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Artificial Intelligence And Tilting At Windmills
interviewed by Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
Sure, he foretold Arnold Schwarzenegger's political ambitions in his latest novel, The Digital Dead, but Bruce Balfour's futuristic thrillers offer far more than such surface things. They are thought-provoking mysteries set in the future, unique in that they are infused with a kind of old-school nod to the classic mysteries while not relying on them to be used solely as templates for a general idea. His subtle use of humour makes itself known in an easygoing way, a thinking man's crooked grin there on the page.
An avid SF reader, Balfour began writing at age 14. In 1982, his
first published work appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine. Among his 'real-life'
occupations while pursuing a full-time writing career included commercial photographer,
test driver for Subaru, computer game writer/designer (the renowned Outpost),
and he also would come to work for an outfit known as NASA at the Ames Research Centre,
where he was put on a team to take infrared images of the space shuttle as it re-entered
the atmosphere. Balfour currently lives in Novato, California with his wife and daughters.
What did writing The Forge Of Mars teach you that you were able to use in The Digital Dead?
To reuse my research; for The Forge Of Mars, I spent about two years digging up the details of such things as possible nanotech building methods, Hohmann transfer orbits, the geology of Mars, current research in artificial intelligence, underground military installations in the former Soviet Union, the American 'shadow government' that echoes the actual federal government and is activated during national emergencies, what daily life is like for the average person in Moscow these days, and so on. I was almost forced to write a sequel to get my full use out of these notebooks full of material I put together. Of course, I expect that the lead characters will reappear in a third book eventually, so that will make me feel terribly efficient, I'm sure.
What influences went into the writing of The Digital Dead that we didn't see in The Forge Of Mars?
Ariel, the homeless woman in San Francisco whom we first meet in The Digital Dead, was originally going to play a minor part in the story, essentially as an attractive puppet to lure followers into Brother Digital's high-tech cult, the Church of the Ping. She was also going to draw attention to the ongoing issue of a vast population of homeless people who have essentially built a second phantom city within the confines of San Francisco 50 years from now. As I learned more about this almost parasitical infrastructure within San Francisco, the more I was drawn to Ariel's character and how she would adapt to her environment. She's a well-educated woman forced onto the streets, so she doesn't fit the stereotype we see so often when homeless characters are used. Then she became the focal point to illustrate how someone would visit and interact with a deceased loved one using the virtual immortality technology of Elysian Fields, Inc. And then she became something even greater...
What led you to use the Navajo culture for the character Tau Wolfsinger?
Contrast between the modern, high-tech, fast-paced world of mainstream society and the traditional culture, low-tech, slow-paced world of someone raised in an environment where children are raised to place the common good above their own desires. Tau's Navajo background is based on various people I've known, and the time I spent on the Navajo Reservation in the 1980s, and his traditional upbringing creates some nice conflicts with his education and experience with the rest of the world off the reservation.
A real event that I adapted for The Forge Of Mars had to do with a Navajo park ranger I know who was raised in the tiny community of Shonto in northern Arizona. His father was a famous medicine man, so he learned a lot about medicinal plants and curing ceremonies when he was young. He was also responsible for raising sheep� When he arrived in Berkeley, he discovered that the mutton he bought there didn't have the same flavour as the mutton back home, and he eventually realised that the sheep on the reservation eat sagebrush, and that spices the meat. So, he made a trip back to Shonto during his Christmas break, and brought two sheep back with him to Berkeley, which he slaughtered behind his apartment building. You can imagine the delight of his neighbours while this was going on, many of whom may not even have been aware that meat actually comes from live animals, and not just from a wrapped package at the grocery store. He was like an alien among the 'mainstream' white culture in Berkeley, but he learned to adapt, and he gained a whole new perspective to balance out his view of the world.
Tau compares himself to Don Quixote in The Digital Dead - is he constructed to indeed be Quixotic, or is that solely how he sees himself?
Tau does, indeed, go off to fight windmills. If they were smaller windmills, he might be able to succeed, but instead he chooses to fight shadowy international windmills that refuse to step out into the light and show themselves. Or he'll pick fights with NASA, which is in the business of making windmills. So, he can win a battle here and there, but these windmills will always go after him and gang up on him to try to teach him not to do it again. But he never learns. In other words, he's a lot like you and me.
What was the reaction from NASA co-workers to your work?
Mocking laughter, thrown garbage, burning me in effigy - the usual sort of thing.
Actually, a lot of people work for NASA because they were introduced to this kind of speculative thinking by reading science fiction, and many of them still enjoy it, even if they have to read it in the closet so that their peers will continue to take them seriously. They understand what it means to try to do original research in a government bureaucracy, and the associated paperwork and funding problems that go along with that, so I think it amuses them to see someone poke fun at the system.
