Monday, April 12, 2010

Does It Sound Crazy? No? Then It's Not . . .

Okay, now this is cool.  There's a three-dollar app for the iPhone, iPad, and presumably other iProducts that I also don't own, which will take a flat photo of somebody's face -- yours, mine, George Washington's, Rush Limbaugh's, your dog's -- and then make it move, blink, and so on so that it looks three-dimensional and alive.  Tap a button and say something like, oh, "Real life was hard, so I've moved to cyberspace," and after ten seconds' processing, the photo will deliver the line convincingly.

PhotoSpeak has been available here since last September, but apparently it was a big hit in Japan for some time before that.  Here's what a (presumably) Japanese schoolkid did with it:


And the moral of this story is . . .

Last week I was in DC to make a three-minute presentation for Sigma which began with the observation that when talking about technology, if it sounds plausible, not-crazy, not at all science fictional, then you're not talking about the future but about something that's already in development and possibly even in production.

So it was ironic that one of the future techs I cited was the notion Bruce Sterling and others have been pushing of using low-cost fabbers to make consumer goods at home out of plastic.  Ironic because in yesterday's New York Times, which is not exactly a hotbed of futuristic thinking, one of the editors chronicled a chance encounter on an Amtrak commuter train which led to two young entrepreneurs hauling out their MakerBot and manufacturing a beer opener for him  on the spot.

MakerBot is a 3-D printer, a fabber, that can build you pretty much anything that can be built from hot, squirted plastic.  You can buy a kit to make one for (wait for it) only $750.  That's cheaper than the first home computer kits were.  Check out the home site here.

And it's also a reminder that if it doesn't sound absolutely crazy, it's not science fiction.

And a little more on Science Fiction World . . .

Sanfeng has pointed out that there's an even more comprehensive article on Science Fiction World to be read here.   It's an astonishing story and those who care about the future of science fiction -- even science fiction we may not be well-educated enough  (cough!) to read -- are grateful for the courage of the magazine's editors.



David Stone said...

The fabber thing sounds cool but... the fact is, I have too many plastic thingamajigs already. I would rather have a small number of tools made from steel or some other durable material. I guess that if I were a hobbyist or something this would be the coolest thing since pocket calculators, but as it is I am not sure what I'd use it for. No doubt those guys are thinking of things for me to use it for as we speak.

Otherwise, I'll just wait a decade or two until the fabbers can make stuff out of synthetic diamond, something else that Mr. Sterling has predicted!

Michael Swanwick said...

I've beeen trying to find that flash fiction Bruce did very recently about a guy whose girlfriend clears out, taking everything with her, so he rents a fabber, buys several large spools of plastic wire, downloads freeware designs from the web,and makes a new set of furniture. He made it sound convincing that you might be able to achieve an IKEA level of comfort that way. But I can't seem to recall where I read it.

Is Bruce behind the synthetic diamond thing too? I know that Neil Stephenson got a book out of it. A good notion. MAYbe possible.

David Stone said...

If I recall correctly _Heavy Weather_ (1994) prominently featured diamonds as a building/engineering material. I seem to recall that the cheapo mass-produced ceramic machetes that can chop up cop cars from _Islands in the Net_ involved synth diamond, but maybe I am mistaken about that. Anyway, I doubt he was the first to use this, but he is a prominent writer who features synth diamond prominently in some of his writings.

Unknown said...

I disagree about your definition of prototyped tech as no longer being fodder for science fiction. If through a story you can discuss the possible future ramifications of technologies (whether in process or not), then aren't those stories at least somewhat science fictional? Although I must admit there's a certain crucial bit of the Sense of Wonder for me that's missing when I read a story about a technology that has become real - but is that maybe the fantasy of the science fiction that's gone missing? But all that said, I still prefer the kind of crazy sf to the very reasonable stuff; maybe it's the fantasy in the sf that really captures me . . ..

Pebble Texture said...

This is the Sterling flash fiction you're looking for:

"molten plastic as solid, durable, slightly warped and drippy consumer objects"

Michael Swanwick said...

Pebble Texture, that is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you.

I know that Bruce thinks of himself more as a conduit of ideas than a source of them . . . but maybe that's what science fiction writers have always been.

Rich, I'm not saying that existing technologies aren't fodder for science fiction but that they're no longer science fiction per se. There's a big difference between "Someday there will be cars" and "Cars will someday be different."

David, thank you for that info. I have to agree with you on the fabber front. My father was an engineer and he encouraged all his children to wait a generation, for the prices to go down.

That said, I had to work through the possibilities before deciding that I didn't have the time to make enough worthwhile things to justify buying the fabber. Alas.

Unknown said...

"There's a big difference between 'Someday there will be cars' and 'Cars will someday be different.'"

I completely agree with that. And I think it's a really good argument for why it's better long-term to tell stories that don't rely on the technology itself to be the only science fictional element; sf with a social element tends to hold up as sf for much longer.

By the way, I doubt we'll be looking at much in the way of synthetic diamond in the future; it's much easier to make blocks of carbon nanotubes, that are by and large stronger than diamond (which has to be far too perfect in consistency to be as strong). But the basic idea of rapid fabrication is good, though I think people would do better to focus on the implications of running off your own copies of computers and flash memory from a later-gen fabricator, rather than looking at construction materials alone.

Have you looked at Makers, by Cory Doctorow? It's a really good book about what near-future rapid fabrication could do to a Greater Depression-enveloped world.

Michael Swanwick said...

I think I've hopscotched over MAKERS while working on this novel. Though I did hear Cory read from his next novel -- the one he spent a couple of months in China researching.

Specifically, he spent time in the coastal industrial cities and entirely ignored all the antiquities and natural splendors of China.

I understand the appeal of the modern in China -- I was strangely entranced by it myself. But skipping all the rest? He's a better man than I am, and he has my admiration. I mean that without a scintilla of irony.

Unknown said...

I don't really get skipping the other parts of China either; it seems to me that China is really fascinating because of its strange mix of the very old and the very new. Even Hong Kong is really about this crazy mix of skyscrapers and Buddhist temples. Not to mention that everyone in the coastal industrial cities is max. two or three generations removed from lives that Westerner's would have expected only to find in the ancient past.

But then, I lived in China awhile, so I have a different perspective on the place generally.