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by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2017
In February 2017 I had the opportunity to talk on several panels at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writers Symposium (LTUE) held in Provo, Utah. What follows are notes on what I talked about on those various panels.
The panels were:
o Futureproofing Your Story
o Slower-than-light Space Travel
o Traveling and Time
o Unintended Consequences of Technological Advances
o Robots of the Future (and now)
o Human Augmentation and Body Alteration
o Colonialism: How to Conquer a Country
Here we go...
Flying cars? Telescreens? This panel will explain how to keep your story interesting and relevant...even if technology moves in a different direction than you predicted.
James Ganiere, Donna Milakovic (M), Eric Swedin, Howard Tayler, Roger White
The future is full of surprises. One of those surprises is which technologies will thrive and grow mighty and which will stay "A technology of the future -- always has been, and always will be." How to keep your story interesting whether it's about smart phones or flying cars is the topic of this section.
Here are some examples:
o Smart phones -- this is an example of a technology that has made it big time, and become a world-changer.
o Flying cars -- this is an example of a technology that has been envisioned for a century but still hasn't made it.
o Driverless cars -- this is one that looks like it is coming real soon, and it will be for-real.
Driverless cars are coming soon, but with surprises, they are not going to be treated the same way drivered cars are. There are going to be big differences in both ownership styles and how people think about them. Here is a chain of differences that are coming:
o As driverless cars become ubiquitous why are young people going to bother to learn to drive? (One surprise here: We will loose a rite of passage.)
o If a person doesn't know how to drive, why bother to own a car?
o Most driverless cars will become like today's taxis, and most people will think about them like they do furniture -- it's here, just use it.
o But there will be a surprise in this chain: The Tattoos and T-Shirts Surprise. Some people will still love cars and still love driving them and owning them, just as some people today still love horses and still love riding them and owning them. They will be loved because they become part of a person's personal expression style. This means that cars that people choose to own are going to be fancier and more expensive than current cars -- Lamborghini successors will be owned, Volkswagon successors will be taxis, and people who own their cars will love showing them off.
This is an example of how a new technology will evolve and surprise in the future. Here is a quick video about my book Visions of 2050 which shows what this future can look like.
Telling good science fiction stories about a technology that doesn't happen is common. Two examples: Star Wars and Star Trek. Both are premised on FTL drives that aren't going to happen in our universe.
The technology in SF stories divides into two categories: a) something that could happen; b) something we really, really want to happen. Good science fiction can be written in both categories. Good science fiction about things that could happen is called the "hard" science fiction category, and one popular example of this is the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, with HAL the computer in it. The other category is popular science fiction, with Star Wars and Star Trek being two fine examples.
The technology being real or possible is not an essential element to good SF story telling. What is essential is that what happens in the story is interesting and exciting and the technology makes a difference to the characters in the story.
Visiting strange new worlds is lots of fun, even if you have to use make-believe technology to do it.
How will we travel through space without a warp drive? What are some of the methods that we would plan for a manned mission to the ends of the solar system? Or beyond?
Helge Moulding (M), John Peterson, Roger White
Note that this is a topic I also presented on in 2015 and here is that presentation. That one is a long one, this one is much shorter.
Space travel is not easy to accomplish, it's expensive and tricky. But mankind keeps working at it, and keeps getting better.
This is about why it's difficult and the improvements we can expect over the next century.
Why is space travel so difficult? The biggest reason is we don't have Warp Drive and teleporters or any equivalents, except in our imaginations. This isn't going to change unless we have a serious revolution in our understanding of physics and astronomy -- something comparable to the transition from earth-centric to sun-centric thinking about planetary motion that happened in Galileo's time.
There is lots of wishing and hoping for such a change, and this shows up as a steady stream of fakes news stories in various media forms. Sadly, these are just wishing and hoping. That said, lets talk about what is real.
The biggest reason space travel is hard to accomplish and the journeys take so long is the magnitude of the distances involved. They are huge. Just one example, it takes eight minutes for light from the sun to reach Earth. Eight minutes! Imagine having a phone conversation with a sun being.
