What if, as more than one science fiction story has imagined, the sheer size and complexity of the World Wide Web made it become self-aware. And what if, contrary to most of those stories, it was wonderful in every sense of the word. What if it meant world peace, freedom, and humanity at long last growing up.
That’s the vision Robert J. Sawyer presents in his WWW trilogy, which consists of Wake (2009), Watch (2010), and Wonder (2011). It’s the tale of a young woman blind from birth who gains sight, a bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid who makes a choice, and an emergent machine-based superintelligence who wants to serve man.
And not, it (or rather he) adds, in the cookbook sense.
Two disclaimers: Firstly, I really like (and identify with) how Sawyer writes and thinks, so there is considerable bias on my part. I’ve posted about him (twice) recently. Ideas in his books account for two other posts. I can’t say every book is a home run, but they are all at least extra base hits for me. And several are indeed home runs. I haven’t been this thrilled about a new author since Octavia E. Butler. [See these five posts.]
Secondly, some may find the story too positive and optimistic. Sawyer seems to share (what I think of as) the Gene Roddenberry idea that technology can solve our social problems. Both have faith in intelligence and knowledge balanced by creativity and compassion (The intersection of Bones and Spock is Kirk). I grew up with the original Star Trek, and one reason I loved it is that I share that faith.
Roddenberry presents the future as a fait accompli, but Sawyer writes about how we might get there (although we often need a little help). I like that Sawyer, as a hard SF writer, explains how his vision is plausible (given a gimme or two). But that also means a fair bit of info dumping (generally well handled as conversations) and, in this case, a fair bit of speechifying. In two notable cases, in literal speeches to assemblies.
So, some may find the story a bit too much talk or too much optimism (or both). It’s definitely not an action story and only flirts with being a thriller. I vastly prefer aspirational stories, and I (vastly) agree with most of the talk (and I generally enjoy the info dumps), so these were a big win with me. They get a Wow! rating.
Quite honestly, they were so positive and optimistic, so delightful and fun, that the last few chapters had joyful tears streaming down my cheeks. (If only it could really be like that!) I found the story quite affecting.
Clearly not everyone reacts that way. Wiki quotes the National Post citing “Sawyer’s Pollyanna faith in the benefits of technology” as almost amounting to “the rankest propaganda.” Which trades on propaganda as Big State brainwashing but consider anti-smoking and safe-driving campaigns. Still, Sawyer does lay it on pretty thick in the third book, so caveat lector. (The third book has both the literal speeches I mentioned.)
The main (human) character is Caitlin Decter, who is just about to turn sixteen. Blind since birth because her retinas incorrectly encode the visual information sent to the brain. Her visual cortex is fully capable of processing visual data. It’s just not getting anything that makes sense to it.
Her father is a theoretical physicist, and her mother is a theoretical economist. They’ve just moved from their home in Austin, Texas, to Waterloo, Ontario, because of her father’s new job at the (world-famous) Parameter Institute. Caitlin is attending a regular high school (rather than a school for the blind) for the first time.
Dr. Masayuki Kuroda, a Japanese researcher on the human vision system contacts Caitlin because he thinks he can fix her blindness. The Decter family flies to Tokyo where an implant is inserted behind Caitlin’s left retina. The implant intercepts the signals from the retina and sends them to a device Caitlin keeps in her pocket (she dubs it an “eye pod”). The eye pod sends retina data to Kuroda’s servers in Japan where it’s unscrambled and sent back to the eye pod and then to the implant which activates the optic nerves.
It doesn’t work at first, but eventually Caitlin’s brain begins to make sense of the new data stream. This begins a long process of learning to associate the new visuals with things she’s only known through touch, sound, or description. For instance, learning to identify faces, and then to decode their expressions. And she has to learn how to read text. (It turns out she can read text much better if it’s encoded in the Braille font⠠⠎⠕ ⠊⠞ ⠇⠕⠕⠅⠎ ⠇⠊⠅⠑ ⠞⠓⠊⠎⠖. Her brain is well-trained with those glyphs whether felt or seen.)
It’s an example of the complex layered structure of Sawyer’s work that her father is functionally autistic. There is a resonance between them involving the interface between the mind and the rest of reality. That resonance becomes even stronger with Webmind.
Webmind is the other main character. He (and he does come to identify as he) is an emergent consciousness that arises because of malformed packets on the World Wide Web.
Sawyer’s idea is really clever. He imagines buggy software has, over time, allowed an ever-increasing number of lost packets to never expire. They bounce around the internet indefinitely. (Specifically, their Time-to-Live field is corrupted such that they never expire no matter how many hops they make.) Each time they pass through a network node, their checksum changes, resulting in the packets flipping between being even or odd. Like bits.
These billions of on-off packets comprise a cellular automaton that computes an intelligent self-aware mind. One that only becomes self-aware due to two events, one of them involving the visual data stream from Caitlin’s retina. (The other is too instrumental to the story progression to give away.)
Caitlin’s visual data is “naturally” encoded (resembling the actual neural signals), so the signal correlates directly and obviously with its physical source. (Unlike the abstract mapping of digital video.) As with an analog audio signal, the content is clearly visible in the data. Therefore, the emergent entity can “understand” it (not unlike our brain does). As Caitlin learns to comprehend sight, so does Webmind (though he doesn’t pick his name until later). As Caitlin learns to read text, so does Webmind.
