Tim: I'm Tim Panton and this is the Distributed Future Podcast. I'm going to start this episode with a bit of an apology for the fact that we've been a bit erratic in putting these podcasts out recently. There are a couple of reasons for that. One, which is totally good, is that Vim is on maternity leave. Congratulations! The other one is less good, which is I've had a series of-- I wouldn't call them work crises-- but you know, minor rotations which make getting other non-work things done increasingly difficult. So, we've rather put the podcast on the back burner, and I do apologise for that. It's fun, it's valuable and we do appreciate people listening, and we kind of don't really like the idea that we're letting them down. On the other hand, we have had what I think is kind of a rather nice series of we-told-you-so experiences. There are a couple of things that have cropped up recently that have made me think how well we've done on the podcast in terms of getting things right before they hit the news. I mean, well before they hit the news. A couple of examples which I think kind of flitted across my desk recently; one of which is that Vaitea Cowan who in Episode 12 talked about hydrogen electrolysis, they've just won the enactor. Her company has just won the Earthshot Prize from the Duke of Sussex. A chunk of money and some publicity and, you know, success. We talked to her two years ago, maybe, so it's kind of nice to celebrate success that people have been having. And the other one which kind of springs to mind is the level of prescients that Gillian York had when she was talking a few months ago about social media and specifically about Facebook and how chaotic it was internally and how nobody really knew or was setting moral tone on a whole lot of that stuff. She's been completely borne out by the Facebook papers that have come out recently. So I think another kind of tick to us of having somebody who really knew what was going on and let us know what was going on in advance. And the third one, which I think is also very relevant and delightfully, is also the subject of our guest today. Anne Currie came to us some while ago and talked about data centres and the greening of the energy supply for data centres. I don't know if you're kind of prepared to talk about what's happened since you talked to us but my perception is that pretty much everything you were talking about-
Anne: Yes, pretty much everything that we ever dreamed or called for actually has happened, which is quite nice.
Tim: Are you surprised? You sound a little surprised that it happened maybe as fast as it has, or what?
Anne: I am quite surprised that this happened as fast as it has, because we started talking about this about three years ago, about how data centres really need to be 100% sustainably powered. And last year, all of the major providers signed up to be completely sustainably powered by 2030, which is a not just kind of carbon neutral because carbon neutral is okay but it's table stakes. Google have been carbon neutral for GCP Cloud since 2007 and Azure since 2014, but this is this is really genuinely taking the carbon down to as close to zero as you possibly can. It's a huge commitment. And they weren't getting much pressure to do it three years ago. I was certain that they would do it eventually but it has happened faster than I hoped, which is good. Well, not faster than I hoped. Faster than I dared to dream.
Tim: Gosh. Well, that's encouraging. I saw today, and this isn't the subject of this podcast, but I'm going to talk about just briefly. I saw today that even going a step further with with the one of the clouds as you're doing, offering you monitoring so you could measure your own carbon footprint and reduce your energy usage of your cloud usage. That's quite a departure, isn't it?
Anne: Oh, yes. It's gone from, "I don't see this is something that is of any real interest to me as far as the cloud providers were concerned three years ago," or, "We're doing it but we don't really see that it's part of our business," or, "We're just doing it because we have limitless money. Why not be like Google who're clearly doing it?" But they didn't talk about it. They just didn't see it as part of their products offering. But over the past three years, they have started to see it as part of their products and they've started to see it as a point of competition between the three of them. That's what's really pushed things, and that's been fantastic.
Tim: That actually leads quite nicely into the real topic of this podcast, which is science fiction. I was a science fiction author and I've read five, I think, of her books? And what I wanted to talk about was the idea that science fiction can allow us to predict the future in the short term like the podcast does, but in a more kind of experimental way than we normally do. That's the kind of space I want to explore and I think maybe we could do a very brief precis on the sorts of books you write and the topic area that you write about. That will give people a sense of why I think this is interesting from the point of your prediction.
