Robert J. Sawyer: A Sunnier Tomorrow by Evan Andrew Mackay,
published 2011 January 10 edition of AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review:
From Orwell to Atwood, speculative fiction offers plenty of grim futures to ponder. But reading Robert J. Sawyer is a positive experience: You learn a lot of fascinating facts, contemplate new ideas, enjoy a good story, and end with the impression that the future might not be all that bad. While we need cautionary tales, a good dose of intelligent optimism also makes for a satisfying read. As a fan wrote to Sawyer about his latest novel, WWW: Watch, “It is rare to find a fresh idea that offers hope and delight, and rarer still for that beautiful idea to come with evidence that really convinces the heart and mind, and moves someone to say ‘Yes, it’s true, we really can become better people.’”
Robert J. Sawyer
And why wouldn’t Sawyer be optimistic? Since the age of 23, he has made his living in the arts, in Canada — and with 20 novels sold and the trifecta of Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards to his name, his career has been a spectacular success. Sawyer arrives full of energy, at ease, and ready to talk, over a light pub lunch at “The Unicorn” in Toronto before meetings with his new publisher, Penguin. A seasoned speaker, he emphasizes he is not intimidated by the voice recorder and slides it right in front of himself. A perusal of Sawyer’s website sfwriter.com will corroborate that this man is not a technophobe.
Wake, Watch, Wonder
In his latest trilogy WWW ― Wake (2009), Watch (2010), Wonder (due out in April 2011) ― Sawyer lays out a hopeful view of things to come with what he says is the inevitable advent, this century, of artificial intelligence that will spontaneously emerge and then develop to surpass human intelligence. “I don’t think it is inevitable that [the existence of beings more intelligent than humans] means the end of life as we know it,” he says.
“I wrote my trilogy in response, in part, to the large number of negative portrayals of the future of humanity at the hands of our robot masters, of emergent AI, because the only visions we had were The Matrix, The Forbin Project, Terminator, every computer Captain Kirk had ever gone up against, Neuromancer, cyberpunk — we did not have a model, a template for the future in which we might survive with our essential humanity, liberty, individuality and dignity intact. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do that, but I think if the only models that are on the table are ones where, if at midnight tonight the World Wide Web wakes up, tomorrow morning the human era ends ― if that’s the only template that’s on the table, we’ve given up the battle before we’ve even arrived at the battleground. I think an argument can be made, and I make it at length over the course of three books here, it’s a subtle argument but I think it can be made, and it does at least bear initial scrutiny that there is a path out of this.”
Keeping an Eye on Big Brother
Even without considering the notion of the World Wide Web becoming self-aware, there are and always have been concerns about the hazards of the Web: from the annoyance of spam to the perils of identity theft, from Web censorship in places like China to the heinous crimes of child pornography where the Web is unregulated. Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is now so quaint as to bring a tear of nostalgia; Big Brother is watching you, but you are watching Big Brother. With the World Wide Web enabling the average citizen, in much of the world, to instantly retrieve or transmit information of any sort or quantity, person to person or in interest-based, regional or global forums, can a person get away with anything these days? Can a corporation or — in light of organizations like Wikileaks — can a government?
The first two books of WWW look at various facets of these concerns. In Wake, a freedom blogger in China tries to evade the authorities while communicating his suspicions online about a mysterious government cover-up. In that first novel, the heroine Caitlin’s private world is necessarily exposed to the scientist whose implant has corrected her blindness, but in the second novel, Watch, her every move is shadowed by the fictitious US government agency called W.A.T.C.H. and by the now-highly-developed consciousness Webmind which sees through Caitlin’s own vision. In Watch, Webmind is able to read the email of everyone on the Web. But although that’s fiction, these issues are still of concern to every user of Facebook or Google, really of every person who goes online or whose personal information exists online, which surely includes you (you are reading this online, aren’t you?). So before getting into the what-ifs of AI, let’s look at what the Web means to the world as it now stands.
WWW — The Key to Our Future?
Is the World Wide Web the key to our future? Sawyer answers, “Yes. Several reasons. The first is, the World Wide Web is the first infrastructural necessity that’s ever existed that isn’t controlled by any one government or region.” Within a region, of course, there can be far-reaching control. Such control is exerted in China, and Sawyer begins examining the implications of this control in Chapter 2 of Wake. Two and a half millennia ago Lao Tzu said, “People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge.” Sawyer’s balanced portrayal of the government and the people of China ― a country he has visited and where the Galaxy Award winner has a loyal following — is both sympathetic and pragmatic, no more and no less than a crucial element in his story. “There’s no way that China will be able to succeed indefinitely in keeping people in the dark. It just can’t be done,” he says. And the means by which they will find the light? “The Web will be that tool!”
