Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and the logics of violence

I have a long, and enjoyable relationship with the film 2001: A Space Odyssey spanning most of my life; however, I had never read the novel version until I bought the Penguin Galaxy version after Christmas this year.

2001: A Space Odyssey bookThe book is a perfect companion to the film, using the medium of the printed word to expand and contextualize the images that appear on the screen. One area that the book elaborates and explains is why HAL, the artificial intelligence that is in charge of guiding the spaceship Discovery to Saturn (as opposed to just Jupiter in the film), becomes murderous. What I found particularly insightful in the book was the way Clarke lays out, in very clear terms, the logic that leads to this result. By focusing on a computer program, as opposed to a human, it is possible to see how it is that violent actions arise from seemingly unrelated causes. In 50-some pages, Clarke leads us through a series of steps that culminate in murder and then explains what led to those actions.

HAL’s accidental murderous path

The first signs that something is amiss arise from HAL’s apparently faulty prediction of failure in the ship’s antenna tracking system. When Earth confirms that there is nothing wrong with the unit, Clarke writes,

Whatever happened, the atmosphere aboard the ship had subtly altered. There was a sense of strain in the air– a felling that, for the first time, something might be going wrong.

When HAL predicts the replacement unit is going to fail, without being able to pinpoint the fault, one of the astronauts questions whether or not HAL may have made an error. HAL becomes defensive and says that it is incapable of making mistakes. HAL then creates an emergency with the unit, just as the astronauts are receiving confirmation from earth that the fault was not in the tracking unit, but in HAL’s predictive program. This forces the astronauts to acknowledge that HAL has been right and leave the spaceship to replace the unit a second time. During this maneuver, HAL creates a situation that leads to the death of the astronaut.

Bowman, the remaining astronaut, is left trying to accept,

the idea that Frank had been deliberately killed– it was so utterly irrational… [HAL] might make mistakes– anyone, man or machine, might do that– but [he] could not believe [HAL] capable of murder.

HAL, however, does not stop with one murder. It proceeds to kill the other three hibernating astronauts before Bowman ‘murders’ HAL by removing its higher functions.

The logics of violence

Why is it that HAL, a logical, nearly perfect machine, end up committing the most human of actions, murder? The answer lies in the conflict generated from having to keep a secret and the conflict that secret caused. The murders were the result of an attempt to prevent the lie from being exposed. This created a “thickening web of deception” that led to panic and, as Clarke notes, “dehumanization”.

While it is odd to think of HAL as becoming dehumanized and having “unconscious feelings of guilt”, Clarke uses HAL as mirror to describe one of the logics of human violence. We have secrets inside us and those secrets are at odds with other parts of us that are not comfortable with the reality of secrets: lies, omissions and mistrust. This inner conflict finds its manifestation in our actions. We try to prevent the conflict and lies from being exposed, reacting more and more strongly as exposure is threatened.

The story of HAL’s path to violence is a coda for the act of violence in beginning section of the book, where the proto-human Moon-Watcher, commits the first murder. Here the logic is not strictly psychological, but evolutionary. The murder of the leader of the rival band signifies a new physical and mental capacity. Moon-Watcher is, thanks to his encounter with the alien monolith, now able to imagine himself as an actor in the world, as opposed to simply a reactor. He can make his mark on he world, including eliminating a possible threat instead of simply defending himself against a real attack.

It is unclear whether Moon-Watcher’s violence is morally better then HAL’s.  What is clear, however is that, for Clarke, violence can result from different processes. In order to understand, and in case of HAL, forgive, the violence, we need to understand the specific logical process that leads to the act.


Sea of Dreams promo video

I have just put together the first video for The Subtle Alchemy series, specifically the first book, Sea of Dreams. It was done through a very cool new site,, that allows you to create videos online using existing footage and animation.

The video is now available on YouTube from the Jade Rabbit Media channel. Jade Rabbit Media is the publisher of all Subtle Alchemy material.