Anne: Well, I've got five books out, and six is going to come out in November. They are set a few years in the future so they're going to speculative fiction. They start in 2050 and they go on to about 2070. They will go further to the future. But they talk about the technology which will a bit like, as you were saying, there was no doubt in my mind that eventually everyone would make the sustainable service commitments but it was just a matter of when. It's about technology that I have no doubt will appear at some point, and a lot of it is already there kind of William Gibson-esque. You know, the future is already here. It's just not well distributed necessarily. There are things that are coming that are going to change how we live our lives. So, around surveillance, around social media and social scoring, at the metaverse, and how all of those things fit together really. And chat bots, human emulation, and then getting into Space. But for me, Space is just a way to highlight the issues with latency and bandwidth. [laughs]
Tim: Well, I think the thing that you've missed out of that that I thought was almost the most challenging, was the whole energy future. And I think some of those, you know, the resurgence of bicycles and the insistence on reusing things and all of those things, I hope they're prescient, I hope that's where we're going-- you're right, it's six books. I'm sorry-- the opportunity to explore, what does that mean? What does that mean for society to not be able to just jump in your in your E-Type Jaguar and whiz to the other other side of the country? What's that mean? What does it do to society? And I think it's the overlapping of that theme with the surveillance society that I think is particularly interesting about what you've done. Maybe you didn't feel that, I don't know.
Anne: Yes, I did because I do think that that's inevitable. If you start to look into what we're going to be able to do, what energy we're going to have available to us, we're a long way off having something which is equivalent to storing power in oil, in renewables. Eventually, we're gonna have great renewables sometime and energy is going to be pretty much free sometime in the day. But even in the quite far distant future unless we really pile into nuclear, I don't think we're going to have energy available literally at the flick of a switch like we do now. It's always going to be a little bit difficult, and it's not going to be as on demand as it is at the moment. And that will change the way that we behave and maybe it'll mean that we're less inclined to hop in a car go places. That's what I see in my future. So in the future in the books, we don't make enough changes early enough and therefore we get ourselves into a bit of a state that makes the transition rather radical and rather difficult. Hopefully in the real world, we'll go for a smoother transition. But there's always the chance that we'll just let it go until everything collapses in a heap and then we'll have to stagger around bit like we did with COVID. We'll survive, but it'll change life quite considerably.
Tim: I think that the the bicycle thing, sitting here in Berlin, is already happening. I can't tell you how many different variants of cargo bikes and e-bikes and e-scooters, and just amazing variety of these things that are used day to day with no fuss. It's a perfectly sensible means of transport. And this was kind of brought home to me by a man on an electric cargo bike wearing a suit with a double bass in their cargo bike, and he was obviously on his way to a gig. And he thought nothing of it. Obviously, that was just like a sensible way to get around. And of course, his parking's easier as well. But if it hadn't been an electric bike, it would have been a much different story. I think it's that flip over in the technology. I'm not really sure he owned it, I think it was a short-term rental, you know, rent-with-an-app bike. So that sort of technology change, as you say with the William Gibson thing, is already here but only in some areas. And so I think you're, you know- When did you write the first book?
Anne: Beginning of 2019. I did pre date things. [laughs]
Tim: Yes, I was just gonna say. It was a prediction but actually, it's happened again much faster. Because I think when I read that, I thought this is a bit eccentric. And now people are out there doing it. We haven't got steel suits yet but they are out there pedalling around electric bikes and using them for cargo. It's absolutely a thing. Which of your other predictions is going to come true next?
Anne: I'm torn between [unintelligible 00:11:52] because obviously, that's already here in China. That's already the case and it's been accelerated by COVID, because that played a big part in COVID control in North Asian countries. I don't really mind being observed. I think that there are pros and cons of these kinds of things, and you can see the success in China of being able to build a trust based system based on full disclosure. They use a centralised authority, which is always in the Chinese states in my books that I have had distributed. It's all done in a distributed style, a kind of Western version of a Chinese approach. I would love it if that happened. I don't think that we are going to- I don't think we're even talking about distributed surveillance mode, fully open data surveillance. But I think it's something we should be talking about and we should be thinking about,
Tim: I think that's the critical difference in what you were talking about, from kind of what people traditionally think of as surveillance. You'll have to tell me when I start treading over into spoilers you don't want to bring up in the books, but the central concept for for your surveillance is that it's accessible to everyone. Like, nobody has net curtains, you know? The entire global village has agreed not to have net curtains and everyone can spy on everybody else, therefore it's equal and there's a bunch of social rules about what you can do and why you might do it. I think that's really interesting. Like, sitting here in a East German flat and thinking maybe kind of the stars in history means that you wonder whether that will actually work that way, but maybe it will. I don't know.
