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AI influencers are worried about AI’s influence

What do you get when you put two of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on artificial intelligence together in the same lecture hall? If the two influencers happen to be science-fiction writer Ted Chiang and Emily Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington, you get a lot of skepticism about the future of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT.

“I don’t use it, and I won’t use it, and I don’t want to read what other people do using it,” Bender said Nov. 10 at a Town Hall Seattle forum presented by Clarion West

Chiang, who writes essays about AI and works intelligent machines into some of his fictional tales, said it’s becoming too easy to think that AI agents are thinking.

“I feel confident that they’re not thinking,” he said. “They’re not understanding anything, but we need another way to make sense of what they’re doing.”

What’s the harm? One of Chiang’s foremost fears is that the thinking, breathing humans who wield AI will use it as a means to control other humans. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, he compared our increasingly AI-driven economy to “a giant treadmill that we can’t get off” — and during Friday’s forum, Chiang worried that the seeming humanness of AI assistants could play a role in keeping us on the treadmill.

“If people start thinking that Alexa, or something like that, deserves any kind of respect, that works to Amazon’s advantage,” he said. “That’s something that Amazon would try and amplify. Any corporation, they’re going to try and make you think that a product is a person, because you are going to interact with a person in a certain way, and they benefit from that. So, this is a vulnerability in human psychology which corporations are really trying to exploit.”

AI tools including ChatGPT and DALL-E typically produce text or imagery by breaking down huge databases of existing works, and putting the elements together into products that look as if they were created by humans. The artificial genuineness is the biggest reason why Bender stays as far away from generative AI as she can.

“The papier-mâché language that comes out of these systems isn’t representing the experience of any entity, any person. And so I don’t think it can be creative writing,” she said. “I do think there’s a risk that it is going to be harder to make a living as a writer, as corporations try to say, ‘Well, we can get the copy…’ or similarly in art, ‘We can get the illustrations done much cheaper by taking the output of the system that was built with stolen art, visual or linguistic, and just repurposing that.’”

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Fiction Science Club

Get a reality check on plans to build cities in space

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos may harbor multibillion-dollar dreams of sending millions of people to live on Mars, on the moon and inside free-flying space habitats — but a newly published book provides a prudent piece of advice: Don’t go too boldly.

It’s advice that Kelly and Zach Weinersmith didn’t expect they’d be giving when they began to work on their book, titled “A City on Mars.” They thought they’d be writing a guide to the golden age of space settlement that Musk and Bezos were promising.

“We ended up doing a ton of research on space settlements from just every angle you can imagine,” Zach Weinersmith says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “This was a four-year research project. And about two and a half years in, we went from being fairly optimistic about it as a desirable, near-term likely possibility [to] probably unlikely in the near term, and possibly undesirable in the near term. So it was quite a change. Slightly traumatic, I would say.”

The Weinersmiths found that there was precious little research into the potential long-term health effects of living on the moon or Mars — and zero research into the potential effects on human reproduction and development. Moreover, the legal uncertainties surrounding property rights in space seemed likely to lead to disputes that would tie diplomats and military planners in knots.

“In our effort to create Mars settlements to make a Plan B, to make ourselves safer as a species, are we actually lowering existential risk?” Zach says. “I think it’s absolutely unclear — and there’s a good argument that we might even increase it.”

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Fiction Science Club

‘The Creator’: Get a reality check on AI at the movies

Over the next 50 years, will humanity become too attached to the artificial-intelligence agents that dictate the course of our lives? Or is forming a deep attachment the only way we’ll survive?

Those are the sorts of questions raised by “The Creator,” Hollywood’s latest take on the potential for a robo-apocalypse. It’s a subject that has inspired a string of Terminator and Matrix movies as well as real-world warnings from the likes of Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking.

How close does “The Creator” come to the truth about AI’s promise and peril? We conducted a reality check with a panel of critics who are familiar with AI research and the ways in which that research percolates into popular culture. Their musings are the stuff of the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

Semi-spoiler alert: We’ve tried to avoid giving away any major plot points, but if you’re obsessive about spoilers, turn away now — and come back after you’ve seen “The Creator.”

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Fiction Science Club

Supervillain tale takes aim at today’s tech titans

There’s nary a mention of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates in “Starter Villain,” but science-fiction author John Scalzi’s wickedly funny novel finds ways to skewer the tech billionaires who rule our world without dropping names.

Scalzi lays out a scenario in which supervillains are basically the CEOs of companies that do dastardly deeds as a service.

“The point of the supervillainy is not to hide, but to offer products and services that offer value to your clients, who just happen to be, you know, the United States or China, or some major corporation — so that the supervillainy that you do is not seen as outside the pale of standard business practices,” he explains.

If that sounds like today’s billionaire tech disrupters, so be it.

“I will say that the bad behavior of billionaires in 2023 makes this book far more timely than it might otherwise have been,” Scalzi admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I wrote this about 18 months ago, so we had no idea that several of the world’s biggest billionaires would just be like, ‘Mask off, I’m actually a terrible person!'”

