What does it mean to be human?

Earlier this week, just a couple of days after last weeks blog on robophobia, the MIT Technology Review (online) published an interview with AI futurist Martine Rothblatt. In a nutshell Ms. Rothblatt believes that conscious machines are inevitable, that evolution is no longer a theory but reality, that treating virtual beings differently than humans is tantamount to black slavery in the 19th century, and that the FDA should monitor and approve whatever hardware or software “effectively creates human consciousness.” Her core premise is something that I have covered in the blog before, and while I could spend the next few paragraphs debating some of these questionable assertions, it seems to me more interesting to ponder the fact that this discussion is going on at all.

I can find one point, that artificial consciousness is more or less inevitable, on which I agree with Rothblatt. What the article underscores is the inevitability that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics”1. Scarier yet is the idea that the FDA, (the people who approved bovine growth hormone) would be in charge of determining the effective states of consciousness.

All of this points to the fact that technology and science are on the cusp of a few hundred potentially life changing breakthroughs and there are days when, aside from Martine Rothblatt, no one seems to be paying attention. We need more minds and more disciplines in the discussion now so that as Rothblatt says, we don’t “…spend hundreds of years trying to dig ourselves out.” It’s that, or this will be just another example of the folly of our shortsightedness.

1.Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

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Social discrimination—against robots. Is it possible?

As we know if you follow the blog, The LIghtstream Chronicles is set in the year is 2159. Watching the current state of technology, the date has become increasingly uncomfortable. As I have blogged previously, this is a date that I chose primarily to justify the creation of a completely synthetic human brain capable of critical thinking, learning, logic, self-awareness and the full range of emotions. The only missing link would be a soul. Yet the more I see the exponential rate of technological advancement, the more I think we will arrive at this point probably 50 to 60 years sooner than that. Well, at least I won’t have to endure the critiques of how wrong I was.

As the story has shown, the level of artificial intelligence is quite literally, with the exception of a soul, Almost Human. (A term I coined at least two years before the television series of the same name). The social dilemma is whether we should treat them as human, with their human emotions and intelligence, are they entitled to the same rights as their human counterparts (that are nearly synthetic)? Do we have the right to make them do what we would not ask a human to do? Do we have the right to turn them off when we are finished with them? I wrote more about this in a blog some 50 pages ago regarding page 53 of Season 2.

Societally, though most have embraced the technology, convenience and companionship that synthetic humans provide, there is a segment that is not as impressed. They cite the extensive use of synths for crime and perversion and what many consider the disappearance of human to human contact. The pro-synthetic majority have branded them robophobes.

As the next series of episodes evolve we will see a pithy discussion between the human Kristin Broulliard and the synthetic Keiji-T. In many respects, Keiji is the superior intellect with capabilities and protocols that far exceed even the most enhanced humans. Indeed, there is an air of tension. Is she jealous? Does she feel threatened? Will she hold her own?

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Will computers be able to read your mind? Uh, yes.

As we see on Page 92 of The Lightstream Chronicles, synthetic human Keiji-T casts a sidelong glance at Detective Guren with a sort of, “What’s his problem?” look. But, in fact, there is really little question. This far into the future, what we know as the computer, will be ubiquitous computing—something that is embedded in the walls, the door handles, your coffee cup and your bodysuit. In other words, everything will have some level of monitoring, transmission or computing power already in the make up of the device.

For example: the walls of your apartment are active surfaces, they can become visual representations of whatever you are thinking, any transmissions you are receiving or constructs that you wish to create. Hence, if you want your office environment to be a courtyard in a small Tuscan village then the walls will comply, fixtures, tables or any other device can comply with the illusion. The data being transmitted to your mind will trigger sensations of air temperature, wind, olfactory cues (like olive trees), and sounds like children playing in the distance, or music from an upstairs room across the street. When you pick up a stylus or touch an interface, you also become part of the network. Literally everything is part of the mesh.

Rewind to the present day. How could this happen you may think, but think again. In your pocket or on your desk is probably a smart phone. On this phone is stored the meta data on everywhere you have been since you owned it. This is courtesy of something called location services, which is probably in the ON position for numerous apps. This data, when matched with the day and time projects a pattern of activity; where you are on Tuesdays at 8:00 AM, who you call on your way home from work, when you text, from where, and to whom.

