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Author Topic: EP122: Transcendence Express  (Read 16535 times)
Russell Nash
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« on: September 07, 2007, 01:36:28 AM »

EP122: Transcendence Express

By Jetse de Vries.
Read by Jack Mangan (of Jack Mangan’s Deadpan).
First appeared in Hub Magazine Issue #2.

Unable to keep my distance, I walk up to three classmates interacting with one such a BIKO. The pictures are fuzzy, the colours ill-defined and the reaction time tediously slow. However, the letters appearing are large and easily readable, and after all three kids have been asked to introduce themselves the program equally divides its attention to each of them, making them take turns while the other two can effortlessly follow what’s going on. But man, is it slow. The display makes your eyes water and would have any western whizz kid tuning the screen properties like crazy.

Still, the real wonder is that those pell-mell constructions are doing anything at all. Furthermore, those African kids have nothing to compare them with, so are uncritically happy with what they’ve got. As dinner time closes in Liona has to wrestle most kids away from their new toys and promises that first thing tomorrow they will — after school hours — start making new BIKOs, so that eventually every classmate will have one. The whole class cheers and Liona’s smile doesn’t leave her face for the rest of the evening.


Rated R. Contains sexual innuendo, some strong language, and an R-rated bit of podcast feedback at the end.


Referenced Sites:
Steve’s Dragon*Con Report
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders


Blog of the Week:
Hares Rock Lots
(receives Carnal Knowledge by Charles Hodgson)



Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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bolddeceiver
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« Reply #1 on: September 07, 2007, 04:10:45 AM »

While the story did get bogged down at parts in its discussion of technology (the BIKOs seemed more like characters than the people, and I'm not talking about the AI part), I find near-modern-setting SF about development in the global south very interesting.  It's an issue most people don't think much about, or if they do it's the simplicity of "there are people starving in Africa."  I did my Political Science senior seminar at uni on development issues, and it's a topic I have stayed quite interested in.  This story did a good job addressing some of the overwhelming difficulties of development and the developing world, and de Vries deserves a great deal of respect for this.
« Last Edit: September 07, 2007, 04:18:48 AM by bolddeceiver » Logged
eytanz
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« Reply #2 on: September 07, 2007, 08:35:59 AM »

It's nice, every once in a while, to have a story based on the outright optimism that sufficiently advanced technology is all that's necessary to solve our problems. And the idea that developing countries offer the best place for a fresh start was interesting.

I was a bit confused by the flashback scenes, though, especially the second one. First, the concern that the AIs will ultimately decide that humanity is obsolete seems to be totally dismissed by the claim that that won't happen if there is an objective morality. That's sort of a big if, isn't it? I certianly don't believe in an objective morality, so I didn't find that very reassuring.

Secondly, and perhaps more relevant to the story itself, I'm curious about the "there is a way" comment about the first AI surviving. It wasn't clear what the way was, or what was actually done, but I was wondering if the narrator was actually an AI and just not aware of it - though the fact that he didn't seem to be superintelligent in any way might argue against that. I don't know. I'd like to go back to the print story and see if I can work it out but I can't afford buying a backissue of Hub, and I don't know of any other way to get it. Anyone caught anything I missed here?
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eytanz
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« Reply #3 on: September 07, 2007, 08:47:31 AM »

Also, if BIKO is short for Biological Quantum Computer, why is it spelt BIKO and not BIQCO?
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twitcat
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« Reply #4 on: September 07, 2007, 09:35:04 AM »

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. I agree that it was nice to have such a strong sense of optimism througout the narrative.

Also, the Dutch word for 'quantum' is 'kwantum'. That might have something to do with the acronym.
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DeGem
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« Reply #5 on: September 07, 2007, 10:50:54 AM »

what I found to be very intresting is that the solution to a very complex problem (Q-computers) was created very simply.  It sort of goes towards that saying "Well, once you understand it, its very simple"  and Occam's razor also.

Many times in life people just simply over complicate things.
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Reggie
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« Reply #6 on: September 07, 2007, 04:43:59 PM »

I thought of three things while listening to this story.

The first is that, I really don't care for the educational setting in these stories.  There've been a couple that involve classrooms and the like, and so far, they just haven't really done it for me.

The second thing I thought about when they were making computer boxes out of wood, was the episode of Futurama where Bender has his body replaced by wood.

The third, the issue I actually wish to raise, is how much relevance there really is to real life projects that are going on today. 