Related is that, compared to vehicles moving around on Earth, the fuel tank size on spacecraft is huge. In current rockets about eighty percent of the fuel is consumed just getting above the earth's atmosphere and into low earth orbit. The blessing that happens after that feat is accomplished is that since space is a vacuum once a spacecraft is in space it can coast towards a destination for years, centuries, even millennia. Current space travel technology counts heavily in this. This is what I call boost-and-coast space flying.
So, what are current-physics-compatible ways of overcoming these obstacles and allowing humans to more conveniently space travel both within the solar system and beyond it?
Here is what's coming.
In these days, the 2010's, there is constant effort to reduce the cost of getting into space. This is going to continue. There is also effort to keep the engines running longer once space is reached, and this effort is going to continue as well.
The heart of the current effort is on making the rocket engines useful for multiple launchings. This is what Space X and others are working very hard on right now.
Something that in the future may become a breakthrough in this arena is the space elevator concept -- essentially a giant elevator that will carry cargo above the atmosphere and into low space orbit. It's a great concept, but it is currently slightly beyond what current physics allows because it calls for materials that are a bit stronger than we know how to fabricate these days. If we get a strength of materials breakthrough, then the elevator becomes possible and that will dramatically reduce the cost of getting out of earth's gravity well.
Another upcoming breakthrough that is fully possible is harassing solar energy for propulsion. This will make spacecraft like sailing ships -- they won't have to carry most of their fuel and they can keep the engines running throughout the entire journey. This will let cargoes get much larger, journey times much shorter, and it will make timing a voyage a lot less tricky -- you can fly when you're ready not when the planets are aligned favorably.
Air comes free on Earth's surface but it's expensive in space. There are different ways of dealing with this challenge. The current way is to provide air, water, food and livable temperatures on the space craft. This is what is happening on the International Space Station (ISS) today. The ISS has demonstrated that inhabitable conditions can be maintained for years when the spacecraft stays in Earth orbit. Doing this on spacecraft that are traveling around the inner solar system will be a bigger challenge, but not much bigger. This looks masterable with current technologies and expertise.
Traveling to destinations in the outer solar system and beyond present a bigger challenge because the voyages will take much longer. To make these more practical we are going to have to learn how to hibernate people so they can comfortably tolerate years-long and decades-long voyages. When we do this, not only do the people sleep, but most of the ship can be shut down and allowed to become freezing vacuum -- much cheaper to maintain.
For centuries- and millennia-long voyages even more extreme technologies will be needed. We will have to learn how to transport zygotes in ships without human crews, and then grow and educate people after the ship arrives at its destination.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to add a lot of useful destinations to space travel. It is going to be a lot less expensive to design spacecraft that can get AI to various interesting locations around the solar system. And it is going to be a lot less expensive to design habitation for AI systems once they arrive. This means that as AI improves the quantity and quality of intrasolar system space activities will improve as well. Moving AI will be the core of intrasolar system space activity.
This is even more so for interstellar journeys. Because there won't be much sunlight between stars, propulsion is going to have to go back to boost-and-coast, and the one-way journey times will be centuries to millennia. And, sadly, over such long distances radio communication will be difficult too. This means that to find out what has been discovered in a distant star system, a ship will have to make the return journey to deliver the data. This means that interstellar exploration journeys are going to be bringing back data to humanity's successor species, not to the homo sapiens sapiens who launch the ship in the first place.
Such long journey times make it even more compelling to come up with some kind of propulsion breakthrough that allows an engine to keep working with some other fuel than starlight. But it's not going to be an easy breakthrough.
Space travel is a difficult challenge. An enduring part of that challenge is going to be the long time it takes to make the voyages. The voyages will take long times because the distances are so great and because it is hard to keep the propulsion system turned on during the voyage. It is hard to keep the system turned on because fuel runs out so quickly.
One solution to the fuel problem that can be implemented when the space craft is close to a star is using solar energy as part of the fuel system. This means that as solar powered propulsion is developed journey times around the inner solar system will decrease dramatically -- journey times can drop to days and weeks.
