Posted on 02.04.12
Review written for Spring 2012 issue of I, Science magazine.
Blindsight, Peter Watts (Tor, 2006)
In February 2082, 70 years from now, 65,536 objects enter our atmosphere simultaneously, blanket the Earth in a precise latitudinal/longitudinal grid, emit radio signals for just over a minute, then burn up. This is first contact, this is Firefall.
A crew of post-humans – phenotypes extending into machinery both inside and outside the body – led by a vampire – one of a super-intelligent species genetically engineered back into existence – is sent to investigate a comet in the Kuiper Belt. Their ship, the Captain, lets them sleep for five years, waking them instead for a rendezvous with a super-Jovian beyond the Oort cloud.
So far, so Arthur C. Clarke (except for the vampires). But Blindsight is a novel scattershot with ideas, including 18 pages of appendices and 144 real-world citations. “References and remarks, to try and convince you all I’m not crazy”, is how Watts puts it. On vampire biology, for instance: “Since intersecting right angles are virtually nonexistent in nature, natural selection did not weed out the Crucifix Glitch until H. sapiens sapiens developed Euclidean architecture; by then, the trait had become fixed across H. sapiens vampiris via genetic drift, and—suddenly denied access to its prey—the entire subspecies went extinct shortly after the dawn of recorded history.” Its slow-burning narrative also builds to a resolution of the Fermi paradox that involves one of the most disturbing possibilities I have ever come across.
Given that the age and size of the universe ought to make intelligent life a statistical likelihood, Enrico Fermi wondered in the 1950s why there was no evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations. The number of Earth-like exoplanets recently discovered gives Fermi’s observation renewed bite. However, the devastatingly plausible premise of Blindsight is that intelligence need not imply sentience. Non-sentient life could exist, and evolve, and become what we would call – perhaps anthropomorphically – intelligent. The universe may even be filled with it. But it would not think. It would not reflect. It would not reach out to make contact, it would not make civilisations.
“Everyone else is still looking for some reason for self-awareness to exist, some adaptive advantage that it confers”, Watts once said. “And I really, really hope they’re right, but I can’t think of one.” Consciousness is a distraction, it is energy-inefficient, and as New Scientist reported in 2006, conscious decisions are slower: “At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we’re not very good at it”, Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam is quoted as saying. Consciousness may be an evolutionary dead end.
“We could engineer ourselves back into non-sentience, perhaps”, one of the crew suggests in Blindsight. “But I guess that wouldn’t be much of a win, would it? What’s the difference between being dead, and just not knowing you’re alive?”
It is often said we can feel most alone in a crowd. Looking up at the sky and imagining it teeming with unconscious life, I believe that to be true.
All Peter Watts’ novels can be downloaded for free from the author’s website.
Posted on 14.08.11
Science From the Archives #2: part of a series written for the I, Science blog that revisits science articles from 10 years ago.
While some of us await free WiFi, decade-old technology changes lives in WiFi-free parts of the world.
When nobody’s fussing about WiFi in schools and when there’s a lull between reports on the injurious effects of mobile phones I suspect few of us give much thought to the fizzing ocean of radio waves crashing over us silently and invisibly, continuously and ceaselessly. We take it for granted that the phone in our hand can access any of a myriad of data services on demand. If we spare a thought at all for the ubiquity of the wireless carriers it’s when they’re suddenly absent and our phone becomes an oddly functionless device.
The jargon-strewn story of mobile data networks is one best told at bedtime. But most of us are anyway well aware of the essential plot points in this dynastic creep of technical standards: the original usurper 2G holding on to the crown far longer than people intended, handing sovereignty to siblings 2.5G and 2.75G before finally giving out to the true successor 3G, whose benificent reign made possible the rise and rise of the iPhone. Now we hear tell of the mighty 4G – capable of surpassing all that went before and awaiting coronation.
Looking back at an article in Scientific American from 10 years ago I was surprised to learn how the history of mobile data networks could have taken a very different – and far more community-spirited – course.
In the August 2001 piece on the future of mobile telephony “the cryptically named 802.11b” – less cryptically known as Wi-Fi – is heralded as a “dark-horse challenger” to the established dynasty. Sure, Wi-Fi has since become almost as ubiquitous as mobile data coverage in its way, but that’s the point: what this article was envisaging was Wi-Fi supplanting the XG alternatives.
In 2001 wireless internet was “still a geek thing, requiring fiddling, configuring and tolerance for imperfections”. But in those days of early adoption, idealistic collectives around the world, including consume.net from London, had a wonderful vision of a shared, openly-available wireless internet: “The dream is that if everyone sticks a base station in the window, anyone will be able to access the Net from anywhere in town”. In such a world, as long as you weren’t too far from some kindly person’s window, you’d never need that 3G connection.
Back at the turn of the millenium when phones were phones, WAP was wheeled out by network providers in a coordinated fit of hyberbole. WAP (wireless application protocol) was a technical standard for the provision of mobile data services – such as stripped-down, no-frills web pages – over slower network connections (mostly still 2G at the time). But it was pitched as a technology that would bring the full wonder of the web to a mobile handset. Inevitably, the reality of using a tiny, monochrome screen fell far short of the thrilling cybertopia apparently awaiting those who surfed the BT Cellnet. In this context readily available Wi-Fi for phones should have taken off in a flash.
But of course people never put base stations in their windows. Far from it: we keep access to our wireless internet well secured. What if the strangers next door clogged up our bandwidth watching reruns of The Apprentice on iPlayer? Today there’s even a strong legal incentive to keep swashbuckling piggybackers off our network in case they get up to some pirating in our name.