Anne: Well, pointed in the books is that we come to realise that we're already completely surveilled. It's just that we don't have access to the data. I mean, the dystopian surveillance in China is because the data all goes to the states. And there are two ways you can approach that. You'll say, "Right, we'll turn off all the surveillance. No one can have any surveillance anymore but privacy." Or you can say, "Well, actually, we're just going to embrace this and everyone can see it, and let's put it all on a level playing field. No secrets." It means that you can't keep secrets from the state. But you might argue that were secrets ever really the solution? You could say that Anne Frank, you know, she kept herself alive by staying secret from the Nazi state. But it didn't work in the long run. The better solution would be for there not to have been a Nazi state. And they did an awful lot, they got themselves quite established without necessarily people realising what they were doing in the early days. So sometimes privacy is the first step to totalitarianism that you then need to protect yourself from, but would you have been better off with a solution that made it more difficult to take the first step? I don't know. Genuinely, I don't know. Which is why I put it in the books and I have characters arguing in either direction, but it's not an argument that we ever make and I think we probably should do.
Tim:
Right. It's not a conversation that's been had. I think that people in privacy circles say it should be private and we shouldn't be surveilling, and then the safety circle say, "Oh, we should be surveilling everyone from a trusted source." But your your third option, you're right, doesn't really crop up in those conversations. And it would definitely be interesting if it would. [00:16:04]ind of dragging us a little bit back towards the topic of science fiction and what it can tell us, so you found working in that space a way of working through ideas and thinking through ideas about what the future might look like. Did you find that constructive way of doing it?
Anne: Yeah, incredibly constructive actually. I hadn't really, cuz I had written nonfiction before but not really written any fiction before. And it's a really good way of thinking things through. It's not unlike just having a long conversation with people in the way you think things through, but you never have a conversation that lasts six months. [laughs] Which you constantly have to go over and over that conversation again and again and think, "Well, do I really believe that?" Or, "Would that person really have that position and given their background?" And with this is, what are the pros and cons of that?" On the one hand, it's a very close conversation, because it's just the parts of you. But it's. It's a very good way of you getting your disparate thoughts together.
Tim: I suppose it gives you the opportunity to go back and revise a thought, which is also kind of generally not available in a conversation or, you know, you're dashing off the work report or whatever. You don't have that six months to go back and iterate on a thought until you feel like you've got it right. That's a very rare opportunity. And it sounds to me like you had that, which is sort of a luxury actually.
Anne: Oh, it's a total luxury. [laughs] It's a total luxury. But it's also unbelievably time-consuming and difficult. I can see why people don't do it. But it is useful.
Tim: Were you consciously writing this as a look at the future? And in doing that, were you kind of emulating somebody else who you'd seen do that? Or is it just like, could happen by accident? How did it happen along?
Anne: It kind of came out of the work that I'd been doing. I'd been involved in a couple of tech ethics conferences, a couple of early tech ethics conferences, and we'd brought a lot of people in to talk about areas that they thought were scary or controversial or difficult. And all positive, like the effective altruism movement. So, surveillance, killer drone, algorithmic fairness, chat bots that emulate humans... And it kind of felt that there was a story that bringing all that together might be an interesting thing to do. I've always been a big fan-- I was a big fan as a child of Philip K. Dick, the short stories rather than the novels, because I quite like all those ideas-- and if we were going to look at somebody who was talking about a lot of the social challenges that we have today in terms of what should we let computers do? The the issue of how do we tell human emulation, and anthropomorphism? How do you tell what's real from what is just pretending to be real. But that was a big focus of Philip K, which gets us to the point that sometimes science fiction can be very useful, but usually it's science fiction that's quite old. Because science fiction is often very forward looking so you're usually at least a couple of decades before you catch up with what they're talking about.
Tim: Yeah. The example I was thinking about when setting this up was was Arthur C. Clarke and the geostationary satellites. I mean, he came up with that idea, I don't know, maybe 20 years before it was practical. And the solar sailing idea, I think it's now being deployed in very small ways, but you know, that was a book that I guess he wrote in the 70s probably? In fact, I think it was even a short story, I'm sure it was a full book. So those ideas, as you say, take a very long time to come to fruition. But what I find is that a lot of science fiction is actually used as a way of reflecting on society now. It's used as a way to construct a universe that allows you to talk about analogies for now in a way that makes them clear and allows you to experiment with them in ways that are in some cases, just less offensive. It lets you do things, because it's a fictional universe, that you really couldn't if it wasn't fictional. And I think those are interesting, but they don't really tell you anything about the future. They tell you about now and potentially where we should be going? I don't know. Not even that, really. How do you feel about that distinction?
