I have always liked science fiction. One of the first books I read after “Clifford the Dog” were some old Tom Swift books…then on to Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlan, Arthur C. Clarke, Pohl Anderson, Clifford Simak…all the usual suspects.
Since my late teens, the bulk of my reading has been in the fantasy side of the bookstore. I have probably read more fantasy than pure science fiction, and I’d say that some of that is a result of the “acid trip” science fiction of the 70’s. I think I basically got turned off- it seemed like I had to be an uber intellectual drug addict to understand half the books that were around at the time. I read a lot of short science fiction, but things like Neuromancer and the rest of the Cyber-punk generation never really caught my attention. It all seemed so strained to me: I was a computer geek, and reading about some guy downloading his “wetware” seemed basically like the technobabble of the ignorant.
I am about half way through reading Accelerando by Charles Stross, and my opinion about “cyber punk”, if that’s the genre you want to stick this book in, has changed. For probably ten years now, I’ve been asking my friends on a regular basis what they would do if faced with the situation described in the following bullets:
- People today rely more and more on the Internet and online data sources to improve their functional intelligence. Example: if someone mentions a person or technology, you can Google it and know what they are talking about in a fraction of a second. Not long ago, being able to have such instant awareness of vast arrays of knowledge would have made you a genius. Today, its old hat.
- Computing technology is becoming smaller and more “connected” at a dizzying pace. You can carry in the palm of your hand a 1 GB computer that is wireleslly connected to the Internet. That tiny 500 gram computer likely has ten times the computing power of a 10 kilogram desktop machine only a few years old
- direct human/machine interfaces are not science fiction; such interfaces exist today, albeit crudely, in the form of devices allowing people with missing/paralized limbs to control artificial manipulators purely with their mind
- within our lifetime, we will likely have the option of having a direct “personal” interface to the Internet. We’ll be able to be directly connected to all the massed knowledge, good and bad, of that resource in real time. Initially this will come via wearable computers with special glasses and sub-vocalization mikes, but at least some of the function will be via interfaces to the human nervous system
So…would you do it? Would you have that implant installed, assuming it was demonstrated safe (as safe as, say, Lazik eye surgery is today)? No? How about if some of your co-workers went for the procedure, and now were effectively far more capable than you in knowledge based work? Would you blame your employer for advancing that co-worker over you, given that they can answer questions, solve problems, and get the job done faster than you? What if you were applying for that job, and the other applicants were “enhanced”?
I’ve heard all the “computers make you lazy/stupid” statements in the past: the “people who have computers can’t add a row of numbers” or “a computer weakens your memory. But what I have always called “intelligence” isn’t memory or arithmetic skills: its the abilty to form new ideas and see relationships between data. And that data is becoming more and more intimately available. We’ll increasingly be faced with the question of how deeply we want to be connected.
These are not science fictional questions. Its almost a certainty that we’ll be facing exactly these situations within our lifetime. Accelerando takes my question and supercharges it. What kind of humanity will exist when the net global capability of artificial processing outstrips humanity? What will a human be when their intelligence is as much outside their head as inside it? When their autonomous software proxy agents can effectively think and act as independent yet symbiotic entities with their “host” human?
Its speculative fiction at its best…along with a bit of humour. The idea of infinitely recursing virtually intelligent shell companies runs smack up against the denial of service recursive lawsuit, and the future of the free software movement is taken to a logical yet weird extreme. And the scene wherein one of the main characters has his exointellect stolen, and struggles to manage with his massively diminished “self” is wonderfully drawn. I can see trivial parallels to my loss and frustration when I’m unable to access the Internet from work. When the thief activates the exointellect and its AI agents try to cope with the vastly diminished “wetware” host they find themselves stuck with….its not slapstick, but it is educationally funny.