I've actually had one or two e-mails from readers who have never worked in this type of environment, and they think I have some kind of a grudge with NASA. I don't, really. I was proud to work for them when I had the chance. The research and technology legacy of NASA, and the methods they developed to orchestrate complex projects while managing vast numbers of employees, are simply amazing. Over time, NASA developed the same issues as any other hulking organism of that size, and the old machinery is slow to adapt to new social and economic environments, but I think it will eventually overcome its difficulties. Change may come with the necessity of funding NASA projects with financial support from private industry, perhaps in the form of the commercial sponsorships I mentioned in The Forge Of Mars.
As is usual with the media's interest in government organisations, we hear a lot more about the occasional failure than we do about the numerous successes, and that's unfortunate because the general public bases its opinion of NASA on the explosions they see on the television news, right before the sitcoms and quiz shows come on in the evening. NASA forgot about how the public viewed it after the budget cutbacks in the post-Apollo era, and they've only made sporadic efforts at PR since then, when cute little vehicles roll around on the surface of Mars and so on. Of course, as its image degraded in the public mind, the reasons for its continued funding seemed to diminish as well, because the average person doesn't understand why basic research needs to be done in the first place. As long as they have a car, a television, and a place to live with electricity for the television, the average person is happy. They simply don't understand, and not enough people are trying to explain it to them, and that leaves us with science fiction and other forms of entertainment as a way to reach these people and show them other possibilities.
Okay, I feel better now. What was your question again?
There is a subtle yet quite realistic sense of humour in both your narrative as well as your dialogue; how do you manage to not undermine the plot by using humour or perhaps, satire?
As my wife keeps reminding me, I am not the reincarnation of Voltaire. However, I try not to take myself too seriously, and that spills over into what I write. If one of my characters is starting to sound too strident, I can use humour to deflate him or to get him grounded again. If only real life were like that. However, I may be typing away on a novel one night, having a great time amusing myself, then look at what I wrote the next morning and wonder whether I thought I was writing material for a television sitcom or a stand-up comedy routine. Maybe it's something in the water, or the drugs that the nice men in the white coats keep giving me - I don't know. Anyway, in the cold light of morning, I think very hard about whether I have to have a fish wearing pants in my serious science fiction novel, then I throw out all that material and start over again.
There are other times when I can't help myself, but my wife will read through my material before I send it off to my editor, and she is more than happy to point out when I've gone too far. She'll pat me on the head, tell me I'm funny, and then tell me to cut entire sections out of the manuscript. And I do, because she has our best interests at heart, and I have no self-control.
Do you think a mission to one of Jupiter's moons, specifically Europa, would yield more conclusive results concerning life on other planets, given the theory Europa's surface floats atop flowing water?
The Galileo mission indicated a good potential for liquid water on Europa. If NASA can keep the Europa Orbiter mission funded, it would use a radar-sounder to determine if there's a liquid ocean under the icy surface. Last I heard, they were talking about a launch in 2008, which would put it in orbit around Europa in 2011. If the oceans are there, and we can get hydrobots on a later mission to melt down through the ice layer, then these little submarines would certainly provide a good show while they hunt for life. We know that hostile conditions around hydrothermal vents in the deep oceans of Earth can support life, so why not something similar on Europa?
What is your opinion on the current Mars mission?
After both rovers have safely landed, I'm thinking they should poke around and look for water a little bit, finish their missions, get roaring drunk in a rover bar beneath the surface, then attack each other in a battle-bots scenario that would capture the interest of the larger viewing audience.
Given the current budget limitations, these small "follow the water" missions seem the best way to keep a Mars exploration program going in the near term while still managing to acquire new data, but it will take something on the scale of a manned mission to get people excited about exploration again. Of course, gathering the popular support required for funding such a mission is nearly impossible at the moment, so I suspect that Microsoft will be planting its corporate flag on Mars long before NASA or any international space consortiums will get there.
Do you think the next major advance in science will be genuine AI?
So far, I think AI research has either generated software algorithms that have been absorbed into common applications such as word processing and computer games, or it has led researchers into dead-ends. A lot of useful work has come out of developing strategies for searching vast quantities of information, and other approaches in cognitive science have demonstrated how complex our brains really are. Hardware capabilities continue to advance, but software lags behind due to the complexity of trying to model even the simplest tasks that a human takes for granted.
As a simple example of this software complexity, a good computer model of a real system in the physical world will often exhibit "emergent behaviour." Emergent behaviour is why freeways have traffic jams - the system should work if everything operates as planned, but then someone does the unexpected, driving too slow in the fast lane, and turbulence builds up as people try to pass the slow driver, and more people brake to avoid the slow driver or the passing drivers, and suddenly the freeway is backed up for miles as the chaos spreads.
Intel has computers that create the detailed designs for new computer chips, but we still have the limitations of human programmers to slow us down because we don't have computers that can write their own software. There are projects such as 'Cyc' that involve years of building a giant database of common sense rules such as, "Don't wear a plaid shirt with striped pants," or whatever, in the hope that the software will eventually be able to apply common sense reasoning to novel problems, but these are still only early attempts at AI. I expect that we'll get closer to 'real' AI once we start enhancing live organic brains with the faster processing power and memory of computer chips. Then, with the awesome computing power available a few years after that, the ultra-intelligent machines of our science fiction fantasies will start to emerge. And then we'll be enslaved by our toaster ovens.
