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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

One Laptop Per Child

Blog of the Week:

Hares Rock Lots

(receives Carnal Knowledge by Charles Hodgson)

Comments (25)

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  1. Shannon Hearn says:

    This story makes you think about technology, the barriers between it, and the implications of knowledge. For all a society can do, it is education that means real power and change in the world.

    This story makes that true. It was nice seeing the interaction between teacher and students played out in such a real world way. If you can make technology cheap and effective and to the point were everyone has it and the conversation between teacher, student and technology (the AI in the story) becomes something where the barriers between learning and applying it to the world becomes the greatest challenge.

    When it comes to application of knowledge it is hard to change entrenched ways as stated by the story. Sometimes a nudge by the right person (such as a child) to do something different and outside of the box can change the world in ways that one cannot expect.

    But this story can be summed by this thought.

    In a hundred years, It won’t matter what house you lived in, how much was in your bank account, or what type of clothes you wore. All that matters is the time that you took out to help a child learn. In that way you can change the world.

    Shannon Hearn

  2. Weeell, it’s a tech exposition story without the actual tech. The word “quantum” gets thrown around a lot, but if you try replacing it with “super cool” you’ll see that it’s just window dressing.

    Also, I’m not optimistic about the effects of dropping tech into poor Zambian villages. Most likely the militia would just steal it, and whatever was left would be used by younger siblings as bath toys.

  3. wez says:

    If you can look past the little technical issues, you really end up enjoying this story.

    I found the idea of growing / cultivating your own A.I. very amusing! But the moment you build an A.I. thats more clever than you, it will be the last thing you ever make:
    Man builds machine, machine becomes smarter than man, machine builds better machine, man becomes obsolete.

    The part that caught my attention, was where the A.I. said: “If truly objective moral principals exist, then, by definition, they must be beneficial for all.”
    That really struck me as the point where you realize these artificial beings have a sense of morality! If only we were grown in boxes, just so we could have cultivated morals too.

  4. Wiseguy says:

    Laptops may not be beneficiary to children at all. At least in schools. See this article

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/04/education/04laptop.html?ex=1189656000&en=9ca69f89378a31bc&ei=5070

    for example. I rather doubt that laptops would actually help children understand stuff and educational software has yet to prove that the effort in making it actually pays off.

  5. Evergreen says:

    This story could have been an interesting stick-it-to-the-man story, had it spent more time on the effort and setbacks that went into creating the bio-quantum AI that raised the standard of living for a poor, Zambian village. Instead it resorts to a magic bullet cure.
    Or it could have been a stimulating what-if story, had it delved into the ramifications of dropping cheap, powerful laptops into an agricultural, village society traditionally on the periphery. But as a what-if story, it is far too shallow; as a fight-the-man story, it doesn’t focus enough on the fight. This story, unfortunately, disappoints on both of its two fronts.

  6. Felicia says:

    As a former IT volunteer in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I have thought a lot about development and technology. It seems to me that the difference between the quote about how the roadblock to education is that lack of a laptop for each kid and the story is that in the story the computers have great software. I haven’t seen anything from computers today that would lead me to believe that plopping down a laptop with MS Office on it in front of any kid is going to solve problems. Usually, the computers are killed by dust before they are able to do any good (and if a poor girl from a Zambian village learns to use MS Office, she is going to end up (more often than not) being a secretary for an NGO). What I liked about the story was that the computer taught the user to use it and then had some really good modeling software. Did the AI figure out which option was best and then spit it out for the kids or did the kids have to try to figure out which inputs would work best? Perhaps if it was really awesome software, it was a combination of the two. In the end, though, when you have an AI that is that good, isn’t it just like having a really good teacher (plus modeling software)? Maybe instead of dropping laptops on villages to solve their problems we should wait until AIs are better and until then just send teachers.

  7. Justin says:

    Sorry Steve,

    this one really didn’t do it for me! I like my tech understandable and my R rated more explicit…

    (Sorry for not being more serious) :)

  8. melissa says:

    The story was sparked interest in me with the idea of teaching what most would think of as the less teachable. Great ideas.

