Students Fail Turing Test. Parents Demand School Reforms.

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Graffiti by Banksy

Great news! We’ve got more cutting-edge research from the fine folk at the County Durham College of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fine Arts.

Researchers in the Department of Computational Psychology recently undertook an experiment in which an AI programme used social media to carry on conversations with sixth-form students across England.

The initial goal of the experiment was to see if the AI, named GEB, could pass the Turing Test*. GEB was immensely successful in passing itself off as human, with none of the students detecting the ruse. However, as researchers examined GEB’s interactions with students more closely, they discovered something unexpected. In roughly 72% of cases, GEB found the students’ communications to be so basic, error-ridden, absurd, incomprehensible or, oddly enough, copious, that GEB believed those students to be “bots”, i.e. computer apps pretending to be human.

In other words, while GEB passed the Turing Test, most of the humans it was interacting with failed. The humans thought GEB was human and GEB thought the humans were computers.

Upon hearing the results, parents across England flooded politicians and newspapers with angry emails and tweets. Some complained that the Turing test was too difficult or that it should have been marked on a curve, while others demanded that schools teach their children to be more human. As one angry parent put it, “How can my son get into Cambridge if Cambridge thinks he’s not real?”

Never ones to let the opportunity for a natural experiment slip past them, the County Durham College researchers set GEB loose within this social media storm. While the research team is still working through the data, initial results suggest that parents fared even worse than their children, with 78% failing to pass as human. Strangely, however, politicians appear to have done surprisingly well, with only 13% failing the test.

As they are still crunching the numbers, the researchers were reluctant to offer an explanation for their results. But keep your eyes on this site! We’ll update you on any news from the team at County Durham College, as well as the progress of the “Real Teaching for Real Children” legislation now making its way through parliament.


*The Turing Test is named after Alan Turing, who suggested that any computer that could successfully pass itself off as human should be classified as intelligent.


Excellent Album, Excellent Charity

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(In the interest of full disclosure, I played mandolin on one of the tracks on this album. My part, however, was brutally cut from the final mix, so feel free to swamp the band with messages telling them how much you wish there had been a mandolin on the album. Just be polite about it!)

A friend of mine’s band has released a new album and they’re donating all proceeds from album sales to the young adult cancer ward at Christie Hospital Manchester. The daughter of one of the band members recently received fantastic care from Christie Hospital and the band wants to give something back, both to say “thanks” and to help the hospital reach more patients. In order to maximize the benefit to Christie Hospital, the band is eating all production costs themselves.

The band is Stone Angel Syndrome (as you might’ve guessed from the cover) and the album is called “Discovery” (ditto). The music is atmospheric synth/guitar/drum instrumentals in a prog rock style. And in true prog rock fashion, “Discovery” is a concept album–almost a tone-poem, really–with a sci-fi theme that follows a spacecraft lifting off and heading on an intergalactic journey.

If you’re interested in the band and/or want to help, the album is now available on bandcamp.

Thanks! And enjoy the music!



Review: The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore

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At last, a post that actually relates to the fantasy and science fiction theme of my blog!

I picked up this book a short time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s fantasy-meets-steam-punk with free diving, surreal visions of a dream-world, child warriors who channel demons before going into battle, magicians who feed off their own children and honourable people forced into situations with no honourable way out. What’s not to like?

The whole thing is set in a world that blends late-19th century European technology with quasi-Oriental martial-arts monks, totem animal spirits, submerged, quasi-Mayan pyramids, and psychic/maybe technologically advanced Kings Behind the World. Frankly, I’m amazed that Wigmore is able to make all of this work, yet he does it convincingly.

I had one or two niggles with the story, primarily with an extreme turn in the relationship between two of the main characters about half-way through. But Wigmore’s ability to portray the inner-struggle between certainty and doubt in several characters more than made up for any shortfalls. Beyond the sheer imaginativeness of the setting, it was this conflict that, for me, really set this novel apart from the average fantasy-fare on the market. Watching the boy-warrior Teshi struggle with the question of whether or not it was right to allow himself to be possessed by an angelic spirit was easily as interesting as the main story-line.

There are flaws in the book–a couple of characters who act like petulant teenagers (perhaps intentional, as they are teenagers) and a few odd phrasings near the start of the novel–but, overall, it is the unique setting, the blend of genres and the story that I remember most. That must count as a success.


New Species of Dog Discovered!

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Who needs elves and aliens when you’ve got this?

