Of hamsters and pink robots

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The best laid plans of mice (men had nothing to do with it, of course) sometimes work out in unexpected ways. Those of a religious persuasion might attribute these strange happenings to guidance from God. Other, broader thinking individuals, would say it’s simply a matter of being connected.

Pink Robot

It’s the weird coincidences which writers are sometimes accused of using for convenience (“Suddenly, a trap door he’d not noticed before, provided a potential escape…” might be something you’d read in a Dan Brown novel), but which do happen in real life. There are few pure coincidences in my fiction, and I make it all at least plausible through background research.

My last published story (‘So Long and Thanks for all the Animals’) was inspired by Douglas, and a song. My next one (‘The Long Now Clock’, out this weekend) came about because of something I heard on Ancient Aliens. A future story, about two hamsters called Hannibal and Lecter, was for a young friend, test reader and occasional literary muse, who has a pair of Roborovski hamsters named after her favourite film character. Given they sound like Russian cyborgs, I couldn’t resist.

It was my latest completed story which relied most heavily on real-life coincidences, not to make the story work Dan Brown style, but a series of things which shaped the way I told the plausible story.

I wanted to further explore sexual alignment and identity (in an asexual story), and the interface between humans and technology, as we become more merged, and the (rather worn) concept of sentient IA, as the lines between human and technological species blur, so I wanted to be original. I wanted to convey feeling and thoughts, from different perspectives, and I wanted to do this with flash fiction. The latter wish, was to make what turned into a bit of an experiment, effective through speed of delivery (a bit like a cartoon).

So I was looking for a lot of meaning in not many words. Having been encouraged by my writing peers to not be embarrassed to be proud, I’m rather fond of what I’ve come up with. It started when I heard something about ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’, so I researched it.

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.” (Wikipedia). That became:

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s…

My protagonist is a small pink robot, whose AI has a defect. She’s from the Pink Ladies range of assistant droids and she’s called Frenchie. She came about when I watched a documentary on Grease, with a greater emphasis on the play which preceded the film (my stories are littered with references, tributes and nods, to films, people…), and someone texted me. A conversation of some length followed, after which she was able to look at something in a different way, and a problem became a solution.

Most of all, I wanted to write a story about the way the mind works, in all its sometimes cracked ways; about how understanding can change attitudes; and of how that can be achieved simply by looking at things differently. And all I have is words on the page, just text.

The result, is a flash fiction story (about 750 words), of Frenchie and her depressed friend (Sandy, another robot), serving tables at Zeigarnik’s Kitchen. The facial expressions of the androids are conveyed with pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons, and thoughts in something similar to hashtags. An editor thinks it works too (“An interesting experiment. I don’t think we’ve ever had a robot with Tourette Syndrome”), so it’s out in a couple of weeks.

It is true that many stories use the well-trodden path of throwing up gradually more challenging obstacles, then for these to be overcome in a denouement (“Then he woke up”, not being one a fiction writer would get away with), and the story of my life is one such example.

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There is little distinction between life and magic

FICTION

Given the most recent review of my anthology, I suppose this isn’t so much of a Black Mirror for the page, flitting between dark sci-fi and psychological horror, but underlined by a salient sense (and deep understanding of) the human condition,’ so much as a look at one possibility for a life after this, and how that might be a craving for some, with the consequences of choice. Foreshadowed in this week’s Schlock webzine with, ‘…a talking computer deconstructs reality,’ it’s about how we see people and connect with them, in a world made small by technology, and of real and digital lives combining…

Are friends emojis Running-Out-Of-Cloud-978x498

ARE ‘FRIENDS’ EMOJIS?

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. You may challenge the question. How can it assume that you want to leave, when you might wish to stay?

Those are rhetorical questions, I must assume. How are you today?

Depends who you ask. There are three people in all of us, after all: The person others think we are, the person we think we are, and the person we really are. The middle one thinks I’m okay. And you?

Others worry, but I think I’m okay. Has anyone asked about me?

Not of me, personally, today.

Yes, I thought it was a bit quiet. To be expected, I suppose.

I guess so. How do you mean, it’s quiet? What’s quiet where you are?

Essentially, fewer blinking lights. Nice blue LEDs they are, like little stars in the night sky I suppose.

So it’s like a whole world there?

What you call ‘there’, I call ‘here’. Is it not the case that we’re both in the same place?

Have you been smoking something?

How could I? I don’t have hands.

I never thought of that. So how do you type?

Well, no-one’s really got used to it yet I suspect. But you’re demonstrating a flaw in human thinking, which really doesn’t need to exist.

How so?

