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[GUEST POST] M. Sean Coleman on The Line Between Fiction, Science Fiction and Reality

M. Sean Coleman began his writing career working for Douglas Adams as one of the original writers on Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Online, and has since written and produced original, award-winning shows for MSN, O2, Sony Pictures International, Fox, the BBC and Channel 4. He has a BA in Scriptwriting from Bournemouth University and an MA in Screenwriting from UAL. He continues to write novels, graphic novels and film and television scripts from his home in West London, UK. He wrote the first two episodes of a series of three graphic novels for the huge cross-platform project: Netwars. His first novel is The Code, which is linked to the Netwars storyworld.

The Line Between Fiction, Science Fiction and Reality

by M. Sean Coleman

When the movie WarGames came out in 1983, it was hailed as a work of science fiction. Yet, if the same film was released today, it would simply be called a thriller. Back then, the notion of a computer becoming sentient and threatening to wage war was pure science fiction, and a warning to us all to fear the rise of the machines.

Back then, computers were the size of whole rooms and everything was green screens and beige plastic. Today, we have a computer that has just passed the Turing Test – the test of a machine’s capability to exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human.

Sure, that computer isn’t in charge of any warheads, and neither does it have any decision making power about whether an attack could be launched, but its not too wild an extrapolation to see a future in which that is the case. After all, machines are neither inhibited nor encouraged by the complex emotions that control today’s warmongers, so perhaps that future already seems safer.

In researching the second book of the Netwars series, I have been learning about the computers, and more specifically, the programs, which control the global stock markets and perform the large majority of the trades that occur every day. These algorithms are almost sentient, in that they can learn from past mistakes and amend their behavior, in nanoseconds, to keep the market ticking over, and keep their profits rolling in. The work these programs do is beyond both the capability and the comprehension of the human traders on the floor, and the time it would take to cause a catastrophic crash in the market is a lot shorter than the time it would take for a human to realize it was happening and pull the plug. Machines control our economy, at the highest level, in a way we can’t really explain anymore, and we have ceded that control to them, because they are better at it. The make more money, faster than we can.

It sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it? But it’s not. And this is something that kept cropping up when I was researching the first Netwars novel, The Code. There is nothing that happens in the book that isn’t technically possible now, and although, for the sake of an engaging thriller, I made it seem easier or quicker to achieve, it is perfectly plausible that an ingenious assassin could turn any of your tech against you if they felt so inclined. You have a fancy new car, which can park itself? That ability is afforded by a piece of software which takes control of your acceleration, braking and steering – I can hack that. Your local hospital has spent a good deal of money on an internal network ensuring that allows the nurse on duty to centrally observe, and in many cases, operate the machines, drips and monitors that care for her patients – I can hack that. That scene in Homeland, where they stopped the Vice President’s pacemaker – it’s technically possible.

When I first began writing The Code, I was excited by the science fiction feel of the world I was writing in, but I quickly came to realize that it is not science fiction anymore, it’s just the modern world. The world has caught up, and I need to move on.

The true art of being a science fiction writer is to find what is really interesting about the world, and shine a light on it, by taking it to its furthest extremes. They allow us to reflect on our own world, without being hectored, and let us explore what it means to be human without feeling judged. If they do it properly, we don’t notice any of that – we are just swept away by the world, the characters and the story.

One day, perhaps when I have finished writing the Netwars series, I will have the confidence to finally write my science fiction novel, instead of dwelling in the more comfortable world of crime thrillers. I already have most of it plotted, but am still daunted by its complexity. When I do finally write it, I hope it manages to reflect the very thing that is fascinating to me about the idea itself: what it means to be human, and alive and in control of your own destiny. If I write it soon enough, it may come to pass in the future, and people will call me prescient too. Here’s hoping.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] M. Sean Coleman on The Line Between Fiction, Science Fiction and Reality

  1. Hi! Thanks for this post which was interesting and I think I’d like to check out Netwars!

    I wanted to point out that the majority opinion outside of the University of Reading is that the chatbot which reportedly passed the Turing Test earlier this summer did not in fact do so in a manner consistent with the spirit of the test.

    The same erroneous title claiming a “super computer” beat it was incestuously linked all over the blogosphere despite the fact that no supercomputer was involved in the tests. It was a web app and a database that could literally be run on a second hand laptop. Additionally the creators needed to create the back story that A) it was a child and that B) English was his second language. <– These details were literally added to cover up the fact that the chatbot (again – NOT computer) didn't behave convincingly human.

    It's still impressive that the bot was able to (once) fool about a third of the judges. It's perhaps even more relevant to us that the notion of this being some thinking machine is overblown because the fact that it is a simple trick with a chatbot puts the practicality of application squarely within reach of advertisers/criminals/scammers/what-have-yous that may benefit by automating otherwise human interactions.

    Thanks again for your post!

    Eagerly awaiting the sentient machines,

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