Saturday, December 22, 2007

Adam Roberts: Gradisil

In Adam Roberts's Gradisil the pioneers who settle near space around the Earth fight for their political freedom, yet somehow the viewpoint characters are unsympathetic enough that it's hard to root for them. The story follows several generations of the family that leads the fight; their cause is worthy, but they're so dysfunctional and spend so much of their time pushing at cross purposes to the higher goal that I was willing to give up on them several times.

The SF is solid; the idea is that the magnetic fields around the planet are real and coherent enough that engines can be built cheaply to exploit them and climb into space. This puts near Earth orbits within the grasp of individuals. It's a new frontier, away from the control of any particular government, so the people who move there are loners, escapists, and fringe cases of many kinds. There aren't many commercial opportunities to exploit at first, and it's hard to track the ships and stations, so the society that emerges is extremely loose-knit for a long time. There is some sense of community and neighborliness, but people who want to be left alone are left alone.

Eventually the governments figure out that having so many misfits flying overhead in uncontrolled space is a concern, and they decide to pacify and take over. The uplanders resist in a passive way that exploits their strengths, or at least relies on their smallest weaknesses. I loved the depiction of a war that is controlled by the lawyers: all the generals understand that winning on the battlefield but losing in the courtroom is not winning at all, so strategy and tactics have to be approved by the lawyers before any warlike actions can be taken.

The actual battle scenes, when they finally occur are plausible. A new environment and new technology lead to new tactics. The invaders aren't as familiar with the technology or the environment, so their expectations can be exploited by the native defenders.

The bottom line is that the Science Fiction is plausible and provides setting rather than being the focal point, the good guys are fighting for something important, but the viewpoint characters, even as they mature and are replaced by their progeny, are hard to sympathize with. The action is interesting, but it's a long struggle to get through the whole thing.

As a nominee for the Prometheus award, it lacks any explicit or implicit invocation of themes of freedom. This is a glaring weakness, since the opportunities were rampant. The SF was reasonably well developed, and that has to count in the book's favor, but I didn't enjoy the character development. I don't see Gradisil as a strong contender.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ken MacLeod: The Execution Channel

Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel is a near-future story from a recently diverged history. The science fiction is minimal, but sufficient to keep the book off the main-stream shelves. It's an adrenaline-pumping adventure/chase story that takes a distinct political stance against the recent growth of the security state.

The story follows government operatives and members of the counterculture in the aftermath of a series of apparent terror incidents in Britain. The first incident might be a nuclear explosion at a military base, but one of the main characters (participating in a peacenik stakeout at the base) saw and photographed delivery of a strange device before the explosion. She has a brother in the military who blogs about daily life, and her father works in intelligence. We follow them as various international government agencies track and connect them, and then decide what actions to take to contain them.

This novel has an unusual feel for MacLeod, since it is mostly conventional fiction in a near present setting. The divergent history is only present to argue that national politics doesn't make as big a difference to how events unfold as people think. I thought he pulled this part off well, making a surprising argument with only tiny effects on the story. The other SF aspect of the story is the effect behind the explosions; since a handful of the characters spend their waking hours spreading disinformation, the hints about the resolution are easy to discount on first reading.

Mostly MacLeod has found a good readable adventure story to wrap around a commentary on ubiquitous surveillance, government malfeasance, torture, and current events. The story is quite readable, and the themes will resonate for libertarians and other anti-authoritarians and privacy zealots. I think it's a good candidate to win the Prometheus award this year.

Peter McCluskey had a different reaction to the book.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Keith Stanovich: The Robot's Rebellion

Keith Stanovich, in his book The Robot's Rebellion , takes the stance that we are vehicles driven by our genes and memes, and tries to give us the tools and a place to stand to figure out what matters to us. (The metaphor is that we are robots driven by these influences, and we should want to regain control for ourselves.) Since the only tools we can use to reason with and all of our values are held by and in the control of our genes and memes, this is a daunting task.

Without explicitly recognizing that he's discussing epistemology, Stanovich does a commendable job of presenting a summary of the current research on standard biases in human reasoning. Once you understand the predilections of the tools you rely on, you can try to compensate for them, and start to figure out what you want. Stanovich's proposal is fundamentally consonant with Pancritical Rationalism. (Which is the source of the name of this blog.) The metaphor he uses is that of repairing a ship plank-by-plank while at sea. Regardless of how much or how little confidence you have in the current framework, you have to stand somewhere in order to start the process of examining what's there and replacing parts you don't have confidence in.

