Intelligent Machines Will Teach Us—Not Replace Us

7 May 2018

Not exactly about books (except for scifi), but, for PG, an interesting topic.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Over the centuries, humans have created countless technologies to save ourselves from backbreaking physical labor and mindless routine. AI continues that progress by taking over many rote cognitive tasks that don’t require human judgment, strategic planning or creativity. Whether it’s browsing millions of legal documents or scrutinizing CT scans, machines can now do much expert work faster and more precisely than their human creators. New forms of artificial intelligence will surpass us in new and surprising ways, thanks to machine-learning techniques that generate their own knowledge—and even their own code. Humans, meanwhile, will continue up the ladder to management.

We’re not being replaced by AI. We’re being promoted.

. . . .

Our outdated vocabulary stokes our fears. “Artificial intelligence” sounds like an unnatural rival of our own, as an artificial sweetener is to sugar. We should instead think of AI as “augmented intelligence.” Our increasingly intelligent machines are making us smarter, just as our past technology—from pulleys to hydraulics, and sailing ships to rocket ships—made us stronger and faster. For the first time, machines aren’t just giving us answers more quickly and accurately. They are generating new knowledge that helps us better understand the world.

. . . .

In December, Demis Hassabis at DeepMind, an artificial-intelligence unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., unveiled his latest chess program, the first of its kind. The project, called AlphaZero, is a generic machine-learning algorithm with no chess knowledge beyond the rules. After playing against itself for several hours, AlphaZero crushed one of the world’s strongest traditional programs, which, like every other successful chess program in history, had been programmed with existing human knowledge of how best to play the game.

AlphaZero’s domination was produced with no opening library of moves, no human input about the relative value of the pieces—nothing at all. This unique creation generated its own knowledge to become the strongest chess-playing entity in history; human experience would have held it back. For decades, better programming and processors led to incremental improvements in AI. AlphaZero was a sudden leap—the sort we should expect to see more of as machine-learning models move into disciplines like cancer screenings, asset management, law enforcement and education, to name a few. With only minor exaggeration, in four hours AlphaZero taught itself all the chess knowledge—and more—that computer science had long assumed would come from human masters.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Perpetual License for Derivative Rights

6 May 2018

From Writer Beware:

SFWA’s Contracts Committee has recently been seeing a proliferation of contracts from small magazines, and a very few established markets, that license all derivative rights in perpetuity.

This is a red flag for a number of reasons, even if these rights are licensed non-exclusively. A derivative work is defined by copyright law as “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.” This sort of rights grab is by no means normal; magazines generally only take very limited first publication and archival rights for a limited time. Licensing the right to create derivative works can and mostly likely will interfere with the author’s right to exploit their right to create or license derivative works to others.

The risks of signing such contracts can be serious. To give examples of some of the negative impact of these rights grabs.

1) Dramatic rights are compromised, limiting the author’s ability to sell works for TV and film use because the author can no longer offer exclusive rights to the story, which means movie or TV producers who want exclusive dramatic rights are not likely to be interested in the work. The best case scenario is that the author may end up having to give the publisher of the magazine a cut of any income.

2) Marketing rights are compromised, in that any marketing deal could be undercut by the publisher, who would also have the ability to market those rights.

3) The ability of the author to publish sequels is compromised. The Publisher could commission sequels to the work from another writer, in competition with the author. Even if the Publisher were required pay a fee to the author for a sequel written by another writer, the existence of such competitive sequels would likely seriously hurt the author’s own sequels.

4) The author would have a de facto business partner for the rest of the author’s life and beyond for the life of copyright. Whether or not a clueless publisher would even realize what they’ve acquired or have any idea how to exploit it, the specter would hover over the author’s further use of any elements in the original story. In addition, if the publisher files for bankruptcy, any rights the publisher held would likely become part of its assets sold during the bankruptcy process. The author would then end up with a completely unknown business partner.

5) Even with a perfectly drafted contract, which seems unlikely with a publisher who would propose such a contract in the first place, it could easily take years of legal action to unscramble the competing rights.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

China is now monitoring employees’ brainwaves and emotions

1 May 2018

Not the sort of writing prompt PG necessarily enjoys.

