Welcome back to The Cyberdelic Podcast!
In today's deep dive, we're navigating the intricate dance between technology and humanity with the renowned science fiction author-scientist Alastair Reynolds and our own Nils Pihl.
Together, they delve into the profound implications of augmented reality as portrayed in Alastair’s narratives and the looming Vision Pro revolution on the horizon. They share concerns about AR’s potential to distort reality and deceive us, leading to disconnection, but also acknowledge its transformative capabilities for authentic communication on a level never before experienced.
They tackle the existential challenges posed by our universe's relative positioning and the wonders of computational astronomy.
The conversation serves as a reminder of technology's dual nature and the importance of harnessing its potential responsibly.
Let's explore, question, and shape our digital future together.
Dive in with us on The Cyberdelic Podcast!
Alastair Reynolds’ recommendations:
- Rick Beato, multi-instrumentalist, music producer and educator: https://www.youtube.com/@RickBeato
- Ward Carroll, veteran F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer, writer, and military storyteller: https://www.youtube.com/@WardCarroll
- M3GAN Trailer: https://youtu.be/OoDHM_A1axc
- Freedom Fry, a French/American folk duo: https://youtu.be/cmE7-5Zx9gM
If you're into cyberdelics or want to know more about spatial computing, we're building the future of precise positioning.
Nils Pihl [00:00:03] Hello, and welcome back to The Cyberdelic podcast. I'm your host, Nils. I am calling in from Hong Kong and today I have the distinct pleasure to be joined by none other than the renowned science fiction author and great personal inspiration, Mr. Alistair Reynolds. How good to see you again.
Alastair Reynolds [00:00:23] Oh, Nils good, too. Good to see you again, too.
Nils Pihl [00:00:26] We got in touch last year with an unusual ask. I called you up saying that I think we may be building towards the conjoiners and we're a little bit lost at sea. And we want to pull on your inspiration to help understand what the future might look like. The reason I gave you this call was you were a great inspiration to me when I was younger. Your books, The Revelation Space Series, was some of the first vividly imagined scenes of augmented reality. You called it endoptics in your books, and this was some of the first vividly imagined scenes of augmented reality for me. And not only did that color my perception of how air might be used, but you also painted very interesting pictures of how it may impact our culture, fashion, and things like this. But also it touched on the tremendous privacy challenges that we might face when things like this manifest in our field of vision. So I reached out to you about a year ago to ask you to summon another vision of the future. The ask was fairly simple. We wanted you to imagine the near future of augmented reality, especially one based on the currently predominant visual positioning paradigm where digital devices understand where they are through looking through the camera of the device and tell us the good, the bad, the ugly of what a world like that might look like. And you ended up writing a short story. And you, sir, that I'm sure we will discuss today, because it was it was chilling, really, and very challenging for those of us who enthusiastically work in the industry. But before we dive in, who is Alastair Reynolds in your own words and what drew you to science fiction?
Alastair Reynolds [00:02:28] Well, Mr. Reynolds is a guy who spent most of his life being interested in, I suppose, the future in all its manifestations space. Space exploration. The universe. Our place in the universe. The big questions of what's out there. Are we alone in the universe? If not, what are we likely to encounter or what is likely to encounter us? And what is our sort of destiny? As you know, if we perhaps move off Earth and start moving into the universe, what how will that change us? What will we encounter? How will that sort of how will we rise to the challenges as human beings? And I suppose wrestling with those topics is one drove me into a career as a scientist, which was sort of like the first 20 years of my professional life, so to speak. I was involved in space science and I and so it's only because of that, that sort of long-lasting fascination with the universe. But at the same time, I was developing a solid career as a science fiction writer, and I'd started, I guess, taking that seriously in the early eighties. And then I spent most of the eighties trying to figure out how you went from hobbyist to someone with actual writing credentials. How did you get stories into magazines? And then maybe. Work your way towards getting novels published and then Roundabout You know, in the early nineties I started actually publishing stuff and then throughout the course of that decade, I was sort of working on and off on, on the novel that you alluded to earlier, Revelation space, which is kind of the sort of where my headspace was at the time, I suppose, and thinking about the future and synthesizing a lot of the ideas that were that currency at the time. Not, not, not not merely in science fiction, but in the sort of popular scientific press that I was reading. The ideas about what we would call artificial intelligence, mind uploading. And although no one, no one really knew what to call it, I think sort of ideas about augmented reality, what kind of becoming entering the conversation, it just wasn't a convenient label to put on it. We had a clear distinction between the real world and say, cyberspace, because the writers like William Gibson had been positing futures in which you could jack in via. Interfaces into computer systems, and then you'd be sort of embodied in a sort of consensual hallucination. Which they called cyberspace. And then we ended up having, you know, that nomenclature became applied to the to the real equivalent in the real world. But there wasn't really a set of terms that you could apply to the sort of intermediate case where you were sort of still manifest, you sort of perceive in the real world, but you had kind of like digital augmentation applied over it through layers. So I kind of felt this was definitely going to happen. And I wanted it sort of included in the texture of my future in Revelation space. But I guess it was a kind of groping my way towards an understanding of how it might function and how it might impact the characters and wider society. And those ideas are sort of I guess I've kept returning to them in, in many of the other things I've written over the years. And now when write science fiction speculates about augmented reality as a concept, what is doing so? Within the context of this technology now being an established part of the real world. So, you know, it's no longer fanciful to suggest that one might have, you know, a digitally mediated layer superimposed over the real world. But, you know, 30 years ago, it maybe wasn't clear to everyone that we would ever have the sort of processing power to make that function. But I thought it was kind of a given that we could do that. The only stumbling block for me was to try and think of the way in which that technology would function, whether it would be a kind of overlay that was directed at the user through smart glasses or whether it was done via some sort of implant in the optic nerve, or what sort of direct manipulation of the brain's image processing modules. And I think that sort of trial, all of those approaches are sort of we've touched on it in my fiction.
