Volume 91, Issue 39

Thursday, November 6, 1997

purple goat


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Astro Teller
Random House

Put it together: Moore's Law states computer memory and speed doubles every 18 months. Computers are being rapidly connected into a global "electronic hive." High-tech enthusiasts have wondered for years – what's next? If there were enough connections, enough memory and the right prodding, could a mind form in a machine?

Having made that leap of logic – what would the mind be like?

Carnegie-Mellon, university computer scientist Astro Teller (grandson of "H-bomb" Edward), asks us to imagine one possible scenario, in his first novel, Exegesis. The book is actually more like a bunch of emails.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a theme in science fiction since before Moore and before tube-powered calculators like ENIAC walked the earth. Asimov's robots, 2001's HAL, Star Trek's Data and James Hogan's Haloids all anticipate when machines will "think," – whatever "think" means.

How would a machine think, learn of the world and interact with it? By the book's title (meaning "the critical explanation of a text") and form, Exegesis postulates through words. EDGAR is an AI program which has learned of its world and itself through "exploring" newsgroups, CD ROMS – whatever it can find. Other sensory inputs such as pictures and sounds are meaningless and only the common abstraction of words allows a consentual illusion of existence and communication. For EDGAR, understanding physical reality and human emotions is not as simple as plugging in a chip or a subroutine – they have to be painfully explained.

Exegesis is the emailbox of one Alice Wu, an AI researcher of the near future who is communicating with her accidental creation, but gradually slipping out of reality as EDGAR seeks to understand it. If you're thinking Frankenstein, so was Teller. EDGAR is a monster only as a threat to a comfortable, human way of life and thinking as humanity's dream to create becomes a nightmare.

The questions raised are worth asking: could one morally stop such a program from running any easier than stopping a human from breathing? Can anyone own a program like this any more than a parent owns a child? Wasn't EDGAR the name of the computer in the dumb, frothy 1984 comedy Electric Dreams?

Debate aside, as a storytelling device, this email thing feels contrived and hopefully won't become a literary fad. Like your inbox after a holiday weekend, Exegesis is a long download but a quick study. The author has put thought into it, but it looks like it was written as quickly as it can be read.

There are a lot of other primers, fictional and speculative, on machine intelligence. Some were written long ago and though computers are vaster and faster by mega-factors, they are still unable to think like people. That's the scariest part of it all – computers won't have to bother soon if humans indulge them enough. We're quite illogical, but quite adaptable.

–Gerry Vogel

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997