Friday, January 29, 2010

The Working Robot

As you all know, one of the main purposes of robots is to allow lazy humans not to do certain chores. Yes, there are educational robots and toy robots and pet robots, and robots designed to further our understanding of brain functions, but most robots are servants. I'm okay with this. As long as they stay servants, and stay incapable of higher reasoning, the robot uprising can be avoided.

The first servant-bots that come to mind are the Roomba and its siblings. The Roomba came out in 2002, and since then several other companies have made robot vacuums of their own. Samsung has not two, but three*, and Neato Robotics has one** too, with laser vision! Asus has one with an antibacterial UV beam and a really pretty case***. But they're not the only bots with household duties. Panisonic has one to wash dishes**** and some other medically-based ones (see video below). You can build an alarm clock that runs away from you***** (click the link, there are videos). There are also robotic maids†, robots that cook††, and robots that mix drinks†††.

Speaking of medical robots, there seems to be something of an explosion of the suckers. Hospitals can get robots to treat depression††††, conduct virtual autopsies†††††, and check vital signs

Let's not forget the office! Toyota has built a delivery robot‡‡, Subaru has a robot janitor ‡‡‡(pdf link), and there is a robot workspace wall‡‡‡‡.

Other uses for robots in the work place include:

There are more robots here. For coverage of what happens when all work is done by robots, go here.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say we'll see at least two-thirds of these bots in common use by 2020. Woohoo future!

* Engadget three times
** Also Engadget
*** Gizmodo
**** Engadget
***** Gizmodo
† all links via io9
†† Engadget
††† Gizmodo
†††† Gizmodo
††††† Gizmodo
‡‡ Gizmodo
‡‡‡ Engadget
‡‡‡‡ Gizmodo
‡‡‡‡‡ Gizmodo
* Gizmodo
** Gizmodo
*** Engadget
**** Gizmodo

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We Need More Exciting Aliens

It occurred to me the other day that there are a lot of fictional alien species who conform to a very small number of molds: humanoid, insectoid, feline, robot, and reptilian. There's a huge amount of creativity in appearances and cultures, and I'm willing to make a bit of an exception for film because hey, they do have a budget, but print media? Online? We could try pushing the envelope a little more than we have.

(If you're interested, now would be a good time to scan the Wikipedia master list. I'm sure they haven't gotten everything, since I don't see any record of the Quintaglio on it, but it gives a nice overview, at any rate. Note that Star Trek, Star Wars, Farscape, Babylon 5, and Doctor Who are responsible for a lot of the species.)

I remember being intrigued by the idea of the Quintaglio. Far-seer was the first time I'd encountered sentient non-humanoid aliens, and let's face it, a book featuring a dinosaur civilization? Pretty darn awesome. The Prawns in District 9 hit me the same way: "Holy mother of Asimov, they did that?"

Thing is, I want to be wowed more often. I want every book/movie about aliens (or every other one, I'm generous), to give me the same feeling. I want more creativity! Humanoid aliens are sooo last century.*

Alien molds that haven't been done, that I know of:

  • Fish
  • Sharks**
  • Marsupials
  • Rabbits
  • Octopus (real octopusses octopusi ones, not aquatic things with tentacles)
  • Parrots
  • Bacterial hive-minds
  • Trilobites
  • Elephants
  • Slime molds
  • Moss
Or we could follow the route laid down by Stargate, and go with deities. A race of satyrs, perhaps? Trolls? Chinese dragons? Western dragons? The Hindu pantheon? The Mayan gods? There are an awful lot of folkloric and mythological monsters, not to mention the ones that popped up in medieval travelogues and the like.

Let's not forget that our minds are influenced by our experiences and cultures. Some writers have created beings that don't match neatly to an Earth-based lifeform or concept, but most build on what we know about the natural world already. What if we went beyond that? What if we built a planet or environment first, and then evolved a species to survive in it? After all, there are some very extreme lifeforms on our own planet. 

