Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

One hundred years from now, the United States has collapsed. Big Pharma is more powerful than most governments. Robots are as intelligent as people. It is in this world that Judith “Jack” Chen survives as a pirate, making illegal versions of drugs to sell to those that can’t otherwise afford them.

In this world, Big Pharma has made life “better” for those on the top. Drugs exist that can keep you young, can make you more productive, and can heal wounds. Biotech has also led to the ability to “paint” roads as needed. Most technologies are biogegradable — “somebody had left a throwaway mobile which was now biodegrading into a lump of gray cellulose.” Robots are indeed smart, so smart that they’ve been given the same rights as people. But, as courts decided that robots still could be “indentured,” they also decided that people could, since they are no smarter. A new form of slavery emerges. Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz, explores this world through the adventures of Jack, who has reverse engineered a new drug that has some nasty side effects. Once her drug gets out there, she tries to stop it, any way she can.

Autonomous explores themes relevant for our own times. What is the meaning of freedom? Both literally, in the form of actual bondage to another person, and more abstractly. In a world where the rich can stay perpetually young with their designer drugs, what chance does anyone else have of ever breaking out of the bottom? If drugs exist that can enhance your abilities, make you work better and more efficiently, what choice do the rest of us have but to take them? If big companies control these drugs, what hope do any of us have against being beholden to their demands? Many of these questions we grapple with now.

Take for instance, performance enhancing drugs. We are most familiar with steroids, and athletes who use them both to get a leg up and to heal faster. If all of the other football players are using them, how can a guy not be tempted to follow their lead, to ensure he is on the same playing field in terms of base level of talent? I’ve often wondered, if there was a drug that made me smarter and better able to do my job, would it almost be an obligation to take it? Wouldn’t it be in my employer’s best interest? In my family’s?

At the same time, as such drugs are developed, they are owned, by big multinational corporations. This is exemplified by GMOs. I’m not at all against GMOs from a scientific or health point of view. Humans have been modifying the food they eat for millennia, so little of the food we eat is “natural.” No, to me the bigger issue is who then controls the food supply. If companies own the rights to the genetic material, and we rely upon that material, we lose control of how to grow our own food. And, the next step is that they own more and more genetic material, not just of corn and wheat, but of animals, including people. Where does it end? Who fundamentally owns the “rights” to the DNA structure of humans? What happens when “every living thing and idea [is converted] into property?

In the world of Autonomous, the emergence of intelligent artificial life raises new questions about freedoms. Robots are smart and are aware. But, people still want them to work for them. So, they are kept indentured, or as slaves, effectively. However, there are pockets where robots are “born” free, raised autonomous. One character is just such a robot, and she struggles with identity issues: “How could she understand them [indentured robots], when she’d always been autonomous? She felt like her bot identity was incomplete without that seminal experience.

Autonomous doesn’t delve deeply into these questions. By creating a world in which these issues have become part of the fabric of life, Newitz has the freedom to tell her adventure story within the backdrop of this world, touching on these questions through her characters. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into the story, but once I knew the characters and the setting of the story, it flowed a lot better. Newitz raises questions that already face us and will only become bigger issues as we go forward.

Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

In some real sense, computers are like brains. They take information in, process it in some way, and try to make sense of it. A key difference is that, with computers, we can explicitly lay out all of the rules for processing that information. For brains, the rules are already there, we can just try to figure out what they are. The central thesis of Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ book Algorithms to Live By: What Computers Can Teach Us About Solving Human Problems is that, by looking at how computers can be programmed to solve problems and what kinds of problems are easy and hard, we can learn something about how brains do the same.

Christian and Griffiths go systematically through a series of problem types that are central to computer science and applied math and describe how the insights into those problems give us insight into how brains handle information. One of their first examples relates to decision making. Say you have a choice you need to make from a pool of options — who to get married to, what house to buy, which secretary to hire. The basic conundrum is this: you want to make sure you get enough data to make an intelligent choice — you want to know that your choice is really a good one by comparing it to the other options — but the more information you gather, the longer you wait, the more likely the best one has already come and gone. So, you need to wait for some time to judge the quality of the pool and each candidate relative to the pool, but you can’t wait too long or you miss the best one. Under some assumptions, applied math has solved versions of this problem, a class of problems called “optimal stopping” problems. It turns out that, under certain conditions, the optimal stopping point is 37%. That is, you should use the first 37% of your options to help you build your knowledge base about the pool, and not choose any of them. But, you should choose the very first person after that 37% that is better than any of those in the first 37%. This maximizes your chances of choosing the very best person. You aren’t guaranteed to get the very best with this algorithm, but you have the best chance of getting the best.

