What I’m Reading In July 2015

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Bookshelf

BEAUTIFUL INTELLIGENCE —— by Stephen Palmer

Artificial intelligence researchers Manfred and Leonora Klee used to work for Ichikawa Laboratories. Which is to say: they were prisoners in the luxurious enclave Aritomo Ichikawa created to prevent commercial espionage—and equally to prevent his researchers from leaving him. But the Klees found a way, even knowing that their lives thereafter would be in constant danger from the assassins Aritomo would surely send to find them.

The setting is somewhere around the beginning of the 22nd century, and though Palmer is not specific, the world has clearly suffered some sort of environmental /technological disaster. The “nexus” has replaced the internet, and the nexus is far more pervasive, intrusive, and addictive than the internet ever was, for it is a way of interacting with society, of being constantly bombarded with information, that fosters dependence. It also makes it nearly impossible to live without leaving the sort of traces behind that someone with the necessary resources, such as Ichikawa labs possesses, will eventually pick up.

Once they gain their freedom, Manfred unexpectedly gives Leonora the slip; they will not meet again. As the book opens several years later, they are heading separate research teams, each with a very different philosophy and approach to creating artificial sentience.

Leonora is hiding on Malta, while a virtual copy in San Francisco acts as a decoy, interfacing, downloading, uploading, while layers and layers of virtual camouflage provided by her security expert, Hound, conceal her real location. Her team follows a traditional approach, creating a single AI, an android with a quantum computer for a brain. Manfred’s team is in Philadelphia, trying to invent what Manfred calls “beautiful intelligence,” by creating a network of individuals, none of them self-aware, hoping that together they will raise themselves to sentience.

But for both teams research is hampered by the need to keep moving and also by the need to create credible new identities with every change in location. Leonora’s journey takes her team around the Mediterranean and across northern Africa, while Manfred’s team crosses a devastated and dangerous America. Aware that a single slip could leave them vulnerable to Aritomo’s minions (who never seem to be far behind) both teams must also meet the challanges of interacting with their evolving creations—and those creations are not evolving as planned.

Palmer is a writer of unique and remarkable imagination. He can also be a bit didactic. He has strong beliefs about the environment (he wants to save it) and religion (he believes it is a bad influence), beliefs that he wishes to communicate to his readers. While these are not absent from this book, they are less evident here than in some of his other novels. He writes about ideas, and characterization is not his strong point. Instead, through discussions and diagreements between the various characters—particularly when they are faced by new and unexpected developments—Beautiful Intelligence examines theories about artificial intelligence, as well as posing philosophical questions about sentience, self-awareness, and conscience, about the ways that consciousness develops, and the dangers when technology advances far more quickly than our understanding. For someone (like myself) who does not have the necessary background to understand all the substance of these arguments, it can be at times difficult to follow, but even without that background, the chase, the tensions and shifting alliances within the two groups, make for a suspenseful and entertaining story.

On Amazon and Goodreads I gave it four out of five stars. On a scale of one to ten, I would waver between a 7 and 8, so I rounded up.

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