From The South China Morning Post:

Government-backed surveillance projects are deploying brain-reading technology to detect changes in emotional states in employees on the production line, the military and at the helm of high-speed trains

On the surface, the production lines at Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric look like any other.

Workers outfitted in uniforms staff lines producing sophisticated equipment for telecommunication and other industrial sectors.

But there’s one big difference – the workers wear caps to monitor their brainwaves, data that management then uses to adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows, according to the company.

The company said it could increase the overall efficiency of the workers by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.

Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is just one example of the large-scale application of brain surveillance devices to monitor people’s emotions and other mental activities in the workplace, according to scientists and companies involved in the government-backed projects.

Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

. . . .

The technology is also in use at in Hangzhou at State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, where it has boosted company profits by about 2 billion yuan (US$315 million) since it was rolled out in 2014, according to Cheng Jingzhou, an official overseeing the company’s emotional surveillance programme.

“There is no doubt about its effect,” Cheng said.

. . . .

One of the main centres of the research in China is Neuro Cap, a central government-funded brain surveillance project at Ningbo University.

The programme has been implemented in more than a dozen factories and businesses.

Jin Jia, associate professor of brain science and cognitive psychology at Ningbo University’s business school, said a highly emotional employee in a key post could affect an entire production line, jeopardising his or her own safety as well as that of others.

“When the system issues a warning, the manager asks the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post. Some jobs require high concentration. There is no room for a mistake,” she said.

Jin said workers initially reacted with fear and suspicion to the devices.

“They thought we could read their mind. This caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” she said.

“After a while they got used to the device. It looked and felt just like a safety helmet. They wore it all day at work.”

Jin said that at present China’s brain-reading technology was on a par with that in the West but China was the only country where there had been reports of massive use of the technology in the workplace.

. . . .

The research team confirmed the device and technology had been used in China’s military operations but declined to provide more information.

The technology is also being used in medicine.

Ma Huajuan, a doctor at the Changhai Hospital in Shanghai, said the facility was working with Fudan University to develop a more sophisticated version of the technology to monitor a patient’s emotions and prevent violent incidents.

In additional to the cap, a special camera captures a patient’s facial expression and body temperature. There is also an array of pressure sensors planted under the bed to monitor shifts in body movement.

“Together this different information can give a more precise estimate of the patient’s mental status,” she said.

Ma said the hospital welcomed the technology and hoped it could warn medical staff of a potential violent outburst from a patient.

. . . .

Zheng Xingwu, a professor of management at the Civil Aviation University of China, said China could be the first country in the world to introduce the brain surveillance device into cockpits.

Most airline accidents were caused by human factors and a pilot in a disturbed emotional state could put an entire plane at risk, he said.

Putting the cap on before take-off would give airlines more information to determine whether a pilot was fit to fly, Zheng said.

“The influence of the government on airlines and pilots in China is probably larger than in many other countries. If the authorities make up their mind to bring the device into the cockpit, I don’t think they can be stopped,” he said.

“That means the pilots may need to sacrifice some of their privacy for the sake of public safety.”

. . . .

“There is no law or regulation to limit the use of this kind of equipment in China. The employer may have a strong incentive to use the technology for higher profit, and the employees are usually in too weak a position to say no,” he said.

“The selling of Facebook data is bad enough. Brain surveillance can take privacy abuse to a whole new level.”

Link to the rest at The South China Morning Post

James Cameron Is Worried About Our Relationship With Reality

30 April 2018

From Fast Company:

Imagine, if you will, being tasked with categorizing and connecting 200 years of science fiction literature, art, television, and films–and condensing it into six hour-long episodes.

Such was the Dantesque labor of love James Cameron tackled for his new AMC series.

. . . .

The series–the second installment of the cable network’s franchise of artist-curated histories of their respective genres–explores science fiction’s roots, how they’ve informed subsequent generations of storytellers and scientists, and ultimately spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. To anchor each episode, Cameron interviews Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

. . . .

They’re supplemented by observations from another 100 actors, scientists, astronauts, academics, and artists.

. . . .

