Alternatives to Panels at SciFi Cons

At all of the Science Fiction/Fantasy conventions that I’ve been to, the primary sort of event offered has been the panel. For those who aren’t aware, panels at these sorts of cons generally consist of three to five experts on a particular topic — either authors, scientists, or people who just happen to know a lot about something — who present their views, and then discuss amongst themselves while the attendees listen.

While there is usually an opportunity for the audience to ask questions at the end, the panel is usually a fairly monodirectional event from the perspective of audience members who aren’t actually on the panel. Although this isn’t always a bad thing by any means — being able to just sit back and listen can be a blessing if one doesn’t have anything to add — it can start to feel limiting when an audience member has a lot to say on the topic being discussed, or otherwise feels that they could contribute to the discussion if only they were allowed to speak.

In light of this, I propose that cons set aside a room or two that can be reserved on a first come first served basis by anyone for anything that they can think of. I imagine that many people will present readings, lectures, and perhaps plays or concerts if the necessary equipment is on hand, but attendees would also be encouraged to use the rooms for kaffeeklatsch-style discussions and other more egalitarian activities (ad-hoc filk sessions come to mind, but the possibilities are endless).

Crucially, there would be (1) no authority deciding who was allowed to use the space and who wasn’t, with the possible exception of rules preventing individuals from hogging the rooms for extended periods of time, (2) no restrictions on the format of the goings-on in the room, as would be the case with traditional lightning talk and/or talent show spaces, and (3) no judging or evaluation not explicitly organized by the attendees who had booked the room. With luck, this would lower the bar to entry, allowing more people to take advantage of cons as places to share their ideas without waiting for them to be published or otherwise “noticed” (in fact, assuming the presenters were okay with it, these sorts of small, ad-hoc venues would probably be a great place for publishers to hang out in, keeping their eyes open for interesting work).

If anyone is involved in running a con and would like to try something like this, go right ahead, although I would appreciate some sort of citation if you were inspired by this post. I expect that the first few times, it would take a bit of tweaking to get the right number of rooms, but you’d probably be able to gauge how many you’ll need after a con or two, and plan accordingly.

Too Like the Lightning: Too Perfect?

So I recently read Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning.

It was definitely an enjoyable book, although there were lots of things in it that were way outside of my sphere of understanding — I got the impression that without a much more thorough background in the philosophy and literature of the era that the book’s style emulates, a lot of the story will remain relatively obscure. I’m not here to complain about that, though — it’s a feature, not a bug, and hopefully I will eventually learn something from it as the series progresses.

That all said, this novel had one major problem that I’m finding it very hard to overlook: the world is just too smooth and perfect. There are the seven hives with their primary (and sometimes secondary) languages, a few extra-hive categories of people, and that’s about it. All of the hives operate at a global scale, and have enough members that everyone on the planet knows of them and has an idea of what their main “thing” is, and what projects they’re currently pursuing.

And while the world isn’t *supposed* to look like the one we live in, I feel that in this particular aspect, the author has gone a little bit too far. Why are there only seven hives, period? Where is the tiny hive of idealist Esperanto speakers, who’ve abandoned the Fina Venko, but still retain their internal culture? Or the Trekkies whose preferred internal language is Klingon? Or even better, Esperanto speakers who *haven’t* abandoned the Fina Venko, and regularly hold various publicity stunts to try and convince people to adopt Esperanto as the world’s lingua franca?

None of this is meant to lampoon the book or its worldbuilding — as I said earlier, it’s a great novel, and this is just a nitpick. However, it would be cool to see these issues explored a bit more, either in the upcoming sequels or in fanfic.

I Don’t Want a Humanoid Robot

(Note: just about everything I say here about humanoid robots I would also say about “more human” user interfaces and similar technology. I’ve decided to focus on robots to keep this post short.)

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of reports of research into making robots that are better imitations of humans, in a number of ways (speech, movement, etc.), and it would appear that roboticists are making great strides in this field of research. While I don’t want to minimize the amount of effort that has gone into these achievements — they really are impressive from a technical standpoint — I would like to take a moment to question whether robots that mimic humans should be considered the ultimate goal of robotics.

Personally, as a potential customer who would totally buy a robot to deal with housework, I really don’t want a robot that thinks, acts, and moves like a person. Even if we lay aside the ethical issues with owning an intelligent machine (perhaps by assuming that the researchers know what they’re talking about when they say that, despite appearances, the robot is in fact non-sentient — whether we can safely do that is a topic for another post), we’re left with a machine that’s going to say “Good Morning!” when I walk past it, and possibly (if the designers are accurate enough) guilt me into replying, when all I really wanted was a machine that could make me breakfast. The last thing I (and a suspect a lot of people as well) need in the morning is a bunch of unnecessary pleasantries — coming from a machine that could have been programmed otherwise, no less — standing between me and my cereal.

In addition to wasting the user’s social energy with unnecessary phatic communication, a truly human-mimicking robot would probably make it nearly impossible to relax for those of us on the introvert side of things. Having a person around is draining, even if they aren’t trying to interact, and it’s hard for me and many others to really, truly relax unless we are totally alone. Trying to precisely imitate the experience of having a human maid do the cleaning would likely lead to a machine that also precisely imitated those burdens on neuroatypical folks. It would be sort of like designing a tablet whose only input method was to write commands by hand* — although you see things like that in SciFi from time to time, the shear impracticality of that design prevents them from gaining a foothold in the physical world.

The one area where I would appreciate greater humanoid-ness is in language processing, since being able to give voice commands would be more convenient when my hands are full. But even there, the robot doesn’t need to imitate all of the phatic communication that humans are fond of. And there are plenty of times when it would be nice to be able to turn off the voice command interface, and give commands by pushing buttons — say, if it’s late at night and I don’t want to make noise, or don’t want to hear noise because I’m lost in thought and don’t want to be disturbed by it.

I don’t mean to imply that research into humanoid robots should stop, or that nobody should try to build or market a robot that can act human (again, evading ethical issues by assuming that it is non-sentient). But please try to make sure that doesn’t become the one holy grail of the industry that everyone strives towards, leaving the people who would prefer a robotic robot in the lurch. Because we’re out there, and we’re potential customers. In fact, we’re likely to be early adopters if the technology suits our needs. So please do try and make sure that your robots are usable for us as well.


*Lots of people are probably now thinking, “but I have a tablet that lets me do that! I’ve even used it to take notes!”. To this I ask: is that how you answer your email, or do you use the keyboard? Obviously, there will be some people for whom the handwriting option may be the better one, but I suspect that a substantial majority will prefer the keyboard.