Superintelligence is a grand-scale book, written at the level of human destiny. Nick Bostrom invites us to think at a cosmic scale, while contemplatinSuperintelligence is a grand-scale book, written at the level of human destiny. Nick Bostrom invites us to think at a cosmic scale, while contemplating a vast range of possible transhuman futures.
The focus of the book is the ways an artificial intelligence could grow into something greatly surpassing human intellect and control. It's a classic science fiction theme (think HAL, Colossus, Skynet, and of course the origin in Frankenstein); what Bostrom adds is considering the problem philosophically. That approach is Anglo-American analytical philosophy, not continental, which is a pleasant change of pace for me. This means many considerations of ethics, frequent definitional explorations, and many divisions of concepts into subcategories.
Frustratingly, Bostrom's discussion feels at times fruitless. When he breaks down superintelligence takeoff rates, for example, the reader might shrug, given the huge dependence on so many variables we don't know now and which the author doesn't settle. "It depends" seems to be the implicit conclusion of too many chapters.
This is a book rich with ideas. Superintelligence tosses off concepts like a speed-addled science fiction writer: AIs turning humans into paperclips, or transforming planets and stars into computational substrates based on varying information architectures. I appreciated the many forms meta-human intelligence could take.
Bostrom parallels his exploration of superinteligent AI with related human structures. He considers the possibility of massively augmenting human intelligence throughout the book, while pondering human organization in like manner. For example, a later passage posits a human singleton in order to counter an AI singleton, "a global superintelligent Leviathan" (182). Bostrom's discussions of how to uplift humanity is breathtaking, and also chilling.
Yet Bostrom leavens his reflections with very entertaining, sometimes visionary or disturbing passages.
The bouillon cubes of discrete human-like intellects thus melt into an algorithmic soup. (172) And so we boldly go - into the whirling knives. (118) A mere line in the sand, backed by the clout of a nonexistent simulator, could prove a stronger restraint than a two-foot-thick solid steel door. (135) (from a chapter positing the fun idea of "anthropic capture") The universe then gets filled not with exultingly heaving hedonium but with computational processes that are unconscious and completely worthless - the equivalent of a smiley-face stricker xeroxed trillions upon trillions of times and plastered across the galaxies.(140) ("exultingly heaving hedonium"!)
It's hard to issue a recommendation for this book. It really appeals to a very narrow set of readers, people interested in transhumanism and willing to work through British-style philosophical discourse. For those people it's a rewarding read. It may also be productive for science fiction writers, hunting ideas.
For the general public, eh, this leans too much in the specialist direction....more
Reading a new William Gibson novel is both delightful and exciting. He delights with the cool, sardonic yet imaginative visions of the present and futReading a new William Gibson novel is both delightful and exciting. He delights with the cool, sardonic yet imaginative visions of the present and future. He excites with his uncanny glimpses of the future, grounded in canny selections from our time.
The Peripheral offers another pleasure, that of Gibson trying something new. His recent brace of novels looked at the very near future, each following a normal linear path. His classic cyberpunk or Sprawl trilogy envisioned a medium-term future, also tending to thriller linearity.
But in The Peripheral we see a very different conceit and narrative structure. This novel relies on two timelines, one in the near-to-medium term future, and one almost a century away. At first we follow these in parallel, trying to infer connections. Then we learn that the further-along future has discovered a form of time travel - well, information exchange with the past, to be precise. The far-future signals the closer-to-us future, and has a proposition. Or two. Then more, which aren't propositions but assassinations.
This dual-track time-travel-ish idea owes much to Gregory Benford's 1980 novel Timescape. Other parallels appear; see spoiler section below.
The future-near-to-us characters are also the more sympathetic. They focus on a young, poor Southern woman, Flynn Fisher, and her family. They live in a postwar backwater, where the economy barely exists apart from illegal drug manufacture. Flynn helps her vet brother, Burton, with an online job and witnesses what seems to be a strange murder. In the future-farther-away we see a PR flack, Wilf Netherton, working with a Russian crime family and their staff. Wilf has made an unspecified bad move, and is trying to improve his situation.
To say more will spoil things, so in this paragraph I'll try to sum up what happens next. (view spoiler)[One agency in the far-off future is manipulating the past for its own reasons, and hires the Fishers as proxies. Another far-off-future group hires others to kill the Fisher family. Ainsley Lowbeer, a London cop, or something like that, appears in the far-future, with unusual connections to the Fishers' time. Flynn and Burton are able to interact with their far-future employers via telepresence robots, the titular peripherals. Wilf explains the Jackpot to Flynn, describing a series of interconnected, overlapping crises that killed the majority of humans:
droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves...