Economists at the County Durham College for Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fine Art have discovered a new species of dog. Dubbed canis economicus, the new species looks almost identical to normal dogs and even comes in a variety of breeds that mimic our beloved household pets. In fact, the physical appearance of canis economicus is so similar to normal dogs that researchers believe canis economicus has been living undetected amongst us for decades.

Professor Mary Stevenson said that the first hints of the new species came when her research team was investigating the temperament, behaviour and insane purchase price of a variety of fashionable cross-breeds, particularly cockapoos (cocker spaniel/poodle mix) and shih-tzpoos (shih-tzu and poodle mix—as an aside, these dogs are hands-down winners of best “does what it says on the label”).

“It was the dogs’ behaviour that first caught our attention,” Prof. Stevenson said. “Traditional owner/pet roles seemed to be reversed. Instead of humans giving the dogs treats as a reward for good behaviour, dogs were withholding desired behaviours until they had been given a treat. For example, in one family, we observed that the dog would not sit on a human lap unless the dog had first been offered a treat. We call this behaviour the ‘commoditization of cuddles’.”

Further research revealed how canis economicus has been able to transform what had previously been perceived as market-negative traits, e.g. lack of pure breeding in cockapoos and shih-tzpoos, into social capital, e.g. novelty and quasi-exoticism. This social capital enabled mongrel pups to demand unusually high prices and so ensure that they ended up in financially-secure human homes. Once there, the pups could take advantage of all the health, security and nutritional benefits offered by such an environment.

Following on from these discoveries, Prof. Stevenson’s team determined that the primary, distinguishing characteristic of canis economicus is its ability to make rational decisions that maximize the benefit to its own self-interests. While that sounds remarkably similar to the mythical homo economicus that haunted so much of 20th-century economics, Prof. Stevenson stands by her team’s results. “We watched hundreds of hours of Crufts, all of the Beethoven movies and even Marley and Me (okay, we foisted that on an undergrad desperate to improve his grades). We then quantified the observed behaviours and made multiple statistical analyses of the data, most of which came out with a ‘p value’ of less than point-five. You can’t get more statistically significant than that.”

Professor Stevenson and her team are always looking for more data for their study, so send us a description of any suspected canis economicus behaviour you’ve witnessed and we’ll forward it on to the team at the County Durham College of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fine Art. Who knows, you might even get a credit in their upcoming research paper. Imagine that on your c.v.!

Preview of Deep Blue

Rather than a review, this week I get to do a first for me, a preview. Author and fellow SFF Chronicles member Jane O’Reilly has a new book coming out this summer and she’s been kind enough to give me a sneak peek at the cover.

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Deep Blue is the second book in Jane’s Second Species series and, if the first book, Blue Shift, is anything to go on, it’ll be full of aliens, space pirates, an evil, government conspiracy, bodice-ripping romance…

Wait, what was that?

Yeah, you heard me. Jane O’Reilly isn’t afraid of throwing everything at a story, even an extra genre or two!

Here is the official trailer for Deep Blue, straight from Jane, herself:

Jinnifer Blue opens her eyes to find herself in a ship that is the source of her darkest nightmares. Her plan to expose the horrific truth behind the government’s secret Second Species programme has failed, and now she’s being turned into a weapon by her worst enemy . . . her mother.

At the other end of the galaxy Caspian Dax, ferocious space pirate and Jinn’s sometime lover, is facing an even more terrifying fate. He’s being forced to fight in the arena on Sittan, a pitiless, ruthless alien landscape where blood is the only prize that matters. They will use him, destroy him, change him.

Jinn has only one chance – to go to Sittan and find Dax before his mind is completely destroyed. She must rely on her friends and one old enemy, leave her beloved ship the Mutant behind, and travel to a hostile planet. But hardest of all, she must keep faith that when she finds Dax, there will be something left of the man she knew.

One thing’s for sure: the fight has only just begun.

The book will be released July 19. Best of luck with the launch, Jane!

A Reason to Love Killer Robots

Once again, there’s neither science-fiction nor fantasy in this post. I make up for that, though, with a heaping helping of absolutely absurd reality.

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Image via randychiu / Flickr. Used under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license

A Reason to Love Killer Robots

I’m talking about real killer robots, people. Not the Hollywood, Terminator-style things that exist only as props and digital effects, but the AI-controlled drones being developed by militaries around the world. These are heavily-armed robots that make life-and-death decisions without input from a human operator.

I suspect most of you are horrified at the thought of this and, to tell the truth, so am I. And so is Human Rights Watch, which is leading a campaign to ban killer robots. But as much as my gut churns at the prospect of governments setting their killing machines loose amongst human populations to winnow the loyal, obedient wheat from the troublesome, undesirable chaff, there is an up-side to this. Really, I promise!

