Deus Hex Machina: Interview with Timble Ada

As some of you know, I am writing a cyberpunk novel. While it may seem strange to be talking about a science fiction project on a fantasy blog, I remind you that I firmly believe science fiction is merely a subsection of a larger fantasy genre, since it imagines worlds that don’t exists. While fantasy looks to the past, science fiction looks to the future.

Speaking of the future, I have got a special treat for you today. In researching Deus Hex Machina, I stumbled on the work of noted perceptual computing expert Timble Ada. Dr. Ada graciously agreed to talk to me about the future of the Internet, how we as humans should really be interacting with technology, and when a cyberpunk future might become our reality.

I always start off with this question: What are you currently reading?
I do not have as much leisure time as I would like, so I haven’t had the chance to connect with many works of fiction of late. The last thing I read of a published nature was J.M. Mendal’s paper on the perceptual computer, but I must admit that it is something I reference often so one might better ask ‘what am I constantly reading?’
Speaking of your work, what exactly is perceptual computing?
Without getting too technical, perceptual computing is based on Zadeh’s theory of computing with words — that we can create technology that can make judgements on its own with only natural language as its computing structure. With this sort of technology, people will be able to talk with a computer and using the syntax of regular speech create functions and computations that will result in both a language response and a data output.
Imagine a computer that understands your language, that you can interact with by just talking to it, and that relates its information in an understandable way. Imagine interacting with a computer with gestures and touch, and not merely the user interface level, but within the computing itself. Prototyping a new car just by drawing the model in the air. Asking a computer to create a program for you in order to scan the Internet for books by your favorite authors. The applications for such a technology are exciting. It’s a brave new world, Ms. Orneck.

Do you see virtual reality as a step toward this more personal computer interaction?
I definitely see virtual reality as a step in the right direction, but I am less interested in the concept of interactive interfaces as I am in the notion that our computers themselves could interact with us. I do think that in order to fully integrate with a perceptual computer we will have to create new ways to interface with them. I am just not certain that virtual reality is a proper analog for that.

When will these science fiction dreams of ours — the completely immersive Internet, technology that links our brains directly into the computer, flying cars — really happen?
I can’t speak about the concept of flying automobiles as I’m a computer scientist, but I can tell you that we are closer than you might think. Intel has recently released a Per-C SDK, which will allow programmers to develop for a perceptual computing system. Video game developers are building virtual reality interfaces into their game systems. We already carry incredibly small computers around with us in our pockets wherever we go. Is it really too much to assume that in a few short years those phones might just be chips that connect to our brains via a neural uplink?
In my own work, I am striving to create a new way for people to connect to technology. While we are no where near the point where I can talk about my project, I think from what you tell me about your novel that you have the right idea about what our future would look like. Not sure about the Church of Technology though. That sounds a bit bizarre.

Do you agree with Elon Musk when he warns about the dangers of artificial intelligence?
Honestly no and I think he is missing the point. I believe that if you build a computer system that has the ability to learn from people, that any such future artificial life would have an understanding of morality on a level we cannot comprehend. Imagine having all of human history held inside your brain. All the wars, the struggles, the constant battles for dominance. A perceptual computing system would be able to cull through such data and make proper judgements about the futility of war, and then output more humane data. I truly believe that any artificial intelligence that we create will be made from the best of mankind, and much like the Asimov’s laws of robotics, will only have our best interest at heart.
Fundamentally though, Mr. Musk and I come from very different worlds. He is a man of profit, I am a man of science. Any future developments that he makes will have a price tag on them. I envision a world where access to technology is a human right, like air and water and is neither taxed nor gated based on how much wealth you have. I suppose you could say I am the Tesla to his Edison. But obviously I’ve tangented here, so I’ll leave it at that.

Thank you so much Dr. Ada for taking time out of your busy work schedule to talk with me! I’m so honored!

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