FLUTHER: Will you tell us a little about your family life?
I’m married. My wife is a biology and chemistry teacher. We raised two kids (fraternal twins, 21 years old) who are now both in college. Our cat named Siri is also part of our family and she holds a record in catching mice in our neighborhood.
FLUTHER: Besides Fluther, what do you do for fun and relaxation?
Music plays a vital role in my life. I enjoy playing the piano and I’m also a member of a large choir in our nearby town. To fill the time during my daily commutes I often listen to music of almost any genre and flavor. Powerful and captivating melodies as well as rich harmonies are important to me. My favorites span a wide range. Everything from Johann S. Bach and Gabriel Fauré to Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Queen, and Enya.
I read about 60–70 books every year (both English and German, and both fiction and nonfiction). Here are four books I read recently that thoroughly impressed me: Why People Believe in Weird Things by Michael Shermer, The Goldilocks Enigma by Paul Davies, Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller and Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. My favorite fiction authors are Sylvia Engdahl, David Brin, Stephen Baxter and Ken Follett.
I enjoy movies like Gattaca, Rainman, Forrest Gump, Bend it like Beckham and Once Upon a Time in America. Avatar was absolutely breathtaking. To me one of the best and funniest television series is Big Bang Theory. Maybe because I’m somewhat of a nerd too, although not as extreme as the Sheldon character.
FLUTHER: We know you’ve lived in Germany and Kansas. Where were you born and what is your native language? How did you become so fluent in your second language?
My native language is German and I was born in Germany. I took 8 years of English in high school. When I began to study computer science in 1983, I realized that all of our younger German professors had published most of their articles and books in English. One of the professors told us outright that computer science is a global profession. The best people are all interconnected and there’s only one common global language: English. Well, I certainly wanted to belong to the group the professor was referring to.
FLUTHER: How did you come to live in both places?
My major subjects were computational linguistics and artificial intelligence. All the standard textbooks were in English. One of my favorite German professors often talked about his time in the United States and he kept stressing the importance of international experience for aspiring IT professionals. Before completing my studies in Germany, I applied for a scholarship and became a graduate student at the University of Kansas in 1988.
My time in Kansas profoundly changed my life. I got married and became the proud father of twins. They were born in Lawrence, KS, a place where we met the most friendly and supportive people in the world. After graduation, we had to decide where to settle, and the decision wasn’t an easy one.
My first job took me to Munich. I joined an international team which had developed a machine translation system capable of translating texts from German to English and vice versa. The translations were okay for texts restricted to particular domains. Many words have multiple meanings, but when a program is supposed to translate, say, a manual for the installation of telephone switchboards, it assumes that the translation for the German word ‘Empfänger’ is receiver and not recipient or audience or beneficiary (all valid translations). Still, none of the translations were perfect and even today when you try systems like translate.google.com you sometimes get funny output like ‘If your dachshund to my dachshund dachshund says again, your dachshund get from my dachshund such a gedackelt that your dachshund dachshund can not say more.’
So our kids grew up in Germany, but are American citizens, and we try not to lose touch. As tourists, we get back to the US every other year or so. Often this feels like coming home, which is not to say we don’t like Germany. We like both countries, and it’s a bit of a shame that there’s this huge ocean in between. One of the reasons I decided to join, and become seriously involved in, American based Q & A sites is that I do miss America.
FLUTHER: Did/do you prefer living in one place over the other? What makes it preferable?
We prefer the US when it comes to encouraging people to think big and try out new things. We love the pioneering spirit and the innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurship. Just consider how companies like Apple or Google have changed the world.
We prefer Germany when it comes to taking a serious interest in other countries and observing what other countries might be doing better. Many Americans seem to think that America is best at almost everything. Well, one has to take a closer look beyond borders to find out whether this is really so. Modesty and temperance are important values in Germany and this is very important to us. Our social market economy has been a very successful way of managing economic change while offering people a higher level of financial security. Health care for every citizen has been a reality since 1950. Green parties were invented in Europe. When it comes to environmental awareness and sustainable consumption, many Europeans think that America has a lot of catching up to do. But things are changing slowly for the better.
FLUTHER: Where else have your travels taken you?
