Of the Sunday comics and story arcs, and instant gratification.

I was one of those kids who grew up with the Sunday comics and lots of comic books. Peanuts notwithstanding, I wasn’t much for the “funnies” as much as I enjoyed the dramas. I still remember my favorites like Steve Canyon, Dondi, Judge Parker, Terry and the Pirates, and Dick Tracy. In all of these, there were long-running stories that carried on for weeks and months. We would get big doses on Sunday and then through the week there would be a single black and white page with only three or four panels for each strip. Fortunately the artists were savvy enough to save the really big events for Sunday. This all came rushing back to me today as I looked at page 104 of The Lightstream Chroniclesand I’m thinking of the folks who manage to follow TLSC on a regular basis. Even though I’m not giving out the black and white treatment, some of the pages strike me as, “Is that it?” I’m thinking back now to how I felt when there were only a few tiny snippets of dialog to advance the story as I waited for more on Sunday. But alas, I guess that’s just one of the things that make comics such a unique genre and a singular experience all their own.

I have been mapping out the completion of the story and though we’re not at the half-way point yet, I have completed 130 pages and they are ready for publication. As I have mentioned before, my goal is to get this thing finished so that we can speed this process up and I can start publishing all double-page spreads, instead of just single pages. It will get us a little bit closer and speed the story process along a bit faster.

But comics really aren’t about instant gratification. Hopefully, they are about lingering on the images and thinking about both what comes between panels and what’s going to happen on the next page. What do you think?

A classic.

A classic.

terry_pirate

Milton Caniff did Steve Canyon as well.

 

Steve Canyon courtesy of : http://www.oldradioshows.org/2014/11/aviation-in-old-time-radio/
Dondi courtesy of: https://pulllist.comixology.com/articles/497/Talkin-Comics-Up-In-Morningside-Heights

 

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Welcome your new synthetic companion. Where will artificial intelligence go?

And now, back to the future.

In a previous post I looked at the pros and cons of creating a living adult human through a process known as progenation, or genning, as not always successful, despite government assurances that the failure rate is miniscule. The process takes about 4 weeks and the resulting human can be created to the exact age of the customer, however, you cannot order, for example, a younger version of yourself, nor can you be genned if you are under the age of consent, which is 16.

The legal age of consent notwithstanding, there is science behind the decision. Though the body can be developed to the precise age of the customer, based on exact DNA imprinting, the brain, remains an empty mass of tissue. In a sense, since it was grown in the lab, it has no “experiences”, no learning, and no cognitive processes. The final phase of genning is “brain accretion transference” (BAT), where all mental, cognitive and experiential data from the living brain of the original human donor, is transferred to the progenated being. If successful, the progenation process is complete. The government reports the success rate for transference at around 92%, but some sources put the number much lower. When transference fails, there is no way to repeat the process and the living body must be terminated. Additionally, there are anecdotal reports that even successful progens, after years of life, can die suddenly without explanation or display psychotic episodes.

The genning process is expensive and usually reserved for the wealthy, though it is possible to engage a less reputable lab to gen for a fraction of a government sanctioned progen. These labs are, of course, illegal.

The other option, if you are looking for a same, is to build a synthetic human. It is much more reliable and though the final product is not quite a duplicate, the results are considered much more predictable. Plus, you can program out your bad or annoying traits and make the new you more assertive — or submissive. This is just one of the many options in the booming synthetic industry led by companies like AHC.

friendposter-m

One of the latest ads from Almost Human Corporation.

 

Since “grey matter” in a synth is a specifically configured quantum brain, the customer can upload their brain and personality into a synth for the identical synthetic version of themselves, or choose from thousands of other personality types. A same synth is comparably priced with the genned version, but there are also thousands of variations and feature sets that make owning a synth within reach for most of the populace. going the synthetic route also carries fewer restrictions, child synths, for example are also available (saming restrictions still apply).

Synthetics range in style from commercial labor synths to domestic, extended family versions, animal, pleasure models, and expert systems just to name a few.

Science fiction?

This may all sound like crazy talk, or just fun science fiction, but it isn’t an unreasonable trajectory based our current interests in the advancing technology and our human proclivities to adapt and adopt these technologies when they come to life. We already have signs of this. There is Paro the baby seal robot therapist, Zoomer the interactive robopuppy, and activists for synthetic love. While most scientists believe that we are looking to decades in the future before we have an operating system as lifelike and emotive as the one in the movie Her, if you pull those threads into the future of The Lightstream Chronicles, an industry every bit as developed as our current day automobile industry does not seem like a stretch. As far a uploading our minds into a machine, Ray Kurzweil sees that happening much sooner.

