Aliens Invade Nigeria and Find Dr. Who, Swedish Leader’s SF Novel, Free Downloads + More

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: new column, “Around the World,” looks at world SF (full text).
Links to: International Speculative Fiction magazine, multiple news items about international SF.
Embedded videos and music: R.U.R. Genesis (full video), The Day They Came, Episode 1 (full video), “Rani’s Theme” (full song), “Overnight to Amsterdam” (full song).
Downloads: International Speculative Fiction #5 (full issue, free), The Virgin Birth of Sharks: the Soundtrack for the Movie in Your Head (full album, free).


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


The new issue of International Speculative Fiction (which is, as always, available entirely free in PDF, ePUB, and Kindle formats) will be available for download starting tomorrow, January 19, 2014, on the ISF web site.

It features:

  • Fiction by Hugo Award nominee and Paul Harland Prize winner Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Netherlands), Francesco Verso (Italy), and Manuel Alves (Portugal)
  • “At Home in the Wasteland: The Art of Sergi Brosa,” which is a profile by Saul Bottcher of this issue’s awesome cover artist (click the cover art below to see it much larger)
  • A review by Sean Wright of The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010 , and
  • A non-fiction article by Hunter Liguore, “Social Science Fiction.”

It also includes a new column by the non-fiction editor–that’s me–called “Around the World,” which is a chatty summary of news and links relating to international SF from the far-flung corners of the web.

Each new installment of “Around the World” will appear in ISF and here on this page.  You’ll find the inaugural column below, so dig in.

International Speculative Fiction #5

International Speculative Fiction #5

Around the World #1, (from ISF #5)

Around the World is a round-up of news, reviews, and other links from around the Internet that relate to ISF’s mandate: increasing the profile of speculative fiction that focuses on the international, or that comes from regions not normally associated with the speculative fiction mainstream.  It also includes news regarding authors who have published in ISF.

Awesome Campaign for a Grant to Increase Diversity in SF

Ellen B. Wright and Faye Bi are both speculative fiction fans, they both work in book publishing, and they’re both runners.  Last year the two joined forces for an awesome cause that’s close to the heart of the ISF community: a marathon to raise funds for a brand new writing grant (to be administered by the Speculative Literature Foundation) that will go toward supporting diversity in science fiction and fantasy.

As the pair noted on their fundraising page (screenshot below), science fiction and fantasy fans are a diverse group, but our beloved SF books, television, and movies don’t always reflect that diversity:

“…those of us who don’t fit into one particular box (and some who do) have noticed something. There’s one story that’s told in the genre over and over again. You’ve probably seen it. It’s about a straight white man, or often a bunch of straight white men, creating things with science, wielding magic, saving the world, blowing stuff up. If there are women or people of color involved, we’re probably love interests or sidekicks. We probably only talk to, or about, the white male lead. We probably die first, or to provide motivation for the protagonist.”

None of this is news to the staff and readers of ISF—after all, recognizing and enjoying diversity in speculative fiction is what this publication is all about.  But it’s nice to see someone taking concrete steps to do something about it.

Ellen and Faye teamed up with the SLF, which already administers the Older Writers Grant and the Gulliver Travel Research Grant, to create the Diverse Worlds Grant, which will:

“… help writers from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the genre to start and continue publishing. As good science fiction and fantasy worlds should, this grant will welcome all kinds of diversity: gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, ability level, religion, etc.”

The two women ran the 2013 NYC Marathon to raise funds for the new grant.  Their efforts were a huge success, and the campaign exceeded its $2,500.00 goal, raising a total of $3,356.00, or 134% of their target amount.

On behalf of ISF, congratulations to Ellen and Faye, and congratulations to the speculative fiction community, which will be deepened and enriched by their efforts.

Diversity Grant Fundraiser Screenshot

Diversity Grant Fundraiser Screenshot

Rebooting the Original Robots: Classic Czech SF Revisited

The word “robot” came into the English language via a Czech play called R.U.R., written by  Karel Čapek in 1920.  R.U.R. also marked the first appearance of a theme that would be revisited more than once afterward, notably in the Terminator films: a robot uprising.

Now, R.U.R. is having a renaissance of sorts, having been adapted into the short film R.U.R. Genesis.  The original play was set in the 1950s or 1960s—then far in the future.  The film is set in the same time period, in an alternate version of 1969, but from the vantage point of 2013 the 1960s have become retro-futuristic.

The team at Helicon Arts Cooperative, who previously made the feature Yesterday Was A Lie (2008), hope to turn R.U.R. Genesis into a feature as well.  The cast includes Chase Masterson, whom SF fans may know from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

You can watch the R.U.R. Genesis online here and a behind-the-scenes featurette here (or embedded below).  The film’s home page is here.

