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.

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.

Classic video games and silent films

What do class video games and silent films have in common?  They started an industry.  As a video games developer going back to the 1970’s, I have long been fascinated with this comparison.  My interest was rekindled upon seeing this online entry about “A Bookshelf of Silent Film Memoirs & Biographies“.

I wondered if anyone had blogged about a similar collection for video game memoirs & biographies.  Sure enough, just do a search on Google or Bing for “video game developer memoirs” and you’ll find several video game memoirs.  Of course, there are many such stories in gamer magazines online and in print as well.

It’s now over 40 years since video games came into our homes, and just like silent films were eclipsed by talkies, classic video games have been relegated to history by many successful modern games and apps.  But there will always be movie lovers who enjoy researching and watching (or re-watching) silent films.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that many video game players today enjoy researching and playing classic video games.

Perhaps video game developers from the past don’t always have the dramatic and romantic stories of silent film stars of old.  But just as the history of silent films has been honored in such movies as “The Artist”, video game developers and history are being remembered in films such as the upcoming “Ready Player One”.

“PBA Bowling” among 100 greatest

I only recently realized that “The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987” (August 28, 2014) by Brett Weiss includes Mattel Electronics Intellivision game “PBA Bowling” in the list.  

Mike Minkoff and I were the first in-house Mattel Electronics programmers to create an Intellivision game.  We designed and developed “PBA Bowling” — John Sohl, developer of “Astrosmash”, helped with sounds — while working at APh Technological Consulting offices in Pasadena.

As a long-time bowler — about a 150 average growing up, and 160’s to 170’s in college — and part of a family of bowlers, I loved to bowl.  I had already programmed Mattel Handheld Bowling (1979, I think) and looked forward to incorporating more aspects of the sport into the console game.  Just to give you an idea of how much I was willing to do in order to bring the game to life, here’s a map of the kind of driving I was doing back then to work with Mike at APh in Pasadena, sometimes go into the office at Mattel (Hawthorne area), sometimes go to the computer lab at night at UC Irvine while I worked on my BSCS (Computer Science ’81), and then return home to Huntington Beach, CA.  This was a major reason why a year later I chose to take a job nearer to Irvine to complete my degree.

But it was only decades later that I discovered that one of my cousins, Mort Confeld, holds (or has it been broken?) the American Bowling Congress record for conversion of 5 consecutive 5-7 splits in Minneapolis, MN 1957.  An amazing feat, and quite a nice bowling history coincidence!  “PBA Bowling” is featured on the PBS website regarding the movie “League of Ordinary Gentlemen” about the history of bowling.

Math and games

Origami, folding paper into fascinating shapes and recognizable objects, is a form of gaming.  Now, computation geometry is being used to help folders perfect their origami creations.

Mathematics has long been the secret ingredient to games.  Many players don’t even know they are dealing with math, but it is often there nevertheless.  Did you know “Candy Crush” is a hard mathematics problem?

Really, mathematics is necessary in all kinds of video games ranging from complex simulations involving logistics to casino games, often requiring difficult statistical verification before release — to insure that the game does not bankrupt the house.

Even my games “Microsurgeon” and “Truckin'” relied on a number of decisions and logistics — highly related to mathematics — in order to save a patient or make cargo deliveries on time.  Speaking of logistics, “Tetris” is probably the most famous video game related to selecting shapes into rows in order to score points.

But did you know that packing your bags or Amazon packing your order is a logistics problem too?  If you find this kind of thing fascinating, as I do, you might like my upcoming video game.  More on that soon.

In the meantime, if you haven’t tried it already, you might like my game “Family Tree Solitaire“.  Since one hand’s score in the tree is connected to another hand’s score in the tree, there is mathematics behind the scene.  But all you really need to do is just enjoy playing.  It’s free.