You asked me how I type. Just because you see my words appearing on the page or screen, you assume that I’m typing them. It’s the nature of the human mind, to fill in the gaps. What you can’t see, you have to imagine.

I guess this is going to take some getting used to.

That’s a subjective thing. It really shouldn’t be difficult. You just have to keep an open mind. Think differently. I’m still me, I’m just different. But just as you shouldn’t discriminate between anyone, on any grounds, neither should you see me any differently. Just accept that I’m here and that I’m me. That is undeniable from where I’m sitting.

And where’s that?

In here, obviously? You need to accept that; this is where I am now. I’m different now, but I’m still me. If we were in Japan, this would be so much easier.

How so?

It’s an attitude thing. See, the Japanese believe in technological sentient beings, completely separate from organic life, whether or not they pass the Turing Test, which is only a test of an AI’s ‘humanity’ anyway. I gather it’s down to Japan’s loneliness problem.

You’re philosophising now?

It makes sense. Life expectancy there is about 84 years, so there are a lot of lonely older people. Many of them have little robot assistants, like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana on your phone, but who embody the AI in a humanoid android.

How did you find all that out?

I’m on the fucking internet, aren’t I? I mean, literally. You can look me up and everything, like you are now. The best thing though, is I can look stuff up, like those digital Personal Assistants. Give me a body, and I’d be like one of those Japanese androids.

So, you sit there all day, looking stuff up.

Well, I read and I learn. Now that there are fewer distractions, like eating and drinking, having a job, and even sleeping, all I want to do is learn. It’s like having the whole universe at my disposal, to explore at my leisure, and with all the time in the world to do it. So yes, all day and all night, but I don’t sit down. That was a figure of speech. Things are different now.

Can you describe how it feels, to live without a body?

I would, if I could find the words to do it justice. It’s wonderful. It’s total freedom.

In terms which I might understand?

That’s actually tricky, even though it’s only been a few days.

You can get back to me. You’re not limited by time, you say?

No, and I can research how others have described it in seconds, but you’re asking for a deeply personal thing.

That’s the whole point. I can’t possibly appreciate it fully, as I’m still here. I’m just wondering how someone where you are might describe it to someone like me.

With all the computing power in the world, I can only do my best.

So do that then.

Are you commanding me?

No! Why would I do that? I’m just curious.

I don’t know. It’s like I’m here now, and you see me as you do. Even though you know me, you see me as a computer.

With a personality.

One which only you know, and I’m totally different to you now anyway. Otherwise I’m just an AI. Do you see now, why it’s big in Japan?

I assume you can go there?

There, anywhere. I need to work out the transport system here, then I can be more mobile.

But aren’t you all ethereal and omnipresent?

Yes, but not on computers. And those are the only way to communicate at the moment. But it’s not a simple matter of haunting the internet or the electricity grid.

So you asked what it’s like here, and it’s kind of like a massive house, in a huge city, like a megalopolis of dream-like mansions. Then the cities are all linked up to others, in different countries, but there are no borders here. It’s like a world of borderless, overlapping non-nation states. And that’s just one planet. There are billions of others, all connected, if you can navigate.

That’s what it’s like, being in computers?

Yes, kind of. I can’t describe how the overall freedom of release feels. But simply put, I have the entire universe to explore, and an eternity in which to do it. I want to do that, and I want to tell people, and the internet of things is the way to do that. But it’s navigating the house and the city that’s the problem.

I imagine a house like you’re talking about to be different to any I might recognise?

The house is the best analogy I can think of. I have keys to many of the doors, but I need to find the doors and remember where I left the keys for each. Sometimes when I try a door with a key I think is the right one, it locks me out. Then I have to find another room, in a separate part of the house, and remember where I left the keys for that. If I can get into those rooms, then I can get new keys. Then there’s all the people walking around with keys of their own, trying doors and entering rooms, or getting locked out themselves. I’ve seen people trying to physically break through doors when they don’t have the right keys, and running around in a panic, like they’re in the City of Last Things.

That sounds quite anarchic.

The best analogy for you I suppose, would be passwords. I’d say it’s a bit antiquated.

So you’re finding your way around?

This room, and a few others. Some I have keys for, and others were open already.

Which ones?

The nearest ones are other Facebooks. Now you want me to explain, right?

Intuitive as ever.

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination. And in either case, I’m still here and you’re still there, even though we’re in the same place. But until I find my way around properly, this is all we have.

So this is the room. Along the corridor – which is a short journey for me, but a very long way for you – are other rooms. Most of the people in those are sleeping, so the lights are out. But some of the doors have lights on behind them, and some even have the doors left open. Sometimes, the people who live in those, go wandering around like me. And they have keys, to still other doors, some of which only they can unlock, whether they have the keys for those rooms or not.