When it comes to your preferences, your smart phone can tell what sites you visit (your interests), when you visit them (behavioral timing), and the intensity of your interest (time allotted). If you are interacting with others, their data overlaps with yours. If you are not actually interacting, your contact list is a perfect tool for cross referencing. Now the data has tangents. Already we have enough information to predict where you are on Tuesdays, and who you are likely to be with. If you have recently used your smart phone to debit a venti red-eye, we can determine if you are caffeinated. If you have purchased two, then your friend is likely caffeinated as well. And that just scratches the surface.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and this sort of technology would be considered primitive. In an instant, a minor chip embedded in our brain could analyze all the public domain data on anyone we meet and make an assessment of their intentions.

So as Keiji-T gives Detective Guren the look, it’s safe to say he knows exactly what he’s thinking.

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Synthetic emotions? Sounds like science fiction but it’s not.

If you think the idea of feeling, emotive synthetic humans is pure science fiction fantasy, well, you’re wrong.

As we see on page 91 of The Lightstream Chronicles, Toei-N is quite in a lather about having met Chancellor Zhang in person. Not surprising; she is probably the most famous, if not the most important person in the world in 2159. The figurehead of the largest nation on the planet she oversees the governing influences of billions of people. An emotional response is consistent so I can see why someone might be just a bit nervous about meeting her, especially unexpectedly. But, let’s not forget that Toei-N is an N-Class synthetic—not human. Typical science fiction you might think, but you might want to think again.

If it was purely the stuff of sci-fi, then you might not see quite so many scholars with it on their Google Alerts. For example, there is the International Journal of Synthetic Emotions. Published semi-annually, the IJSE describes itself thus:

The International Journal of Synthetic Emotions (IJSE) covers the main issues relevant to the generation, expression, and use of synthetic emotions in agents, robots, systems, and devices. Providing unique, interdisciplinary research from across the globe, this journal covers a wide range of topics such as emotion recognition, sociable robotics, and emotion-based control systems useful to field practitioners, researchers, and academicians.

Tooling around Amazon, you could stumble upon the Handbook of Research on Synthetic Emotions and Sociable Robotics: New Applications in Affective Computing and Artificial Intelligence, by Jordi Vallverdu.

The technology that we often dismiss as science fiction is progressively becoming less so,  and though it may not be developed to the extent that we see in The Lightstream Chronicles, it’s fair to say that it just a matter of time.

When futurist, inventor and singularity forecaster Ray Kurzweil reviewed the Spike Jonze film, Her, he placed the reasonable plausibility of the Samantha character at 2029, “when the leap to human level AI would be reasonably believable.” Of course, in the movie, Samantha does not have a body such as Toei but Kurzweil says this is a minor detail. “The idea that AIs will not have bodies is a misconception. If she can have a voice, she can have a body. ” Kurzweil is also a proponent of the idea that technology develops exponentially not in any kind of linear fashion. ” If human-level AI is feasible around 2029, it will, according to my law of accelerating returns, be roughly doubling in capability each year.”1

His theory is hard to argue with and the smart phone is my perennial example. The Motorola Razr was developed in 2003. In just eleven years the iPhone 6 is a thousand times more powerful, and if we buy the exponential theory, that should double in just a couple of years. Have you seen the Apple Watch?


The Motorola Rasr. 700 bucks in 2003.

The Motorola Rasr. 700 bucks in 2003.

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Is The Lightstream Chronicles awash with gender stereotypes?

When we look at speculative futures, the tendency can be to focus on the technologies and futuristic designs. But technology and design send out ripples beyond their form and function and have an undeniable impact on culture and behavior.

Early on in my character design for The Lightstream Chronicles a colleague mentioned that she was offended by my depiction of women. I was a bit shell-shocked at the time so I didn’t delve into her rationale. In hindsight however, though I disagree, I can understand her point. You have to realize that, at that time, early in character development, Marie_D, Kristin’s domestic synth had a more developed chest and noticeable nipples—sans clothing. This characterization of Marie, actually caught quite a bit of flack. In my mind, however, my intent was anything but the sexualization of my female characters, rather it was motivated by the storyline, that visible, near-nakedness is something taken for granted in the 22nd century. Nevertheless, I reluctantly re-designed Marie to have a pronounced chest, yet without articulated breasts and minus the nipples. I must admit, I like this better for the domestic model.

My rationale for any imagery that may be read as over-sexualized is something I have written about before. Namely, that just as 100 years ago we would be shocked by the thong and bikini, we are equally taken aback at the thought that in another 100 or so years clothing may be a thing of the past. In my story, thin, vacuum sealed second-skins, wrap all the characters in a bio-aware cocoon and any protruding curves, bulges or contours are part of the package, so to speak. While it may cause some base titillation for the various sexes in that day and age, it is no more so than similarly provocative clothing works today. And with genetic tech that enables every human to have the body of their dreams, these contours are deliberate fashion statements. So it remains part of the story line.