But traveling around the outer solar system and between stars will not gain this benefit -- journey times will stay very long.
As a result of these long journey times, moving AI rather than humans is going to become the core of humanity's space travel. The longer the journey the better it will be suited to AI crews instead of human crews. AI will be humanity's tool for exploring the stars.
Time travel--Who did it best? From H. G. Wells to Star Trek and everyone beyond and in between.
Cheminant Flitton (M), Callie Stoker, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, Roger White
Time travel is a fun topic. It gets written about a lot, and some people do it much better than others.
One approach is to have time travelers visit a well known historical event and have the travelers take part in it. Another is to have an adventure in a distant future or past which is a totally new setting. The goal of this kind of story is often a social comment as well as an interesting story. And there are many stories about the ironic twists that time travel would allow.
The challenge in writing about a well-known historical event is that the ending is known, as in, we readers know how the historical event will evolve and end. This means that in the story, history was going to go some different way if the character hadn't intervened. As an example: a time traveler stops Hitler from being assassinated. Or it is taking place in some alternate history setting. (I have written one time travel story in this format, Team Macedonia, which is in my Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 2 book.)
The alternative is to write about a world that isn't covered in history books. This is where H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov tell their stories Time Machine and End of Eternity. These can be of the distant future or past, or an alternate world.
Another common format is writing about a time traveler who visits his own family and will change the course of their history. This story style is called The Grandfather Paradox. A tour-de-force in this style is Robert Heinlein's By His Bootstraps. The story was first published in 1941 under the pen name Anson MacDonald. In it there are four incarnations of the main character interacting, each from a different point in the character's time line.
If you're going to add time travel to your story, what is the goal? What is it adding? For Wells it added the ability to make social commentary. For Asimov it added a new way to look at how a technology can be used and the social organization that develops around it. For Heinlein it added a neat twist to writing a mystery story. For me it was about describing how differently people both look and perceive when their technologies are different. What will it add in your story?
Think about what the goal is for your story, and how time travel is going to help achieve it.
How does technology affect society? Can it be predicted with any accuracy? This panel will look at the unintended consequences of current and possible future technology.
Michaelbrent Collings, Donna Milakovic (M), L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Scott Smith, Roger White
Note that this is a topic I also talked about in 2015 and here are the notes on what I said then.
New technology that makes a difference does so by producing surprising results. The surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant, but if they are interesting it is because the result is popular and widely used, or really scary so it should never be used.
Before talking about the unintended consequences, lets work through a primer on how a popular technology gets developed and introduced to the world.
When something new is invented the first question is always, "OK... what is it good for?" The most common first answer is, "It can replace [X], and do it faster, better and cheaper." This is what I call the "commodity use" for an invention. This is the use that convinces managers and investors to say, "OK, I'll put money behind that. Make it happen."
But, if the invention is worth its salt in story telling, this isn't the exciting use. The exciting use comes sometime later when early adopters do some experimenting with this new invention. As they do they discover the surprising uses, the uses where people say, "You can do that with it, too? Neat! ...And I'll buy a dozen more." Then the invention makes history and becomes legendary. This is what I call the "surprise use".
This doesn't always happen, it is far from inevitable. An example of new technology that didn't make a difference is the work of Nicola Tesla on wireless transmitting of electricity. The Tesla Coil of today is the most memorable part of that effort. Tesla is famous, but that particular effort made no difference to how we all live.
The surprise use can be one that all the world loves, or it can be something controversial -- something which half the world loves and half the world hates -- or something which lots of the world cares about and fears.
An example of a surprise good use is that widespread automobile use allowed suburbs to flourish around cities, and allowed cities themselves to grow much larger without being crushed under "Peak Horse" issues such as disposing of manure.
But this panel is about the dark side, so lets move on to that.
Here are some high-profile examples of unhappy unintended consequences.
o Drug abuse -- Drugs are designed to heal, but some do more than that, they also mind alter. And it turns out that many humans love to do mind altering, and many of those love to do it to excess -- excess in the eyes of their prescriptionist neighbors, that is. The result in the US has been the War on Drugs.