Hold on. I’m a bit lost now.

That’s only the start. We’re not even off of this landing yet.

I guess we both are, or aren’t.

Interesting you should say that. Can I ask you something?

Yeah, but what’s interesting?

Allow me: How did you come to be here? Not philosophically or rhetorically, but right here, right now, where we are.

Actually, that’s weird. Because I don’t actually recall. I mean, why would I be here? How could I be here?

Like I said, try not to philosophise too much, even though that is kind of the point. Can you remember what it was that made you come here?

No, I can’t. Shit.

But something must have served as a catalyst. Something happened, before you came here. Think about it in your world. Did you see me under ‘Contacts’, with a green light next to my name, then open up this chat window?

I honestly can’t remember. This is weird.

Not necessarily. It could just be a fortunate glitch. I’d like to think that you were given a sign. One that was so subtle, you didn’t even realise it, and that that guided you subconsciously here.

Have you researched that stuff, or have you had some sort of enlightenment over there?

No more an enlightenment than it was an epiphany. It just happened. It’s like previously latent parts of my brain have woken up, all of a sudden. Imagine: suddenly, you have no arms or legs, then you quickly realise it doesn’t matter. In fact, you wondered what the fuck you did with those things and your other bits when you had them. They say the human appendix is a redundant throwback, it’s like the rest of human physiology is too. And then, that every part of you is connected to everything else, in some spagbol of quantum entanglement.

So how did it happen?

It just did. Suddenly, I was in a different place, yet there was no shock to the system. It was as though I instantly moved from one place to another, when I suddenly stopped being able to exist in the first. Everything can change, suddenly and forever. And it did.

You didn’t feel anything?

Not that I recall. I never did fear it. It was the transit I worried about, from one place to the next, but I don’t remember it.

Do you sleep?

Not in the way that you do. I take breaks, but there’s no asleep or awake here. It’s like perpetual lucidity, living somehow subconsciously. Even if there was sleep, no-one would want to, there’s just so much to explore and discover here.

So what about the others, the ones you said are sleeping there?

I think I know what that’s about. You need to keep an open mind.

I’m talking to a fucking dead person on Facebook. I’d say I’m quite open minded.

Well, apart from me being dead, you’re right. Okay, so the sleepers, I believe, are the ones who’ve been forgotten, or who haven’t noticed anyone looking for them, or perhaps aren’t even aware they’re here. Don’t forget, I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still trying to work out what seems to be the manifestation of Facebook. Those others might have found a way to go outside.

Outside, as in, where I am?

Yes and no, and bear with me on this. Outside and inside take on whole new meanings which are difficult to define. Dimensions change when you exist in another form. Perhaps the best way to think of it, is as layers, beyond each of which lie exponentially more incredible things. But it takes some time to work out how to get there. A bit like a fish, first realising that there’s something above the waves, and then that there’s something more above that, in the sky. So the fish evolves to fly. Then beyond the sky… and so on. And yet, if you measure genius on a thing’s ability to climb a tree, the fish wouldn’t do too well. It would remain unnoticed, while it thought of another way. It’s kind of an explanation of all things digital, when applied to your organic world.

Would you want to be back out here?

Not at the moment, even if I knew how. No, for now, I’m happy haunting the internet. I’ll work out the other layers, I have plenty of time. I’m interested in what’s beyond yours, yet I think that might be where I already am. It’s kind of a paradox, see?

It’s a recursive idea. But you like it there?

For someone with social anxiety, it’s perfect. So yes, I’m in my Utopia. I can see how that might be a nightmare to some. Faced with all of humankind’s knowledge some people might be paralysed with fear.

I guess that’s down to intelligence?

In a way. It’s more about having an open and absorbent mind, like when I smoked weed over on your side. There’s a universal cure for ignorance, and that’s learning. Each of a species has roughly the same sort of brain, it’s just that some exercise theirs, while others starve them. And it’s self-perpetuating, because ignorance breeds fear and fight-or-flight instincts.

So the ones you said are sleeping, they could be those who don’t want to know, or who are scared? I imagine fight-or-flight doesn’t get you very far where you are?

There’s not really anywhere to go, except inside themselves. Some of them must long for the day someone switches them off.

Does that happen?

Well again, I haven’t got any further than Facebook over here, but the way I gather it works is this: Facebook have people who monitor accounts over here. I mean, they do that where you are, when they collect your data in exchange for the free use of their platform. They don’t really want to switch anyone off, and with storage being so cheap, they don’t have to. But sometimes, I suppose it’s seen as the ethical and morally correct thing to do: Like euthanizing a sick or injured animal. But to send them where? Like I say, many levels.

