Fantasy/SciFi

Artificial Intelligence Looms Larger in the Corporate World

12 January 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Artificial intelligence, long a subject of fanciful forecasts, is starting to enter the corporate world in a much bigger way, as costs decline and the need increases to identify patterns within ever-growing troves of business data.

Once a mainstay of startups and big-tech firms such as International Business Machines Corp. and Alphabet Inc., technologies such as machine learning are taking a larger role inside corporate giants including American International Group and Fannie Mae, which are deploying AI to automate and augment tasks previously done by humans alone.

Chief information officers say the technology helps them complete routine tasks faster and often without human help, saving money while freeing their employees to focus on value-added activities.

But as the technology becomes both less expensive and smarter, and more advanced technologies continue to emerge, companies will extend AI use beyond routine jobs to aid in decision making and spot trends and patterns that wouldn’t be evident to the sharpest data scientist.

. . . .

Less expensive, more abundant data storage, increased processing power and advances in deep-learning technology could lower the cost of artificial intelligence and make it possible for machines to learn with minimal programming from humans.

One common deep-learning tool, the neural network, uses layers of interconnected nodes to roughly mimic the operations of the human brain.

Nova Spivack, founder of AI startup Bottlenose, said the latest versions of deep learning employ hundreds of layers of neural networks. That power can be used in areas such as weak-signal detection, or the ability to spot trends more quickly.

. . . .

AIG said it recently deployed five “virtual engineers” inside its IT infrastructure that work 24 hours a day collecting and analyzing system performance data and spotting network device outages. They work alongside human engineers to learn patterns in the network data and eventually act on their own to solve technical problems.

A network device outage, for example, typically would go to a queue and take human engineers about 3½ hours to address, an AIG spokeswoman said. Using the virtual assistants, nicknamed “co-bots,” there is no queue and most incidents can be fixed within 10 minutes, she said. If a machine can’t solve a problem on its own, it is kicked back to a human engineer.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 January 2017

The rise of Chinese sci-fi

4 January 2017

In 2015, Chinese Sci-fi hit the American literary scene when Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Chinese author Cixin Liu received a Hugo Award and a Nebula nomination. These prestigious science fiction/fantasy honors see few works in translation, and until now, none had been Chinese. As the general public begins to follow the literary critics in their curiosity towards Liu’s work and others like it, I decided to write a two-part series on the rise of Chinese sci-fi. From the Asia Times.

. . . .

Science fiction has existed in China almost as long as it existed in the West. It began in the late-Qing Dynasty, with scholars translating the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells into Chinese. Among such translators was Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature himself. Of course, tales of the strange and mysterious permeate Chinese literature from its ancient origins on, but the first work generally recognized as an original Chinese science fiction story was Colony of the Moon (月球殖民地). It was published as a serial from 1904 to 1905 under the pen name Huangjiang Diaosou (荒江钓叟), which means “Old Fisherman by a Deserted River.” Many other works were published during this early-twentieth-century period. The genre was perceived to have literary merit through its ability to incite interest among readers in the rapidly evolving fields of science and technology, in which China was involved in a game of catch-up.

. . . .

At the beginning of Mao’s Communist rule starting in 1949, the genre still flourished – so long as works reflected the party line. These works tended to be geared towards young readers, optimistic, and educational. Many Soviet era sci-fi works, such as those of Alexander Belyayev, were translated into Chinese at this time and influenced the genre. Major Chinese sci-fi authors of the era included Zheng Wenguang (郑文光) and Tong Enzheng (童恩正). Sci-fi took a blow, however, during the Cultural Revolution as creation of the arts all but ceased from 1966-1976, especially genres associated with the West like sci-fi. Lao She, author of the satirical work Cat Country from the Republic era was among the intellectuals targeted and humiliated by anti-bourgeoisie mobs, leading him to drown himself in a lake shortly thereafter.

. . . .

Sci-fi experienced a major revival after Mao’s death, now with some darker and broader themes from a generation of authors that grew up during the violence and tumult of the Cultural Revolution. This period also saw the popularization of sci-fi magazines, such as  Science Literature and Art (科学文艺), now known as Science Fiction World (科幻世界), one of the most successful sci-fi publications in the world in terms of number of readers. Cixin Liu appears on the scene beside Han Song and Wang Jinkang,“Three Generals of Chinese Sci-fi,” as part of this New Wave of sci-fi authors.

That takes us up to Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, which was serialized in Science Fiction World in 2006 and first published as a book in 2008. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Chinese-American author Ken Liu tackled its translation and the novel began garnering international recognition. The Three-Body Problem is an example of hard sci-fi, where fantasy is rooted in actual advanced scientific knowledge (the title refers to a physics phenomenon involving the gravitational forces of three celestial bodies). The novel opens with a scene from the Cultural Revolution and then flashes forward a couple decades to a time when the world’s leaders and militaries are faced with a mysterious virtual reality game and an impending alien invasion. Hapless nanomaterials scientist Wang Miao finds himself caught in the middle of it all.