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Of “Here”, Chris Ware, and transcendence in the graphic novel.

There are numerous developments that have traversed my inbox this week, so it was a bit of a debate with myself as to whether I would blog about technology or a new graphic novel that is hit the streets this week. Moved by my artistic side, I decided to comment on a glowing review, by none other than Chris Ware, of the graphic novel Here. The “game-changing” graphic novel is the work of artist, illustrator and apparent bass player Richard McGuire.

According to Ware’s review which appeared in the guardian, the idea for the book originated with a short story in the pages of RAW in 1989.

“Across six black-and-white pages, it simply pictured the corner of a room from a fixed viewpoint, projecting a parade of moments, holidays, people, animals, biology, geology – everything, it seems, that defines and lends human life meaning – on to windows of space labelled by year (1971, 1957, 1999, 100,097BC). Birthdays, deaths, dinosaurs. In 36 panels, the universe.”

After putting down the magazine, Ware says, “It was the first time I had had my mind blown.” In other words, in those few short pages, in what was for all intents and purposes a comic, the author was able to transcend time and space by evoking the thought of the reader to probe deeper into their own existence. Ware continues,

“You could say it’s the space of the room, the arbitrary geometry imposed by a human mind on a space for reasons of shelter and as a background to this theatre of life. But you could also claim it is the reader, your consciousness where everything is pieced together and tries to find, and to understand, itself. This is a big step forward for graphic novels, but it is so much more than that. With those first six pages in 1989, McGuire introduced a new way of making a comic strip, but with this volume in 2014, he has introduced a new way of making a book.”

 

Here by Richard McGuire

Here by Richard McGuire

Wow, what a review, and by a legend no less! I will have to get it this book, but it also made me think—again—about the power of visual narrative and perhaps the power of art in general. I admit that at times i can get so wrapped up in moving my story forward and completing each panel with all the technical 3D gyrations and rendering passes, that I might forget about the potential power of the narrative itself. Ware and McGuire are visionaries in the field of comics and visual narrative. Ware breaks the boundaries of time and space continually in books like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and most recently with Building Stories. He engages readers to stop not only to think but to touch and even to make. This takes the already multi-modal experience that is so unique to comics into new dimensions literally and conceptually.

I believe that the highest achievement of any literary form is to make you think about your world and your place in it—maybe even your purpose in life. Having your “mind blown” seems too lofty a goal, but as I creep toward the midway point in The Lightstream Chronicles, I think about the day when it may be in print, hardbound and laying open while nestled in the lap of a reader. As they turn the page, they pause, look across the silent room—and think.

Nice.

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The synthetic human may be closer than we think.

It seems like a trope, but the synthetic humans of stories like Blade Runner, and Prometheus are not that far-fetched. We’re tinkering with this everyday and the march toward a synthetic human is already underway. While we may still be many years away from the T-Class model that is featured in The LIghtstream Chronicles , it looks like it could happen long before we get to 2159. On page 101 we see a warm, breathing, touchable, figure that for all intents and purposes could be human. It begs the question, in the future, whether or not we will be able to tell or not.

There are some interesting developments in humanoid synthetics already on the table, so to speak. The University of Arizona at Phoenix recently began using synthetic cadavers with a beating heart, flowing blood and a liver that makes it’s own bile.1. The company that manufactures the cadaver SynDaver™ Labs also has a skinned version which has “…the ability to control arms, legs, jaw, eyes, respiration, and pulse using a separate wireless tablet.”

The synthetic cadaver.

On the potentially scarier side of the equation is DARPA the Department of Defense research group. These are the people that brought us robotic mules that can outrun a human, robotic soldiers and warrior drones. But that’s old hat now, and DARPAs new focus is on biotech, stuff like living tissues, and artificial DNA. According to web site Motherboard, “The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on.”2

In the April 2014 article Motherboard continues, “Just last week researchers manipulated DNA to engineer the first synthetic, custom “designer” chromosome, “designed on a computer and made from scratch in a laboratory,” as the Economist explained it. It’s being heralded as the first step toward a man-made artificial organism.” You might want to check out an earlier blog that paints a bleak picture of what could go wrong here. Of course, DARPA paints this as “all good” and all designed to benefit mankind. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Out of Vancouver, BC, comes The Synthetic Human Project or Synthius project. This is a huge endeavor that brings together people like Autodesk (they guys who make my 3D software) and the University of British Columbia to, “…fully simulate the organic whole of a real human.”3

There is actually tons of research going on in all aspects of synthetic humanoids, humanoid robots and artificial life. And of course there are sex robots, too. And people think I make this stuff up.

