Tag Archives: artificial intelligence

Memory and Consciousness in “Neuromancer” by William Gibson

Neuromancer

I had high expectations for this book because I had heard so much about it, and I suppose as is often the case when you have expectations about something, the book did not quite live up to them. Not that it was bad; on the contrary, it’s a very good book. It’s just that the cyberpunk genre has become kind of cliché at this point and even though this was the book that launched the genre, it ended up feeling old. I suspect that had I read it 30 years ago, I would have had a completely different experience.

The book is about a hacker and a samurai attempting to “jack in” to an artificial intelligence (AI) program. Much of the book takes place in cyberspace, or the matrix. Yeah, if you didn’t know already, the book influenced the films, which made it hard for me not to picture Keanu Reeves jumping around and overacting.

“The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space was faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .”

(p. 51)

For me, the most interesting aspects of the book deal with consciousness and memory. Human memory is described using the holographic model, which is a concept that I accept. I do not think of consciousness and memory as linear, but instead as existing everywhere at all times. The challenge is access.

“I don’t have this good a memory,” Case said, looking around. He looked down at his hands, turning them over. He tried to remember what the lines on his palm were like, but couldn’t.

“Everybody does,” the Finn said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out under his heel, “ but not many of you can access it. Artists can, mostly, if they’re any good. If you could lay this construct over the reality, the Finn’s place in lower Manhattan, you’d see a difference, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Memory’s holographic, for you.” The Finn tugged at one of his small ears. “I’m different.”

“How do you mean, holographic?” The word made him think of Riviera.

“The holographic paradigm is the closest thing you’ve worked out to a representation of human memory, is all. But you’ve never done anything about it. People, I mean.” The Finn stepped forward and canted his streamlined skull to peer up at Case. “Maybe if you had, I wouldn’t be happening.”

(p. 170)

One of the questions that challenges us in the cyber age is whether consciousness can exist in a machine, or an AI. In the book, Gibson hints that probably, true human consciousness requires flesh in order to exist, that it is somehow encoded into our cellular and genetic makeup.

It belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read.

(p. 239)

Is it possible that eventually an AI will develop consciousness? What will a conscious machine look like? How will that affect humanity? These are questions that have terrified and fascinated people for a long time. I suppose it is possible. And questions like these, which percolate to the surface as you read this book, are what make this book worth reading. If you are like me, you will have to overlook the parts that now feel cliché and hackneyed, but if you can do that, you will find some interesting and challenging concepts to explore.

Cheers, and thanks for stopping by.

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Eerie: Issue #1

Eerie_01

As a youth, I was obsessed with horror and sci-fi comics. I devoured them and while it caused some slight concern with my parents, it ultimately planted the seeds which grew into a love of reading. One of the comics I remember distinctly was Eerie. As all good thing from the past somehow seem to come back, it doesn’t surprise me that Dark Horse Comics has resurrected the Eerie publication. I figured since it is October, it would be the perfect time of the year to pick up an issue and see if it is as good as the ones I remember from my childhood.

This was definitely a step into my past. The issue is hosted by Cousin Eerie, a somewhat jolly, plump creature with a twisted sense of humor. He’s almost like a macabre Falstaff. The issue is comprised of four short vignettes which fall into the sci-fi/horror genre.

The first one, “A Robot for Your Thoughts,” is all about artificial intelligence and robots taking over the world. A man suspects that his family has been replaced by robots, so it’s somewhat reminiscent of The Stepford Wives, but with a nice twist at the end.

The next tale, “Life Species,” is about a team of space explores searching extinct planets for the remains of previous life forms, then examining them to try and understand what happened to them and why the species declined. It reminded me of an old Twilight Zone episode, but with a humorous ending. This was probably my favorite story in the issue.

The third tale, “Beta-Eden,” is clearly inspired by the Alien films. It has space explorers encountering an alien race that lays their eggs inside the human host. The spawn then feed on the host. This was probably my least favorite story. It just felt hackneyed and the artwork was not so great.

The last story, “Child,” is a reworking of the Frankenstein archetype. A bereaved scientist decides to construct a child out of parts of the dead. Upon reanimation, he is initially horrified at his creation, but then forms paternal connection which turns to love. What I liked the most about this particular tale was the writing. It was written almost as an epistle, where the father is speaking directly to the child. It works very well and I liked the way the story unfolds.

Overall, I enjoyed this. It was $2.99 well spent and I think the writers capture the campiness of the original publication. I would certainly read more of these.

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Artificial Writers

I read an article in Wired magazine last night that fed my nightmares and caused me to wake up in a state of anxiety. The article was entitled “The Rise of the Robot Reporter” written by Steven Levy (click here to read the article online). The story explores the advances by Narrative Science, a company that successfully created an algorithm that can analyze sports and financial data, then generate well-written news articles based upon that data.

The company’s CEO and co-founder, Kristian Hammond, makes the bold prediction that within the next 15 years, 90 percent of news articles will be written by computers and that a computer will win the Pulitzer Prize in about 5 years. At first, this seemed kind of cool. I mean, I’m a geek and stuff like this is fascinating to me. In addition, who doesn’t secretly wish that the news contained more plain, factual information and a lot less spin from media with political and social agendas? But as I slept and allowed this information to percolate in my subconscious mind, I became aware of a personal threat.

I work in the field of technical communication, writing various forms of internal and external communications for a software company. Some of these documents include user and administrator guides, as well as technical reference materials. I became very aware that much of what I do could be outsourced to a computer. Essentially, I gather data, analyze it, then compile it into a format that is usable and accessible to my target audience. This is no different from what Narrative Science’s software does. For me, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to see this algorithm being applied to technical writing, where the application analyzes the code, reads the engineering notes, and determines the functionality, then generates a set of instructions or reference materials that is accurate and useful. So where would that leave me?

Over the years, I’ve learned that it is important to remain adaptable and not fear change. If technical writing becomes automated, I’ll find a new use for my skills, such as developing training materials or managing the information generated by these artificial writers. Our world is changing fast. If you can’t be flexible, you will likely end up joining the ranks of those unemployed individuals unable to use the narrow set of skills they have become dependent upon.

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