It’s absolutely wonderful to travel around the world and I’ve been very fortunate to afford all this and have a job with a global company that also involves business trips. I’ve been to more than 20 European countries and 40 states in the US. I’ve also visited countries like Canada, Egypt, Turkey, India, Singapore, and Australia. Other than traveling, I really don’t have expensive hobbies. I drive a small Ford Fiesta that achieves 65 miles per gallon, so higher gas prices don’t affect me much. When I travel by airplane, I donate money to organizations like Atmosfair.de to compensate for my greenhouse gas emissions.
There was a time at my company that involved a great deal of business travel, mostly to New York, but also some other cities like Baltimore or San Francisco. In many of our international projects IT specialists from Frankfurt, London, New York and Bangalore need to work as a team. There are cultural differences which have to be managed. But as people get older, frequent business travel loses some of its appeal. In fact, it can become quite a burden. And there’s a difference between having to fly to Milan or New York. Restructuring IT organizations seems like an all-time popular pastime, so a couple of years ago my focus shifted. Doing European projects is interesting and challenging as well, but as I said, I also miss this connection with America. Maybe this was one of the reasons I decided to write a science fiction novel set in the US. As already mentioned, to me the US is clearly the number 1 place in the world where people are encouraged to think big. Where else could a journey to the stars begin?
FLUTHER: Please tell us about some notable influences in your life.
Dreamers think big and start small, while fools think small and start big. We all know about the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech by Martin Luther King given in 1963, in which he called for racial equality and an end to discrimination. It certainly seemed like a dream at the time and many small steps were necessary to improve the situation. Today Barack Obama is President of the United States of America. Some dreams do come true if you are willing to work for them. Well, I’m a dreamer too. And I share Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a better future free of discrimination, famine, war and poverty.
One of my other role models is Christian Fuehrer, a Protestant minister and one of the leading figures and organizers of the 1989 Monday demonstrations in East Germany which brought down the Berlin Wall without bloodshed and finally led to the German reunification. During the first months of 1989 the East German authorities imposed more and more pressure to stop the peace prayers in Leipzig. They controlled access roads and arrested random ‘suspects’ inside and outside Fuehrer’s church. However, they were unsuccessful and the Monday prayers continued with an increasing number of attendees.
Of course, I greatly admire scientists like Aristarchus, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg and Murray Gell-Mann. Science should matter to all of us. Even in our everyday lives. Here’s a truly amazing story about a British girl named Tilly Smith, who, at age 10, saved nearly a hundred foreign tourists at Maikhao Beach in Thailand by raising the alarm minutes before the arrival of the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. She learned about tsunamis in a geography lesson two weeks before the tsunami and recognized the receding shoreline and frothing bubbles on the surface of the sea and alerted her parents, who warned others on the beach and the staff at the hotel on Phuket where they were staying. The beach was evacuated before the tsunami reached shore, and was one of the few beaches on the island with no reported casualties. I think millions of boys and girls should be inspired by Tilly Smith. She is a true celebrity, not the ones wearing fancy dresses and fashionable hairstyles.
FLUTHER: What advice would you give to the general populace about how to use words as well as you do?
I think the most important factors are reading as many good articles or books as possible, practicing writing whenever possible (for example on Fluther), and a commitment to lifelong learning.
FLUTHER: Based on your Fluther participation, you seem to be a rare breed: a scientifically-minded individual who also believes in a higher power. Which came first, the science or the faith? Do you ever have trouble reconciling the two?
I’d say first came my childhood faith, which was later replaced by the scientific understanding of our universe. I passionately believe in evidence-based thinking. But as an adult, I also realized that science cannot answer all questions, like what the ultimate purpose of the universe is. Seth Lloyd, who is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, compares our universe to a giant computer running a program called the natural laws. Theists believe in divine authorship of this program, while atheists believe the program has the capability to write itself. Both views are acceptable to me.
My more mature faith, which I developed as an adult, involves more than just the belief in a higher power. There’s also the role of religion and the role of non-religious spirituality. Danah Zohar, who is a management thought leader, physicist, and philosopher, points out that our search for meaning is the primary motivation in our lives. Some call this search a spiritual endeavor. And it is when this deep need for meaning goes unmet that our lives come to feel shallow or empty. Our modern age seems to be defined by the breakdown of family and community and traditional religion, and the loss or absence of heroes. We live at a time when there seem to be no clear goalposts, no clear rules, no clear values, no clear way to grow up, and no clear vision of responsibility. Zohar argues that this spiritual void has come about as a product of our high human IQ. We have reasoned ourselves away from nature and our fellow creatures, and we have reasoned ourselves beyond religion. In our great technological way forward, we have left traditional culture with its embedded values behind.
