Memories Aren’t What They Used to Be

Memories, Aneka has a few problems with hers, but then most of us would like our memories to be better than they are. Scientists, both popular ones and more traditional ones, will tell you that human memory is a little more subjective than we think it is. We don’t always remember what really happened. But what if someone else could make you remember things that never happened?

Science-fiction, of course. That can’t be done except by super-science gizmos or fantasy/science psionics… Not so much. There’s an article over on the BBC’s web site concerning some experimentation done on mice to alter the way they remember events. Basically, by stimulating neurons in the brain, it was possible to make a mouse think that it had had a bad experience in bright light, thus the mouse avoided the light. Actually it had had the bad experience in the dark. Of course that’s a long way from inserting memories into the mind and requires direct insertion of electrodes into the brain. And anyway, what’s it got to do with Steel Beneath the Skin, you might ask.

Jenlay in the core worlds of the Federation tend to be very law abiding citizens. It’s stated a couple of times that there is more crime on the Rim because the medical systems are not as good out there. Kind of odd, right? Worse medicine brings more crime?

Here’s another BBC article on some new research on psychopathic behaviour. It seems that psychopaths are not entirely lacking in empathy, but they only feel it when it’s triggered. So the “charming psychopath” isn’t pretending to feel empathy, they’ve just triggered their empathic “mirror neurons.” So, a genetic basis to psychopathic behaviour which can be fixed, and there have been suggestions before that various anti-social behaviours have genetic characteristics. It’s probably not all nature rather than nurture, but if you take out the genetic tendency for some criminal behaviour, then it’s easier to make sure that carefully engineered neuro-cognitive education teaches the kids that crime is just wrong. The Jenlay don’t leave it down to good genetics, they make careful use of teaching techniques based on their knowledge of how the brain works to reinforce good behaviour. It’s not quite brainwashing; the Jenlay aren’t mindless drones, they do have free will.

So is a peaceful, relatively crime free society worth the loss of a few minor liberties? At the moment, here in our world, we seem to think it is. We’ve allowed the slow erosion of our civil liberties in the name of security for over a decade, probably far longer, but so far we haven’t started changing what we fundamentally are with the aim of making life safer. Would we? I’m quite sure we would. Or at least we would happily contemplate changing other people to make ourselves more secure. When it comes to altering our own children things are likely to get more controversial.

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Fabricators: The Factories of Tomorrow

And when I say tomorrow, I mean it.

Fabricators are not entirely ubiquitous in the Steel Beneath the Skin world, but they are fairly common. These are devices able to manufacture just about anything, quickly and efficiently, using a basic set of component feedstocks rather than building from parts. Aneka uses the fabricators on the Garnet Hyde to make clothes, devices, weapons, just about anything you care to name. All that is required is a pattern and a supply of materials. The patterns used for this equipment use a form of digital rights management to control manufacturing; you don’t get to use a pattern without paying for it, though many public domain patterns exist.

But fabricators are future technology. You can’t just get some gadget to print up whatever you want from a structural diagram, can you? Well, yes. 3D Printing technology is becoming more and more ubiquitous in today’s world. Today I saw this article on the BBC web site. NASA have successfully tested a rocket engine component made on a 3D printer. What’s more, the complex component took significantly less time and money to produce this way than with traditional manufacturing techniques.

Fabricators, we’re not there yet, but we’re getting pretty close.

Aneka’s Blaster may not be so far away

In Steel Beneath the Skin Aneka has a pistol which fires anti-protons through a laser-evacuated channel in the air to cause small but powerful nuclear explosions when they hit their target. Science fiction, of course, but like many a sci-fi concept, maybe it doesn’t go far enough.