As far as whether it is sexist or these are gender stereotypes. An online dictionary will quickly produce this definition:

attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.

discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women.”

Two characteristics seem to emerge. First there is “attitudes or behaviors”, and the second is “discrimination or devaluation…especially such discrimination directed against women.”

Here I can confidently say that none of the above apply. First, there is no discrimination based on sex or devaluation for that matter. Kristin, our major female character is clearly in charge. She is a strong, single mother who does not rely on males for validation, nor on or her body in any kind of overtly sexual role. It is arguable that Kristin is in fact more dominant that her male counter parts, (aside from Col. Chen’s gratuitous bullying by virtue of his powerful position). Futhermore, in The Lightstream Chronicles, both women and men are visualized in the same way.

This is more of a commentary on steadily changing social mores than on any kind of gender stereotyping.

I have often thought that the true state of affairs in 150 years might be so unrecognizable that readers would find it too provocative or unsettling. So if things continue to heat up in The Lightstream Chronicles, don’t be too surprised. At the same time consider that it could actually be much worse.

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The future: Soon to be evenly distributed.

One of the great debunking websites is something called the Quote Investigator. The site is characterized by excellent research, thorough citations and lot of interesting tidbits especially about quotes we think we know. It has been a couple of years since I saved this one, but it strikes me as especially relevant with a spate of the most recent news releases on wearable technology (spawned by the Apple Watch), and lots of tech reports on telepathic breakthroughs. Consensus, it would seem is that what Gibson actually said (though as QI states, it wasn’t always said in the same way) was,

“The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Which is to say much of what we attribute to science fiction future, at least the near and not too far out fiction futures has probably already been done to some extent.

Also from QI:

“In July 1996 the Washington Post published a story discussing research on wearable computer systems. In the mid-1990s systems using bulky visors and head-mounted video cameras resulted in a Borg-like appearance. The journalist John Schwartz deployed an entertaining variant of the adage under investigation ’The future is already here, it’s just in beta testing, the high-tech world’s final smoothing-out of kinks before products and services go public.‘”1

So images like this TIME cover animation are very sci-fi in appearance but they are also right around the corner. As the cover says,

“The Apple Watch is just the start. How wearable tech will change your life—like it or not”.2


Time cover, whether you like it or not.

























In my Copenhagen presentation earlier this year, I called this Technological Darwinism—the idea that technology will change our lives and we are powerless to stop it. Adapt or die.

The same QI article further surrounds the quotation with another Gibson remark from a USA Today Article in 1993,

“I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to let us see the present.” (Ibid.)

This, as I have often stated, is also a prime rationale for design fiction. The other albeit a bit more difficult to achieve, is best said by Resnick,

“Scenarios work to enable agency in those who experience them by showing the breadth of possible futures and the inevitability of none.”3

So I will wrap this up by quoting my own quotes from the same Copenhagen paper,

And while society is in desperate need for a host of technological advancements,  Evan Selinger of RIT reminds us that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics” 4

According to Allenby and Sarewitz

“… as technological evolution continues to outpace the grasp of human intent, we have little time to waste. These are the questions of our time…”5

1 http://quoteinvestigator.com/category/william-gibson/
2 http://timemagazine.tumblr.com/post/97149637119/times-new-cover-never-offline-the-apple-watch
3 Resnick, Jonathan. “Materialization of the Speculative in Foresight and Design.” Thesis. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design, 2011. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design, Dec. 2011. Web. 2012.
4 Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.
5 Allenby, Braden R., and Daniel R. Sarewitz. The Techno-human Condition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.
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Speculating on the future. How do we know?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes a futurist as:

“one who studies and predicts the future especially on the basis of current trends”1 (emphasis mine).1

According to the Society of Professional Futurists,

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.”2

Their definition expressly denies any attempt at prediction. Embedded in that definition is the term foresight. Voros, in his paper, A Primer on Futures studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios, seems to agree.

“Futures (or foresight) work is not, contrary to popular misconception, about prediction or crystalball gazing and trying to guess what “the future” will be. Serious futurists are not in the business of prediction.”3

When I presented my paper Design Fiction as a Means of Provoking Individual Foresight and Participation in Today’s Decision Making, at Loncon3, The World Science Fiction Convention Academic Programme last month, a question arose from the audience suggesting that The Lightstream Chronicles was speculating on “so much”, such that how could I know?