Nils Pihl [00:07:22] Yeah, I think you use all three of those approaches in, you know, in Revelation space. Implants in the eyes, neural interfaces and goggles that you use. And you explained augmented reality as perhaps you use the word intermediary phase, which of course hints at, I think, at least two possible end games for human culture, one where humans disappear into the digital world, disappear into virtual reality, and another where perhaps we disappear into each other a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about the joiners?
Alastair Reynolds [00:08:03] Well, I had been writing and working my way into something like a future history. So a lot of the science fiction that I that I was inspired by, by when I was growing up, you had maybe books and stories that were interconnected and that sort of implied a consistent future historical timeline. And this goes back to Robert Heinlein in the sort of 1940s and fifties, a bit of a writers took up that baton. And the one that was particularly inspirational to me when I first started kind of reading seriously in my mid-teens or so folks was Larry never he was an it is an American science fiction writer who started writing connected short stories in the early sixties that. Kind of sketched out a future history that took us from the very near future, kind of from a different perspective. He was writing about the late 20th century because that was still sort of 30 or 40 years in the future at the time. So he was writing about sort of moon, you know, moon and Martian colonization and going to Venus. Those things happened in the sort of 1990s. But but the stories sort of spread into the future. So you had sort of a 21st century with all sorts of sort of social changes or organ transplants, that kind of thing. And then we move into the deeper future with interstellar travel contact with different alien factions. And I really love that kind of thing. And I kind of sorted out it in science fiction. And I found of of writers who would do sort of operating with the same sort of modus operandi. And I wanted to do the same thing. And one of the things that I realized as I started writing, trying to write stories that were sort of connected was you kind of need you need a sort of richness of political factions. You need lots of different sort of sources of friction with within within the narrative to generate story ideas. And you can do it with you can have humans versus aliens. But the thing I was more interested in and again, this sort of harks back to a lot of the fiction that was written under the cyberpunk rubric of the eighties was that you had this notion that. Human humanity as a species was on the point of fracturing into into a sort of different daughter species because of all these different technologies that were hurtling towards us. Genetic engineering, cybernetics, mind uploading. It was kind of taken as a given. The natural consequence of that would be that you'd get fractionalization, that people would go off in different sort of philosophical and technological directions, and you'd get some people who were heavily into the sort of mind augmentation and some people who were heavily into genetic engineering. And I basically just run with that as a kind of given. And I sort of populated my stories with different Cuban factions. And one of them one of them the sort of factions that emerged as I was writing was this the joiners. And I guess they were I was thinking about the way hive minds are presented in science fiction and that there are many sort of antecedents where writers have portrayed collective consciousness, if you like, going back to, say, the Midwich cuckoos. And then more recently you have sort of the Borg in Star Trek. And they kind of tend to be seen as negative that, you know, the implication is you don't want to be sucked into the hive mind. It's seen as a sort of not desirable end state. It's a kind of virus that you'd be better off avoiding because it sucks away all individuality and you just become a drone. But but I wanted to try and think for myself. I wanted the artistic challenge of writing about a human hive mind that actually might have some attractive. Aspects to it. So I wrote a story that it wasn't the first time I had written in this feature history, but with each story I was kind of adding a few ingredients into the mix. Kind of. Enriching it. And I wrote a story that took place in the early 23rd century, I think, and it was set on Mars, and it was about the conflict between the humans who would colonize Mars had been heavily into mind augmentation and new implants. And they had done some experiments that had. Kind of that kind of crossed over a sort of a threshold with the amount of neural uploading they were doing. And they'd kind of gone into a sort of a state of mind that they weren't anticipating that they call trans enlightenment. And. This was seen as very threatening by the other human faction. So it was a sort of spark for an interplanetary war. And my story was set during a sort of a peace mission that was attempting to broker peace between the Martians who were kind of hunkered down on Mars in a sort of siege mentality. And they sent a soldier in who's kind of seen as a kind of potentially a peacemaker to do it, to do some negotiations with the kind of the queen of the hive. And he got kind of goes in there with the sort of assumption that it's that it's a it's a negative thing. But by the time the story's concluded, he's actually kind of defected to to the hive mind consciousness because he's seen other aspects of it during his time there. And that I, I took that idea of the congeners and then they cropped up in my future history hundreds of years later. And then, you know, half a thousand years later in different manifestations. And they're the ones who they're a hive mind, but they still have it's not a it's not a sort of binary individual versus collective thing. It's it's a it's a gray scale where they can still sort of relate to the concept of the individual, even within the hive mind consciousness. So they have distinct personalities, but to some extent they kind of blend into each other. And I was thinking about, you know. Atoms in a metal where the electrons are not strongly tied to the individual ions, but are sort of floating around in a sea. And I thought, well, you can still, you know, you could have a sort of a consciousness like that where you still have little nodes of individuality, like the atoms. But, but the, the wider consciousness comes to float around and dissipate. So that was just the basic idea of the conjoin congeners. And, you know, at the end of the day, it was really just a narrative mechanism for generating internal conflict within the stories. But it also let me play around with those ideas about individual individuality versus hive mind and go a little bit against the grain of what was prevalent in science fiction at the time.