Cameron’s narrative connects thematic dots from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through H.G. Wells, 1930s pulp era, the Golden Age of sci-fi literature in the ’40s and ’50s, spawning authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, the ’60s and ’70s new wave, cyberpunk in the ’80s, to the present day. It also offers historical context for these periods: the fear of communism intimated in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the threat of nuclear war prompting post-apocalyptic stories like Planet of the Apes and Mad Max, hopeful equality and coexistence in Star Trek, concerns about runaway artificial intelligence in  2001: A Space OdysseyBlade Runner, The Matrix, and Ex Machina, and humanity-decimating epidemics in I Am Legend and The Walking Dead.

. . . .

“What was important to me on this series was to trace back to the DNA of the ideas,” Cameron adds. “So if you have a time travel story, who first thought of that? Who did the first space story and how did that enter popular culture? And how did science fiction struggle as a genre to popularize these complex ideas?”

. . . .

“A lot of the AI scientists remind me of the atomic scientists of the late ’30s, who saw nothing but upsides to nuclear fission,” he adds. “They looked at it as the power supply of the future and, of course, the very first thing we did with it was build an atomic bomb. Historically, it’s easier to see how the dystopian or dark interpretation of the future could win out. But this is the conversation that humans have to have with ourselves, and science fiction is a great way to do it. I actually think it’s more relevant now than it ever was.”

Link to the rest at Fast Company


Wattpad Novel

29 April 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

With more than 905,000 reads at Wattpad to date, the first installment of author Kara Barbieri’s ‘Permafrost’ trilogy has a January release date, potentially the next platform-born YA bestseller.

. . . .

In the latest platform-to-Big-Five cover reveal for a title that began life on Wattpad, Macmillan’s Wednesday Books has announced January 8 as the publication date for Kara Barbieri’s White Stag.

. . . .

The YA series then was described as having been “pitched as Twilight Meets Game of Thrones, featuring a 17-year-old girl who was captured from her village to live in the brutally beautiful Permafrost, where she finds herself becoming more monster than human and must uncover secrets to find the truth about who she is and the world that has become her home.”

In a prepared statement provided to Publishing Perspectives, Gardner is quoted, saying, “Kara’s story exploded among readers shortly after she started writing, finding a home in the Wattpad community.

“It’s a story we knew would connect with audiences of Wattpad. People couldn’t put this story down, enthralled by its mix of fantasy and action combined with themes of female empowerment.

“White Stag is a perfect example of how Wattpad creates opportunities for authors. We can’t wait to see this story take the world by storm as a book next year.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG had to double-check the dates in the OP.

In an article dated April 27, 2018, Macmillan is publicizing a novel that it acquired in 2016 that will be released in January 2019.

Does it really take three years for a major publisher to release a book that (by virtue of nearly a million reads on Wattpad, seems to be attractive to readers) is already quite good?

What is Fantasy, Exactly?

28 April 2018

From Writer Unboxed:

‘So what do you do?’

‘I’m a writer.’

‘Oh, really? What do you write?’

‘Historical fantasy.’

Blank stare. This person has never heard of your genre. Perhaps this person does not even read fiction. They have heard the word fantasy before, though, so what they probably say next is, ‘Oh, children’s books?’

You then attempt to define fantasy in layperson’s terms, often by saying what your own work isn’t. It’s not like Harry Potter. It’s not like Lord of the Rings. It’s not like Game of Thrones. There are no elves, dwarves, dragons …

. . . .

When this happens to me, I explain that my novels are like historical fiction, but with an uncanny element based on the likely beliefs of that time and culture. I say they appeal to readers of historical fiction and historical romance as well as fantasy readers. I mention a couple of other fantasy authors whom my own readers enjoy.

Fantasy is one of the most challenging genres to classify. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the definition reads in part:

“Fantasy” – certainly when conceived as being in contrast to realism – is a most extraordinarily porous term, and has been used to mop up vast deposits of story which this culture or that – and this era or that – deems unrealistic. (from the 1997 edition: article by John Clute.)

