Book Review

Photo by Mina FC on Unsplash

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

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Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.

Book review: The Cryotron Files

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Picture credit: popsciencebooks.blogspot.com

I found this book, published simultaneously in the US and the UK in 2018 (Icon Books Ltd., London, 2018), fascinating. It is cowritten by Iain Dey & Douglas Buck, and it is is subtitled: “The strange death of a pioneering Cold War computer scientist”. You could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of the book’s main title, that it is fictional, possibly science fiction; but it isn’t: it is a narrative of what we have to accept (given the somewhat murky reputation of some of the organisations involved) as the truth, and the subject of the book is the father of one of the authors, Dudley Buck. Even if you feel you are reasonably well informed about how science & technology, especially that appertaining to computers, have developed over the last 80 years, from its hesitant beginning with Colossus at Bletchley Park, I think it is fairly unlikely that you would have heard of a cryotron. Even though (and without worrying about revealing any significant element of the narrative) this was ultimately a ‘blind alley’ for computers as we know them in common usage nowadays, it was fundamental to the development of computing in a wider sense than what we, as the vast majority of non-specialist users know of as computing, from our smartphones and laptops.

Those of you with any knowledge of etymology will have guessed that the stem of the word cryotron indicates cold, freezing or frost, and it is derived from the Greek kruos, icy cold, frost; this compound name was coined by Dudley Buck for his invention that he thought would revolutionise computing, and it is almost risible in its simplicity, and yet its operation is marvellously efficient, the biggest requirement being that it (or in common usage, they, in significant multiples) had to be contained within an environment as close to a temperature of absolute zero as possible. The device consisted of literally nothing more than two pieces of thin metal wire: a straight section, and another that was coiled tightly around it with a ‘tail’ on each side (you can see it, tiny though it is, in Buck’s right hand in the above photograph, comparing its size with a contemporary vacuum valve); so, an input and an output. Depending upon the presence or absence of an electric current, this switch could be considered closed or open: the absolute minimum required for a binary switch, which could produce a positive or negative result – yes, or no, which is the ridiculously simple premise that allows all computers to function (although quantum computers, now reaching a fairly sophisticated stage of development, will muddy the waters somewhat).

Have you ever heard of Dudley Buck? I certainly hadn’t, hitherto. It was clear from an early age that he was gifted in all-round terms, and after the tragic accident suffered by his mother when he was only twelve, he & his younger sister were sent from their home in San Francisco to live with his father’s mother in Santa Barbara. It was there that he was able to satisfy his curiosity for all things mechanical & electrical, using a spare garage on his grandmother’s property. The family was god-fearing, so Dudley was included in all the religiosity, but that didn’t preclude him from the occasional mischief, including producing a stink bomb from the lab equipment he had hauled to bible camp one year! He joined the local Eagle Scout troop, and made a friend with whom he attended evening classes in radio electronics; before long, they set up what is claimed to be one of the first mobile disc jockey businesses in California. This was late 1942, and “World War II was in full force, but it was all happening too far away to completely disrupt the flow of life in central California”; although Dudley’s self-built radio system did attract the unwelcome attention of the Federal Communications Commission. Despite having to surrender his equipment to be dismantled, the positive outcome was that, a few months later, “Dudley was plucked out of high school and sent on a fast-track training scheme for America’s best and brightest.”: a very sensible response!