You can read the original R.U.R., translated into English by David Wyllie, here.  You can also see a production of it on YouTube: Act I, Act II, Act III.

SF News from Nigeria

Item One:  Nigeria has a thriving film industry, often referred to as Nollywood.  When Ficson Films—a new Nigerian company providing film production, event coverage, documentaries, and commercials—wanted to announce their presence recently, they did it in an imaginative way: they released a short science fiction video on YouTube.

The Day They Came, Episode 1 (embedded below) doesn’t have a very expansive plot, but maybe it’ll be fleshed out in later episodes.  A man comes out of a house to have a cigarette and clear his head.  Everything is normal—a rooster crows somewhere nearby.  Then he hears something and looks toward the horizon, which is when the aliens arrive and all hell breaks loose.

It’s a fun little short and, given the number of times it’s been posted and reposted on Facebook and elsewhere, it appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do: get attention.

Item Two: Nigeria is also the location for a small SF miracle—the discovery of nine “lost” episodes of Doctor Who just in time for the Doctor’s 50th anniversary (BBC page, Wikipedia page).  The trove includes four episodes of the six-part story The Web of Fear, in which the Doctor battles robot Yetis who are spreading a poisonous fungus on the London Underground.


Swedish Prime Minister’s Science Fiction Novel Becomes a Hit Play

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt wrote a dystopian novel called Det Sovande Folket (“The Sleeping People” or “The Sleeping Nation”) twenty years ago.  It was all but forgotten, and isn’t in print any more, although a pirated version is available on internet torrent sites. But now that Reinfeldt is running the country it’s become a hot property and it’s been turned into a play that has sold out every performance.  Reinfeldt has refused to comment.

Written when he was 28, the novel is set this year, in 2013, making this a perfect time to resurrect it.  It portrays a Sweden that is feeling the effects of twenty years of Social Democratic government, where the populace is divided into the Fools, who do all the work and who finance the welfare state, and the Sleeping Brains, who lazily watch television all day long while living on benefits.  Sounds positively Ayn-Rand-ian!


Hit Film Gravity Crosses Borders

Caution: spoilers ahead.
There’s some debate as to whether or not the new film Gravity (home page, Wikipedia, YouTube trailer embedded below), which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and which set an all-time record for an October film opening, should be classified as science fiction.  There’s nothing fundamentally speculative about it—everything in it could happen today, with current technology and in the current social context—so maybe it’s better considered simply as a space-based thriller.

Whatever the merits of the arguments on each side, it certainly features a setting associated with science fiction (indeed, that was science fiction until fairly recently), has been well received by SF fans, and is considered SF by many people, so I’ll let that classification stand for the purposes of this column.

Being a major Hollywood release, Gravity isn’t the usual fare covered in ISF, but it has several international aspects, both in story and execution.  The film was co-written, co-produced, and directed by Alphonso Cuarón, the Mexican director of Spanish-language films like Y Tu Mama También and English language features like Children of Men.

And then there’s the Chinese connection.  The massive Chinese film audience is being courted by innumerable film projects these days, often through co-productions with Chinese companies or through the casting of Chinese actors.

But as the International Business Times notes, Gravity appears to be have its sights set on China using story elements alone.  Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) first takes refuge in a state-of-the-art Chinese space station, then hitches a ride home in a Chinese capsule—giving uncommon cinematic recognition to the growing Chinese space program.  It couldn’t come at a better time: just this month China’s space program celebrated its first decade of manned flight, later this month it’s scheduled to send an unmanned rover to the Moon, and it has longer-term plans to return man to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

And it appears possible that the Chinese story elements succeeded in pleasing Chinese authorities, because the film has just been approved for distribution in China.

The ISF Alumni Department: The Entire Roster from ISF#2

ISF #2 featured fiction by three authors, Ken Liu, Lavie Tidhar, and me, Nas Hedron, and each of these alumni has news this issue.

Ken Liu has actually appeared in two issues of ISF (#2 and #4).  Given that this is only issue #5, that makes him practically a member of the family.  Recently Ken had a brief profile on the Malaysian news site The Star Online.  It recaps his historic sweep of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and World Fantasy Award in 2012, the first work of fiction to take all three awards in a year.  Ken was in nearby Singapore as part of the Read! Singapore program.  Until now he has focused on short fiction, but told the Star that he’s now at work on his first novel, which he hopes to finish by the end of the year.  I’m sure I’m not the only one at ISF looking forward to it.

Lavie Tidhar, meanwhile, has been interviewed at length for the current issue of Clarkesworld, in “Deep Into the Dark: A Conversation with Lavie Tidhar.”