I agree with her assessment. Deprived of a deep, meaningful center, many people seek meaning in distorted or peripheral activities like materialism, greed, violence, an obsession with health and beauty, drug abuse or New Age occultism. Eventually this can lead to cynicism and despair or mere conformity. So I keep looking for different answers and I think modern forms of religions have a lot to offer. There’s more to it than many people realize. I also think that a good metaphysical and ethical framework for our lives does not necessarily depend on (organized) religion. We should tap into all sources of wisdom available. To me God represents the ultimate framework of meaning and value, what Danah Zohar calls the ultimate context-giver and the ultimate ‘big picture’. We should all try to figure out our big picture and I know many people will find different answers. That’s perfectly fine. I was trying to outline what works for me.
FLUTHER: You regularly blow our minds, but we’d like to know who or what blows your mind. Care to share?
When we take a deeper look at what’s going on in the core of our sun, this still totally blows my mind. The sun wouldn’t shine without the ‘magic’ of quantum tunneling. Protons disappear and magically pass through the barrier of another proton reappearing on the other side close enough for nuclear fusion to occur. It’s like you entering your house through your front door without opening it.
FLUTHER: What else blows my mind? Here are a couple of examples in the form of ‘what if’ questions:
What if there were a complete merger between human technology and human intelligence, could we decorate walls using our thoughts? What if we could slow down the aging process, halt it entirely, or even reverse it? What if we stored the genomes of all living species in digital seed banks and find ways to bring them to life in the distant future? What if we built a space elevator that drastically reduces costs of lifting off materials from Earth?
FLUTHER: Are these the people/things that inspire your questions on Fluther? Do you really wonder about the topics of your questions or do you ask them to spark discussion?
Most of my questions belong to Fluther’s social section. Very often I’ve got an answer of my own already, but I’m interested in the answers of others, because I like to challenge my assumptions. And yes, I do ask them to spark discussion!
FLUTHER: What is your favorite question asked by you and why? Your favorite question on the site as a whole?
It might be Are liberals smarter than conservatives?, because there are so many great contributions. Particularly by Zuma, Qingu, Liminal, LostInParadise, Simone, Seek_Kolinahr, Fyrius, Trillian, and Nullo, when we were discussing the role of religion and the concepts of mythos and logos.
For the site as a whole, it might be What’s so bad about Sarah Palin?, because it explores the reasons why Sarah Palin isn’t qualified to lead the most powerful country on our planet. Her being elected would not only affect the US, but also Europe and all the other continents and it would have disastrous consequences. There seems to be a growing number of Republican voters who think countries should be run by normal people. They seem suspicious of people with degrees from Harvard. Being intellectual sounds negative to them. This is a very dangerous trend and we should do something about it. We need the people who are best qualified for a particular job. And it’s time to give the word ‘intellectual’ back its positive connotation.
Education is key. We need young people taking an interest in science and technology. We need optimism and bold, fresh ideas to allow our small planet with its limited resources to accommodate 8 billion people in the near future.
We need to find meaning and purpose in our lives. We need new goalposts, new rules, new values, and new visions of responsibility that meet the demands of the twenty-first century. It will be a yotta, zetta, exa, peta, tera, giga, mega effort.
But we can do it. Yes, we can.
FLUTHER: Can you describe, in layman’s terms, what you do for a living?
I’m an IT manager employed by a multinational company in Frankfurt, Germany. My team is comprised of about 30 technical specialists and application developers.
FLUTHER: Do you incorporate or build upon any of the technologies you work with in your writing?
Yes, natural language processing software. My master’s thesis dealt with the future of grammar and spell checkers and the major hurdles which have to be overcome. During my time in Munich it also became obvious that a high-quality machine translation system needs to pass the so-called Turing test to be able to fully compete with human translators. The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence. It proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.