Much of the book repeats stories and results that have been widely reported in such popular books as Stumbling on Happiness, Adapting Minds, The Mating Mind, and The Blank Slate, but this material is easy to skim. Stanovich spends a lot of ink explaining that some of our analysis is done by mechanisms that are built-in and harder to introspect on or to change. This is relevant later when he talks about reconciling different desires.

One example of meta-rationality that Stanovich presents well is the point that introspection on your values may lead you to find apparent conflicts: you enjoy doing something, but wish you enjoyed it less, or you don't enjoy it and you wish you did. He provides a notation for talking about this kind of situation which I found kind of clumsy, but the idea of thinking about such things and having a language for analyzing them is valuable. He explains why you might have these conflicts, and why it is valuable to reason about the conflict from a viewpoint that is meta to both. Once you decide which desire is more important, he also shows that it's possible to use that understanding to bring your values into alignment, even when it's the more basic, inbuilt drive that you want to change. (I blogged last year about goals and meta-goals as ends and means).

Stanovich only spends about 20 pages on identifying and defusing opinions and desires that serve to protect your memes from your introspection, but these sections are his most valuable contribution. The memes that set up a self-reinforcing structure that forbid evaluation of the meme-complexes themselves are the ones that most deserve concentrated attention. I think he explains this point well enough that people in the grip of religious (or other defensive) ideas would be able to see how the prohibition on introspection only serves the meme-cluster, which might help them get over the hurdle and start down a reflective epistemological path, and figure out what their own goals are.

Unfortunately, Stanovich ends the book by trying to show that markets subvert the goal of reconciling our desires and meta-desires. His argument is that markets only pay attention to money, and so the people with the most money get what they want and everyone else gets nothing. What this misses is that of all the actually possible social institutions, markets are unique in not giving a few people complete control of the economy. In a market, some people have more money and therefore get to command more resources, but anyone who has some money can still use it to buy some of what they want. The great failing of socialism is that only the politicians get a voice. But this is a minor failing of the book. On the whole, it's nice to see a book that learns from Evolutionary Psychology, and uses those ideas to help people learn how to think about what they want.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Andy Clark: Being There

Andy Clark's Being There is a book on intelligence and AI. Clark's main point is that all known intelligence is situated; it relies on context and the local environment to cue behavior, rather than redundantly modeling the environment at significant expense.

The book was recommended to me when I mentioned Greg Egan's Diaspora again as a description of how I imagine an AI might come to self-awareness. I had hoped that the book would provide information on building AIs using situated approaches and some examples of successes, but the focus is on demonstrating that human and animal behavior and cognition rely heavily on context and environment. Clark gives plenty of examples and describes experiments on infant locomotion to show that even crawling and beginning to walk are responses to environment cues.

As an argument that both learning and action in humans and many other creatures often appear only in response to environment cues, the book is reasonably thorough. As an argument that this is the only way that it could be, it falls short.

Most of the discussion about how this applies to AI are in examples of past projects in which someone discovers that eschewing representation, and striving to build something that will perform reactively simplifies the problem immensely. This is fine and useful for projects that want to solve particular problems (build a robot that can dance or mow the lawn, or find coke cans in a cluttered lab).

The argument that self-awareness may also require interaction with the environment seems different to me. Clark's examples all have the form that the environment is its own best representation, and using direct observation to cue performance is more efficient. This is true as far as it goes, but we already know that reasoning creatures have internal models that reflect object persistence, agency, permeability, and many other features of the objects around us that we can't recall by looking around us.

As in Egan's vignette, thinking creatures seem to come to self awareness by playing with the world through our innate sensors and effectors, and discovering that there are parts of the world that are out of our control and parts that are under our control. Still later we figure out that some of the parts that we control are ourselves and other parts merely ours temporarily. Later we realize that some of the parts we don't control are other agents with their own intentions, and we can affect them only indirectly. In Egan's version, the final step in coming to awareness is realizing that we and the other agents are the same kind of thing.

So while being situated is crucial in coming to awareness, the interaction between internal models and an external world that we can affect but that we can't control unilaterally seems crucial. Clark's focus is only on the ways in which relying on the environment simplifies the problems of an agent interacting with the world. I think this will help people produce useful tools, but without internal models, I expect them to continue to fall short of awareness or reasoning beyond the immediate situation.