Link to the rest at Asia Times

Here’s a link to The Three Body Problem.

J.K. Rowling Has Two More Novels in the Works

23 December 2016

From Slate:

Rowling revealed that she has not one but two novels in the works, one under her own name, the other under her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, which she uses for her Cormoran Strike books. Rowling first adopted the pen name for The Cuckoo’s Calling, saying that she hoped to write without the hype or expectations placed on her as the author of Harry Potter. But her secret has been out for years, and her announcement has certainly brought the hype for what will be the fourth book in the detective series.

But what about the other novel, the one that will say “J.K. Rowling” on the cover? All we really know is that it won’t be about Newt Scamander, the hero of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Link to the rest at Slate

Star Wars Is and Always Has Been Political

12 December 2016

From i09:

At the premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.” That cannot be true. Star Wars is, and always has been, inherently political.

It’s impossible to look at any Star Wars film and not realize that it’s packed full of allusions—some subtle and others really really not—that make it clear that the franchise is saying things about what’s good and what’s evil. The Empire is evil in Star Wars, that much is abundantly clear. The mere set-up of a totalitarian state, run by a dictator who has no problems with subordinates being murdered for failure or who approves the building of a space station that can destroy a whole planet, versus a band of rebels trying to restore justice to the galaxy is a political statement. Unless Rogue One isn’t actually about the desperate measures the rebels will take to defeat the Empire, it’s going to be making some sort of political statement.

The Empire, from its first appearance, was clearly meant as a stand-in for fascism. “Stormtrooper” is a name that comes from German troops in World War I and comes up again in Nazi Germany as the Sturmabteilung (“Storm detachment”), the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.

. . . .

“[Rogue One] has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made and we are very proud of that, and that is not a political statement, at all,” Iger contradictorily told The Hollywood Reporter. While it shouldn’t be a political statement to have a multi-ethnic cast, that’s not the world we live in. It’s a choice that the filmmakers made, on purpose. It has to be on purpose, because the default in Hollywood films is still mostly white. Filling out the hero roles with a diverse cast is a political statement and one completely in keeping with the politics that have always been a part of Star Wars.

Iger’s comments that there aren’t political statements in Rogue One are related to two deleted tweets from Rogue One writer Chris Weitz and former Rogue One writer Gary Whitta. On the Friday following the election, Weitz tweeted “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” Whitta added, “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.” The response to these almost completely objective truths about Star Wars swelled to last week’s call for a boycott of the movie and the by-now standard hashtag (#DumpStarWars). Iger probably wants to defuse the controversy, which he is at least right in calling “silly.”

Link to the rest at i09

PG suspects he is not the only person who would like 2016 and its politics to be over.

Why do Dwarves Sound Scottish and Elves Sound Like Royalty?

9 December 2016

From Atlas Obscura:

In the game Hearthstone, when the dwarven Innkeeper greets players with a hearty, “WELCOME to the Inn!” he sounds like he’s channeling some cartoonish ideal of the Scottish accent. And he’s not alone. Standard fantasy dwarves speak with a Scottish or generally Northern European brogue, but how can that be true when such a race never really existed? The same can be said for the lofty English tone of the elves, or the working-class Cockney of many orcs and trolls.

While slight variations on these themes exist, fantasy races seem to have as much of a stereotypical sound as any real-world dialect. And they tell us more about the characters than you probably realize.

Long before elves, orcs, and dwarves populated the pages of Dungeons & Dragons sourcebooks, Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth film adaptations, and video games like World of Warcraft, they developed out of mythology, fan imagination, and more than anywhere else, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. And even though his works were purely textual, the ways that common fantasy races sound today have their roots in his vivid fantasy world.

. . . .

“Elves wouldn’t even really be a thing, at least not in the way they currently are, if it weren’t for Tolkien,” says Corey Olsen, noted Tolkien scholar and creator of The Tolkien Professor podcast. “Dwarves are another thing. A lot of the things that we associate with dwarves, we owe a lot of that to Tolkien.”

Throughout The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the reams of related histories Tolkien wrote about Middle Earth, he established whole societies, histories, and languages for a handful of races that still inform how they are depicted today. Elves are ancient, beautiful, and have pointy ears; dwarves are short, tough, and love to use axes; orcs are filthy brutes who live for destruction.

Of course the original readers couldn’t hear what Tolkien’s creatures sounded like, but the intense focus he placed on developing their languages gave people a pretty good idea. “Tolkien was a philologist,” says Olsen.“This is what he did. He studied language and the history of language and the changing of language over time.”

Tolkien would create languages first, then write cultures and histories to speak them, often taking inspiration from the sound of an existing language.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Author’s Vision of a Future Beijing Looks to China’s Present

30 November 2016

From The New York Times:

Sunlight is so scarce that it is rationed based on economic class. Schools are so packed that the poorest parents must wait in line for days to secure spots for their children.

