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11 December 2017

Your Face Looks Really Familiar, or The Brain Is Still Good for Something

Heard on NPR recently about the difficulty in replicating the human brain's nuanced facial recognition abilities.  It is a perfect segue into introducing a great new book I have read.

First novel by Annalee Newitz, Autonomous, demonstrates again how "science fiction" is the genre in which to write to address current societal problems and timeless conundrums of the human condition while showcasing an imagination and projection into the future not expressed or maybe not even possessed by politicians, scientists, economists, philosophers or writers in strictly other genres.  I say "strictly," because "current societal problems and timeless conundrums of the human condition" include love or desire between mixed "breeds," economic and thought independence, dystopia, oppression of the masses by the elite few, cost of health care and the gig economy, all of which can be and may be addressed through a romance, a historical novel, a "chick-lit," a dark dystopian tale..., but are not done so in quite the way a science fiction novel can.  I have also discovered (and I did not know why I did not know this) that science fiction is also know as "speculative fiction,"

This story is Earth in July 2144, with some flashbacks to 2114.  This of course is a differently imagined Earth from today, but imagined from a projected trajectory (new word! "projectory") from today to what might life be after self-driving trucks and solar farms become commonplace, when Big Pharma becomes Even Bigger Pharma and leans on official governmental drug enforcement agencies to go after pirates and those wanting to provide drugs to those in need but without the means to afford them, and after the work of robots become as valuable or more valuable than humans', but the robot wants to become free like a human.  The obvious "equalizer" would be that the same kinds of long-term servitude contracts could apply to both robots and humans, giving a whole new meaning to "freedom" and "the disenfranchised."  Into this world, Annalee Newitz introduces characters we can care about: "Jack" Chen, a once-idealistic and talented young scientist turned reverse-engineering drug pirate; Paladin, a new combat robot to partner with Eliasz, a veteran undercover agent of the International Property Coalition (a kind of DEA - Drug Enforcement Agency to hunt down illegal drugs, but apparently, "illegal" meaning pirated patents, not merely heroin or crack cocaine), and a human servant whose name is a code and whose near-expiration long-term contract time resets after it is sold out of his employer's bankruptcy.  Paladin is a bio-bot, marketed as being even better than an ordinary robot, because it has a human brain in its core. The brain is the legacy by dying human as a paid donation to the advancement of science.  Most non-techies think that this human brain, housed in the biobot's mid-section, is the "brain" of the bio-bot, that if this brain were to be destroyed, the robot would simply stop processing -- stop moving, stop attacking, stop protecting.  However, that is not true.  Destroying the human brain inside would "merely" stop the bio-bot from doing the one thing that they have yet to engineer out of hardware.  This "wetware" enables robots to distinguish human facial expressions.  Author Newitz does not see human technology enabling us by 2144 to allow robots to go beyond facial recognition (which is hard enough) to understanding facial expressions and the emotions which they accompany.

Another human conundrum which this book addresses is "homophobia."  Apparently, 2144 is not far enough into the future to free humans from the shame/guilt/shunning of homosexual tendencies within themselves and of what others might think of them.  Eliasz is ashamed not of having feelings for a robot but for a possible male robot, while Paladin and its fellow bots shake their heads at this human failing to see that they have no gender at all.  It's only when he finds out that the human whose brain Paladin inherited was a woman that Eliasz is comfortable with more-than-platonic interaction with Paladin, continuing to assign something human to this brain in the bio-bot.

 It's a simultaneously sad and hopeful read of familiar situations in a futuristic setting.  Check it out!

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