Why There Will Be A Robot Uprising

18 April 2014

From Defense One:

In the movie Transcendence, which opens in theaters on Friday, a sentient computer program embarks on a relentless quest for power, nearly destroying humanity in the process.

The film is science fiction but a computer scientist and entrepreneur Steven Omohundro says that “anti-social” artificial intelligence in the future is not only possible, but probable, unless we start designing AI systems very differently today.

Omohundro’s most recent recent paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, lays out the case.

We think of artificial intelligence programs as somewhat humanlike. In fact, computer systems perceive the world through a narrow lens, the job they were designed to perform.

Microsoft Excel understands the world in terms of numbers entered into cells and rows; autonomous drone pilot systems perceive reality as a bunch calculations and actions that must be performed for the machine to stay in the air and to keep on target. Computer programs think of every decision in terms of how the outcome will help them do more of whatever they are supposed to do. It’s a cost vs. benefit calculation that happens all the time. Economists call it a utility function, but Omohundro says it’s not that different from the sort of math problem going in the human brain whenever we think about how to get more of what we want at the least amount of cost and risk.

For the most part, we want machines to operate exactly this way.  The problem, by Omohundro’s logic, is that we can’t appreciate the obsessive devotion of a computer program to the thing it’s programed to do.

Put simply, robots are utility function junkies.

Even the smallest input that indicates that they’re performing their primary function better, faster, and at greater scale is enough to prompt them to keep doing more of that regardless of virtually every other consideration. That’s fine when you are talking about a simple program like Excel but becomes a problem when AI entities capable of rudimentary logic take over weapons, utilities or other dangerous or valuable assets.

In such situations, better performance will bring more resources and power to fulfill that primary function more fully, faster, and at greater scale. More importantly, these systems don’t worry about costs in terms of relationships, discomfort to others, etc., unless those costs present clear barriers to more primary function. This sort of computer behavior is anti-social, not fully logical, but not entirely illogical either.

Omohundro calls this approximate rationality and argues that it’s a faulty notion of design at the core of much contemporary AI development.

“We show that these systems are likely to behave in anti-social and harmful ways unless they are very carefully designed. Designers will be motivated to create systems that act approximately rationally and rational systems exhibit universal drives towards self-protection, resource acquisition, replication and efficiency. The current computing infrastructure would be vulnerable to unconstrained systems with these drives,” he writes.

. . . .

The more logical the robot, the more likely it is to fight you to the death.

Link to the rest at Defense One


The First Instagram From Space Is Of An Astronaut In A Firefly T-Shirt

17 April 2014

Since The Passive Voice includes a lot of Firefly fans.

From io9:


Last week, NASA astronaut Steve Swanson sent the first Instagram from space. It was a selfie, naturally, taken before the ISS cupola. But what caught our eye wasn’t Swanson’s handsome mug or the view of Earth. It was Swanson’s shirt, which features a familiar spacecraft and the words: “Shipping & Logistics: Everything’s Shiny.”

Link to the rest at io9

What Robot Behavior Makes People Feel Uncomfortable?

9 April 2014

From IEEE Spectrum:

A few years ago, I met one of the previous versions of the REEM robot. REEM was taller and broader than me, and its big, black eyes tracked me as I moved. When I shifted, its stare followed. It watched me with target-locked precision, like a laser into my soul.

I’ve been working with robots for over eight years now, and REEM was certainly beautifully designed. But something was bugging me about its behavior, and now researchers know what it is.

According to Sean Andrist from the University of Wisconsin Madison, robots need to look away sometimes. Eye contact provides a basis for human social communication (which is why we seek to implement it in robots), but there’s a sweet spot for the amount of time we spend gazing into each other’s eyes.

In a conversation, humans don’t look at each other 100 percent of the time, says Andrist. When listening, we look at the speaker around 70 percent of the time. On the other hand, speakers only look directly at the other person around 40 percent of the time when talking.

Psychology literature gives at least three reasons why we avert our gaze, noted Andrist at his talk at the 2014 ACM/IEEE Human-Robot Interaction Conference last month. First, we might look away to show that we’re thinking, usually by looking upwards. Secondly, humans display something called intimacy regulation—we look to the side to avoid the negative connotations that come with staring at someone. Finally, there’s floor management. We “hold the floor” by looking away during a pause in our speech. In other words, we look away when we want to keep talking but need to take a breath.

. . . .

Andrist used these statistics to build an automatic gaze shifting program on a NAO robot. NAO used a Kinect to track the face of the humans it spoke with, and occasionally averted its gaze with the same probabilities as humans.

