Usurping the title of my favorite new author (from the still great Hugh Howey), Ramez Naam’s novel Nexus is a spectacular read for anyone anticipating a radical change to society in the coming years due to bioengineering, nanotechnology and their intersection with neural engineering. In the book, a new black market nanotechnological drug allows direct mind-to-mind connections between people as well as a variety of more impressive feats when combined with a software operating system running on the nexus. The idea, while not wholly novel, is probably the best realized of anything I’ve read. To get to the level of nanotechnology that can self assemble in the brain to form a functional computational structure is going to be tough for sure but I think it’s totally possible and the sky is the limit as far as I’m concerned for 21st century science. In addition to nexus, the novel has group minds and the world’s first uploaded human on the psychological side! Plus, biological enhancements are everywhere – from genetically engineered carbon fiber bones and super strong muscle for military/CIA agents to gene-hacked regrowth technology from newts for regrowing limbs. I love this stuff and think it’s going to show up in my lifetime.
Outside of the (potentially) optimistic science advancements, the story is exciting but maybe just a little too fast paced to be realistic. Granted, this is the future in what seems to be the middle of some type of rapid scientific explosion so I’ll give the story a silver star. Overall, I highly recommend this book but not to everyone I’d recommend a book like Wool. Nexus is a true sci-fi thriller of the likes I haven’t read in a while.
This was my second time reading Accelerando by Charles Stross, the first having been in the spring semester of my freshman sophomore year (shocked it was only a year ago!). Taking PHI378: Minds and Machines inspired me to reread it, since in my mind Accelerando is the premier singularity fiction book. There are certainly some things that happen that are impossible under the laws of physics as we understand them today, but for the most part the book is fairly realistic if you’re the type of person who things a singularity is on the horizon. I think I enjoyed Accelerando more this time around because of the reading I’ve done since then when the singularity was still a new idea to me.
An American classic, the Great Gatsby did not impress me. A tale of shallow romances told from the perspective of a banal man who’s friends, while interesting are quite awful human beings left me feeling highly unsatisfied upon finishing it. My expectations may have been quite high, and I was reading it for the wrong reason, that being the fact that it is being made into a film that I may find myself seeing. I felt let down that the story lacked an overall message and was dismayed by the dearth of positive characters in the book. So while expecting something equivalent to Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath from a book that has appeared to me in the past to have inhabited the same class, I was quite disappointed.
I read the Bicentennial Man by the famous Isaac Asimov as part of the required reading for PHI 378 and love it! I think I devoured this novelette in one night, only having to stay up a little past midnight to do so. For pretty technologically soft scifi that still asks a lot of philosophical questions it’s difficult to beat Asimov and the Bicentennial Man is a good example of his writing. Asimov’s three laws of robotics are brought up but the critical issue is actually what it means to be a person. Andrew, the main character robot possessing a slightly mistuned “positronic brain” desires specifically to be a human and eventually ends up taking pretty drastic measures to become one. It’s a quick read and well worth the time invested, so I definitely recommend this one.
Cloud Atlas is an incredible book written by David Mitchell. I had honestly not realized it was a popular title until Andy Bennison recommended it to me, and let me say that I am glad I payed attention. I greatly enjoyed Cloud Atlas and felt the writing for each of the six connected stories throughout six different time periods was exceptional. With the stories spanning from the mid 19th-century through the 23rd century, it can be hard to classify what genre Cloud Atlas fits into but I think that’s hardly a problem. There are certainly science fiction/dystopian themes but the first two stories set in the past offer a glimpse into a previous time period that I usually don’t get with pure science fiction. I highly recommend it and although the 512 pages with what at first seem to be disconnected stories can be daunting, I think it’s well worth it.
The 7th book in the Wool Series by Hugh Howey was not quite as enjoyable as the others but still a nice continuation of the gripping story that Howey has managed to keep alive longer than I would have ever anticipated.
If you’re interested in the series, check out the Wool Omnibus (1-5) first for sure and don’t read any further because I don’t want to give anything away.
I didn’t find this story particularly memorable amongst the other Wool/Silo stories except for one detail that stands out to me above everything else. There is a part where Donald goes outside of Silo 1 and starts taking off his clothing hoping to die only to be saved by Senator Thurman and other people wearing nothing but coveralls. Everything in the other Wool stories has led me to believe that the nanobots outside are still incredibly deadly, but then the people from Silo 1 seem not to be affected by them. I can’t imagine that this is an accident and it must certainly be part of the plot that Howey has designed, so I wonder – do the residents of Silo 1 have a “cure” for the nanobots already?
