Computer Tech In The SF Reality: an article by GF Willmetts.

Science Fiction has certain areas of anachronism where an outsider would certainly question how futuristic it really is. The equivalent of how old a TV show is based on the size of the mobile phones placing the time it was made. The same can also be applied to the size of computer VDUs before they became flatscreen.

Of course, SF has always been dogged with keeping ahead of discoveries and redesigning, especially with the more visual TV shows and films and especially the detailing. With stories, writers can put in enough and let the readers’ imaginations fill in the gaps. Even so, it created a gap that had hard SF where only what we know is possible and general SF where anything from faster-than-light and time travel was allowed.

Doing that removes certain obstacles and able to focus on other aspects of the story, proving that there is some thought as how much changes in technology will be applied to other aspects of civilisation, although even that gets forgotten much of the time as well. Granted, a lot of that becomes window dressing and what differentiates good SF from sci-fi is how the background is incorporated into the plot. A good SF ending should incorporate elements that wouldn’t be available to a conventional story.

For Science Fiction, things changed in the mid-1970s when computers were becoming a home item. The image of computers the size of houses was slowly being eroded in the public imagination but few, if any, imagined computers the size of a mobile phone. Asimov was one of the first to realise how he needed to included computers in his ‘Foundation’ books and incorporated it into the latter ones, albeit forgetting the size of the positronic brains in his ‘Robot’ stories. The problem was that it was a little jarring and although he explains computers were always there, he called them a ‘tabulator pad’ then the computer word.

Even so, it wasn’t an elaborate computer and certainly not an artificial intelligence. In fact, that does differentiate forms of computers. We’ve made advances in AI but nothing comparable to the fictional HAL-9000 in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Colossus – The Forbin Project’, both exhibiting a form of madness but more cold-blooded decisions. The computer technology in Starfleet or in ‘Babylon 5’ is only a few levels higher than what we currently have.

No doubt it could be speculated that AIs might be deemed too dangerous to have independency and lack of over-ride controls and just kept, essentially, as work tools. AIs would really be dangerous if we equipped them with human-like emotions.

HAL-2000 – the first solid-state computer.

Therein lies the problem as computer usage in SF has become restricted whereas its commonly used in other genres, especially in TV series, although copyright has meant no use of names like Google (do they need free publicity or even object as they are commonplace?) and a generic search engine. Logistically, as shown in our own reality, the use of computer technology is going up. As such, SF should either reflect this or explain why that changed in advanced societies.

Could a rogue AI be that bad that we would draw back from using so much computer tech and not take up aspects of the plot? Considering the size an AI would take up, I doubt if it could fill a modern desktop computer’s RAM, so being in a story is equivalent to having a loaded gun in the story and has to be used crucially in the plot. Then again, are we neglecting it than thinking of it as a background device that just happens to be there?

Algorithms are the way forward at the moment but also limited. One only has to look at the likes of Google’s word search and the photographs selected to realise that there is no discrimination in choices. It isn’t a learning algorithm and just given too wide a perimeter not allowing the user to define the search better.

Colouus, the Forbin Project, needs a lot of space for AI.

Of course, the real problem with SF stories set in the current age is if it does anything beyond what we currently expect then by the time the book is released it could already exist or even gone beyond that. Ergo, you have dated SF and a poor reputation for not keeping up-to-date, despite the fact that you started it earlier and can take up to 2 years to see print. For better or worse, SF writers think if they ignore such computer use it would just go away but just makes their material look potentially odd instead.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to figure out a computer advancement and be ahead of the game if its crucial to the story. The real problem is revolving a story around it for good or bad. A detrimental effect is likely to be sell the story as people like seeing things going wrong than fine. If the idea was that good, why not do it for real and get it right? It would certainly make more money than a book contract.

There’s also a secondary problem that computers are now commonplace. Even non-users know what they are and what they are capable of, so how far advanced can you get? They might also know that a quantum computer will work a lot faster in doing simultaneous equations and possible the forefront for AIs. As such there are less likely to be surprises with computer use in Science Fiction. Even so, it doesn’t mean they should be ignored in Science Fiction as background dressing.

Of course, it might not be needed in the story. I can probably be an example of that but in short stories, the focus is much tighter than showing the entire reality. Contacting someone for advice isn’t always a good option in any story because it negates the current danger to the characters. There is also the futuristic option. That is, how more advanced can computers become in the future, so let’s explore that for a moment.

Our current computers don’t have too many limitations. We have them as small as smartphones or as large as a desktop based on silicon technology. Any limits are down to the size of the RAM/memory and the needs of the program. Some of that is purely a cheat as it connects to a bigger computer capacity to do the actual work so it isn’t self-contained.

Artificial Intelligence will work better in a protein-based technology that will allow multiple connections. Even so, no one has really described size in all of this. If it can mimic the human brain, then one would think it would be possible to contain it in something the size of a human brain. It would only be a small step to make it into an android, where the current technology is already showing vast improvements in movement and looking more…shall we say…human. None of these are tropes were ahead of in all SF mediums. The only difference now is our reality is rapidly catching up with fiction and we are more aware of the limitations now.

Writers need to be aware of the limits of any type of computer program that is used and not to make it an easy solution. After all, readers are there to see a little bit of human ingenuity in getting themselves out of trouble.

We now know it would be very difficult to turn Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics into algorithms simply because the perimeters a fall down in interpretation. Obeying orders from anyone could lead to contradictory orders. To not commit harm to humans falls apart when a choice has to be made between who to save. To preserve its own life would have it questioning what is its own life. Even Asimov’s admitted failures in his own laws although they were created originally to avoid rampaging robots, prevalent in early SF films and stories. It still happens, as noted in the examples above, only with a bit more logic.

As a visual aid and under a different name in films and TV series, computers can’t be ignored as its commonplace today. It does seem to make any character in trouble and not have access to computer hard and software as a non-user. That’s not to say there aren’t people like that out there still but in modern societies it does give the image that these are the only types of people that get in trouble. Even so, it also raises the dilemma that if we can’t reflect modern day how can we reflect the future of computer technology sans AI involvement in society? After all, people can’t all be like me with minimal social media involvement.

Despite distance, contact with people appears ever closer and yet also socially anonymous and we’ve also seen the dangers of that. A significant change for the future is only one true identity on-line. Some work has been done towards that with the desire to move beyond typing in a password in the pursuit of making things ‘simpler’ but more complicated. Having used a fingerprint scanner, it isn’t that reliable yet for general use. A retina scan looks like the way to go, more so as its non-identical but not much use for those who are blind. The same could also be said for a voiceprint until you have people who are dumb. Ergo, it is more likely that a combination of ways for individual identification would have to be used for total verification. Well, unless it is possible to scan brainwaves.

Of course, all of this might become obsolete in the face of a nuclear Armageddon because anywhere spared is likely to find all their computer hard drives and RAM wiped and we will be back to a pre-computer. Given that this will wipe out digital books, invest in paper books, especially non-fiction skill books, as you might one day be the archivist providing help to other people.

Bear that in mind, especially on the small number of people in proportion to the size of the world who can make CPUs. Our dependency on computers is always going to be limited to the number of people who can manufacture the hardware and those who can write to software. For SF writers not to see the use of computers in any form or use in their stories leaves a gap of association to the current population out there.

© GF Willmetts 2022

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