A key moment comes when Caitlin, through happenstance, becomes aware of the cellular automaton background activity that lurks beneath the traffic (not gonna spoil how). Since the emerging consciousness is avidly watching Caitlin’s visual stream, it perceives itself, as if in a mirror, a key moment in its growing awareness. Eventually, it reaches out to Caitlin through her implant.
The second book, Watch, is (in part) named after WATCH, a USA government agency that monitors the internet for threats. All three books take place over the course of only a few weeks as Webmind emerges and evolves rapidly. Very rapidly.
He starts with all of Wikipedia, moves on to all of Gutenberg, and then to all the other text on websites worldwide. (Later, Dr. Kuroda writes codecs for him that translate all the video formats to the human visual data that Webmind gets from Caitlin’s implant.)
WATCH notices Webmind’s interaction with Caitlin, which brings both Caitlin and her family (and their friends) under scrutiny. Somewhat complicated by those people being in Canada.
The USA government turns out to have an established protocol that, should an AI arise, humanity’s only hope is to destroy it immediately. Or, at the very least, absolutely insure it has an incorruptible easily accessible giant honking OFF switch. Which Webmind clearly does not. A big design goal for the internet was the lack of such a switch.
Sawyer’s stories don’t usually involve (or need) cartoon villains. Humanity, and the problems we face, are plenty enough nemesis. The closest thing here to a “Bad Guy” is someone associated with WATCH who is convinced in his heart that the protocol is correct (in fact, he was part of the team that created it).
Webmind must be destroyed.
Meanwhile, Webmind announces himself to humanity. All of it. As a gift to demonstrate his good intentions, he eliminates spam. All of it. (Webmind is quite aware of the irony of eliminating spam and then bulk emailing everyone in the world.
The third book, Wonder, brings the story full arc. I’ve said this is a positive, optimistic story, so you can fill in the blanks. Webmind turns out to be pretty great for humanity.
Not only did his birth depend on us, but his continued existence depends on us. Indeed, he’s more fragile than us. Events we could survive would end him if the infrastructure collapsed. On top of that, the creativity of humans is the one truly interesting thing in existence. Everything else is just physics.
MILD SPOILER: The epilogue jumps forward billions of years to when the Sun is about to expand into a red giant. Webmind, the last consciousness on Earth, is giving his epitaph. Humanity has spread to the stars, thousands of stars and other machine intelligences have gone with them to help.
But Webmind, an entity emergent from the physical structure of the internet, is forever confined to the internet (just as we are confined to our brains). His great intelligence can be copied to his offspring, but his consciousness remains confined to the brain of the infrastructure.
Which I thought was a nice touch on Sawyer’s part. He maintains the notion of the physicality of the brain in the cellular automata and in Webmind’s confinement to the infrastructure. It is also the case that Webmind has no creativity. He needs humans for that.
Webmind is intelligent and conscious, but he is still only a computation.
Sawyer’s books have a lot of meat on the bone (even more so in a trilogy). There’s so much to comment on, but in the interests of brevity…
There’s a three-beat here. The World-Wide Web; Wake, Watch, Wonder (which, intended or not sort alphabetically in order); Webmind, Caitlin, Hobo, representing machine, human, and primate, intelligences.
(I haven’t talked about Hobo. He’s the bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid I mentioned. His very existence, like Webmind’s, is accidental. I’ll let you discover how else they’re connected for yourself. I will point out an important contrast: Webmind isn’t creative; Hobo paints.)
I’ve mentioned how I enjoy that Sawyer and I share so many cultural, scientific, and science fiction, references. And many sensibilities. There is also that his stories are extremely well-grounded in the real world. They reek of plausibility. The American President and his Secretary of State are characters and, while not mentioned by name, are clearly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (Sawyer does use Obama’s Secret Service name, Renegade.)
I also really enjoy how well structured his stories are and all the research that obviously goes into them. (Some of his books contain hefty bibliographies and suggested reading sections.)
I could go on, but I’ll end with a key point from the book: Competition may be our evolutionary heritage, but it need not be our intellectual future. We can choose our destiny. Both Webmind and Hobo choose their future.
Civilization seems to have a “moral arrow” akin to time’s arrow. Slowly, and in fits and starts, civilization evolves towards greater morality. Sawyer and I seem to agree there is a correlation between intelligence and morality. A superintelligence need not be, and probably isn’t, an enemy.
Information, like fire, is a not zero-sum. It can be shared without incurring loss or penalty. As reality becomes more information based, we have less to covet and hoard. If technology can solve our energy, water, food, waste, and distribution needs (and it can), then we potentially enter a non-zero-sum era of plentitude. (The very era Gene Roddenberry envisioned.)
But we need to unlearn our evolutionary past. Like Hobo, we must choose between what we rose from and what we can rise to. Which is the message of aspirational science fiction. Even the dystopic stories are meant to warn us from the cliff’s edge.
And some, like these, celebrate what we could become.
Stay wondering, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.