Science Fiction and Data


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Talk given at the Open Data Institute in London on various visions of Data in science fiction. The text based slides contain the text of the talk from the script. Some pictures are clickable to online links.

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Science Fiction and Data

  1. 1. Richard Adams@dickyadams
  2. 2. I have added the text of the talk in noteform on blank slides in-between thepicture slides so this can be read.
  3. 3. • Science fiction is perhaps the most maligned of literary genres. At various times ithas been insulted, ignored, pilloried, renamed and even possibly stunned byphasers. You can see this easily where certain authors create what on every levelis science fiction but they refuse to call it that. For example Audrey Niffenegger ,who wrote The time Travellers Wife is reluctant to label the novel as scifi, sayingshe "never thought of it as science fiction, even though it has a science-fictionpremise. Similarly, The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood is often classed asspeculative fiction rather than sci-fi, despite it being set in a world that Huxleymight have created. She had the following to say. "I like to make a distinctionbetween science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the sciencefiction label belongs on books with things in them that we cant yet do, such asgoing through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fictionmeans a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNAidentification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But theterms are fluid."• Personally I like Clarkesworlds definition better.
  4. 4. Sci-Fi has a history but its primarily a 19th and 20thCentury form as we know itKaguya-hime returningto the Moonin The Tale of the Bamboo CutterBacon describes the discovery of a utopian societybased on experimental science, including thedevelopment of "New Artificiall Metals," vivisection,genetic manipulation, telescopes, microscopes,telephones, factories, aerial flight, andsubmarines.
  5. 5. Another thing to understand with sci-fi apart fromit not being totally infantile is that it verystrongly has an interesting relationship with thetime in which is written and there are cleartrends. Science fiction is a modern erainvention. There were proto science fictionbooks around and fantasy stories but sci-fi aswe know it was a child of the technological era.
  6. 6. Its very interesting when you look atwhat futures are represented when.. Iwas digging around and found thesediagrams that show what era various
  7. 7. Time
  8. 8. One cant help but conclude that scifi does followthe concerns of the era in which it is written…as do other art forms of course. Brave newWorld for example was written during an erawhere eugenics was being actively proposed assomething that could be used. Its even setin London AD 2540 or 632 A.F. – "After Ford“ –mass production was the major invention of theage.
  9. 9. Brave New World
  10. 10. Obviously we are here today to talk about data in science fiction, there are rarelyarguments about the way data is represented in sci-fi or whether it’s speculativeor not….this is a mighty odd subject for a talk really but one I have beenconcerned with in my own limited way through my own work both day job andwriting. I guess most people wouldn’t want to read a sci fi story if you told themit was about data but some really popular stories were built on data at theirhearts.Data is also a very dry subject - mention it and people run to the hills withnightmare pictures running through their heads of mutant Excel spreadsheetstrying to tie them in knots for the rest of their lives….well, whether we fear it orlove it, data is a fact of life for everyone in this room - for those digital expertshere its now almost impossible to call oneself that without being able tounderstand the impacts and scope of data in your workspace.But the thing is, if you think about it, data can tell a story in its own right.
  11. 11. People
  12. 12. For example the following picture is data interpreted as a personlike this or all know that marketing people for instance invent charactersfrom data…and with more data comes the chance to createmuch more complex characters. Writers use tools to createcharacters and stories based on data - we can see that with thiswith tools that some writers use such asthis do we find characters created from data, but we do find dataat the heart of numerous stories.
  13. 13. Or This
  14. 14. Today Im going to look at just a few stories -including two by one author and a TV seriesThe first story is Foundation by Isaac Asimov, astory and epic series that puts data at theheart of the narrative.The foundation Series is one of Asimovs bestloved works…
  15. 15. Foundation The premise of the series is thatmathematician Hari Seldon spenthis life developing a branch ofmathematics knownas psychohistory, a concept ofmathematicalsociology (analogousto mathematical physics). Usingthe laws of mass action, it canpredict the future, but only on alarge scale; it is error-prone on asmall scale. It works on theprinciple that the behaviour of amass of people is predictable ifthe quantity of this mass is verylarge (equal to the population ofthe galaxy, which has apopulation of quadrillions ofhumans, inhabiting millions ofstar systems). The larger thenumber, the more predictable isthe future.
  16. 16. The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon spenthis life developing a branch of mathematics known aspsychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology (analogous tomathematical physics). Using the laws of mass action, it can predictthe future, but only on a large scale; it is error-prone on a smallscale. It works on the principle that the behaviour of a mass ofpeople is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large (equalto the population of the galaxy, which has a population ofquadrillions of humans, inhabiting millions of star systems). Thelarger the number, the more predictable is the future.