Flynn also learns that by intervening in her time, the far-future team has effectively broken off her world from the stream of time, creating a "stub" which can't affect their future, and avoiding neatly some classic time travel problems.
The plot ratchets up slowly and steadily to climax in a party, where multiple schemes intersect. Some, not all, is revealed, and the Fishers end up alive, very rich, and with a powerful edge on their present. Wilf somehow survives, and ends up in a relationship. This is too brisk and cursory a summary, but will do for now. (hide spoiler)]
I mentioned earlier that The Peripheral has links to Benford's Timescape. There are more, but they, too, are spoilericious. (view spoiler)[Benford's future world is facing an existential crisis, due to events occurring in the past, so they reach out to communicate with the past to get them to change their ways. Gibson's far-future has already experienced the Jackpot, but some of the survivors want to change the past to mitigate the experience. I dimly recall Benford's future coming to an end, somehow, and the past branching off into a new, better world. This recalls Flynn's world cutting its way into a different, hopefully non-Jackpotted world. (hide spoiler)]
One of the pleasures of reading William Gibson is tracking his experimental words and phrases. These are concentrated projections of a possible future. Let me list some that caught my eye: klepts, artisanal AIs, battle-ready solicitors, court-certified recall, the viz, hate Kegels, autonomic bleedover, continua enthusiasts, drop bears, period trains, neo-primitivist curators, quasi-biological megavolume carbon collectors, heritage diseases, directed swarm weapons, a synthetic bullshit implant, surprise funeral, mofo-ettes, and a neurologer's shop. One near-future treat is the "freshly printed salty caramel cronut".
Some of today's words mutate in these two futures. For example, poor folks don't cook, but build drugs. "Homes" refers not to homies or residences, but to Homeland Security. A very bad crisis happened between now and 2025 or so. People afterwards refer to it as the Jackpot.
Some of the language is simply cute. One character has her name changed slightly, and refers to it as "amputating the last letter of her name." Another speaks of "cleaning up the afterbirth of Christmas ornaments". The Fisher family shops at a Hefty Mart.
In a sense The Peripheral is Gibson's gloomiest novel. Like the recent film Interstellar, this story begins in a bad situation then gets worse. The Fishers are poor and ill (the brother has seizures, the mother seriously ailing) in a society that clearly doesn't care for them at all. Their story reads like something from a late 19th-century Southern backwater, or like today's worst countryside. Characters have little help for the future. What we learn about the Jackpot not only makes things horrible, but sets up a future that's inhumane. Across all of these times looms the specter of vast economic inequality, of a society caring only for the <1%.
There is a powerful sense that the far-future is a kind of 1% taken to an extreme: a lonely elite, casually breaking off temporal worlds as a hobby, easily committing murders. Our lack of information about the world around London's far-future elite disturbs me, the more I think of it. Conversely, the far-future world is situated in such total surveillance that they see our/Flynn's sense of surveillance as charmingly antique.
How does this gloomy novel end, then? Ah, spoilerizing: (view spoiler)[it's a happy ending, pretty much, although we don't learn enough about what happens in the future. We - well, the Fisher stub - get to avoid the Jackpot. Whew!
there may be readers who get to the end and they go, “oh, well, that’s okay, everything worked out for them!” ... But these guys had an immensely powerful—if possibly dangerously crazy—fairy godmother who altered their continuum, who has for some reason decided that she’s going to rake all of their chestnuts out of the fire, so that the world can’t go the horrible it way it went in hers. And whatever else is going to happen, that’s not going to happen for us, you know? We’re going to have to find another way. We’re not going to luck into Lowbeer.
Worse, the Fishers seem like good folks. But what will keep them (or their inheritors) from becoming klepts, with their vast power and advantages? So this book ends up as a cautionary tale, a huge warning, and a goad to get us hauling ourselves away from the Jackpot. (hide spoiler)]
Overall, The Peripheral offers solid future thought in an engaging narrative. Recommended.
I didn't read this one, but listened to it on audiobook. Lorelei King was the reader and did a fine job, with the whole file running a touch over 14 hours. King does different nationalities well, which matters in the kind of multinational world Gibson loves. She reads with the right level of cool, too - not a thriller's burning pace, but with a kind of observation acuity that I always associate with Gibson.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Influx posits that human ingenuity has actually proceeded much further along than we believe. A secretiveA fun read animated mostly by a single idea.