I remember hearing recently about a group that was trying to get laptops developed that would only cost something like $150 that would be used just for educational purposes in poor or otherwise developing countries.  Just like they did with the technology in this story.  Now, I think that's a great idea, but the problem I have with it is if we can do those things for poor countries, what about the places in our own that need those technologies and that kind of help as well?  Sure it's great to do something useful for the rest of the world for a change, but shouldn't we send some of that to the cities and poor areas of our own country, regardless of how developed and powerful we already are?

I think it introduced a really cool technological idea, and being a computer geek myself (BS in computer science....not bragging, just context, lol) all kinds of possibilities were racing through my head.  But I think more could have been done with moral or social implications here. Sure it could be argued that we could look at the African society as mirroring our own, especially the bit about the father being afraid of new ideas because that''s really timeless of all of humanity, but a technology and project like this would not be ignored by the rest of the world and only used in third world relief.  There would be other companies competing for such technologies and someone trying to make lots and lots of money off of it...why wouldn't we set it up in the inner-cities in America?  Because then no one could profit off of it.

I realize that going into that much detail is more the realm of a novel or something much longer than could be on Escape Pod, but it could have been mentioned in the parts where the characters talk about what drove them to come to Africa to help....you know, before they had sex.

 Grin     
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Mr. Tweedy
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« Reply #7 on: September 07, 2007, 05:09:50 PM »

I thought the story was very silly–silly in a naive, thinks-it's-smart-but-isn't kind of way, not a fun, tongue in cheek kind of way.

The idea that every African having a computer will solve Africa's problems is stupid.  This story is built on the myth that physical poverty is the root of evil, and that if everyone just had a certain critical amount of stuff, then we'd have peace on Earth.  Naive.  Evil comes from people, and no technology is going to make people less jealous, petty, greedy or lazy.  Spiritual change is necessary, and no amount of stuff dropped on people's heads can substitute.  This plot only worked because all of the African children were plastic noble savage stereotypes.  I notice none of the bright youngsters used their supercomputers to invent weapons, none of them became addicted to porn or wanted to play games all day, and they were all so eager to share!

It's also got racist undertones: The only way for black people to be prosperous is for white people to give them stuff.  This story has the kind of messages you'd expect to hear from the lips of a politician trying to exploit white guilt.

I'm not saying the technology can't be useful or play a role in improving conditions in impoverished areas: I recently donated some money to build windmills in Africa that will pump water for irrigation.  I understand that a windmill will be of assistance to the people there, but I'm not so stupid as to think that X number of windmills will bring about an African utopia.  The presentation in this story is pure head-in-the-clouds fantasy.

Along those lines, the technology described is ridiculous.  Supercomputers grow themselves from goop mixed in pots?  AI just happens once you build the right computer?  The scientific aspects of the story are just as ridiculous the social aspects.  It honestly would have been more satisfying if they're just called their wooden laptops "magic" and been done with it.

And the narrator was a moron.  Are we honestly supposed to believe that his curiosity about the miracles he sees in front of him can be put off–over and over again–by sex?  I cringe at his stupidity and resent the stereotype of the man who cares about nothing but sex.  And his clumsy double entendres were groan-inducing.

In sum, I think this is one of the dumbest stories I've ever read/heard.  Implausible on all fronts, with an obvious political agenda further souring it, every PC stereotype tossed in, and an imbecile narrating the whole mess.

Thumbs down.

And while I'm complaining, am I the only person who is tired of hearing about Cunning Minx in the intro to every episode?  I listen to hear science fiction, Steve, not to hear how wonderful your non-monogamous lifestyle is.  It's your show, of course, but these forums are for feedback, right?
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« Reply #8 on: September 07, 2007, 07:32:33 PM »

I, on the other hand, welcome details of Steve's non-monogamous lifestyle. He's making up for my non-anything lifestyle.

Remember how I complained a while back about characters who react to the fantastic technology around them with a mixture of disdain and irritation? Transcendence Express presented the exact opposite of that, and, as a technology buff, I appreciate it.
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SFEley
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« Reply #9 on: September 07, 2007, 11:53:09 PM »

The idea that every African having a computer will solve Africa's problems is stupid.  This story is built on the myth that physical poverty is the root of evil, and that if everyone just had a certain critical amount of stuff, then we'd have peace on Earth.  Naive.