Back to why it is the key to our future. “We have with the World Wide Web, by design, something that ― and increasingly so year by year ― is decentralized in its authority, ungovernable by its nature, and therefore liberating in its use.” What’s more, it is unstoppable, and “that is wonderful, in the sense that we have become dependent on something that nobody can take away from us, unlike, say, oil, where we are at the whim of the oil producers be they domestic or foreign.” And there’s more. “I think the World Wide Web is also key in a lot of ways to world peace. I’m an optimist at heart, and I do believe this ― the fact that in my own life, just on my Facebook page, I am routinely communicating with people, in Africa and Korea and China and Japan and so on and so forth ― you cannot be locally partisan when you are on the World Wide Web … When we look at pictures of Earth from space, you can’t see the borders. All you see is the unity. And of all the things we have ever built, this is the only one that actually is a worldwide entity.”
Helen Keller, The Matrix and the Origins of Consciousness
Sawyer describes the WWW series as the meeting of the mostly Canadian William Gibson whose seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer set the stage for the Wachowski Brothers’ movie The Matrix, and the late American playwright William Gibson who authored the play The Miracle Worker, about Annie Sullivan teaching Helen Keller to communicate and become aware of herself and the world around her. The inspiring story of Helen Keller and her teacher provides the template for the relationship between Caitlin and Webmind in Sawyer’s trilogy.
Sawyer believes consciousness will arise in some manifestation of AI much as it did in the evolving human mind not so long ago (in evolutionary terms), as Caitlin reads in Julian Jaynes’ influential 1977 treatise The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. “I suspect that the scenario that’s in my book, the World Wide Web gaining consciousness without it being planned to do so, is far more likely than somebody at MIT or Google or Microsoft announcing to the world, ‘I have made it in my lab,’” Sawyer says. “I suspect that when we do face AI on this planet, it won’t actually be artificial in the sense of some clever programmer figuring out how to code it.”
Although AI is often imagined as coming from some software engineer writing “X number of lines of code that wake up and say cogito ergo sum …” Sawyer says, “I don’t think anybody has made any progress at all towards that.” An AI researcher tried to convince Sawyer he had a laptop that “learns.” Sawyer doesn’t think so, adding, “I don’t think it’s got one iota closer to being self-aware than an abacus is.” Sawyer thinks self-awareness will come to AI as it did to us: “Our consciousness was an emergent property of the complexity of our brains. Evolution is not teleological … nothing thrusting us towards being self-aware. It just happened.” It happened as an accident of evolution and it stuck around because it “turned out, apparently, to be useful, at least for the last 40,000 years.” In Jaynes’s theory, human consciousness developed a mere 3,000 years ago, before which time people essentially just did what their un-unified cerebral hemispheres told them to do.
But what is consciousness? In WWW, Sawyer examines the boundaries of consciousness and self-awareness from several angles. Caitlin, blind from birth, gains sight and must learn new ways of processing information and perceiving the world. One character, a high-functioning autistic genius, exhibits minimalist social interaction and a hyper-focused way of understanding the world that is scarcely comprehensible even to immediate family members. Hobo, the fictitious hybrid bonobo-chimpanzee, creates the first non-human representational art ― “that ability to have a mental picture,” Sawyer points out, “is part of the gaining of consciousness” — and converses in sign language with humans and an orangutan in order to make informed decisions about his fate. Although no such hybrid is known to exist, there is evidence that such breeding could lead to developments in the direction imagined in this story. Sawyer depicts, with frequent references to Helen Keller’s remarkable accounts, Webmind’s struggle to attain and integrate self-awareness, learning, communication, and to grasp and make choices based on moral distinctions. For many readers, it is likely this moral sense which most clearly distinguishes a fully conscious being from a beast or robot. What convinces Caitlin that a consciousness is somehow forming within the Web is her observation of rising Shannon’s Entropy scores as measured against Zipf plots applied to patterns made by rogue cellular automata in the background of the Web. (The science behind Sawyer’s hypothesis on how consciousness might emerge on the Web is explored in detail in Wake and Watch.)
The World as We Know It.
So if the World Wide Web, or maybe the device you are reading on right now, wakes up at midnight tonight, don’t think the only option is to rage against the machines. “Between what I have to say and what the dystopians about AI have to say, there will hopefully be a middle-ground reality that we will actually live in: alongside of, not underneath, our intellectual betters.” And, when WWW: Wonder comes out in April, even those dead-set on fighting our new robot overlords would do well to consider what Sawyer has to say about the very idea of shutting down the World Wide Web.
Leaving aside for now the issue of technology becoming self-aware and surpassing human intellect, what would Sawyer see if he were to flash forward twenty years into the future? “I think we will be continuing the current trend which is — despite what makes news: A smaller percentage of human beings are at war right now than at any other time in human history, there’s a higher degree of literacy right now than at any other time in human history, there are more people enjoying more freedom, civil rights and civil liberties than at any other time in human history … We’ll see much greater ecological sensitivity, and much more globalism and much less jingoistic nationalism in twenty years. We will be a World Wide Web of people … It will be a better world in twenty years.”
More coming soon at AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review.