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Asimov’s Foundation analogy

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I just decided to reread the Foundation series, which I firt read in junior high, and thanks to modern technology, I had determined through an easy Google search the best order in which to read them:

  1. The Complete Robot (1982) Collection of 31 Short Stories about robots.
  2. The Caves of Steel (1954) His first Robot novel.
  3. The Naked Sun (1957) The second Robot novel.
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983) The third Robot novel.
  5. Robots and Empire (1985) The fourth (final) Robot novel.
  6. The Currents of Space (1952) The first Empire novel.
  7. The Stars, Like Dust– (1951) The second Empire novel.
  8. Pebble in the Sky (1950) The third and final Empire novel.
  9. Prelude to Foundation (1988) The first Foundation novel.
  10. Forward the Foundation (1992) The second Foundation novel.
  11. Foundation (1951) The third Foundation novel, comprising 5 stories.
  12. Foundation and Empire (1952) The fourth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories.
  13. Second Foundation (1953) The fifth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories.
  14. Foundation’s Edge (1982) The sixth Foundation novel.
  15. Foundation and Earth (1983) The seventh Foundation novel.

Having determined that, I decided that I really wanted the Foundation part, so I bought the 9th book in the list and had it on my Kindle in 10 seconds if that. “Impulse purchase” doesn’t touch it.

At any rate, I was stunned to see Trantor as a clear analogue of the United States, and the specificity with which the mindset described in the book corresponds to the mindset of the US. I would say that the analogy is deliberate. (And maybe that’s well known—that I just figured it out doesn’t mean that it’s not a well-established reading.)

Hari Seldon, I take it, represents Asimov.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2017 at 12:39 pm

James Bradley recommends the best Climate Change Fiction

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The Five Books site notes:

James Bradley is a novelist, critic and editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His fourth novel, Clade (2017), follows the story of three generations in the 21st century to explore the effects of climate change.

The interview begins:

James Hansen, one of the most distinguished scientists to warn of the dangers of climate change, once said that being in his line of work is like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall. You’ve written that being an author of fiction who is concerned with environmental questions often feels frighteningly similar. What, then, is the point? Is there a way to shatter the glass?

The psychology behind our responses to climate change is complex, but a big part of the problem is that we simply don’t have the cognitive tools to deal with it. It’s too big, too complex, the interplay of risk and time frame is too hard for us to hold in our heads. That means that while we understand there’s a problem we either cannot make sense of it or in those moments when we do get to grips with the enormity of what’s going on it’s so overwhelming we just shut down or give way to despair.

Finding a way of bridging that gap and making it comprehensible is vital. We need to find ways of communicating not just the scale of the problem but its ethical and philosophical dimensions, ways to think about ideas that challenge our assumptions about agency, of articulating grief, and bearing witness to what’s going on around us.

In an odd way the novel should be perfectly suited to this task. Its mutability and variousness make it enormously adaptable, and the fact it provides an interface between the interior and exterior world, and the private and public sphere means it can document the changes in both. The hybridity of the novel means it’s also able to explore more abstract ideas in the same way non-fiction can, while simultaneously using the mimetic possibilities of fiction to communicate ideas and experiences that are more resistant to non-fictional representation or discussion.

When it comes to climate change this can be as simple as helping us understand what it might be like to live in a climate-affected world. Certainly one of the things I wanted Clade to do was to take the abstract idea of climate change and give it an affective dimension, because it seemed to me that if I could give readers a way of imagining what it might be like to live in a climate-changed world it might help them think about the problem more effectively. But fiction also allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate in other ways, and to give shape to experiences of unsettlement and dislocation that aren’t easy to communicate in abstract terms.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, fiction can open up space for change. Doing that demands we resist the seductions of the apocalyptic; as Fredric Jameson famously observed it’s always easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily require us to imagine alternative modes of social and economic organisation in the way somebody like Kim Stanley Robinson does. In a moment when – to borrow Mark Fisher’s phrase – “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”, the simple suggestion the reality we inhabit is neither inevitable nor the end of history becomes a radical act. As Ursula Le Guin observed not long ago, “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

In a series of essays gathered under the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that ‘serious’ or literary fiction largely fails to address climate change and the Anthropocene, and he appears not to take science fiction or fantasy seriously. I take it you disagree with him. If so can you identify some of the characteristics of fiction that succeeds? Is it time to leave ‘serious’ literary fiction – whatever that may be – behind?

