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On Artificial Intelligence

I didn’t even know that the Future of Life Institute existed until a couple of days ago, when Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Hawking and many others signed a petition aiming to ban the military use of artificial intelligence (AI), and in particular autonomous weapons.

I tend to agree that over the next few years we’ll see some kind of breakthrough that will make AI viable. Maybe we’ll have a machine that, after learning, is able to solve simple speculative problems like most mammals do. Maybe we’ll have something more. But that doesn’t scare me.

What scares me is that we could give birth to something more intelligent than us. Yes, it’s fiction. For now.

But what is the difference between autonomous and intelligent weapons?

Autonomous means pre-programmed with certain patterns and able to operate without further input – e.g. “kill all combatants with this insignia.” Building this kind of weapon is easier than you think.
Intelligent means able to learn about the enemy and the battlefield and make decisions on what to do – like a human would – with all the attached issues (can an intelligent weapon desert? maybe change its mind and turn against its commander?). This is hard.

Now, the problem with that petition, which I signed anyway, is that it’s not going to stop the military to develop autonomous, and maybe even intelligent weapons, for the simplest of reasons: someone’s going to build such weapons, so everyone else will as well. As a deterrent, of course, but also to develop countermeasures.

I don’t like talking like this as I know I sound cynical, but we have countless precedents. The most renowned is Albert Einstein’s letter to Truman advising him to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans did. It’s an obvious and very human reaction to a threat, and it happens all the time (think about competition).

The petition is… naive? I think so.

I’m a bit too lazy right now to find documentation, but we have banned anti-personnel mines and chemical weapons, we have signed non-proliferation treaties, and yet Earth’s full of anti-personnel mines, chemical weapons, and nukes. And we keep building and improving them. All it takes is just one bad guy, as we humans are as intelligent as the stupidest of us.

The same will happen with autonomous/intelligent weapons. Knowing what we know about how we, as a species, develop weapons, we should all build military AI as soon as possible. At least we’d get a stalemate quickly and move on to the next military threat, while in the meantime we could use AI for better reasons (like we are doing with computers and the Internet).

Coping With Bad Reviews

When your book doesn’t have hundreds of reviews, you hold each one dear, so much in fact that a good review can make your day, and a bad one can destroy your whole damn week.

Bad Review

I used to be sort of paranoid about Kindle sales and reviews. I was deep into the check-the-KDP-dashboard-page-twice-a-day tunnel. But then things got depressing as I saw only a handful of sales trickling in over the course of an entire month. My survival instincts kicked in, protecting me from myself, and now I only check sales once or twice a week. Surprisingly, as if looking at the Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard could hurt sales, things have gotten a little better (without me doing anything as I’m super busy with other non-writing stuff).

But more sales equals more reviews, and one single bad review still hurts like smashing your bare pinkie toe against the corner of the bathtub.

The first reaction is: “You don’t know anything about my book, you fucking idiot! It is flawless!” Such reaction is perfectly fine and human, as long as it’s just you thinking it or shouting it in an empty room.

There is just one rule to handle bad reviews: accept them.

Don’t reply, don’t try to hunt down the reviewer on the web (or in person!), just breathe and accept them.

Read them once more. You still think the reviewer’s an idiot. Wait a couple of days. Re-read them. Now you start thinking, “Well, maybe she’s right about this one detail… Just this one though, the rest’s all bullshit.” Wait another few days. Then you realize that each review is important, especially bad ones.

So, get over it. Learn from the reviews you get. Fix things (because you can!) Listen to your readers, no matter how bad it hurts. Your next book will always be better than your last one because you learn from your mistakes, and reviews are just a loud way to find them out (unless, of course, it’s something like the picture I posted above… which luckily is not a review of one of my books but a random one I found on Amazon).

WIP Novella: Fire In The Woods

I’ve had this story in the WIP pile for a while, since May 2014 in fact. So, how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods? OK, that was a little far-fetched. What I mean is, how can I develop it in a better way than by sharing it on Write On?

It’s a YA sci-fi/mystery novella, and everything about it is provisional. I’m doing one last round of edits and publish chapters as I go, hoping for a little feedback.

So, what is Write On? It’s a nice community-driven site made by Amazon. From their About Us page:

Write On is where people can come together to make good stories great and great stories better.

Readers can leave feedback and follow authors and their stories. Cool. Go join it (you just need an Amazon account), follow Fire In The Woods, and give me my preciousssss feedback.

How Much Does It Cost To Self-publish A Book?

Branch Off is the second novel that I self-publish and it’s time to do some math. The question is, how much does it cost to self-publish a book? And with self-publish I mean doing everything yourself, except those things that it makes sense to outsource. Well, duh.

First things first: you can do a lot on your own–almost everything–but there is just one thing that you must outsource: editing and proofreading. You can’t escape that, it’s a fact of life. The universe revolves around that notion (it’s true).

There’s another thing you should outsource. It’s not mandatory, but it’s a good thing to do: cover design. Because most of us just suck big time at graphics.

All there rest’s in your hands.

Transparency Report for Branch Off:

  • Writing the damn thing: nil (just a few hundred hours of my time)
  • Beta reading: nil (huge thanks to Stefano and Courtney for their help)
  • Copyediting + Proofreading: $472.56
  • Book cover: nil (just a few dozen hours of my time)
  • E-book and printed content formatting and layout: nil (just a few hours of my time, disciplined use of Microsoft Word’s styles, and Calibre)
  • Printed proof copies from CreateSpace: $55.13 (3 iterations with 3-day shipping, which is the thing you pay for as the actual book is 4 bucks and change)
  • 1-week ad on BookGoodies.com: $28 with coupon (I’m just trying out of curiosity, without expecting much; impressions and results will follow).

Grand Total: $555.69

So, is that it? less than 600 bucks? Yeah, sort of. It might seem counter-intuitive, but editing is relatively affordable. What gets really expensive is cover design, especially if you need a paperback version. For something not pre-made, we’re talking about $300 as a minimum, and that’s the main reason why I tend to do covers myself. Yes, they’re not works of art, but they are good enough. I mean, look at these. There’s obviously a difference. But I digress.

White Dwarf One has cost me a little less because it’s shorter, but the order of magnitude is the same. Also, EUR/USD exchange rates used to favor me a little, but not anymore (you know, the global economy and stuff).

So, is it expensive?

But that’s not the right question. We’re not in it for the money, are we? The glory, that’s what matters. Being famous and respected. Well…

Path of Least Resistance

Change is hard. We all sort of know this, maybe just as something that gets said in certain contexts. There are obvious things like changing home or job, but today I’m thinking about subtler things, like changes in social rules.

Governments promote change that’s good for the community (hopefully), but that sometimes is bad for subsets of the people, or for certain individuals. These are the sort of trade-offs that are easily enforced in the framework of national states by simple means such as police forces and, in general, a legal ecosystem.

But then there are those changes, apparently easy to implement and abide by, that are promoted in smaller formal/social contexts such as companies and workplaces. Here is when the path of least resistance comes into play: people (read: you, me, your colleague) are going to search for the easiest way to do their job, that is the one requiring the least effort. It might be something that requires the least time, or maybe the least communication.

The result is that, very often, change is difficult to accomplish company-wide, because doing “what we have always done” is far easier than learning the new way. Above certain scales, something like a dozen individuals, the smaller the change, the higher the chances that it will fall on deaf ears. Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but groundbreaking changes are far easier to implement than small tweaks.