  9. Dan says:

    “Man builds machine, machine becomes smarter than man, machine builds better machine, man becomes obsolete.” I would add “Women inherit the earth”

    Wez, You should read Issac Asimov’s “The Last Question” There is a computer in it that is so smart that it is responsible for designing it’s replacements and furthermore, it gets along great with man!

  10. Matt says:

    This story really struck me as being more about the author trying to find a venue to expound the virtues of his political ideas/system of ethics than anything else.

    I wouldn’t mind except that his political ideas happen to be, in my opinion, rather shallow, simplistic, and basically lacking in credibility.

    The idea of a biological quantum computer is interesting.

    Using said computer to try to beat up the ‘evil capitalistic industrialized west’ straw man is actually kind of weak and pathetic.

    Also, I really do have to mention that the idea of an ‘objective morality’ is literally laughable.

    I laugh. I laugh in your face if you haven’t spent the 15 minutes of thinking required to disprove this moronic assertion to yourself.

    While I’m at it: there is no Santa Claus.

    There, I’m glad I got that all off of my chest.

    Cheers!

  11. Salul says:

    I have to agree with several of the comments here that point to the premise of the story being shallow.

    The (very self-complacent) belief that plonking laptops down on a marginal agricultural village in Africa will solve the man-made problems related to poverty, social exclusion and hardship that billions of people live with every day is ludicrous. It may perhaps be morally feel-good and self-congratulatory…but actually ludicrous. Indeed, offensive, and that is why it requires a bit of critical commentary.

    I have little to add, because several of the previous comments are quite articulate, but did you also notice that, once again, it is Western, tech-savvy white people who, by virtue of their self-professed technological superiority come to the rescue of the poor, marginalised black village?

    As an anthropologist with many years’ experience in out-of-the-way and impoverished rural scenarios I can attest to the fact that, given a little bit of humility, silence and sense of equality, we tech-savvy moderns are often taught far more interesting lessons in both humanity and even technology (if by technology we mean a corpus of specialised knowledge practices and the artefacts that represent them) by people whose condition is too often diminished by our own shallow presuppositions about what it means to be poor, rural and non-modern.

  12. Rich Gibson says:

    I loved the story. It reflects an intrinsic optimism, and an example of living ones’ principles.

    I disagree with Matt that the story beat up on the ‚Äòevil capitalistic industrialized west‚Äô straw man.”

    There was one dig at the ‘interesting’ view of intellectual property which the ‘west’ is currently using in an active effort to control the rest of the world.

    (the early, and not so early, history of the US had us acting as very active IP pirates against the British and Europeans-we actively ignored ‘their’ IP in order to benefit ourselves. Our use of IP against the rest of the world is a morally indefensible act which is virtually indistinguishable from an act of war)

    I expected that theme to go somewhere deeper in the story-like having the evil west come in and try and shut down the biquos under some effed up intellectual property argument. And I was prepared to cheer as the scrappy village kids used their Biquos to defeat the Western IP rapists. But the story didn’t go that way. It stayed in a double plus good place.

    So, uh, there?

  13. Alex says:

    I had a hard time following any of the who, what, when, and where during this reading. The characters, dialog, and narration bled together, and not just because of the reading. The reading‚Äîfortunately‚Äîdidn’t crush my soul as much as Lemony Snicket reading Lemony Snicket, but it sure didn’t bring much to the story. (Tim Curry reading Lemony Snicket is superb, btw.)

  14. Neil Leslie says:

    I’m not sure what the point of this story was: that one day human beings will figure out how to build cheap, powerful eco-friendly artificial intelligences and everything will be really cool from there on out? Struck me as more than a little bit of pie-in-the-sky naivete. This is the sort of thing that bugs me when I read some scientists’ essays,the attitude that seems to say, “Give scientists enough time and eventually we’ll figure EVERYTHING out.”