Leave the lights on when you go

Voyager 1
Voyager 1. Photograph: Nasa/Getty Images

[Inspired by an article in the Guardian about Voyager 1 and 2]

Krishna Patel-Ettah could have blinked and missed the whole thing. He was trying to restore his filters on the company data feed following the latest power outage at the data center. After an hour and little progress, he was just about to give up and go make a drink. As he was turning away, he saw an odd icon in data stream at the bottom of his screen and absently tapped it. When it opened, he stopped in mid turn, stunned at what had appeared. It was an ancient visualization, something that even he, as the company archivist, rarely saw. A black background and strings of characters, no images, no graphs, just lines of data.

He sat and stared for a time as he realized what he was looking at. He did a number of cross-checks and some research to verify it. In front of him, on his screen, was the first data to come from Voyager 1 in thirty years.

“But that’s not possible,” his fellow archivist, Goodwill Omu said, looking over Krishna’s shoulder. “It’s…”

“I know,” Krishna interrupted, “I know. It was shut down June 15, 2022 because the power source wasn’t strong enough to support the last monitor. I did do my research on the Voyagers, after all.”

Goodwill looked at the data. “What is this? Part of it looks like readings from some monitor.” He pointed to a string of numbers at the end. “But these… What are they?”

Krishna shrugged. “Who knows? I think you’re missing the point. The fact there is any data is amazing. It could be a string of 1’s for all it matters.”

Gradually, more people congregated around Krishna’s screen, both virtually and physically. As the day wore on, theories and counter-theories spun into existence and flamed out. Though all this, a few facts were established. Goodwill confirmed that the data was valid and was from a listener that had some legacy code which was designed to receive data from the satellites. Apparently, the code had been ported from version to version, framework to framework over the decades without anyone realizing it. After poring over old records, Krishna was able to identify at least part of the data as ambient magnetic radiation levels. There was a little over five seconds of this data with what appeared to be random noise on either side.

When the head of research heard about the data, her first thought was to send a message to Voyager to see if it was really awake. Krishna and Goodwill had to teach the research team how to send messages to the satellite. One of the research team complained it was like trying to learn how to speak Old English. Finally, they were able to send a signal.

Days passed in silence. After 72 hours, everyone agreed that there was little chance that the signal had reached Voyager, that it had received it and had been able to respond. The initial excitement over the discovery faded. The research team was reassigned. Krishna and Goodwill went back to their regular jobs.

In time, the experience faded from even Krishna’s memory, until one day he was looking for a project for his apprentice, Grace Yu, to work on and he came across a presentation he had done about the data. He stripped out the data and forwarded it to her with a note. “See if you can work out what this data is.” He figured it would be a good test of her research and analytical abilities.

Krishna absently opened Grace’s results. At first, he did not understand what he was looking at. He was about to lose his temper at her obvious failure to understand what he had expected from her, when he looked at the report more carefully. Without the reference of Voyager, she had treated the data as a single set and analysed it accordingly. The view she constructed revealed an obvious structure in the data, one he had never noticed before, made up of complex, yet regularly repeating clusters of characters and numbers.

Very slowly it dawned on him that what Voyager had sent was not some random data that from one of its monitors that had somehow been temporarily energized. It was a message, deliberately sent by someone or something who had come across Voyager as it drifted in space.

A message from Grace popped up. “How did I do?”

“Fine,” he replied.

“Great. By the way, where was the data from? It was difficult to parse, but I think I got it, in the end.”

Krishna paused, not sure what to say, not sure what do. He looked at her conclusions. “Yes, you were right. Well done.” Krishna closed the report, got up, put on his coat and left his workshop. It was midday and the walkway in front of the building was flowing with people. He immersed himself in the crowd and started walking.

Sea of Dreams contest

S L Moffitt: Retrofuture London
S L Moffitt: Retrofuture London

A picture is worth a thousand words, or in this case 450 words. As you might have guessed from the various posts on the site, I am interested in the visual arts. In particular, I have been trying to visualize the world of Sea of Dreams. The book cover is one part of this visual treatment.