Nils Pihl [00:15:13] What I found very interesting about the conjurer nurse reading it as a teenager and going through all kind of teenage problems of identity was this amazement with how intimately they were able to communicate with each other. You could almost say that they could think thoughts straight into the minds of others, but as you say, still their own individual thoughts are distinguishable as individual thoughts. So you could almost say that what this hive mind, this is this incredibly intimate form of communication with arguably some pretty serious, perhaps privacy implications. I don't want to call it drawbacks, but I found it challenging as a teenager to think about what would it be like if everyone knew what I was thinking, actually. And how challenging is it to be authentic in the way that a conjoint can be authentic? And I think one of the great inspirations in Revelation space for me personally was this idea that radical authenticity actually could be a path for humanity moving forward that maybe we should aspire to. Clearer forms of communication, improving the bandwidth with each other and reducing the stakes. A little bit of communicating with each other. Because now when we are full of secrets today and insecurities today, now it's almost unthinkable to imagine someone being able to to read your mind or even be able, even be able to communicate very clearly how you feel.
Alastair Reynolds [00:17:05] To some extent, we already are on a native level. We already do a little bit of that because we already have a theory of mind. And you know, there's this idea that this is maybe what distinguishes humans from. Of our animals who don't have what we would think of as sort of, you know, consciousness and capacity for innovation is that I can model a bit of your mind in my mind. You know, it's a basic it's a survival treatment's allowed us to model the intentions and the self-knowledge of others. And, you know, birds do it to some degree, some of the some of the small Tibetans, because crows can work out whether another crow knows where they buried the nuts because they have a rudimentary theory of mind about other birds. But isn't that really is another way of saying that we're doing some internal modeling of someone else's mental state? So to some extent we are. We are consciousnesses of bleeding from one brain to another simply by this process of internal modeling. So I think we're kind of already. On that pathway. Whether we like it or not, our internal thoughts have never been entirely private because we've all we've always had the capacity to to as a model model the thought processes of others. No, obviously that's not we're not directly reading the minds, but we are building a plausible model of someone else's internal state of mind.
Nils Pihl [00:18:45] Even if we don't read the minds of others, we certainly go to great lengths to have our own minds understood. I think it is fair to say that the great invention of language is really about manifesting your imagination and knowledge in the minds of others. And this is also why I've fallen in love with augmented reality as a medium. Because I. I suspect that. The penultimate destination, you know, before we become conjoined first, before we can think thoughts straight into each other's minds, manifesting our imagination straight into someone's visual field. I think it's as close to a neural interface that you can that you can get. Language seems to be for, as I said, manifesting your imagination in the minds of others. And you wrote this story and you said that I want a chat. I want to chat about it a little bit. Because one of the themes that was very challenging and unexpected to me when I read the story was how augmented reality in this story resulted in very disconnected realities. Our protagonist ends up seeing the world very differently from his significant other, and privacy also is something that was very interestingly explored. But I'd like to start. Maybe. What? Where were you emotionally when you painted this picture of this couple that can't read a magazine together anymore because one of them sees different ads in the magazine?
Alastair Reynolds [00:20:42] I mean, it won't come as a surprise to know that I'm somewhat skeptical about some of the trends that we've been on as a society in terms of information technology. And I was, I suppose. I was agnostic about social media when the first sort of flowering of social media happened, I felt I felt that it wasn't for me, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt and say, okay, if that's your bag, then go at it. And I didn't envisage strongly negative consequences from social media because the way it was touted, which we go back to, I suppose the early days of Facebook or even the sort of platforms that preceded it, I think everyone thought that if you have an if you have free expression of ideas and communication, the more you lubricate that, the more you make it easier for people to communicate with each other within their peer groups or within a wider community. There can't be any negative consequences of that. But I think what was to a large extent not anticipated was the tribalism that quickly emerged from across all the platforms. And then the end result of that is the sort of big mess we're in now as a as a as a well, you know, I do not see it as a civilization, but it seems that many of the problems that we face on the planet can be ascribed to tribalism, to the amplification of one worldview, to the to the exclusion of another. And it's kind of like completely the opposite of what people I mean, I don't I don't think that people like Zuckerberg were necessarily evil geniuses trying to destroy the world. I think they probably had a good intention to do something good at the time when they created these monsters. But the law of unintended consequences has come back and hit us big time. So on one level, that story's it's sort of addressing my general feelings about social media. Well, it's not the story itself is not really about a social media platform. It's about a piece of intrusive, invasive technology. But I was getting at the the same effect whereby these tools become pirates of our time. You know, they capitalize on our attention spans. They eat into our thought processes. They you know, they sort of parasite offices of the attention span of people. They want our eyes and or use and our minds primarily so that we can be commodified and have things offered to us for sale. And I mean, I don't see the upside to that. And my story was really just about, let's imagine, a really parasitic technology that on the face of it seems very, very sort of good because the technology costs nothing. It's free at the point of view. You don't even have to sign a, you know, sign up for anything. And you just you just use it. But it slowly, slowly, insidiously, takes over your life purely because it wants to use you as a effectively, you know, a piece of machinery that can be used to harvest more advertising data. So this poor guy in this story buys into this. His girlfriend is more skeptical. You know, she tells him that, you know, if you if you can't if you can't see with him where the money's coming from, you're the product, you know, but he doesn't he doesn't get that. He just is too excited by this tantalizing promise of having this augmented reality fed to him at no cost. And he can't see any downsides for that. But slowly and surely the downsides become evident. But by then he's kind of hooked on it and he just can't break the cycle. And it just demands more and more of his time for less and less reward. And I just felt this was sort of. Basically what happens to people when they get sucked into social media. Any any shiny technology that's an attention seeking vampire.