One possible environment, "close" to home: the diamond oceans of Uranus and Neptune.*** This would be a rather hot, very high pressure place to live. There probably wouldn't be a lot of gas mixed into the diamond, let alone oxygen, so either the aliens wouldn't breathe, they'd use a system like photosynthesis where they'd break down carbon for energy, or they'd be like whales, surfacing to breathe hydrogen, helium, or methane (those being the abundant gases). The aliens would almost certainly be carbon-based, and would consume other carbon-based life for energy. They'd likely evolve something like fins or flagella to propel themselves. Maybe they'd use jet propulsion.

I doubt that these aliens would achieve buildings, because short of building on the solid-diamond floes, there'd be nothing solid, and the caps probably wouldn't be all that stable. However, they could still have a civilization, of sorts. Dolphins and whales have proto-languages. Octopuses use tools. 

Actually, I can see floating, roundish structures tethered together into cities, provided the aliens had something to build with. Perhaps after millennia of them using these structures, they'd adapt to them, becoming more amphibious than aquatic or losing the flippers and gaining something more like hands.

Perhaps not. They'd still be cool.

What about aliens living in nebulae? Black holes? Asteroids? Stars? It's not entirely impossible. Think of what our descendants (or even ourselves) could discover!

* Just my opinion. Go ahead and prove me wrong.
** Yes, yes, they're technically fish, sue me, a civilization of sharks would be wicked†
*** Boing Boing
† I just dated myself, didn't I?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Creative Distribution, Some Thoughts On

In the last few months, the decade-old (ish) debate about art, technology, intellectual theft, and pirates has resurfaced. You're probably all familiar with the music industry's "zomg u has downloaded teh musics without paying we're gonna die" campaigns and Hollywood's "zomg u has posted teh videos as torrents!" panic. Some of you, if you're as plugged into the online publishing and writing community as I am, will have come across the newest version of this—book piracy.

I'm not going to give you a link for that, because a simple Google search will probably give you more than you need to know. To summarize:

  • There are people who either scan print books and post the pdfs for free, or who upload e-book files for free downloads
  • These free copies aren't doing any authors any favours, as authors survive on royalties from bought books, and don't get anything from pirated versions.
  • Pirated books do allow more people to read the books, but that comes at a pretty big cost to publishing.
In addition, the "zomg music pirates!" feeling is mirrored in the "zomg e-books will change publishing!" stance that a lot of publishing folk seem to be taking sides on. Some say that's good. Some say that's bad. Some say that just is. (I'm going to give a brief nod to art theft, in which trolls/spammers repost artwork they claim is theirs. The online art community gets pretty irate about this, too.)

The similarities have gotten me thinking: What if everything creative was public? What if there was no such thing as intellectual property and creative works were viewed as the property of the society, rather than a single person or group? This is one possible path the piracy issues could lead us towards, though not, I think, the path we're currently on.

What would a future with free creative works look like? I'd imagine it would look similar to older, defunct societies. The Middle Ages comes to mind. 

I'm not a medievalist, but I have taken a course or two, and I never once got the impression that X advance in manuscript illumination belonged only to Brother John, or that Beowulf could only be performed by Olaf the Dane, or that Chaucer would've Had Words with anyone who wanted to copy his books (Okay, so maybe not him. Chaucer was snarky.). Similar ideas about property and sharing pop up in the Classical world, and probably go all the way back to the Stone Age. Thog would probably have taught Gog how to properly paint bison on a cave ceiling rather than kick Gog out of the cave for trying to repeat his painting.

The problem with taking these historical periods as a model is that John and Olaf didn't exactly get paid for their troubles. John was creating art for God. Olaf was composing poetry for room and board. Chaucer was essentially a diplomat with a hobby. However, all their jobs were prestige positions, as were Homer's and Thog's. Their societies had all advanced enough that they could support artists. They no longer needed every able body to collect or create food. 

A society with artists* creating free, society-owned work would need to give the artists either a living wage (not minimum wage, but something they could use to both live and buy supplies for their work), or would need to pay a decent commission for each piece. Given that "free" in the future will almost certainly mean "online" and "digital", the commission may not be feasible, but a state-paid income certainly would be. A regular income would achieve a couple goals—it would free artists from The Day Job and allow them more time to create, and it would free them from financial worry. (I don't think anyone can really function properly under stress.) Freeing artists to be artists would mean more creative output per capita, and if all that output was instantly accessible world-wide, that would mean a heckuva lot of everyday exposure to creativity.

