Friday, June 5, 2009


There is little to say about a work in progress. Wake is first of a trilogy, to be followed by Watch, then Wonder. It is the story of an artificial intelligence evolving, naturally, on the worldwide web.
The parts of the books in the first person of the emerging Webmind (as it finally names itself) had a certain frantic but solemn effort to communicate a fragmentary consciousness slowly emerging. I must confess that I skipped practically all of those sections. I didn't miss anything but a slower pace I think.

There is actually a main plot about the interactions of the emerging mind with a teenage math prodigy, daughter of an autistic physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Canada. She was born blind, but an experimental procedure to encode visual stimuli and input it into her visual cortex fails initially because her own visual cortex is adapted to navigating the web. Instead of seeing the physical world, she sees the web, where she finds the emerging consciousness, which she calls the Phantom, after a theme borrowed from Helen Keller's autobiography. Caitlin is like no sixteen year old girl I've ever dealt with, but then, I've never dealt with the blind, and most especially never with a prodigy. This is conspicuosly unbelievable in regards to the girl's sexuality. There are many fifteen year old virgins, but the only ones who are as naive as this character are withdrawn. Yet thematically it is necessary that this girl not be withdrawn, as opposed to her father, who is. The effort to embody themes of isolation and consciousness with Caitlin's personal story and the science fictional story is pursued systematically. But it falls a little flat on the believability of the girl.

There is a subplot about a hacker in China. An epidemic of bird flu is contained by gassing the sick and well alike in a rural county. All China's internet contacts are firewalled during this exercise. This subplot is left hanging when the hacker breaks a leg fleeing the police, about to be arrested because he Knows Too Much. Actually, the character exists almost exclusively for editorializing about Tian An Men. Sawyer's political views are standard liberal imperialist thuggery. This is to be expected but failing to write a real character is just plain bad writing.

Sawyer posits that Webmind, by absorbing massive data bases, such as all of Project Gutenberg, can achieve a more or less human consciousness, albeit of superhuman intelligence. He is somewhat inconsistent, giving Webmind a comprehension of vision but not sound. Overall, I'm inclined to believe that in practice the only alien intelligence humanity will ever meet will be artificial intelligence. If it were somehow possible to program a human intelligence, that would be equivalent to deliberately creating a deaf, blind, mute quadriplegic. A human personality in the computer would shut down from trauma, I think. Functional AI wouldn't be human.

The really freakish thing is that Sawyer has his heroine into Julian Jaynes Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It appears that Mr. Sawyer thinks it is really plausible that humanity only developed consciousness in the last few thousand years. The characters of the Iliad, for instance, are not truly conscious. They are automatons answering the divine voices in their head. I'm pretty sure that is crazy. Human consciousness developed from animal consciousness. There is no reason to posit a weird form of schizophrenia as a transitional form in my opinion.

Oh, dear.

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