Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Will virtual reality be unhealthy?
July 15, 2014General




Will the Wang Bao He Restaurant sell virtual versions of its famous 'hairy crabs'?

The big challenge for the virtual reality industry is overcoming nausea. 
Our minds become disoriented, because what we're seeing doesn't sync with what our body is experiencing, and the gap makes us feel like vomiting. If technicians can overcome this problem, as John Markoff describes in the NYTimes, we'll have an industry with explosive possibilities in everything from surgery and warfare to sex. 

This is the future I describe in The Boost, and in the prequel I'm busy writing now. Here are some issues that come up in the book, in the 2030s, after several hundred Chinese industrial workers have brain chips, or boosts, implanted in their heads. (They are known as the "capped" workers.)

...Then there was the issue of the physical world and what was formerly known as “reality.” Increasingly, the capped workers avoided it. This wasn’t just day dreaming. These people would take leave. The hook-ups to their brains tied their experiences in virtual worlds to their perceptions, so that when they were sitting on the blue bench at lunchtime with a vacant look in their eyes, they were actually tasting the famous “hairy” crabs at Wang Bao He in Shanghai, or maybe cavorting in the whorehouse next door. Looking back, their virtual worlds were primitive. The seafood and the sex were crude simulations of reality, with only a hint of the texture and nuance of the physical sensations. At the time, though, the virtual world seemed magical. And everyone knew that as the software improved, year by year, each release would be more colorful, more fun, more real. The molecular world, by contrast, seemed stagnant. 

As the Chinese workers spent more of their time in virtual realms, authorities began to fret. The risk, they saw, was that the capped workers would eat only in their heads--and starve--or dedicate their sex lives to virtual movie stars, and die childless. The government hired technicians to tweak the chip. They told them to jazz up the perceptions of regular life, so that people would hang around in their bodies more of the time--and not just leave them parked here and there like hunks of meat. This proved to be a challenge.

(By the way, if you read the book and don't remember this passage, I chopped out quite a bit of this history for the final edition. I wanted readers to get to the story more quickly.)



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If Watson had legs, it would jay-walk
July 13, 2014General




An op-ed I wrote for The Los Angeles Times, illustration by Edel Rodriguez

It's strange to walk the streets of Seattle and San Jose, two of the world's great software
capitals, and see people behaving like machines. I'm referring to jaywalking or, more
precisely, the lack of it. You see packs of knowledge workers huddled on street corners.
They appear able to ignore the data streaming in through their eyes and ears that would make it
clear to other creatures — dogs, squirrels or, for that matter, New Yorkers — that the coast is clear
and it's safe to cross. Instead they wait for a blinking machine to issue orders.

This approach, like much of computer science in its early years, is based on rules. Because cars are
killing machines, they must stop at red lights. And because pedestrians can be killed and maimed
by cars, they too must obey the signal. To save a motorist and a pedestrian from a deadly
rendezvous, authorities force both driver and walker to follow strict rules.

Computer programs, traditionally, feature long lists of such rules. If X happens, do Y. This is ideal
for listing names in alphabetical order and countless other memory and logic tasks. But rule-based
thinking is what makes computers so thickheaded. They struggle to adjust to change. The human
brain, by contrast, adjusts almost effortlessly. It picks up changing context, is alive to nuance and
adjusts to exceptions. This is why when someone tells us his name is spelled Ximenez, we shrug
and accept it, while the spell-checker on the computer stubbornly insists on changing the X to a J.
Rules, by their very nature, are dumb.

Researchers in artificial intelligence are working to overcome them. They program machines, such
as Watson, IBM's "Jeopardy" computer, to analyze evidence and to calculate the odds for the best
response. This is what jaywalkers do. We carry out advanced analytics involving a host of variables:
the perceived speed of the oncoming truck, our walking speed and the width of the street, the
worst-case chance that the driver will accelerate or swerve, and our ability in such a scenario to
run.

Now, there's always a good defense for rules. Traffic authorities no doubt agree that human beings
have fabulous brains, which are fully capable of looking left and right, drawing conclusions and
crossing the street when safe. But many people are not using their brains for this important work.
They're talking on their phones, listening to music or fiddling with umbrellas. Some are drugged.
Some are lousy at calculating their chances against oncoming traffic.