I’m actually an admirer of many aspects of Ghosh writing on climate change. His arguments about the historical relationships between colonialism, capitalism and climate are fascinating, as are a number of his observations about the ways in which the very privileged perspectives of those of us in the West frame the problem more generally.

Likewise he says a number of incredibly useful things about the ways in which climate change resists description and analysis in fictional form. This isn’t a new observation – many people have observed that the incremental nature of climate change, its non-human timespans, its complexity and connectedness all make it a difficult subject to write about in a conventional way. But Ghosh goes further, arguing that the social realist novel struggles with the phenomenon because the very strategies it uses to capture reality, strategies which emphasise the quotidian detail of everyday life to the exclusion of the extraordinary and inexplicable, smooth out and regularise the world in ways that make it almost impossible to adequately describe the cognitive and temporal rupture of climate change. As Ghosh puts it, “thus was the modern novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishment of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” Or, more bluntly, “the irony of the ‘realist’ novel” is that “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real”.

I think this analysis is broadly correct, but I take issue with Ghosh’s claim there is a dearth of serious fiction dealing with climate change. Quite aside from the fact I think his notion of ‘serious’ fiction –which in this case seems to be defined in opposition to genre fiction – is incoherent, it just isn’t true. Indeed I probably would have said the opposite: that once you start looking, anxiety about climate change and environmental change is everywhere.

Part of the problem with Ghosh argument is his excessively literal definition of “fiction about climate change”. Novels do not have to approach the subject directly or explicitly to be engaged with it: in fact the very difficulties Ghosh identifies mean writers are often more likely to approach it tangentially or metaphorically, or to simply incorporate it into the fabric of the worlds they create. I recently read Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation, which is set in an economically ruined Greece where fires are ravaging the landscape, and while it never says anything explicit about climate change the background of economic and environmental breakdown means the novel’s portrait of psychic breakdown becomes charged by the dislocation we all feel as the future unravels around us, but the reality is there are many, many books engaged with these questions both directly and indirectly.

Ghosh’s desire to exclude the literatures of the fantastic from discussion is also deeply problematic. Discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre, but even setting Robinson aside it requires him to ignore the long tradition of science fiction that grapples with environmental questions and the considerable body of contemporary science fiction concerned the impacts of climate change. Sometimes the question is addressed directly, as in the work of Paolo Bacigalupi and novels such as The Water Knife. But it can also be seen in the planetary space opera of writers such as Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds, both of whom create worlds in which climate change and various forms of geo- and bio-engineering are simply givens. Likewise, Robert Macfarlane has argued that the resurgence of the eerie in British and Irish literature can be seen as a response to environmental disruption and the perturbations of late capitalism, meaning the increasing prominence of haunted landscapes and anti-pastorals offers a reminder of the fact “[t]he supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.”

So Ghosh isn’t wrong about the challenges climate change presents to writers of fiction and the novel more generally. But he frames his argument in a way that deliberately ignores how much contemporary writing is engaged with the question, and as a result fails to recognise the ways in which that engagement is reconfiguring and transforming contemporary fiction. Sometimes that’s about the resurrection and revitalisation of older forms like the ghost story or the adoption of narrative strategies once confined to science fiction and the literatures of the fantastic, sometimes it’s about de-centring the human, or emphasising various forms of spatial or temporal entanglement, sometimes it’s about trying to think about deep time. But there’s no doubt it’s happening all around us.

I read your first choice, Annihilation (2014) by Jeff Vandermeer, as – among other things – a kind of ghost story. But neither it nor the other books in the Southern Reach trilogy of which it is a part are easy to label.

In the introduction to The Weird, the 2011 anthology that Jeff Vandermeer and his wife Ann edited, they suggest the weird isn’t a genre or a form so much as a technique or an affect, a thing that lurks in the interstices, and which emerges in unexpected and unsettling ways. I rather love this idea, not least because it captures something of what makes both Annihilation and its two sequels, Authority and Acceptance, so compelling, the the way reading them leaves you feeling like you’ve been colonised yourself, your brain permanently altered by your descent into the world of the books.