Of course, to keep the income, an artist would need to prove they've been earning it, through an exhibit, show, music release, or so many articles, short stories, scripts, or words in a novel. If every artist had more unlimited free time, the necessary output probably wouldn't be hard to achieve.

I know this is a rosy future. I know that doing away with royalties and copyright probably won't happen. I know, from personal experience, that the urge to claim ownership of one's work is pretty strong. I'm not necessarily advocating for or against the ideas I've just put forward**. 

That said, though … what if the ideas in this post were realized? What if the world's artists created for the sake of creation and shared for the sake of bettering the world, without thought to who owned what they created?*** What would a society exposed to that much creativity look like and work like? What if this was an alien society and not our own?

*meaning artists, actors, musicians, and writers
**mostly because I don't know enough about the issues at hand
***see also: Creative Commons

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Promised Expansion

This is a continuation from Wednesday, in a way, but you don't need to read the previous post if you don't want to. You're not missing anything. But, if you are new here (and welcome!), then you need to know that on Wednesday, I used a humourous flow-chart generator to come up with three sci-fi-ish stories, and that I threatened promised to expand on one of them today.

I've picked The Psychopoli. Here's my "summary" from Wednesday:
In a metaphorical Japan, a young schlub with mild OCD stumbles across a talking fish which spurs him into conflict with murderous robots with the help of a cherubic girl with pigtails and spunk and her closet full of assault rifles, culminating in a false victory with the promise of future danger.
Now, to elaborate…

Setting: a metaphorical Japan - Let's make it a blend of traditional and modern, to fit the theme of clichés. We have high-tech, skyscraper cities with a cyberpunk feel, and a tranquil, pastoral countryside full of cherry trees, mountains, and small villages of rice farmers and fishermen. The samurai lords rule both, though the urban samurai have exchanged swords for computer viruses and high-powered guns.

Protagonist: a young schlub with mild OCD - Got that image in your mind? Good. Let's make him the worst samurai apprentice in a hundred years. Let's call him Hiro, for ironic good measure. Hiro really doesn't like blood.

Antagonist: murderous robots* - Doesn't the metallic version look perfect? Let's leave it as is. No skin, no clothes.

Secondary Character A (love interest): a cherubic girl with pigtails, spunk, and assault rifles** (Okay, not quite assault rifles, but certainly cool, and I bet she has this too.) She'll be the daughter of an urban samurai lord.

Prop: a talking fish - For the sake of continuity with the robotic antagonists, pick a fish from here. The koi, perhaps?

Plot: As punishment for missing sword practice for the eleventh time, Hiro must deliver a message and gift from his rural lord to a powerful urban lord. He is awed and terrified by the city, but makes it through to the samurai compound—but barely. As he's waiting in a courtyard to be escorted in, a robotic surveillance koi in the courtyard pond tries to shoot him, because he's not wearing the frequency band that identifies "safe" people. Hiro dives behind a tree, and exchanges words with the fish, which, to his surprise, talks back, in the voice of the samurai's daughter, the security chief. The "fish" is cryptic, in a bouncy anime way, but manages to convey to Hiro that he's in danger if he stays, because the message he's delivering is that age-old "here's a boy for you to kill" deal. He's to run to the closest gate, which will be unlocked, and she'll get him to a safe house. Of course, when her father finds out she's helped Hiro, he unleashes his robot army…

Yeah, I think this generator could be useful. That story sounds fun—and I bet it's not all we can do with the core elements. *hinthint*

* Gizmodo
** Boing Boing

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Today, I Am Random

I'm having a mild blog-identity crisis at the moment. (Nothing to worry about, nothing to see, move right along now….) I'm treating it a little like writer's block. When in doubt, start something new! Something different! And then see where it takes you just long enough to break the block.