Anne: I think it's true that a lot of science fiction is not about science or technology. And a lot of science fiction writers are not scientists or technologists, so that's probably surprising. Yeah, they are about society as it currently is and how it should develop or how the right would like it to develop. So you're right, it's not really very well aligned with your kind of future tech podcasts. I was thinking about that this call. I was thinking that actually, probably the closest thing to what's coming along soon in technology is covered by the techno-thriller genre rather than the SF genre.
Tim: Right. I mean, there's sort of a bit of an overlap there. I think you have things like Cryptonomicon and those books which are thrillers and they're techno, but they're set a few years in the future. So, I don't know which category. I actually struggle with categories anyway, I find them inconvenient. But I do understand you have to put a book somewhere.
Anne: [laughs] It's true, it is quite difficult. I was just thinking whether I needed to rebrand my books as techno-thrillers rather than science fiction. Because in some ways, they're too soon to be science fiction. There's really no tech in there that isn't quite likely to appear at some point within the next 20 years. There are no dilithium crystals or faster-than-light travel.
Tim: Yeah, sometimes you need those things in order. We have a-- and you joined us once for it-- we have part of a science fiction book club, and we have a rule at the book club about how many implausible things you're allowed to do in a book, scientifically implausible things you're allowed to do in a book to enable the plot. One or two is fine, but if the whole thing is knee-deep in implausibility, then at least one of us is going to sulk. Typically, the person who knows that area, you know? The biologist is going to go, "Well, that's just not how enzymes work." [both laugh] Or whatever. I suppose you knew enough about the space anyway, but did you kind of talk to somebody about robotics, and try and work out whether your robotics ideas were plausible or what?
Anne: I did a load of research, but I also have quite a few people that I get to review the books early and talk over the technology with them. A couple of physicists and an award winning engineer. One of the chaps who helps me with the books designs quite a lot of the experiments for the Christmas Lectures, very mad scientist type. He's fantastic and I really wouldn't be able to do without him. He was particularly useful in the one set on the Moon where we used a lot of Arthur C. Clarke's early patents in electromagnetic cannons as the basis for a lot of the technology that we described on the Moon. So yeah, I try.
Tim: Yes. Well, isn't that linear motor only kind of more propulsive, or am I misunderstanding that?
Anne: Yes, it is propulsive. Basically it's a railgun, which on the Moon is quite useful for getting things around. Which obviously, Clarke pointed out himself; that railguns or electromagnetic cannons, as they were called more commonly in Arthur C. Clarke's days, are quite a good way of getting stuff that you've mined on the Moon out into Space. And we haven't started mining yet [laughs] so again, you know, you've got the patents on it. It must have expired 20 years ago, and we're still some way off actually wanting to use that technology.
Tim: I noticed that you're not big on AI. You don't have a super brain that kind of makes decisions for us, it's not like an Asimovian AI's kicking around.
Anne: No, I'm not. Obviously, I really like in-banks. I love the culture. Who doesn't love the culture? Perfect utopian future in which you've got a benign all-knowing entity looking after you all the time. It's fantastic. But AI still feels a long way off and I'm not entirely sure how it's going to end up. In 1000 years time maybe we will be looking at the culture, but I don't think that's something that we can do an awful lot with for the next couple of years. I don't think it's likely to happen. I don't think we're gonna have enough energy to do it.
Tim: Right. I think one of the sort of sub themes or assumptions in your books is the idea that crises accelerate the inevitable and to some extent, steer which inevitable thing happens first. But you are very much of the view that a crisis will accelerate things. Do you think that we feel that-- I'm trying to phrase this question correctly-- do you think that the climate crisis has hit the level of crisis that is going to accelerate change yet?
Anne: I think so. I think so. It's hard to say, isn't it, because it is still very early days. But as you say, three years ago when we talked about this stuff that is sustainable datacenters, no one was talking about it. It was kind of a big pie in the sky and I thought it would happen eventually, but I thought we'd probably need to have some more panic before that happened. But the fact that it's moved faster than we thought, suggests that actually it all started moving faster than it has been. So, I'm hopeful. I am hopeful.