Read this way, Annihilation is a ghost story, albeit a ghost story of a very particular kind. But as is often the case with the sort of writing gathered together under the loose (and contested) rubric of the weird, the novel takes the tropes and techniques of a particular kind of supernatural story and empties them out so they give rise to something entirely new. Instead of the supernatural hokum of a ghost story or a horror novel, the book generates a sense of sustained dread and abjection, as the characters at its centre are killed or hollowed out and replaced by whatever it is that lurks in the mysterious Area X that lies at the heart of the three books.

In itself that would be an achievement, but what makes Annihilation and its sequels so exciting isn’t merely that they’re such extraordinary studies of the dislocation of the self. It’s Vandermeer’s decision to apply these techniques to the questions thrown up by climate change to create something that might be described as a kind of ‘ecological uncanny.’ The reader is brought face to face with the unknowability of the world, its inhuman scale and indifference to the human and the disjunction between our minds and the minds of the other presences – animal, vegetable, even mineral – that share our planet.

In the Southern Reach books this sense of nature’s immensity, complexity and ferocity are given palpable force. This is partly down to the clarity and intensity of Vandermeer’s prose. But it’s also because the books give shape to a deeply unsettling sense of disruption, of unknown forces intruding into the real, dislocating and deranging it. To the characters these forces feel like violations of the natural order, but that’s at least partly because what’s happening exceeds their powers of comprehension.

In this the trilogy echoes philosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject — that is, something so massively extended and distributed in time and space it transcends spatiotemporal specificity. Constituted out of the relationship between other objects, hyperobjects cannot be experienced directly, or in their totality. Instead we only ever perceive their effects, or imprints. As a result hyperobjects remain essentially ungraspable, apprehended only imperfectly and intermittently, yet simultaneously affecting us in unpredictable and often disconcerting ways.

Morton’s most important example of a hyperobject is climate change, a phenomenon generated by the interrelationship between the Sun and the Earth and atmospheric conditions under human impact, yet experienced by us in the form of rising temperatures, extreme weather events and environmental and social breakdown. But one might just as easily think about the Earth’s ecology in this way, or even evolution and consciousness.

The result is an incredibly potent way of imagining our own inability to conceive of the disaster of climate change, and the way its disruptions and convulsions unsettle our sense of the order of things. Like Area X, the effects of climate change make the world alien, even terrifying, deranging our sense of the natural order and revealing the void at the centre of things. The Southern Reach books make this process manifest, and in so doing they ask us to rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about our centrality to the world and the meaning of our existence.

In your novel Clade some of the characters get caught up in a superstorm that hits eastern England and causes a huge flood. The scene is set in a future when, you write, people no longer deny the consequences of climate change, but – as one of your protagonists surmises – they still do not understand the scale of the transformation that is overtaking them. In light of the super-hurricanes and floods in 2017 reality seems to be catching up with fiction. But your work and Vandermeer’s are about more than climate change, aren’t they?

One of the really disturbing things about writing Clade was that even as I was working on it reality was overtaking me, meaning that a whole series of things that were still speculative when I began the book were actually happening by the time I finished it. That sense of reality outpacing fiction was unsettling, and it’s only accelerated since I finished the book.

But as you say, climate change is only the most significant of a host of environmental pressures that range from overpopulation to pollution, falling biodiversity and habitat loss, and which are altering the Earth’s climate and environment in entirely unprecedented ways. The familiar is being erased, as landscapes are razed and burned or alienated to human use, birds and animals disappear, supplanted by new and unfamiliar species, rivers die and the oceans empty out.

This transformation has been dubbed the Anthropocene. I’m a little uneasy about the term, and the way it celebrates human primacy rather than the costs of that primacy (personally I think E O Wilson’s term ‘Eremocene’, or Age of Silence might have been more appropriate), but whatever we call it the reality is, as Mckenzie Wark writes, that human and natural forces are now so entwined that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.