You describe a near-future version of the Internet that is too complex for unaided humans to understand. Tau interacts with the data-sphere through an AI that hunts down information. Do you think this is how the Web will evolve?
I think dealing with the vast amount of information on the Web is already too complex a task for many people. A few years ago, politicians were talking about the "digital divide," and that focused a lot of attention on getting computers and Internet access into the schools. Now, underprivileged kids are almost as likely to be familiar with the Internet as their middle-class counterparts. A lot of seniors have taken the time to learn how to use e-mail and surf the Web. But there are still a lot of carpenters and grocery store clerks who don't see any need to buy a computer or get Internet access, and a new underclass of the "information poor" is developing. Each day, more information floods onto Web servers all over the world, but data is not knowledge, and just because the information is there doesn't mean that I can get to it just because I have an Internet connection. The search engines, like Yahoo and Google, continually hunt down that information and attempt to categorise it so that we can find it, but they only cover a small percentage of what's out there, and almost any search you do will turn up more website links than you can use, and most of those links will be garbage. Web directories with human editors, such as About.com and the Open Directory, do a better job of pruning out the garbage links and categorising the information, but they can't cover everything either.
How has the scientific community reacted to some of the ideas you put forward in Digital Dead?
Well, much of what I write about is already starting to appear in one form or another, so it's not a stretch for most computer science researchers, or hardware designers, to imagine these technologies being used in this way.
Microsoft has been working on a database that records almost everything in the daily life of one of its researchers, effectively creating a digital memory recording without some of the sensory input. The Max Planck Institute has developed "neuron transistors" that can detect the firing of a nearby neuron in a brain, or switch the neuron on and off. There is two-way communication between these transistors and the neurons, and they've demonstrated it by controlling the movements of a leech from a computer. This will lead to more detailed models of neural pathways and to our understanding of how the brain does its thing.
We've already done a lot of work in virtual reality environments, and a little more hardware power to handle the graphics will make virtual worlds much more realistic. Ray Kurzweil estimates that a visit to a 'website' in 2030 will be more like a trip to a fully-immersive virtual world, complete with sensory input moderated by nanobots controlling the sensory signals in the brain.
What's the biggest challenge in writing the contemporary SF novel?
Trying to stay ahead of rapid changes in technology and society. I can make jokes about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming President of the United States, and then by the time The Digital Dead comes out a year or two later, the real Schwarzenegger announces that he's running for governor of California.
Or I can think I'm terribly clever by digging up all this old information about the vast underground military installations under the eastern United States, and then use these abandoned facilities in The Forge Of Mars, and then a big terrorist attack occurs and these facilities are suddenly reactivated and modernised just one month after my book comes out. A lot of that information that I dug up has now disappeared from the websites where I found it, as it has apparently become classified information once again.
In a sense, you might say the biggest challenge is in finding enough time to do all the research for a good science fiction novel, followed by the ability to write fast enough before all of your research becomes outdated.
On a more practical level, the challenge is that there aren't as many people who read science fiction now. Surrounded by high-tech marvels and the complexity of modern society, people seem more inclined to avoid thinking about the future, preferring to read books and watch movies about elves and fairies, or about how their neighbours are getting murdered, or about finding relationship fulfilment in their own back yards. I have nothing against these other genres, but I'd like to see more people buying science fiction again. Not that I have any vested interest in that...
Will we see Kate and Tau return in your next novel?
God, I hope not. They keep stirring up trouble and then I have to get them out of it.
Actually, my next novel, due out in 2004 from Ace, is The Twilight Road, unless they change the title again. It's essentially a science fantasy that operates in three dimensions: an inner dream world, an advanced virtual world, and the real world. It's set primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has become a wasteland due to a massive nanotechnology 'accident' prompted by a group of sinister artificial intelligences known as the Dominion.
I also have a light mystery novel floating around that's primarily set among the wind tunnels and exotic aircraft at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. I spent a lot of time flying around on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which was a C-141 with an infrared telescope mounted inside of it for astronomy at high altitudes, and I finally decided to use it as a closed environment for a mystery novel. Our team used the KAO for Space Shuttle intercept missions so that we could get an infrared image to show actual heating conditions on the Shuttle underbody, so I learned a lot about the eccentricities of the aircraft and the people who worked on it. They retired the KAO a couple of years ago, intending to replace it with a 747, but I don't believe it has started flying yet.
However, I do expect to see Tau and Kate again eventually.
Bruce, thank you for your time, is there anything you'd like to add?
Have I mentioned that my novels make lovely Christmas gifts, appreciated by young and old alike? And, believe it or not, the movie rights are still available.
BOOKS IN PRINT BY BRUCE BALFOUR:
Jack The Ripper - with Chris Ulm (1990)
Outpost: The Official Strategy Guide (1994)
Star Crusader (1995)
Star Bores - with Steve Tymon, et al (1999)
The Forge Of Mars (2002)
The Digital Dead (2003)
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