At the time I thought the questioner was inquiring as to my methodology for speculating about future events on such a broad, world-building scale. I started a nutshell explanation of how I built the foundation of the world in 2159, but before I could get very far our time ended (as these things run like a clock). I hoped to carry on the conversation afterward one-on-one, but alas the questioner disappeared,

Thinking about it afterward, either he came in late and missed the point or I did. The point of The Lightstream Chronicles is not to predict the future, but to get us thinking and to provoke discussion and debate about it—today. In this regard, my story about how design and technology blend seamlessly with culture influencing behavior and humanity, shares its intent with Paul Saffo’s definition of foresight: “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”4

So the answer is, we don’t know.  At the same time there is a rationale for all of this speculation. Here, I turn to Voros’ “Three ‘Laws’ of Futures” :

The future is not determined.

The future is not predictable.

Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present. 3

And that is the point.



1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/futurist

2. http://www.profuturists.org/futurists

3. Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology, Foresight Bulletin, No 6, December 2001, Swinburne University of Technology.

4. Saffo, Paul. “Six Rules For Effective Forecasting. (Cover Story).” Harvard Business Review 85.7/8 (2007): 122-131. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

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Science fiction: Near, distant or far? Why is The Lightstream Chronicles set in 2159?

Science fiction author William Gibson said,

“Personally I think that contemporary reality is sufficiently science fiction for me. Some critics are already maintaining that science fiction is a sort of historical category and it is not possible any more…I have to figure out what it means to try to write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least half a dozen wildly science fiction scenarios.”1

I am not of this opinion. I think it is still possible to write compelling near, distant and far future fiction. The frustrating part is often the off-the-cuff critiques, and quick dismissals that any trope such as robotics, or immortality immediately render the work a rehash. I’ve heard this many times. So, it was an conscious decision when writing the original script to make this a distant future fiction.

I follow Robert Heinlein’s definition of science fiction:

“Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.”

With that it is incumbent upon the author to hold those realistic speculations in one hand and with the other, threads of the present that could stretch far into the future.

One of my primary thematic motivations is speculating on human and transhuman futures. To me, based on present day facts, seminal aspects of transhumanism are already in place. We already have cochlear implants, artificial hearts, robotic limbs, transmitting health monitors, and other technological improvements built into our bodies. Without some sort of wild card devastation (which could derail any speculative future) here is no reason to consider a decline in the sophistication and amplification of health-assisting technologies. As with most technologies that, over time, etch themselves into our culture, these will become progressively more accepted as logical improvements to our natural bodies. Based on the current rate of technological advancement and the propensity for technology to grow exponentially, it is not unreasonable to consider a neart future—say 10 to 15 years—where our natural human bodies are significantly enhanced by multiple technologies from retinal implants, to augmented reality, in the form of organs, genetic adjustments, replacements, and interventions designed to keep us younger, sharper, and better in some demonstrable way.

This 10 to 15 year future could easily be the premise of a “near future” design fiction (and perhaps my next book will take that track), but I wanted to follow the threads deeper for two primary reasons. First, is the pragmatic reason that it takes a long time to write and produce a graphic novel of this complexity and I did not want to embark upon a race with technology to complete my story before the speculative future was either no longer speculative or was simply wrong. The second reason, is that small changes, to me, are not disruptive enough to provoke discussion and debate. An incremental change, one that seems like the logical next step, runs the danger of appearing too rational and “on course” to disrupt our present day thought processes (i.e., Her). If we only observe incremental trajectories, we cease to contemplate the long term.

The argument against long-term, future speculation is that it ceases to be plausible because, by then,  “anything can happen”. But this is merely a truism. The fact is, anything usually does not happen. There is an enormous amount of logical speculation that can be derived from what usually does happen given the human condition. If you combine the human factor with plausible advancements in technology—given reasonable trajectories of scientific focus—then we are, in fact, dealing with realistic speculative futures.

This brings me to the narrative itself. If you want to take the next few steps, and look beyond incremental change, to the logical next steps of viable AI, and synthetic humans, fully realistic and indiscernible virtual reality, functioning telepathy, ubiquitous surveillance and indefinite life-pans, then to exert a firm grasp on the science and the current gaps that exist, the only responsible thing to do is move your story into the distant future. To accomplish this you don’t need a 300 year Star Trek future but rather two or three generations from where we are now. This places us in a distant future of approximately 150 years. In my estimation, you just can’t plausibly get there any sooner.