  17. 17. Psychohistory“Psychohistory dealt not with man, but with man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in theirbillions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli withsomething of the accuracy that a lesser sciencecould bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiardball. The reaction of one man could be forecast byno known mathematics; the reaction of a billion issomething else again.”—Isaac Asimov, Foundation and EmpireLookslikeaproperboffin
  18. 18. Using these techniques, Seldon foresees the imminentfall of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses theentire Milky Way, and a dark age lasting thirty thousandyears before a second great empire arises. Seldonspsychohistory also foresees an alternative where theintermittent period will last only one thousand years.To ensure his vision of a second great Empire comes tofruition, Seldon creates two Foundations—small,secluded havens of all human knowledge—at"opposite ends of the galaxy".
  19. 19. Asimov was born sometime between October 4, 1919 andJanuary 2, 1920[1] in Petrovichi in the Russian SovietFederative Socialist Republic (near the modern borderwith Belarus) to Anna Rachel (Berman) Asimov and JudahAsimov, a family of Jewish millers. His family emigrated to theUnited States when he was three years old…
  20. 20. • Basically though the world he grew up in was one of great super powers and massiveblocks - the rise of control economies and new science meant that new ideas aboundedand Asimov reflected and distilled these. He also grew up in a time new theories of themind and behaviour were exploding into consciousness, Freud, Jung etc. In a lot of waysAsimovs Psychohistory was a a clear mix of this new attitude to mind mixed with the newphysics of the time but framed by geopolitics.• So is it possible? Well lots of chat on Quora about this• Thing is that new maths such as Game Theory and so on seemed to render this as a fairytale but just recently we have seen moves back to using larger and larger data sets topredict events – for example – this in Afghanistan where the insurgency was predicted … there was even a talk given by a notedmathematician in London earlier this year where he discussed the fact that Asimov mayhave been right. In my day job Im looking at health and predictive health through bigdata, so for me this is very real. After all, what is Psychohistory but big data?
  21. 21. • Now of course that was years ago and things change – Asimov’ssociety has evolved into something else. We now live in an era ofterror by unseen forces that aim to undermine our lives andsouls. The old certainties have disappeared. Supra national blockshave and are dissolving. Old businesses are being disrupted anddisintermediated; manufacturing is facing a threat from 3Dprinting. The end of mass production that backbone of thetwentieth century economy is now starting to face a challenge.We also live in a era of surveillance from every time you logion toyour email down to walking the streets under c0onstant camerasurveillance and indeed cameras that can recognise and trackyou.• Which brings me to Person of Interest…
  22. 22. Person of Interest
  23. 23. Still paranoid after all these years.
  24. 24. • POI has a very modern take on Data we all I think saw the Minority Report future but I think POI is a little more real and very very now. Itconcerns the invention of a computer than can predict crime. The series revolves around a former agent recruited by a mysteriousbillionaire to prevent violent crimes in. The Machine is a mass surveillance computer system programmed to monitor and analyze datafrom surveillance cameras, electronic communications, and audio input throughout the world. From these data, the Machine accuratelypredicts violent acts. Under control of the U.S. Government, its stated purpose is to foresee terrorist attacks, allowing the government toforestall terrorist activity. However, the Machine detects future violent acts of all kinds, not just terrorism. During the development of theMachine, Finch created a routine that would pass on the "irrelevant" non-terrorism related data to him in the form of social securitynumbers, via coded messages over a public telephone. Unknown to Finch, his partner, Nathan Ingram, also created a routine, called"Contingency", on the eve of the government handover. It has not been revealed what this program does, or whether it is currently active.• course of each episode, the viewer periodically sees events as a Machine-generated on-screen t display of data about acharacter or characters: identification, activities, records, and more may be displayed. The viewer also sees a Machine-generatedperspective as it monitors New York. Commercial flights are outlined by green triangles, red concentric circles indicate no-fly zonesaround tall buildings, and dashed boxes mark individual people The Machine classifies the people it watches by color-coding the boxes:white for no threat or an irrelevant threat, red or red-and-white for perceived threats, and yellow for people who know about themachine, including Finch, Reese, Ingram, Corwin and Root. The white-boxed "irrelevant threat" targets include the Persons of InteresthatReese and Finch assist.•• There was a great episode, "Super", that gave us a flashback for the machine.• The whole show was devoted to flashbacks about the machine and we saw how far the computer has progressed and where it will gonext. The machine was much more basic in 2005 but through the episode we saw how it became smart. Now its generating three-dimensional wireframes of buildings and tracking people, even keeping tabs on its partners Reese and Finch. Before, it used voicerecognition (and gait analysis!) to spit out information on people in DOS-style font. Now its registering audio, tapping mobile phones (iteven has the decency to block out the whole phone number), and updating threat analysis in real time. Its getting smarter every day andbecoming more of an actual character with each episode• Of course in the UK we had this in Blakes 7 where Orac• But any show can make a super-smart computer program that can spy on the population and identify potential threats and victims. WhatPerson of Interest does differently is show us how that kind of technology relates to the two characters who rely on it. It also shows howthe information the machine processes and spits out is useless without the right people to process it.• Of course there is also a potential wider government conspiracy surrounding this. The most intriguing question for me is whether or notthe machine is sentient. Of course this is drawing on all the current angst about the Singularity and so on as well as tapping basic fearslogicalrefresh that society undergoes.