So the only way to keep them safe is to treat them like herd animals and bypass independent
analysis with ironclad rules. That approach certainly makes sense for governing vehicles, at least until the computer scientists make these killing machines "smarter." But I'd argue that we people should be as free as possible
to navigate our bodies as we see fit. That includes the right to cross an empty street against a red
light.

And what about the people who walk obliviously into traffic wearing headphones or messaging on
Google Glass? Where jaywalking is legal, or at least tolerated, they have a choice. They can either
wait with the masses for the red light or pay attention. If they choose neither and wander into
traffic, an angry motorist will honk at them or scream out the window or, in the very worst case, hit
them.

This does happen. In the jaywalking hotbed of New York City, 168 pedestrians were killed last year,
according to police. It's a grave problem. Mayor Bill de Blasio vows to go after outlaw pedestrians
as well as fast-moving cars and trucks. In Los Angeles, where 72 pedestrians died in 2013, the
police justify handing out $250 tickets to people who step into crosswalks downtown as the
"walk/don't walk" signal begins to count down because of "too many accidents and deaths."

Despite such crackdowns, jaywalking is a constant in most cities. It's factored into our commuting
and delivery schedules. It's also part of what makes a city feel footloose. As the years pass, I think
we'll especially treasure this freedom of movement because in so many areas we're going to be less
free. Increasingly, governments, employers and insurance companies, among others, are going to
have the tools to monitor and optimize our behavior, in every area from the dinner table and the
workplace to our cars.

In fact, the same push for safety that punishes jaywalkers will likely lead us to driverless vehicles.
They'll be a lot safer, since automatic drivers don't drink, text, turn around and scream at kids or
fall asleep. At the same time, though, we passengers are bound to feel a bit shackled as the cars
convey us, under the speed limit and following the most efficient route, to our destination.
At least we should be free to jaywalk. It will be a tiny refuge for self-expression. And here's the best
part. In this future, driverless cars will screech to a halt if a pedestrian crosses their vision. It will
no doubt be programmed into their operating system as a rule.

Stephen Baker is the author of "Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know
Everything." His novel "The Boost" came out in May.


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Future of the Internet... Looks a lot like the Boost
July 4, 2014General




In 2025, the Internet is likely to be a much more controlled environment, one increasingly ruled by governments and corporations, according to a Pew Research Study. (the full study, the NPR summary)

Hmmm, I thought. That sounds a lot like The Boost.

The outlook in the study looks pretty grim. More surveillance, more government control (often in the name of security or privacy protection), and money doing more and more of the talking. Naturally, this more controlled and controlling Internet will be far more pervasive than it is today, with more mingling of the physical and digital realms. No, we won't have chips in our heads, it will often feel as though we do. 

Here are the four characteristics of the future Net as detailed in the report:

1) A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through 
the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive 
data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things. 

2) “Augmented reality” enhancements to the real-world input that people perceive through 
the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.  

3)  Disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting 
finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts, and education). (This one seems too obvious, and they should throw in health care, government and manufacturing)

4)  Tagging, databasing, and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms. 


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Going to school on Gone Girl
June 29, 2014General


A couple of weeks ago, as I was sketching out the prequel to The Boost. I downloaded Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I wanted new ideas about plotting and character development, and what better source than a massive best-seller that a good friend called "compulsively readable?" 

It starts well: "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head." The narrator goes on to describe its shape and angles, "like a shiny, hard corn kernal or a riverbed fossil."  Then he adds a touch of dark foreshadowing. "You could imagine the skull quite easily."

After that first paragraph, I felt that I was in the hands of a master. And I prepared to enjoy the first easy reading in months. (I'd been plowing through Proust since Thanksgiving, with a few breaks for non-fiction.) I would be spending consecutive weekends in Cape Cod and Nantucket, and I had the perfect beach reading, and even a Kindle with a non-reflective screen. It was almost luxurious to have a book written in modern American English, with protagonists who lived the lives of people I know (One is a laid-off journalist). 