Each of the three sub-genres of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and horror) has its own characteristics. Broadly, fantasy contains elements that are considered impossible in the world as we know it, though they work in the world of the story, which has its own internal consistency. Science fiction contains elements that are not currently proven by science, but that might be possible, perhaps in a world to come. In the body of work publishers label and promote as fantasy, you’ll find many stories that are a blend of these sub-genres, steampunk being a prominent example with its blend of history, magic and technology.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Vorkosigan Saga: Conflicting Views Of Disability

12 April 2018

From BookRiot:

I’ve always loved sci-fi and fantasy, particularly when it has an anthropological bent, like the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Because I’m disabled, I always notice disabled characters, or the lack thereof, in speculative fiction world-building. So, I was fascinated to discover Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, whose protagonist Miles Vorkosigan is a military officer with a lifelong disability.

Miles’s home planet of Barrayar is progressive in terms of technology but retrogressive about disability rights. As described in Shards of Honor and Barrayar, Miles was born with skeletal conditions after an assassination attempt during his mother Cordelia’s pregnancy. Abhorring the idea of a disabled heir, Miles’s paternal grandfather keeps trying to murder Miles when he’s transferred to an artificial uterus and after his birth.

The contrast between Cordelia’s feminist home planet, Beta Colony, and Miles’s aristocratic father’s planet of Barrayar is striking. Betans learn about gender equality and sexual agency and consent from a young age, while Barrayar is more traditional in every way—almost feudal. Cordelia is an indomitable heroine who refuses to let her father-in-law intimidate her. I agree with her inclusion on Nikki Vanry’s list of badass middle-aged heroines.

. . . .

I didn’t understand why disabled people still face ableism and even eugenics on Barrayar until I read the prequel, Falling Free, set 200 years earlier. While some science fiction societies eliminate disability through cures or eugenics, the corporate-owned space station in Falling Free commodifies disability. The corporation deliberately genetically engineers mutants whose legs have been replaced with a second set of arms. This would make them functionally disabled on a planet, but it makes them superior workers in the weightless space station environment. The corporation literally owns these mutants, called Quaddies, and controls their reproduction. Even the novel’s hero, a non-disabled engineer named Leo Graf, initially pities the Quaddies and then serves as their savior in a paternalistic way.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Scientific Magic: Five Books That Reconnect Us to Astrology

5 April 2018


Astrology is on the rise among millennials and post-millennials, arguably strange considering within the last two hundred years science has become an almost universally accepted paradigm. Perhaps this new interest constitutes a counter-reaction to the sway of science-as-truth, or maybe it’s a symptom of our uncertain times. It might be the profoundly human desire to know when we might fall in love or strike it rich (after all, who wouldn’t?), but there is no arguing that astrology and its accompanying paraphernalia (tarot decks and apps, sacred grids, crystals) hold a major appeal for this generation.

In my novel Wonderblood, I use astrology as a tool for examining faith, specifically, what it means to have faith in a dire prediction. But just as much as I love the threat of a good apocalypse, I love reading and writing about the tools astrologers use to make their predictions. Perhaps astrology is so appealing because it can seem an awful lot like science, with its charts, angles, degrees and timelines.

. . . .

Prophecy by S.J. Parris

Another entry set in the early 16th century, Prophecy by S.J. Parris (the pen name of journalist Stephanie Merritt) concerns dire predictions, Queen Elizabeth’s personal astrologer and famous occult philosopher John Dee, and murder most foul. Dee remarks in the opening pages “…This transition into the sign of Aries at the end of our troubled century has been prophesied by many as signifying the end of history.” The protagonist here is none other than Giordano Bruno himself, an excommunicated friar who believed, among other things, in the infinity of the universe and that stars are “other suns with their own planets.” As the investigative hero in this historical thriller, Bruno sets out in the year of the Great Conjunction to discover if black magic has indeed killed one of Elizabeth’s handmaids.

Link to the rest at

The 19th-Century “Golden Hours” Convention Brought Young Readers Together to Meet Their Literary Heroes

10 March 2018
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From Smithsonian:

In the early evening dark of March 30, 1889, a thick crowd of eager children – estimates say as many as 2,000 – converged on the Palace Rink in Brooklyn for the inaugural Convention of the Golden Hours Club.

. . . .

Golden Hours, a popular “story paper” full of adventure stories for young readers, had prepared a jam-packed evening of entertainment for its fans: peppy, patriotic songs descended from an orchestra couched in the music loft. The children were treated to hours of performance from musicians, Civil War veterans, ventriloquists and caricaturists, with the itinerary running until nearly midnight. There were celebrities, too: the author Edward Ellis talked at length to a rapt crowd about “the Indians, of whom the boys have read so much.” The kids, noted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “were noisy and hearty and were afforded full rein.”

