From Robby to Roomba: Robots, AIs, and the Minds of Tomorrow

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Apr 22, 2017 in Writer's Life

In honor of Earth Day, Harper Voyager authors are sharing their scientific knowledge in the form of the virtual science fair—follow the conversation on Twitter at #HVsciencefair.

Artificial intelligence has long been a staple of science fiction, but now we’re at the turning point where it’s quickly becoming our reality. Marvin, the mopey robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was probably once considered by readers to be a laugh-fetching gag, but now it’s prudent to ask how modeling such emotions can affect how AI is perceived. Johnny Cabs and Rosie the Robots are practically on our doorsteps, but what will their presence mean for our economy? Certainly, some human job loss will occur, but will having AI in the workforce be a boon to other entrepreneurs and creators?

Authors Marina J. Lostetter (Noumenon) and Nicky Drayden (The Prey of Gods) set out to answer these questions and more. Both of their novels feature sentient AIs—Lostetter’s a super intelligent interstellar convoy charged with the transport and care of a volatile crew, and Drayden’s a secretly sentient personal robot whose misguided antics might spark a liberation movement. In an attempt to separate science from science fiction, these two AI fanatics gathered an engineer, a hacker, and a futurist to pick their brains about the minds of tomorrow.

Check out the full interview here!


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Character Interview with Nomvula

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Apr 22, 2017 in Writer's Life


nomvulaTell me a little about yourself.

Well, my name is Nomvula, and I’m ten years old. I live in the Addisen township, a long bus ride from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I’ve never been to the city, but I hear it’s amazing—tall buildings and robots everywhere. I really like it here, too though. Everyone is friendly, except some of the kids who like to tease me about my golden eyes and my sick mother. It’s okay, you don’t have to look me in the eyes if you don’t want to. No one does. 

Err, they’re quite…striking. So my sources tell me that you can fly?

People can’t fly, silly. I mean, I used to pretend that I could, but that was way back when I was a little kid. I know the difference between real and pretend now that I’m almost a woman. Who told you about that, anyway?

We have a mutual friend, a Mr. Tau?

Oh, him? He says a lot of things that aren’t true. My ma says he’s dangerous. We shouldn’t talk about him.

Well, what should we talk about then?

Mmmm. How about food? My Mama Zafu, that’s my auntie, is the most amazing cook! She takes care of me mostly, since my ma is so sick. Her beef stew just melts in your mouth. Have you ever tried it? It’s beef shins and onions and carrots and tomatoes, plus basil, rosemary, and thyme from her herb garden. Goes great with a tangy slice of beer bread fresh out of the oven. Mr. Tau makes wonderful beer bread, the best I’ve ever had.

I thought you said we shouldn’t talk about Mr. Tau.

Well, we shouldn’t, but if we don’t tell my ma that we talked about him, then I think it’s okay. I won’t tell her. Will you?

Of course not.

Good. Because Mr. Tau is amazing. He’s an artist, you know. He carves figures out of wood and sells them in the city to tourists. He also tells great stories about the olden days when all there was of the world was a giant scab of lava, then there were walking, talking tree mothers brought to life by animal spirits, and then warring demigods, and then– 

Did any of those demigods fly?

Well, sure, some of them. The ones descended from eagles could soar, high up in the air, with wings that sprouted from their backs. They flew so high, they felt like they could touch the sun! They did tricks in the sky, clouds cool against their skin. And from up there, they could see everything–the land, the ocean, and sometimes they flew so, so far to the next township over, where the kids wouldn’t tease them and make fun of them because their strange eyes or their sick, sick mother. Hey, why are you looking at me like that?

Nomvula, I hope you don’t mind if I ask this again, but can you fly?

People don’t fly. 

Yes, people don’t, but do you?


Sorry, can’t answer any more of your questions. I’ve got to fly. I mean go. I’ve got to go. Walking. Ma’s probably starving in her shack, wondering why I haven’t brought her bowl of pap to her yet. Oh, you know, here’s a great recipe for beer bread, if you’re interested. It’s really good. You’ll love it, I promise. Okay, thanks, bye!


Beer and cheese bread for lazy bakers

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How to Survive on Mars

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Nov 20, 2016 in Writer's Life

So I just finished my free online class How to Survive on Mars, and I gotta say, colonizing the red planet is looking pretty doable. Life will be a lot different than it is here on Earth, but it seems like Mars possesses all the ingredients for hosting life. My focus on the class was trying to find ways to work with the environment–thinking like a Martian, if you will–and not trying to import a bunch of Earthling ideas to our future colonies.

Here’s my final concept map covering the four bare necessities for survival on Mars: Water, Energy, Food, and Oxygen.




Mars gets less than half of the sunlight we do on Earth, and although there are many dust storms, wind power is limited due to low atmospheric pressure, however, both of those methods would be great sources of energy when coupled with these kinetic tiles I found online. Assuming our colony would be operational 24/7, people power could serve as the primary source of energy for the colony, without relying on external environmental factors. The tiles are still a relatively new technology, but already boast 1-7 watts per step. The average colonist could easily produce 7 kilowatts of energy per day, multiplied by 1000 people would be 7,000 kilowatts per day, or nearly half of the energy needed by the colony per day, certainly more than enough to run basic life support, provide lighting for agriculture, and to operate computer systems.


The interplanetary postage on shipping water is cost prohibitive, and yet water is essential to survival on Mars. Fortunately, Mars has tons of it, at the ice caps obviously, but also underground, as evidenced by water seepage from several sites near the equator. Setting our colony near one of these sites would offer us balmy summer temps (at least during the daytime) to reduce the need for heating.  If we capture this seepage before it sublimates (water boils off in the low atmosphere) we would have enough water for drinking, bathing, and growing crops. Water conservation and recycling would also be essential, and minimize the amount of effort needed for collection activities.


These two are hard to separate, since with all of the leafy green food that needs to be grown to feed the colony, we also get the side benefit of producing oxygen. Traditional farming requires about an acre to feed one person, and lots of irrigation. Feeding 1000 sounds like it would take a lot of water and space, but if we institute a self-contained aquaponics system, most of the food could be grown vertically, using minimal amounts of water, and using the nitrogen from aquarium fish waste to provide plants with nutrients. Freight Farms has a setup now that can feed 4 people in the space of a 40-foot truck trailer. Half of the colony’s food would be grown within enclosed domes that mimic an “outdoor” feel, while the other half would be in a separate, self-contained area to ensure we don’t encounter problems with too much oxygen in our living spaces.


Of course, backup systems would need to be in place in case things go wrong. I envision RTGs (radioisotope thermoelectric generators) such as the plutonium-powered devices that the rovers on Mars use now. They don’t produce a lot of energy, but could be used for remote applications, and recalled when there are dust storms to provide emergency power in a pinch. I think with smart building designs, we can avoid the need for actual nuclear power, though many people in my class were proponents of using it. We could also mine deeper for water if needed, or extract it from Martian soil (regolith contains about 3% water.) For food, we’ve always got astronaut ice cream, if we find ourselves in a pinch. Plus it’d be nice to have some delicacies that are only available from Earth once in a while.


This was a really great class, but like all learning opportunities, you get out of it what you put into it. I spent a lot of time plotting and planning and playing around with ideas for surviving while doing as little as I could to disturb the Martian land around us. For me this was a lot like world building, but without the pressure of having to write a book afterwards…though now, I totally feel like I could. I’d definitely recommend the class, for those new to Mars or writers looking to put a little extra “science” in their science fiction.

Mars, we’re packing our bags.

See ya soon!

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