All posts by Richard Levine

Richard S. Levine has been a math teacher, a software engineer, and a video games designer. Now he’s busy writing speculative fiction.He has had stories published in Emerald Tales, OG’s Speculative Fiction, Raygun Revival, The Fifth Di, The Lorelei Signal, and other online and print magazines. “A Comic on Phobos” received a nomination for Samsdotpublishing’s James award. To learn more about Mr. Levine’s writings and his award winning classic video game, “Microsurgeon”, please visit rickslevine.com.

Are bots too fast?

Robots can deliver pizza , drive cars, clean floors, get a drink from the fridge, and do all kinds of other stuff for us.  Robots are typically slower than bots.  Bots — the software kind — can quickly and efficiently make purchases for us online, schedule appointments, make travel arrangements, and setup family reunions.  But are some bots too fast?

MIT Technology Review’s “The Download” column seems to think so in their December 2017 article about how “Bots are ruining Christmas…”  I tend to agree.  While everyone likes to enjoy an advantage, at what point is that advantage crossing the line into unfair or even illegal (assuming laws are passed on the issue)?

Those old enough will remember the days before computers and bots when people used auto-dialers to call into radio shows in order to be the first person to respond to a quiz question and win a prize.

We’ve seen software for years now in sports and other event ticket sales.  Bots buy up all the pre-sale tickets from entertainment venues when it is expected that demand will be high — such as for a pop band or playoff game or even a Spring Training game with the Yankees in Florida.  The scalper(s) running the bot then resells the tickets for far more money on the internet.

Now we’re seeing this kind of action for toy purchases around the holidays.  Buyers are forced to look for these popular toys for sale on EBay and other sites.

It’s a shame, because it gives people a negative opinion of bots.  But bots, at least non-AI ones, are just doing the bidding of their owners.  In order to level the playing field and give buyers a chance to compete for toy purchases online, laws should be strengthened or passed to limit the abilities of scalpers and their bots — especially “fast” bots.

When is the future?

Nature (International Journal of Science) recently published an article entitled “Science fiction when the future is now“.  A thought-provoking title and a nice article that made me wonder, when is the future?

I imagine that in every industrious period, especially later in the period, the people of the time might begin to feel that everything has been built or invented — or soon will be.  While it’s true that today we are more technologically advanced than ever before — unless you believe there is a sunken Atlantis which had an even more advanced society — there are many ways that society might change.

Time travel stories sometimes place the future in the past, such as “Back to the Future”.  Ultimately, though, the future does not remain in the past.  Time’s arrow puts the future of 2018 at 2018+x, where x could be 1 femtosecond or 1 billion years.

So, while now is the future for some prior year 2018-x, it’s hard to see how the future is now.  If it were, then the future might be the future of the future.  If x is arbitrarily huge, approaching infinity, then the future of the future is an infinity past an infinity.  That doesn’t seem likely.

My conclusion is that the future is not now.  Whether you agree or disagree, if you enjoy thinking about subjects like this, you might also enjoy reading my time travel stories.  Happy New Year!

Naughty holiday bots

Many know that during the holidays there’s a line drawn between those that are naughty and those that are nice.  Software bots are very much like robots, often tirelessly performing sometimes dangerous, and usually repetitive tasks.

Bots are increasingly making financial decisions, conversing with us, and keeping records, all of which could potentially be nice.  But bots are also making many online purchases, and often not for the consumer but instead for retailers and businesses that want to then resell items.  This could potentially be naughty.

MIT Technology Review reports that “Bots Are Ruining Christmas by Beating Humans to Online Checkouts“.  Have you had this happen?  I did.  During the recent Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, I saw a really interesting discount from Dell that seemed to be too good to be true.  Upon visiting their website and finding the item, Dell’s website informed me that the item was sold out.  Very frustrating, as this happened twice.  Was this due to a naughty bot?

Ever heard of sneaker bots?  Yep, consumers can have a bot purchase their desired sneakers before others without bots.  Many who can’t get the sneakers they want are upset about sneaker bots.

Bot clip artRunning, Shoes clip art

Funding Asimov’s “Foundation”

Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series is one of the most respected and enjoyed works in science fiction.  For several years now, a number of entertainment companies have secured rights for or at least talked about developing the series into a movie or television series.  Now, it has changed hands again.

I believe I mentioned in the last year or so that HBO was attempting to develop the material into a series.  It looks now like that did not happen.  Instead, BleedingCool reports — as does SciencFiction that Skydance Television is close to finalizing a deal with David Goyer (The Dark Knight) and Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) to adapt the novels for a television series.  No word yet as to whether Skydance has obtained rights from the estate or made a deal with a television network or streaming service.

If you haven’t read even the first novel of the “Foundation” series, and you have any interest in science fiction, I recommend giving it a try.