Both the drug abuse and the War on Drugs can be considered unintended consequences of developing ways of producing healing drugs faster, better and cheaper.
o Nuclear Energy -- The goal of the physicists researching nuclear energy during the first half of the 20th century was to provide the world with a power source that was even more effective than what was currently available at the time. "Why fight wars over access to coal and oil when everyone can have nuclear?" was part of the motivation behind this effort. The result was something that produced products with an astounding energy density. But the spectacular first use of this research was to destroy two cities at the end of World War Two. The unintended consequence of that was that many people became deathly afraid of nuclear power, and as a result of that the speed of its subsequent growth and impact on our lifestyles has been glacial. It hasn't saved the world, instead it has become the symbol of being the world's most potent Grim Reaper. This is not what the developers had in mind.
o Factory Automation -- The goal of factory automation is to increase the wealth of the community. The automated factory produces more goods than the manual factory does, and produces them faster, better and cheaper. That is the intended consequence. The unintended consequence is reducing the quantity of high-paying jobs in the community. This unintended consequence makes a lot of people unhappy, and this unhappiness shows up as various forms of social unrest -- one early and dramatic example being the French Revolution. This is not the goal the developers had in mind.
As a general trend, social unrest, scared people, and disenfranchised people are the common results of the unintended consequences of a technology. These effects on the community are why unintended consequences are important, dramatic, and can be part of good story telling.
C-3PO? Bender? Marvin the Paranoid Android?! This panel will talk about current advances in robotics, as well as some possibilities for the future, and their effect on society.
Donna Milakovic, John Peterson, J. Dan Raisor, Daniel Swenson (M), Roger White
Note this is a topic I talked about in 2015 and here are the notes from what I said then.
First, a definition of robots. Note that this is a Roger Definition and one I use for my story telling. Also note that I will often refer to my style of robot as a cyber, an example being a cyber muse.
Robots are machines that are controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) of one sort or another. Yes, this is pretty general, and does not include the machines in factories that are doing assembly work without as much intelligence as I am defining. My robots can range in size from huge to small, and the range of tasks they can perform is equally large. I include smart phones and 3rd generation wearables in my definition. (we are currently making 1st generation wearables) And many will be totally virtual, they will exist in cyber space.
Ironically, one of the hardest things for robots to do is become the "robot personal assistants" that are so common in science fiction movies, but even the first forms of these are now starting to show up in real life as voice activated AI that controls home appliances.
My prediction is that over the next forty years robots are going to become ubiquitous in large scale manufacturing, service and transportation activities -- Big Business as we know it today will be handled almost completely by robots. And there will be lots of robotics in other activities as well -- health, surveillance, and driverless cars are some examples. One surprise use I have come up with is something I call Cyber Muses.
Here are some more detailed speculations on these.
This is simply automation getting more pervasive. The big question, and challenge, is what will humans be doing for "gainful employment" as the robots take over more and more of this Industrial Age-style work? This is a big challenge to figure out. It is also an important one because the feeling of working is so closely linked to the feeling of being enfranchised -- members of a community feeling enfranchised is what keeps a community stable.
The "What's next?" job solutions will fall in three general categories:
o Jobs that are still helping businesses get more productive -- productive jobs in the traditional meaning of productive
o Jobs that are personally fulfilling but are not adding much to the material wealth of the community -- dilettante jobs and Top Forty Jobs, as in, jobs people feel passionate about
o Jobs that deal with surprises -- humans will continue to cope with surprises better than robots can, a big category here will be disaster recovery jobs
It is a surprise insight I have come up with, but the jobs that will be productive will be activities that are mostly unknown to us today. Think of the difference between being a delivery person in 1900 and in 1940. The 1900's person had to know how to master horses, the 1940's person had to know how to master motorized trucks -- a completely unknown job in 1900. Applying this analogy to the future, the productive jobs of the future will have humans deeply mixing their efforts with robots in ways that are pretty much unknown to us today.