Tim: You mean in the sense that it started earlier? Like, people were already thinking about it before we were and they just weren't talking about it?
Anne: Yes and no. I think some people had started earlier. For example, Google were further along with thinking about it than they had been speaking about. And they've been playing their cards very close to their chest. The Googleers, they're not exactly the most gregarious or vocal, they don't necessarily tell you what they're up to. They have been up to things. Microsoft had been up to it a lot more than we thought they had in the background. Amazon just hadn't been doing it at all, but they have been catching up at incredible rates. So we've gone from 'half the people had been looking into it but not telling anybody' and half the people just thought, "Bloody hell, we better get our fingers out and get moving on this and and have them."
Tim: Again, this sort of comes back somewhat to a thing in your novels, but also in this. To what extent do you think those changes are driven by individual ethical and moral choices? And to what extent do you think they're just driven by the kind of, you know, psychohistory tide of history type concept that it's just inevitable and it's going to happen whether people want it or not? Whether people make individual choices or not.
Anne: I have to say, I am a bit about a psycho history fan. [laughs] I do think that there is a tide in human events that moves us all in a particular direction. I do think that events, your classic science-fiction trigger especially for dystopian fiction, the event can move things forward or cut things off. There's no doubt that COVID will have accelerated the metaverse, I suspect, for bots, and all of the giant fires everywhere will be accelerating raised the public's attention on on climate change. It all feeds into that psycho history.
Tim: I'm watching Foundation at the moment so it's kind of fresh in my mind, but there's a tension particularly in the TV series, there's a tension in there between the drive of psycho history, the inevitable like, "This is what's going to happen," versus individual choices, shifting the needle, changing the pace, and sometimes moving the course quite dramatically. It sounds to me like you kind of don't think that individual choices matter that much in the long run.
Anne: In some ways, that's a perverse thing to say, isn't it, in a world in which we have- What is it? Americans have 700 billionaires. Those people have a billion times more influence than you or I do. [laughs] So to a certain extent, individuals do obviously change things. I mean, why did Amazon decide they were suddenly going to jump on the bandwagon and really really go a hellfull lot for sustainability? It probably was Jeff Bezos waking up one morning and deciding to do it. You do have these individuals who are extraordinarily wealthy who move things. And in my books, I do have individuals who are extraordinarily wealthy who move things forward. It's much easier to write about that than it is to write about the general tide of history. But I think they probably play off one another. That even these individuals like Jeff Bezos are influenced by what TV series they're watching or what they've heard at the park board. We are social creatures.
Tim:
I keep finding myself, particularly when I'm doing this podcast, wondering what the modern equivalent of the Quakers is. Like, you know, the Industrial Revolution-- I've said this before on the podcast-- but the Industrial Revolution came along and then it was tempered and humanised and drastically improved by the Quakers showing up and saying, "We're going to do all this, but we're going to do it and look after our workforce because that's a moral and religious duty and we can't not." I don't see the modern equivalent to that.
Anne: Hmm, that's a very interesting observation. Who is the moral equivalent of the Quakers? Who is looking out for people who are harmed by the exponential growth of technology? It's not a group, is there? There's no group that springs to mind.
Tim: There isn't, and I'm kind of curious to come up with an idea about where they might spring from either because your sort of your obvious candidate might be a political party, say The Greens or somebody like that, but when you look at their kind of history and their motivations, it doesn't feel like they could do that. It's not in their makeup to do that, I don't think.
Anne: I agree. To be honest, often a lot of these groups feel like their solution is to roll back to the 16th century. But there'll be a lot of deaths involved particularly where you're moving forward. You really need to take the gains and soften them, as you say, like the Quakers did. Not reject the gap. Because we need them, unfortunately.
Tim: Well, I'm not even sure it's unfortunate. My mother always used to say that the past is already well, but she's not giving up on modern dentistry.