 

1. http://ktar.com/22/1673453/UA-College-of-Medicine-cuts-deal-for-synthetic-cadavers

2. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/darpas-new-biotech-unit-will-try-to-create-artificial-life-forms

3. http://grand-nce.ca/newsandmedia/news-container/2014/the-synthetic-human-project

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A Science Fiction Graphic Novel About Design and the Human Condition

Page 100

We’ve reached page 100 and in some cases, The Lightstream Chronicles is already longer than many graphic novels. Nevertheless, as meaty as the author has worked it to be, there is so much more in the developing story. I was asked recently, “Where is it going?”

Expect some intrigue, angst and an action packed climax, but as with most science fiction and even design fiction, it is about people.

If you know anything about the author, you know that I’m a designer, heavily ensconced in research in the area of Design Fiction, Speculative Design, and Design Futures. The Lightstream Chronicles is a foray into a future world where we, like it or not, have been changed by the design and technology that we have embraced over the years. We are different. Our behaviors and expectations have changed. This is what design does to society and culture. Don’t get me wrong; it is not necessarily a bad thing. Design is a product of which we are as human beings. It is a reflection of humanity. Hence, it will reflect both bad and good, something that I believe is not a “fixable” tweak in our DNA. It is the essence of our design. In many respects, without it, we cease to be human. We have the choice between good and evil and depending on what we choose, our design and the various manifestations of it will reflect those choices.

As I wrote,

“In The Lightstream Chronicles, the author creates a science fiction graphic novel and asks that the reader ponder the same self-rationalizing tendency as it applies to slick new enhancing technologies and the “design” decisions that fostered them. It looks at not only the option to make the decision, but the ethics of whether the decision should be made, as well as society’s competency to choose wisely.1”

Perhaps then, it becomes a graphic novel about the human condition. In a way then, it is like most fiction, but it is that and more. It also examines where we find meaning, especially when most of what we would consider our greatest fears—of death, disease, physical or mental decline, of enough food and water, sustaining the environment or having enough energy—have vanished. Is it enough to satisfy us, to fulfill us, and give us meaning or does it leave us wanting?

The only thing that seems to have survived the grasp of man and his ability to wipe it away is evil. The perfection of synthetic humans would seem to be the answer, though even then, man has found a way to twist them. And if we become the creators are not our creations still made in our image?

What do you think?

 

1.Denison, E. Scott. When Designers Ask, “What If?”. Electronic MFA Thesis. Ohio State University, 2013. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.
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Privacy is dead. Is the cyberpunk future already here?

This week, a brief thought to provoke thought. Surprisingly it has been 30 years since William Gibson released his groundbreaking work Neuromancer, that ushered in a decade of artistry inspired by the genre known as cyberpunk. Just a few days ago Paste Magazine ran an article, “Somebody’s Watching Me; Cyberpunk 30 Years On, and the Warnings We Didn’t Heed.” Therein, writer Brian Chidester delineates the fascinating influence of Gibson’s work on the music of the day as well as the ripples it continues to send into the present.

With my futurist, sci-fi, cyberpunk leanings, I was caught up with the observation of how much of Gibson’s, “…near-future where computer technology was woven into our DNA—where a virtual data sphere played the dominate role in the human interface,” is already here—and we didn’t notice—or as Chidester notes, “…quietly came to pass.”

The music connection is deep and profound but it is also intertwined with the events of the days and the decades to follow. From DARPA’s creation of the internet, to post-9/11 paranoia, the Patriot Act, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Google, Twitter and Facebook, to the ubiquitous storage of cookies and individual user preferences (most of which are freely—even blithely—given), we, “…have, in essence, created business models that are a dream come true for the CIAs, FBIs and NSAs of the world.”

Yet perhaps more chilling than where we are, is how we got here.

“Google, Twitter and Facebook, lauded as broadening the scope of human potential, in fact, built algorithms to drive us to predictable results. Cookies store information on individual user preferences. They have, in essence, created business models that are a dream come true for the CIAs, FBIs and NSAs of the world.

Facebook has nearly a billion users, with tons of personal data on each one, proving that plenty of individuals are willing to provide private information to get something that is free and fun. Simply put: We’ve allowed ourselves to be smitten. The computer is now miniaturized, or, as Bruce Sterling predicted, ‘adorable.’ Christopher Shin, the engineer of Cellebrite, a device that aids the U.S. government in collecting information from cellular users, contends that the iPhone holds more personal information than any other device on the market.”

So if we can go from cyberpunk, science fiction, to present day future in 30 years, given the exponential growth of technology, were will be be smitten next: genetic engineering, transhumanism, synthetic biology?