According to a post over at Longisland.com (and also at Engadget) a team at the University of Michigan have created a tabletop anti-matter generator. This device creates positrons, anti-matter’s versions of electrons, but it does so on the same sort of scale as the CERN particle accelerator, but using far cheaper, far smaller equipment. In Steel Beneath the Skin Monkey and Ella explain that iridium is used in the production of anti-matter with a particle accelerator. The idea behind Aneka’s blaster pistol is that it contains a store of anti-protons which it uses as ammo. Maybe it doesn’t need to; maybe it could actually create its ammo out of a laser beam hit just before firing. Considering how dangerous the stuff is, that would be a better design, though it would probably still be a very high-tech weapon since the power requirements are likely huge.

Robots, and Cyborgs, and AIs. Oh my!

Robby-the-Robot

So, what is an artificial intelligence (AI)? What makes a robot different from a cyborg? At least as far as the world Aneka Jansen finds herself in, this article is going to give a few definitions.

Robots

A robot is basically any device which acts somewhat autonomously and is used to replace human effort in some way. Robots of various forms have been described in literature since the first century AD. Da Vinci had a design for a “Mechanical Knight.” The word itself comes from a play by Karel Čapek, Rossum’s Universal Robots, penned in 1921. By the time of Federal Standard Calendar year 523, where Aneka finds herself, robots have a more specific definition; a robot is an autonomous device functioning under the control of an artificial intelligence. If a robot doesn’t have an AI running it, it’s known as a drone.

Robots come in a fairly large number of shapes and sizes, and configurations. Aneka buys a “swarm dress” in the book, which is a garment composed of a large number of tiny robots which hover near the skin and can be programmed to form different shaped clothes, or to light up in various ways giving a dynamic patter. We meet Cassandra, a fully humanoid robot containing a sentient AI. On Harriamon Monkey gets a scare when a huge ore transporter robot comes barrelling down a tunnel toward them. The Jenlay are not really very keen on robots and those that exist tend to do things humans don’t want to, or that it would be far safer for a robot to do them, such as freight handling in space.

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Cyborgs

Technically one could describe a robot as a cyborg. The term is short for “cybernetic organism,” and a robot is an organism which is cybernetic. However, the term is more commonly used for beings which are a melding of organic and machine. Most people use the term for humans who have had mechanical devices wired into them somehow (which gives me an excuse to use a “Michelle Ryan in a jumpsuit” picture) , and the term normally implies that the wired in devices are more integrated than current artificial limbs. The T101 Terminator from the film of the same name is, however, described as a cyborg since it has an organic, living skin over a robot endoskeleton. Aneka could be said to be the same since she has an artificial, but living, skin wrapped around her cybernetic body, and she takes it all a step further by having a “natural mind” running as software on a computer running that body.

Much as robots are mistrusted in the Federation, so cyborgs are treated with a hint of fear by most jenlay. Ella, who lost her eyes as a child and had them replaced with cybernetic ones, has been subject to this prejudice ever since. Being cyberised is not unheard of on federal worlds, and is not even particularly uncommon on the Rim where medical practices are a little less sophisticated. However, people are not rushing out to have their eyes replaced with high-definition cameras, or their arms upgraded for added strength. Instead, the Jenlay have been subject to a lot of genetic manipulation over the centuries.

Artificial Intelligence

Synthetic minds come in two distinct forms in the world of Steel Beneath the Skin, volitional and non-volitional. What’s the difference? Well, a volitional AI has volition. Obvious isn’t it? No? Damn. Okay, explanation by example seems like the best thing, and will also help explain why the Jenlay are fine with non-volitional AIs, but tend to freak out a little around the volitional ones.

Would you want your fridge deciding that you really should eat less fatty foods, so it chucks out your bacon while you aren’t looking? Or your toaster developing a fixation and demanding that you eat toasted bread products all the time? No? Didn’t think so and that is why most devices you’ll find with any intelligence above “blink a light when there’s a fault” have a non-volitional AI embedded in them. Non-volitionals are able to understand people, how they speak, how they respond to the behaviour of the device they are using, and when they are being sarcastic about ramming that slice of toast where the sun don’t shine. An AI driving a car can do so as well as a human would, even though that is a drastically complex task. However, a non-volitional AI will never come up with plans of its own. Your toaster is not going on a crusade to further the consumption of toast. Your car will take you where you want to go, by itself, and not decide you should go visit your mother instead.

