The Null Device
Hard sci-fi ideas man Greg Egan has started writing again. A new story of his, Steve Fever, which deals with a global plague of self-replicating nanobots hijacking human minds to recreate their dead creator, has just appeared in the Technology Review (registration or BugMeNot needed), and it's a cracker:
Steve Hasluck had been part of a team of scientists developing a new kind of medical nanomachine, refining the tiny surgical instruments so they could make decisions of their own, on the spot. Steve's team had developed an efficient way of sharing computing power across a whole swarm, allowing them to run large, complex programs known as "expert systems" that codified decades of biological and clinical knowledge into pragmatic lists of rules. The nanomachines didn't really "know" anything, but they could churn through a very long list of "If A and B, there's an 80 percent chance of C" at blistering speed, and a good list gave them a good chance of cutting a lot of diseases off short.
Then Steve found out that he had cancer, and that his particular kind wasn't covered by anyone's list of rules.
Steve decided that the swarms still had too narrow a view. He gave them a general-purpose knowledge acquisition engine and let them drink at will from the entire Web. To guide their browsing and their self-refinement, he gave them two clear goals. The first was to do no harm to their hosts. The second was to find a way to save his life or, failing that, to bring him back from the dead.
That last rider might not have been entirely crazy, because Steve had arranged to have his body preserved in liquid nitrogen. If that had happened, maybe the Stevelets would have spent the next 30 years ferrying memories out of his frozen brain. Unfortunately, Steve's car hit a tree at high speed just outside of Austin, TX, and his brain ended up as flambé.
Right-wing contrarian Jeremy Clarkson (he's sort of The Times' version of Charlie Brooker, or perhaps a very English P.J. O'Rourke) weighs into the question of sustainable food production:
Already the Atlantic has fewer cod in it than Elton John’s bath, so we are having to import fish fingers from China. And you may think this is fine. Your underpants come from the Far East, and your mobile phone, so why should we not import our watercress and beef from those industrious little yellow fellows on the banks of the Yangtze? I’ll tell you why. Because China’s population is growing, too, and soon they won’t be able to send us their fish fingers because they will have been scoffed before they get to the docks.
Obviously, one solution is to burn the entire Amazon rainforest and turn this rich and fertile place into the world’s pantry. But unfortunately this is not possible because Sting will turn up on a chat show with some pygmy who’s sewn a saucer into his bottom lip, arguing that the world’s “indigenous tribes” are suffering because of the West’s greed.
I fear, too, that if we all became vegetablists, the world would smell of halitosis and we’d all start to vote Liberal Democrat. Furthermore, all the veg-heads I know are sickly and grey and unable to climb a flight of stairs without fainting.Clarkson's modest proposal is simple: you know all those exotic species you see on BBC nature shows? Well, we could eat those. And no need to worry about endangered species, as the free market will take care of that issue:
I believe that if enough people demanded blue whale for supper, garnished with the ears of a panda and the left wing of a juicy great bustard, it wouldn’t take very long for big business to move in.
When there’s a quid to be made, pandas will be having babies with the regularity of hens and you won’t be able to go to the shops for all the leopards you’ll meet on the way.