I know I should stay out of the feedback, but I feel a need here to repeat the closing quote from this episode, by Nicholas Negroponte in relation to his One Laptop Per Child project, because I believe it's very important to the story and bears on your interpretation:

"If you take any world problem, any issue on the planet, the solution to that problem certainly includes education.  In education, the roadblock is the laptop."

The story wasn't about stuff at all, Mr. Tweedy.  It was about education.  The laptop wasn't the story; the transformation of the children's ways of thinking was the story.  If you try to look at it that way, as a question of education rather than resources, does it make any more sense?


Quote
And while I'm complaining, am I the only person who is tired of hearing about Cunning Minx in the intro to every episode?  I listen to hear science fiction, Steve, not to hear how wonderful your non-monogamous lifestyle is.  It's your show, of course, but these forums are for feedback, right?

Sure.  But I think you're leaning to hyperbole.  ...I should be above this, but you're sort of making it personal here, and it's been one of those days so I'm going to respond:

This week's intro was about Dragon*Con.  Minx was only mentioned once.  The sentence was: "One of the highlights of the convention was simply sitting down Sunday evening with Minx and another couple, and having a real conversation about real things."  The emphasis was not on Minx; it was on the conversation.

Is that really a gratuitous propagandizing of "non-monogamous lifestyle?"  How would you revise it to your tastes: should I not have mentioned Minx and simply said that I sat down with a couple?  Should I not have referenced the conversation, despite its relevance to the theme I was developing of small-scale social interaction?  Or should I not have talked about Dragon*Con at all?

(I also mentioned her name once in the closing notes, because she helped me with a French pronunciation -- which I mangled anyway.  Are you uncomfortable that I gave her credit for helping me?  If I had asked and credited Anna instead, would you feel better about it?)


On a more general note: do I talk about her in the intros?  Yes, I've talked about her.  I talk about Anna a lot more.  And there are people wanting to know when I'll do the next Geek Dad intro.  No one seems to object when I talk about Anna or Alex.  I've written 122 of these intros so far, and if I had to completely separate my personality and personal life from them I don't think I'd be able to deliver one every week.  I'm not an academic; I know science fiction, but not that well.  Not well enough to deliver a cold, dispassionate, and good essay every week.

So it comes to this by necessity: I reference my personal life in my intros at least some of the time, as my muse guides me, or I don't do intros.  More people seem to want intros than not want them, so I'm going to reference my personal life.  If that bothers you, sorry.  You can always skip ahead approximately 3.5 minutes.  (And if I find out enough people are doing that, maybe someday I'll put the work into an enhanced podcast with chapter stops.)

And if you're okay with my talking about my personal life: well, Minx is a part of it.  If you're not okay with my talking about her, but you are okay with my talking about Alex or Anna, I don't see that as my problem.  The "lifestyle" is what her podcast is about.  I'm just talking about me.
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SFEley
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« Reply #10 on: September 08, 2007, 12:10:53 AM »

I remember hearing recently about a group that was trying to get laptops developed that would only cost something like $150 that would be used just for educational purposes in poor or otherwise developing countries.  Just like they did with the technology in this story.  Now, I think that's a great idea, but the problem I have with it is if we can do those things for poor countries, what about the places in our own that need those technologies and that kind of help as well?  Sure it's great to do something useful for the rest of the world for a change, but shouldn't we send some of that to the cities and poor areas of our own country, regardless of how developed and powerful we already are?

The project you're thinking of is the One Laptop Per Child project, and the laptop is a $100 laptop.  (There's also been talk of eventually releasing a $200 consumer model, which would help fund the non-profit initiative, but I'm not sure what the status is of that.)  It's really an amazing piece of design work, given its constraints. 

They're targeting deployment in Third World countries first because the need is much greater there; most schools in developed countries offer children at least some access to computers, while in many poorer countries they're nearly nonexistent.  On a longer scale, yes, it is desirable that every child everywhere have global access to education and communication.  But the potential for large-scale social transformation is greater in some places than in others -- and those places tend to be ones where computers aren't already there.
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sirana
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« Reply #11 on: September 08, 2007, 02:30:58 AM »

The project you're thinking of is the One Laptop Per Child project, and the laptop is a $100 laptop. 

just to be accurate, they said they wouldn't be able to hit the 100$ mark in the beginning, the real price is expected to be between 130$ and 175$. they expect to get the manufacturing costs down to 100$ sometime in 08.
More on the OLCP Wikipedia page
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Mr. Tweedy
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« Reply #12 on: September 08, 2007, 07:24:23 AM »

...I should be above this, but you're sort of making it personal here, and it's been one of those days so I'm going to respond:

Above what?  Your response is nothing unwarranted.  (And it involves the content of the episode, so it isn't really even off topic.)