Those are the grim scenes of Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” a science-fiction novelette that won a Hugo Awardin August, beating out Stephen King. The story is set in a futuristic Beijing, though many of its scenes seem grounded in the problems vexing Chinese society today.

Ms. Hao, 32, is the first Chinese woman to win a Hugo, conferred by the World Science Fiction Society.

. . . .

Science fiction has taken off in China in recent years, and more and more Chinese authors are gaining international recognitionfor their work. What do you think makes Chinese science fiction unique?

Some Chinese science fiction reads like nonfiction with a few sci-fi elements mixed in. Chinese science fiction isn’t necessarily about the universe, the future, artificial intelligence or technology. It might be about the present or even ancient Chinese history.

. . . .

In “Folding Beijing,” you portray a deeply stratified society in which even mingling among economic classes is forbidden. Why focus on inequality?

We see from history that, at the beginning of every new empire, equality was one of people’s aspirations, but as the empire grew older, inequality appeared again, and people had to overthrow the empire and start all over again. It seems even now there isn’t an ideal solution. Inequality will continue to be a challenge for human society in the future.

. . . .

You have a deep interest in Chinese history. What do you think defines the modern era in China?

I think now is a time of free thought if you look across the broader picture of thousands of years of Chinese history. Thirty years ago, culture and tradition were shattered during the Cultural Revolution. Our generation doesn’t have the same connection to past traditions, and we’ve absorbed so much from Western culture, which is popular.

That has advantages and disadvantages. The bad side is that foreign culture doesn’t have its roots in China, so no matter how much we learn about it, it’s not ours. We don’t know much about traditional culture, which means we are lost. The good side is that we don’t have traditional burdens and are eager to learn unfamiliar things. It’s a time full of uncertainty and potential, and nobody knows where we’re heading.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s First Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest

29 November 2016

From Small Wars Journal:

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command is pleased to announce its first Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest and will accept submissions between November 22, 2016 and February 15, 2017.

The topic for this competition is “Warfare in 2030 to 2050.”  Writers from all walks of life have the opportunity to contribute ideas that are outside what the Army is already considering about the future.  These stories are being used to explore fresh ideas about the future of warfare and technology. Writers are asked to consider (but not limited to) how trends in science, technology, society, the global economy, and other aspects could change the world in a meaningful way, with implications for how the Army operates in future conflicts.

Link to the rest at Small Wars Journal and thanks to N. for the tip.

Science Fiction, Space Law, and the Regulatory State

25 November 2016

From Space Lawyer Laura Montgomery:

I read John Varley in my teens. I had a subscription to Analog, or, Galaxy, it might have been; and Varley’s short stories showed up there regularly. He was really close to Heinlein in my pantheon of favorite authors. I read The Ophiuchi Hotline when it came out, and waited eagerly for Titan and its sequels.

I grew up, I went to law school, I worked for a law firm.   I changed jobs and became a space lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration and worked on commercial space transportation issues under the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). (Of course, none of the views expressed here represent those of my former employer, especially the stuff about John Varley). So, about a decade ago, when I saw Red Thunder, a really fun book about a group of young people with a secret space engine trying to get to Mars before anyone else, I was very happy to pick it up.

Reading it was just heaven, until it got to a certain point: the point where our heroes agreed amongst themselves they didn’t need much in the way of regulatory approvals, aside from getting clearance from the FAA’s Air Traffic (which, if I recall correctly, everything being secret and all, I don’t think they bothered with, but I may be wrong). But, and here’s the sad part, the characters made no mention of FAA launch licensing.

How could John Varley have let me down like this? He could talk about Air Traffic control, but not about the licensing requirements of the Commercial Space Launch Act? What was wrong with him? Did science fiction writers have no regard for the law? Michael Flynn knew about the CSLA, and its administrators showed up as petty bureaucrats in Firestar. That was cool. He was up to snuff. But John Varley?

Link to the rest at Ground Based Space Matters

Admiral Raddus Has a Grumpy Face Because He’s Star Wars’ Winston Churchill

21 November 2016

From i09:

It’s often considered an honor to have your likeness immortalized, whether it’s on a painting, in the pages of a biography, or even on film. However, I’m not sure how the great Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the UK, would feel about being turned into a Star Wars squid alien. Well, tough luck, he is one now!

The latest Rogue One featurette includes a shot of Diego Luna’s Captain Cassian Andor chilling with a black-hued Mon Calamari named Admiral Raddus. He’s one of several Mon Calamari who shows up in this flick, as their species is a key member of the Alliance to restore the Republic. We had a lot of fun making fun of his hilariously grumpy face when we saw the action figure earlier this year.

. . . .

It turns out his features aren’t just a sign that the admiral’s a not-so-secret curmudgeon. He was designed to look and act like Winston Churchill.

“We always tried to find a real world example of who these creatures may be, and in this case we used Churchill,” Neal Scanlan, creature effects supervisor, told EW. “Admiral Raddus is a very strong figure. We would use [Churchill] not only as visual reference for his physical features, but also when it came to performing him and expressing him through the actor.”

Link to the rest at i09

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