Books: WWW Trilogy

August 7, 2012

I won’t say that Robert Sawyer is my new favorite author – that’s still Dean Koontz. But Sawyer is now my favorite science fiction author. His WWW Trilogy (Wake, Watch, and Wonder) is thought-provoking, full of real science as well as science fiction, and just plain good story-telling.

The trilogy chronicles the emergence of a conscious mind that somehow exists in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.Because it has all the resources of the Web at its disposal, it has capabilities humans – and human governments – can only dream of. People use the internet to collaborate, but their efforts are puny next to a “being” that can instantaneously access any and all data of all kinds residing on any computer anywhere in the world so long as it is connected to the internet.

The question is whether such a being will use its vast power in ways that will help or hurt human beings. Because it is not localized in any particular part of the Web, it cannot be controlled.  Without risking devastating effects on the worldwide network of computers that are essential to commerce today, it cannot be removed. But some people think such a powerful non-human intelligence is so dangerous that it is worth the risk involved in destroying it.

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Brains, minds, and computers

May 15, 2010

Long before I started studying computer programming, I was fascinated by the subject of artificial intelligence. I had been enjoying science fiction novels since I was about ten years old (having exhausted the resources in the children’s section of the local library on Greek mythology, which had been my previous interest). The issue of non-human intelligence comes up frequently in sci-fi, whether it is highly intelligent animals (such as dolphins or other primates), aliens (which may or may not be carbon-based life forms), or the silicon-based “intelligence” of computers.

One of my favorite sci-fi authors for several years had been Robert Heinlein (until I read I Will Fear No Evil and decided it belonged in the trash rather than on the shelf of the English classroom in the Christian school where I taught Spanish, then tried to read Stranger in a Strange Land and didn’t even finish it). One of my favorites had been The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and while I remember virtually nothing of the lunar colony revolt against rule by Earth, I remember the narrator’s relationship with a computer that had become self-aware.

I don’t know what scientist or science fiction writer first speculated that there was some threshold in terms of numbers of connections within a computer, past which it would become self-aware, but it seems to have become a common idea. In this novel, when the number “neuristors” in the HOLMES IV computer exceeded the number of neurons in the human brain, it develops self-aware. Mannie, the technician who works on it, calls it Mike.

At the end of the book, Mike has been damaged during an attack. The computer continues to operate, but Mike’s personality is gone. Mannie grieves for the loss of a friend, and I found myself also grieving. (This convinced me there was something wrong with me. I had cried when the horse died at the end of Marguerite Henry’s Black Gold, and even when this fictional computer personality died, but I couldn’t remember crying when any real human beings died.)

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