Archive for the ‘The Cyberpunk Chronicles’ Category

A few weeks ago, Wired‘s Michael Solana wrote a half-whimsical, half-serious polemic about how Writers of Science Fiction were leaving a bad taste of Dystopia in everyone’s mouths. Two days later, Devon Maloney offered a quick rebuttal, about how Dystopia was more important than ever today. I’m following up on that argument with an even more pointed response.

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As Science Fiction Writers, our job isn’t to write propaganda. We don’t write things that are peachy, or create rosy pictures for people to look forward to. Gene Roddenberry already did that with Star Trek. Well, here in the second decade of the 21st Century, barely any of those optimistic predictions have come true. Wars are still ongoing. We haven’t found a cure for cancer yet. Heck, we don’t even have flying cars, for Christ’s sake. That’s not something you can blame on us now, can you?

What we write, ultimately, is our business. Each writer is responsible for his or her own content. But if something stirs us, bothers us enough, that we have to write about it, put it down on print or e-Book… then we will. It just so happens that our present outlook on society is pessimistic, at best; downright bleak, at worst. Don’t tell us what we can or can’t write, or that it won’t be popular. We don’t care. We are the modern-day Cassandras that hypothesize, speculate, predict, extrapolate. We look at the state of current affairs, then wonder an infinite permutation of  “What If’s.” We ponder the possibilities. We write about them. Between several thousands of writers, we each have a unique (more-or-less) vision of what could happen, given the way things are. A talented, prolific few have endless versions. Whatever your reasons, you may have meant the original article as lighthearted fare. But writers of every stripe, not just Sci-Fi, take this calling seriously. We don’t necessarily write for your pleasure. Mainstream publishing might think they have a pulse on what sells or not. But in this age of Internet free-for-all, certain ideas will catch the masses like wildfire.

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Science Fiction isn’t just about technology. It’s not just about the cool new gadgets that we hope will enable us. It’s more than space opera. Sci-Fi is about people. Cultures. Entire civilizations that rise or fall, with whatever trends take us there. Ray Bradbury showed us a future where books, the symbolic carriers of knowledge, were burned. Suzanne Collins brought us to a world where children fought to the death, to entertain and contain the masses. Philip K. Dick pondered about the evolution of sentient artificial intelligence, in an increasingly marginalized world. Many of what they’ve predicted have come to pass. But perhaps just as equally important is that a lot of them haven’t. One could argue that when people knew what to expect, after such predictive works, they hearkened the words of caution. And yet one more bleak possibility never came to be. That is not such a bad thing. It’s as if we’d just prevented a catastrophic storm from happening — simply by steering clear of its path.

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Dystopian fantasy thrillers are but a symptom. We live in an age of unprecedentedly plenty, if not equality. We have many more challenges ahead of us — any of which could end badly. But even as the world is rife with upheaval, it is a somewhat self-contained mechanism; things have a way of fixing themselves. Citizens in Tunisia overthrow their government in a peaceful rally, triggering the Arab Spring. Anonymous’ legion of hackers do a DDoS on the servers of a corrupt industry, to keep it in check. Bitcoin circulates around the globe like wildfire, revolutionizing the way we do business. Things look promising enough, such that the world will flatten out. But what about those Black Swans? The things we’ve overlooked, that could be game-changers? What if the next incarnation of a techno-monolith (such as Microsoft or Google) had nefarious intentions, and infected our way of living like a virus? What if everything that mattered in the world today, that we held dear, was snatched away or rendered insignificant? That’s when we come in. We are the doomsayers and soothsayers, who will always remind you about everything that will possibly go wrong. We are the slaves that accompanied the proud Roman generals in their chariots on their triumphs, whispering “Sic transit gloria” — Nothing good lasts forever. If you want to live in denial about the risks of technology, its potential to ruin us over the long run, then that’s your deal. When Skynet takes over the world, though, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Technology is a Promethean Gift for which we will pay a steep price, if we ignore the other edge of that metaphorical sword.

For better or for worse, Dystopian fiction is here to stay. Deal with it. Or heed its lessons well, and make sure those alternate futures never happen.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

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“Now that I told ya a little bit about myself, let me tell you a little bit about this dance.”

