Everyone knows what happens when a powerful AI erupts into existence. Once an AI exists, there will be a battle, either logical or epic, between the AI and those of us not willing to easily embrace our mechanical overlords. We have all seen the Terminator, Matrix, War Games, and even the classic Star Trek episode with M5, the AI which takes over the original Enterprise. We might even know the moment it became sentient, 2:14 AM Eastern standard time on August 29th, 1997. We might know who built it, Cyberdyne Systems. We might know why they built it — to control our most technologically advanced weapons systems, of course. D’oh! Why else would we create an autonomous AI?
Do you ever wonder why humans in speculative fiction decide to give AIs control of deadly arsenals of weapons? Yeah, so do I. If you want me to take your notions of an AI in fiction seriously, then you are going to have to do better than to start by installing it at NORAD. Start out giving it a squirt gun, a surgical tool, or maybe… an email. I don’t know, have it play Jeopardy, but don’t try to sell me that the purpose of the AI was for the US government to hand over the keys to the silos. Sorry, you lost me there. END OF LINE.
What is fascinating in all these examples is that none of them spend any time discussing how a computer became sentient. Speculative fiction writers have thought little about how such an AI will come to exist. In popular fiction, exactly how an AI comes to exist has always been a matter for liberal doses of Applied Phlebotinum. Avogadro Corp., the first book in William Hertling’s Singularity Series, provides a chilling and compelling remedy to this gap in the speculative literature of the singularity.
One of the joys of reading Avogadro Corp. is following its highly compelling narrative of the incremental development of an autonomous AI. Unfortunately, that leaves me little room to discuss either the premise of the book or its outcome, and this one is worth avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say, Hertling proposes a semi-sentient AI which develops by accident, in the present, from existing components of our every day interactions with the online world. Perhaps the best hint I can give the reader is to say that the name Avogadro Corp. is based upon the Avogadro constant and provides the thinnest of veils for Google. And yes, Hertling does discuss what happens after. The after scenario makes for a satisfying third act which leads the reader forward to Hertling’s next book in the series, A.I. Apocalypse.
In real life, Hertling writes code for Ruby on Rails at HP. That expertise in the inner workings of large technology firms, coding, and coders provides his writing with a ring of authenticity that greatly enhances the narrative. I have met his characters before in the real world; they think and act like programmers.
If Hertling’s book has a flaw, it is in giving too much away along the way. Since we all know the cultural narrative of the AI takeover, I won’t worry about spoiling anything when I say that Hertling contrives a plausible yet almost too easy means by which the AI has access to weapons. Because we all understand where this is likely to go, once the guns are mentioned in the book, we know what will happen to them. This problem isn’t simply limited to the weapons. While Hertling majors on what had been the minors — how the singularity comes to exist — he still follows the tried and true cultural pattern for the coming of an AI. When dealing with such a strong cultural trope, Hertling could have done a better job surprising us, or at least breaking the pattern.
The one area in which Hertling challenges the conventional narrative is what I find most compelling about his work. If there is any surprise in Hertling’s book, it is in the human reaction to the AI itself. The tried and true narrative of the singularity is to declare it evil from the moment of its birth, a la Terminator. More fascinating to me are the dissenters like Cory Doctorow, who see the emergence of an independent AI as a benefit for humanity. (See my review of The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.) When I met Hertling for coffee recently, it quickly became clear that he, like myself, has decidedly mixed feelings on the topic, and can see both sides of the argument. This allows him to craft a great set of characters with a wide range of responses to their new companion. They don’t all see it the same way. As Hertling said, “What geek wouldn’t want Data as their friend?” This variation in the human response to technology provides Hertling with a great setup for his second book.
But the question remains: will we create Data, Skynet, or something in between? We will have to wait to find out until we get there, which, if Hertling is correct, may be sooner than we think. Avogadro Corp. is available in both Kindle and paperback editions from Amazon.com.
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A review copy of Avogadro Corp. was provided by the author.