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Fiction Science Club

How we’ll find the first evidence of extraterrestrial life

When will we find evidence for life beyond Earth? And where will that evidence be found? University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, the author of a book called “Worlds Without End,” is betting that the first evidence will come to light within the next decade or so.

But don’t expect to see little green men or pointy-eared Vulcans. And don’t expect to get radio signals from a far-off planetary system, as depicted in the 1992 movie “Contact.”

Instead, Impey expects that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope — or one of the giant Earth-based telescopes that’s gearing up for observations — will detect the spectroscopic signature of biological activity in the atmosphere of a planet that’s light-years away from us.

“Spectroscopic data is not as appealing to the general public,” Impey admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “People like pictures, and so spectroscopy never gets its fair due in the general talk about astronomy or science, because it’s slightly more esoteric. But it is the tool of choice here.”

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Fiction Science Club

How fiction sparked our flights to the final frontier

The commercial spaceflight revolution didn’t begin with Elon Musk. Or with Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson, or any of the other billionaires who’ve spent a fortune on the final frontier over the past 20 years.

Would you believe it began with Jules Verne in the 1860s?

That’s the perspective taken by Jeffrey Manber, one of the pioneers of the 21st-century spaceflight revolution, in a book tracing the roots of private-sector spaceflight to the French novelist.

“The first realistic steps taken in rocket development were because of a French science-fiction book,” Manber says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “And that’s an underlying theme, in that we really needed a commercial ecosystem to get going. It’s not a government decree.”

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Fiction Science Club

Novelist charts a course for the future space frontier

If Jeff Bezos needs a blueprint for building a space station beyond the moon with ore from an asteroid, he just might want to start with “Critical Mass,” a newly published sci-fi novel by Daniel Suarez.

The 464-page book describes in detail how entrepreneurs, engineers and astronauts take advantage of a cache of material mined from an asteroid to create a giant, ring-shaped space station, a space-based solar power system, a mass driver for delivering resources from the moon and a nuclear-powered spaceliner. To add to the drama, they’re doing all this in the midst of a global climate crisis in the late 2030s.

Building space outposts and moving heavy industry off-Earth to preserve our home planet’s environment is an overarching theme in Bezos’ long-term space vision. “We want to go to space to save the Earth,” he said in 2016. “I don’t like the ‘Plan B’ idea that we want to go to space so we have a backup planet. … This is the best planet. There is no doubt. This is the one that you want to protect.”

Suarez agrees with Bezos’ sentiment, but not because the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin came up with the idea.. In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Suarez points out that Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, Bezos’ space mentor, had the idea first. “This is the idea of settling deep space by re-creating our biosphere in free space as opposed to settling another planet,” he says.

With “Critical Mass” and the other books in his Delta-V trilogy, Suarez aims to do what O’Neill’s 1970s-era mix of science fiction and fact, “The High Frontier,” did for the likes of Jeff Bezos. Suarez aims to get people thinking about how a space-based society could work.

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Fiction Science Club

Fiction looks into the far future of terraforming

Billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos dream of making Mars more like Earth, or seeing millions of people living and working in space — but could such dreams ever be turned into reality?

In a new novel titled “The Terraformers,” science writer Annalee Newitz imagines that tens of thousands of years from now, future billionaires (who are likely to be quintillionaires by then) will figure out exactly how to tailor planets to their customers’ liking. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.

“There’s a lot of hand-wavy technologies that we would’ve had to have invented,” Newitz admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You know, I do think it’s realistic that humans are going to eventually try to set up shop off Earth in some way. … So I think for me, the question is: terraforming in the name of what, and under the auspices of what organizations.”

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Fiction Science Club

‘Observer’ blends way-out quantum science and fiction

Do we each create our own reality? Could different observers create measurably different realities? It’s a fantastical line of thought that has sparked scientific inquiries as well — and now the science and the fiction has come together in a new novel titled “Observer.”

“The observer is actually the basis of the universe, so basically the novel and the scientific ideas are really a rethink of everything we know about time, space and indeed the universe itself,” stem-cell researcher Robert Lanza says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

Lanza’s co-author, Seattle science-fiction writer Nancy Kress, agrees that the novel takes aim at one of life’s greatest mysteries. “The novel is about how we understand reality, and nothing could be more important about that, because everything else is based on it,” she told me.

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Universe Today

Tech star supports a tribute to Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy

Efforts to create a memorial celebrating the legacy of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played a pointy-eared alien named Spock on “Star Trek,” have shifted to warp speed nearly eight years after his death.

A six-figure contribution from Rich Miner, the co-founder of Android, is energizing the campaign to create an illuminated 20-foot-high sculpture depicting Spock’s famous “Live Long and Prosper” hand gesture. The sculpture would be placed at Boston’s Museum of Science, near the West End neighborhood where Nimoy grew up.

Nimoy’s daughter, Julie Nimoy, and her husband David Knight are working with the museum to hit a $500,000 fundraising goal for the project. Thanks to Miner’s contribution, Knight said that the stainless-steel monument, designed by artist Tom Stocker and sculptor David Phillips, could begin taking shape as early as this year.