What I have not done is to imagine what all the scenes in the book would look like, so I thought it would be fun to see what other people made of them. For the first Sea of Dreams contest, send a visual treatment of the following passage from Sea of Dreams. The treatment can be one or more images, film, drawings or photographs, whatever medium you prefer. The only rules are that it relate to this passage in some way and the treatment can be copyrighted by you, that is, no use of images from other books, films or illustrations. You can either link to your treatment in comments on this page or email the treatment to ‘book at seaofdreamsbook dot com (replace the ‘at’ and ‘dot’ with the appropriate symbols if you are human, or a very smart AI)

I’ll post my favourites as they come in until 8 February 2015. Then I’ll select up to five that really excite me with the winners getting a signed copy of the book.

“Attention, Explorer 1 has stopped transmitting! Attention, Explorer 2 has stopped transmitting! Attention…”

The digital alarm exploded in the relative silence of the moon base command room, causing both Zhang Han and Wu Ji to jump. Zhang was the first to hit the alarm window on the screen. The icon spilled out a datastream.

“What the..?” Wu blurted out.

“How do I know?” Zhang snapped as he rearranged the currents so he could scan them better. “This doesn’t make sense,” he muttered. “The explorers had just reached the target area and were preparing the analytic routines when both had minor power fluctuation and then…” He drew his hand horizontally across his body, indicating a flat line.

“That can’t be right.” Wu said. “They were both completely powered before they left.”

“I know,” Zhang said as he opened up the explorers’ video feed. The controllers watched the images from the two explorers. They showed the flat, featureless plain extending seemingly forever in front of them and, at the bottom of the view, the sensor arm extending into view. Abruptly the view went black. Zhang rolled the video back and advanced it a millisecond at a time. The switch from the image to black happened almost instantly. There were three milliseconds of fuzzy images and then black.

“Have you tried rebooting?” Wu asked.

“Of course not,” Zhang snapped. “I just started looking a second ago.”

“Well, should we try it now?” Wu Ji asked quietly.

Zhang started to say something, but stopped. He turned back to the screen and pulled up the control view for Explorer 1. Zhang reset the view and initiated the restart sequence. Both of them watched the datastream expectantly. Nothing changed. Before Wu could say anything, Zhang was trying Explorer 2. Nothing. The monitor probe that hovered at the edge of ridge the explorers had descended to reach the target area showed both robots sitting there: a collection of expensive bits of metal, synthetic materials and software on a vast, monochrome plain.

“We need to notify Commander Fong.” Wu Ji noted.

Zhang Han sighed. “I guess so.” He touched the frame of the screen and a comm link appeared in front of him. “Fong Zhixuan.” A view opened and the commander’s icon appeared. A moment later, it was replaced by a low-resolution image of Commander Fong’s face.

“Yes, Controller Zhang?”

Zhang Han briefly explained the situation. There was a pause while Fong looked at some screens. “I will be there in a moment.”

The time traveller’s dilemma

on the road photo
Lee Moffitt: On the road, early 1960’s

[A story inspired by two photos: one of my father’s and one of mine]

The problem with time travel, like with life, is that you don’t remember everything that happens to you. You come and go across time, but somehow you forget where or when you’ve been. Like finding a receipt for a shop you’ve never heard of in your coat pocket.

Fortunately, there are the traces of your travel that can help jar your memory. For me it’s always been photographs. At one point, I picked up a Leica II from 1938, figuring it would be less noticeable than, say a camera phone. Now I carry it everywhere and take photos of wherever I ended up.

on the road to petra photo
S L Moffitt: On the road to Petra, 2014

Most of the time, I enjoy opening the envelop of developed photos, seeing the evidence of my travels. Occasionally, I thumb through the prints with an increasing mixture of confusion and dread. People and places I have no reference for stare back at me. It’s as if someone had taken my camera when I wasn’t looking. The first time it happened, I tried to tell myself that was what happened. At the time, I was living in barracks with fifteen other men fighting forest fires in the west.