  15. Pavlina says:

    This story really did next to nothing for me. I was on a long drive, so I listened to the entire thing. I found the story hard to follow while driving, never a good thing. I notice that you slip one of these, too-complex-to-listen-while-driving stories in every so often. I find that I have no desire to go back and re-listen because I am so annoyed. I appreciate the effort you make, but I have the too complex ones, a fact I am sure my fellow drivers on the road will appreciate.

  16. draconfly says:

    I liked the story because it reminded me of the strong sense of community in Ghana (and other developing countries) where I have done volunteer work. I struggle with all the “west is best” issues of technological transfer but I’m pretty confident that the work I’ve done has had a net positive effect– while fully aware of the fact that I have learned far more from my friends abroad than I have been able to teach. If anyone out there is interested in finding out (or helping out) more about technological transfer that protects elephants and promotes small scale beekeeping google “bees for babar” and check out the website and relate youtube video.

  17. margaret says:

    I’m sorry, but, did the author actually claim that “breaking down trade barriers” as a positive thing, allowing the industrialized countries to “share their wealth”? Every bit of research I’ve seen indicates that it is the breaking down of trade barriers that exists to -extract- natural resources (aka wealth) from the third world.
    Add to this the rather ludicrous, nearly misogynist sexuality of the story, and I had to give up listening sometime around the third time the man is talked out of his line of thinking by the sex-hungry genius.

  18. Dave (aka Nev the Deranged) says:

    I don’t mind the “complexity”, even though I mostly listen while driving or working, but the “deadpan” reading made this story really hard to follow, and even harder to enjoy. I know you like to give your friends and fellow ‘casters a chance to read, and I’m fine with a little nepotism (what else are friends for?) but maybe a little more care when selecting for audio-enjoyment would be nice.

    As for the story… well, everything has pretty much been said. I would have liked to hear more about the Clarkian biotech, and the concept of AI morality would have been interesting to follow up on, or even, hell, more explicit sex scenes… anything to save this story from the delivery.

    No offense, deadpan-guy. Just my 2c.

  19. Lauren says:

    The idea of a computer that can respond to you is interesting, however do you really thkink that these kids would actually know what to do with it. After all, most of them still cling to beliefs that you and I would find odd and pagan. As for naming the systems after the activist Steve Biko I’m not sure what i think of that, given the fact that not all people in the US know or for that matter have ever heard of him or of what he did.

  20. Jan Bear says:

    The problem is that it really isn’t a story. It’s a saccharine political-economic-philosophical diatribe trucked in on dialogue and exposition (Ayn Rand, call your office). The only conflict is that the writer can’t get his/her (sorry, I forget which) info dumps in because the info-dumper wants more gratuitous sex. Yawn.

    I hope this isn’t the beginning of a trend for Escape Pod.

  21. […] It’s a very surreal piece, mixing gritty reality with the stark contrast of future endeavors and self-doubt. I enjoyed the way Vries jumped from scene to scene, especially towards the end of the story. Technology is both a blessing and a curse, and “Transcendence Express” really makes one think about where we are going as a culture, a society, a tech-wired force that seems unstoppable at times. There are no answers here, only ideas. But they are haunting ones, articulately accurate. Definitely worth a read, and I’m thankful that Hubhad the mind to reprint it online. It can also be listened to as a podcast, which I haven’t checked out yet, over at Escape Pod. […]

  22. Jetse says:

    Thanks for all the comments. For those interested in reading the story, Hub Magazine has released a free version of it two weeks ago, here:

    http://www.hub-mag.co.uk/?p=28

    For those interested in a real-life Third World development, check out Gaviotas:

    http://money.cnn.com/2007/09/26/technology/village_saving_planet.biz2/

    (Now I hope this post survives the next server switch…;-)

  23. This story didn’t do it for me. Party the voice and mostly the story. The gratuitous sex seemed out of place among other things.

    The ending quote rang true, I have to remember that one.

  24. scatterbrain says:

    With the logic of this story, this DVD case I’m holding can be turned into a Mac with the power of will.

  25. […] the last print version — and reprinted online in Hub #44 and as a podcast on Escape Pod episode #122) will be reprinted there. Lavie approached me last year, so I knew about this project a while back. […]