Chidester concludes:

“If we stop to ask how we got here, we may look back and find the signs embedded in cyberpunk literature of 20-30 years prior. We may then wonder how we might better have heeded its warnings. But it is too late. Privacy, under the current paradigm, is essentially dead.”

What other cherished possession will be the next to fall?  Or have they all already fallen?

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Who is paying attention to the future? You’re standing in it. 

If you are familiar with this blog you can that tell that I am enamored of future tech, but at the same time my research in design fiction often is intended to provoke discussion and debate on whether these future technologies are really as wonderful as they are painted to be. Recently, I stumbled across a 2012 article from the Atlantic.com (recommended) magazine (Hessel and Goodman) that painted a potentially alarming picture of the future of biotech or synthetic biology, known as synbio. The article is lengthy, and their two-year-old predictions have already been surpassed, but it first reminds us of how technology, historically and currently, builds not in a linear progression, but exponentially like Moore’s Law. This is an oft quoted precept of Ray Kurzweil, chief futurist for Google and all around genius guy, for the reason that we are avalanching toward the Singularity. The logic of exponential growth in technology is pretty much undeniable at this point.

Hessel and Goodman take us through a bit of verbal design fiction where in the very near future it will be possible to create new DNA mathematically, to create new strains of bacteria, and new forms of life for good and for not so good. The article also underscores for me how technology is expanding beyond any hope of regulatory control, ethical considerations or legal ramifications. No one has time to consider the abuse of “good technology” or the unintended consequences that inevitably follow from any new idea.  If you are one of those people who, in an attempt to get through all the things you have to read by taking in only the intro and the conclusion. Here is a good take away from the article:

“The historical trend is clear: Whenever novel technologies enter the market, illegitimate uses quickly follow legitimate ones. A black market soon appears. Thus, just as criminals and terrorists have exploited many other forms of technology, they will surely soon turn to synthetic biology, the latest digital frontier.”

If you want to know how they dare make that assertion you will have to read the article and it is not a stretch. The unintended consequences are staggering to say the least.

Of course, these authors are only dealing with one of dozens if not hundreds of new technologies that because of the exponential rate of advancement are hanging over us like a canopy filling with water. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, we will —all of us—demand to bring these ideas into collaborative discussion.

In addition to my research, I write fiction. Call it science fiction or design fiction. It doesn’t matter to me. As dystopic as The Lightstream Chronicles may seem to my readers, in many ways I think that humanity will be lucky to live that long—unless we get a handle on what we’re doing now.

Some links for the incredulous:

http://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/

http://www.genewiz.com/index.aspx

http://mashable.com/2013/05/15/personal-genetics-resources/

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A taste of future-tech in the graphic novel.

If you are a regular to The Lightstream Chronicles, then you know that what you see on the Web is only a fraction of the detail that is available from the high-resolution PDF that accompanies each page. This week I thought I would highlight a few examples of plausible future tech that have occurred on recent pages.

The coffee

Just your average beverage replicator

Just your average beverage replicator

For example, soon after Kristin and Keiji entered her office back on page 93 Kristin offers Keiji coffee. There’s no Keurig in the office—at least not one that we would recognize—but there is a beverage replicator similar to the one that Marie used back on page 80 when she whipped up a Cabernet for Kristin. The beverage replicator, in this case, the same one that Marie used, a Maitre-deux™ kitchen food and beverage replicator. Model FVX-GNN42H71000.

Kristin “taps” in her favorite blend and delivers a freshly brewed cup of coffee including the cup. Since the flavor configuration can vary as well, Kristin prefers a French Press style at a precise 92.6 C. 325.309 ml. If you look closely into the background of page 93 you can see her making her selections.

The cups

A nanotherm cup.

A nanotherm cup.

The coffee cups that Kristin dispenses to hold a precise 325.309 ml. and are replicated bone china with a nanothermic structure that keeps the contents steaming hot—indefinitely—or until the liquid evaporates. That’s why you’ll catch a whiff of steam throughout this scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The desk & tablet

A simple intermediary.

A simple intermediary.

Kristin’s desk is an active surface. In other words it is able to transmit, receive and display (or project) information from any other active surface including the luminous implants that both Keiji-T and Kristin have embedded into their fingertips. (Everyone else in the world has them, too.)

The thin glass tablet that Keiji is “porting” to is simply an intermediate storage device that Kristin then transfers to her desk surface and, ultimately to holographic projection above her desk. The tablet can also store vast amounts of data for later access.

Just a sampling of some of the details in the background—a lot like the design and technology we take for granted everyday.

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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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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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