Finally, I’ve just released a free soundtrack album to accompany my 2012 magic realist novelette The Virgin Birth of Sharks.  The story is about a Desi street kid in Toronto who learns that she was, inexplicably, conceived while her mother was in prison and had no contact at all with men.  The book has a home page here.  The album includes music ranging from blues to tango to ambient, and features artists from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, Ukraine, and the United States, and is available as a free download here.

Two tracks are embedded below via SoundCloud.  The first is by musician and  ArtisTech Media founder Jason Brock and the second is by me.  I’ll let them play us out.

If you know of an item you think should be included in the next installment of Around the World, please send it to us at

The Virgin Birth of Sharks Album

The Virgin Birth of Sharks album– free to download.

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10 Halloweens

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A new, decade-long evolutionary literature project in a series of annual installments.  This year’s installment is a free ebook, The Haunt in the Meadow (100 years of haunt in 12 poems and 12 photographs).
Includes links to: the free book’s site.
Embedded video: the trailer for the book.


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


The 10 Halloweens Project is my new, long-term, evolutionary literature project.

This first iteration is called The Haunt in the Meadow.  It’s a free ebook that you can read online, download and keep, or both.

The Haunt in the Meadow contains a supernatural tale told in a series of 12 poems, illustrated with 12 photographs.  It’s available until midnight (GMT) November 1.

For Halloween 2014 there will be a new edition, expanded to include additional material.  The new material might be a story, original music, visual art, more poetry, or something entirely different—say, the key to accessing an online happening.

The Haunt in the Meadow

The Haunt in the Meadow

In 2015 there will be more new material, more the year after that, and so on, all the way to 2022.

Ten Halloweens, then it’s gone forever.

You can watch a trailer below, then go here to get your copy.

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Filed under The Haunt in the Meadow, The Haunt in the Meadow (2013)

What Could Be Worse Than The Undead?

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A new short story anthology called Raus! Untoten! will feature stories combining zombies and Nazis, including my story Les Poupeés Gris.
Includes links to: (a) the publisher, Fringeworks, (b) the Raus! Untoten! Facebook page, (c) the Scardiff horror festival, (d) author interviews.
Embedded video: (a) trailer for movie Shock Waves, (b) trailer for movie Dead Snow, (c) entire movie Night of the Living Dead (public domain).


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


What Could Be Worse Than The Undead? The Nazi Undead, Of Course.

In March of this year I saw a call for submissions for a new short story anthology from Fringeworks, a UK small press. The anthology was to be a genre mash-up, cross-pollinating zombies and Nazis, called Raus! Untoten! (German for Out! Undead!).

That particular crossover isn’t new of course. From older movies like 1977′s Shock Waves to newer ones like 2009′s Dead Snow to games like Call of Duty: World at War – Zombies, zombies and Nazis have crossed paths before, with decidedly mixed results (you’ll find trailers for both movies at the bottom of the page)

Shock Waves (left), Call of Duty World at War Zombies (center), and Dead Snow (right).

Shock Waves (left), Call of Duty World at War Zombies (center), and Dead Snow (right).

It seemed to me that, if we were lucky, the Raus! Untoten! project might result in a fun pulp-fictional romp with interesting ideas under the surface and, if we weren’t lucky, a disaster that I’d wish I’d never heard of, much less participated in. But clues from the publisher gave me hope that it would be the former rather than the latter. The announcement put it this way:

Raus! Untoten! is specifically geared to attracting Science Fiction (SF) stories between 2,500 and 6,000 words in length.

Stories can be Steampunk, Diesel Punk or straight alternative-history science fiction. They should involve Nazis and Undead, this is not specifically limited to Nazis or the classic undead ‘race’ of Zombies.

We are looking for new and original twists on this theme with surprising elements. Be fun but most of all be unique. We expect this anthology will appeal to writers of Science Fiction, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, alternative history and horror.

The idea stuck in my head. I thought about it while doing things around the house. I dreamed about it, and in my dreams the kernel of a story formed, and I decided to try my hand at it. On April 23 I officially tossed my hat into the ring, signing up via the Raus! Untoten! Facebook page.

The Raus! Untoten! call for submissions on the Fringeworks site.

The Raus! Untoten! call for submissions on the Fringeworks site.

I wrote a story called Les Poupeés Gris, introducing zombies as a complicating factor in the invasion at Normandy that leads to an alternate history of World War II and everything that came afterward.

I finished writing the story on June 6, 2013, the 69th anniversary of the landings at Normandy. The story itself ends on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of the invasion, but in the alternate history of course.

Normandy meets NOTLD

The Walking Deadly meet the Walking Dead: Canadian D-Day troops encounter zombies in Normandy. (Both images in the public domain. Image on the left by Ken Bell. Image on the right by George A. Romero).