After completing his college education in the V12 program, at Seattle, Washington, which was “a  fast-track officer-training scheme that would mix undergraduate study in a few chosen disciplines with the rigors [sic] of naval training”, Ensign Dudley Buck was posted to the navy’s communications headquarters in Washington, D.C., which is when his involvement with the various security services began, and very possibly set him on the path to his untimely, early death. Although the immediate circumstances that caused his death are known, the big question mark that hangs over it is whether the Russian security services could have somehow engineered it. Somewhat surprisingly, given the vehemence of the McCarthy purges which were concurrent, there was also a willingness to share scientific research, especially in the field of computers, with the Russians; however, it was expected that this would would be a reciprocal arrangement, which was not always the case, and the research that was shared was carefully selected, because computers were increasingly being used in the euphemistically named “defence” sector, for the purposes of both detecting & targeting missiles. Buck had been working with the newly-formed National Security Agency (NSA), and the already existing CIA, including a secret mission in Berlin, although this was overseen by the highly secret 7821 Composite Group: “… a covert CIA operation run by a man who would later be dubbed the Spy of the Century … Reinhard Gehlen”. Before this, though, he had gained entry in early July, 1950, to the prestigious MIT, although not without some strings being pulled on his behalf. It was there that he had the idea for the cryotron, and was able to start developing it.

The first reciprocal trips involving the Soviets, after a couple of false starts, took place in the summer of 1958, after which a bigger exchange was suggested by the Americans. The Soviets wanted to see “among others, the young assistant professor at MIT whom the Russians believed was building the guidance system for America’s intercontinental ballistic missile.” The Russians were aware that Dudley Buck was one of the expected headline speakers lined up for the Eastern Computer Conference that December, in Philadelphia; the conference went ahead, but without the exchange, “and Buck was indeed a star performer.” The following April, a group of seven Russian scientists travelled to the US for a series of meetings & demonstrations at various locations, one of which was MIT, where they were eager to meet Dudley Buck, but: “Ever patriotic, Buck clearly just didn’t want to show them his work. … The group left MIT that night full of questions, not least about the cryogenic computer that they had not been able to see.” Around this time, Buck had begun working on electron lithography, but to achieve this required some very volatile chemicals, and they were not easy to obtain; it wasn’t until May 18th that the parcel of chemicals arrived. With hindsight, it would be very easy to condemn Buck for the careless way he handled the chemicals, which appear to have caused the fatal illness that killed him within three days, but the strange thing is that his assistant, who was very close by during the handling, was entirely unaffected. The main concern is that the Russian visitors could have somehow engineered this, but it is difficult to see how. Perhaps it was just an bizarre & tragic coincidence; the fact remains, however, that the Russians were aware Buck was a leader in his field, and the potential military applications of his work, so there will always be a question mark over his death.

It is possible that if he had lived through this early period of development, Buck might have been able to overcome the limitations of the ultra-cold environment for his technology, but it had to be modified quite extensively to be used in any practical application; according to Snyder’s official history of NSA computing projects, the cryotron “‘proved not to scale to high speed operation as had been hoped.’ The detailed explanation of how the cryotron was used and what went wrong with it remains classified. It seems that it never was used as a missile guidance system, in spite of the time that was spent on the idea; the semiconductor took that crown.” Sadly, Buck’s family earned next to nothing from his work and, outside the confines of the well-informed, Buck’s name quickly became a footnote in history, but his work was fundamental to the development of computer technology, even though, as is usually the case in most highly developed countries since the second world war, all technology has to be a slave to the military. The details I have given here only scratch the surface of Buck’s story and his achievements, but I can highly recommend this book, and as I said at the beginning, it’s a fascinating read.

Book Review – 3001, The Final Odyssey

This book was a revelation to me, primarily because I hadn’t known it existed! The title gave me to expect, and in which I wasn’t disappointed, that it was a sequel, of sorts, or at least a further instalment of the story, to the original novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was written as the narrative for a truly iconic film of the late 1960s, created by the maverick director Stanley Kubrick: 2001, A Space Odyssey. I’m sure that most other avid readers, especially those of science fiction, would have come to the same conclusion. I was aware that there had been what appeared to be a direct sequel (but see below) to 2001, called 2010, Odyssey Two, although I wasn’t sure if there had been a book before the second film; this question was answered in the helpful notes at the back of the book (which were appropriately titled Valediction, and I often smiled as I was reading this section, imagining Arthur Clarke himself reading the notes in his rich Somerset burr), and a further surprise came with the revelation that there was a second sequel, called 2061, Odyssey Three, before the final volume that I had just finished.