The immensity of this transformation is such that, like climate change, it’s essentially unthinkable at some deep level, both because its complexity exceeds our imaginative capacities, and because any genuine attempt to engage with its ethical dimension is completely overwhelming.

Part of what I find fascinating about the Southern Reach novels is that they transcend this problem by shifting our frame of reference. Humanity is hollowed out and left behind, and what we find in its place is the unknowability of nature. It’s also one of the things I wanted Cladeto do: as the novel heads toward its conclusion the time frames begin to expand, leaving the human behind and reaching out into deep time, since doing that not only reveals something of the transience and contingency of human history, but also a context within which the scale of climate change can be understood.

Your second choice is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 October 2017 at 5:22 pm

Voyage to the Otherworld: A New Eulogy for Ray Bradbury

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In my youth Ray Bradbury was for me a preeminent writer, almost magical.

This original essay by Margaret Atwood was composed specifically for the re-release of Sam Weller’s interview book companion to his authorized biography of Ray Bradbury. Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, in a new hardcover deluxe edition, will be released this October by Hat & Beard Press in Los Angeles.

She writes in the Paris Review:

At the end of February 2012, I was sitting in a bar in the Chicago Hilton, discussing Ray Bradbury. I was staying at the Hilton, and in a moment of Bradburian weirdness, I had been put into the suite where President Obama saw on TV that he had just won the U.S. presidential election.

On that occasion, the immense, many-roomed suite must have been full—of family, of security folks, of political staffers—but I was in it all alone, and it was not the best place to be while dwelling on things Bradburian. It was too easy to imagine that there was someone in the next room. Worse, that someone might be my evil twin, or myself at a different age, or it might contain a mirror in which I would cast no reflection. It took some self-control not to go in there and look.

In February, however, the Chicago Hilton was not crawling with secret servicemen talking into their sleeves but with four thousand writers, would-be writers, students of writing, and teachers of writing, all of whom were attending the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs where I was to give the keynote address, and every single one of whom would have known who Ray Bradbury was. 

In the Hilton bar with me was Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller.
 It was the first time I’d met him, in person that is, though I felt I already knew him. He’d contacted me on Twitter—this is a twenty-first-century story—to see if I’d like to contribute to a tribute volume, edited by himself and by veteran horror-writer Mort Castle. The brief: to write a short story
 in Bradbury-esque mode, whatever that might be; or whatever those might be, since Bradbury’s work came in many modes. I enthusiastically agreed to take a crack at it, and so did twenty-five other writers, including Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman, Harlan Ellison, Dave Eggers, Joe Hill, Audrey Niffenegger, and Charles Yu. Each one of us had responded because we’d been influenced in some way by Ray Bradbury.

What Sam and I were discussing was the launch of the collection, which was to be published by HarperCollins, and was to be called Shadow Show—from the 1962 Bradbury novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray himself had written an introduction, and it was hoped that he could be present at the grand celebration that was to take place at Comic-Con—the vast gathering of graphic artists, comics writers, and their fans, plus related enterprises and genres—that was slated for San Diego in mid-July. Five of us were going to do a Bradbury panel there: Sam, Mort Castle, Joe Hill, me, and Ray himself.

But Ray had been feeling a little frail, said Sam; it was possible he might not make it. In that case, the four of us would do the panel, and Sam and I would visit Ray in his home, webcast him to the world, connect him with his fans, and ask him to sign some covers of the book for them on the website I’d been involved in developing. Ray was keen to do it, said Sam, despite his qualified distrust of the Internet. His enthusiasm for his many devoted readers and his fellow writers never waned, and if using the questionable Internet was the method of last resort, then that is what he would do.

I was greatly looking forward to meeting a writer who had been 
so much a part of my own early reading, especially the delicious, clandestine reading done avidly in lieu of homework, and the compulsive reading done at night with a flashlight when I ought to have been sleeping. Stories read with such enthusiasm at such a young age are not so much read as inhaled. They sink all the way in and all the way down, and they stay with you.