Anne: [laughs] Indeed, yes. I had a bit of an epiphany in my garden over the summer because a whole load of tiny little holes appeared in the garden and I was trying to work out what they were. I Googled and found that there were solitary bees. And I was like, "Well, that's quite interesting." And I thought there's probably about a 50 solitary bees living in the garden living in their little kind of one-man hives, but I also noticed there is a bees' nest in the garden as well. So I Googled it and I thought, because I thought how many bees live in the bees' nest compared to, and from in the same area of the garden, compared to maybe the 50 solitary bees? And a bee colony has between 10 and 80,000 bees in it. [laughs] And it's because they use all of those first Industrial Revolution specialisation centralization techniques, that they're able to make a plot of land. So 50,000 bees rather than 50 bees. If those 50,000 bees decided that they weren't going to live in a colony anymore, then almost all of them would die because you can only support that number of bees using that kind of highly specialised central location based society.
Tim: Yeah. That's a gorgeously done in case of steel. The whole thing of like, you're living in this steel dome. I have forgotten, it's a shame, I should have looked at that. But there's a lovely passage about how the time to failure for the dome is like about half an hour. It's so concentrated that any one thing that fails will take the whole system out in half an hour. But on the other hand, they get a population density that is unachievable any other way. But again, they end up with quite high levels of surveillance and a very top-down patriarchal state that manages it. Very structured. Interesting, I noticed that about Asimov. He's not really a Democrat actually.
Anne: Well, China has been very successful during the pandemic. We might not like it but we can't knock him.
Tim: Yeah. Have you thought about future politics? Because again-- I was gonna say 'universe' but it's not, it's our universe-- but in your books, again, it's quite a hierarchy. Well, not hierarchy. I'm trying to avoid using agenda term and failing but it's quite a sort of patriarchal state in the sense that it sort of manages people's existence quite tightly.
Anne: It does. But actually, I'm going to turn the word that you've just used there, patriarchal, and say it's actually quite a matriarchal state. One of the things that people don't like about the Panopticon or do like about the panopticon in the novel, the kind of centralised surveillance, it's that it's kind of like your granny sees everything you do. That's the point of this particular kind of surveillance. It's like a small village. You're quite limited in what you can do because people might not approve of it, and the people who might not approve it are usually the ladies. [laughs]
Tim: But also people who you depend on? I mean, that's the story, isn't it? That you depend on those people and therefore to some extent, your existence depends on their approval.
Anne: Oh, absolutely. Yes. It's kind of the reverse of Bitcoin and blockchain, of that kind of like, "We'll never have any trust." You don't need to talk to anyone. It's like saying that Google aren't very gregarious. In many ways, they exemplify that kind of like, "We're a whole load of blokes, we don't really want our moms telling us what to do, we're just not gonna say anything to anyone."
Tim: Character assassination of an entire company, there you go.
Anne: [laughs] They have been doing marvellous work with Green software. I cannot fault the quality of their work and I'm sure that they are all very nice. I do know quite a few Googlers and I like them but yeah, you brought it up with your patriarchal. [laughs]
Tim: I know. It's my fault.
Anne: I think it's matriarchal. I think China is patriarchal. Although, actually, is it really? Interesting question. I've got a friend who lives in Hong Kong and I will have to query them about it.
Tim: The struggle I was having, as I was trying to avoid the idea that it was hierarchical and the classic top-down totalitarianism state, because you're not doing that. You're clearly doing something that's much more distributed and much more libertarian, and in a way actually, maybe it's more like the Quakers. Because you're saying that this is your duty to be part of a society and these are the rules about how you in effect look after each other in that society. And part of that is keeping an eye on what everybody else is doing.
Anne: Yes, part of your duty is to watch your neighbours. [laughs]
Tim: We started to see that. I thought of you the other day when they were talking about the various solutions to making women feel safe walking at night. A lot of them were basically that there would be more surveillance of different sorts, and there was a lot of discussion about who would be watching that surveillance and how you would control it. I really did think about your series as that was going on and thinking that debate is closer to that science fiction than I had expected. We're closer to it and we're heading in that direction pretty fast actually.
Anne: I think we are. Yeah. When you start to look into how many surveillance cameras there are, there are a lot of cameras. What they aren't all that good at is linking them all up at the moment. Even in China, they're not very well linked up. But the next stage will be once all those cameras get linked up and once you start automatically scanning them. The technology all exists, it doesn't require any amazing new invention. And of course, it's not that latency sensitive or bandwidth sensitive. You can download all that stuff and munge it together overnight. There's not anything that's technologically standing in the way of that, I don't think, and therefore it will happen.