 

 

A few new sci-fi shows in 2018

Of course, it’s my hope that you enjoy reading sci-fi and will try a few of my stories in print.  If you also enjoy sci-fi on television, you might like C/net’s recent article on the subject entitled “2018’s hottest new sci-fi and geeky TV shows”.  

Altered Carbon“, based on the novel, may be one of the most anticipated new sci-fi series.  Assuming it follows a similar storyline, the series will take place 500 years in the future when people can be stored digitally and placed into new bodies — sleeves.  Look for it on Netflix.

To show you the range of sci-fi to expect in 2018, “Lost in Space” is being rebooted on Netflix.  Silly?  Quite possibly, but they claim to have a more modern take on the story.  What does that mean?  We’ll have to wait and see.

While you’re waiting for the new sci-fi shows, try to imagine some of my stories made for television.  Perhaps the tiny robot team from “A Floccinaucinihilipilificatious Life” solve crimes in “CSI:Robots”.   With “Monk” as an example — not to mention the current success of “The Good Doctor” — it could be time for a new television scientist and/or detective with OCD  based on my story “Coded Obsession“.

Enjoy the new 2018 sci-fi shows!

 

Angelina, game designer

In regards to my previous blog entry, “Creatives and the Future of Work”, I thought I’d follow up with this short note about a possible future for video game design.  You see, Angelina isn’t just a game designer, she’s an AI — a software program.

Although Angelina isn’t expected to take game designer jobs away in the near future, she is capable of designing her own games.  One of its (her?) games (“To That Sect”) was even entered into a game jam (Ludum Dare competition).  The video below discusses Angelina’s abilities and games.

Creatives and the future of work

McKinsey Global Institute has an interesting report (Nov 2017) on the future of work.  They claim that many workers are going to be challenged in the next 13 years by the transition to automated labor in certain fields.  There may be enough jobs available in other non-automated categories to make up some or all of the difference, but how do displaced workers get into those jobs?  Or will they even want to?

Take a look at their interactive graphic which shows the impact of automation on work.  There are some fascinating estimates that science fiction writers and futurists might consider when writing their next story or novel.

For example, why will China see an 85% increase in Creative jobs, while Japan will see a 4% decrease in that kind of work?  Are they estimating that Japan will have less interest in entertainment or the arts or more interest in having robot performers and creatives?  Or perhaps this number is due to an expected decrease in Japan’s population.

Speaking of decrease, you can also see a 20-30% and more reduction in openings for many physical and office jobs in the U.S., Germany, and Japan.  But healthcare worker openings will increase tremendously in many countries.  Do all displaced office or physical labor workers want to be in the healthcare field, though?  Will we find in the next 13 years that robots take more of those healthcare jobs than McKinsey Global predicts?

What if displaced office or physical labor workers decide that creative jobs are more interesting and/or more satisfying?  While we might see growth in creative jobs, and have creatives to fill them, we might also see a decline in pay — and aren’t many artists known for starving already?

I have a couple of stories related to this topic, but I will give some thought to how I can incorporate this important futurist topic into some of my new ones.  If you’d like to read my related stories having to do with careers, you can find “It’s in the Stars” in my e-book “Science Fiction: Genetics” and “Time Enough for Sarah” in “Science Fiction: Time Travel”.

 

 

 

Space colonization begins

Asgardia refers to itself as a nation.  Not just any nation, but actually the first nation to establish itself in space!  Their first tiny satellite launched into space recently, establishing a presence ‘out there’, but it is too small to be occupied by a human.

Since the definition of nation usually includes that the people inhabit a country or territory, the satellite is unlikely to suffice as either a country or territory.  So, at least for now, Asgardia is only a nation-want-to-be.

Nevertheless, Asgardia represents the beginning of space colonization.  In their concept of humans occupying space, the people of Asgardia might not refer to this as colonization, since some may mistake that term for meaning competition.  But with costs to build and launch femto-satellites in the few thousands of dollars, this is likely to be just the beginning of hundreds if not thousands of other groups launching into space.

SYFY’s “The Expanse” is just one sci-fi depiction of what might happen when governments, mega-companies, and others go out into space and compete with money and power.  Asgardia has a more peaceful vision for that future.  I have yet to write a space opera or even a short story directly involving competition in space, but my stories involving space mining — “You Can Choose Your Parents” and “Remorse over Enceladus” and “A Comic on Phobos” — are somewhat related to the topic.

I’ll have to give some thought as to where I think this — nations in space, etc — is all headed.  I didn’t achieve my goal of writing new stories this year, but I did make games and write and blog.  I have many story ideas outlined in my files, so I’m ready to go.  New stories are high on my list of things to do for 2018.  I’m excited.  Stay tuned!

 

Turtles shoot, don’t they?