The keynote speaker was no less than circus mogul P.T. Barnum, who at 79 years old could still leave a crowd hanging on his every word. “When the rotund form and curly gray locks of the venerable showman appeared inside of the door,” wrote the Eagle’s correspondent, “the youngsters arose to their feet and cheered and stamped and whistled.” The New York Times corroborated, claiming that the roaring and cheers of the assembled children were louder than any circus calliope, and that “Barnum never got a more honest ovation.”

. . . .

The late 19th century was a fertile period in America for popular literature, in large measure due to the rise of pocket-sized dime novels and weekly illustrated “story papers” of serialized popcorn fodder that plainly and spryly catered to the public taste, asserting the newly prominent role of the audience as a driver of mainstream American culture. This phenomenon, of course, was nothing new to Barnum, who had for decades built a thriving career on his ability to shape and evolve with popular taste.

. . . .

Hundreds of titles appeared from the Civil War period onward, among them Frank Leslie’s Boys of AmericaPleasant Hours for Boys and Girls, and Beadle’s Dime NovelsGolden Hours was one of the most popular story papers, printed weekly from 1888 to 1904 in more than 800 issues. The paper generally featured, as most story papers did, episodic action stories that nurtured nostalgia for the glow of pre-industrial frontier America: one issue from April 27, 1889, contains a very typical tale titled The Adventures of Two Boys Among the Utes: A Stirring Story of Hunting and Indian Adventure.

. . . .

Name-dropping Edward S. Ellis was a big deal: Ellis was a titan of Gilded Age youth literature, and his 1868 robot novel The Steam Man of the Prairies is often considered to be the first American work of “edisonade,” a modern term that refers to stories about clever, young, steampunk-y inventors. In Ellis’ story, characters described only as an “Irishman” and a “Yankee” stumble upon a teenager who has ingeniously built a steam-powered robot to pull a carriage for him. (Adventure!) The robot, cutting-edge and thoroughly alien, is ten feet tall, stout, and vaguely menacing with a tin stovepipe hat and a glowing coal furnace in its stomach.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian

From the Falvey Memorial Library, Villanova University, Public Domain


AI has a Hallucination Problem That’s Proving Tough to Fix

10 March 2018

From Wired,

Tech companies are rushing to infuse everything with artificial intelligence, driven by big leaps in the power of machine learning software. But the deep-neural-network software fueling the excitement has a troubling weakness: Making subtle changes to images, text, or audio can fool these systems into perceiving things that aren’t there.

That could be a big problem for products dependent on machine learning, particularly for vision, such as self-driving cars. Leading researchers are trying to develop defenses against such attacks—but that’s proving to be a challenge.

Case in point: In January, a leading machine-learning conference announced that it had selected 11 new papers to be presented in April that propose ways to defend or detect such adversarial attacks. Just three days later, first-year MIT grad student Anish Athalye threw up a webpage claiming to have “broken” seven of the new papers, including from boldface institutions such as Google, Amazon, and Stanford. “A creative attacker can still get around all these defenses,” says Athalye. He worked on the project with Nicholas Carlini and David Wagner, a grad student and professor, respectively, at Berkeley.

That project has led to some academic back-and-forth over certain details of the trio’s claims. But there’s little dispute about one message of the findings: It’s not clear how to protect the deep neural networks fueling innovations in consumer gadgets and automated driving from sabotage by hallucination. “All these systems are vulnerable,” says Battista Biggio, an assistant professor at the University of Cagliari, Italy, who has pondered machine learning security for about a decade, and wasn’t involved in the study. “The machine learning community is lacking a methodological approach to evaluate security.”

Human readers of WIRED will easily identify the image below, created by Athalye, as showing two men on skis. When asked for its take Thursday morning, Google’s Cloud Vision service reported being 91 percent certain it saw a dog. Other stunts have shown how to make stop signs invisible, or audio that sounds benign to humans but is transcribed by software as “Okay Google browse to evil dot com.”

Link to the rest at Wired


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