Les Poupeés Gris was accepted and will appear in the second volume of Raus! Untoten!, which will be released January 31, 2014.

The first volume, though, is almost upon us, with a Hallowe’en 2013 release date (there’s a pre-release party on October 27, but it would be quite a trip given that it’s being held at Scardiff, the first Horror Expo in Cardiff, UK and I am enjoying a southern hemisphere spring in Brazil–I probably won’t make it).

Anthology editor Matthew Sylvester is conducting interviews with the authors in advance of publication. To judge by the interviews, I think my assessment of the project as promising rather than headed for disaster is being borne out.

For New York Times bestselling author Graham McNeill, inspiration began long ago within his family history. He tells Sylvester:

“My folks went to Auschwitz, and some of the things they told me about that place lodged like splinters, and immediately suggested story hooks. But I’d not found an outlet for them until now, and the notion of combining a ghost story set in a concentration camp was one that strongly appealed to me.”

On the other hand, for his story author James Downs actually re-purposed research he was doing for an entirely different project about German film studios during the Third Reich. His tale features an undead actor during the making of a propaganda film. In his interview he says:

“The undead in my story is perhaps more to be pitied than feared; he may be a horrible creation, but in the context of concentration camps, mass killings on the eastern front, and the living nightmare of a totalitarian regime, he is only one horror out of many. Given the reality of what went on at this time, there’s no need to overdo graphic descriptions – I wanted to write something more subdued and personal.”

Sylvester’s editorial notes on my story were also encouraging. They were mercifully few, but more to the point they were perceptive and well judged–it was a pleasure rather than a chore to work with them.  So it seems that the project is in good hands.

My own interview hasn’t appeared yet. When it does I’ll reproduce it here, but for the moment here’s my answer to the first question Sylvester asked, namely what attracted me to the project:

There were a few things—I’ll briefly mention three.

First, the assignment had a kind of pulp appeal. I’m a fan of pulp magazines, including horror titles like Weird Tales, as well as stuff that isn’t really pulp but that has a similar lineage and ambiance, like EC horror comics. So from that point of view the story elements had a natural appeal for me.

Second, the combination of zombies and Nazis stuck in my head. That happens sometimes with some element of a story—a plot point, or a bit of dialogue, or whatever. My brain will start working on that element without me consciously doing anything, which happened here. I dreamed about it. Eventually the core of the story emerged naturally. Once that happened I was hooked.

Third, even though I enjoy horror fiction and also have a fascination with World War II, I’ve never written about zombies or Nazis—they were both virgin territory. That made writing Les Poupeés Gris an adventure and, at the same time, it was a palate cleanser between some other projects I was working on.

So go to the Raus! Untoten! Facebook page and “like” it immediately, then buy the books when they come out.

Do it or I’ll eat your brains.


Trailer for Show Waves:


Trailer for Dead Snow (with intro and English subtitles):


Night of the Living Dead (full public domain movie):


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The Uncanny Valley and the ‘Flaw’ in the Turing Test

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: The Turing Test was developed by computer pioneer Alan Turing, ostensibly to determine whether something artificial, like a computer, is actually engaged in thought. This post looks at an alleged flaw in the test to enquire about what the test really is and does.
Includes links to: (a) the Wired article alleging the flaw, (b) a PDF of Turing’s seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” (c) the site Homo Artificialis, and (d) Wikipedia entries for “uncanny valley” and Masahiro Mori, who coined the term, and to Mori’s paper in which he introduces the idea.
Embeded video: about the uncanny valley effect.


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


The Flaw in the Turing Test?

Late last year, as the International Alan Turing Year drew to a close, Terry Walby, the UK managing director at IPsoft, had a guest post on the Wired Science blog entitled Why the Turing Test Is a Flawed Benchmark.

The main thrust of Walby’s argument seems to be that Turing was misguided in recommending that we measure the ability of a machine to think by using human intelligence as a standard:

But Turing was wrong. A machine should not demonstrate intelligence by emulating a human. In fact, in some regards today’s expert systems are displaying intelligence far beyond the capability of a human. Should we mask such intellectual prowess in order for the machine to appear human, or allow it to run free to reach its full potential?

So is the Turing Test flawed and–as Walby later suggests–in need of replacing with a more satisfactory process?

cyborg on transparent + white

How the Turing Test Works

First, for those who are new to it, a quick review of how the Turing Test works.

The test, or the Imitation Game as Turing himself called it in his seminal paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [pdf], requires three participants:

  1. a human judge
  2. a hidden human who communicates with the judge only in writing (basically by text message)
  3. a hidden artificial intelligence that similarly communicates with the judge only in writing

The judge knows that either participant 2 or participant 3 is a computer while the other is human, and 2 and 3 both have to try to convince the judge that they’re the human being. If the computer succeeds–if it can act human enough to fool a human judge–it has passed the Turing Test and has earned the right to be treated as intelligent without any consideration of the means by which it managed that persuasion.