If we want to talk about these logical trajectories we have to place ourselves in a setting that permits them to exist. Then we can look back on how they came to be. To me, this is the crux of design fiction. You may not like it, but the idea is provocation and examination of the futures we incrementally build. If you may think it passé and stereotypical, then you might also find yourself quickly bored of stories that also include tropes such as life, death, love and redemption.


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The future of death: What the world will be like when we live forever.

As revealed in Season 1, in a conversation between Sean and the Techman, a company named Chronos, way back in 2045, figured out how to secure the telomeres on the right genes and turn off the biological clock. When a host of nasty side effects, including death, resulted from the Chronos formula, the company went under and a company called Genfinity took up the reins and perfected the process. Now, in 2159, most people, once they reach their early to mid 20s, shut off the aging process. Together with the eradication of life-threatening disease, natural death became a thing of the past. Even most injuries that were considered fatal a century ago are no longer so. Most body parts can be replaced and even brains and consciousness can be transferred to new bodies. In 2159 there are a few million people walking around that look like they are in their 20s but are closer to 140 in chronological years.

Only the most catastrophic injuries by accident, suicide, violent crime or act of war are the remaining causes of death. As discussed in previous blogs, there are some who choose to age naturally. They are known as agers. With enhancements, organ replacements and the lack of disease, the life expectancy of an ager is nearly 150 years.

The matter of what to do with an unlimited lifespan is another question. As reported in an earlier blog, the suicide rate in New Asia is extremely high. Apparently, after a hundred years some people actually get bored with it all or become weary of pleasure and find life meaningless. The oldest living human in 2159 is a man who switched off at age 81 back in 2047. That makes him 193 in chronological years. The jury is still out on how multi-centenarians will feel about their lives in the next couple of centuries.

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Is privacy an illusion? The philosophy of privacy. Part 2

I’m writing about the privacy issue because it is so much an underlying theme of The Lightstream Chronicles. In the story, which takes place in the somewhat far future of 2159, there really is no such thing as privacy—neither physical nor cerebral. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. It is a throwback to another era. Of course, one of the objectives of my science fiction crime drama is to provoke us to think and ask questions. Would a total loss of privacy be psychologically catastrophic? Is losing your privacy as bad as losing your freedom? Some people think that losing your privacy is not such a big deal, and if anyone wants what is yours badly enough, they are going to get to it anyway. They think that privacy is an illusion. I discussed some of these issues in Part 1 on this topic.

But maybe this is the bigger question: Could such a thing happen or is it purely a device for interesting fiction? My focus in Part 2 is not to debate the illusion of privacy but to analyze how such a thing might come to be.

In Part 1, I looked at whether or not privacy is actually a right, and while there are some strong legal arguments to the affirmative, it is not explicitly stated in our constitution or Bill of Rights. I believe this lack of clarity adds to our general assessment that privacy is beyond our control. The idea being, if it is not even expressly guaranteed in the Constitution, then what hopes have we? In my opinion, our strongest concerns for privacy are in regard to malicious intent, such as hacking our personal data in order to steal our identity or our money. But at the same time, I venture to say that we also feel that we have some control in this area, either through constantly improving technology at our disposal or at the disposal of the legal system. Stealing is sill a crime.

Powerlessness comes, in my assessment, from our distrust of power. It could be government or corporate. According to a recent Gallup poll [1], distrust in government is at an all time high. We are just not sure that government, or other people are always going to do the right thing. But I’m not writing this from a political perspective, rather more of a social one. When we feel less competent to resist change, and more and more fundamental changes are gradually introduced, we are more likely, as a society, to accept and adapt. Just go with it.

We’re living in an age where technology is coupled with everything. Everything. New technology therefore carries with its wonderful promises a host of capillary downsides. Hence, as soon as we are able to share our thoughts (telepathy is not that far off, folks) we are setting ourselves up for having them taken from us. The question then is probably not whether my privacy will disappear, but how I will deal with it the day that I realize it is gone. How will it change my behavior if I no longer care whether you know what I do, or even that you know what I’m thinking?

More fodder for thought and conversation. What do you think?


[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx


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About the Envisionist

Scott Denison is an accomplished visual, brand, interior, and set designer. He is currently Assistant Professor of Design Foundations at The Ohio State University. He continues his research in epic design that examines the design-culture relationship within a future narrative — a graphic novel / web comic. The web comic posts weekly updates at: http://thelightstreamchronicles.com. Artist's commentary is also posted here in conjunction with each new comic page. The author's professional portfolio can be found at: http://scottdenison.com There is also a cyberpunk tumblr site at: http://lghtstrm.tumblr.com
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