Nils Pihl [00:25:16] There was a very interesting new dimension, though, that augmented reality goggles added to this. Maybe I'm reading into the story here, but I felt that as the protagonist's social status declined, eventually the algorithm behind the glasses decided to use the protagonist instead as a spy on other, more worthwhile targets. So even though the protagonist perhaps does not have the means anymore to buy the products that would want to advertise to him, the glasses can still make use of him, making him walk around and do surveillance to earn, walking around, surveilling other people unwittingly, like not even being aware that that's what he's doing. And that is, of course, a trick that social media hasn't yet managed to figure out. But it is something very scary coming from the idea. What happens when you allow an organization to see the world through your eyes, so to speak?
Alastair Reynolds [00:26:34] Yes. I mean, the way the story proceeds initially. He's he has still has enough affluence that he can function as a consumer. And at the start of the story, when he first starts using the goggles, he's obviously still got a bit of money in his bank account and he's in a relationship and he's got between jobs, but he's still technically employable, so he's being offered. Consumer products and services that he can sort of just about afford, or at least within the realms of affordability for him. But as he sort of slides down the social ladder and he loses his job and job prospects go out the window, then he loses his girlfriend and then then he must sell everything in the apartment. Then he gets, you know, he starts being sold things that are more within his range then so he starts being offered not the nice lager, not the nice nice champagne, but sort of cheap lager. I, I just thought that was sort of plausible, that sort of ruthless calibration of what he can actually afford. You know, it'll, it'll make use of him to the last drop, so it squeezes him dry eventually. He's got no consumer purchasing power whatsoever. But as you say, he still has a pair of eyes and he's still walking around with these glasses on. So you can he can track where he's at, whatever he's aware of it or not. He can track the attention of the direction, of gaze of other people so the glasses can start modeling what their consumer preferences are like, and they can be seen as potential targets for for food, for consumerism. So yeah, it was a very cynical piece, but just kind of coming from a place of my frustration of, you know, sometimes I think I'll just I'll have a conversation with my wife about where we might go on holiday and we haven't even I haven't even put it into the computer and you start getting like ads pop up and you think it's a coincidence. So what? I mean, I get it when you when you when you do a sort of Google search, suddenly, you know, all of a sudden you get you get targeted ads that reflect the terms of your search or they all and the kind of person they think you are, what kind of demographic they think you in, what what's the purchasing power you have. I think all of this is revolting and insidious, but it can get much worse before it gets better. So that story which is set, you know, it's obviously set barely a few years into the into the future. It's just my sort of cynical perspective on how bad things might get before we wise up to this, that this is not a path we want to be on. But it's not it's not it's not a story that's not a Luddite piece about the rejection of technology for technology's sake. It's about that specific pathway of intrusive consumer technology.
Nils Pihl [00:29:29] But this is a future that's that's not far away. Since you started writing the story. Of course, Apple released the Vision Pro headset, and one of the engineering marvels of the Vision Pro headset is how it has inward-facing cameras, looking at your eyes that help predict what you intend to do with the headset on to make the eye gaze control so intuitive. And one of the engineers behind this particular feature came out on Twitter and spoke a little bit about, you know, the thoughts and that the process building this and pointed out that it's almost a neural interface to be able to look at the eye this closely and see the involuntary reactions that you have. It's almost a neural interface, actually. And these are headsets that are going into the market now, as you said, when when the protagonist had lost his social status, he was still useful tracking the face of of others. And this kind of gaze tracking has already begun. That a scary part of your story is how plausible it is and a part of the story that I like almost wounded me personally was how, when the protagonist started losing social status, the first ads, the first indication that he was losing social status was that he was getting ads for headphones and sneakers and computer games and, oh, that's all I'm getting out of it.
Speaker 3 [00:31:17] Yeah.
Alastair Reynolds [00:31:19] Well, I'm sure I would as well if I was a few years younger. But now I get I get ads for sort of retirees cruises and things like that. You know.
Nils Pihl [00:31:28] It's it's a very, very plausible story and user. And as you say, it it plays a lot on the theme of what social media has done to us as a society. And it also adds this interesting element of what can the algorithm do? What can capitalism do when they can see through your eyes? I have to ask, do you think that humanity approaching the digital age is bound to drive this kind of disconnectedness where we see different realities? Like, is that just inherent to embracing the digital medium?