This is just one example that Christian and Griffiths use to draw analogies between computer science and human thinking. They delve into a variety of topics:

  • Exploring versus Exploiting. Related to optimal stopping, this is the problem of relying on something you already know well versus trying out something new, such as a restaurant.
  • Sorting. If you have a large amount of information, how is it best to sort through it all.
  • Caching. Again, if you have a lot of information, how do you deal with it in the first place? How do you get the information you need now when you can’t have all of the information at your fingertips?
  • Scheduling. If you have a full to-do list, how do you optimize the best way of getting through your list? Do you want to keep the list as short as possible? Do you want to minimize how long others have to wait for you?
  • Bayes’s Rule. How do you use what you know now to make estimates about what will happen next?
  • Overfitting. What are the dangers of overthinking a problem?
  • Relaxation. Given a hard problem, how do you even begin to solve it? How do you find the best answer?
  • Randomness. When you have a huge problem, with a lot of data, so much that you can’t look at all of it, how do you figure out what it says? Think of polling.
  • Networking. In a large, interconnected world, how do you share information with everyone else?
  • Game Theory. How do we make choices when our choices involve other people and their choices?

All of these topics not only have direct relevance to how we program computers to work for us, to solve hard problems that computers are better at, but also give insight into how we can organize our own thinking and data processing. With the internet, 24-hour cable news, and ever-increasing media presence, the amount of information we are bombarded with continues to grow. Our lives become busier as we juggle work, our child’s soccer schedule, the maintenance we have to do on our house, our social lives. A lot of what we do is process information and try to make some sense out of it. While computer algorithms often don’t provide silver bullets — in fact, some problems are simply not solvable, at least not in a finite amount of time — they provide some insight into how to think about certain types of problems.

Algorithms to Live By provides a nice introduction into some of the problems of computer science in a way that is easily approachable. And, if the problems Christian and Griffiths describe might offer some insight into how our own brains work, at the same time, by making that connection between computers and us, they make the problems of computer science more relatable. That is, they provide an accessible pathway to learning about computer science and how we solve some of the biggest problems in computer science. Given the ubiquity of computers in our lives, it certainly doesn’t hurt to know more about how those machines work.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Myfanwy (pronounced like Tiffany, but with an M) Thomas lived in a world in which some people are born with supernatural abilities. Imagine the X-Men, but with a wider range of powers (some not altogether that useful) and no colorful costumes. Myfanwy’s employers, the Checquy, are a secret society that has been around for centuries and works with the British Government to protect the United Kingdom. Myfanwy was one of their best employees, having risen through the ranks to a position of relative power. However, Myfanwy Thomas no longer exists. Her brain has been wiped clean and a new personality inhabits the body that once belonged to Myfanwy. This is the world of The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley.

Without giving too much away, this new Myfanwy — for the new personality adopts the old inhabitant of her body’s life — has to learn both her role in this supernatural world and the reason the old Myfanwy was eliminated. During the course of her journey of both self- and world-discovery, Myfanwy encounters foes that are centuries old, that the Checquy has fought against before.

O’Malley has created an interesting world with “mutants” that are surprisingly fresh. I won’t reveal their powers here, but some of them are very inventive. O’Malley also has a way of bringing his characters and world to life. He has a way with words. At one point, describing the formation of the American counterpart to the Checquy — the Croatoan — he describes one of the first supernatural people to work in the Americas as being “condemned to a tedious backwater populated entirely by religious fanatics whose idea of fun was not having any.”

The world of The Rook, while built on a supernatural foundation, still connects to science in a strong way. The powers of the characters work in pseudo-scientific limits. The Checquy’s foes are rooted strongly in the biological sciences. The world O’Malley has created is one in which, yes, the supernatural is a strong element and people do have absurd powers, but they fit in the world, they aren’t out of place. Combined with O’Malley’s strong sense of pacing — The Rook reads like an action movie of sorts — this is an entertaining thrill ride in an oddly parallel world. The Rook is not the deepest reading in the world, but it is an exciting one.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Just yesterday, on August 10th, a jury awarded Dewayne Johnson nearly $300 million dollars in a case that argued he had contracted cancer from using Monsanto’s Roundup. It is an amazing verdict, especially compared to the story of the so-called Radium Girls.

Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, chronicles the story of numerous women — and in some cases girls — and their own battle to find justice. These women, in two separate but eerily similar situations in New Jersey and Illinois, were employed to paint the face of dials to be used in military equipment and on watches and clocks. The critical thing about these faces was that the paint glowed, so they could easily be read in the dark. And, to make them glow, the paint contained the radioactive element radium.

These women were working primarily in the 1910s and 1920s. Radium had only been discovered in 1898 by the famed Marie and Pierre Curie. Radioactivity itself had only been discovered a few years earlier, in 1896 by Henri Becquerel. So, when the women began working with this element, not much was known. In some parts of the world, particularly Germany it seems, it had been recognized that radioactive substances can cause skin lesions. However, entrepreneurs touted the beneficial effects of radioactive substances, even selling drinks that had radium in it, promising it had health benefits.