Very briefly, the chronology of the series is as follows. Clarke’s original story was written for a BBC-sponsored competition at the end of 1948! It didn’t win, but the story, which was published just over two years later in a British Sci-Fi magazine, was the basis of a “proverbial good science-fiction movie” for which Kubrick asked Clarke in 1964 if he had any ideas; the book & the film were released four years later. The unmanned Voyager space-probes in 1979 sent back such fascinating images of Jupiter and its moons that “the temptation [for Clarke] to explore it was irresistible; hence 2010 Odyssey Two [1981], which also gave me the opportunity to find out what happened to David Bowman, after he had awakened in that enigmatic hotel room.” The film was made in 1983 by Peter Hyams, using “actual close-ups of the Jovian moons obtained in the Voyager missions”. Odyssey Three was already being conceived thereafter, on the basis that the forthcoming Galileo mission would provide “a detailed survey of the major satellites over a period of many months.” Unfortunately, this mission didn’t happen, because the Challenger disaster ruled out a launch from the Shuttle in 1986; nevertheless, Clarke decided to press on, and the 1985 return of Halley’s Comet suggested the theme for the story, based around its next return in 2061.

Clarke is unequivocal that “Just as 2010 was not a direct sequel to 2001, so [2061] is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. … So this Final Odyssey has discarded many of the elements of its precursors, but developed others — and I hope more important ones — in much greater detail.” So it would appear that the ‘reboot’, which nowadays causes so much consternation & debate among sci-fi fans, is by no means a new phenomenon! I certainly don’t want to give the impression that a reader new to the Odyssey saga, if I could refer to it so, would struggle without reading any of this book’s precursors: quite the opposite, so don’t feel inhibited by a lack of previous knowledge.

After a brief prologue (the details of which I won’t reveal), in which the background to the whole odyssey is laid out, the story starts, and it features ‘Dave’ Bowman’s erstwhile colleague from the USSS Discovery, which was on a “Top Secret mission to Jupiter”, Deputy Commander Frank Poole. He wakes up feeling rather confused, in a hospital bed on what he presumes is a space station, but before long, he is apprised of the fact that it isn’t, and how he came to be there. Without wishing to reveal significant elements of the plot, he decides to complete his mission, in a manner of speaking, by discovering what happened to Dave, after HAL’s mutiny; which he does.

Along the way, Frank has some romantic involvement; one abortive liaison, subsequent to an exhilarating flying experience, then a slower to develop, but longer lasting relationship. I’m very pleased, as an avid fan, to relate that Star Trek, which was already quite long in the tooth, gets an honourable mention. There is a jeopardy here, of course, as there should be in an engaging story, but I feel that there is a very slight ‘cop-out’ at the end: even though I do prefer a nice, neat ending generally, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, however. For me, the most salient point that it makes is delivered as a quote from one of the book’s main characters, Dr Theodore (a.k.a. Ted) Khan, who resides on Ganymede, “curing any True Believers he can find there … all the old religions have been discredited.”, and which includes the name for the first monolith that was found on earth, TMA ZERO:

‘Ted’s fond of quoting a famous palaeontologist who said “TMA ZERO gave us an evolutionary kick in the pants”. He argues that the kick wasn’t in a wholly desirable direction. Did we have to become so mean and nasty to survive? Maybe we did … As I understand him, Ted believes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the wiring of our brains, which makes us incapable of consistent logical thinking. To make matters worse, though all creatures need a certain amount of aggressiveness to survive, we seem to have far more than is absolutely necessary. And no other animal tortures its fellows as we do. Is this an evolutionary accident — a piece of genetic bad luck?’