I was about to make a scene, demanding who had stolen my camera, when I looked at the photos again. Something was wrong with them. The one I didn’t remember was shot in a desert and I had spent the last months in the forests and mountains of the Colorado Rockies. As I looked closer, I also noticed that the pylons in the mystery photos were wrong. Then it struck me. They were from the 21st Century.

I racked my brains, trying to remember when I had last time travelled. I remembered jumping from 1979 back to 1963, which is where I was now four months ago. I had not been in the 21st Century for years, yet there was this photo on a roll of film that I had purchased in Denver just before we set out south toward Colorado Springs.

Digging though my duffel bag, I looked for any other sign of a jump, more in hope than anything. Normally, all I ever had were my photos and an occasional coin in a coat pocket that was out of time.

“You all right?”

I looked up to see George’s upside down face as he leaned off the top bunk.

“Yeah, I was looking for something I thought I had brought with me.”

He grunted and his head disappeared. “With this crew, I wouldn’t be surprised if something went missing. Don’t know where half this riff raff came from.”

Lieca II camera
Lieca II

I wasn’t paying attention to George’s grumbling, no one did normally, and I had other things on my mind. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how I had travelled in both time and space. Normally, a time jump leaves you in the same area you started, just in a different time. This is how I always had my camera. I would open my eyes, naked in a room or camp site with my clothes from that time near at hand, and my camera.

Somehow I had jumped, ended up in the future, went to a desert, took this photo and ended up back here again. If that is really what happened, it was the first time I had ever done that. Normally… if there is anything normal about time travelling… I went from one time to another, only circling back to a time after a number of jumps.

“Christ! It’s after 6!” George’s feet swung over my head and, with a grace that you wouldn’t expect from such a stocky bulldog of a man, landed on the floor next to me. He grabbed my arm. “Chow time, Buddy. Get a move on if you want any coffee.”

After breakfast, we were five miles up the trail from camp, cutting a fire break. On the other side of the ridge was the flatland leading down to Colorado Springs. The fire was only a couple of miles away, but I could start to feel the heat and smell the tang of ash. I had walked back along a narrow gully to where we had left our tools and water. The rest of the crew were somewhere up ahead, out of sight, but not of hearing. George was shouting instructions.

My vision got blurry and, suddenly, I wanted to throw up. Closing my eyes, I cursed. Here we go, I thought. Wonder when I will end up.

I opened my eyes to find myself on the floor of a cabin, naked and cold. It was night time. Struggling to my feet, I looked around. Very slowly, I realized I been sleep walking again. I groped my way back toward the bedroom. After a couple of efforts, I found the door frame and then the handle.

The bedroom was warm and dimly lit by the moon coming through the skylight.

“Jason?” a sleepy voice muttered.

“Yes dear.”

I heard a rustle of sheets and moved toward it until I found the edge of the bed. Crawling onto it, I could make out Tash’s form.

“Did you sleep walk again?”

I nodded and found my way under the covers. She started to snuggle up to me, but stopped and scuttled back with a yelp.

“My God, you are cold! How long have you been out?”

“I don’t know.”

She settled herself as close to me as she could without touching me. “You really need to see Doctor Goldfeldt about this. It’s the second time this has happened since we got back from vacation in Jordan.”

I told her I would and slowly drifted off to sleep, dreaming of an old Leica camera.

Artistic legacy

Earlier this year, I was visiting my parents. While I was there, my dad gave me a collection of digitized images from slides he had taken between the late 50s and mid 70s. Going through them was a very odd experience. Apart from the familial history that I discovered, I had an odd sensation seeing the images. It took me a while to identify what caused it. It was only when I was cleaning up some of my photos that it came to me. My dad and I share a very similar aesthetic.

west colorado
Lee Moffitt: West Colorado, 1967
S L Moffitt: Petra, Jordan 2014

I had never seen my dad’s photo of our trip to west Colorado until after I had been to Petra. Looking at them side-by-side, I could not help feeling that if I had been standing in his place in 1967, I would have taken the same photo that he did.

Without knowing it, here I was, standing on a hill in Petra, looking toward the horizon and framing my photo in the same way that my dad had, almost half a century earlier and halfway around the world.