FLUTHER: In your book, The Future Happens Twice: The Perennial Project, the science of linguistics played an important role. What previous experiences do you have with linguistics and how do you see it relating to computer science currently and in the near future?
The androids in my novel, having learned how to raise children on a starship, are capable of passing the Turing test. Ray Kurzweil, an American inventor and futurist, has wagered that his predictions about a computer program passing the Turing test will be true by the year 2029. On the site Long Bets he is betting against Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus Software Corporation for a payout of $20,000. My story is set in the year 2061, so it’s reasonable to assume that intelligent androids will be available by then. More challenging issues than linguistics are actually the hardware of androids, their optical pattern recognition capabilities and fine-motor control. Imagine a team of androids trying to beat the best human basketball team.
FLUTHER: Was this novel, part one of a trilogy, your first book of any kind?
My first serious writing experience was my master’s thesis, which was several hundred pages long. But the novel was my first work of fiction.
FLUTHER: What prompted you to write it?
I’ve always been a huge science fiction fan. In 1997 I had the idea of creating my own science fiction story. It was merely for fun and perhaps to use the time of my daily commutes in a different way. I didn’t think about publishing. I considered it to be an experiment and an interesting learning experience. Perhaps even some kind of spiritual journey probing into my inner self. You see, everyday I have the fortune of experiencing the immense complexity of humankind, ranging from the love and support that my family gives me to the sheer ugliness of the many natural, political and economic tragedies in the world. These contrasting human and natural activities drove me to question what it really means to be a ‘human being’ in this universe of ours, how we plan to spend our future and what the future holds for us. There are great opportunities as well as dangers that everyone should be aware of. We need a discussion of the ethical issues related to new technologies, especially in genetics and bioengineering, but also in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
Eventually I began to write down my ideas and showed it to a good friend. After my first rounds of self-editing, I showed the manuscript to several other friends who would later also become my peer reviewers. They encouraged me to keep going and become a real writer. They told me that my story had potential for publishing. That was a crucial moment. Could I actually do this? Of course I had doubts. Go for it, they said! So, starting out as crazy experiment and killing time in my car, this turned into a real project. And I was hooked. Writing became almost addictive.
The plot itself grew out of my strong interest in space and my desire to make space-related topics known to a broader audience. In the year 2000 the Sunday Times newspaper carried an article by their medical correspondent Lois Rogers titled ‘Couple seek to have twins born years apart’. This was the first time I learned about the newly developed technology of embryo-splitting and decided to use it in my novel. I was particularly interested in the psychological aspects and the ethical implications. Besides that, I was also inspired by Bill McGuire’s book Apocalypse and Surviving Armageddon — Solutions for a Threatened Planet and his message that as a race, we survive on planet Earth purely by geological consent. I asked myself: Is this really true?
FLUTHER: How long did it take, from concept to finished product? Did you always know it would be a trilogy?
Almost 10 years. The most important part was setting up a network of reliable peer reviewers. One was a Dutch child psychologist giving me very valuable tips. And she told me, ‘Hey, I never thought that science fiction could be so interesting and appealing to women’. All of my early peer reviewers got curious about what would happen to the newly founded colony on planet Acantarius. Everyone agreed that the colonists would always wonder about the fate of the people left behind on Earth. Would they eventually attempt to get back? How would they travel back? What would they find on the planet of their origin? Those questions became the basis of Human Destiny, the second book in the trilogy. In the third book, for the first time in history, human civilization makes an attempt to travel to the Andromeda galaxy. The difference for trilogies is the need for planting the seeds in the first novel already, which I did.
FLUTHER: Are parts two and three of the trilogy available yet? If so, where can we find them?
The overall concepts are complete. In terms of the actual writing I’d say about 25% is done. I’m actually looking for a co-writer to help me speed up the completion of the two sequels. Of course, his or her name would appear on the cover of the published sequels.
FLUTHER: Is that a hint? If a reader were interested in being your co-author, should they contact you? If so, how?
Anyone interested in becoming a co-writer could simply send me a PM or an email. I’m serious about it.
FLUTHER: I bet there are a few Flutherites who might just take you up on that! Thanks so much, Matt, for allowing us this glimpse into your life and your mind. It’s been fascinating!
AR: Matt, thanks for joining us for this interview. We appreciate having this opportunity to learn more about The Future Happens Twice series.