Alastair Reynolds [00:32:13] I don't know. I mean. When I first started thinking about not think about augmented reality, but when it became clear to me that it was a technology that was actually very, very imminent. And this was, you know, ten or 15 years ago. Around the time the first set of clumsy VR headsets became apparent, I thought, well, this this will become much more user friendly as a technology, much more affordable. All the uses I thought of it were kind of benign. I remember thinking, Wow. Wouldn't it be great if you could go to like, an old Roman amphitheater and then put the goggles on? And. You just see kind of like Rome as it was, would kind of erupt around you and you could walk around digital Roman streets with Romans. Sort of where you are now and you get a real sense of it. Step back in time and you can see sort of how things really were so cool. But that's benign, I suppose. A didactic use of the technology. Whereas things like. You know, video filters on Tik Tok, that kind of thing. I didn't I didn't envisage that. I didn't envisage that this was a technology that could make us more narcissist if we if we needed any more help with that. So there was a whole sort of plethora of negative uses of augmented reality that I hadn't really grappled with in my, my initial enthusiasm for the idea was very much, Wow, this will be cool and people will use it for lots of sensible, instructive things, not for just making us feel worse collectively than we already do. Because things like filters on social media where people get really we try to present an image to ourselves to to the world. That is not how we are. And not only makes us more neurotic about the real selves. Even with Zoom calls, you know, you start noticing, you know, some sort of fuzzy look and these people swipe right on the touch it, my appearance thing. And I think it's so easy to do it once. Hmm. But you've already gone down a wormhole that once you do that, that you're trying it, your mediating your your digital manifestation at that point to where do you stop? So, yeah, there were massive ramifications, negative ones that I hadn't anticipated. And are we smart enough to. Use this technology in an intelligent nondestructive way? I don't know. I have the feeling that there might be a bit of social resistance kicking in now, like people are being a little bit fed up with. The mediated world. Social media, what it's done to us. But that's just purely anecdotal. I mean, I hear about people like a generation of people who sort of re embracing analog technology, sort of by buying up old film cameras because they're fed up with it.
Nils Pihl [00:35:34] Hmm.
Alastair Reynolds [00:35:34] Like, it's kind of like every generation rebelled against the previous one. And if their generation is, they if their parents were the ones who were sort of the mass adopters of digital technology, then the next generation might actually go a bit more analog. You know, the kids who are buying sort of old cassette players, vinyl decks, film cameras, etc. But maybe that's just naive, wishful thinking on my part.
Nils Pihl [00:35:58] I struggle a lot with this tension because on the one hand, I think that augmented reality can be an incredibly powerful tool for making yourself understood, and it can help human beings communicate more effectively. This may sound banal, but even the invention of the emoji has done so much for our written communication, and I can only dream what the r equivalent of an emoji might do to help us communicate how how we feel. So there's a part of me that really wants to believe that augmented reality is going to help us. It's going to bring us closer. But the the slope is so very slippery. Like to use a real world example. We're now making augmented reality for retailers, like helping retail staff find where to put back products. And that's all very well and good and not really controversial in any way. But then, you know, the next question is how about we invite the shoppers into this experience and help them find what they're looking for? Okay, that's pretty cool. But then, of course, the shops are printing tons and tons of promotions today. If you think about it, when you walk in to your local grocery store, there are tons of promotions hanging. And I'm a vegetarian. And all of these ads for a 20% off pork are wasted on me. And I would prefer an ad for something that's better suited to my interest in the grocery store. But that's where it starts. Suddenly, I'm walking through the grocery store, seeing a different grocery store than my wife and you.
Alastair Reynolds [00:37:40] I mean, the next step would be okay if you feel offended by rows of pork sausages, they could be edited out of your visual field so you don't even have to see the meat products, let alone the advertising for. And you really.
Nils Pihl [00:37:55] She start that journey of personal preference. It seems like then we are rolling down the hill very quickly of becoming disconnected from each other. And this tension is very, very difficult for me because like on the one hand, I believe and want for augmented reality to be a powerful tool to help people communicate authentically. But I also see its immediate power to lie and distort and obfuscate. And it's just very hard to know day to day if, you know, if we're treading a righteous path or not, which is why I wanted to invite you to to write a story really to challenge us. And I have to say, the end user story really was very challenging. Like some colleagues, I was like, Why did we do this? Like this, this, this? This is very, very challenging. This this makes everything look very, very bad. But that was the point. You know, It was I.
Alastair Reynolds [00:38:52] Mean, that was a deliberate I mean, the sort of boundary conditions for that story were to take, you know, a strongly negative look at the implications of augmented reality and. There are aspects of augmented reality that I could imagine being, but I would be very happy to have. You know, I think I've mentioned this before, but sort of in instantaneous real time translation, I think would be I mean, I'm sure someone will find a way to to fuck it up and do bad stuff with it. But if I could go into, you know. Set aside having conversations. But just imagine if I could look at a menu in a in a in an actual restaurant in Kowloon. And I've had this experience of not really knowing what I'm ordering. Because it's entirely in Chinese. Now, imagine if a sort of translation layer dropped over that menu. And I saw I saw what I wanted seamlessly, as if I had an English menu before me. I struggle to see obvious downsides to that, but that's because I'm talking about a technology that would be applied. Sincerely without the intention to deceive. The trouble is, one, I exists. People can do nefarious things with it.
