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Taser Cams, Mind Reading and the World to Come
David Brin   Mar 10, 2012   Contrary Brin  

From the Transparency front: Taser Inc—best known for its generally non-lethal but controversial “stun-gun” devices—has released a mini-camera (about the size of a cigar stub) that clips on to a police officer’s sunglasses or collar. The camera can record two hours of video during an officer’s shift. “Testimony is interesting; Video is compelling,” says the Taser site. The information is then transferred and eventually stored in a cloud-computing system that uses Taser’s online evidence management system.

The system will clearly be useful for effective law enforcement and clearing officers of false charges (nationwide police currently spend over $2 billion annually on accusations of brutality). But what about the other side? Holding police accountable.  Will this tend to reinforce our trend toward ever-rising levels of calm professionalism, knowing that eyes are watching all the time? “When people know they are on camera, they act like better citizens,” says a Taser board member. Or will this add stress to an already stressful job? And will the devices conveniently “fail” when their testimony is needed most? Most important, who will have access to the information?

Now science brings us deep transparency!  All right. This one has even me a bit daunted and stunned.  In Existence I portray this happening in the 2040s.  But it appears that researchers at UC Berkeley have figured out how to extract what you’re picturing inside your head, and they can play it back on video.  A functional MRI (fMRI) machine watches the patterns that appear in people’s brains as they watch a movie, and then correlates those patterns with the image on the screen. With these data, a complex computer model was created to predict the relationships between a given brain pattern and a given image, and a huge database was created that matched 18,000,000 seconds worth of random YouTube videos to possible brain patterns.  Is this for real?  Already? (Read closely. It’s not a direct reading but a correlation. Note that the derived image of Peter Sellers - (I mean Steve Martin) - has SHORT sleeves because that’s what was the closest-correlated image stored in their database.  Still…)

Space and Beyond

Virgin Galactic almost ready for passengers. Citizen space travel is due to start next year. You’ll need $20,000 to hold your place; suborbital tickets will cost upward of $200,000. Next up (they say): SpacshipThree flights from London to Melbourne, via space in about two hours.  I’ll believe the second part when I see it. But it’s cool and I describe much of this (and more) in Existence. One of the better sides of a new Gilded Age.

As Virgin Galactic gets closer to becoming the world’s first commercial space line, Playboy is eagerly pondering the creation of the ultimate intergalactic entertainment destination. Zero gravity dance floor…and sights out of this world at the new Two Hundred Mile High Club.

Looking beyond: Hubble finds a exoplanet that appears to be a steamy waterworld. It turns out the planet  GJ 1214b - first discovered in 2009 -  is composed mostly of water, under a thick, steamy atmosphere. This represents a unique class of exoplanet where extreme atmospheric conditions make it totally alien to our everyday experience. It’s a super-Earth, about 2.7 times Earth’s diameter, weighing almost seven times as much. This world is also hot: it orbits a red-dwarf star every 38 hours at a distance of 2 million kilometers, giving it an estimated temperature of 230 degrees Celsius. Spectra of water vapor plus low planetary density suggest it’s mostly water. The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like ‘hot ice’ or ‘superfluid water’, substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience, Just 40 Light years from us.

Mars scientists select landing sites for future rovers. My pal Oliver Morton offers a lyrically fascinating discussion of what the new Mars rover Curiority will see, when (we hope) in lands safely and begins its exploration of Gale Crater. But is “exploration” the right word anymore?  Read and then decide for yourself!

Fiction’s Predictive Success

I was recently sent this compilation: The 15 Best Novels Forecasting Our Future.  An interesting list - with a quibble. While many titles that they chose are excellent literature and fine futuristic “gedankenexperiments”... almost none of them scored very well at “forecasting our future.”  In many cases, their lavish exaggerations were never intended to foretell but rather to caution, warn or prevent. Predictive success is hardly their top selling point.

In contrast, predictive success is one of several categories in my own list of best science fiction novels, where I include many of the same books, but not in the accurate-forecasting category. In fact, the predictive track record of my own books is being tracked and held accountable.

Alas, the list is also a little heavy handed, politically.  Not that I disagree much! But (for example) while I share the academics’ low opinion of Atlas Shrugged, their disdain is chiding and moralistic, while mine is based on factors that are much more… objective.

An interesting philosophical appraisal of the popular action adventure video game Mass Effect gives perhaps a bit too much credit. The author speaks of “uplift” and a galactic setting in which humans are weak, low-class late-comers, as if these and other concepts and notions did not come from someplace else. (One would think the designers might at least slip freebie copies of some games to the writers of the most-inspiring novels they’ve read!) Still an interesting missive on what io9 calls “the most important science fiction universe of our generation.”

An evocative short, post-apocalytic film: An attempt to cleanup Earth’s radiation-contaminated cities using organisms that are part fungi, part mollusk gets out of hand (what could possibly go wrong?)…Shot in the ruined landscapes of Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Sometimes Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal just nails it: Are we living in a simulated reality?...And our march toward oblivion.

Speak Russian?  Interested in the future?  See this Russian translation of my article about Predictions!

Amazing! Marvelous crop circles in snow!

And Finally, an Opportunity

“The Heinlein Society is pleased to announce that for the 2012-2013 academic year we will be offering the first of many scholarships. There will be two $500 scholarships awarded to undergraduate students of accredited 4-year colleges and universities majoring in engineering, math, or physical sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry), or in Science Fiction as Literature. Applicants will need to submit a 500-1,000 word essay on one of several available topics.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."

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