Turing introduces the idea of the Imitation Game to the reader gradually by first having the hidden participants be a man and a woman, with the judge having to figure out which is which.  This is a parlor game version of the Imitation Game.

He then replaces the woman with a machine to turn the parlor game into a scientific enquiry and get at the question of machine intelligence. Remember that the paper was published in 1950 when Turing was in the process of inventing the discipline of artificial intelligence, so at the time this process would have eased readers into unfamiliar territory.

A copy of the issue of Mind in which Turing´s paper appeared

A copy of the issue of Mind in which Turing´s paper appeared (click to go to PDF)

Is the Flaw in the Turing Test Real?

So is Walby right?  This would be a boring post if I simply agreed with him, and overall I won’t (though his post is interesting and my critique is friendly and respectful).

But I want to start by agreeing on this point: machine intelligence should not be judged solely in comparison to human intelligence.

(One of my other blogs, Homo Artificialis, looks at disciplines that could eventually contribute to the creation of synthetic human bodies, artificial intelligence, or both–if you’ve seen it you know I’m at least notionally sympathetic to the idea of free range artificial intelligence developing on its own terms into its own most realized form.)

Homo Artificialis Site

Homo Artificialis Site

The trouble with Walby’s argument is that I don’t think Turing ever said that artificial intelligence should be judged by human standards–he simply never made the claim that Walby is disputing.

In his paper  “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [pdf], in which he codifies the famous test, Turing directly addressed the possibility that machines might ultimately be possessed of some form of intelligence unique to them and distinguishable from that of human beings:

May not machines carry out something which ought to be described as thinking but which is very different from what a man does?

He then simply puts this issue to one side, not because he’s dismissing it–he explicitly doesn’t dismiss it–but because it’s not the topic he’s addressing:

This objection is a very strong one, but at least we can say that if, nevertheless, a machine can be constructed to play the imitation game satisfactorily, we need not be troubled by this objection.

In other words, Turing agrees that machine intelligence may comprise different types, including some that do resemble human intelligence and some that don’t. The fact that there may be types that don’t simply doesn’t affect the subject of his enquiry: the types that do.

Indeed, while Turing famously starts the paper by asking “can machines think?”, later he is at pains to carefully circumscribe the question he’s addressing and to distinguish it from that larger, initial question:

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A [participant 3, above] in this game?”

Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?

These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?” [emphasis added]

What the Turing Test Does

The Turing Test is not an exhaustive test for any and all kinds of artificial intelligence and I think it’s apparent that it wasn’t constructed to be.

What it is, is a test for a particular kind of evidence of artificial intelligence and it was carefully created to find the kind of evidence that is most persuasive to even the most skeptical of doubters.

We human beings ascribe intelligence to each other all the time even though we have no direct experience of another person’s intellect in action (a fact that Turing explicitly acknowledges in his discussion of the Argument from Consciousness).

We witness other people’s actions and hear or read their words, but that’s not conclusive of their engaging in thought. Maybe they’re actually hallucinations without intellects of their own, conjured up by our own minds. Or perhaps they’re illusions without substance projected by manipulative alien creatures in a Star Trek episode.

We have no direct evidence that other people think, but there is nonetheless a logic to our assumption that they do.  If you compare the actions and words of other people with your own, and find a high degree of similarity, it’s logical to conclude that since you have intelligence and they behave like you do, then they must have intelligence as well.

(We don’t actually think this process through, it’s an assumption we make, but making the assumption that other things that behave like you are like you is useful from the point of view of survival. Other animals do this as well, like a cat treating a wiggling piece of string as though it were living prey or hissing defensively at a self-propelled toy.)

This is a process in which we all engage and the strength of the Turing Test is that it takes this pre-existing reaction that we universally share and applies it to the question of machine intelligence.  It says: if and when a machine can do the things that we ourselves do, then at that point we will make the same assumption about the machine that we do about other people, that is, that it is thinking.

Seeing our own reflection in others

Seeing our own reflection in others

The Turing Test Doesn’t Need Turing to Function

When the Turing Test is viewed in this light, it can be seen not as Turing’s invention, but as his recognition of a naturally-occuring process that would eventually be applied to artificial constructs (once they were sophisticated enough to engage it) just as it’s always been applied to natural creatures.

Arguing with it makes little sense because it’s simply what we have always done and will continue to do: react to other things based upon their resemblance to us.

