Please mind the gag

Paul Raven @ 04-05-2011

Continuing my fascination with the non-destructive redecoration of urban public spaces, here’s something very Brit-centric – indeed, very London-centric, though I expect similar culturehacks would (and probably already do) take place in other metropoli. Stickers On The Central Line does what it says on the tin, using the familiar names and iconography of tube maps to poke fun at topical issues [via Duncan Geere]. Some of the gags may be a bit too Brit for non-citizens to grok, but some of them are pretty universal:

Central Line tube map sticker hack

I’m going to be heading to London a lot more frequently in the near future, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for these. If anyone knows of similar satires in other cities around the world, please pipe up in the comments! Might be fun to do a compilation post…


How to write a generic SF novel

Paul Raven @ 05-04-2011

Paul McAuley runs you through the basics:

Traditionally, SF heroes solved problems by application of intelligence and scientific knowledge. These days, you can substitute lasers or AK-47s for scientific knowledge. Or swords. The equivalent of the internet or mobile phones are used only when the hero needs to find something out. Usually someone else does the actual typing. Don’t include any science that might frighten the readers.  Anything found in SF written before the 1980s is usually okay. Nanotechnology is basically magic. So is genetic engineering. Also quantum mechanics. Virtual reality is more or less the same as a video game. Planets can be treated as a single country, with uniform climate and culture, and no more than three unique features that distinguish them from Earth.

Very funny, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.


Artificial Flight – Dresden Codak spoofs AI skepticism

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2010

Aaron Diaz - self-portraitDresden Codak is one of my favourite webcomics; its creator, Aaron Diaz, is a staunch transhumanist, but rather than soapboxing directly he embeds his philosophical interests into his creative work. This occasionally spills over into brief satirical ripostes against anti-transhumanist naysayers; long-term followers may remember 2007’s “Enough is Enough – A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism, which (justifiably) did the rounds of the transhumanist, science fictional and geek-affiliated blogo-wotsit at the time.

Well, here’s another one, Artificial Flight and Other Myths – a reasoned examination of A.F. by top birds“, which again takes the rhetorical gambit of reframing the AI argument outside of the human context:

We can start with a loose definition of flight.  While no two bird scientists or philosophers can agree on the specifics, there is still a common, intuitive understanding of what true flight is: powered, feathered locomotion through the air through the use of flapping wings.  While other flight-like phenomena exist in nature (via bats and insects), no bird with even a reasonable education would consider these creatures true fliers, as they lack one or more key elements. And, while some birds are unfortunately born handicapped (penguins, ostriches, etc.), they still possess the (albeit undeveloped) gene for flight, and it is indeed flight that defines the modern bird.

This is flight in the natural world, the product of millions of years of evolution, and not a phenomenon easily replicated.  Current A.F. is limited to unpowered gliding; a technical marvel, but nowhere near the sophistication of a bird.  Gliding simplifies our lives, and no bird (including myself) would discourage advancing this field, but it is a far cry from synthesizing the millions of cells within the wing alone to achieve Strong A.F. Strong A.F., as it is defined by researchers, is any artificial flier that is capable of passing the Tern Test (developed by A.F. pioneer Alan Tern), which involves convincing an average bird that the artificial flier is in fact a flying bird.

Diaz highlights the problem with anthropomorphic thinking as applied to definitions of intelligence, which is a common refrain from artificial intelligence advocates. Serendipitously enough, yesterday also saw Michael Anissimov point to a Singularity Institute document titled “Beyond Anthropomorphism”, which may be of interest if you want the argument fleshed out for you:

Anthropomorphic (“human-shaped”) thinking is the curse of futurists.  One of the continuing themes running through Creating Friendly AI is the attempt to track down specific features of human thought that are solely the property of humans rather than minds in general, especially if these features have, historically, been mistakenly attributed to AIs.

Anthropomorphic thinking is not just the result of context-insensitive generalization.  Anthropomorphism is the result of certain automatic assumptions that humans are evolved to make when dealing with other minds.  These built-in instincts will only produce accurate results for human minds; but since humans were the only intelligent beings present in the ancestral environment, our instincts sadly have no built-in delimiters.

Many personal philosophies, having been constructed in the presence of uniquely human instincts and emotions, reinforce the built-in brainware with conscious reasoning.  This sometimes leads to difficulty in reasoning about AIs; someone who believes that romantic love is the meaning of life will immediately come up with all sorts of reasons why all AIs will necessarily exhibit romantic love as well.

It strikes me that the yes-or-no question of whether strong general artificial intelligence is possible is one of a very special type, namely a question which can only be definitively answered by achieving the “yes” result. (I’m pretty sure there’s a distinct rhetorical term for that sort of question, but my minimal bootstrapped philosophy education fails to provide it to me at the moment; feel free to help out in the comments.) In other words, the only way we’ll truly know whether we can build a GAI is by building it; until then, it’s all just dialogue.


The bankruptcy auction that wasn’t

Paul Raven @ 02-07-2009

Here’s an interesting art installation that involves some science fictional thinking. Toys by Tomasso Lanza features digital renderings of assets to be sold at auction following the bankruptcy filing of a fictional Enron-like corporation. we make money not art explains:

The quick collapse of the company led to a fire-sale of most of ENT’s assets. In the months following the Chapter 11 filing, the liquidation team split the enormous sale across a number of auction dealers. Lanza created a photographic essay of some of the items surfaced by the bankruptcy auction, some of them perfectly mundane (executive chairs, workstations, gold balls and clubs, luxury cars, a range of sat nav, etc.), others fictitious. They are listed in the catalogue of an auction that dealt with low to mid-valued items and leftovers from previous auctions; despite the low-key of the sale, the dealers got their hands on a few items which were sold at much higher prices than originally expected thanks to their unique nature.

The fictitious items are straight out of a near-future/present day satire of corporate secrecy and hubris.

stock value viewfinder

This lot consists of an off-the-shelf viewfinder, plugged into some sort of digital tuning device with the words FTSE, DAX, HSI, DSM200, PHLX/KBW, MIBTEL, NIKKEI, NYSE, NASDAQ etched on. There is no documentation provided, although it is believed that these devices were secretly owned by a small number of executives and used for monitoring stocks and other financial products too sensitive to be displayed on-screen or retrieved on the company’s computers.


DRY FRUGAL WITH DEATH RAYS by Alex Wilson

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2008

This month’s slice of Futurismic fiction comes from the widely-published Alex Wilson. Dry Frugal With Death Rays is a dark satire of office politics, corporate bureaucracy, thwarted ambition and revenge gone awry – enjoy!

Dry Frugal With Death Rays

by Alex Wilson

The ergonomic cubicle gel came up to Sal’s chin. Five hours of immersion had left the pads of his fingers wrinkled and slimy. He couldn’t wipe his eyes without making it worse. It was the most important morning of his life, and he was stuck in his cubicle corral with a computer that insisted he wasn’t.

“And you’ve looked, right?” Tech support asked, clearly siding with the computer on this one. “At the latch? You’ve tried turning around and looking to see whether it’s open or closed?”

“Yes,” Sal said. “I’ve looked.” He tried emphasizing the urgency with his arms. In training videos, they iterated how body language carried over into the voice, even though Sal found sloshing around in gel more distracting than helpful on client calls.

Continue reading “DRY FRUGAL WITH DEATH RAYS by Alex Wilson”


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