— Digital Underground, “The Humpty Dance”

Previously, I talked at length about the bare minimum of quantum mechanics  you needed to know in order to understand the concept of quantum teleportation (minus Harmonic Oscillators and Live/Dead Schrodinger Cats). This was on the heels of last week’s groundbreaking announcement by scientists at Delft University, on a much-improved method of teleporting information via two electrons confined in diamonds. Mention the word “teleportation,” and we imagine people vanishing into thin air, then re-manifesting out of nowhere in an entirely different place. Sadly, that may not happen anytime soon in this century or the next. However, there are still a lot of applications that we may yet see in our lifetime:

  • Quantum Cryptography. The most immediate applications. Information that used to be camouflaged by binary code and rendered deconstructible by hackers, could now be almost absolutely secure. That’s a bold statement, of course, but here’s why it’s such a big deal: Both the sending and receiving party would be the only ones with the encryption key, which in quantum entanglement means the measuring apparatus, calibrated a certain way. Any attempt to measure it otherwise, brute-force, would instantaneously destroy the information sent. If scientists create a randomizer so that no two pairs of qubits will have the same general state, it would mimic the sort of frequency-hopping technology (invented by actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Anthiel) commonly used in wireless communication. Which would drive the NSA crazy, since they can’t just tap into a qubit network to listen in, the way they used to tap phone lines. [They’d have to go through the courts and the carriers, as they do right now to be able to monitor mobile phone calls. Oh, the good ol’ days…]
  • Quantum Computing. Instead of being funneled through long links of data streams before reaching their end users, specific data (or data groups) could be conjured almost instantaneously, increasing a computer’s efficiency, at up to half the power, if not more. As a result, designs based on principles of quantum teleportation would be drastically streamlined, as they would be based on discrete, isolated transfer points instead of circuits. And this is hardly trivial. By itself, the concept of QT-based chips would spawn an entire new industry by itself. Ultra-crazy transistors, power switches, memory devices, and most computer-based electronics (from desktops to mobile devices) would proliferate, ushering in a new Golden Age of Technology. And that’s not factoring the language programs and other software applications, which are industries by themselves.
  • Telecommunications. The breakthrough by the scientists at Delft made me think of the current fiber optic grid. Even though it is a vast improvement over the radio/TV analog signal technology that it supplanted, broadband-based technology is a cumbersome beast that is relatively expensive to install. There are still many cities in the U.S. that do not have fiber optic lines, and therefore, have no access to high-speed cable and internet. If engineers developed a sort of QT/fiber optic hybrid grid, which took all of the signal strength of the old broadband-based technology, but at a fraction of the cost (especially if it means much less digging), then fiber optic would be rendered obsolete, the same way analog had been just a few years ago. More bandwidth would be freed up; or at the very least, more telecommunication channels would be made available for use. If maintenance costs for the QT/fiber optic grid are minimal as compared to fiber optic cable, that the latter being eventually phased out. A QT/fiber optic hybrid technology could entail “relay points” between disconnected joints of cable; the teleportation part would occur at the ends of the cables. The rest of way, the signal would then be “classically” transported (via the fiber optic track) to cable and internet users. Depending on power considerations, a hybrid might also be an improvement, even more so than its fiber optic brethren.
  • The Power Grid. What’s good for the goose may also be good for the gander. What if QT principles were incorporated into a full-blown power grid for a major metropolis? This might be a stretch, but I’m sure a Nikola Tesla-type genius is already furiously thinking up ways to tweak the QT concept, so that units of energy instead of information could be teleported. In 2010, physicists in Japan were able to induce a photon to do “work,” simply by feeding it information. In the same way energy was found to be convertible to matter, the link between energy and information could be the beginning of a new paradigm shift that could radically alter the way we see the flow of power. A QT-based grid that fine-tunes energy demands could be the godsend to an infrastructure’s electrical load concern. Tesla’s Polyphase AC Motor drastically improved the foundation laid by Thomas Edison. Although the concept may still be decades (even centuries) away, a QT-based power grid would decrease our energy requirements — and reduce the rate of our carbon footprinting.
  • Biotechnology & Other Applications. Conceived by Manhattan Project alumni John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, the study of Cellular Automata is still in its proverbial adolescent years. However, it has led to some modest gains in AIDS and cancer research. A combination of QT knowledge and genetic engineering could yield breakthroughs in developing vaccines that cause diseased cells to safely “self-destruct,” leading to safer ways of treating cancer patients with a higher rate of survivability. Complexities of random automata aside, encoded cells could also use a sort of inception principle in modifying individual genes. These would be invaluable for everything from stem-cell development to food technology. Electrical and electronic devices, transportation, and other machines could also indirectly benefit, as a result.