Why the crazy title?  You may have seen the 1969 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”  It’s about people struggling with a variety of human frailties competing in a grueling 1930’s dance marathon.  If you haven’t seen it, believe me it’s not a feel-good film.  But my point here with “Turtles Shoot, Don’t They” is that when a turtle can be mistaken for a rifle, the results can be equally devastating.

Artificial intelligence and machine vision have come a long ways, however this technology is going into cars that not only aid us, but may soon drive us through town or on high speed highways.  We’d like to have the security of knowing that they can see and identify objects on or next to the road as well — or better than — as we humans can.  So it’s disconcerting that Google’s AI thinks a turtle is a gun, or a cat — which might be running in front of a car — is guacamole.

Researchers are just as busy creating adversarial images — images that can fool an AI — as they are figuring out how to properly categorize such images.  Recently published, “One pixel attack for fooling deep neural networks” explains how little it takes sometimes to fool an AI.

I hope that AI scientists can fix these issues.  I also want them to figure out why an AI can’t understand that a turtle is just a turtle.  After all, even a young child would probably know that the photo shown in the research is a turtle, not a gun.   What is going on in a child’s image recognition ability that isn’t going on in an AI?

What can high tech industry learn from homesteaders?

I think up science fiction ideas all the time and write about some of them.  Today, I decided to consider the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs.

Some of my ancestors came to America in the 1800’s to homestead (farm) in North Dakota and Minnesota.  Back then, farming was one important way that immigrants could make — or eke out — a living.  There were other jobs, but because of the opportunity it provided for earning and owning land, the Homestead Act of 1862 “has been called one of the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States.”

Today, high technology is synonymous with not only making a living, but also often with making a very good living.  Unfortunately, that opportunity may not extend to all parts of America.  Take a look at the map in a recent article in MIT Technology Review entitled “In These Small Cities, AI Advances Could Be Costly.”  The Rapid City, SD area is expected to experience more serious job impacts from artificial intelligence advances than most or all major cities in the U.S.  It doesn’t seem right that the region that is home to Mount Rushmore, an icon of American leadership and ideals, may not benefit well from advances in high technology.

Perhaps homesteading offers a bit of direction to a solution.  South Dakota’s office of economic development already has a REDI Fund Loan designed to promote job growth — particularly high tech — in the state.  Over the past decade, articles have been written about small town outsourcing — competing with overseas outsourcing in some cases.  Huge cloud centers (of servers) opened in small town areas are apparently not the answer, because they might only create 50 jobs — and how many of those can be replaced with AI in the future?

But why can’t technology companies, and even the federal government, get more involved in bringing job growth to places like Rapid City, South Dakota that can withstand the onslaught of AI innovation?  A sort of modern day hometeching version — maybe even an Act of Congress — of homesteading.

Just looking at the map in MIT Technology Review, it is obvious that there could be job haves and have-nots in the future if nothing is done.  That doesn’t bode well for the future of small town America politics versus big city America politics, and that can’t be good for anyone.

United States Of America Map Outline Gray clip art

 

A Penny for your Thoughts

MIT Technology Review writes recently about how “scientists can read a bird’s brain and predict its next song“.  Extrapolating, the scientists hope to be able to use this knowledge to further inventions that might help humans with disabilities communicate.

But it might also lead to the ability to text straight from our thoughts.  This is just a part of what I wrote about in my sci-fi short story “A Penny for your Thoughts” in my e-book anthology “Science Fiction: Time Travel and Robots 2“, where a future technology also allows participants to communicate their feelings over a network connection.  I just thought — pun intended — that if you are interested in this research, you might enjoy reading my story.

Justice math

FiveThirtyEight, the site that uses statistical analysis to publish reports on a variety of subjects including politics, runs a mathematics puzzle column each week called “The Riddler“.  I enjoy trying to solve these problems, as well as working through puzzling equations — often brilliantly solved by very bright teenagers around the world — on Brilliant.org.

Math continues to be a lifetime joy for me, but it’s also incredibly useful.  The future heavily depends on a variety of computations, including self-driving cars, satellites and solar sails, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and personal robotics.

And, yes, even Supreme Court decisions which make future law related to all kinds of systems that are based in statistics and math.  But do Supreme Court justices understand the math?  Do they need or want to?  FiveThirtyEight posted a thought-provoking article on the subject recently.

Today, high-powered computer systems are being used to solve or explore a variety of mathematical problems.  The video below takes a look at what’s being done with computers and math in relation to gerrymandering.

Bygone games

We’ve all heard about jobs lost to robots, but what about games?

A motion video game like “Kids on Site” (Sega CD and PC 1995) — which I worked on — may not be of interest to children in the near future.  Heck, they may not even understand why anyone would have ever been interested in driving a construction vehicle.  Built Robotics is inventing a self-driving track loader.  It may not be long before other automated construction vehicles are created.

