Writing, Evolutionary Computation, and Expert Advisors

I recently received an excited text from my cousin, who happens to be one of the smartest people I know and a beta reader of my novels. He had just listened to a wildly entertaining podcast episode on evolutionary computation and wanted me to listen as well. “They’re talking about the same stuff that’s in your SF novel. You’ve gotta listen to it.”

The episode was part of Lex Fridman’s excellent podcast series on the nature of intelligence, consciousness, love, and power. Fridman is an AI researcher, and on the particular episode highlighted by my cousin, he’s talking with Risto Miikkulainen a computer science professor at The University of Texas at Austin with expertise in “biologically-inspired computation.”

Check out the discussion on audio here or watch it on YouTube by clicking the image below.

So why was my cousin so excited? First off, the discussion is mind-bending and fun. You’ll learn just as much about how biological organisms learn and develop intelligence as you will about the cutting edge of AI research. Plus Fridman and Miikkulainen both have a knack for talking about complex stuff in easy-to-follow language. But what really stood out to my cousin was how their discussion focused on topics key to one of the plot-lines of my novel COLOSSUS, which will be released in November of 2022.

A little background on Colossus… I’m usually frustrated with the handling of AI in popular science fiction, particularly movies. They all seem to be Pinocchio stories or at the very least the AIs are so heavily anthropomorphized that they act like robotic humans. Those stories rarely if ever give much explanation to how those systems developed general intelligence. (Brute force and machine learning can easily create narrow intelligence for dealing with specific tasks, but those methods don’t create highly adaptable intelligence that can quickly deal with new circumstances. That’s what I mean by general intelligence–the executive function of your mind.)

In Colossus, researchers create an AI with general intelligence as a “happy accident” (as one character describes it). Their focus was creating synthetic life in synthetic universes. The novel explores how they create evolutionary pressures in these synthetic universe and how those pressures in turn create alien creatures capable of some pretty bizarre shit. I won’t go into the details. Instead, let me tell you about writing it. Writing it was hard. Really hard. Although I have some background in machine learning and advanced analytics, I am by no means an expert on AI. So I read, I studied, and I did my best. I sold the novel in 2020. I’m really proud of the story it tells and its accessibility to non-SF readers, but I’ve always wondered what an expert at the top of the AI field would think.

Colossus hadn’t yet gone through editing with my publisher, so there was still time to make tweaks to fix anything I had gotten wrong. I contacted Dr. Miikkulainen and asked if he’d be interested in helping me sharpen the details of Colossus. He accepted, and in June we had one of the most fun conversations I’ve been in for quite a while. There is no greater gift to a writer than the gift of time by a subject matter expert, whether they are scientific advisors like in this case or sensitivity readers. We write our best work when we obtain the best critical feedback possible.

The great news (to me, anyway) was that I got the science more or less right. Dr. Miikkulainen helped me with some terminology and some clever ways of describing to the reader what was going on. I plan on reconnecting with him and his colleagues when the book’s cover has been unveiled and advanced reader copies (ARCs) are available. Then I would love to be part of podcasts and discussions with experts like Lex Fridman and Risto Miikkulainen, where we connect the real world development of AI general intelligence with science fiction. If you know of or host such a podcast or other forum, please let me know!

My big takeaway for my writer friends: If there’s an expert who can help improve the accuracy of your book, reach out respectfully and with a real sensitivity toward their time. They might just say yes and have as much fun in the process as you.

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