Robert J. Sawyer, one of Canada’s most successful authors and winner of just about every science fiction award out there, will be launching Wonder, his 20th novel, next week. It’s the conclusion of his trilogy about the increasingly complex World Wide Web becoming, in the very near future, conscious and self-aware. We spoke to him by phone at his Mississauga home.
What prompted you to write your WWW trilogy, Wake, Watch and Wonder?
I wanted to do something that was a response to what was already out there, which is that “the singularity” – that is, when something exceeds human intelligence on this planet – that we were inevitably going to be rapidly left in the dust, either destroyed or marginalized.
Twenty years and twenty novels ago, you wrote your first novel, Golden Fleece (1990), which is about artificial intelligence going terribly wrong. What has changed since then?
Golden Fleece came out of, more than anything, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and the notion that computer-controlled weapons systems would be able to function flawlessly the first time they were put in use. Putting the fate of humanity in the hands of machines, because you think machines have god-like perfection and we do not, is folly … but in the 20 years that intervened between that novel and today, I saw very little exploration of a positive future for human beings in the face of really advanced computing. There were three standard scenarios out there: we’ll be subjugated [by] the Matrix, eliminated [by] Terminator, or assimilated [by] the Borg. But there was nowhere in that idea space where people were saying, “No, actually it’s going to be a very positive experience for humanity,” and I felt that there was a real lack of that.
Have there been any great leaps forward in attempts to develop an AI that is self-aware?
There has been zero progress towards artificial consciousness. Nobody has made any progress at all. Not a whit of progress towards having artificial consciousness in that sense.
If some form of AI could spontaneously become self-aware, why do you think that might happen specifically in the World Wide Web?
We are conscious because primate brains reached a critical threshold of complexity about 40,000 years ago. At some point [our brains] got sufficiently big and complex, with sufficient interconnections, that is, sufficient synapses and neural nets, that consciousness emerged. Consciousness is dispersed through the entirety of the brain, no central spot you can point to …. and the Internet is this dispersed network that is very much analogous to the structure of the brain.
Wonder, like your writing generally, is as much about philosophy and morality as it is about cutting-edge science and technology. What will be the moral distinction between humans and a self-aware AI, and will that turn our world upside down?
I’m all about the notion that there is nothing special about being genetically Homo sapiens. There is a lot special about being self-aware. We’re not going to have a fundamental phase change in the human condition simply because we cease to be the most intelligent thing on the planet, any more than we had a fundamental phase change in the human condition when we ceased to be the strongest … when we started to build machines that could do work that used to have to be done by human beings. And I want to say, “Hey [the future] could be really positive if we take these steps and get these lucky breaks, or it could be really negative if we take those steps and get those bad breaks," but let’s have all the ideas out there instead of having ideologues pressing a single vision towards us without looking at the potential downsides, or conversely the potential upsides, of whatever scenario they’re wedded to.
The launch party for Wonder will be held on Tuesday, March 29, at Dominion on Queen.