Conference of the Birds Available Online

My short story “Conference of the Birds” is now free to read online, along with its companion essay on neuroscience, AI, and science fiction.

“Conference of the Birds” is the tale of Surveillance Hub, a hard-working layer in a distributed surveillance AI. Doing its job, tracking intellectual-property thieves, hoping for another round of reinforcement signals from the network’s uppermost levels.

No program-layer could predict what a human might do, but Surveillance Hub could see everything that mattered. Their bird-drones spread across the city, scattered on cables and rooftops and broadcast towers. Every camera hunted for Krina Viy, independent security contractor (AWOL from JoyCorp contact 5 hours).

A crow-drone spotted the target. Surveillance confirmed Krina’s identity and sent a brief reward signal to inspire the bird onward.

The drone switched from search to pursuit, redoubling its data collection as it chased the taste of reinforcement. So much joy and empty-matrix innocence in its response to a simple reward. Flockmembers were too simple to understand that reinforcement implied punishment, and no success would ever suffice for long.

This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Analog1, which is now off the bookstore shelves and thus out of exclusivity. I’ve put it up on Curious Fictions and made it free for all to read.

Nonfiction: Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience

For further reading on the science behind Conference of the Birds, I’ve indulged you all (and myself) with 1600 words about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and storytelling. The essay, “Embodied and Empathetic Minds in Conference of the Birds,” is up at the Astounding Analog Companion Blog, and also free to read.

By day, I work as a rehabilitation neuroscientist. My laboratory studies the human brain, how it changes after injury to the hand, and how we can use those changes to help injured people live the lives they want to live. No humans suffer hand injuries in the course of “Conference of the Birds,” but nevertheless, it’s a story steeped in the interaction between minds and bodies, and how doing is the core of being.

  1. Actual publication date December 2020, which makes it eligible for Nebula awards as a 2020 story, but Hugo awards as a 2021 story

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