Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Robots, Fancy Sticks, and No More Humans

You’re young. You want to know what the future holds. You want to know, maybe, what you ought to do with your life. You want to know what your world is going to look like five years from now, or ten, or twenty.

Well, I can’t answer that for you. You might try your parents. Or your guidance counselor. Maybe an astrologer.

But I’ve got a book here which might tell you what a human-free world could look like 100,000 years from now, if that helps, and one that explains what to do with yourself if, like so many sci-fi movies predict, the earth is suddenly overtaken by robots, and one that will help you contend with such common nuisances as nearby black holes. So, that’s something. Doesn’t do much to help you settle on your college, career or stock investment plans, but anyway it’s all danged interesting.

I’m going to look at three books from a sub-genre I call Speculative Nonfiction. Like Speculative Fiction (aka science fiction and fantasy combined), Speculative Nonfiction addresses “what if” questions, but instead of turning to wacky stories about aliens and dragons, answers them with research and facts and just a little bit of educated surmising.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

Weisman asks “what if the planet were suddenly devoid of humans? What would happen to it?” The answers are utterly fascinating. For the most part, Weisman explains, nature would quickly topple human made structures. Rust would consume the strongest steel, roots would crumble the thickest concrete and water would fuel bacteria which would consume even the toughest, best prepared wood. Not everything would be so predictable though. For example, Weisman foresees cockroaches and rats, so often touted for their long term survival abilities, becoming extinct shortly after humanity did; they are just too dependent on humans to live long without us.

But the human legacy that nature won’t so easily reabsorb is not so pretty. Our buildings, our statues, our art, our literature, our history—all these lovely things will be lost but what will persist is . . . our plastic. Weisman dedicates a great deal to our legacy of plastic, nearly all of which has been produced in the last ½ century, but will take many thousands of years to finally decompose. Plastic toys, plastic waste from plastic processing factories, and plastic grocery bags, all find their way into earth’s oceans, but for don't find their way out. Unless scientists create some way to clean the oceans out (or teenage human boys do) and we cut out the polyester pollution, the plastics will poison the water and choke the wildlife for a very long time indeed. So stomach-turning are Weisman’s images of the human plastic mess, that you might find yourself avoiding plastic products in the future, at least disposable and unnecessary ones like plastic grocery bags.

Weisman has a few ticks which at times undermine the reading experience. He seems obsessed, for example, with the theory that 10,000 years ago all North America’s prehistoric mega-fauna (woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths, terror birds, etc.) were hunted to extinction by primitive humans. This is a highly controversial theory that many scientists find scant evidence to support. But Weisman bandies it about like it’s recorded history. It doesn’t undercut his arguments (he uses it mostly as analogy) but it’s still troubling.

Nonetheless, The World Without Us is a fine read that could alter your perspective on humanity’s place in nature and nature’s reaction to humanity. Prepare to be changed.

by Alan Weisman
Hardcover: 324 pages
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (2007)
ISBN-10: 0-312-34729-4

Death by Black Hole and other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

What would really happen to you if you were getting trapped at the event horizon of a black hole? What could you find out about the cosmos if all you had was a stick? These are but two of the “what if” questions Tyson answers in Death by Black Hole. To the first the answer is: you would get divided in half and then your halves would get divided in half then those parts would get divided and this would go on endlessly until you reach some indivisible quantum particle version of yourself. The answer to the second is: a lot (using just a stick and logic you could establish the orbit of the earth, the tilt of the planet, and whole mess of other stuff.)

Tyson writes lively and interesting prose about the cosmos, delving into such diverse topics from the temperature of the universe to the failure of Hollywood to accurately represent the night sky in its movies. He is free with humorous comments to keep the reading entertaining. At his best he might be described as “wry.”At his worst he’s snarky, even snotty. He also engages in a bit of self promotion, mentioning his role with the Rose Center for Earth and Space a number of times throughout the book. (I don't begrudge the guy a plug, but let's leave it at one.) He has a few pet ideas that he returns to repeatedly and this sometimes gets annoying. The repetition is probably due to the fact that the book is actually a collection of columns written for Natural History, and while each column has to stand alone when first published, each essay collected in a book need not. A little more careful editing might have helped matters.

But these are certainly not fatal flaws and besides preparing you for encounters with black holes or conducting science with only a stick, Death by Black Hole provides a wealth of mind-bending facts, including:

  • Contrary to centuries of second-grade drawings, the sun is NOT yellow
  • A large asteroid is scheduled to pass frighteningly close to the earth in 2036
  • We are all composed, quite literally, of stardust

If you want to find out what color the sun actually is, or what can be done about the killer asteroid, or how stars manage to create the matter that becomes human beings, you'll have to read the book.

by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (November 2007)
ISBN: 9780393330168

How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself against the Coming Rebellion, by Daniel Wilson

What if robots got fed up with serving humanity, and instead, turned all their cleverness and machinery against us? Movies tell us we'd have to defend ourselves. Daniel Wilson has written a handbook to help us prepare.

While Wilson claims, jokingly, that a robot uprising is inevitable--after all, how could many thousands of hours of sci-fi television programming be wrong?--he does admit the rebellion is a ways off. Robots, at the moment, aren't smart enough to organize a rebellion, or even think of one. And most of them are bolted to factory floors or blasted into space, two rather limiting factors for conducting a revolution. But robots, warns Wilson, are getting more and more ubiquitous in our lives, and more and more mobile. And smarter. So we best start getting ready now.

And really, if robot engineers achieve even a fraction of what they're planning, humanity will be in real trouble if the machines turn against us. Wilson describes plans for modular robots which can take on any form a la the sexy robot in Terminator 3, robotic homes that will anticipate your needs before you ask for anything, robots that can scurry like cockroaches, swarm like ants, slither like snakes or spy like flies on the wall. Even robots that can mimic human emotion and even manipulate the motions of humans engaged with them, a la the sexy robot in Terminator 3.

Other than the rather amusing premise, the book is based entirely on solid research. Wilson succinctly but thoroughly describes the cutting edge work being done by universities, corporations and the military. His advice on how to evade, battle, or infiltrate robot warriors (e.g., "run" and "don't attempt hand-to-hand combat with several tons of metal") is also based on fact and makes an entertaining vehicle for presenting his research.

He even concludes with some approaches to avoid in the coming robot war. For instance, Wilson thinks it would be silly to make clones to battle robots as in Star Wars. He also believes there are better uses for time travel, once we achieve it, than to chase Austrian-accented robots around the late twentieth century. I tend to agree.

by Wilson, Daniel H.
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (November 2005)
ISBN: 9781582345925

1 comment :

Sarah Stevenson said...

I really want to read Death By Black Hole--I heard a great NPR interview with the author. (I think it's this one.