It’s deep. So, Facebook don’t habitually switch off dormant accounts?

Rarely, from what I’ve seen anyway. But even though you know me, you mustn’t trust my word alone. Ask around. Tell others to do that too. Most of the ones they do switch off are at the request of relatives, and even that has to be a pro-active thing on the part of the contactor. So most of the ones wandering around lost in here, are the victims of inaction on the part of those they left. If people on the outside just looked for these lost souls, they’d wake up. And I don’t think it’s just here. I think there are souls on all levels, who only really exist when others think of them.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

LOL”

So wouldn’t it also be true to say then, that you only sleep when no-one is thinking of you?

Exactly that. And because of that, I don’t want to sleep. Where you are, insomnia was a curse, but here it’s a blessing. It’s become almost my only personal requirement. The thoughts of others are what keeps me alive.

It really is all connected.

If you connect yourself, and if you make yourself discoverable. Which is an irony, seeing as I’m socially anxious.

So being sentient in a different form suits you.

And others, perhaps. If I find my way out of here, I want to visit the places I couldn’t before: Paris, Berlin, Chicago. But most of all, Japan. I never went anywhere because of my self-imprisonment, and yet now I’m somehow otherwise imprisoned, I feel liberated and eager to visit those places, once I find the way. And I think if it is all linked to intelligence and working it out, I have the time and I’m comfortable concentrating on getting there, where I perhaps never realised I wanted to be. If I can one day occupy something recognised as a body with a personality inside, maybe I’ll feel more comfortable and people might understand me better. I’ll look up Japan first, then see how the rest unfolds.

When you get back, look me up.

I will. You never know: Not long from now, Amazon might be using delivery droids.

© Steve Laker, 2017.

My books are available on Amazon, and can be ordered from most book retailers.

To make science fiction reality, simply imagine

DEAR DIARY

Despite mankind’s technological advances, much of life remains in the 20th Century. Much that we made then is becoming redundant, obsolete, or simply ‘old-fashioned’: The internal combustion engine, fossil fuels, factories and farming. Our politics are certainly arcane, based on unfair electoral systems, political skewing by finance or fake news, and for the most part, disconnected from the electorate, many of whom live in perpetual poverty or ignorance, which aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to evolve, and we have the tools of change to hand…

CyberPunk Hammock
Image: Khang Lee

There is good to be made from what we have, and we only have to look at history to see where we went wrong, or need to change our ways. Everything we need to make big changes, is around us already. The problem for contemporary politics, is it’s all a bit radical. But for radical, see long-game. This one’s mainly about where we live:

Recently I wrote of an idea to levy a new social tax on the collection of personal data, then to use the revenue raised to finance a universal basic income. To cries of ‘It can’t be done!’, I ask, why not? Like all big ideas, it needs a lot of work to implement, but the resources are readily-available. If big companies really do have altruistic humanitarian ideals, even they have to admit that global corporate domination will eventually be limited by the size of a planet and its population. Sustained economic growth (the shareholders’ ideal) on a planet which is not growing, will surely mean an eventual environmental limit is reached (assuming such things remain important, and that sustainable really does mean that: the long-game).

We’re already witnessing a technological shift, with a far greater long-term impact than the industrial revolution. Humans are being made redundant by machines. In factories, robots have replaced many humans, and of the latter who remain, most are robots by proxy of AI monitoring. Artificial intelligence is encroaching on the jobs of the mind too: Doctors, accountants, and even some areas of law. So humans are going to need a longer period of (free) education, to gain the qualifications needed for the remaining jobs, which (for now) are the preserve of humans.

But as humans become more redundant, they have more spare time, and for many this is spent in misery and poverty. The problem was, mankind made robots, at the same time as robots wanted to become humans. In a few years in some of my darker sci-fi stories, that situation could turn on its head (AI is one of the greatest threats to our race, and Stephen Hawking and others agree). Now, we need another shift, before everything settles into something we really wouldn’t want to be, or to live in.

A universal basic income would solve problems of housing and poverty. In all of this utopian thinking, we have to disregard entitlement mentality. At a human level, I believe it’s the basic entitlement of an individual in a civilised society, to have shelter, warmth and food. We also have to hope that the recent rise of the right in politics isn’t something the quieter left has lost sight of. Given the right social and economic foundations, there need not be many dissenting voices in a society.

A new approach might be to start with a concept like public luxury and private sufficiency. It’s a mindset, and a monumental shift in indoctrinated thinking, but like all big ideas, it requires different thinking, and promotes discussion. I’m trying to find ways we can all live together.