Nils Pihl [00:40:13] What do you think is the force that is. Driving these more negative outcomes? Is it tribalism? Is it capitalism? What is it that is pushing us down this spiral?
Alastair Reynolds [00:40:28] Well, it's both of those things. It's also a sort of innate human instinct to do do just stupid stuff. We just do. We just we can't play nicely with things we've got to do, which if there's an if, if, if the parameter space of a technology includes the ability to do things that will hurt other people with that technology or inconvenience, the more embarrassing there are people who will actively seek out that capability. And I don't understand where that comes from in human nature, but it seems to be a sort of universal. You know, I mean, I just saw this YouTube clip last week about these this guy who was driving a Tesla on somewhere, somewhere on some interstate somewhere, and three guys in a pickup truck block the three lanes ahead of him. And then they do this thing where they can make lots of black smoke come out the back of the pickup truck. It's called coal something or other. It's like.
Nils Pihl [00:41:38] Rolling coal.
Alastair Reynolds [00:41:39] Like rolling coal. Well, that's the chop. Yeah. Now, maybe the guys in the pickup trucks sincerely believe that this whole anthropogenic climate change thing is a massive hoax and that they're the last true defenders of the free world. But I can't help thinking that maybe it's just that just being. It's just a bit asshole or you know, just like Random House hollering that we feel the need to do as people from time to time. We all know that there's a certain streak within many of us or all of us that we kind of need to be assholes from time to time. And I think technology often lubricates them, especially new technology that people have. You know, we tend to see the upsides of new innovations, and then we get to see the downsides in practice because people find really, you know. Pointless, stupid, damaging things to do with any technology. But the very notion of a deep fake, I mean, how does that help anyone? In what sense are deepfakes beneficial to society? They're not on any conceivable level, but people are going health leather to make them better and better. So now we know we have a technology that is impressive in its own right. The capability to produce it produce a deepfake is remarkable. But the downside of that is it is any legitimate piece of footage. Cannot be ignored because someone can always claim that. That is also a deep fake. So we have this total erosion of faith. And, you know, objective truth is now being eroded by by a piece of technology that was probably seen as a bit of harmless fun. When people first started going down that sort of development path.
Nils Pihl [00:43:36] One of the things I find the most challenging to imagine as a parent now, because I recently became a father, is. What will my son think of the world consuming digital media where there is so much fake material already. And when I go over my Twitter feed daily looking for the latest news and computer vision and stuff, there are just fake stories. It's not just a deepfake. These are profound lies. And it's a lie so profound that it makes us doubt the existence of truth at all. And yeah, what's it for? What's the upside? It's hard to imagine.
Alastair Reynolds [00:44:23] You know, we'd have to. You can't put that genie back in the bottle now. We'd have to create an entire parallel information architecture. A kind of. Blockchain began with the pixels in video cameras. I went all the way through a complete, unbreakable, verifiable proof of work blockchain that leads us from the point where information is captured to the point where it's distributed on something like a parallel Internet, which has been completely firewalls from the real Internet in which everything is verifiable. And it's impossible to doctor any information because of that proof of work. But we can't do that. We stuck with what we got and that it could never be undone. Now I think the genie is out there, but we might not we might not even be having this conversation because we might be too deep fake versions of ourselves having this conversation. How do we know?
Nils Pihl [00:45:33] What? Wouldn't that be something?
Alastair Reynolds [00:45:34] Yeah.
Nils Pihl [00:45:37] So you have written a second story as well that I haven't had the opportunity to read yet. But I'm. As I read this with the team, I'm hoping we will be challenged again. Some of my colleagues have already read it and said that this is this is the a better story. I'm only one paragraph in, so I can't call.
Alastair Reynolds [00:46:03] Dissect the second story. I think as I intimated to you, it's very it's very difficult to write. The narrative from a sort of utopian or non-dystopian viewpoint because. It's much easier to write about things going wrong to people than it is to write about things going right. So even though I might be able to sort of dredge up some positive thoughts about digitally mediated future actually shaping them into a narrative, it's actually quite tricky. But the way I kind of work that one out was to write. I thought, Well, I'm going to write a story about idealism. So it's about an ideal, an idealistic gesture, not not necessarily in a perfect world, maybe in a world that's pretty much similar to our world, which is far less dystopian in its sort of overall outlook. The first story, and it's about ostensibly a beneficial use of augmented reality.
Nils Pihl [00:47:08] I think just imagining the world with the preservation of some idealism. Yeah. Is a brave thought at this point. Idealism falling to the wayside.
Alastair Reynolds [00:47:18] Yeah, well, for me, I mean, I. It I liked. I enjoyed writing end user, but it's kind of it's, you know, not to denigrate it, but it's a kind of a one trick pony story about a guy who just buys into this crap and it destroys him. The second story is it it felt more like a piece of science fiction that I might write. I might have written. Certainly over time, shall we say. But I like them both. But they are very, very much, you know, one is the shiny happy side of the coin and the other is the dismal side of the coin. But I am not I mean, as you may have, I'm not actually a pessimist in broad terms about the future. I'm broadly optimistic. And I don't I try not to get dragged down by, you know, the digital world and everything. Augmented reality is not everything. Social media is not everything. There's many, many facets to being alive in the challenges of the 21st century that do not depend on smart devices and screens.