What better way to come up with something new than with the Electro-Plasmic Hydrocephalic Genre-Fiction Generator 2000*, a rather steampunky flowchart, primed and ready for new ideas!**

I'm going to test it. Ready?
  1. The Revenaut: In a dragon-filled terraformed Mars, a young journeyman inventor stumbles across an alien artifact which spurs him into conflict with a charismatic politician on the rise with the help of a leather-clad female in shades and her discomfort in formal wear, culminating in a philosophical argument punctuated by violence.
  2. The Psychopoli: In a metaphorical Japan, a young schlub with mild OCD stumbles across a talking fish which spurs him into conflict with murderous robots with the help of a cherubic girl with pigtails and spunk and her closet full of assault rifles, culminating in a false victory with the promise of future danger. 
  3. The Steammancer: In a neo-noir Victorian Britain, a young farm boy with dreams stumbles across an arcane prophecy which spurs him into conflict with a profit-obsessed corporation with the help of a bookish female scholar with mousy brown hair and her condescending tone, culminating in the invocation of a spell at the last possible moment. 
I think this may have possibilities***. I just might flesh one of these out for Friday.

* Futurismic
** I know it's tongue-in-cheeck and mocking genre fiction. I don't think that should prevent it from being a) fun and b) occasionally useful.
*** I'm torn between the image of a leather-clad female in a Victorian evening gown, and the cherubic girl laden with weapons.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Time and Relative Dimensions in Space and Video

I have been intrigued by the concepts of string theory since I first heard about them, and interested in the science fictional extrapolations of string theory for slightly less time (but not much!). I'll confess, though, that for all the talk about ten dimensions (or eleven, or twenty, or forty-two, or whatever number the physicists are using these days), I've always had trouble really conceiving of how the universe would look, if I could see more than three dimensions.* I doubt there are many people who aren't trained string theorists who are capable of that feat, actually. We're not built for thinking at those levels. We don't have the experience.

Fortunately, there is a video. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find an embedding code for it. It is here.** If you're at all interested in string theory, or multiple universes, or how having 4+ dimensions ties into time travel and multiple universes, or how the TARDIS works, you need to watch this video. Seriously.

I'd really like to see somebody create aliens that existed in or perceived dimensions beyond our own. Like, what if there were a species that could see six? They'd be able to see every point in the time they existed, and the possible branches their lives could take, and they'd be able to move between those branches. What would their society look like? Would they have one?

*This may or may not factor slightly into the novel I'm working on right now.
** via Boing Boing

Friday, January 15, 2010

In Which I Talk About a Book

Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible is an excellent primer in current and future technology, as relevant to standard sci-fi technology, like forcefields, time travel, and phasers. It's clearly written, with examples and no confusing diagrams or equations, and lots of appropriately geeky references. In other words, you can follow along just fine without much or any knowledge of physics.

Kaku divides his book into three sections, based on the level of difficulty presented by the technologies in question:

  • Class I impossibilities, which don't violate the laws of physics and aren't quite achievable yet. These are mostly technologies we're halfway there with already (robots), or for which we've got all the components, just no (affordable) means of combining them (starships, forcefields).
  • Class II impossibilities, which are possible only with vastly improved technology and scientific understanding, some of which we can't begin to predict or imagine (time machines, faster-than-light travel, parallel universes).
  • Class III impossibilities, which violate the laws of physics (perpetual motion machines, precognition).
Kaku goes into the history and development of each technology, explains where we are right now, and discusses ways we could make (or approximate) the technology. Usually the tech that's actually possible doesn't quite line up with what we get on TV, but I'm taking that as a good thing. Might as well write what's accurate, right? 

For example, his chapter of phasers is mostly about current and near future developments in powerful lasers, how to make said lasers portable, and the cool things you can do with nuclear fusion (including at the star level). Yes, they're all ray guns. No, they're not exactly phasers à la Star Trek. I'm pretty sure you can't set a laser to stun.

Something else I liked about this book is that Kaku hesitates to call anything impossible. The two Class III's I mentioned above? They're his only completely impossible tropes. The rest he says is possible, either within the next couple hundred years or after a couple thousand, because we'll need that much time to further our understanding or organize the building efforts.* There's a nice sense of hope to the book, which is a pleasant contrast to other predictive books I've read, which don't account for sudden jumps in technology or the various ways an invention can be taken. 

