Tag Archives: Mobile Agent

Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

Design Fiction

Over at Slate, author Bruce Sterling shares some thoughts on “design fiction“, the use of (science) fiction to imagine and explore new technology:

Slate: What’s one design fiction that people might be familiar with?
Sterling: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the guy’s holding what’s clearly an iPad. It just really looks like one, right? This actually showed up in the recent lawsuits between Samsung and Apple. That’s kind of a successful design fiction in the sense that it’s a diegetic prototype. You see an iPad in this movie and your response is not just, “Oh, what’s that’s that?” But “That would be cool if it existed.”

Yes, yes, it’s all very interesting, but this sort of thing has been one of the roles of science fiction at least since Heinlein’s first story, Lifeline. What’s really interesting here is this video…note the cameo appearance of MAs, scroll screens, and wall screens, almost exactly as we envisioned them in In the Shadow of Ares.

Now that’s impressive.

Not Quite Life Imitating Art

…but you can imagine an MA-gone-bad doing something like this:

If a report from The Sun is to be believed, a demo unit for the iPhone 4S caught fire for telling 12-year-old Charlie Le Quesne to “Shut the f— up, you ugly t—.”

Charlie reportedly asked Siri “How many people are there in the world?” and that was the answer he got back. Together with his mother and the manager, they asked the demo iPhone 4S the same question and got the same answer back yet again. Needless to say, the demo unit was unplugged and sent back to Apple for “diagnostic tests.”

The errors seems to have stemmed from Siri thinking that the questioner’s name was “Shut the f— up, you ugly t—.”

Which tells me that another, mischievous customer had been messing around with the unit prior to this incident.

Which just proves that, however slick and smart the Siri interface might seem, it’s still a long way from being a “simulacrum intelligence”-based mobile agent.

Mobile Agents Arrive on Earth

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares , when viewing commercials for the new Siri application for the iPhone 4S, will likely recognize flashes of “Laura” and “Emily”.  The artificially intelligent characters are Mobile Agents or “MAs”, not much bigger than a cell phone, that serve as much more than communication devices. 

This app brings today’s cell phones a huge step closer to what we envisioned on Mars in the not-too-distant future.  Siri is a voice recognition app that is apparently intelligent enough to not only understand what you say, but to know what you mean:

Talk to Siri as you would to a person.  Say something like “Tell my wife I’m running late.” “Remind me to call the vet.” “Any good burger joints around here?” And Siri answers you.  It does what you say and finds the information you need.  And then it hits you.  You’re actually having a conversation with your iPhone.

Like the MAs we envision, and prototypes being developed to assist in exploration activities, the Siri app recognizes location when it provides restaurant options “around here” or when you ask it to “remind me to make a dentist appointment when I get to work”.  Better yet, it also figures out what other apps to use based on what you are asking it to do.

Finding E-Readers in Unexpected Places

The first time I ever saw an e-reader with my own eyes was in the gatehouse at O’Hare around Thanksgiving 2009. I attended a friend’s wedding a couple weeks ago, and was surprised and amused that the minister was conducting the ceremony using her Kindle DX:

Technology evolves quickly, and sometimes even the most traditional institutions evolve right along with it. You can almost imagine the minister’s grandchild someday using a (sacred?) scroll screen linked to her MA…

Inspiration From Real-Life Experience

Somehow, somewhere, I lost my Blackberry yesterday.

Yes, of course, I did all the usual things to try to find it: searched high and low, called it using the land line, rooted around under the seat in the car. But it was no use, it went missing somewhere between Conifer and Five Points (north of downtown Denver) and isn’t coming back. When I mentioned this to Carl, it prompted us to wonder what would happen if someone similarly misplaced their MA? How might we use this as a story element, if a character had a habit of doing so?