Nils Pihl [00:48:35] So we've talked about a a negative genie that can't be put back in the bottle, and that is that is deepfakes. Do you see any positive new technology that also can't be put back in the bottle and that somehow has put us on at least a vector towards positivity there? Don The future history.
Alastair Reynolds [00:49:01] You know, just as. An extremely trivial example, but to me a beneficial thing was my wife had. She came to me last week with them. She'd taken a photograph of a flower in the garden and we got lots of. Things propagate crop cropping up in the garden because we started letting it rewild a few years ago and. This things we think we planted. But there are also things that have just appeared as if by magic and as we've had different three different orchid species have just appeared from nowhere. And it's is it's really nice. But often we don't we don't know what we're looking at. And she had this lovely photo of one of the flowers, and I said, I think there's a way to do a kind of reverse image search in Google. And I thought, I've never actually tried it myself. But we sat down, we figured out how to do it and. Sure enough, it. Very, very confidently identified what this file was and to prove it, it then generated pages and pages of photographs of other people's flowers. And it was clearly the same thing. I mean, it may be a lotus that could be open to falsification as well, but I prefer to assume there is there's little to be gained by spoofing pictures of flowers. At the moment, you know, that's not going to help anyone. So I thought that was a really impressive technology. And, you know, there's other aspects of. Brute computation, as you like, I found very, very impressive. And I don't know if I mentioned this before, but one of the things that really blew my mind when I started getting into amateur astronomy after a career in real astronomy. One of the challenges I found when I when to get out and my telescopes and I've got some imaging gear but often you kind of facing, you know, the weather is not very good and you have little windows, a clear sky for an hour or two and you don't really have all that all that long to do what you might want to do with astronomy. And often you're not really sure if you pointed at the right part of the sky. So there's a few few galaxies that I've tried taking images of, and you can't see them with the naked eye and you can't see them through the telescopes eyepiece. So you kind of have to just trust that you're pointing to the right direction. So you kind of, you know, you can do some some work with coordinates, but if the telescope isn't set up correctly at the right at the start of the night, even if you dial in the right coordinates, you can be a little bit off. So it's kind of it's kind of a little bit touch and go as to whether you're imaging the right part of the sky and you sort of like set your set your your camera recording for an hour while you go off and do something else. It's kind of frustrating if you come back and find you were pointed in the right direction or you may be like you've got half the galaxy, that's really annoying. But I found out there's this thing called plate solving where you take take a raw file that you've just captured, so you just grab some stars and bright stars that are in the field of view and you upload it to a website and you provide no information whatsoever. You don't tell them the orientation of your telescope, you don't tell the magnification factor, you don't tell them what hemisphere and you don't tell them where you're pointing. And this thing, you just submit this and within a few minutes it comes back and identifies all the stars. Wow. It's it's an immensely impressive piece of computation. And you then it will also circle any objects that are in your field of view, but which you haven't actually image. So if there is a galaxy, it will say there's a galaxy here. You just have to integrate for longer to start grabbing some photons. I was really blown away by that as a piece of technology. I really wish we'd had it when I was doing actual astronomy because it would have saved a lot of heartache. But so, I mean, that's not a that's just pure computation. But I see that as an, you know, unambiguously good development that that I'm very, very happy exists.
Nils Pihl [00:53:17] I, of course, resonate with that piece of tech because it's using computation to try to figure out where a device is. Yeah, which one of them I find so incredibly frustrating now as an adult, realizing that it doesn't seem like there's anything in physics that we can just listen to to find out where we are. Yeah. Everything is relative. Always. And. I don't know. That's a deep, existential letdown. Yet I feel it's easy to feel lost that like, yeah, I grew up playing computer games, and in computer games there's always a coordinate system, you know, because it's a simulation. But in reality there isn't. And it's it's scary. It makes me feel a weird kind of vertigo that there is no coordinate system out there for us to latch onto.
Alastair Reynolds [00:54:09] Well, you know, we kind of invented a coordinate system with for astronomy, but it's not, you know, you don't see it written in big letters on the night sky. But if you set up your telescope correctly, then you can. And and, you know, the the instantaneous time where you are, then you can use. Right. Ascension and declination and those are set of um, you know, to coordinate system on the celestial sphere. So if you know the right at right ascension or declination of any object in the sky, you ought to be able to point to it directly. But of course it all hinges on kind of making sure you, you know, you've zeroed yourself properly. I mean, another thing that because I know you sort of you play music. I know we've talked about this in the past, but something that I found really fantastic was a mate of mine recommended a smart speaker to me. So I, I ordered one off the Internet. It wasn't particularly expensive and I can plug my guitar into it. And it's connected to the internet and. As a matter of fact, it's a nice speaker. And you can sort of. You can play you can sort of dial in different, you know, kind of like a Dave Gilmore guitar sound or Jimi Hendrix or B.B. King, whatever you can. And that's cool because it's really fun to play with those different sort of filters. First thing it does, which is cool, is you can just start playing and it will start jamming along to what you're playing. It'll do a sort of an analysis on what you're planning and then it'll sort of, you know, a drum drumbeat will start in and then it'll start sort of doing bass based accompaniment. That's cool. But the other thing it does, which I really like, because you can just pick any song off YouTube, you go on YouTube and pick your favorite song. It will listen to it for a few seconds while it's sort of buffering, and then it will do a chord analysis. So on the screen you'll see the chords coming up that you need to be ready for. So you can sort of put wish you hear in or something like that. And then it'll say, you know, you need to get ready to do a G or NE minor. I mean, maybe there's a downside to that for the people who write and sell music books. But if you're just a sort of bumbling amateur like me, it's actually quite cool. I know. As I say, I'm not.