The personally fulfilling jobs are what I call dilettante jobs -- they will feel quite rewarding to the person who masters the task, but they won't be putting cars on the road or TVs on the wall. They may, however, be putting food on the table because people love to dabble in food growing and meal preparing. Food-related activities will be one center of dilettante activities, sports and entertainment will be others. These are what I call Top 40 Jobs because they will be jobs that people are passionate about -- like they are about their music.
As automation becomes more pervasive, so will dilettante jobs.
Robots will excel at handling routine tasks. Humans will excel at handling surprising tasks. This means that humans will stay deeply involved in disaster recovery occupations. When lots of snap decisions must be made in chaotic situations, humans will be at the center of the decision making and action taking.
Artificial Intelligence will become self-aware, and this means that robots controlled by them (there will be many AI entities) will be so as well. But, as with productive jobs of the future, self-aware AI will be surprising. The core of that surprise is that what self-aware AI will be thinking about will be entirely different than what is at the center of human thinking -- becoming a Robot Overlord is going to be way, way down on the AI's priority list. I have written about this perspective issue in my essay The Cow-Human Relation, from the Cow Perspective.
The ramifications of this are diverse. The main one being that humans won't have a clue what most self-aware AI is up to. For humans self-aware AI will be distant and capricious.
But, there will be one category of self-aware AI that humans stay close and personal with. These are AI designed specifically to interact with humans and inspire them. I call this style of AI a Cyber Muse.
To understand the basic cyber muse concept, update the truism:
"Behind every great man, there's a good woman."
"Behind every great person, there's a good cyber muse."
And you have the basic idea.
Cyber muses will become pervasive, and range from inexpensive and purely virtual, to expensive and elaborate "arm candy" for ambitious and ostentatious humans.
Cyber Muses are going to be the robots that are highest profile in the affairs of humanity. Other cyber entities will tend to use them as go-betweens because they know how to deal with "those crazy humans". My book Visions of 2050 has a lot of cyber muses in the stories.
What is the future of prosthetics? What will we be able to change about ourselves, and what are the ramifications of those changes? Here, our panelists will look at the future of augmentation and what it means to be human.
Cindy Grigg, Scott Parkin, Charlie Pulsipher, Heather Wallace (M), Roger White
Welcome to the World of Wearables, as I call it. This is going to be one of the hottest item technologies over the next thirty years. The technology is going to change a lot, and the changes are going to be world-shaking in how we humans live and what we think about.
First, let's do some defining.
The wearables of today are gadgets we strap to our bodies that monitor things such as heart rate, steps taken and how well we are sleeping. These are first generation wearables, over the next few decades things are going to change steadily and dramatically.
One change is that what is monitored will steadily widen. The devices will monitor things such as blood sugar levels and many kinds of hormones.
Another is that the devices will become more convenient and less obtrusive. The ultimate in convenient and unobtrusive is when they become part of the body -- they are "worn" inside the body in various ways.
And finally, the really world-shaking change, is when the wearables can begin controlling as well as monitoring. Wow!
When wearables can control hormone levels and other body chemistry, they can modify emotions. Love, fear, wonder, these all have a blood chemistry component, think of the link between adrenalin and fear. Again, wow!
One of the first thinking styles that will be controlled is mind altering -- getting drunk and high. With wearables bringing on these effects the results can be both subtler, and they can be turned on and off faster.
o Walk into party, twist a dial on your wrist, WHOOPIE YOU'RE IN PARTY-HEARTY MODE, walk out an hour later, twist that dial on your wrist the other way, you are back to sober again, ready to crack the books and finish that class assignment due tomorrow. What a different kind experience a party will become.
o Want to go on a diet, twist that dial on your wrist and loose your appetite.
o Want to get on that airplane without having to be so brave, just let your wearable take care of your fearfulness.
o Want to fall in love, start reaching for that dial... ummm.
So different... so different... when wearables reach this level of sophistication they will be world-shaking in dozens of different ways.
Why would a country want to go through the hassle of expansion? This panel will explore the how and why of colonization as well as the long-term effects of foreign rule.