To understand where I’m coming from, we need a brief history of green bullets.

For a couple of centuries, the vast majority of the ammunition used in hand-held firearms was made of lead. Lead was plentiful, cheap, easily moulded into a variety of sizes and shapes and, compared to other metals, dense. A high density means a small amount of lead is heavy or, more precisely, it has a high mass. And when you are shooting a small projectile at another person, mass counts. The more massive a projectile is, the more damage it does and that means lead provides what weapons manufacturers call “stopping power”.

Of course, lead is also toxic. There are good reasons it is banned from household paints, children’s toys and plumbing. You might reply that, when you’re shooting at someone, you usually aren’t bothered about poisoning them, so what’s the problem with lead bullets? Well, consider the firing range at your local military base. The US military goes through hundreds of thousands of rounds each year in training exercises alone. That’s a lot of bullets, most of which end up scattered across fields and plains or imbedded in the ground. Now add to that all of the shotgun pellets and rifle bullets fired by approximately 16 million hunters in the US. That is a lot of lead, left behind to poison wildlife and even leach into the ground-water that we drink.

Fortunately, wise heads recognized this problem some time ago and, in the early 1990s, steel and copper replaced lead in the ammunition used by most hunters, while the military switched to alloys of copper and tungsten, at least for training. The US military has gone so far as to research making bullets out of biodegradables, like soy and bamboo fibre, while the Army Corps of Engineers has even toyed with the idea of packing specially bioengineered seeds within “green bullets”, effectively re-seeding a combat zone even as the fighting rages.

Fifty years after the Summer of Love, it seems the US Army has learned to embrace “flower power”.

So, what has this got to do with killer robots? Well, it seems to me this is a perfect opportunity to take the concept of “green bullets” one step further. Imagine an AI-controlled drone armed with a variety of missiles and guns. Now imagine this drone has identified a number of “kill” targets, a.k.a. bad guys. Unfortunately, before the drone can engage, the bad guys make it to the cover of a cave. Amongst its armoury, the drone has a bunker-busting missile which would make short work of both the cave and the bad guys. However, the AI also knows that the cave is the perfect habitat for an endangered species of bat that has been sighted in this region. So the AI decides against using the bunker buster and, instead, waits until the bad guys come out. Zip, zap, BOOM, the bad guys are dead and the endangered bats are alive; everybody (on one side of the political argument, at least) wins.

There is a lot of evil in this world and, let me be clear, killer robots are part of that. But I’ll take my silver linings, and my endangered bats, where I can find them.

When does fiction become non-fiction? When it’s by Borges.

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Into English by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

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Detail of a manticore, available at The Public Domain Review

This is a curious book. First, it is a non-fiction account of entirely fictional subjects. How do librarians and marketers even begin to deal with that? I mean, did Borges consider at all how many headaches he would cause those poor people? Second, the book has absolutely no plot, just character after character after character. I’m willing to bet Borges never made a penny off film rights for this book, as even the most motivated Hollywood hack would have a Herculean task of making a screen-play out of this. (Did you see how I fit a reference to an imaginary being in there? I must be channelling Borges!)

But what characters there are! There’s the Kujata, a mythical bull with four thousand eyes, ears, nostrils and feet and which is so large it takes five hundred years to walk from one eye to another; and Franz Kafka’s “odradek”, which is a “flat, star-shaped spool for thread” which seemingly exists for the sole purpose of falling down stairs; and also the English mystic Jane Lead’s “creature whose substance is Bliss” which exists in all things, even “the laments and groans of those entrapped in Hell.” And there are easily a dozen more denizens of this book that will boggle your mind.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, The Book of Imaginary Beings is a modern bestiary, that is, a catalogue of creatures mythological, hypothetical and literary, gathered from around the world. Indeed, the world itself is included, under the entry “Animals in the Form of Spheres”. And like medieval bestiaries, which included religious and moral allegories to show how nature conformed to Christian belief, Borges adds a light touch of psychology and anthropology to give these creatures context and, dare I say it, life (though Frankenstein’s monster is not included).

In short, this is an erudite exploration of the fathomless depths of humanity’s fecund imagination (though be careful, lest you in some wondrous grot or secret cell there encounter the kraken) which is, itself, composed of a series of short stories, analyses and diagnoses. Pick it up, read two or three entries, set it down and come back later when you’ve got five minutes to spend in delightful distraction.