Link to the rest at IEEE Spectrum

PG never thought he would include anything from IEEE (The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) on The Passive Voice, but now he has.

The Wake Up Call Heard Five Years Ago

5 April 2014

From Tracy Hickman:

I received a phone call today to tell me that perhaps I should find this article on what I said in a speech and that I should read it. I’m often intrigued by what people say that I said … and in this case what someone said that someone said that someone said that I said.

. . . .

I am fighting for my life as an author but then those authors who are not are as rare as meteor strikes in my back yard. I do work 12-14 hours a day – but what the quote does not say is that I’m working those hours on self-publishing projects, or on an independent publishing contract I have with ‘Shroud of the Avatar‘, or my own self-promoted serial novels or my more recent successful kickstarter storytelling game project. I engineer my own ebooks, do my own layouts and generate my own epub and mobi format files. I design and provide content for my own websites, book my own appearances and sell my own content through my websites. I even occasionally pick up the phone when people call to tell me with concern that there is an article quoting me on the internet.

And, if you had the time, I could tell you exactly why I think ‘Legacy’ publishing is a dinosaur just begging for extinction.

Let me fill in some of the blanks for you. There is nothing preventing me from writing 12,000 word publications and selling it for $4.95. My actual point is that this very fact spells the death of the ‘Great American Novel’ as we once knew it. I’m a working writer, a professional for thirty years. It’s not a hobby for me; this is my bread, butter and mortgage payment. The economics of words is part of my career. It is precisely this fact that requires me to do exactly what this article asked: write shorter fiction in serialized format in order to be properly compensated for my time, my talent and my three-decades of craft. What perhaps needs to be said is that now that same 120,000 word novel I once sold as a whole now might have to be sold as a five-to seven-volume serial – and now ends up costing those who want to read the entire story that same $49.50 in order to get all of the installments.

. . . .

As for my audience, it’s a dramatic picture that is painted here but inaccurate. Of course my audience remembers me (they’re very bright) but the world today — especially the internet — is a pretty distracting place. Where my readers once looked for my books in the local book store, the B. Daltons and Waldens are now gone from the malls that have vanished with them. The truth is that the old ways in which my readers and I once connected have disappeared. That is why so much of my efforts today are going to reconnecting with my audience in new ways and far more directly.

Link to the rest at Tracy Hickman and thanks to Frank for the tip.

Tracy Hickman Has Sobering News for Aspiring Writers

3 April 2014


Tracy Hickman, author of the famous ‘DragonLance’ series spoke with an audience at AnomalyCon in Denver.

. . . .

“I have to do more now,” he said finally. A hush went over the audience as Hickman continued to describe the conditions under which authors are laboring under today. One can write 12,000 words and sell it for 4.95, he said. At that price point, his 120,000 novel would have be $49.50, which would be impossible to market.

“I’m fighting for my life as an author,” he admitted frankly, his voice solemn.

He then said that his audience of 6 million no longer find him because the book store is dying. A booksigning in older days would have fans lining around blocks just to have his signature, but a booksigning now might only get six people. “I have a 6 million following,” he said quietly, “and they don’t remember me.”

Now, he works 12-14 hours a day writing four times the books he’s comfortable writing because he makes a fourth of what he used to.

At this point, an uncomfortable silence filled the hall. Hickman closed his eyes, and entered his thoughts, perhaps considering if this was really the message he wanted to convey to a room full of aspiring writers.

Link to the rest at and thanks to JR for the tip.

J.K. Rowling to pen three ‘Harry Potter’ spin-off movies

31 March 2014

From the Daily News:

Muggles, rejoice! More wizarding movies are on the way.

J.K. Rowling has teamed up with Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara to write three new films based on the world of Harry Potter.

. . . .

The main character of the trilogy will be Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist.” The spin-off will be set before Potter’s adventures.

Link to the rest at the Daily News and thanks to Barb for the tip.

Excerpt from The Winds of Winter

29 March 2014

From George R.R. Martin:

She woke with a gasp, not knowing who she was, or where.

The smell of blood was heavy in her nostrils… or was that her nightmare, lingering? She had dreamed of wolves again, of running through some dark pine forest with a great pack at her hells, hard on the scent of prey.

Half-light filled the room, grey and gloomy. Shivering, she sat up in bed and ran a hand across her scalp. Stubble bristled against her palm. I need to shave before Izembaro sees. Mercy, I’m Mercy, and tonight I’ll be raped and murdered. Her true name was Mercedene, but Mercy was all anyone ever called her…

Except in dreams. She took a breath to quiet the howling in her heart, trying to remember more of what she’d dreamt, but most of it had gone already. There had been blood in it, though, and a full moon overhead, and a tree that watched her as she ran.