In our fictional universe, MAs are vital pieces of personal equipment. More important than a mere cellphone and more powerful than even today’s smartphones, they serve a number of communications, information access, computation, organization, navigation, and safety functions. To someone who had grown up using an MA and had woven instant access to these functions into his daily routine, losing his MA would be akin to losing a part of his brain. It would be much more disruptive than what we experience today when (as also happened to me about two weeks ago) we lose internet service for a few days – in such instances we find other things to do, or other ways to accomplish what we would have done on the internet. But forty years from now, when our lives will be still more integrated with our information systems, this may be difficult or impossible. Loss of connectivity will be much more disruptive.

And not only disruptive, but potentially dangerous. If one loses his MA entirely (not merely its connection to information infrastructure), he loses the safety features built into it. On our Mars of 2051, this means that he may have no knowledge of current air composition or radiation conditions, for example, information which could have life-or-death importance at any time. As we showed in In the Shadow of Ares, this isn’t an idle concern. Amber and Grantham face the inconveniences and dangers associated with losing connectivity and with losing their MAs at different points in the story.

This is an issue you may see arise in the sequels…

Concrete-Forming Robots for Mars

Well, not exactly for Mars, but this is what we had in mind when we wrote about teleoperated “formers” building the foundations for the Green’s agricultural domes – Buildings Made with a Printer:

Some areas would have strong, dense concrete, but in areas of low stress, the concrete could be extremely porous and light, serving only as a barrier to the elements while saving material and reducing the weight of the structure. In these non-load bearing areas, it could also be possible to print concrete that’s so porous that light can penetrate, or to mix the concrete gradually with transparent materials. Such designs could save energy by increasing the amount of daylight inside a building and reducing the need for artificial lighting. Eventually, it may be possible to print efficient insulation and ventilation at the same time. The structure can be complex, since it costs no more to print elaborate patterns than simple ones.

Other researchers are developing technology to print walls and other large structures. Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of industrial and systems engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, has built a system that can deposit concrete walls without the need for forms to contain the concrete. Oxman’s work would take this another step, adding the ability to vary the properties of the concrete, and eventually work with multiple materials.

We devised a similar idea for In the Shadow of Ares as a means of building large structures on Mars without the need for a large construction crew and the sorts of construction equipment, specialized forms, etc. used to cast concrete on Earth. In our case, it was a reasonable application of the speculative technology already established in the novel (specifically the simulacrum intelligence used in MAs and the robotics employed in diggers).

Life Imitates Art: MAs and 5G

While looking at upgrading to a 4G phone/hotspot combo this afternoon I got to wondering if there was a “5G” in the works. It turns out there isn’t, exactly, but there are a few hints on the Wikipedia page on what that wireless standard might include when it emerges around 2020:

* Pervasive networks providing ubiquitous computing: The user can simultaneously be connected to several wireless access technologies and seamlessly move between them (See Media independent handover or vertical handover, IEEE 802.21, also expected to be provided by future 4G releases). These access technologies can be 2.5G, 3G, 4G, or 5G mobile networks, Wi-Fi, WPAN, or any other future access technology. In 5G, the concept may be further developed into multiple concurrent data transfer paths.

* Cognitive radio technology, also known as smart-radio: allowing different radio technologies to share the same spectrum efficiently by adaptively finding unused spectrum and adapting the transmission scheme to the requirements of the technologies currently sharing the spectrum. This dynamic radio resource management is achieved in a distributed fashion, and relies on software defined radio. See also the IEEE 802.22 standard for Wireless Regional Area Networks.

* Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6), where a visiting care-of mobile IP address is assigned according to location and connected network.

* High altitude stratospheric platform station (HAPS) systems.

* Real wireless world with no more limitation with access and zone issues.

* Wearable devices with AI capabilities.

* One unified global standard.

    Hmm…that “wearable devices with AI capabilities” business sounds awfully familiar…

    Given that new wireless communications “generations” come out approximately every ten years, the standard that emerges around 2050 — “8G” — ought to be pretty impressive.