But then Ray Bradbury died. He was ninety-one, but still—as with everyone who has always been in your life and is then not there any more—his death seemed impossible. People don’t die as such in his work, or they don’t die in the ordinary way. Sometimes they melt—the Martian in the story of that name dissolves, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of Bradbury’s influences. Sometimes they are done to death by aliens, as in The Martian Chronicles story “The Third Expedition.” Sometimes they are hunted down by mechanical hounds for the crime of reading books, as in Fahrenheit 451. Sometimes people don’t entirely die: revenants and vampires are not unknown in Bradbury’s work. But Bradbury’s people seldom just expire.

Any writer who delves as deeply into “horror” writing as Bradbury did has a complex relationship with mortality, and it’s not surprising to learn that as a child Ray Bradbury was worried he would die at any moment, as he tells us in “Take Me Home,” a sidebar in the June 2012 New Yorker science-fiction issue. “When I look back now,” he says—in what, ironically, was going to be his last published piece—“I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon.”

But the flip side of the mortality coin is immortality, and that interested him as well. At the age of twelve—as he told us on his website—he had a definitive encounter with a stage magician called Mr. Electrico. This was in the age of traveling circuses and the like, and Mr. Electrico had a unique act: he sat in an electrified chair, thus in turn electrifying a sword he held, with which he in turn electrified the spectators, making their hair stand on end and sparks come out of their ears. He electrified young Bradbury in this manner, while shouting, “Live forever!” The child had to go to a funeral the next day, a close encounter with death that led him to seek out Mr. Electrico once more to find out how this “living forever” thing was to be done. The old carny showed him around what used to be called the freak show—complete with a tattooed man who was later to morph into the Illustrated Man—and then told him that he, Ray, contained the soul of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, who had died in World War I. You can see how all this would have made an impression. Right after his baptism by electricity at the hands of Mr. Electrico, Bradbury started writing, and he didn’t stop until his own death.

How do you live forever? Through other people, it seemed: Those whose souls turned up in your body. And through other voices, the voices that spoke through you. And through your written words, the code for those voices. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, the hero finds—in a world
 of destroyed books—a group of people who have become the vanished books by memorizing them: a perfect embodiment for the knot of mysteries presented to young Ray by Mr. Electrico.

In the middle of writing this eulogy, for that is what it is, I had to break off in order to attend a poetry event. At the party afterward, I told a writer friend that Bradbury had died. “He was the first writer I read all of,” he said. “When I was twelve or thirteen. I read every single book—I sought them out. I read them cover to cover.” I said I thought that a lot of writers—and a lot of readers—had most likely had the same experience. And that they would be writers and readers of the most diverse kinds—poets and prose writers, all ages, all levels of brow, from low to high.

What accounts for Bradbury’s reach—his scope, his influence? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 August 2017 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Science fiction

Download free ebook with 75 science-fiction stories by up-and-comers

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I just did it. Amazing. Register at website (just name and email), they email you a link, click it, and you are presented with a list of various ebook formats (so I chose “Kindle”), then I specified which type of Kindle I had, then they gave me the URL to enter in the Kindle’s Experimental Browser. I did, saw book with instruction to touch cover to download. I touched the cover and now have the book, instantly.

Now, when I was a boy…..

Here’s all the info on Open Culture.

It is pretty amazing. Here’s the site of the company that has the ebook downloading service.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2017 at 1:15 pm

The seven stages of denial (that a robot will take your job)

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Good post by Jason Kottke, which begins:

From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.

2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.

3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2017 at 8:16 pm

2017 will be a big year for AI

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As readers of science fiction know, once AI really takes hold, the advances are quite rapid, leading to many good novels about the Synchronicity. Wired has an interesting article on the state of AI, unfortunately behind a paywall (at least for me, but after subscribing I read it). One interesting point from the article:

This summer, after building an AI that cracked the game of Go, Demis Hassabis and his Google DeepMind lab revealed they had also built an AI that helps operate Google’s worldwide network of computer data centers. Using a technique called deep reinforcement learning, which underpins both their Go-playing machine and earlier DeepMind services that learned to master old Atari games, this AI decides when to turn on cooling fans inside the thousands of computer servers that fill these data centers, when to open the data center windows for additional cooling, and when to fall back on expensive air conditioners. All told, it controls over 120 functions inside each data center

As Bloomberg reported, this AI is so effective, it saves Google hundreds of millions of dollars. In other words, it pays for the cost of acquiring DeepMind, which Google bought for about $650 million in 2014. Now, Deepmind plans on installing additional sensors in these computing facilities, so it can collect additional data and train this AI to even higher levels.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 3:30 pm

The Great A.I. Awakening; or, The Threshold of the Synchronicity

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes in the NY Times Magazine:

Prologue: You Are What You Have Read

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, stood to make a few opening remarks. A friend, he began, had recently told him he reminded him of Google. “Why, because I know all the answers?” the mayor asked. “No,” the friend replied, “because you’re always trying to finish my sentences.” The crowd tittered politely. Khan concluded by introducing Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, who took the stage.