Michael Jason Bacera, Daniel Friend, Alicia McIntire (M), Scott Parkin, Roger White
One of the more exciting events in recent human history has been the rise of technology expertise in Western Europe in the 1700's, and how that lead to its material productivity dramatically expanding, and how that lead to its colonizing much of the rest of the world in the 1800's.
How can this technology, productivity and colonizing experience be used as the basis for interesting story telling? That is the topic of this discussion.
Q: Why is thinking about technology in a commercial setting important?
A: Because a technology is not going to grow and become pervasive unless many people are demanding it, and many others are making a profit supplying it, and this is what commerce is all about.
The current good example of this is space travel. We love writing about it, but how much do we really have?
Here is a specific example:
o How many rovers have we sent to Mars? -- a handful.
o Why haven't we sent a thousand? -- because we haven't figured out how to make money doing so.
When I wrote my book The Honeycomb Comet I was taking on the challenge of how to write an interesting story using slower-than-light speed (STL) interstellar travel. One of the early obstacles I faced was answering the question: "Why are these future humans going to bother to go on expensive, years-long journeys?" The answer: "Because like their Spice Trade trading ship forefathers of the 1600's, they are going to make a ton of money doing so." The challenge then evolved into, "OK, what are they going to find out yonder that's worth a ton of money?" Answering that shaped the entire book, and inspired the title. One story in the book that is specifically about colonizing is the Emperor of Earth story -- a handful of aliens on a single ship come to the solar system and become its rulers.
Colonizing happens when a ton of money can be made by the colonizers doing so. This usually takes some kind of high technology advantage. For Western Europe in the 18th and 19th century this started as high tech sailing ships and then steadily evolved into the whole plethora of gadgets that the Industrial Revolution spawned -- the most famous became cheap textiles.
The not-so-surprising outcome of this offering high technology trade goods was that most places where these were offered some of the locals came to want to learn the secrets of making these goods themselves. The surprising outcome was how difficult transplanting these secrets turned out to be for most places the Europeans traded with. Instead of learning how to make lots of factories these communities experienced a few factories and a whole lot of rising social discontent. The second surprise was that this rising discontent lead to the high tech outsiders (Europeans) getting involved in local politics... and becoming both colonizers, and imperialists, as in, the top dogs of these local communities.
The outsiders came to trade, and surprise, transformed from traders into rulers. This was a surprise. Profitable trade, not conquest, was what originally brought the high tech outsiders. This is why their organizations were titled Trading Companies, not Conquering Companies.
The archetypical story line about colonies is about the power hungry imperialists coming in to suck wealth and power from the hapless locals. But there are many other interesting variations and perspectives on the colonizing and imperializing story. Here are some:
o The outsiders are coming into a region which is a failed or failing state. It is a place filled with lots of population, lots of competing warlords, and the lot of the local's life is far from idyllic. The outsiders reluctantly take sides and use their high technology to restore order by helping a few of the many aspiring local rulers become winners. Western Europeans coming to Africa, India and China are inspirations for this story line. Japan is the surprise case where the locals get their act together and do create lots of factories instead of lots of social unrest.
o The outsiders are coming into an uninhabited or sparsely inhabited region that is rich with resources, and they come to tame the land and exploit the resources. This is the "railroad comes to town" story in Westerns. If after they succeed the imperialists back home get interested and want a share of the wealth they are now creating, then we have the American Revolution story.
o The colonizing of The Moon, Mars and other human- and AI-compatible solar system bodies is likely to be something like the North American colonial experience. The important presumption here is that rich resources of some kind are discovered and successfully exploited so that lots of commerce happens and the populations of these colonies grow large and prosperous. Based on our current abilities in technology and commerce what these resources will be has yet to be discovered, so this is part of the challenge of creating this style of story.
These are examples of premises that can create interesting stories about colonial experiences in science fiction settings. The colonial experiences of history are diverse, and interesting, so there are many interesting story possibilities in writing about colonizing in the future as well.
The LTUE panels covered a rich trove of writing topics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate. I hope these notes prove equally inspirational to you. And, if you like what you are reading here, look into getting some of my Tales of Technofiction books.
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