As I went through his photos again, I began to see the shared characteristics more clearly, like a preference for scenery and buildings over people. Yet the landscapes and cityscapes have an emotional quality to them. We are both attracted to grandeur and harmony. We also tend to favour wider views instead of close ups.

I cannot say exactly how it is that I absorbed this artistic vision. I obviously saw some of the photos he took. There were also a few paintings or reproductions of paintings in the house. Later on, I knew about the artists, such as those from the Hudson River School, that he liked. I have also been to numerous museums with him over the years on our family trips. Yet I do not recall him ever explicitly teaching me about art or aesthetics. It was not his style.

On one level, the answer is actually rather prosaic. All these memories are active inside my brain, creating my specific neuroaesthetic framework, the synaptic and chemical activities that manifest in my pointing my camera phone in this direction and taking the photo in that instant.

Notebook doodles
My dad’s notebook

But it is more than that, isn’t it? Why those particular memories and why did they combine in this particular way? Why do my notebook pages look more like my father’s than my mom’s, whose writing I saw much more of growing up and who was more involved in teaching me how to write than my dad was?

We really know so little about ourselves and why we are the way we are. It is constant challenge for me to try to understand more, and a constant reminder to question what I believe is ‘me’. After all, if something so personal as my aesthetic sense is an inheritance from my parents, than what is real me?

AI alien intelligence and Sea of Dreams

IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence

Kevin Kelly recently wrote an article in Wired, “The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World.” One of the themes he explores the the fact that AIs are increasingly “like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off.” He goes on to argue that this industrial-grade smartness is not consciousness, but something different, something alien.

The chief virtue of AIs will be their alien intelligence. An AI will think about food differently than any chef, allowing us to think about food differently. Or to think about manufacturing materials differently. Or clothes. Or financial derivatives. Or any branch of science and art. The alienness of artificial intelligence will become more valuable to us than its speed or power.

This alienness is what I was interested in exploring in Sea of Dreams through the data miners. While they were programmed by humans, they have a very different view of the world with different limits and abilities. Through their interaction with humans, particularly Wong Anming, they begin to ‘become more like us’, but from their own particular starting point. Their starting point is, however, different from humans because the data miners do not have same intellectual, emotional and physical framework that humans have. As a result, even though Tu, one of data miner avatars, says she cares for Anming, Tu does nothing to protect Anming when she is accused of leaking data about the taikonauts.

Returning to Kelly’s article, while one could argue about the whether or not his premise is valid, I think that the ‘alienness of artificial intelligence’ is only as valuable if we can understand the alien intelligence. For that to occur, we will need to be open to exploring the fruits of that intelligence, in the same way Kelly was willing to try the Swiss/Thai asparagus quiche that IBM’s Watson developed from “a culinary database comprising online recipes, USDA nutritional facts, and flavor research on what makes compounds taste pleasant.”

This openness also requires us to see the ‘truths’ that we have about the world are not universal, but are, instead, one interpretation of the data at hand. In this way, AI becomes a mirror, reflecting back on us our assumptions, beliefs and received memories. If something as logical as an AI can represent the world in an entirely different way, Swiss/Thai asparagus quiche, how certain can we be that what we believe is real?


Glimmers of the Data Age

I went to see the new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, the “Age of Information”. On my way to it, I went through an old favourite, the history of computing. As I was thinking about the information age, I was drawn to two pieces from the history of computing that seemed to point toward the Data Age that is at the heart of Sea of Dreams.

analytical engine
Babbage Analytical Engine- London Science Museum

The first was, of course, Babbage’s analytical engine. Although never fully built, the version at the museum is a small part of the diagram Charles Babbage left, it points in the direction of the future computer. Perhaps more importantly for the Data Age, it marks the beginnings of the general need for accurate and large scale data in order to do the things that we want. The astronomical and mathematical tables that the analytical engine, and its predecessor the difference engine, were designed to create were becoming more important for the commerce and industry that was taking off in the early to mid 1800s.

puch card systme
Hollirith punch card system- London Science Museum

The second object, while not as well known as the analytical engine, is, perhaps, a more important artefact on the road to the Data Age. It is the first working punch card system, devised by Dr Herman Hollerith as part of the US census of 1890. As a result of this system, the 1890 census marked the point whereby technology, not people were central to large-scale data collection and analysis project.