And by now our artificial constructs have finally become sophisticated enough to engage this instinct. When we recognize the spooky near-humanity of some piece of  CGI that doesn’t quite fool us into thinking it’s a person, we’re giving it a failing grade in a kind of Turing Test that we automatically apply to the everything around us.

The tension and unease that arise when something almost passes the test, but doesn’t quite, was described in 1970 by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori as the “uncanny valley,” [Wikipedia, Mori's paper] and it’s well illustrated by the video below.



Walby’s Argument for a New Turing Test

Terry Walby concludes that a new Turing Test is needed.  Given the arguments above, should we reject this conclusion?  I don’t think so.

If, as I’ve argued, Walby mistakes the Turing Test for something it isn’t, that doesn’t change the fact that the thing he’s calling for would be a damned useful thing to have.

Turing purposely sidestepped an exhaustive definition of “thinking” in order to get to a practical test for a particular kind of thinking–the kind that humans do.

But thinking is not a unitary thing.  At a minimum, each of us experiences different kinds of thinking at different moments in our lives.  “Thought” is not a point on a graph, it’s a blob that stretches along the X and Y axes (and possibly the Z as well), encompassing a variety of intellectual functions.

Any tool that helps us to explore, describe, and understand the territory that “thinking” maps on that graph is beneficial and worth working toward.

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The Desire for Enigma: The Mysterious Theft of the Code Machine

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: The story of a curious episode in which one of the famous Enigma encryption machines was stolen from a museum, eventually being recovered from a mysterious figure who called himself The Master.  The Master’s messages to the police were thought to contain coded clues. 
Includes links to: (a) numerous news reports about the theft, investigation, and recovery of the Enigma, and (b) links regarding the Dali painting that inspired the title for the post.


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


In World War II, the Nazis used an ecnryption device called Enigma, whose codes they thought were unbreakable. A British team at Bletchley Park, led by Alan Turing, broke Enigma, which gave the Allies undiluted access to German orders and intelligence. The breakthrough has been estimated to have shortened the war by as much as two years and Churchill  said that Turing made the single biggest contribution of any individual to the Allied victory.

I’ve been interested in Turing for more than a decade, which is one of the reasons that he turned up in a fictional guise in my novel Luck and Death at the Edge of the World (or an artificial intelligence emulating him did).

Mine isn’t the only fictional tale in which Turing has guest starred.  Among others he’s appeared in Rudy Rucker’s Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel, in Christos Papadimitriou’s Turing, A Novel About Computation, and in Greg Bear’s award-winning short story “Tangents” (collected in the book of the same name).

One of my current projects is a review of Turing’s fictional appearances entitled Conjuring Turing: the Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing–Rucker, Papadimitriou, and Bear have all agreed to participate.  Authors I haven’t signed up yet include Neal Stephenson for his novel Cryptonomicon and Janna Levin for A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

All of which is a way of introducing an entertaining little anecdote.  This is one of the stranger tales I’ve come across involving the famous Enigma code machine that occupied so much of Turing’s time.

On April 1, 2000 someone pulled an April Fool’s heist, stealing one of only three Enigma code machines in the world from the Bletchley Park Museum. The Abwehr Enigma G312 machine was valued at £100,000.

An Enigma machine

An Enigma machine

Police believed that the machine had simply been carried out of the historic site, but don’t blame Bletchley Park. The theft resembled a magic trick–the Enigma machine was secured in a glass cabinet which was not broken in the theft. An alarm system was in use and volunteers were watching over the site’s displays. Whoever carried out the theft was either very lucky or, more likely, very professional. And they may have had a man inside because the theft happened just a week before a new infrared security system was to be installed.

If that sounds like a movie, just wait.

What had happened to the machine was a mystery for several months. Then, in September 2000, police began receiving letters from a man who referred to himself as “the Master,” who claimed to be acting on behalf of a third party who had innocently purchased the machine, not knowing that it was stolen.

At one point, the police entertained the charmingly recursive theory that the letters from the Master contained coded clues as to the Enigma’s location and called in expert code breakers to decipher messages about a stolen encryption machine.  (Disappointingly, I haven’t found any information on where this trail led–if anyone out there knows, email me, and I’ll update this post.)

The Master’s letters demanded £25,000 for the machine’s return, to be paid by October 6, 2000. Bletchley Park announced that it would pay the ransom and had the money ready, but even as the deadline passed the Master failed to make contact to collect it.

Two weeks later Jeremy Paxman, a television presenter at the BBC, opened a parcel at his office and found the Enigma machine inside. It was missing a few parts, but these were later delivered as well.