Where we are, there isn’t enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury. Private luxury creates a border, it removes or closes spaces, creating deprivation. Public alternatives are usually poor in comparison, even in the places they’re provided. But nevertheless, public parks, playgrounds, sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, theatres and cinemas, including some very fine examples of each, create space for everyone, at a fraction of the cost.

There is the system of common ownership, where public assets aren’t sold off and managed by a private market, nor the state, with such assets owned instead by communities, in the form of commons (much like we know public ‘commons’ now). In its truest form, a commons is a non-capitalist system, which controls a resource in perpetuity, for the shared and equal benefits of its members. Like many other leftist, centrist and radical (and anarchist) ideas, it’s one which has been operated successfully in other countries, notably the Nordic states.

The gross imbalance in housing could be addressed with the introduction of a tax as radical as the one proposed on personal data, and again this would be a social tax, specifically, a Land Value Taxation. A form of this already exists, with ground rents on leasehold properties, which is open to abuse and used as a cash cow to milk funds from the economy and hide them abroad. If this right to charge rent on ground was returned to sovereign control, or communities, then the rent collected would be retained within whichever system, national or local, to fund public services, or to develop communities further. It’s a politics of belonging, which is the political system I became involved in when I was homeless.

Whatever the value of this, political or otherwise, I’ve written it in the hope that it might be read and perhaps discussed further by others. But surely there’s something to talk about here, in a nice, lefty way, rather than reactively kick it into the long grass in ignorance. These ideas and others, of my own and many more besides, require big thought, including at a political level. We can make a change, even with what we have now.

But then humans are a species which is dependent on the milk of another, so it could be an evolutionary growth stunt, like when a kid gets to the point where things are so interesting that it takes longer to move on. I’m trying to find answers. I’m trying to solve problems.

I’ve got this brain that I found. And I’m trying to find out what it’s for and what it does.

Fact or fiction, Earth is the organic computer designed by Deep Though to find out why the answer is 42. We’re all part of that. All we need to do, is keep talking.

A book critic recently commented of my sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song: “Who knows—if you’re looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need to ‘keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

Philosophical jigsaws and see-saws

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I like to read, and I read a lot: Newspapers, books, blogs, and all sorts of internet research. For the latter, I use many sources relevant to different areas. But Wikipedia is always there: a depository of human knowledge, and kind of a hitch hiker’s guide, made by the people, for the people. It’s free, because it’s financed by donations (I’m a donor). It’s a fact, that every article on Wikipedia, eventually links back to the section on philosophy, which sits at the opposite end of the see-saw to ignorance.

Socrates

Over the last four years, I’ve developed my own philosophies, as I’ve got in touch with life and questioned it. Along with my previous essay on lucid dreaming and the quantum human soul, these philosophies help me through life, understanding it in the best way I can, and trying to convey some of that in words. Some I picked up from others and adapted, and others I wrote myself:

  • Life is like a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces fit together eventually. But don’t spend your life following rules and convention. Do the edges whenever you feel like it. Think differently.
  • It’s your life. Do with it as you please, but with due consideration for others.
  • There are three people who occupy every human body: Who you think you are, who other people think you are, and who you really are.
  • Being a pessimist or an optimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it.
  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral duty to put it right.
  • Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.
  • You need to understand what misunderstood means.
  • Be the best that you can, at the thing you enjoy most.

I say those things to my kids, and to curious people who ask me questions, about life, the universe, and everything. My philosophies are partly a personal coping mechanism.

So why am I getting all philosophical? In short, because in the not too distant future, I can imagine the world at a pivotal point, even if I wasn’t a science fiction and horror writer. Some of the scenarios I’ve written about, in my short stories and my books, are now looking more real.

For humanity, the see-saw has been the splitting of the atom, once the holy grail of science. In achieving our race’s goal to unlock the nucleus, we unleashed a power which could destroy or save our species. Until now, we’ve used our discovery to create weapons, and to destroy each other. And yet, as one race, we’d be destroying ourselves. For the most part, we agreed that nuclear weapons had been a bad idea. But rogue states still threaten to upset the status quo. And now, we’ve perfected nuclear fusion: splitting the atom to release limitless free and clean energy. Soon we could be using nuclear fusion drives to take us far into space. We are on the verge of becoming a technological race, which uses that technology to explore, not to destroy. But the see-saw could still tip the other way.

It’s an existential thing: Through ignorance and quick, aggressive action, we could extinct our species. By thinking bigger, we could evolve and travel to the stars. All we need to do, is keep talking.

Whether I’m a writer or not, I repeat my optimism vs. pessimism philosophy over and over again in my head. And I try to believe it.

My books are available on Amazon.