Then there’s my old game “Truckin'” (Imagic 1983), where one or two players drive a truck around the country to compete for time and picking up loads.  Between the work being done on automating truck driving and the work on truck logistics (FleetBoard), how long will it be before there aren’t any kids who hunger for driving a big rig on the open road?  Will they even know that people used to drive them?  It’s a strange thought that someday a young researcher will be looking through genealogy records and wonder what it means that their ancestor was a ‘truck driver’.

I could always make a game about fixing robot trucks and robot loaders.  Well, actually, I did just release a game called “Pack A Truck” where the human player loads up a truck using robot remote controls.  Jobs move on, and so do games.

Back from Hawaii

Creativity requires energy and diversity, two things you get from taking a break and seeing new places.  This year we chose Hawaii at the end of summer.  We loved it!

Whether you’re exploring new tastes,

or hiking to red sand and black sand beaches,

or catching a glimpse of a perfect tropical waterfall,

or standing behind one,

or viewing hot lava,

or finding a secluded shore,

or even playing your favorite sport with an incredible view of Molokai island in the background (I made birdie on hole #4 by the way! — just follow the red line),

It all makes for a memorable vacation and energizes one’s creative spirit.

 

 

“Captain Z-Ro”

You might be wondering what “Captain Z-Ro” is, so I’ll get that out of the way right now.  It’s probably the first time travel television series.  Yes, even before Mr. Peabody and Sherman traveled in their way-back machine to interact with history on the Bullwinkle animated show.

Time travel is my favorite genre for both readings and writing (see my time travel e-books) and I’ve also enjoyed many time travel television shows — from the early days of “Time Tunnel” and “Quantum Leap”, to several episodes of various “Star Trek” series and “Seven Days”, to more recent shows like “Fringe”, “Continuum”, “12 Monkeys”, and “Timeless”.  That’s not meant to be comprehensive, these are just a few I can think of right now.

I think what appeals to me is the variety of time travel mechanisms, and the way characters handle the paradoxes and situations that develop.

I have often written about classic gaming in my blog, so it was time to talk a little about classic time travel.  “The Time Machine” is about as classic as it gets, but for television let’s hear it for “Captain Z-Ro”.  It’s a bit predictable, and definitely corny compared to today’s sci-fi time travel efforts, but it led the way.

Robot reflections

Will robots learn to be compassionate and creative, or will they learn to kill?  Perhaps both, but I greatly prefer to be chased by an empathic robot.

Elon Musk — CEO of SpaceX and Tesla — has called for a ban on use of killer robots.  More specifically, autonomous robots that can kill without a human in the decision-making process.  But what happens if some countries decide to develop autonomous killer robots, while other countries decide not to?  Negotiating a ban on killer robots worldwide sounds like a good idea, but killer drones can probably be made fairly small.  How does the United Nations or other enforcing group insure that nobody is actually making such machines undercover?  If a nanobot were to be weaponized, it could be almost undetectable!

As a video games designer, I would vastly prefer that robots were used to bring joy into people’s lives.  Some robots are currently learning to play and become experts at several board, card, and video games.  Other robots can play a bit of table tennis, soccer, and other sports.  Let’s have a worldwide robot Olympics where robot teams compete in video games, baseball, tennis, and other sports.  Maybe even against humans.  A much nicer way to decide which country has the better programmers and robot scientists and algorithms.

And why can’t robots be compassionate too?  Okay, that’s a difficult thing to put into AI right now.  But it seems like a good goal.  The robots below probably don’t have any empathy yet, but they sure know how to make me smile.  If you enjoy robot stories, you may be interested in my e-book anthologies “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs” and “Science Fiction: Time Travel and Robots 2”.

More on “Pack A Truck” game

I’ve been busy this week putting my new game “Pack A Truck” on more stores for more devices.  You can now find “Pack A Truck” on the following stores or on the web.  Soon it will be on Amazon as well for both the Android version and a PC Standalone version (for Windows XP and more recent Windows operating systems).

Itch.io (web version of Pack A Truck) – requires a browser like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge that supports WebGL

Google Play Store (Android version for phones and tablets)

Microsoft Windows Store (runs on Windows 10, and 8.1 I think)

 

 

My latest video game, “Pack A Truck”

Those of you who are familiar with my classic game “Truckin'”, know that I have an interest in logistics — management and coordination of a complex operation, such as the transport of goods.  My new video game “Pack a Truck” takes a closer look at the specific activity of preparing to move.

It’s more of an arcade game than a simulation, but it does give players food for thought in geometric terms.  Think of each game as a puzzle of sorts, with many combinations of the packing items possible.

So far, I’ve published “Pack a Truck” as an app on the Google Play Store.  If you have an Android phone or tablet, you should be able to install it from there.  I will be working on Windows and WebGL releases soon and possibly other device support.