Is that really a gratuitous propagandizing of "non-monogamous lifestyle?"  How would you revise it to your tastes: should I not have mentioned Minx and simply said that I sat down with a couple?  Should I not have referenced the conversation, despite its relevance to the theme I was developing of small-scale social interaction?  Or should I not have talked about Dragon*Con at all?

Obviously, my ideas and sensitivities to this topic are outside the mainstream.  The propagandizing strikes me as both frequent and gratuitous, but I hardly expect you to revise the content of your show for the sake of one listener.
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Pink Shift
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« Reply #13 on: September 08, 2007, 12:35:11 PM »

After listening to this story
 I was left with only one thought:
 What was that all about?
It was a bit of a jumble.

I agree with most
 if not all
 of Mr. Tweedy's comments.
I agree with
 the comments that the AI references
 didn't' lead anywhere;
 the characterisation of the children
 (if this was Africa; why did the children have European first names?),
 and the racial undertones.

If I didn't know
 the story was written by an adult
 I would have thought it was written by
 an intermediate school child or
 Lauren Caitlin Upton.



"If you take any world problem, any issue on the planet, the solution to that problem certainly includes education.  In education, the roadblock is the laptop."

The story wasn't about stuff at all, Mr. Tweedy.  It was about education.  The laptop wasn't the story; the transformation of the children's ways of thinking was the story.  If you try to look at it that way, as a question of education rather than resources, does it make any more sense?

I agree with the concept that
 education is the solution
 but
 I feel
 the story does not support that.
The children are in a school room setting
 but the teacher is not shown teaching.
The teacher mixes the ingredients
 for the computer
 and that is about it.
She is not shown
 directing the education of the children.

the transformation of the children's ways of thinking was the story. 

We were not shown
 how the children thought
 prior to getting the computers
 so I do not feel
 the story does not supports this idea.
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« Reply #14 on: September 08, 2007, 12:49:07 PM »

This story was mixed for me.

I really like the idea of the One Laptop Per Child campaign. Technology should not be the plaything for the elitists. Giving kids a solid set of job skills (as well as the equipment) that they can use to improve their own living conditions is a great thing, too.

I was very interested in the biological quantum computer ideas. Silicon is going to become a limited computing medium very soon, so something new will have to come along to replace it.

However, I felt there was a real human element lacking in this story.  Yes, the main characters had a wonderful motivation for going out and helping other people, which was great. But they weren't really seen overcoming anything. He was only trying to figure out what she was doing, and she already entered the story with all the pieces of the puzzle. Everything was already solved in my mind. The flashbacks didn't really do anything to flesh out the fact that everything had already been figured out.

Maybe my main complaint stems from my personal viewpoint on the human condition. I believe that humans will do what is best for them in the short term, not what is best for the group in the long run. I wish the story had thrown in a bit more conflict in that direction. For example, some of the quantum computers didn't work on the first run. The teacher makes all of the children share, which was fine. But I think that at least one kid could complain about having to share the computer they worked so hard to make. That one child could prove to be a foil for the teacher throughout the rest of the story. A little more conflict like that would really add volumes to the story from my point of view.
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Bolomite
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« Reply #15 on: September 08, 2007, 02:52:16 PM »

I am relatively new to EscapePod but I have done my best to catch, listening to every story in the feed and I am subscribed to the Classic feed also.  I have to say that this is my favorite story yet.  The idea that the most sophisticate computer known to man is so simple that it can be made in the middle of nowhere Africa, without any sort of man made technology is the sort of irony that abounds in nature.  Look how simple a bird is and then how complicated our attempts are to achieve flight.  Or how about the thousands of years of metallurgy that goes into making my steel kitchen knife, but nature supplies obsidian which isn't such a bad alternative.  How many drugs have we made, that have all kinds of less than desirable side effects, only to find something in nature that does a great job and doesn't cause problems. 

As mentioned earlier, the cluelessness of the narrator didn't bother me.  He was a medial worker, so why would he understand how a BIKCO works?  But the fact that he is fascinated by the learning environment shows that while he doesn't understand the mechanics of what is going on, he does understand that something important is happening. 

