Aaron Marcus: You and fellow cyberpunk sci-fi author Bruce Sterling were guest speakers at CHI 1992, “Sci-Fi at CHI.” You talked about computer-human-interface design ideas in science fiction. How has the sci-fi scene evolved over the twenty years since then?
Rudy Rucker: That was a “fun con”; Bruce and I shared a room. You guys had a reception in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bruce and I were so impressed by the tanks of jellyfish that we ended up co-authoring “Big Jelly,” a sci-fi story about giant flying jellyfish. You can find the story in my Complete Stories.
I see the eventual sci-fi default as being a future in which every kind of manufactured object has been replaced by a tweaked plant or animal.
“Big Jelly” was, in fact, a step towards that future, in that it’s about “biotweak tech” rather than about “silicon machinery.” Sci-fi writers ought to be writing a lot of stories about biotech these days, but that hasn’t fully kicked in. There’s an atavistic drift back to writing space operas with giant metal ships, chariots, wooden rockets, or giant cars.
A different trend is emerging. During the last decade we saw a heap of hype about the so-called Singularity [the moment at which machines achieve general intelligence equivalent to human beings], some of it with a weirdly religious fervor. The pitch is that pretty soon AI [artificial intelligence] will strike it rich, and computers will be as smart as human beings. Then we’ll beef up the smart computers with more memory and faster chips, and they’ll design even smarter computers—and we’ll get into one of these exponential growth surges. True-believing, overweight, mouse-potatoes will have their arteries cleaned out by nano-machines and they’ll upload their minds into robot bodies—which is actually an idea that dates back to my 1982 novel Software.
The rank-and-file sci-fi writers were baffled and uneasy about the Singularity, and for a while they were leery of writing about it. But then Charles Stross rose to the challenge in his trail-blazing novel Accelerando, and the rest of us piled on. I even wrote a novel called Postsingular, just to leapfrog over the whole thing. The Singularity is perfect for sci-fi. We’re telling plausible lies.
RR: For a number of years, I’ve been writing about a user-interface device that I call an “uvvy,” which is pronounced to rhyme with “lovey-dovey.” It’s made of piezoplastic, that is, a soft “computational plastic.” Thomas Pynchon had a substance like this in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow; he called it “imipolex,” and I use this word in, for instance, my novel Freeware, which is a part of the Ware Tetralogy.
An “uvvy” sits on the back of your neck and interfaces with your brain via electromagnetic waves interacting with the spinal cord. Most users will want to stay away from interface probes that stick into them with wires. The uvvy functions like a smartphone, but it’s activated by sub-vocal speech and mental commands. It sends sounds and images into your brain.
AM: What do you think about how sci-fi movies and television convey user-experience innovations?
RR: The hoariest media cliché for user interfaces is the “face on the wall,” that is, a TV screen-like image that’s talking to you…but even with Skype and FaceTime, people don’t really seem very interested in videophone communication.
A rich voice signal is more intimate and expresses more. Speaking of voice, I think the greatest weakness in the current digital smartphone standard is that digital voice isn’t anywhere nearly as rich as analog voice. Often, to save channel capacity, the signal drops when you’re not talking. I feel the digital audio channel needs to be made several bytes fatter, and it needs to be a continuous connection so that you hear the stage-setting buzz of the background noise and—also very important—the sound of the other person’s breath.
You often see three-dimensional displays being used in movie visualizations, and these can be fun, although they don’t tend to age well. My favorite media interface scenes are in the 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic, based on a William Gibson story of the same name. Keanu Reeves does these wonderful Japanese-theater-type hand-jive moves when he’s manipulating his cyberspace interface. I never understood why this movie wasn’t more popular.
AM: Is there any particular aspect of current interface technology that you feel needs to be changed?
RR: It’s absurd to see people pecking at their tiny smartphone keyboards. This is so clearly a bad user interface. It’s unnatural, error-prone, isolating, and non-ergonomic.
If you’ve learned to touch type—and this should be a mandatory course in every middle school—then you can use a real keyboard without having to look at it. With a real keyboard, the words flow through your arms and onto the screen.
But there’s currently no good way to have a true keyboard on a smartphone. Sure, you can connect a portable full-size keyboard, but that’s kludgey. And you can, at least theoretically, have the device project a virtual keyboard onto your tabletop, but that’s going to have horrible ergonomics.
We need, I think, to take another step along the keyboard-virtualization route and get serious about having the device “see” the mock-keyboarding twitches of your fingers. At some point, a more ergonomic set of hand gestures could take hold. Along these lines, I think of the finger-squeezing interfaces that have been installed in the handle-grips of some experimental bicycles. Using your eight fingers gives you a byte per squeeze.
A different solution to the smartphone interface is to forget about hand gestures and go for voice recognition, and this technology seems to be maturing.
One problem here is that you’re making noise in public, announcing texts that you might want to keep private. I do a lot of my writing on laptops in coffee shops, and I can’t imagine dictating my stories aloud—including all the corrections. I’d seem like a madman. Not that the people having cellphone conversations with earphones and dangling mikes don’t already seem dangerously insane. I suppose the next step might be to have the device lip-read your sub-vocal speech, or pick up the vibrations from a throat mike.
I also need to say something about pointing devices—mice, track-balls, and touchpads. Over time, using any of these devices intensively is hideously damaging to your body—ask any author or programmer. It’s like a silent, unacknowledged industrial disease that attacks a relatively powerless underclass—like black lung used to be for miners. We’ve seen demos where a computer camera tracks your eye movements and lets you point by looking. I don’t understand why this feature isn’t being perfected and rushed to market for every desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone.
With all this said, I have a feeling that there are some as-yet-unimagined solutions that we’ll be using in twenty or thirty years. Possibly we’ll get to an uvvy-style direct brain interface. But for sure we won’t be pecking at smartphone keys and ruining our bodies with computer mice.
AM: What kind of user interface are you using in your latest novel Turing and Burroughs?
RR: Telepathy. For me, that’s the gold standard, the interface that we’re really working towards. At a metaphorical level, telepathy stands for the dream of being perfectly understood by your friends and lovers. And we’re always getting closer.
Even though we tend to ignore this technology, even print is a first step towards telepathy, but time-delayed. You read this interview and you know what I’m thinking. The phone is another step; you’re speaking and listening to someone who’s far away. Speech is very intimate, very close to the roots of the mind.
An interesting aspect of full telepathy is that you can communicate info in a hyperlink style. When I have a big image to share, I don’t email the whole image, I simply send a hyperlink to the image’s location, and let the user find the image there. With telepathy, instead of wrestling some complicated thought pattern into words, you might simply send a trusted friend a “hyperlink” to the location of this thought within your brain—and possibly they can connect to you and experience the thought as if they’re having it themselves. Note, also, that with this style of communication, we no longer need to break down an image into RGB bytes, nor need to code a thought into words.
I’ve put telepathy into any number of my novels, using all sorts of sci-fi gimmicks to make it work. In Turing and Burroughs, my characters experience a communicable biological mutation that makes them sensitive to a certain type of brain-generated wave. Also, they can shapeshift into giant slugs and have great beatnik orgies.
AM: In the movie The Graduate (1967), the young hero is urged to focus on the future based on one word: “plastics.” If you were to guide newcomers to the world of the future, what would that one word be?
RR: One word? Telepathy. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.