Sadly, that dream shared by consume.net is almost quaint by current standards. But such a vision would only have been practical in densely populated areas anyway – and areas that had access to broadband internet in the first place. In thinking about all of this I was led to coverage of the recent Activate “summit” in London. This event brings together innovators in mobile technology for a series of largely philanthropic talks. This year also saw the inaugural (H)activate, a rapid prototyping exercise in which intrepid participants are invited to develop in two days a mobile technology application that can change the world. The winning team built Safe Trip, an app to help people at risk of trafficking easily keep in contact with friends, family and support agencies.
But it was the talks that made me reflect on how much of our connected lives we take for granted. As South African entrepreneur Herman Heunis pointed out, “the reality is that the mobile phone will be for many people in Africa the only connection to the internet for many, many years” – the phone is “the remote control of their universe”. Heunis talked about how MXit – a messaging / social-media platform running on millions of phones – had to accomodate many of the old mobile technologies. “What you must remember is that 90+% of all phones in Africa are not smartphones and it will remain like that because phones are not just dumped into a dustbin – they are handed down from father to mother to child …”
Anna Kydd, director of the SHM Foundation, has similarly found that older mobile technologies can still be lifechanging in the emerging world. She described a pilot study carried out with a group of people in Mexico living with HIV/AIDS: “what we found was that there were very high levels of social isolation and stigma so, although HIV/AIDS medication is free for everyone in Mexico, the quality of life is very low because they have very little chance to ever exchange information with other people living with the condition”. Because of Mexico’s centralised health service some of the participants from rural areas were travelling 8 hours to a clinic and had little or no contact with others in a similar situation.
Kydd found that simply exchanging text messages was enough to improve the situation of most of her participants. During the study, 40 participants sent an amazing 250,000 text messages in 3 months. Levels of anxiety and depression were seen to decrease significantly and by sharing information the patients’ knowledge of their medical treatment improved. Many of those who took part in the study would not have attended a support group had it been face to face but the anonymity of the mobile network encouraged intimacy. Kydd quoted the promising words of one of her participants: “I felt very sad and depressed and did not want to take my medication but listening to my friends in a group I started to feel happier and excited about life.” Kydd is now set to run a pilot in the UK with up to 1000 people taking part.
We’re not as willing to share as some had once hoped, but our need to connect means we’ll find a way whatever the technology.
Posted on 31.07.11
Harald Haas and his team from the University of Edinburgh have invented what he calls “speaking light”. In a TED talk on 15 July Haas demonstrated the wireless transmission of HD video via a rapidly blinking desk lamp. The trick involves quickly modulating the intensity of “high-brightness” LEDs, allowing binary-encoded data to be sent to any receiving device connected by line of sight. Haas can currently send at 10MB/s – already rivalling most home Wi-Fi – but is confident that he can roll out a consumer transmitter capable of 100MB/s by next year. Theoretically, at least, speeds of up to 1TB/s may be possible.
Because the lights blink on and off at such high frequencies the flicker is imperceptible to the naked eye. Haas therefore claims that by swapping existing lights with LEDs capable of data transmission we’ll be able to harness much of the lighting infrastructure already in place. Domestic and office lighting are obvious candidates but street lights, traffic lights, and even car headlights could all be co-opted for our many wireless needs. The key importance of Haas’s alternative to Wi-Fi is that it offers a way around the potential bottleneck created by those many millions of laptops, phones and smart-pads all currently clogging up the radio airwaves. BT is apparently trying hard in its recent TV ads to give the impression it’s yoked the aurora borealis for its wireless broadband, but Haas’s light work is the real thing.
All of which puts me in mind of Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell was an unconventional communicator. As a child he discovered the trick of putting his hand into a dog’s mouth and pulling on its lips and vocal cords until the animal’s growls could be heard to enunciate “How are you Grandma?” Inspired at first by a deaf mother and later a deaf wife, Bell dedicated his life to researching novel ways to communicate. The telephone was just one of his many inventions.
The device of which Bell was most proud was developed four years after the one for which he is best known. The photophone was an apparatus for transmitting sound via modulated patterns of light. Bell first demonstrated this wonder on a cloudless day in 1880, successfully sending his voice by reflected sunbeam to his waving assistant over 200m away. The photophone used a concave receiver coated in selenium, which varied its electrical resistance with the intensity of light that fell on it. By hooking this up to a telephone Bell was able to speak to somebody over a wireless connection a good few years before the invention of radio. Indeed, Bell was so taken by the photophone that he tried to bestow the name on his second daughter, to Mrs Bell’s obvious consternation.
But the photophone was publicly mocked. As an uncharitable New York Times editorial of 30 August 1880 put it, “until (the public) sees a man going through the streets with a coil of No. 12 sunbeams on his shoulder, and suspending them from pole to pole, there will be a general feeling that there is something about Professor Bell’s photophone which places a tremendous strain on human credulity”.
A large part of the problem is that communicating by light only works when there is no obstruction between transmitter and receiver and sadly for Bell, who initially envisaged his photophone working between ships at sea, even fog was a deal-breaker.
In the end, Bell had to be content with the thrill of personal discovery: “I have been able to hear a shadow and I have even perceived by ear the passage of a cloud across the sun’s disk”, he once wrote to his father. But Haas has what Bell couldn’t have imagined – billions of potential transmitters everywhere we look and each rarely more than a few metres away. Over short distances and with the robustness that multiple transmitters will bring, Bell’s original dream looks like it might at last see the light.