While the punch card eventually went the way of other technologies, such as the telegraph, its importance to the development of paradigm of data and analysis in all sectors of life cannot be underestimated. In fact, in 1917, with the development of the first punch cards to manage letters, as well as numbers, one strand of the data age was already starting to take shape.

Samuel Morse’ first telegraph- Science Museum

Another strand is at the heart of the new Information Age exhibit, the networks that allow data and communications to go around the world faster than a human could physically carry them. Starting with laying of the first telegraph cables in the 1800s and extending to the advent of the world wide web, there have been a number of technology networks that have joined up the globe and allowed nearly instantaneous communications. The networks ‘virtualised’ communications, taking them from unique, physical channels, such as paper or word of mouth and made them electronic or digital.

Telstar- first live TV satellite (1962) London Science Museum

These networks, the trend toward data as the basis of truth and the technologies to capture and manipulate large, complex data sets are the beginnings of the Data Age that the characters in Sea of Dreams operate. The data miners owe their existence to Babbage and Hollerith, to Morse and Claude Shannon, the father of information theory.

We are still in the infancy of this age. I would expect that if the world of Sea of Dreams were to come true, they would look upon as as we do upon the early industrialists in the US and UK. Even our most sophisticated data gathering and analysis would seem as crude as a Model T factory to them.

Life on Mars… and beyond

viking lander
Credit: Mary A. Dale-Bannister, Washington University in St. Louis

The question of how we would respond to the possible discovery of alien life is one of the themes of Sea of Dreams. In fact, it was the initial impetus for writing the book. I started it because I wanted to explore how it was that we would understand something that had some of the characteristics that we assign to life, intelligence, without any of the other references for life.

Astrobiologist Steven Kluge highlighted some of the implications of the discovery of alien life.

[Q] What are the politics of extraterrestrial life, from your vantage point?

[A] This is more than an academic problem. It has political and societal implications. In both Congressional hearings on astrobiology, Members of Congress asked what do we do if we discover something? There’s been some work on this problem, but not enough, in my opinion. There are some basic planetary protection protocols regarding the microbial situation, but they haven’t gone much beyond that. And there are no protocols for intelligent life beyond “confirm first and then tell everyone.” This is not for a single person to figure out. It would need to be an interdisciplinary group that includes elected officials, scientists, humanists, and theologians. The theological implications would play out for each religion over the course of time. By the way, it seems largely to be western culture that has the preoccupation with life beyond Earth. It’s an interesting question why that is. Eastern cultures do not seem as preoccupied, whereas western scientists and popular culture are consumed by it. Why that is is an interesting research question that I’ve not explored.

Interview with Steven Kluge

This is just what starts to happen in Sea of Dreams. The possibility that what was encountered on the moon may be an intelligence starts a debate about the ethics of the mining activities on the moon. The debate will continue, and intensify, in the next book.

Thoughts on ‘Speculative Fiction: Androids and the Prometheus Myth’

Roy and Tyrell from Blade Runner
Roy meets his maker, from Blade Runner

Just after writing about Elon Musk and his ‘summoning the demon’ quote about AI, I found this blog by Stephie Dror, Speculative Fiction: Androids and the Prometheus Myth. It’s a different reading of the whole AI/android versus humanity trope in science fiction. I hadn’t thought about it being an analogy for the struggle between parents and children, in part because I don’t have kids and have not been one for a while. I can see how this plays out, particularly in Blade Runner where Roy confronts his maker, Tyrell.

I’m not sure how this works for AI’s, however. It seems that AI’s, like Skynet in Terminator or the AI’s in Person of Interest are not children out to overthrow their parents. The focus here seems to be on how logic, without emotion, leads to evil.