Candice H. "Kay" Brown Elliott writes under the pseudonym Seaby Brown. She's the author of hard sci-fi books 'All the stars are suns' and 'Raven's rook'. She's also a wife, foster/adoptive mom, high tech entrepreneur, inventor, pilot, flight instructor and mountain dulcimer enthusiast. After reading 'All the stars are suns' I really wanted to discuss some of the ideas from the book with her, and I'm happy she agreed!
Q: Let’s talk about ‘All the stars are suns’ first. I was intrigued by the idea of a synthetic brain. Can you briefly explain to the people who haven’t read your book yet what it is?
A: Our brains are made of bilayer polar lipids, soap bubbles, containing salty water we call cells. Signals are transmitted by self-perpetuating de-ionization gradients along their surface at the speed of sound. It seems a very improbably silly way to construct an intelligent system. But evolution has found ways of providing powerful neural functions that we have through careful study, begun to mimic in software and hardware. Our most advanced “AI” uses neural nets similar to those used in early vision processing.
Now, imagine having studied that for many decades or longer… and using bio-mimicry, created opto-electronic copies of entire brains, including human brains. They would essentially BE human brains… but made of hardware instead of wetware. They would have all of the functions of human minds, including emotions.
They would be the opposite of the AI menace that so many neo-luddites and false Cassandras of today fear because just like humans, they would have EMPATHY for others.
But being opto-electronic, they could live longer…
Q: How did you come up with the idea and do you think this technology might be created in the future?
A: Much of my career has been at the intersection of high tech and applied psychophysics of human vision to design and improve flat panel displays. Displays are interfaces between two computers, one hardware, one wetware. As I worked on the tech, I was essentially working on algorithms and designs that mimicked some of the functions of the human retina… which is evolutionarily and developmentally actually part of the brain. Eyes are literally transparent patches of skin through which the brain can look out onto the world of light.
I’ve also worked with some researchers in AI, designing systems that can recognize objects in real time. The neural nets self-organized during training into functions that were IDENTICAL to functions that exist in the human vision system.
But conventional ideas about AI and neural nets will NOT create self-aware intelligence. We simply don’t know what that is yet. But, we already have working examples in our own brains. Simply copying that example will allow us to get there… and they will be DECENT minds.
Will we have synthetic human brains? Absolutely… we are already taking baby steps in that direction, coming at it from both directions, neuroscience and AI tech. When? Difficult to say. But I believe it will be available when it comes time to launch to the stars in about two hundred years. Why two hundred years? Because that's when we will be able to afford it at historical and present economic growth rates since the industrial revolution.
Q: If or when synthetic brains are created, what impact will they have on the society and what will their roles be?
A: We have lots of cheap human brains, self-organizing / self-replicating biological units. Further, I predict we will find ways of improving their functionality through self-replicating neural symbionts, as described in “Stars”. The cost of producing and accommodating fully self-aware synthetic brains will limit the number and roles they will play.
They’re most valuable in roles where their longevity and ability to survive extremely hostile environments without going stir-crazy, like crewing deep space exploration and seed ships. The fact that they are empathetic and LIKE humans make them ideally suited to raise the first generations of human colonies after long star voyages. No simple robotic AI could do the job, no matter how smart. They would simply lack the needed empathy and mirror neuron functions.
Q: Should humans worry about them?
A: NO! Absolutely not. First, their very existence depends on a human economy to maintain high tech. Also, they would be deliberately designed to be rational, empathetic, emotionally stable, and LIKE humans. No three laws of robotics needed (nor desired… as so many have pointed out). Their brains would be based on the BEST of humanity, not the worst as so many neo-luddites fear.
Q: In your book, automation has eliminated most jobs, and the majority of people live on Universal Basic Income. Is that what you think will happen in the future?
A: Yes, it’s coming. Each year we see more and more people displaced from production. Consider first agriculture. In the 18th Century, 90% of workers were involved. Today, in the industrialized nations of Europe and N. America that is down to 4% and still dropping.
Much of the early displaced workers of the mechanization of agriculture went to factory jobs in the cities…
But the number of workers in factory jobs, worldwide, has been dropping since just after WWII and is still happening. (Forget those complaints about jobs being “out-sourced / shipped overseas” even those jobs are disappearing.) I saw it personally. Early in my career in tech, I was an electronic assembler. Now, every single task I used to do manually is done by a machine tens of thousands of times faster!
Clerical jobs exploded because of industrialization. In my childhood, nearly every office had dozens to hundreds of clerks and typists. Those jobs are nearly gone. Computers and photocopiers have eliminated much of the work. That trend will continue with text and voice recognition coupled with simple AI to automate repetitive clerical work.