And I don't get the racist tones mentioned by a previous poster.  In fact, if anything I think the opposite is true.  The kids have learned that industrialization is not the way to go in the long run and reject the idea of accepting our tech / infrastructure.  Personally I say more power to them.  Having alternatives to our way of running things can only make the world better.

While it may be off topic, regarding the previous post complaining about the intro, I could care less.  I enjoy hearing about the snippets of Steve's life in all of its aspects.  Maybe its the nerd in me, but since I don't have a life, its nice to hear about those who are more fortunate.  I don't think its right of anyone to judge because I know I wouldn't want everyone judging my life.  I hope he doesn't change the current format.
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raygunray
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« Reply #16 on: September 08, 2007, 04:21:37 PM »

I like it when a host or author "removes the podium" and talks about themselves.  It's like they're sharing themselves to make them nonthreatening while remaining a likeable authority on their subject. 

As I believe education is exactly what the Third World needs as a first step out of poverty, a $100.00 laptop is overcompensating.  We're teaching those kids to be dependent on computers rather than using the onboard supercomputer in their head.  Becoming intimate with books is integral to teaching critical thinking skills.  Computers may aid by graphically representing ideas and models, but a teacher showing a kid to use the tools in their head unaided by technology will make them more effective problem solvers.  Computer only enhance critical thinking by speeding up the process and interconnecting other problem solvers.

Anyway, in places where they don't even have fresh water and electricity, how are they going to plug in those things?
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« Reply #17 on: September 08, 2007, 06:19:34 PM »

Anyway, in places where they don't even have fresh water and electricity, how are they going to plug in those things?

That's why you make them out of bio-goo.

Anyway, again, I think such laptop programs are a great idea, because they are great tools, but as was stated above, they're just tools. 

The story made everything work a little too easily.  Some form of conflict would have been great.  Maybe one of those flashback scenes could have described some of what I mentioned earlier, where corporations tried to monopolize the market and there was some kind of struggle between various sides on the argument, and in the end the characters in the story could have been made even more heroic for how they broke from the norm to do what they did, which we can assume, of course, but still, the story could have run a few minutes longer.

And I would still rather see cheap laptops go to help schools in Detroit (which is near where I live), maybe they do ultimately plan on doing that for our cities, but that needs to be discussed.  If we actively show how we'll be able to help EVERYBODY I think there'd be much more support.  Because, as it stands, all I see is about how it will help Africa, and although I support that and understand what's going on, a lot of people just really don't care.  They might care just a little more if they saw how it could help their cities and states as well.


And as for the other issue that keeps getting mentioned here, I didn't want to get into it, because I doubt Steve wants everyone to comment, but I don't mind hearing about the personal stuff.  A lot of times it puts stories into context.  Our host is still the one that picks the stories because he likes them, and if there is a specific reason or connection to a particular story, I like to hear about it.  And when there's something else on his mind, well, it has become my understanding that that is exactly what being part of a podcasting community is for.

Also, Steve, I want you to know that your son is my hero....because he got to meet R2-D2.

 Grin   
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Peter Tupper
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« Reply #18 on: September 08, 2007, 11:46:32 PM »

Call me pessimistic or cynical, but I didn't buy this story. It was just too optimistic (I might go so far as to call it naive).

The quantum computers not only spontaneously evolve to sentience, but they are also nice and helpful. The kids not only love to use them, but don't use them for anything that isn't nice and helpful (no porn, no viruses, no Nigerian prince scams). Nothing human, and nothing made by humans, is that perfect.

The one scene of conflict in the whole story, with the boy who criticizes his father's farming technique, just fizzles out into nothing. Maybe his father can't bear to be seen with his son talking back to him and pulls him out of the school.

I have a theory that a science fiction story should be a thought experiment. "If we do this, what will happen then, knowing what we know about human nature?" There's no testing of the idea in this story, no internal critique of the idea that laptops in the developing world Will Make Everything Perfect for Everybody Forever. Don't get me wrong, I think the OLPC project is worthwhile, but once those laptops get out into the world, people will start using them for unforeseen applications, some of which will not be nice.

For that matter, where's the electricity to run all this stuff coming from?
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swdragoon
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« Reply #19 on: September 09, 2007, 01:10:58 AM »

almost a MEH but not quite
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