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.
photo credit: creative heroes The Supervision – Stop Mass Surveillance! via photopin (license)
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)