The concept and need for “domestic labor” has been dropping, first with home appliances (washing machines being the biggest change), and now robotic vacuums and even garden weeding systems. (Name dropping opportunity: the founder of iRobot and now current CEO of Tertil, Helen Greiner, is a friend of mine.) That created the strange concept of the “middle-class” (actually still culturally working class) stay at home housewife with more free time than her mother who worked for a living as a domestic servant for the real middle class and upper class of the past. (If your family is dependent upon paychecks, you are by definition, “working class”. The real middle-class own small businesses.)
Self-driving cars, trucks, and aircraft will eliminate nearly all paid driving jobs in just a couple more decades. The displacement will be worldwide and traumatic !
Q: What impact will it have on the society?
A: We will HAVE to go to some form of relief, eventually to Universal Basic Income. The good news is that we will be able to afford it as a society. It will come in stages and it already has in some parts of the world. First is already begun, universal healthcare. Yes, we have a stupid system in the US, but it will be replaced.
One has to accept that our leaders are afraid of UBI because of “moral hazard” where workers will give up jobs before our society is truly ready. But very few people make themselves sick just so that they can access free healthcare!
The next step is better access to food. We already have taken baby steps with food stamps, etc. This will grow. Eventually it will expand to UBI. (I’ve planned a prequel to “Stars” focused on Charlyne Matsumoto in her college years which will have much of this going on in the background.)
Q: What should we do to protect people from feeling useless when they don’t have to work anymore?
A: This is the dilemma that my character Rufus in “Stars” is trying to fix. It will also feature in Matsumoto’s story (prequel to be called “Through a Prism Bright”, I’ve already written some of the material.)
Q: When you think about the future, what excites you the most?
A: Far greater access to higher education through technology. And it will be universal and free.
Q: What do you think is the greatest threat to humanity?
A: Stupidity! We are the greatest danger to ourselves. Superstition, fear, hate. But the DUMBEST thing is Nationalism. Seriously, the nation state is designed to foster xenophobia and hate, leading to discrimination and war. The sooner this perversion is eliminated the better. Sadly, nationalism is on the rise. (Before I get more hate mail. It should be pointed out that the United States is NOT a “nation state”. It is and always has been predicated on the Enlightenment Ideal of the multicultural republic.)
Today, many see Climate Change as the biggest threat… but just like over population, this problem will and is already being solved. We will be post-fossil fuel in just a few decades as solar and wind are already cheaper than coal and will be far cheaper soon enough to displace petroleum and natural gas.
Q: ‘All the stars are suns’ is the first book in a series. The second one is ‘Raven’s Rook’. What are your plans for the series?
A: Each book will follow a protagonist on one of the worlds that has been bio-terraformed by the Synthetic Crew of a seed ship. Most science fiction authors fail to really grasp how different such worlds will be from Earth and that starting a civilization from scratch is HARD. They won’t have a high-tech material culture right off. And the constraints of such terraformed worlds means that they can’t simply use the same tech solutions that we used on Earth. They will have to find their own solutions and material cultures. But they will have one great advantage we don’t have today, very very advanced biotechnology that is self – sustaining. They won’t have electronics. But they will have the bio-engineered symbionts I described in “Stars”.
In a very real way, “Stars” was just the prologue to the real stories that I wanted to tell. But there was SO much that I needed to cover, to explain, or the following stories would seem to be a form of deus ex machina of the fantasy sort rather than hard science fiction.
Without providing spoilers, Raven’s Rook follows one gender atypical gay boy growing up in a society that is limited in population and material technology because their world, Terranova, has a very thick dense atmosphere. The only habitable part of the world, a “moon” orbiting a small gas giant, is a mountain range high enough to be cool enough for Earth like ecosystems. Imagine living only in the high Andes, the rest of the world’s land too hot to support anything but extremophiles and the ocean’s habitable, but it’s surface unreachable. But there is a catch. That thick atmosphere is mostly nitrogen. The partial pressure of oxygen at that higher elevation is higher than Earth’s, but the percentage is far lower. This means there can be no open flame, no camp or cooking fires, no candles, no smelting forge, as the nitrogen would cool the flame below ignition temperature. Their culture is forced to be Neolithic with only native metals available (gold, silver, copper… copper being the most valuable). BTW, the Neolithic was far more advanced culturally than most people know or imagine.
But they have those symbionts! Their minds have access to all of humanity’s history, culture, science, arts, etc. They have “email”. They have computer aided drawing. They have advanced mathematical functions available as we would have the ability to call up a day dream memory… all in their minds, almost effortlessly.
