The robots are coming

Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Neuropolis – Robert Newman (yes, that one)

Void Star – Zachary Mason


There are a lot of things out there telling us how robots are going to take all of our jobs, and how this is a good thing or a bad thing (good thing = frees humans from the yoke of drudge work; pls give us universal basic income kthx vs. bad thing = the robots will decide we’re entirely expendable and/or liquify our corpses to power their circuitry).

Homo Deus is more in the former camp, telling us that not only will artificial intelligence replace all human intellectual activity before very long, computers will give us better art than we could ever come up with and that everyone will be upgrading themselves with additional computer modules. It starts off from a fundamentally dodgy assumption, though, which is that all animals are algorithms, responding to stimuli via a very complicated but ultimately knowable set of computations. And that seems feasible at first, because we’ve all spent so long learning how computers work and we’re very good at drawing parallels between similar looking things – but lots of what humans do is influenced by moods and emotions, other chemical imbalances, reflexes, how sunny it’s been over the last few days and all sorts of other things. Now of course maybe a sufficiently complex program could incorporate that too, but how would you begin to approach “this song reminds me of when my dog died because it was on the radio a lot then, so it seems sad, but it also sounds like that other song that was playing in the bars on that one holiday, and maybe I’m only thinking about that because that girl is wearing suncream and I was thinking I should take a break soon because summer’s nearly over” or whatever.

Robert Newman deals with this and more in Neuropolis, which is partially based on his radio series and points out that a lot of people are getting quite excited about claims that are overblown and/or retread very old philosophical ground. In much the same way that Lyft has reinvented the bus, lots of tech dudes assume that they’re the first to ever think about some aspect of the mind in a certain way, when in fact it was probably first considered by some dude in seventeenth century Italy, discussed for 150 years and is now universally accepted to be settled one way or another. He exposes lots of myths – for example, that a certain area of the brain is inextricably linked to self-control, which started when a bloke working a the railroad accidentally drove an iron spike into his head with dynamite and was unable to stop swearing for the rest of his life. Sure, maybe the removal of that bit of brain meant he no longer understood that swearing was rude, but couldn’t it also have been that it was really fucking painful to have an iron spike smash open your skull? Also, given that it is Rob Newman, it’s drily hilarious (the book, not having an iron spike smash open your skull).

And in a very similar space, Void Star is a new novel set in a post-jackpot world where AIs are making money for an overclass, illegal drones are building multi-level rabbit-warren favelas in the flooded coastal cities and a few people have neural implants that allow them to record their memories exactly forever. I felt like it took me longer than normal with a book like this to figure out what was going on, but the world and most of the characters are compelling enough to stick with it until some things start to emerge and then the pace picks up and becomes a very enjoyable Gibson/Stephenson type adventure.



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