The Radium Girls describes how the women used their mouths to shape the tip of their brushes to get the finest point to paint the dials. This meant they were ingesting radium. Ultimately, the radium settled into their bones, as it is chemically similar to calcium, and gave many of them cancer. The descriptions of the effects of the radium on their bodies is often gruesome. Suffice it to say, these women suffered considerably as their bodies deteriorated.

However, trying to get any kind of recognition that their employment had anything to do with their sicknesses was a herculean task. First, doctors had no idea what was going on to these women as they hadn’t seen these kinds of symptoms before. Radiation poisoning was entirely new to the profession. Second, industrial hygiene law severely limited the liability of the companies. Third, the women were often poor, a situation exacerbated by massive medical bills, and couldn’t afford lawyers. All of these factors came together to make justice elusive for these women.

Perhaps the worst part of this story, beyond the suffering of the women, was the way their employers attempted to shirk responsibility. In some cases, they even knew the women were sick, but did nothing to either alert them or help them. The lawyer the women in Illinois ultimately got to represent them stated that the behavior of the company they worked for was “an offense against Morals and Humanity and, just incidentally, against the law.”

Because of the perseverance and bravery of these women, eventually, the laws changed. Companies became more liable. Protections were put into place. At the time, however, there was nothing to help these women.

These women and the effect of radium on their bodies became the best source of the effects of radiation on human health. And, the dangers their deteriorating health warned of impacted the efforts of the scientists in the Manhattan Project. Knowing how these women had suffered, Glenn Seaborg insisted that the health effects of plutonium be studied and that safety guidelines be instituted for workers.

One husband remarked “We’ve got humane societies for dogs and cats, but they won’t do anything for human beings.” It is notable how much has changed. The Radium Girls is a stark reminder of how impersonal and profit-driven companies can become if there are no checks on their behavior. How easily human life can be discarded in the name of profits if no one is there to fight for the individual.

Selected Stories by Theodore Sturgeon

I never heard of Theodore Sturgeon, even though he is supposed to be one of the godfather’s of science fiction. But, his book was highly rated on Amazon and it was on sale so…

Selected Stories is a collection of his short stories. Some of these are down-right weird and I didn’t follow them all. But, they all deal with what happens to people when you put them in weird and extreme environments, with one of the last stories explicitly about how people respond when they are stressed. Each case is different, each stressor is different. In one case, a society begins to punish anyone that wants to be alone, that doesn’t want to constantly be with others. In another, a construction crew working on a remote island have to deal with heavy equipment that becomes possessed by some malevolent entity.

Sturgeon has a marvelous and curious way with words. Phrases like “the music curved off and away to the places where music rests when it is not heard” and “He was a man who missed only the obvious, and there is so little that is obvious.”┬áIn one story, about a group of humans that find themselves stranded on an alien world and the way evolution works on that world, Sturgeon says “They worked like slaves, and then like scientists, which is a change of occupation but not a change of pace.” His words convey ideas that are so odd, it is a wonder to think of where he got them. Where does a mind wander to think of the things he thought of?

A lot of his stories deal with perception and knowledge and how reality maybe doesn’t always mesh with how we think it is. “Wouldn’t we live in a funny world if we had to understand everything that was real, or it wouldn’t exist? It’s always good to know why. It isn’t always necessary.” In another story, he sort of continues this idea: “There’s always a reason for everything, and if we don’t know it, we can find it out. But just one single example of real unreason is enough to shake our belief in everything. And then the fear gets bigger than the case at hand and extends to a whole universe of concepts labelled ‘unproven.’ Shows you how little we believe in anything, basically.” Not only is it hard to to understand the universe, but our understanding is often based on ideas or beliefs that are fragile and easily shaken, even destroyed.

Perhaps my favorite story is “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff,” a story about people being intentionally stressed to make them move beyond their self-imposed limitations. In this story I feel like Sturgeon makes some pretty profound observations. I don’t want to give away the story, but, in one case, a man realizes that he has been so stressed about not being average, not being like everyone, then realizes that no one is average, that average describes a fictional human that is part of “one of the smallest minorities of all.” Few of us are literally average; average is all of us put together in some odd amalgamation. Sturgeon has another character who reflects on the nature of law, and if it is meant to be “a great stone buttress, based in bedrock and propping up civilization” or “an intricate, moving entity.” Very relevant for how our Supreme Court justices interpret the Constitution.

Sturgeon died in 1985. But, his stories had a real connection to our current day. He saw what might become and forced his characters to deal with it: “but what can you do in a world where people… [will] fall over themselves to pour billions into developing a new oil strike when it’s been proved over and over again that the fossil fuels will kill us all?”

Perhaps my favorite line in all of his stories in this collection: “If you ask a question the right way, you’ve just given the answer.” An interesting perspective particularly in the pursuit of science.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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