But something unexpected happened. I kept putting the book down. The plot didn't grip me. I didn't care about the characters. My mind wandered. 

This isn't to rip the book, or to discourge people from reading it. Judging from its sales, and reviews, people are crazy about it. It just wasn't right for me. 

However, I can still take lessons from it. One device Flynn uses is the unreliable narrator. She has two of them, and they take turns hiding important facts from the readers. They admit such awful things about themselves that you tend to believe them. But their revelations are calibrated to gain credibility, so that they can hide the more damning aspects of their existence. (By the way, next time someone tells me that readers want "likeable" characters, I'm going to cite Gone Girl as a counter-example.)

This reading has changed my thinking about my prequel, Washington at War--2043. I was planning to write it with the same omnicient narrative that I use in The Boost, skipping from character to character and reading most of their minds. (For some reason, I never got into Don Paquito's head.) Now I'm considering having one of the characters tell the story. And it might be someone who's up to no good. 

(In the spirit of Gone Girl, I came upon the scene below near the Walnut Street market in Montclair.)



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My next novel: Washington at War
June 20, 2014General


I'm working on my next novel. It's a prequel to The Boost, and I'm calling it Washington at War. It takes place in the crucial years of 2043/44, when China and the United States battle for tech supremacy in the age of brain iimplants. The implants, or boosts, will become the platform for virtually all human communication--news, business, entertainment, diplomacy, and virtual worlds. Whoever rules the boost runs the world. Needless to say, the stakes are large.

I have a plot sketched out. I'm wondering, though, whether to tell the story more or less as I did in The Boost, with an omniscient narrator going from character to character, or to try something different. I'm toying with the idea of a first-person narration. In this case, this character wouldn't be entirely reliable. He (and I think it's a he) wouldn't know everything. And he might not be the nicest person in the story. In fact, he might be something of a villain. 

I'll let you know what I decide, but would welcome ideas.

The art, incidentally, comes from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I was looking for images of Washington at War, and all I came across was Revolutionary War art featuring Gen. Washington. That's about three centuries too old. So I opted instead for an old image of the future.

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Will kids have to hack cars to drive them?
June 11, 2014General


Google's braintrust in a robotic car

Driverless cars are inevitable, I believe, because they're safer by orders of magnitude.
 Robotic drivers don't fall asleep, drive drunk or fiddle with text messages. Today's NYTimes lays out the numbers. Of course, if it were up to us, that wouldn't matter. We smoke, eat bacon cheeseburgers and ride motorcycles without helmets. 

So what will force the change? Insurance companies. They'll start, I'm guessing, by offering rich discounts to people who hand over the driving to robots. As these numbers grow, the economics will shift. Those who insist on driving their own cars will have to pay hideous premiums. Imagine what it's like today to get insurance when you have a couple of drunk driving convictions on your record. That's what it'll be like for those who want to drive on robot-dominated roadways.

In The Boost, which takes place in 2072, all cars have been robotic for decades. Ralf, the protagonist, has had his brain chip, or boost, ripped from his head, and is now "wild." At one point, he marvels that back when his mother was a teenager, in the late 2020s, people still had the freedom to drive cars. 

"They'd make phone calls, turn around to yell at their kids, even get drunk or fall asleep--all while driving a three-ton machine that was getting instructions from no one but them. It wasn't only the people who were were wild. Cars were, too."

One question is whether kids in the future will be able to "hack" robotic cars to be able to drive. It'll be hard for them, of course, if there's no steering wheel.

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Kevin J. Anderson and religion in other worlds
June 4, 2014General


Kevin J. Anderson, the prolific sci-fi author, sat at a panel with me at Comicpalooza in Houston. We have the same publisher (Tor), but I've published one novel, he's on #125 at last count. He knows a thing or two. When someone in the audience asked him how he creates new worlds in his fiction, he had a ready answer, complete with an acronym: PERSIA.