And they live in a bio-engineered ecosystem with plants and animals specifically designed to provide abundant food and materials that no Neolithic culture ever had.
They also have bio-engineered sentient crows / ravens with their own symbionts.
What kind of culture would they have? Where the symbiont’s abilities provide what would look like everyday magic? (Clark’s “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) What would a boy that doesn’t quite fit into that society do to find his place in it? That’s the story.
Each of the other two worlds orbiting that same gas giant would have their own physical differences, ecosystems, and of simple needs, culture. But all with that same high bio-tech symbiont and suitable bio-engineered sentient companion species. That’s for the next couple books.
Q: That sounds exciting! Let’s talk about you a bit. You’ve got quite a biography! In addition to being a sci-fi author, you’re also a high-tech entrepreneur, inventor, pilot, flight instructor, and you write non-fiction as well. How do you have time for all that?
A: Ummm… I’m “semi-retired” since 2014. But I still have a hand in several venture capital funds, advising and conducting research on high tech investment opportunities. It leaves me a lot of free time between more focused efforts in that arena.
Q: You’ve got quite a lot of patents. Can you tell me about the things you’ve invented?
A: What cellphone do you now or have owned? Quite literally, there is a 50% chance that you or your readers are using a phone with a PenTile Matrix display (google the term… especially the ‘images’ option). I first invented the basic concept of the technology in the early ‘90s and quietly continued developing it in stealth mode. I started Clairvoyante to develop and license the tech in 2000… sold the company to Samsung in 2008. They funded my next company, Nouvoyance, to continue development of the technology along with even more advanced ideas. I “retired” in 2014, just after having won the Otto Schade Prize for my work developing display technology.
Q: That's impressive! If you had to give up most of your roles and only choose one, what would you choose and why?
A: Flight instructing! Seriously, I love teaching students to fly airplanes. But there are times between students, sitting in the flight school’s classroom, I write to pass the time.
Q: Who are your favorite authors?
A: My all-time favorite is Zenna Henderson. The sense of wonder, hope, and of KINDNESS in the face of xenophobia and adversity really call to me. In some sense, the magic that her People can perform was the magic I wanted my symbionts and the bio-engineered organisms to provide… but for real, with real science and technology. Her stories of people who are different, who struggle to find a safe place in their lives, mirror my own, not just my fiction, but my life story. I was disowned as a late teen because of my sexuality and gender identity, became intermittently homeless, before climbing out of that early poverty.
I’m a big fan of David Weber’s Honorverse. And this may surprise many, given how godawfully sexist the man’s writing was… but I love Leo Frankowski, both for his imaginative bio-engineering stories and his Cross-time Engineer series. They give me a feeling of hope and a sense that science and engineering CAN make a difference in people’s lives.
But I’ve read much of the classics, Heinlein, Asimov, Simak, Mack Reynolds, LeGuin, David Gerrold, David Brin, etc.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Other than flying airplanes? I love my half-acre garden filled with flowers and so you can find me puttering around there. I also play folk music on the Mountain Dulcimer. My husband and I are both foodies and love to cook. I have a weakness for whodunit mystery movies, both old and new… and serious documentaries on history and science. We don’t watch “TV”, sat or cable. We download everything we want to watch. Every night, is “date night” as we watch one thing together.
Q: If you could visit a world or place described in one of the books you’ve read, where would you go and why?
A: Cougar Canyon, in Zenna Henderson’s stories of the People. They are more technically and culturally advanced… and just plain DECENT people. I want to live in that kind of world.
Q: Can you recommend a sci-fi book that made a big impression on you?
A: Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. Seriously, I reread it every few years. It’s a great story of growing up… but also of taking responsibility and fighting for what is right, wherever life has plopped you down… and that social status is not the most important thing… it’s the fight for justice that matters. The protagonist is raised by a “crippled beggar” who is secretly also an intelligence agent working to fight slavery. He could have retired to a comfortable life w/ honors, but he chose to live at the very bottom of a horrid society he loathed so that he could undermine it from within by gathering intelligence on slaver ships and support organizations. In the end, he kills himself rather than be captured when his cover is blown, but in his dying act, he ensures that his adopted son, a formerly enslaved boy, escapes, taking his intelligence data with him. That’s courage and decency!
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: Just that “Stars” isn’t so much a novel as it is the prolog, even a blueprint, to the real story, the real adventure… out there… as “All The Stars Are Suns”!
Thank you so much for the interview, Kay!