A volitional AI is fully sentient. They make plans, have opinions, and come up with ideas of their own. They are, to all intents and purposes, artificial, living minds with the needs and wants of any living thing. Well, sort of. That’s where the problems start. A volitional AI may think the way a human does, within the wide range of thought processes humans are capable of, or they may have an entirely alien viewpoint. People grow up with variant views on life based on their genetics, upbringing, education, and environment, why shouldn’t an artificial mind? This is one of the reasons why research into volitional AIs is banned in the Federation.

Generally, non-volitional AIs are created, programmed specifically for their task, and the limitations on their coding make it verging on the impossible that they would ever break their programming. Verging on the impossible, of course, does not mean the same as “can’t happen.” Cassandra, a sentient android, is an emergent AI. No one has yet determined why emergents exist, but the possibility that they will awaken spontaneously on complex enough computers is the reason that a license is required to operate machines considered liable to manifest emergent AIs.

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – My Views on this Week’s Defiance

And I’m back on Defiance, but this time it’s one specific episode. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times aired on June 10th in the US and June 11th in the UK, and it has such obvious parallels with the over-arching plot of the Aneka Jansen stories that I had to comment.

If you haven’t seen the episode and plan to, this article is going to contain pretty major spoilers, so watch first. If you haven’t read Steel beneath the Skin and plan to, there are also some spoilers, but they aren’t quite as major seeing as they are pretty much given away in the cover blurb. Anyway, due to spoilers, I’ll continue after the break…

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Bio-plastic, The Ultimate Material

In the future world Aneka Jansen finds herself in, bio-plastic has become the material of choice for just about everything. The name is actually a catch-all term for a family of materials sharing the same basic structure. Bio-plastic is a traditional polymer-based plastic material infused with an organic nano-virus. This makes bio-plastic almost indestructible; given air, moisture, and sunlight the material is quite capable of repairing damage to itself. It is also self-cleaning; no more laundry days and your car digests bird droppings instead of needing to have them washed off. Just to make this stuff even more attractive, and useful, it comes in a variety of forms useful for different things, and is used as the basis for other materials. A few examples:

  • Ultraskin. One of the first bio-plastic materials to be developed and still one of the most ubiquitous, Ultraskin is a thin, hardy material which stretches, making it useful for manufacturing (skin-tight and often translucent) clothing. Aneka’s outfit in the illustration is made from Ultraskin.
  • Plastex was the first of the bio-plastic materials to make it out of a laboratory and it was given the name since it looked like “plastic latex.” Ship-suits, the basic vacuum suits worn by most spaceship crews, are made of nano-fibre reinforced Plastex. It is tougher than Ultraskin and impermeable to air and water. In the illustration, Ella is wearing a ship-suit, and both girls are wearing Plastex jackets and belts. Ella’s boots are a higher density Plastex.
  • Adanymax. The first of the structural bio-plastics carried this name and it became a generic term for heavier grade versions. These materials are used in light construction as well as forming the shells of weapons, cases, and any other tasks requiring structural strength and light weight. In the illustration you can see adanymax in the equipment casings and the shell of Aneka’s blaster. The metallic parts of Aneka’s boots are actually a form of adanymax.
  • Plascrete is not actually a pure bio-plastic. Ceramic particles are bound into a bio-polymer lattice creating a material which looks like concrete and has much of the same properties, but can also handle some element of self-repair, and is far more flexible and easier to form into shapes than traditional concrete. The wall and floor in the picture would be Plascrete, though it can be coloured easily enough, and textured.
  • Nusilk and Biweave are examples of “bio-plastic cloths.” Nusilk uses finely spun bio-plastic fibres which are then woven into a material which does look like glossy silk. Biweave has thicker threads wrapped in Nusilk fibres and woven into a material which resembles cotton or denim. There’s none of these in the picture, but if you go find the one for Ella’s character article, her top is a Nusilk material with Biweave edging and straps.

Bio-plastic