The other detail of 2nd Shift that has me excited for 3rd Shift, etc. is the fact that Donald awakes at the end fully in charge with people addressing him as Senator Thurman.
Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross is the loose sequel to Singularity Sky. I enjoyed it a good bit more than Singularity Sky and it’s really not necessary to read them in order because they barely connect. Again, I like Stross’ idea of the Eschaton as the product of humanity’s technological singularity that gains the power to change things as it sees fit (to a degree) after the point at which it became sentient.
Overall, this is a typical full science fiction book with faster than light travel, molecular assemblers, etc. It reminded me a bit of Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks, so if you enjoy that kind of stuff I recommend it but if you’re not a big fan on the fantastical space adventure genre this is probably a book you can overlook. I highly recommend Stross’ book Accelerando instead and would suggest the space opera seekers check out the Golden Transcendence trilogy.
Not a novel or even a novellete, but a paper written by Vernor Vinge in 1993 the Coming Technological Singularity puts forth Vinge’s views on where he thinks we are headed with the progression of technology. I also have this one as a .mobi file so email me if interested. Vinge popularized the term, singularity and estimated for it to occur before 2030. While I think the singularity (defined as the point of runaway progress due to exponentially increasing intelligence machines or augmented intelligence) is unlikely to occur by 2030, he did write this 20 years ago so I can’t complain too much.
At only 17 pages this is much easier read than Ray Kurzweil’s lengthy book and is probably a better place to start if you’re interested in the singularity. My favorite feature of this article is the way Vinge adresses the fact that trying to bar technological progress is pointless because there will always be someone, somewhere who is going to push the limits further than you will and it will always result in the next step being reached. I think this is incredibly important to remember for politicians when they try to limit scientific research to only specific things (ex. limiting embryonic stem cell research). We cannot afford to do this in the field of artificial intelligence when we begin to approach the point of computers that will have orders of magnitude more power. This is where I think that Isaac Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics can come into play as they do in the Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.
I also greatly appreciate the fact that Vinge adresses augmented intelligence as a possible route to the singularity which I personally think is a much more likely prospect than artificial intelligence alone bringing it about.
Overall, I highly recommend reading this article for the chance that it may have such a profound effect on our world during our lifetimes.
A novelette by Roger Zelazny, For a Breath I Tarry was an enjoyable, quick read about a post-apocalyptic earth devoid of man in which two programmed robot cohorts work against each other under instructions left by long expired man. I came across a reference to this story on r/frisson where someone recommended it because of the feelings of frisson (great word!) it provokes. If anyone is interested, I found the text online but have since converted it to a .mobi file I can email to you.
The beautiful nature of the story is how silly the machines seem to be, in particular Frost in his quest to become man. The lack of understanding of emotion despite the appearance of sentience is so tradition yet so well done by Zelazny that I do have to say that I felt some frisson at the climax of the story.
I am happy to say that the first book I read (or rather finished) in the new year was the nonfiction artificial intelligence book On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. In contrast to the unrestricted optimism of Ray Kurzweil, I think Jeff Hawkins is a much better source to follow into the field of artificial intelligence. Jeff Hawkins’ book is well written and readily understandable. His model of a memory-prediction framework seems to me to be the most reasonable model of how the brain performs. The hierarchical nature of the cortex seems to support Hawkins’ hypothesis that the brain acts as a feed forward hierarchical state machine and the implications for artificial intelligence are incredibly important.
While Ray Kurzweil examined raw computing power as his predictor of when humans would transcend biology in the Singularity is Near, Hawkins took a much more reserved (and rather more reasonable) stance that actually explains what will be required for true artificial intelligence. Namely, just having super fast processors with traditional computer architecture is never going to lead us to artificial intelligence and instead it’s going to be necessary for us to design artificial cortexes to give rise to intelligence machines.
While some of the examples in On Intelligence are dated (particularly Hawkins’ examples of how poorly machine speech and handwriting recognition will progress in light of how well Google Now uses voice recognition or how readily books are scanned to ebooks), I still think he was on the right track with his insistence that we need to design like the cortex.
In 2013, I want to record additional information about my readings and thus will be recording number of pages when available.