This sounds rather like another nod, albeit inadvertent, to Star Trek: a reference to the Vulcans, who deliberately modified their nature over centuries, to rid themselves of the inherent aggression that they felt was destructive. Human nature: a subject about which there will probably never be any agreement (for as long as we have the free will to debate it)! At 253 pages (the edition I read: this might vary) the book is by no means too long, and there is a very brief, but in the context of the narrative, rather portentous epilogue, right at the end, before the notes, acknowledgements and valediction. We are left to draw our own conclusions about this portent and the possible necessity for the manipulation of human nature, perhaps emulating the fictitious Vulcans. The pace of the story is just right, for me, and even though it is now over twenty years old (the book was first published in 1997, by HarperCollins Publishers, London), the future technology does not feel unduly antiquated by contemporary standards. A very satisfying read for a sci-fi buff; this one, anyway.

Book Review – Breaking and Entering

Contrary to what you might think, this book is not a catalogue of actual burglary and/or housebreaking (other than a few minor instances in the early chapters), but the subtitle tells us specifically what it deals with: The extraordinary story of a Hacker called ‘Alien’. It is written by Jeremy N. Smith, and published by Scribe Publications, London, 2019; ISBN 9781911617006 (UK edition). I am interested in matters computer, and enjoy tinkering with code, becoming proficient enough to hand-code (a matter of some pride) a personal website (jonrisdon.co.uk) and a business website (wilfredbooks.co.uk), from which I sell the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon 1896-1967, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and also offer help to aspiring authors. With the best will in the world though, I am no genius when it comes to coding & computers: at best (and, ideally, free of self-deception) I am a dilettante.

I had read, maybe last year (how time flies!) an account of the hacking collective (although even that loose terminology is disputed by its participants) called Anonymous and, although it was acceptably interesting, it was somewhat confusing, given the myriad of groups & splinter-groups under that umbrella name, all, seemingly, with their own variant of a code of ethics (although some would even question dignifying them with so honourable a description); so it was easy to lose focus, and in the end, I was quite glad to finish it.

Jeremy Smith’s book, however, was not what I expected, and had me gripped from the word ‘Go’. It is effectively a part-biography (given that she is still relatively young) of a woman called Elizabeth Tessman, from New Jersey, USA, who adopted the pseudonym Alien when she became a freshman (freshperson wouldn’t sound quite right, would it?) at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This action is not as deceptive or devious as it sounds: simply that she needed a username for the college computer system, and eschewing something as mundane as her initial & family name, she tried ‘ET’. The film was already sixteen years old (this was August 1998) but still one of her favourites; unfortunately, 2 letters wasn’t sufficient; so, she thought back to the oversized essay with which she had clinched her acceptance, which concerned extraterrestials and how beneficent they might be; she tried ‘alien’, which was accepted, so, from there on, Alien she became.

Jeremy Smith takes the reader at a cracking pace through her life story from university to becoming an established, and still growing, independent consulting company in the field of cyber-security; a ‘white hat’ hacker, as they are known. Along the way, she has to face, and occasionally fight, almost unbelievably, at the end of the twentieth century, the prejudice & discrimination displayed by male colleagues, in a world where male ‘geeks’ tend to dominate the field of computers. It is also a salutary lesson, however depressing it might seem, given that it explicitly details an erosion of trust in human relations, that however well protected we might think the computer systems (and that encompasses all devices with processors and an internet connection) with which we interact might be, they are all, without exception, susceptible to attack by individuals and, increasingly, organisations, with malignant intent.

However (and I say this as the father of two wonderful daughters who never cease to amaze me with their skills & determination), this book is a heart-warming story of how Alien succeeded against the odds, which included working insane hours to prove that she was more than capable of holding her own and, latterly, with a burgeoning young family, running her own company in what was a highly competitive field and still, predominantly, a male-dominated world, although that has changed as the twenty-first century has progressed and more opportunities in scientific & technical specialities have opened up for women; when the pay gap is eliminated, these ladies might be able to consider themselves equal. This is an excellent read, and I hope that if you also read it, you enjoy it as much as I did.