Where did you get the idea to write The Perennial Project?
MB: Everyday I have the fortune of experiencing the immense complexity of humankind, ranging from the love and support that my family gives me to the sheer ugliness of the many natural, political and economic tragedies in the world. These contrasting human and natural activities drove me to question what it really means to be a "human being" in this universe of ours, how we plan to spend our future and what the future holds for us. There are great opportunities as well as dangers that everyone should be aware of. We need a discussion of the ethical issues related to new technologies, especially in genetics and bioengineering, but also in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. The plot itself grew out of my strong interest in space and my desire to make space-related topics known to a broader audience.
In the year 2000 the Sunday Times newspaper carried an article by their medical correspondent Lois Rogers with the title "Couple seek to have twins born years apart". This was the first time I learned about the newly developed technology of embryo-splitting and decided to use it in my novel. I was particularly interested in the psychological aspects and the ethical implications. Besides that, I was also inspired by Bill McGuire's books Apocalypse and Surviving Armageddon - Solutions for a Threatened Planet. His main message is: "As a race, we survive on planet Earth purely by geological consent."
AR: Please share in more detail for our readers exactly what an Extinction Level Event is.
MB: I think the online encyclopedia Wikipedia offers a pretty good definition: an extinction-level event or ELE is a sharp decrease in the number of species in a relatively short period of time. Mass extinctions affect most major taxonomic groups present at the time such as birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and other simpler life forms. Since life began on Earth, several major mass extinctions have significantly exceeded the background extinction rate. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago, and has attracted more attention than all others because it killed the dinosaurs. In the past 550 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died.
Causes of mass extinctions include: meteorite impacts (asteroids or comets hitting the Earth), massive sustained volcanism and flood basalt events, nearby supernovae or gamma ray bursts, sustained global cooling or global warming. Sadly, our species has added a number of man-made threats to the list: global nuclear war, a pandemic caused by biological weapons such as genetically engineered viruses, uncontrolled proliferation of malicious nanotechnology or the advent of a technological singularity i.e. a smarter-than-human entity who rapidly accelerates technological progress.
AR: Is the chance of one happening in our near future more probable than we realize?
MB: We have to distinguish between "high impact - low frequency" events on one side and "low impact - high frequency" events on the other. The latter would include minor earthquakes (less than 4 on the Richter scale) or car accidents. It's our good fortune that high impact events are very rare. Yet they are still possible. Unfortunately, many people do not realize this possibility. We should also pay more attention to the events in between, which are of the type "medium impact - medium frequency". Larger tsunamis would fall into this category. Scientists knew and predicted that deadly tsunamis would affect the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean. Yet no warning system had been installed in that region before the terrible tsunami hit on December 26, 2004.
My point is: we should take Nature's powers very seriously. This includes extinction level events as well. Again, they are not probable, but they do happen. We should be prepared for that. Supervolcanoes are a reality. Meteorite impacts are a reality. Global warming with the potential of a very dramatic greenhouse effect is a reality. I strongly recommend watching Nobel Prize winner Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth". Even if a combination of man-made carbon dioxide emissions and our entering a warmer period in a natural cycle is responsible, it's still a very serious issue. We need to do something about it. In the long run we have to look at space as well. Space exploration matters. Our species should not be confined to one planet or one solar system forever. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking once said: "It's space flight or extinction." Increasingly powerful technologies make man-threats even more perilous. The Lifeboat Foundation for example develops strategies helping humanity to survive the aforementioned existential risks.
AR: Many people (who have probably watched too many old movies) have mistaken notions of exactly what androids are. Please expound on their significance, as well as how that plays out in your story.
MB: Again, Wikipedia offers an excellent definition: an android is a robot designed to resemble a human, usually both in appearance and behavior. This means that at least on the outside an android looks like a normal human being. An android can understand and speak human languages and the robotic features allow him or her to climb stairs or catch balls. Why are androids so significant in my story? Until we can send deep-frozen, hibernating people on interstellar missions, we have to rely on cryopreserved human embryos. This technology is available today and applied in numerous in vitro fertilization clinics. Artificial wombs will very likely become available over the next ten to twenty years. Babies are helpless creatures. On a starship that will have traveled for thousands of years, the use of androids to take care of the babies and raise the children is the most logical approach. This can be complemented by virtual reality environments that will provide additional stimulation during the children's upbringing and education.