Nils Pihl [00:56:30] Good for the people.
Alastair Reynolds [00:56:31] Music. I'm by no means a Luddite and I'm an adult. Although despite what I said about the complete rejection of social media, I am an avid user of YouTube. I'm not sure where that sort of sits in the sort of celestial sphere of sort of social media applications. But I find it invaluable, as you know, if I want someone to explain some bit of music theory to me, someone somewhere on YouTube will be doing it, and I'm probably in quite a good way. And also, if I want to know how to restrain my guitar, someone will show you how you re string the Strat or something like that. So all of that is positive and that's that's not even setting aside the whole thing about listening to your favorite bands. And then you just go down a rabbit hole where it introduces you to, to other music. And I know there's a whole debate to be had about what the artists actually getting out of that transaction. But for me, it encourages me then as a consumer to actually go out and consume more music and to actually buy physical product. So the sort of feedback loop is complete. I you know, I don't pay for the music at that point of use when I'm on YouTube, but if I'm sufficiently. You know, moved by something. Then at some point I will put down the money for it.
Nils Pihl [00:57:52] On that note, is there a specific YouTube channel or musician that you would like to recommend to our listeners as we wrap this up?
Alastair Reynolds [00:58:01] Well, okay, if you're interested in just music theory and why. Music sounds the way it does. And I'm, you know, with a heavy bias towards rock music. There's a guy called Rick Beato who everybody I think everybody who's ever picked up a guitar will know his YouTube channel. And he's a kind of producer. He was like a musician in the in the eighties and nineties in sort of like grunge bands and stuff like that. But he has a really great YouTube channel and he puts up loads of stuff and he gets, you know, you'll interview guys out of sort of Stone Temple pilots and stuff like that and talk to them about their, their set up and chord choices and it's very, very good. I enjoy him because I'm interested in aviation. There's another there's a guy called Ward Carroll I follow who was a tomcat. I think he was a real it was it rear instrument operator on Tomcat. And he just has a really good channel where he sort of talks like a nuts and bolts, no crap. Talk about military aviation and anything to do with aviation. But but from a very, very intelligent sort of position. I enjoy your stuff a lot. And in music. Well, I mean, I just I follow so many different artists on YouTube. I found a great band the other day because I watched. Have you seen Meghan cycling back to talk about artificial intelligence? And if.
Nils Pihl [00:59:33] You have not seen Meghan Watson.
Alastair Reynolds [00:59:35] Do you know the film?
Nils Pihl [00:59:36] No.
Alastair Reynolds [00:59:37] Oh, it's it's quite good. It's it's a sort of, I don't know, a slightly teen horror film about a young girl loses her parents in a in a in a road accident and she sent to live with an aunty who lives in. Vancouver or somewhere like that. But she's working for a tech firm and they're developing A.I., and they she has developed a kind of prototype, a kind of robot best friend for the girl. And this this is like an android called Meghan. And the thing is, you know, you can imagine it all goes horribly wrong. And Megan becomes a sort of lunatic killing machine, which it was bound to happen, but it's done quite well. And what Ashley, what I was interested in or noted, was that if someone had made a film like that about 20 years ago, they would have needed to set it 20 years in the future. Because the idea of of a robotic, you know, quite convincing Android companion would not have seemed all that plausible. But Megan is set virtually in the present day. I think it's set in sort of 2025. There's a couple of bits in the film where you kind of see the data on people's sort of smartphones, but it certainly set no more than a year or two in the future. And at no point does it feel like it doesn't it never feels implausible. You think? Yeah, that's with the speed of A.I. learning. It feels that could really happen much sooner than maybe people were thinking a few years ago. But anyway, cycling back. Good soundtrack from to be going on YouTube. That was really good. And there's a very good American French folk duo who have a really good song and they call Freedom Fry. And I've been bingeing this stuff on YouTube for the last few weeks. Really good stuff. Yeah. Yeah. And also trying to see if I could find their records as well. So, you know, once I like an artist, I was able to put down some money and have some physical product.
Nils Pihl [01:01:50] I'll check out Freedom Fry with my son tonight.
Alastair Reynolds [01:01:54] Good. Good.
Nils Pihl [01:01:55] I'll thank you for a wonderful chat. It's a pleasure. Always hope to speak again soon.
Alastair Reynolds [01:02:03] Thank you very much, Nils. Always a pleasure. Thank you. Great. Stimulating discussion. We've just had lots of things to think about.
Nils Pihl [01:02:09] Lots of things to think about. Until next time.
Alastair Reynolds [01:02:12] Thank you.