Link to the rest at George R.R. Martin and thanks to Julia for the tip.

The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Gnome Press

28 March 2014

From Kirkus:

Throughout this column, we’ve talked about the origins of modern science fiction, usually through the stories that appeared in pulp magazines in the early-20th century. With few exceptions, science fiction authors made their living from stories placed in the cheap, disposable magazines sold across the country. However, in the 1950s, the publishing landscape began to change as magazines folded and book publishers rose to take their place. One such publisher that emerged during this time and would prove to be an influential and telling example of the sci-fi novel industry was Gnome Press.

Following the end of World War II, soldiers began to return home, among them a number of authors who had left the sci-fi community to go off to war. It was 1947, and the community was beginning to coalesce once more. Two recent Futurian returnees, David Kyle and Frederik Pohl, boarded a train for Philadelphia on August 30th and headed out to the 5th World Science Fiction Convention at the Penn-Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia. The pair, along with several other sci-fi fans, opted to form a new group, one more professionally oriented.

One member was Martin Greenberg, who had likewise returned home to the U.S. following his service overseas, only to find that his mother had donated his entire collection of SF magazines to a war drive; he was finding that rebuilding his collection was expensive.

. . . .

After their meeting in 1948, the pair decided to pool their resources and jump into the publishing business, each with equal stake in their new company, which they named Gnome Press. In the post-War country, the sci-fi magazine industry was doing well, but much of the genre’s stories were locked away in magazine issues displayed on store racks for only a short time. The pair reasoned that there would be some demand for books in addition to magazines.

. . . .

The Carnelian Cube: a Humorous Fantasy emerged with a print run of 2500 copies, following an archaeologist who finds a stone which transports him to parallel worlds. Gnome Press’ next book was a fantasy titled The Porcelain Magician: A Collection of Oriental Fantasies by Frank Owen, a collection of stories which largely appeared in Weird Tales between 1923 and 1930, in addition to some new material.

. . . .

In 1949, Robert Heinlein, one of Gnome’s most reliable sellers, came out with his novel Sixth Column, originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in January, February and March 1941, under the name Anson MacDonald.

. . . .

In 1950, Isaac Asimov began looking for a new home for some of his short stories. As the book market began to grow, a number of authors started looking into carrying their earlier publications to a new platform. Rebuffed by his current publisher, Doubleday (who wanted new material, rather than repackaged short stories), Asimov approached Greenberg, who was eager to publish his stories. Asimov pulled together nine of his robot stories: “Robbie”; “Runaround”; “Reason”; “Catch that Rabbit”; “Liar!”; “Little Lost Robot”; “Escape!”; “Evidence” and “The Evitable Conflict” into a single volume called I, Robot.

. . . .

Gnome brought Asimov’s Foundation trilogy to hardcover between 1951 and 1953. Gnome began bringing on other well-known authors to their stable, including works from Robert E. Howard.The first Howard novel, Conan the Conqueror, appeared in 1950, and was followed by several others over the coming years.

. . . .

As Gnome’s financial problems mounted, so too did the publisher’s relationship with its authors. Asimov’s relationship with Gnome deteriorated quickly: “Martin had a peculiarity. He had the unalterable aversion to paying out royalties and, in point of fact, never did. At least, he never paid me. The royalties would have never been very high, but however small they were, he wouldn’t pay… I suggested that I was willing to wait for the money, but couldn’t I at least get a statement of sales and earnings so I could keep track of what he owed me? But no, that too seemed to be against his religion.”

. . . .

1955 saw new problems for the press as the magazine industry began to fold. New York’s major publishing houses starting taking notice of the new demand for science fiction, and they had the ability to sign major authors with better and more reliable terms.

. . . .

Greenberg’s habits ultimately proved to be the company’s downfall: Faced with increasingly hostile authors who had not been paid, Gnome began to lose its prominent stable of titles. Asimov noted the irony here: Had Greenberg been prompt with payment, Gnome would have likely benefited from their mainstream rise. Instead, they began to jump ship. Facing years of unpaid royalties, L. Sprauge de Camp resold the rights to Conan the Conqueror to Wollheim at Ace Books, and others to paperback publisher Lancer books in 1964. Greenberg sued to block the sale, but the courts sided with de Camp, whose Conan titles were republished under a new flag. Asimov brought legal pressure to Gnome, and was able to extract the rights for I, Robot and his three Foundation novels, all of which ended up at Doubleday.

Link to the rest at Kirkus and thanks to Dan for the tip.