Tim: I think that's the place where you and I disagree. I don't think it's going to scale so that it could be done centrally. I think if it's going to be done, it's going to be done at the edges. The cameras are going to make their own decisions and just upload- Sure, if you pick on a camera, you could go and download it. But spotting anomalous events-- and this might be of interest to you and this kind of stuff-- those things are going to be done locally. Either probably on the lamppost, but the very most in the in the street cabinet. I simply don't believe it's all going to be shipped to a server on an island and all be worked there and then sent back out again. I don't see that future. But I'm wrong as often as I'm right, if not more, so.
Anne: I can see. Yeah, I do think that the moment latency and bandwidth really does mean all of these things have to happen on the edge. You asked me about what was the things that kicked off my thinking about a lot of the stuff that went into the books. One of them was about 12 years ago now, I had a problem with my eyesight and I couldn't see very well. I was partially sighted and unfortunately and it lasted for a couple of weeks. But it did give me quite an insight into the difficulties of being partially sighted, and one of them was crossing the road. It's incredibly hard to cross the road if you can't really see if there's a car coming or not. And I looked into, because I thought at the time it might get worse or it might get better but better was fine, but I looked at the time into what technologies were available to help with this kind of thing. One of the things I was thinking about was, well, what if you had Google Glasses on? They didn't exist then but you know, you were carrying a video camera and you streamed it to a server and you got somebody to just say, "You can cross now," or ,"You can't cross now." Oddly enough, that now exists. There's a service for blind people that does that. But at the time I thought, "I just really wouldn't want to trust my life to the latency on this connection." Because the difference between a car being okay and a car not being okay is not very much time. [laugsh] So, yes.
Tim: No. I think that's interesting, the idea. But that's sort of to do with being-- it's not really a centralization but it's the idea that that the person who is kind of assisting you would be on the far end of a latent network whereas you would hope that it would be somebody else in the village, and probably somebody else on the same mobile cell. And therefore, you know, if you had a connection, it would be at least pretty deterministic. But that's not the way that these networks work at the moment. I kind of hope that they will start to understand the benefits of communicating electronically locally. We kind of think of electronic communication as only really valuable at a distance and I don't buy that, I think there's a lot of value about doing things locally. But out of step with the commercial realities in that respect, I think.
Anne: Oh. Well, I mean, it's what 5G is all about.
Tim: It's sort of is and it isn't. When you get down to how they want to build for it, you find they're still counting in the middle. They haven't kind of caught up with reality. Actually, we should talk about communication. You quite bought into this sort of universal communication device that everybody has. Is there one make or are there multiple makes that are all compatible? How does that play out in your universe?
Anne: Oh. So in my universe, I've just glossed over that. Eventually, it's all collapsed down to a-- well, it's effectively a government communication device. The panopticon is effectively a government communication device. Although actually, I have mentioned there are companies that kind of add on to it, put their own interfaces on top of it. So you've got the government one, then commercial chatbots, which is effectively the Google of the future. And you've got that the main characters have a Metaverse, which you might argue as the fate of the Facebook of the future. A lot of the books were around the different view of the world that come from depending on where you got the data from.
Tim: But you don't talk a great deal about how do you validate that that data is genuine, you don't talk a lot about disinfo. You sort of hope that that not a thing? Or am I...
Anne: I do talk about it a bit in book One, which is now so far far back in your wide. I do talk about it a little bit in that; the whole issue with fake imagery. I've tried. And I hint they do all with timestamping and latency. So using latency as a way of-- but they also do things like sync up from different data sources and compare the latency and all kinds. There is an amount of cross checking on when the data appeared in the system and other information. So, seeing weather out the window and things like that which then sync up with your weather information. But yes, the implication in the books is that they have pretty much already ironed all of that out by 2050.
Tim: If I'm reading that right, that's sort of forensic verification versus cryptographic verification?
Anne: Yes, indeed. Yes.
Tim: Interesting. I hadn't thought of that. I mean, I kind of had but it's interesting distinction that I haven't talked around yet. Yeah. Actually now, encourage listeners to read the books and maybe kind of talk about where they come from and what they're called and wed by them and stuff like that.
Anne: They're all available on the Panopticon Series. You can see you can search for the Panopticon Series on Amazon. They're all available either as physical books or as ebooks on Amazon and they are quite cheap. [laughs] Short and easy classic sci fi read, I would say, entirely designed for software engineers because let's face it, I'm a software engineer, everyone I know is a software engineer, so I'm useless on the diversity front.