Paxman and the purloined Enigma

Paxman and the purloined Enigma

Ultimately a dealer in World War Two memorabilia named Dennis Yates was charged with “handling” the stolen merchandise after admitting that he sent the letters and delivered the machine to Paxman. Yates was scheduled to stand trial at Aylesbury Crown Court, but decided at the last moment to plead guilty and was sentenced to ten months in jail.

In court, Yates said he had become involved in a scheme which soon passed out of his control and that his life had been threatened by persons involved in the theft. He never named the actual theives and they were never caught.

Note: The title of this post is an allusion to a painting by Salvador Dali called The Enigma of Desire — My Mother, My Mother, My Mother (1929). Details of its creation and underlying psychology can be found here.

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Filed under Conjuring Turing: The Fictional Afterlife of Alan Turing, Facts in Fiction/Alan Turing, Luck + Death at the Edge of the World

Nipping Skynet in the Bud? Killer Robots and Real Life Warfare.

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A look at the SF trope of uploading human minds to synthetic bodies and one of its current real-life precursors, autonomous robotics. Human Rights Watch warns about the use of such systems in war.  

Includes links to: (a) PDF of the report Losing Humanity, the Case Against Killer Robots, and (b) a news item.  

Includes embedded video: background video from Human Rights Watch about the report.


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


In a previous post I reported that four British professional and scientific bodies had issued a joint report voicing their concerns about the potential pitfalls of augmented humanity (British Academies Issue Joint Report Decrying “Souped-Up” Humanity).

I wrote that post as a way of  exploring real-life, current-day counterparts to a science fiction trope that I use in my fiction: the uploading of the human mind into an artificial body.

In my novella Los Angeles Honey a character refers to this union of a natural mind with a synthetic body as homo artificialis and I have a topical blog, also called Homo Artificialis, devoted solely to the idea.

There are researchers today working on making that aspect of science fiction into fact. And, whether they succeed or not, there are various precursors to homo artificialis that exist or are being developed now, including:

  • artificial limbs and organs
  • synthetic (biological) organs
  • sensory augmentation
  • regenerative medicine
  • whole brain mapping and computer brain emulations
  • tissue engineering
  • brain-computer interfaces
  • increasingly sophisticated and autonomous robots, and
  • wearable robotic exoskeletons.

Natural heart, artificial heart in situ, artificial heart alone (CardioWest™ temporary total artificial heart).

Natural heart, artificial heart in situ, artificial heart alone (CardioWest™ temporary total artificial heart, image from here).

Following the joint report discussed in the last post, Human Rights Watch issued a 50-page report of its own on another homo artificialis precursor. The report urged national and international legislation pre-emptively banning “killer robots,” by which they mean weapons of war that are able to autonomously make life-and-death decisions with no input from a human being.

Now, when I say killer robots are a precursor to homo artificialis I don’t mean that they, in themselves, are an essential step in the development of a functional artificial human body, but highly sophisticated and adaptable autonomous systems are, and the fastest and surest way to get them to the advanced level needed for the uploading project is to allow them to be free range–let them develop without constraint.  If we’re not going to do that, if we’re going to limit how those systems are developed and in what applications their use is acceptable–which might well be wise–then those limits are germane to the evolution of homo artificialis.

Why are autonomous systems important? The natural human body includes systems that are either completely or normally outside of  conscious control–like heartbeat and respiration–and which are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. To have a viable instantiation of a human consciousness in a synthetic body, we’re going to need a comparable artificial system so that we don’t have to consciously control every bodily function. That kind of coordination is going to require sophisticated autonomous systems.

A section of lab-grown trachea, as used in the world's first synthetic organ transplant (details here)

A section of lab-grown trachea, as used in the world’s first synthetic organ transplant (details here).

As with the report on human augmentation, I’ve made the Killer Robots report available as a free, downloadable PDF in the Homo Artificialis Library (on my topical blog Homo Artificials), filed under Ethics and Homo Artificialis.

As Raw Story reports in its news item on the report, the weapons in question aren’t yet deployed, but they are in development:

Such weapons do not yet exist, and major powers, including the US, have not decided to deploy them. But precursors are already being developed. The US, China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and Britain are engaged in researching and developing such weapons.

The HRW Report, wisely, not only proposes legislative solutions, which can sometimes reflect the realities of the political landscape more than the issue at hand, but also a grassroots approach rooted in professional ethics, urging roboticists themselves to generate a code of conduct, tasking them to:

Establish a professional code of conduct governing the research and development of autonomous robotic weapons, especially those capable of becoming fully autonomous, in order to ensure that legal and ethical concerns about their use in armed conflict are adequately considered at all stages of technological development.