Pichai was in London in part to inaugurate Google’s new building there, the cornerstone of a new “knowledge quarter” under construction at King’s Cross, and in part to unveil the completion of the initial phase of a company transformation he announced last year. The Google of the future, Pichai had said on several occasions, was going to be “A.I. first.” What that meant in theory was complicated and had welcomed much speculation. What it meant in practice, with any luck, was that soon the company’s products would no longer represent the fruits of traditional computer programming, exactly, but “machine learning.”

A rarefied department within the company, Google Brain, was founded five years ago on this very principle: that artificial “neural networks” that acquaint themselves with the world via trial and error, as toddlers do, might in turn develop something like human flexibility. This notion is not new — a version of it dates to the earliest stages of modern computing, in the 1940s — but for much of its history most computer scientists saw it as vaguely disreputable, even mystical. Since 2011, though, Google Brain has demonstrated that this approach to artificial intelligence could solve many problems that confounded decades of conventional efforts. Speech recognition didn’t work very well until Brain undertook an effort to revamp it; the application of machine learning made its performance on Google’s mobile platform, Android, almost as good as human transcription. The same was true of image recognition. Less than a year ago, Brain for the first time commenced with the gut renovation of an entire consumer product, and its momentous results were being celebrated tonight.

Translate made its debut in 2006 and since then has become one of Google’s most reliable and popular assets; it serves more than 500 million monthly users in need of 140 billion words per day in a different language. It exists not only as its own stand-alone app but also as an integrated feature within Gmail, Chrome and many other Google offerings, where we take it as a push-button given — a frictionless, natural part of our digital commerce. It was only with the refugee crisis, Pichai explained from the lectern, that the company came to reckon with Translate’s geopolitical importance: On the screen behind him appeared a graph whose steep curve indicated a recent fivefold increase in translations between Arabic and German. (It was also close to Pichai’s own heart. He grew up in India, a land divided by dozens of languages.) The team had been steadily adding new languages and features, but gains in quality over the last four years had slowed considerably.

Until today. As of the previous weekend, Translate had been converted to an A.I.-based system for much of its traffic, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well: The rollout included translations between English and Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish. The rest of Translate’s hundred-odd languages were to come, with the aim of eight per month, by the end of next year. The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google’s own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

Pichai has an affection for the obscure literary reference; he told me a month earlier, in his office in Mountain View, Calif., that Translate in part exists because not everyone can be like the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. In London, the slide on the monitors behind him flicked to a Borges quote: “Uno no es lo que es por lo que escribe, sino por lo que ha leído.”

Grinning, Pichai read aloud an awkward English version of the sentence that had been rendered by the old Translate system: “One is not what is for what he writes, but for what he has read.”

To the right of that was a new A.I.-rendered version: “You are not what you write, but what you have read.”

It was a fitting remark: The new Google Translate was run on the first machines that had, in a sense, ever learned to read anything at all.

Google’s decision to reorganize itself around A.I. was the first major manifestation of what has become an industrywide machine-learning delirium. Over the past four years, six companies in particular — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu — have touched off an arms race for A.I. talent, particularly within universities. Corporate promises of resources and freedom have thinned out top academic departments. It has become widely known in Silicon Valley that Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, personally oversees, with phone calls and video-chat blandishments, his company’s overtures to the most desirable graduate students. Starting salaries of seven figures are not unheard-of. Attendance at the field’s most important academic conference has nearly quadrupled. What is at stake is not just one more piecemeal innovation but control over what very well could represent an entirely new computational platform: pervasive, ambient artificial intelligence. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 4:21 pm

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