Physics of the Impossible isn't an in-depth study of the science needed to come up with the Science Fiction Universe, and shouldn't be taken as one. It's a starting point, a book to be read for ideas and basic understanding. It's also a good book to read if you want to get an overview of where we are now**, or if you want to see how someone can take scientific fact and work forward to really cool stuff like invisibility shielding for spaceships.

Final verdict (and this'll probably go for all the books I discuss here): check it out!

*For instance, one way to travel by wormhole is to link a black hole to a white hole, but we'd have to create the white hole and then find a way to stick it to the black hole indefinitely without making everything blow up. We're nowhere near that ability yet, but we could be in, say, the year 4000.

** More or less. It was published in 2008.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dune, the Martian Chronicles

I saw a photo on Boing Boing today. It is here and by Ares is it shiny. Mars has sand dunes! And sublimating carbon dioxide! Did I mention the sand dunes?

I would love to see a novel set in this environment—the Bedouins of Mars, perhaps, or an underground city like this one*.  Onto my list it goes, unless someone wants to nab the idea?

* io9

Monday, January 11, 2010

Oh, my eyes!

As you may notice if you squint really, really hard at my photo, I wear glasses. I have since I was a kid, and I'll probably continue to do so for a very long time, since I can't quite stomach the idea of contacts or laser surgery. However, if I do change my mind, I can rest assured that the future of eye care has arrived:

  1. Doctors in the U.K. have succeeded in implanting a stem cell culture into a blind eye,* causing the damaged cornea to grow back. The patient can now see out of both eyes instead of just one, much to his relief, and there's no risk of rejection, because they were his own stem cells. 
  2. Other British doctors have developed a technique for equipping people with high-def vision,** using a standard implanted lens, then fine-tuning the focus.
  3. Laser refractive surgery, a.k.a. LASIK et al., has now improved enough that we can use it to customize vision.*** Need to see in the dark? Read fine print at a thousand paces? Too proud to get bifocals? Done!
Obviously, if I want awesome, futuristic eyes, I need to move to Britain. However, if I become diabetic, I can stay right here in Canada to get my very own pair of contacts that change colour according to my blood sugar levels.**** With nano-particles, natch.

Since over 161 million people have some kind of vision impairment and that number's probably only getting higher, these developments will be a Big Thing—if the costs go down. And even if it doesn't, this technology is going to influence the future. We could adapt eyes to life underwater or in space. We could create super-soldiers which always ends badly. We could humanely blind people as a punishment for, say, being a peeping tom (see: chopping the hands off thieves). We could make contacts that changed colour with drug levels or hormone levels, so that the raves of the future would contain psychedelic eyes.

I should stop speculating. I want these stories now! Think I'll just think of England instead. Mm, England…

** Engadget and Gizmodo
*** io9
**** Institute of Nanotechnology via PopSci via io9

Friday, January 8, 2010

Full Steam Backwards

I recently finished a wonderful steampunk urban fantasy and in a possibly misguided attempt to make everyone want to read it, I'm going to talk about steampunk today.

For those of you not in the know, a quick definition:

steampunk n. - 1. a subgenre of science fiction using quasi-Victorian technology based on steam power and clockwork rather than combustion engines, nanotechnology, or any other modern technology—in other words, the sci-fi that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote 2. a subculture involving faux-Victorian costumes with lots of metal, cogs, and goggles (from steam + -punk; c.f. cyberpunk)

I'm not going to be writing this in Victorian-era English, but if you want to imagine me speaking in an over-the-top British accent, go ahead.

Let's start with the one and only Difference Engine, a.k.a. a clockwork calculater that didn't take off. National Public Radio did an article* a while back, covering the working model installed in the Computer History Museum. (If you click that last link, you'll find photos and a video.)

With a Difference Engine at hand, the Victorians may have been able to realize this hexagonal London**, or they may have been able to invent sound-locating technology*** before WWI. Then again, maybe they wouldn't have, or maybe they would have even without a Difference Engine. Who knows?

Other intriguing historical links, more of the researchy variety: 60 seminal Royal Society papers, online****; predictions on the future of warfare, from 1924; and a scarily predictive article on the future of Christmas shopping, from 1909*****.