Military applications of advanced technology are inevitable–indeed, much advanced technology begins life as a military project, for instance within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This has several consequences, among them:

  • as with any technology, there is the potential for error or abuse, but because of the military context this can result in serious injury or death,
  • there is likely to continue to be a trickle-down effect in which military applications migrate to civilian applications, like law enforcement and civil security, that also have the potential for error or abuse resulting in serious injury or death, and
  • the first two issues raise the possibility for an alarmist backlash that ends up limiting the positive, beneficial effects such technology can have (and, as we know from laws ostensibly intended to curb the pirating of intellectual property, we are sometimes likely to get all the bad consequences of such a measure without it actually accomplishing its stated goal).

On balance I’m an optimist regarding the life-enhancing potential of technology. Clearly, though, recognizing the immense benefits that have come from technology and that will continue to flow from it isn’t an excuse to be naive about possible negative consequences. If those consequences are going to be minimized (along with the potential anti-technological backlash) then we have to engage with these issues in a constructive way.

I haven’t yet read the report, so I haven’t decided if it’s sensible and constructive, alarmist and over-reaching, or a bit of both, but if we’re going to act constructively then killer robots isn’t a bad place to start.

You can watch the Human Rights Watch video on the topic, below.

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

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British Academies Issue Joint Report Decrying “Souped-Up” Humanity

The TL/DR Synopsis Synopsis: A look at the real-life side of the SF trope of uploading, in this case serious, organized concern from British academicians about human enhancement.Includes links to (a) the report Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, and (b) news items.


The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron

The New Fallen World Book by Nas Hedron


In my novella Los Angeles Honey, one of the characters refers to people who’ve had their consciousness uploaded into an artificial body (but who are otherwise unchanged) as specimens of homo artificialis–artificial or synthetic humanity.

Previous Fallen World books have included the uploading element without really exploring it.  In Los Angeles Honey, I try to at least begin a process of opening up the trope to see what can be found inside.

Meanwhile, though, back in the real world, the precursors to homo artificialis are disturbing the peace.

For people with a special interest in this area, I write about the science and culture of synthetic humanity on my topical blog, but I  will cross-post here, or adapt a post for this blog, when it’s particularly important or interesting.

Like now.

If we ever develop fully artificial human bodies like the ones in fiction, it will be an incremental process that begins with repairing and augmenting our natural bodies.

Now, four British professional and scientific bodies–the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society–have gone public with their alarm over the potential pitfalls of augmented humanity in a joint report entitled Human Enhancement and the Future of Work. (BBC news item, Telegraph news item)

Illustration of augmentation attributed to the fictional company Serif Industries in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Illustration of augmentation attributed to the fictional company Sarif Industries in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Whether you see the report as a blow for authentic humanity, an alarmist obstruction to scientific progress, or something in between, it does underscore a genuine issue: technologies that enhance natural human beings and create artificial ones are advancing far more rapidly than the practical framework that most of us have for thinking about them.

I don’t mean technological thought, I mean social, political, and philosophical thought. We need–very quickly–to create a far more developed outlook on how these technical advances will affect other aspects of our lives.

Even if we look solely at the issue of longevity, just to take an example, the issues proliferate quickly:

  • What will happen to actuarial science and the insurance industry when human lifespan advances far more dramatically than it’s done in the past, and over a relatively short period of time?
  • What happens to the time scales of other social instituations, such a prison sentences, when human lifespan is significantly increased? Does five years in prison have the same meaning if I live twice as long? Does doubling it to ten years actually achieve anything or is that just excessive literalism?
  • What happens to human attitudes toward risk-taking–in recreation, in exploration, in the conduct of daily life–in a world of drastically extended lives? Will I be less willing to engage in risky activity if I know that what I stand to lose isn’t another twenty years of life but another hundred, or five hundred?
  • How will increased lifespan affect our patterns of work, training, and retirement over the span of our lives?  What kind of career path can a radically long-lived person expect?
  • How might it change the shape of the family when grandparents–and even great-grandparents and beyond–are youthful, healthy, and capable of working or caring for children? Will our ability to conceive and bear children also be extended, and if so, how will that affect the structure of the family?  What happens to the thinking of our children if, say, my ten-year-old has a mother under thirty and your ten-year-old has a mother over a century old?
  • And how will increased lifespan interact with changes arising from other quarters? The traditional family structure may change as lifespan and vitality are extended, but it’s already changing for other reasons, for instance as attitudes toward gay and lesbian marriage and parenthood evolve. Changes in longevity might well blend with changes that spring from other sources in ways that are difficult to predict until both changes are in effect and have a chance to affect one another.

If you want to see exactly what the academicians have to say, I’ve made the report available in the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL) under the subheading Homo Artificialis at Work.

Human Enhancement and the Future of Work - click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

Click image to go to the Homo Artificialis Library (HAL)

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Filed under Facts in Fiction/Synthetic Persons, Los Angeles Honey