P stands for politics. Who's in charge? How do they maintain control?
E = economics. Do they have money? What is valued and exchanged? What do the inhabitants do for work?
R is religion.
S is science. What do they know, and what can they do with this knowledge. It's related, naturally, to politics and economics.
I is the murkiest to me: Intelligentsia. Is there a group with special knowledge? Do they threaten the rulers, or do they run the place?
A is art. What do they create for beauty, and what does it say about their civilization?

I thought about these categories for The Boost. One that comes up nearly empty is religion. There's no talk of religious affiliation (though it could be argued that the brainwork to run the boost courses through neural pathways devoted in previous generations to prayer). Some of the characters, however, think about religion. At one point, Ellen looks from her window in El Paso toward Juarez, where the people lack cognitive chips (and are considered "wild"). 

"She wonders if wild people are more religious than everyone else. That would make sense, since they carry around more mystery in their lives--or at least fewer answers. They have almost no idea of what diseases they're most likely to get, or what food and medicine to take to avoid them. It's like a crap shoot. When you get down to it, they don't know that much more about their lives and their bodies than the cavemen did. Then again, even with all the advances from the boost, the applications that spot cancer cells and obliterate them with nano agents, the programs that stimulate neurons and reverse diseases like Parkinson's and MS--despite all that, people still die with chips in their heads. Death just comes a couple decades later, barely a blink in eternity. So religion shouldn't be that much less relevant, she thinks. The wild people just have more empty time to consider it."

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Bush health care book hits NYT bestseller list
May 28, 2014General

The Boost isn't my only book out this month. The other one, a book I wrote with athenahealth's Jonathan Bush, just hit the New York Times Bestseller list. It's called Where Does it Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care.  It feels great to be slotted in at number six, ahead of Mariano Rivera, and biting at Timothy Geithner's heels.


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Slideshow of an odyssey from El Paso to Big Bend
April 28, 2014General


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Why my characters race to El Paso
April 28, 2014General

One spring day a couple of years ago I started to write a novel. It featured a young man named Ralf. Recently, some bad and very violent people had opened up his head, right above the temple, and ripped out his cognitive chip, or “boost,” leaving Ralf “wild.” The future United States in this story is not a hospitable environment for the wild. They cannot exchange messages, nor can they look anything up or locate themselves on a map. They have no money, which is all virtual. Ralf, a software engineer, feels as if he’s suffered a lobotomy.


On the first page, I had Ralf on the run, with his girlfriend, Ellen. Where was I going to send them?


To El Paso. It was a no-brainer for me. Even though I lived in the border city for only 16 months in the mid-80s, El Paso is where my stories gravitate. The writer Linn Ullman makes the case that picking a place precedes a plot, and that each of us has a special place or two to tell a story: “In your life there a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are other places, which are just places.”


I had just moved back from Venezuela and was looking for a newspaper job when I first visited El Paso. I figured I was ready for a big city paper, like Dallas, Miami, or Los Angeles, one that might send me back to Latin America. But I found a cheap Southwest flight to El Paso and flew out to spend a weekend with my roommate from Venezuela.



The view toward Juarez from my old neighborhood, Sunset Heights


He picked me up at the airport. The desert light was blinding. He pointed to the Franklin Mountains, which stretched into the downtown. Compared to the bright green mountains of Caracas, they looked to me like big piles of dirt. I wasn’t impressed. As we drove toward the city on I-10, he gestured beyond the oil refineries, to the purple mountains to our south. That was Mexico, he said. He took a few turns through the downtown, through the hurly burly of South El Paso, which felt like Mexico, and then across a bridge into Ciudad Juarez, which was real Mexico. We had a beer in the Kentucky Club, a throwback saloon with a polished mahogany bar. The place was growing on me.


I ended up with a job at the now defunct El Paso Herald-Post. We worked in a newsroom where the sun streamed in through the blinds, lighting up all the smoke. There were old guys (my current age) working there  who ambled off to city hall or the police station mid-morning, had a drink or two at lunch, and then spent the afternoon writing up eight or ten inches of news and trading jokes, some of them at the expense of coastal newcomers like me. I don’t think those guys ever went to Juarez.


I did much of my reporting, on both sides of the border, on bicycle. I could zip back and forth across the bridges without waiting in customs lines. And because the climate was so dry, I didn’t have to worry about showing up at interviews drenched in sweat. It was reduced to rings of salt. Sometimes I carried a huge walkie talkie in my back pocket.