Influx posits that human ingenuity has actually proceeded much further along than we believe. A secretive United States government department has been quietly capturing new innovations, sequestering them away while removing their presence from the world. The Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) does this for our own good, they say, believing that the negative impact of these new ideas would cause too much damage to American (and the world's) social order.
It's a nifty concept, a kind of alternative history tale embedded in our own world. It lets Suarez have fun with intelligence agencies as they try (and fail) to bring BTC to heel. There's also hard sf delights in seeing which inventions have already occurred -strong AI! antigravity! human lifespan extension! Suarez also gives BTC a fun villain in its leader, a power-crazed guy with a dry (perhaps accidental) sense of humor. A very good dystopia boss.
Unfortunately for fans of Suarez' first two novels, especially Daemon, the ideas run out about half-way through. The first half offers some great scenes with reversals and mysteries, including, ah, spoilers: (view spoiler)[... a cruel prison for inventors, with some stark medical horror. But once we see the picture, Influx becomes 99% action thriller. The hero escapes and fights to remain free. He hooks up with allies and they figure out how to break into BTC HQ. A fun heist/battle ensues. A family plot is literally tacked on at the end. We see no new inventions. No signs of impact on the world. No rug-pulling-out-from-under-you plot twists. (hide spoiler)] In Graham Green terms, Influx starts off as a novel, then ends as an entertainment. It only begins with the promise of Daemon.
Other problems: the depiction of Detroit is far too thin. There's very little sense of the city, despite half the book being set there. (My hardcover edition has a hilarious cover showing Detroit as something like Metropolis) It could be set in any other city, really. Which is unfortunate, since there are some interesting resonances between Detroit's sad post-WWII history and what BTC does to the world. There is also a too-convenient character in the book's second half who is far too powerful, more of a plot device than a person.
On the positive side, the book avoids cliche traps. The hero, an eccentric inventor, never becomes an action hero. His main physical achievements include hiding, being captured, showing his wounds, and being captured. The main, inevitable romance is very lightly touched on. And the science is a lot of fun, for those of us who like that sort of thing.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I'm fascinating by the history of computing. There are so many delights there, both geeky and otherwise: glimpses of our present, odd characters, brilI'm fascinating by the history of computing. There are so many delights there, both geeky and otherwise: glimpses of our present, odd characters, brilliant technical solutions, politics. Turing's Cathedral is a delightful and useful contribution to this field.
George Dyson's book takes place during the 1940s and 1950s, focusing on the extraordinary collection of geniuses in Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and who created a huge amount of modern computing. A large part of Turing's Cathedral consists of biographical sketches of key players in early computing, including Stan Ulam, Nils Barracelli, Klari Dán Von Neumann, Thorstein Veblen's nephew, Alan Turing, of course, and especially Johnny von Neumann. This is really von Neumann's book. He gets the lion's share of the text (and photos), becoming the Institute's prime driver and most productive thinker. Turing's Cathedral essentially ends with von Neumann's death.
Other chapters explore the hardware and theory of early computing, from cathode ray tubes and punch cards to stored program architecture and the Monte Carlo method. Dyson also races off in related directions with something like glee, showing, for example, how the IIS was right on top of major Revolutionary War sites, and how one scientist was related to Olivia Newtown John.
Arching across all of these themes is the intertwined history of atomic weapons and computing. This is a controversial theme in cyber-history, and Dyson assembles a great deal of evidence to demonstrate their deep connections.
Turing's Cathedral is filled with energy and some fun writing. A few quotes demonstrate this:
What if the price of machines that think is people who don't? (314)
"Information was never 'volatile' in transit; it was as secure as an acrophobic inchworm on the crest of a sequoia." -Julian Bigelow (137)
Our ever-expanding digital universe is directly descended from the image tube that imploded in the back seat of [Vladimir] Zworykin's car. (81)
We owe the existence of high-speed digital computers to pilots who preferred to be shot down intentionally by their enemies rather than accidentally by their friends. (116)
Von Neumann made a deal with "the other party" in 1946. The scientists would get the computers, and the military would get the bombs. This seems to have turned out well enough so far, because, contrary to von Neumann's expectations, it was the computers that exploded, not the bombs. (303)
"It is an irony of fate that much of the high-tech world we live in today, the conquest of space, the extraordinary advances in biology and medicine, were spurred on by one man's monomania and the need to develop electronic computers to calculate whether an H-bomb could be built or not." -Francoise Ulam (216)
"A clock keeps track of time. A modern general purpose computer keeps track of events." This distinction separates the digital universe from our universe, and is one of the few distinctions left. (300)
"We are Martians who have come to Earth to change everything - and we are afraid we will not be so well received. So we try to keep it a secret, try to appear as Americans... but that we could not do, because of our accent. So we settled in a country nobody ever has heard about and now we are claiming to be Hungarians." -Edward Teller (40)
The book has plenty of gems, like the Swedish scientist Hannes Alfvén and his utopian novel about an AI-ruled future, von Neumann's possibly accidental vision of what post-robotic economics might look like (289), and Nils Barracelli's early visions of artificial life. The sheer ambition, nigh unto mad science, of these early explorers, seeking even to control the weather, is infectious.