Quantum teleportation may hold the key for a lot of technologies and new sciences that we have not even begun to imagine. Needless to say, the way we live, move, and view culture, would all fundamentally change. Other subtle changes may also occur, in the way we interact with each other or strive for lofty goals. Nuclear fusion, interstellar travel and — gasp! — even human teleportation could become tangible, commonplace realities. We may not see these wonders happen in this lifetime (or the next)… but it sure is fun to speculate on what you can do with it all.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

“I don’t like it and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”

— Erwin Schrödinger, on his contributions to Quantum Mechanics

A few days ago, Dutch scientists at the Delft University of Technology reported having successfully teleported information between two entangled quantum bits ten feet apart, with no reported degradation. As an pundit of the physical sciences, I have been very excited by this news, imagining several possibilities that could very well be realized as consequences of this achievement. Mind you, this has not been the first time quantum teleportation has been accomplished. Nor is it a record-breaker, by any account (the current record is 143 km, or 89 miles, according to this group). But it is said to be the most successful transfer of information over a significant distance.

Before I continue, I will hash out a few concepts (in my snarkiest possible tone) before you get all glazy-eyed on me. I’d rather explain them in terms I understand, because a lot of the sources out there are vague or altogether bogus:

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A quantum bit, or “qubit” is a quantum analogue of the classical bit. Because you’ll ask, a “bit” is a basic unit of information in computing. Bits are binary, meaning they can only have a value of zeroes and ones. Bits are the building blocks of the information you are reading on this blog right now. Each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a cluster of bits (also known as a byte), corresponding to a certain arrangement of 0’s and 1’s. For example, the letter “A” in the ASCII table has a binary pattern of 01000001; “B” is 01000010… you get the idea. In classical computing, a bit can only be a 0 or a 1. In quantum computing, a qubit can be 0, 1, or both at the same time. This last concept of simultaneity is known as Superposition in Quantum Mechanics. Physically, a qubit can be any subatomic unit of matter that can exhibit such a duality of states, such as an electron or a photon.

Superposition Schrodinger's Cat

An electron has an intrinsic property called spin (associated with its magnetic polarization). By Pauli’s Exclusion Principle, only two electrons can coexist at any given state, but with opposing ends of said state. So in any given state (an orbital in an electron, a diamond confinement cell, etc.), you can only have one electron spinning “up” and one electron spinning “down.”  Sounds simple enough? Good. Your head’s about to get blown up some more.

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Now electrons are infinitessimally small, see, so that any attempt to “look” at them means that their a) momentum will be disturbed, or b) their position changes. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle at work. Think of a pea bullet striking a static marble. Similarly, an individual electron struck by a photon would bounce away, thwarting any attempt to accurately measure it.  However, by this gnarley concept called Quantum Entanglement, we can bypass the Uncertainty Principle and obtain the information we need, without disturbing the electron in question. Well, sort of. During entanglement, two or more particles with opposing ends of a quantum state are confined, and we are able to determine the sum state of the system. So if you are getting a magnetic value of “0,” you can be confident that you have two electrons, of which one with a spin-up value of +1/2, the other with -1/2. Does it matter which one’s which? By quantum entanglement, not necessarily.

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This is when Quantum Teleportation comes into play. A “simple” setup of a quantum teleportation would involve a photon, or a stream of photons, that are split so that one set is polarized horizontally, the other vertically; the photons are already entangled. Without identifying either one, i.e., measuring its state, both are separated a certain distance from each other. A segment of information is pumped into the home photon. The photon is observed, revealing its state. As a result, the enclosed information is destroyed. However, the observer communicates the revealed state to the party holding the other photon. Armed with this knowledge, the receiving end measures the away photon accordingly, which then reproduces the conditions for the other photon. In measuring the away photon, the information lost by the local photon manifests. The Delft experiment was essentially the same, except that electrons confined in diamond cells were used, instead of photons. Because electrons are much slower than photons, they are easier (more or less) to capture and modulate, improving the efficiency of information exchange. For a really cool infographic, check out the New York Times’ superb presentation here.

I won’t even mention anything about the whole “Einstein was wrong” spooky science cliche that just about every news article on the planet is trumpeting about. It is indeed spooky, because it seems to violate most laws of physics. In a way, it does; in reality, however, it does not. So far as we’re concerned, it’s only the information that’s been communicated from one end of the link to another. However, the vessels of communication still have to be physically transported from one end of the universe to another. So the photons won’t be violating the laws of relativity anytime soon in this case.

I can see why Einstein would get so worked up about quantum entanglement. If information, which hitherto had been communicated via the electromagnetic spectrum could now be instantaneously accessible, that implies some sort of superluminal travel. However, the information doesn’t so much travel as it manifests from one qubit to another, as if they were inextricably linked by an invisible psychic link. That’s the best analogy I can think of for quantum teleportation. The only way this could happen, though, is if the photons were homogenous enough in every way – except polarity. They have to be two equal but opposite sides of the same quantum coin, so to speak.

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So there it is! Quantum mechanics, entanglement, and teleportation — all in a nutshell.  Next time, I’ll be talking about what kind of interesting applications we could see in the future, once all this technology has been perfected. Until then, stay spooky!

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases