Predictions Saving Lives or Making Nightmares Real?

A recent article appeared on the Forbes website, “Researchers Attempt to Predict and Prevent Suicide Using Deep Learning and Math“, discussing a team of scientists working on an algorithm to predict suicidal patterns and prevent suicides.  One of the scientists states the project goal being:  “if our algorithm can identify and stop just one or two, we will feel really good about that.”

On the one hand, this looks like a good idea that will help to save lives.  On the other hand, it brings to mind the nightmares of Philip K. Dick‘s (PKD) scifi short stories.  PKD is probably my single most favorite scifi author; and his scifi stories and novels contain as many warnings against future nightmares as they do predictions of future technologies.

In the PKD story, “The Minority Report” (PKDR/PKD4), murder and violent crimes are prevented through a combination of precognition abilities and computer algorithms that produce three reports.  If two of the three reports agree there will be a murder, the computer produces a card with the name of the would-be murderer, who is then sought out and apprehended by the pre-crime department.  However, the existence of the minority report indicates the future crime accepted for prevention may not show the whole picture.  In fact, the possibility of innocent persons being imprisoned for crimes that were never  going to be committed is raised by the narration of the story.

While pre-crime exists in a fictional setting, the overlooked minority reports, that might clear someone of a future crime, raises the question of whether this suicide algorithm’s identification of a suicidal patterns might result in similar problems of non-suicidal persons being institutionalized.  The behaviors might just meet a list programmed into a computer and not indicate an actual a future suicide.  Some of us with depression would definitely want assurances that something was in place to prevent this result.

The Forbes article also explains that project development involved “student[-]developed algorithms to do statistical analysis … to look for key factors related to suicide risks and apply deep learning methods to these large and complex datasets”.  When deep learning methods are discussed in connection to the algorithms, questions of artificial intelligence (AI) are also immediately raised.

In “The Defenders” (PKD1) and “Second Variety” (PKD3), PKD offers two differing views of what it could look like when an AI determines humans are their own worst threat.

In a more benign take on AI, the story, “The Defenders”, features robots designed to fight a war between the U.S. and Russia.  When humans leave the surface due to the increasing lethality of the weapons of war they’ve created, the robots determine the two groups of humans are bigger threats to the earth and that their war doesn’t even make sense.  Instead, the robots dupe humanity into believing the war is going on through the building and destroying of model replicas of human cities, while also cleaning and preserving the actual untouched cities.  The robots made an analysis of human behavior that determined they should keep the humans underground until their societies have moved on from warfare to a focus on survival in a generation or so.

However, PKD presents the nightmarish concept of robots designed to fight a war who’ve determined human life is a bigger threat than the robots on either side in the story, “Second Variety”.  These robots are designed to reproduce and to use learning processes to create even more deceptive and lethal versions of themselves to outwit the other side.  Further the two sides of the robot war eventually focus on making those deceptions more effective against the robots on the other side.  The war continues to be fought by the robot combatants with humans soldiers largely forgotten, except for being seen as a threat by the robots on both sides.

To clarify, I do not think the algorithm will use deep learning methods to gather humans into camps and exterminate them Terminator-franchise-style. 

However, we must bear in mind that any technology that involves computerized systems learning on their own, making decisions on their own, and enforcing objectives has the potential to become a very serious threat long-term unless safety precautions are put into place to prevent the machines from determining non-machines are all a threat.


Dick, Philip K. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol I. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1990. (PKD1)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol II. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1995. (PKD2)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol III. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 2002. (PKD3)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol IV. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1991. (PKD4)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol V. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 1992. (PKD5)
—. The Philip K Dick Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1997. (PKDR)

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

On The Future by Martin Rees

Last night, I finished reading Martin Rees‘ book On The Future: Prospects for Humanity. Before I get into a rundown of the book, some background is needed here.

This book’s title caught my eye because of a recent interest, for personal storytelling purposes, in learning more about the science behind future humans, or the future of human evolution.

If you’ve been here a little while, you know that the fiction of James S.A. Corey is a huge influence on my view of scifi writing and what it could/should be. One of the areas that I think they excel in is the indirect study of humanity’s future evolution into, more or less, four different strains due to space travel and the settlement of planetary and space station based colonies.

During my graduate studies at the University of Missouri, St Louis (UMSL), I encountered the area of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism and one of its chief advocates, Joseph Carroll. A quick oversimplified description of the field is it uses evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology, with a focus on gene-culture co-evolution, to study the motivations behind character actions in literature.

Rees’ book carried praise quotes from Edward O. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, and Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist. In the field of Literary Darwinism, these are probably the single two most referenced authorities after Dr Carroll. And that is how the book ended up in my hands.

Rees offers some interesting insights into what he believes the future might hold for humanity. While not as pessimistic on artificial intelligence and alien contact as his University of Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, Rees remains cautiously optimistic in his approach.

Unfortunately, Rees’ look into future human evolution gets somewhat lost between an almost obsessive view of posthumans in the forms of technology-enhanced human cyborgs and computer-based human uploads and a concern for human-driven climate change that overrides most of the books other discussions.

While Rees’ book didn’t meet my own storytelling goals, I think there’s still a lot to digest for others. Cyberpunk and Post Cyberpunk readers and writers will definitely find a lot of background to populate future stories. Writers with AI characters will also find some scientific source material here. For the Literary Darwinism academics, this definitely belongs on the bookshelf for future reference.

Black Holes from SciFi to SciFact

This is the black hole picture image released this morning by the National Science Foundation and the Event Horizon Telescope. This is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy.

While the research of Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking has given us an understanding of what a black hole is and the science behind them, this is the first time we’ve been able to see what one actually looks like.

If you write or read scifi, you’ll need to update your research records and your story notes. We now know what a black hole looks like and most of the guesswork is over.

On Broken Brains

On my personal Facebook account, I follow the page of the Skeptical Meme Society. One of their latest posts stated, ” It’s time to stop shaming people for taking medicines they need to treat their illness” and linked to the article, Mental Illness Denial, by Yale University School of Medicine neurologist, Steven Novella, for the site Science-Based Medicine.

As someone who deals with depression, anxiety, and OCD, yes, I “won” the lottery of mental illnesses, this one caught my eye because if there’s one constant with mental illness it’s this: there is no shortage of people who advise that medical treatment should be avoided.

The primary purpose of Dr. Novella’s article is a response to another article written by a journalist who engages in what Novella identifies as “mental illness denial”. He does clarify that “there are legitimate criticisms of psychiatric science and practice”. However, he concludes, “To deny the role of medication can do great harm to those who may need it.”

If you’ve been looking for a source discussing mental illness medical treatment with a science-based focus, Dr Novella has you covered.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Ten Billions Tomorrows by Brian Clegg

Brian Clegg‘s book Ten Billion Tomorrows: How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future is a book I’ve referenced twice before in blog entries. Once it was referred to in a passing reference and once it was mentioned by name. I think it’s long overdue a proper entry of its own.

As mentioned previously, I encountered this book resulting from a library search for the science behind science fiction. Only a few hundred pages into the book, I realized this book was a must own for my personal reference library for scifi storytelling. I immediately rushed out and purchased my own copy that day.

This is not a comprehensive look at scifi science, or even scifi storytelling. This would require a much bigger book, or would even require this book to merely be volume 1 of a series of books, to accomplish that.

What Clegg does instead is focus on some of the bigger usual suspects of scifi tech. Using examples that range from golden age scifi books, to movies, to tv shows, to contemporary books, not only does he present what might work and what cannot work because of science and physics, he also digs into the science as it stands today.

He often points out how new information and new observations in science have made some things thought possible in the past impossible, and some things thought impossible in the past possible. A prime example of this comes when he digs into Jurassic Park, both the book and the movie, and explains why a dino park isn’t on our future horizon while a mammoth park might still be a possibility.

Ultimately, Clegg offers that sometimes it’s okay, and even a little necessary, for a storyteller to cheat to tell the story. I honestly believe anyone who writes, reads, or has an interest in scifi should pick up this book, especially if you’re interested in getting the science parts of your scifi correct.