  25. 25. Me
  26. 26. • The writing I’ve been doing is similarly in this space – I wontpretend I’m brilliant but I’m rapidly improving – the first foursshorts deal with the changes in society in the midterm that suchpervasive computing have brought.• Behind the scenes is a view of the very far future; of planetarynetworks evolving and beyond that to when intelligence iscapable of reaching the stars through being data, not organicbodies. The next few stories bring the action closer to now anddeal with things such as big data dating going wrong… Darkstories tapping that slight paranoia. I also look at the idea that bigdata profiles might take on our illnesses, paranoias and otherpersonality traits and reflect them back at us.
  27. 27. There are other terrific ideas around about the nature of information, for example this passage from OlafStapledons 1930 "Last and First Men" (Chapter XV, Part 4) seems to suggest that thought hasgravitational mass. Or something like that."You may wonder how we have come to detect these remote lives and intelligences. I can say only that theoccurrence of mentality produces certain minute astronomical effects, to which our instruments aresensitive even at great distances. These effects increase slightly with the mere mass of living matter onany astronomical body, but far more with its mental and spiritual development. Long ago it was thespiritual development of the world-community of the Fifth Men that dragged the moon from its orbit.And in our own case, so numerous is our society today, and so greatly developed in mental and spiritualactivities, that only by continuous expense of physical energy can we preserve the solar system fromconfusion.“Of course this notion of information and data as being "something real" is really interesting… in someways this is reflected in the Holographic Principle that posits that the entire universe can be seen asa two-dimensional information structure "painted" on the cosmological horizon - or even more as datasitting on the event horizon of a black hole.
  28. 28. Last and First Men
  29. 29. But although these more philosophical pieces exist, most sci-fi tends to reflect what ishappening now but through a mirror of enlargement. For me good speculative fiction hasthe power to reflect to us what we are doing and to enable us to ingest and processideas. It always surprises me that a marketing team can spend so much money onunderstanding customers and their stories that they don’t go further and don’t actuallycreate fictions around their customers.There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years around stories and conversations and we arenow entering an era where we can get these personalities accurately defined to the pointof them becoming virtual characters with whom we can interact. Data is empoweringthis. Its not the new oil as some slick commentator once said, in some ways, data is thenew molecular structure of experience and interaction.Of course someone had to go much bigger than this. To finish off Id like to talk about one lastshort story written in the 50’s at the dawn of computing….
  30. 30. The last Question
  31. 31. From Wikipedia: The Last Question: Isaac AsimovThe last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanityfirst stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five dollar bet overhighballs, and it happened this way...—Opening line, The Last QuestionThe story deals with the development of computers called Multivacs and their relationships withhumanitythrough the courses of seven historic settings, beginning in 2061. In each of the firstsix scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, howthe threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted. Thequestion was: "How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?"This is equivalent to asking: "Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics (used inthe story as the increase of the entropy of the universe) be reversed?" Multivacs only responseafter much "thinking" is: "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.“All of which reminds us of the Hitchhikers Guide and Deep Thought - which gives us a model for allof us working with big data… you need to ask the right question!
  32. 32. Anyway….The story jumps forward in time into newer and newer eras of human and scientific development. In eachof these eras someone decides to ask the ultimate "last question" regarding the reversal and decreaseof entropy. Each time, in each new era, Multivacs descendant is asked this question, and finds itselfunable to solve the problem. Each time all it can answer is an (increasingly sophisticated, linguistically):"THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."In the last scene, the god-like descendant of humanity (the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion,trillion humans that have spread throughout the universe) watches the stars flicker out, one by one, asthe universe finally approaches the state of heat death. Humanity asks AC, Multivacs ultimatedescendant, which exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time, the entropy questionone last time, before humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer, butcontinues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. Eventually AC discovers theanswer, but has nobody to report it to; the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to show theanswer by demonstrating the reversal of entropy, creating the universe anew. The story ends with,well, let’s listen…Play video from 23.24 minutes
  33. 33. The last Question
  34. 34. 3 key questions for working with data1. Am I asking the right thing2. What are the real impacts of what I am doing?3. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (GoodGovernance)
  35. 35. Richard F Adams on Kindle @dickyadams