewable Energy. You can find more information here. He discovered that FIT could work in the UK, that it had many positive benefits above and beyond the basics of a renewable energy source and I plan to discuss some of these from a New Zealand context. I also find it interesting that some people (who perhaps are the ones who wanted Henry Ford to breed faster horses instead of horseless carriages) say there is not enough sunlight in NZ to create an acceptable level of energy. Kiwis who go to UK for their OE’s don’t often come back recounting stories of endless sunny days.

So lets explore what FIT’s and solar power can do for NZ, for our resilience, for our GDP, for our commitment to the environment, for industry, for entrepreneurs and to generally show the world that we are in fact as green as we say we are. There are some amazing benefits to be had along the way.

Please come back and check out what I have learned.

Doesnt look that shabby

Using CAPTCHA to digitse old books


This morning in the shower I was listening to Digital Planet, one of my favourite podcasts from the BBC. No I’m not sad, I just like to maximise my time:)

They interviewed Luis von Ahn about how Carnegie Mellon University is are using CAPTCHA technology to help digitse very old books that are in the public domain.

What is CAPTCHA? It is an acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers & Humans Apart” You will have found that many times when you register to use an application on the web, or perhaps when you want to invite someone to be your ‘friend’ on MySpace or leave a message, you will see a small clump of letters and you have to enter what you see into a text box.

The reason for this is because spammers and hackers create bots, that allow them to access information and pretend that they are real people. For example there are people running businesses where they can guarantee you lots of ‘friends’ on MySpace for a fee. Personally I am against this and ultimately it is a waste of time, because just being able to say that you have thousands of friends, doesn’t actually help you in any way.

Just to sidetrack for a moment. I have lots of ‘friends’ on my MySpace page, 3967 at last count. They are people who have requested my ‘friendship’ or vice versa and because of that personal relationship, wherever possible, I have a fan base that I can use when I have a concert or gig that I am performing. I can use this to make contact with them, even by geography, but that is really a topic for my About Songwriting blog.

Anyway, many organisations are trying to digitise as many books as possible to allow them to be read as eBooks. The best known of these is Project Gutenburg, which has already digitsed more than 25,000 books.

The problem with older books, especially those prior to 1900 is that the pages are fading and the fonts are harder to read by OCR (Optical Character Recognition) tools, which themselves are still not 100% reliable. On a tangent, I hate reading books that are not perfect. My eBook Unleashing the Road Warrior was edited 12 times to get it as good as possible and I was dissapointed to find an error on page 309 of Stephen King’s latest book, Dumas Key, but that’s another story:)

So what the Carnegie Mellon people have done is to scan the pages and have created a tool which grabs 2 at a time and feeds them into the CAPTCHA environment. So now when you complete a CAPTCHA that has 2 words instead of random letters, what you are actually doing is not only autheticating that you are indeed a human, you are also helping transcribe these old books and ensuring their texts are protected for future generations to enjoy, is that cool or what?

Personally I find CAPTCHAS a pain in the proverbial, but having learned this, I am feeling a lot better about them.

While this blog is starting to get a good following, I would love to get more readers and encouraging me to keep writing. If you feel that my blog is interesting I would be very grateful if you would vote for me in the category of best blog at the NetGuide Web Awards. Note that the form starts each site with www whereas my blog doesn’t and is of course https://luigicappel.wordpress.com.

Thanks so much for your support:)