Non-Fiction Reviews

Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine

(2007) J. Storrs Hall, Prometheus Books, US$28, hrdbk, pp408. ISBN 978-1-591-0-2511-5


There are a number of core tropes associated with science fiction, arguably two of the most common would included space travel and alien life. It is also often said that today's science fiction is tomorrow's science fact and while this does not mean that SF is an accurate tool for prediction it does suggest that a number of SF's tropes and themes that today are fictitious may shortly become fact. To demonstrate that this is so you only need to look at space flight which was being written about in SF stories long before Sputnik or Vostok. All well and good as in terms of this book this is most germane. SF has for well over half a century had stories of mechanical or artificial intelligence (AI). This and that the rise in both power and use of computers, combined with lowering of its cost, surely bodes well for one of the next SF tropes to become fact will be artificial intelligence. Where we are now and some of the issues we need to face to get there is reviewed by J. Storrs Hall in this remarkable new book.

Now while I have a general science knowledge (with some specialist bioscience in the mix) I am not a computer scientist, nor am I an electrical engineer. Yet this book still speaks to me conveying an passion for the subject and so I am sure that anyone with an enthusiasm for science and broadly some school level qualifications will find this both an informative and an enjoyable read. J. Storrs Hall himself is a North American working in nanotechnology but with a background in computer science: so we can safely say that his opinion is at least an informed one.

The book itself starts with a look at how technology progresses and indeed in part how this relates to SF. A striking illustration here is H. G. Wells' stories of heavier than air mechanised warfare (1907) which, though after the Wright Brothers (1903) and earlier (arguably successful) pioneers, was well before we had the fates of wars significantly determined by air power. We then get taken through the rise in computing and then the consideration of what is intelligence. The tour continues through robotics nd then the marrying of robotics, intelligence with something artificial but vaguely analogous to the human mind. Along the way there will be ethical problems and concerns. Here Storrs Hall has a look at Asimov's three laws of robotics. Finally we reach what is best described as artificial super-intelligence. Throughout all this Hall does not shirk from the ethical concerns but does remain optimistic both that artificial intelligence will be realised and that in the end it will be for the betterment of humanity.

As a lay person as far as this subject goes, the book scored in that not only was it entertaining and easy to read but that it was informative and, importantly, not wedded to a single option. Therefore as a casual read for a hard SF buff and a scientist (from another discipline) into the genre, this book was a delight. Indeed were I an SF author and I wanted to write a novel that strongly featured AI then I would certainly read this again as part of initial background research. For non-SF buffs, but those interested in the reasonably near-future, this book is also very relevant as, as Storrs Hall makes clear, it is most likely that this century will see the first AI if not the widespread dispersion and us of AIs in developed nation societies. It could happen sooner than you think.

Jonathan Cowie

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