Of course, steampunk's something of a reality. Just ask the US military, who want to deploy an airship in Afghanistan, or the gentleman who designed a "Teslapunk"urinal.†

And I think I'll leave you with three galleries of concept art—and one final link.

  1. Very awesome artwork on io9
  2. artistic gasmasks††
  3. modern Dubai, photographed in 1857††† 

Gail Carriger, the author of the aforementioned awesome novel, has a section of her site dedicated to steampunk links. Check 'em out!

Um, yeah… So this post didn't really have a point except for dumping links. I promise I'll do better on that front!

* Futurismic
** io9
*** Gizmodo
**** Boing Boing
***** io9
†† io9
††† io9

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Photos of the End

If you're like me (and I hope you are, that would be awesome), then either you have a healthy interest in apocalypse scenarios and dystopias or you've contemplated your own apocalyptic scenario(s). If you're not like me, then all the power to you. You're sane, among other things.

There are a number of apocalyptic scenarios* ripe for picking, ranging from asteroids to terrorists to global warming to Chthulu. Most of them have been written about or made into movies or both. But as far as I know, nobody's covered the world in red dust**, polluted China***, gone steampunk****, used garbage*****, or flooded NYC******. Y'know, if you're feeling creative.

And if you're not, some pics to inspire: people exploring a lifeless Earth*******; shipwreckscrashed planesshopping malls†, some in China††; and Detroit†††.

I shouldn't joke. The human impact of apocalypses is incredibly sobering, as the Chinese pollution photos show (see Gizmodo's shared links to photos of the effects of nuclear testing in the U.S.S.R.). Fortunately, it seems we stopped writing nuclear apocalypse stories around the time the Iron Curtain came down—or is that 'unfortunately'? It's not like the effects or the threats have gone away.

* Boing Boing
** except Mother Nature
*** io9
**** Boing Boing
***** io9
****** io9
******* io9
Boing Boing
†† Gizmodo
††† io9 again

Monday, January 4, 2010

Transparent Aluminum! (dum dum dum…)

Hopefully this post will be long on speculation, short on theory. I keep getting sidetracked by the hows and the whys, and am consequently not talking much about the "then what's", which is what my mandate says I'm supposed to be discussing….

Almost everything you need to know comes from this article here:*

Professor Wark added: ‘What is particularly remarkable about our experiment is that we have turned ordinary aluminium into this exotic new material in a single step by using this very powerful laser. For a brief period the sample looks and behaves in every way like a new form of matter. In certain respects, the way it reacts is as though we had changed every aluminium atom into silicon: it’s almost as surprising as finding that you can turn lead into gold with light!’

By bombarding aluminum with a high-powered X-ray laser, and knocking an electron out of each atom, Wark et al. have created transparent aluminum**. It doesn't last very long, but what the hey.

Things the scientists suggest we can do:
  • understand the inner workings of planets
  • understand 'miniature stars' which would lead to understanding nuclear fusion better
  • study exotic states of matter
Other things we could do:
  • make other elements transparent (lead, gold, copper)
  • find a way to keep the transparency, so we could have UV-transparent walls (no clue what they would be used for, but they'd be cool)
  • find a way to make the equipment portable, so we could look through walls by using the UV as a kind of radar (very cool for spies, law enforcement, criminals, and jealous boyfriends)
  • find another state of matter (What if you hit liquid oxygen with x-rays? Or hydrogen plasma? Or a Bose-Einstein condensate? Or water? What exactly would transparent water look like?)
  • take our newfound planetary geological knowledge and build ourselves a planet 
  • found Magrathea
  • calm down a volcanic extrasolar planet, to make it suitable for terraforming
  • build ourselves a star
  • take the planets and the star and make a solar system
  • prevent a star from going red giant (such as Sol)
I suppose it's too much to hope that we could use this technology to make matter transparent to other wavelengths of radiation—like visible light? I'm not a physicist, but I'm betting that wouldn't work.

Anybody else have ideas? Weigh in!