There are a few weaknesses, starting with Dyson's aphoristic tendency occasionally backfiring (I don't buy the return of analog idea). Some of the explanations aren't as lucid as they need to be - I'm still not sure what template-based addressing means. And the focus on Princeton and some historical figures doesn't recognize their extraordinary privilege. I was also surprised that Tyson didn't reference Howard Rheingold's groundbreaking and accessible Tools for Thought.
But that's nitpicking. Turing's Cathedral is a treat for geeks, history buffs, and anyone interested in how our digital era came to be....more
**spoiler alert** A very exciting and challenging first half of a book. That reads like Daemon: ideas coming thick and fast, plot twisting unpredictab**spoiler alert** A very exciting and challenging first half of a book. That reads like Daemon: ideas coming thick and fast, plot twisting unpredictably. Good exploration of drones.
Then Kill Decision settles into a traditional thriller. The cast of characters remains intact. A clear plot movement appears, and never wavers. It could be a Hollywood action movie.
The finale let me down. Yes, it was nice not to see the source of the villainy... but the posthuman theme was barely developed (if it was inhuman), and the idea of a super-secret conspiracy not made credible enough. The PR subplot didn't go anywhere.
The idea of drones as the next stage of war is better, and gets a good, basic treatment.
Very disappointing to this big fan of Daemon and Freedom....more
A very useful book on recent technological history, In the Plex takes us through the history of Google. The subject is obviously important to anyone sA very useful book on recent technological history, In the Plex takes us through the history of Google. The subject is obviously important to anyone seeking to understand cyberspace and the digital world.
It's a very engaging book as well, balancing neatly between technical details and human lives. It renders computer science problems accessible to the nonspecialist. And Levy sometimes pulls out entertaining, or at least humanizing, elements:
"I hate ads," says Eric Veach, the Google engineer who created the most successful ad system in history. (83)
These characters and technologies appear within the unusual Google culture, which Levy probes throughout the book. We see the famous playfulness and company-supplied pleasures, along with stresses and war rooms.
Levy organizes the book into large chapters, each of which addresses several years of Google (which are akin to decades elsewhere). For example, one covers the development of the very lucrative ad services, while another follows the messy China involvement. Each chapter takes the company further along in wealth, global reach, and digital development. We watch as the little company offering a single service - search - spreads into a sprawling empire: Google Earth, Google Maps, Web office (Google Docs, etc), the Android phone operating system plus the occasional phone plus telephony service, book scanning, self-driving cars, Google+. We see projects appear and flop: Buzz, Lively, Wave, OpenSocial.
The ultimate part of that arc is worried rather than triumphant, as Levy ends on a questioning note. There's no sense that the impending (as of the book's publication) launch of G+ will help organize the overflowing number of services. Larry Page takes the reins, but problematically, not as the logical heir apparent, still too much Prince Hal.
At first read Levy treats Google with balance, rather than awe. The company's technical achievements appear in an admiring light, but the public antics of Brin and Page look simply embarrassing. The major IPO looks foolish, showing Wall Street to have easily corralled the Google upstars. In the Plex depicts Google's putative attempt to, famously, not be evil in a way which would please neither Google celebrant not its detractors.
Some topics were missing or underemphasized. There's no discussion at all of the late, lamented Google RSS Reader. Lively appears only in a single sentence (and there to be killed), without mention of the contemporary virtual worlds brouhaha. Web associations don't appear (HTML 5 shows up once, 212). The Apple versus Google battle does appear, but in a minimal fashion. We don't see, for instance, discussion of conflicting models of the internet, Web vs app.
Otherwise, this is an important and exciting book. It is already dated, of course, and will continue to recede into the past. But what Levy describes is what makes the world-striding Google colossus, and his work helps us understand it....more