AR: Though the book borrows many devices from the conventional Sci-Fi realm, the way that you combine them in the unfolding of the story is very unique and innovative. Who have been some of your writing influences?
MB: My favorite science fiction author is Sylvia Engdahl. I was particularly influenced by her book "The Children of the Star". It's also a trilogy in which human psychology and biotechnology play a crucial role. Other authors that had an influence on my career as a writer are Michael Crichton, Stephen Baxter, David Brin, and Robert Sawyer. I also admire the non-fiction books written by Carl Sagan, Nigel Calder, Marcus Chown, Alvin Toffler, and Thomas Friedman.
AR: What kinds of reactions have you gotten to the book?
MB: I was quite overwhelmed by the large number of female readers stating: "Hey, I never thought that science fiction could be so interesting and appealing to women." In general, most readers appreciate the focus on the human element without the science and technology parts ever getting too dominant. Most people are intrigued by the plot after the first 30 - 40 pages and like the idea of the cat and mouse detective story woven into the overall plot. It fills me with pride that people find the book intellectually stimulating. The science-keen readers appreciate the unique combination of visions and ideas that are explored through a diverse range of emerging technologies. It also became clear to me that my novel appeals to readers who like complex characters and epic storylines. Some prospective buyers may be daunted by a 730-page book. On the other hand, there are numerous book lovers who enjoy exactly that. And those who did keep asking me: "Where are the next 700 pages?"
AR: The Perennial Project is the first book of the series. What inspired you to create this ongoing story as a trilogy?
MB: All of my early peer reviewers got curious about what would happen to the newly founded colony on planet Acantarius. Everyone agreed that the colonists would always wonder about the fate of the people left behind on Earth. Would they eventually attempt to get back? How would they travel back? What would they find on the planet of their origin? Those questions became the basis of Human Destiny, the second book in the trilogy.
AR: Care to share with our readers a bit of what they can expect in the next two books?
MB: As the embryo-splitting technique can always be repeated, another set of identical twins of the last crew, together with their androids, are chosen to man the retrofitted starship Perennial. When they arrive on Earth 42,000 years later they find that there are still humans surviving. But all technology has been lost and the cultures are living on a Stone Age level: the Forest People and the Cave People. A long ice age that has lasted for thousands of years has prevented speedy human development.
Now at a time of climate change, farming has just been reinvented, but tools are still made of stone. The Cave People have developed a new religion that prohibits them from entering the Old Cities where some skyscrapers can still be seen in southern areas that were out of reach of the powerful glaciers. The ground is covered with debris from the gigantic volcanic eruption. Julara and the others are confronted with the question of intervening in the people's nature-oriented lives.
In the third book for the first time in history, human civilization makes an attempt to travel to another galaxy: Andromeda. Further progress in starship propulsion systems limits the travel to eighty-nine million years to bridge the enormous distance between the two galaxies. Julara and her fellow crew grow up in the distant future where Perennial sets a course to the star system where an intelligent signal originates. Their mission is to make first contact with a peculiar alien species.
AR: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
MB: I'd like to quote the famous artist Michelangelo who once said: "The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it." Ever so true!
AR: Thanks again, Matt, and best of continued success to you in all your endeavors!
Matt Browne, an IT professional living in Frankfurt, Germany, is this week's featured interview. With a Masters degree in Computer Science and Computational Linguistics, Matt Browne has been involved in projects developing natural language processing with a strong focus on machine translation systems.
Hosted by Stephen Euin Cobb, this is the January 16, 2008 episode of The Future And You. [Running time: 87 minutes]
Matt talks about natural language processing and how long it might be before a computer passes the Turing Test; human resistance to the creation of human level artificial intelligences; and how this will lead to the singularity. But also how, long before The Singularity, huge profits will be made with AI applications.
He also describes catastrophic dangers to the human race such as super volcanoes and asteroids, and why this has lead him to become a member of The Lifeboat Foundation. He also covers many of the social and political trends growing in Germany and throughout Europe. Including his observation that prosperity is on the rise in Europe and all around the world; and how it is that English is becoming the common world language, and why the French are not happy about it.