* Gratias, Engadget!
** but only invisible to UV radiation

Friday, January 1, 2010

Humano-Alien Evolution

Given that the decade is over (or about to be, depending on where you are and when you're reading this), I should be doing either a recap post, a prediction post, or a resolution post. Then again, I don't like following convention, so I'm going to stick with the aliens-to-humans post. Who knows? Maybe it will end up being predictive and I'll become famous for having called it before anyone else.*

I've hooked you with the aliens, right? Good, because I'm not starting there. You need background info! (Which is being taken from an article by Discover**, by the way. And there is controversy that the humanoids in the article even existed as a separate group. Caveat lector.)

Once upon a time in Africa, there lived a group of Homo sapiens with large skulls and small faces. These people are known as the Boskops, named for the South Africa town where the first skull fragments were found in 1913. These are about the only fragments we've got, so calling them a separate group of hominids might be erroneous. They (he? she?) might just be someone with a really big head. For the sake of this post, I'm going to assume that the Boskops were a subspecies of human.

Or maybe they were aliens? After all, the classic image of an alien is the Roswell Type, right***? Short, greyish, slanting dark eyes, and giant heads that are mostly brain. More on this in a sec.

Boskop brains were about 25% larger than ours, at least. According to Discover:

Expanding the brain changes its internal proportions in highly predictable ways. From ape to human, the brain grows about fourfold, but most of that increase occurs in the cortex, not in more ancient structures. Moreover, even within the cortex, the areas that grow by far the most are the association areas, while cortical structures such as those controlling sensory and motor mechanisms stay unchanged.
Going from human to Boskop, these association zones are even more disproportionately expanded. Boskop’s brain size is about 30 percent larger than our own—that is, a 1,750-cc brain to our average of 1,350 cc. And that leads to an increase in the prefrontal cortex of a staggering 53 percent. If these principled relations among brain parts hold true, then Boskops would have had not only an impressively large brain but an inconceivably large prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is closely linked to our highest cognitive functions. It makes sense out of the complex stream of events flowing into the brain; it places mental contents into appropriate sequences and hierarchies; and it plays a critical role in planning our future actions. Put simply, the prefrontal cortex is at the heart of our most flexible and forward-looking thoughts.
So, basically what they're saying is that Boskops would have remembered more about places and would have had more ways to associate one thing with another. They'd have been able to process memories faster as well. (The article even speculates that they could have processed memories and retrieve memories at the same time, and that they'd be able to predict outcomes better than us.) Finally, we can probably assume pretty safely that most if not all Boskops had genius-level IQ. They certainly had superhuman brains.

Sounds like they were better evolved than us, doesn't it, so why did they die off? Discover speculates that their ability to predict outcomes of actions would have paralyzed them, that larger brains equalled more trouble in the birth canal, or that there wasn't much advantage in having big brains back in the day, that being about to outthink regular humans didn't actually help. To this, I'd like to add the (sane) suggestion that the larger brains used up too much energy and the Boskops weren't able to acquire enough food in the long term to keep their brains working properly along with the rest of their bodies.**** Our brains need a massive amount of energy as it is.

And then there's the insane suggestion: they were aliens. I mean, there's the whole Chariots of the Gods theory, and all the urban legends and Hollywood films. (The image of a Boskop man has to be in the collective unconscious for a reason.) And if aliens are studying humans today, why wouldn't they have been studying us in the past?

Or perhaps the Boskop aliens were stranded on Earth, forced to use Stone Age technology to survive? Perhaps they interbred as an added survival measure. The last few paragraphs of the Discover article seem to indicate their genes didn't die off completely. This would mean we're at least partly alien (or some of us are).

One last thing: If we're going Chariots of the Gods here, why not go to an extreme and posit that the Boskop aliens selectively bred humans, created humans, or something along those lines? Why assume that since we've found all these other hominids and have fossil evidence of humans existing before the Boskop fossils died, that Homo sapiens came first? Maybe we just haven't found the super-ancient alien fossils yet.

*Hey, it could happen.
** io9
*** A.k.a. the Asgard from Stargate.
**** And here's where someone with more knowledge of hunter-gatherer societies, foraging, and the amount of food in ancient South Africa refutes me.