A Beginner’s Guide to YA Dystopian Novels

28 March 2014

From GroupThink:

If you hadn’t noticed, YA scifi/fantasy—and more specifically, YA dystopia—is having something of a moment lately. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the most successful film of 2013, and there are more than 50 million print and digital copies of the books available in the US alone. Divergentdominated the box office when it opened last weekend. And if Wikipedia is anything to go by (debatable), the sheer number of dystopian works has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. These books may be written for teens, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be worthwhile even once you’ve left high school behind.

But some novels are more equal than others, and there’s a lot of variation within this genre. The following is simply an introduction to this brave new world, focusing on relatively recent releases.

. . . .

We’ll start off with the obvious. The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, is pretty much the poster child for YA dystopia at this point. If you haven’t heard about it, you’ve probably been hiding under a rock; please contact your nearest teenager for a heavy sigh, an eye-roll, and a plot summary before continuing. The series has a complex protagonist—and the first female character to lead a movie to the top of the box office rankings in 40 years—in Katniss Everdeen, and the books tackle serious issues surrounding race, class, and other topics far darker than most people expect from a book geared toward the lip gloss- and Axe-wearing crowd. Are they the best-written books I’ve ever written? No, but they’re worthwhile anyway.

. . . .

Ally Condie’s Matched takes place in a society where the government determines the spouse of every citizen. 17-year-old Cassia is matched with her best friend—but when she goes to view his information, another person shows up on the screen for an instant, forcing Cassia to question the accuracy of her match and, ultimately, her faith in the creatively-named Society. The series is lighter than The Hunger Games, but it’s still a good read (as long as you can handle the fact that the premise is basically set up to create a love triangle). Matchedhasn’t been made into a movie yet, but it’s on the way—Disney bought the rights before the book was even released, and supposedly production has begun.

. . . .

Let’s cleanse our palates with something good, shall we? M.T. Anderson’s Feed is a reminder, more than anything else on this list, that YA literature can be for adults as well. Feed is a more classic dystopia than the others here, following in the footsteps of Huxley or Orwell, and takes place in a future where everything is controlled by corporations, everyone follows trends like zombies, and the Internet-like “feed” is implanted directly into people’s brains. There’s a romance here, but make no mistake—this is not a light story. The end ofMockingjay is downright cheerful by comparison. Anderson makes some heavy critiques of modern society, but he clearly knows his craft and. Read it.

Link to the rest at GroupThink

SHAKESPEARE system for helping authors figure out self-publishing

20 March 2014

From author Matthew Mather via SFFWorld:

I get a lot of requests from new authors looking for tips and advice on how to navigate the self-publishing book market. I created this document to summarize the approach that worked for me in getting started.

Exactly one year after publishing my first novel, Atopia Chronicles, a science fiction epic (followed a half a year later by CyberStorm, a present day tech-thriller in the vein of Crichton) I’ve managed to achieve some impressive success: 20th Century Fox purchased the film rights to CyberStorm, over 120,000 books sold, and ten foreign language publishing deals…tooting my own horn a bit :) but just trying to illustrate what’s possible.

My background as an entrepreneur shaped my thinking in approaching self-publishing. In the past I’ve managed my own successful start-ups, as well as helping start many other companies get started–handling everything from writing business plans to raising venture capital. I applied that same structured way of think about starting a new business to the business of marketing a book, and below I am sharing my SHAKESPEARE system for helping new authors reach their own self-publishing success.

. . . .


As attention spans shorten in the online (and real) world, readers don’t trust a new author enough to read 400 pages to get the point. For a new author, a winning approach is to serialize, to create your work as a set of progressively longer stories that connect together through cliffhangers to get a reader hooked. And speaking of that…


The first short story needs to be punchy and tell a complete story in itself while leaving the reader wanting to know more. Even more than that, you need to hook the reader on the first page somehow, create a mystery, a reason and need to keep reading.


To start, focus only on Amazon. I’m not here to promote Amazon, but the first rule of entrepreneurism is to focus, focus, focus. The large majority of revenue in digital books comes from Amazon, with a small minority coming from all of the other players combined. So when you start, focus on Amazon by itself; getting reviews, getting up in the ranking. By only going on Amazon, you force people to buy from one place and thus drive up your rankings in this one spot. Once you have achieved some success there, expand to other platforms (FYI the easiest way to get on other platforms is just to use Smashwords).

. . . .

Perceived Value

Create perceived value by offering a deal. For instance, try and divide your ‘whole’ work into 6 parts, and sell each for $0.99, and then offer the whole ‘collection’ at half price, e.g. $2.99 for all six. This creates perceived value on the part of the buyer when you start to sell the whole collection

Link to the rest at SffWorld

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