Matt is also the author of the Hard SF novel The Future Happens Twice in which he explores concepts such as: interstellar space colonization using frozen embryos; earth-like extrasolar planets; embryo-splitting technology and artificial wombs; the cryopreservation of human embryos; children being raised by sophisticated androids; and human survival threatened by an impending extinction-level event.
1. What made you decide to become a writer?
I've loved science fiction all my life. Ten years ago I contemplated creating my own sci-fi story, but at first I wasn't really planning on publishing a book. I'm a commuter and each day I spend two hours in heavy traffic. Over the years this gets pretty boring. At first the story was developing in my head. Later I bought a little recording device and started working out more of the story's details: characters, locations, suspense, gripping dialogs, critical milestones etc. Eventually over a period of several months I wrote everything down. After my first rounds of self-editing, I showed this to several friends who would later become my peer reviewers. They encouraged me to keep going and become a real writer. They told me my story had potential for publishing. That was a crucial moment. Could I really do this? Go for it, they said! So starting out as crazy experiment and killing time in my car, this turned into a real project. And I was hooked. Writing became almost addictive. A second motivation was using science fiction as a vehicle to get more people interested in science and to raise the awareness about Nature's awesome powers. Because of my demaning day job, I needed several more years to get it to a state where publishers would consider it.
2. How did you come up with the space travel concept for your book?
Most of the time I prefer hard science fiction. Slow interstellar travel is far more realistic. Embryo space colonization is not my idea, but I kept thinking about how this might really work and that serious testing is a necessity for every large-scale project. I'm an IT professional and we have to do it all time.
3. I noticed the The Future Happens Twice is full of moral quandaries. What are the difficulties in handling such quandaries in a work of fiction? What methods make them successful?
The issue of the test became a moral dilemma. My peer reviewers told me that this is perfect to get readers drawn into the subject. Public debates about human cloning and embryo technology is also beneficial for getting the readers' attention. The difficulty was creating the characters in a believable way. Normally the protagonists are the good people and the heroes. What does this mean for my book? Is there really such a thing as the greater good? My method was trying to put oneself into the positions of the project members who are involved in human experimentation. See the secret project through their eyes. What would they think? What contradictory feelings would they have? They would be plenty of doubts, but in the end all scientists would have to make a decision.
4. Do you listen to music when you write, and if so what types of music?
Yes, I do. All the time. Intelligent, inspiring music. I think music can help both rational thinking and boosting creativity. For me the genres include classical music, symphonic rock, smooth jazz, melodic pop, soft rock and celtic. Enya for example is really wonderful for writing.
5. What type of difficulties did you have to push through to get such a large book accepted, seeing as this was your first book, and a trilogy at that? It certainly goes against the grain of what's considered the standard for the publishing industry.
Slim chance to get the big houses to accept it. However, the concept for the trilogy was an appealing factor. Eventually I realized that the book was too long, but it really takes time to make it shorter without creating inconsistencies and faulty references. I finally decided to go along with a small publisher near London.
6. Any advice for writers who have their own trilogies to submit to the publishing houses? Are there any differences compared to the methods for single novels?
Yes, I pretty much summarized everything on my website in the "Writing" section". The difference for trilogies is that you need to "seed" the plants in the first novel already. You need to have the overall concept completed which I did about three years before the publishing the first book.
7. What plans do you have in the immediate future (as opposed to 42,000 years from now)?
At the moment my primary focus is marketing. A small publisher cannot really do much here. So I've got to implement my own book promotion plan. The web is a wonderful place to meet interesting science fiction fans. I get dozens of emails every day. People who like my book tell other people about it. That's the best way of increasing sales. My sequels are 20% complete. I've decided to move forward together with a co-writer. Otherwise it might take to long. I've got my day job in the computer industry and it pays the bill. Few full-time writers can make a living from writing alone. So for the time being I will remain a part-time writer. If the book really becomes very successful, I might reconsider that. I'm also in touch with screenwriters and their agencies. I'm about to sign an agreement with one of them. Many people tell me the story is an excellent basis for a movie. I'm quite hopeful that a producer one day will accept the screenplay. In March I'm attending a big science fiction convention in London called Eastercon Orbital 2008. There will be book signing sessions and I was also invited to join one of the panel discussion about predictions of scientific progress.