Tim: [laughs] Having said that, there are other books that you think people should read in terms of like, maybe people who aren't necessarily science fiction fans but are interested in getting a sense of what the future might look like. Should they be reading like HG Wells? What do you think?
Anne: It depends what you're into, the kind of tech that is on the verge of appearing. Daniel Suarez is very good. I don't know if you've read any Daniel Suarez.
Tim: I haven't. I haven't.
Anne: Oh, you should read. You'll like them. You'll like Daniel Suarez. He's written a couple of books. If you start with Demon, which is about evil chatbots and billionaires, it's really very good. All of his stuff is quite prescient and he clearly knows his stuff. And they're very page-turning, they're very good. So Daniel Suarez is good for stuff that's coming in the immediate future. As I mentioned, Philip K. Dick, but that's quite a different- That's kind of a dystopian view of what society will be increasingly willing to do to get electric door openers for their garages. And it's very prescient for that, but it's been depressing. I don't know whether or not it benefits you much from reading it other than that I enjoy short stories. Because he's not very good at characterization, which we just find in the short stories cuz he's very good with ideas, but in the books I find that a bit too misanthropic. Yes.
Tim: One that I like but it doesn't really talk-- I mean, it does talk about the future but it's doing one of these things I was saying about. Like, it's a long, prolonged analogy and it uses a completely fictitious future setting to do this analogy-- but I think if you've read any Becky Chambers books- A Closed and Common Orbitclo is absolutely lovely. It is a gorgeous book. And it manages to talk its way around diversity in a way that is... It's pure science fiction, and you get to the end of it and you thought, well actually, there's a bunch of really interesting societal topics that have gone on underneath the hood of the story, but you're still really interested in that in the in the characters. I think that's a very clever trick. It's a gorgeous story, very small world. It's not like saving the universe or anything, it's just like eight characters. It's sort of almost Jane Austen in the sense of being, you know, small group of characters. The interplay between them and how they get to be where they are, and how they evolve their lives. But I'm not sure it'll tell you a great deal about the future but I think it might, actually, about societal acceptance of difference. At least I hope it does anyway.
Anne: I will have a look at that. I should mention something. You're talking about new societies and young people. I'm unfortunately pushing 50 and therefore it makes it more difficult for me to understand what young people think and what society will look like in the future. But one of the young people who spoke at one of my early conferences, a woman who spoke about effective altruism, and I was asking her what she considered to be the definition of unethical technology. And I said, "Well, is it technology that is going to lead in the future to a dystopian world?" And she said, "Well, you cannot make that call. You can't make the decision that as far as you're concerned, the world in the future will be a dystopia. Because for the people who live in it then, they might be totally fine with it. It's impossible for you to make that. People change." And that fed quite strongly into my books in that they're set in something that is a dystopia, but it's not a dystopia to the people who live in it.
Tim: So you're saying that you have to make those decisions in the moment of now rather than trying to worry too much about what you might call future history.
Anne: Exactly, because you just don't really know what future people will think. Even you yourself, you change so much.
Tim: Yes. When you stop changing then that's more depressing, I think really. Getting stuck is definitely a bad thing. And that's one of the joys, and I think actually that's maybe one of the other takeaway message. That science fiction allows you to, or maybe prevents you from from getting stuck, because it allows you to think about new things in a safe, contained environment. I think that's really valuable.
Anne: Yeah. And as you say, it's not really thinking about the future. It's thinking about now.
Tim: In your case, the near future. [laughs] I think. Great. Any other links, other things you'd like people to listen to or look at, talk to, conferences you think we should know about... anything like that, just throw me a link and I'll put it into the show notes and people can look them up. Obviously, I'll put a link to the books in there. Anything else you want to mention before we wrap up?
Anne: No, I think that it's been a really nice chat. Thank you very much indeed.
Tim: No, it's been fun. Thank you so much for doing it. So, to our listeners, thank you very much for listening. We do appreciate it. And subscribe, otherwise you'll miss it, particularly with our rather more erratic schedule at the moment. If you're not subscribing you won't know that there's a new one. But yeah, thank you so much for listening. I have another one lined up for a couple of weeks’ time so they will be more. Thank you very much, and thank you Anne for for coming. I really do appreciate it.
Anne: Thank you.
Tim: Bye.
Anne: Cheers. Bye.