Author Archives: Stephen Oram

Cautionary Tools

I was struck recently by a piece in Nature: the international journal of science on what science fiction has to offer a world where technology and power structures are rapidly changing.

As the headline says, “With technological change cranked up to warp speed and day-to-day life smacking of dystopia, where does science fiction go? Has mainstream fiction taken up the baton?”

It’s a fairly widely held view that sci-fi doesn’t predict the future very well, but it’s good at helping us think about on our own humanity in a changing world and some of the articles reflect on this.

We might be rubbish at predicting the future because technology doesn’t develop in a straight line, but many of the scientists I’ve spoken to will tell you about the sci-fi that inspired them. Although, I guess that’s influencing rather than predicting.

Something that I didn’t pick up in the articles that I think is important is whether we would be so sensitive to real-life ‘dystopia’ if we hadn’t had hugely popular sci-fi such as Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World, Blade Runner and more recently Black Mirror.

Have these works of science fiction made us more attuned to the attempts to manipulate us, or more wary of how technology might go wrong once you mix the messiness of humanity with the cracks in the code?

I think they have, I think they give us cautionary tools.

Whatever your view on science fiction these six articles by leading sci-fi writers are well worth a read.

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The Age of the Ageless

Recently I was thinking about writing a story set in a world where you never die.

Now, that’s not an original idea I grant you, but nonetheless it is a fascinating idea that can be used to illuminate a lot about the human condition. I guess that’s why it’s been used so often.

We often think of health when we think about living for ever, but what about experience, knowledge, and good judgement – let’s call it wisdom.

And, that’s the twist in this particular tale – you have to choose the age you’re going to stay at. This then determines not only your health but also how wise you are, for ever. In other words, you keep maturing until the age you choose and then you stop and your health can’t get better or worse and you can’t gain any more wisdom.

I wanted to understand what age people would choose so I asked my mailing list if they wanted to help me, anonymously of course, and luckily they did.

Responses are coming in; their creative juices are flowing and enlightening me. Almost half of the survey respondents have chosen a similar age to their present age and the remainder are split 50:50 between choosing to be younger or older.

Of course, the explanations are the most fascinating and that’s where the real ‘flavour’ of the story will come from.

I wonder if you can you guess what age this respondent chose? “It was my last hurrah. I had tasted it all, learned my knowledge and experienced the ups and downs of love, life, friendship and work. Children yet to come, dreams still alive and ambition still believable.”

The survey will run for a little while longer and then I’ll write The Age of the Ageless. I reckon it’s going to be interesting to write and hopefully it’ll be a good read.

If you’re not on the mailing list and would like to contribute feel free to leave a comment at the foot of this post.


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Quantum algorithms, drugs and photosynthesis

One of the great things about living in central London is being able to pop out on any day of the week to an interesting event. This week I went to a London Quantum Computing meetup (no jokes about trying to find it please) where Dr Ashley Montanaro from Bristol University gave a talk on Quantum Algorithms to a fairly knowledgeable but not specialised audience.

He began by defining a quantum computer as, “a machine which uses the principles of quantum mechanics to try to do things which are impossible for any standard computer that’s based only on the laws of classical physics.”

There were four important elements of quantum mechanics that he talked about: superposition; collapse; entanglement; and uncertainty. Alongside these he showed us photos of the different experimental computers based on: photons; super-conductors; and trapped ions. Surprisingly, to me anyway, there’s no agreement yet on the best way to build them.

Square root cropped up a lot as the typical efficiency saving over traditional computers; apparently the trick is to use very clever algorithms to exploit this incredible efficiency to perform calculations in a couple of weeks that might otherwise take thousands of years.

It was fascinating to hear what quantum algorithms can do that traditional algorithms can’t. For example, they can simulate physical quantum systems so we might understand photosynthesis, create incredibly efficient solar panels and model the effects of quantum drugs on the human body.

Another possibility is breaking cryptosystems and internet security. A revelation that led to audience speculation about how far the world’s security services have got in developing quantum code breakers.

It’s not until we start to use these algorithms that we’ll really know the possibilities they’ve opened up.

There was a lot more to his talk and although I don’t think it’s available online yet, there is a video of a similar talk to the South West Futurists. Take a look and find out what’s behind his phrase, “to use all these strange effects to our advantage.”

So, don’t be surprised if some of my future stories involve dodgy folk stealing cryptocurrency while high on quantum drugs…

photo credit: Tom Simpson Strung out via photopin (license)