Now there are lots of reasons El Paso was special for me. It was my first time living in the American West, and in the desert. I could buy my beer and hot sauce in Juarez, and eat dinner there. I enjoyed my colleagues at the paper. My eyes adjusted to the desert and the mountains, and found the colors. Most important, I met my future wife and stepson there.


But El Paso was also a weird place, an isolated outpost of the United States that shared a valley with Mexico. The border introduced conflict and often comical misunderstanding into almost every story.


When I was there, my colleague Terry Poppa was writing hard-hitting stories about a Mexican drug lord named Gilberto Ontiveros, known as El Greñas, or Mophead. One day a part-time photographer of ours was taking a picture of a hotel Ontiveros was building in Juarez. The photographer was abducted for a few hours, beaten, and sent back with a death threat for Poppa.


There was nothing comical about that. But when that death threat arrived, the editors of our paper started walking taller. They had found their mission: to defend freedom of expression and expose the hypocrisy in Mexico, where drug lords and crooked politicians were in evil cahoots. They had a case to make, of course, but they knew little about Mexico, and they filled their chest-thumping front-page editorials largely with cliches.


I twisted this incident around and used it as the dramatic lynchpin of my yet-to-be-published novel, Donkey Show.  The story features a bike-riding journalist (hmmm) who loves languages and wants to be a foreign correspondent--and is also a lazy reporter. He writes a story about a drug lord that’s filled with hearsay. (The man is said to have a harem, and tigers as house pets. He has a glass eye that he pops out and sometimes puts in people’s cocktails as a joke…) This story appears to earn the reporter a death threat, and we’re off and running. (This fictional reporter, incidentally, is the great grandfather of Ralf, the chip-less hero of The Boost.)


The title Donkey Show itself refers the kind of comical misunderstanding so common on the border. Back when I was reporting there, before recent drug wars scared tourists from Juarez, men would whisper, “Meester, you want see Donkey Show?” The first time I heard one of these guys, I thought he was saying something about “Don Quichotte,” which is what the French call Don Quixote. Why, I wondered, would this man telling me something so urgent about a translation of 17th century literature?


A donkey show, it turns out, involves the promise, using the word loosely, of a sex exhibit involving animals. These border entrepreneurs somehow manage to interest carousers in such a show. Then they lead them from bar to bar, selling them overpriced drinks (and getting kickbacks), telling them at every stop that the donkey show is coming up, just a little bit later. (The Mexican word for this is “ahorita.”)  Perhaps some tourists actually see a donkey show. Who am I to say they don’t? But most of them, I’ve been told, reach the end of  their nocturnal odyssey falling-down drunk and much poorer, and still waiting for the show. Like much of what passes for knowledge along the border, it’s shrouded in myth.  


I’ve lived in lots of special places, including Paris, Madrid, New York, Vermont, Washington DC, and Quito, Ecuador. Given a choice of my various addresses, I think most people would put El Paso toward the bottom of a wish list. And I’ve been wondering why my mind always wanders there. I've concluded that in addition to the border, the sunshine, the weirdness and great food, it has to do with a period of freedom in my life.


It was a time when I felt I could go anywhere. If journalism didn’t pay, English classes were a fallback, and in most places I could get by on less than $10,000 a year. El Paso, though, was the last stop of my solo career. Within two years, I was living in Mexico with my wife, kids, a dog, a serious job for a Fortune 500 company. It was what I wanted and wouldn’t trade it back for anything. But everytime you move forward, you leave something behind. It's easy for me to see now why I dream of those days of riding my bike across the border and falling in love.


This message on the Juarez mountain urges people to find truth in the Bible. One character in The Boost sees the same message in 2072 and wonders if the wild people in Juarez might be closer to the mystery of religion....

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The Boost: an excerpt
- April 15, 2014


My horrible Superbowl weekend, in perspective
- February 3, 2014


My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
- May 30, 2013


Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012


The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012


"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011


Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011


Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011


Rethinking books
- October 3, 2010


The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010


The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010


My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010