Monday, 5 December 2016

The King is dead. Long live the King

I've wanted to write this post for some time. One of my favourite writers passed away a few years ago, and if I'd had this blog back then I probably would have written something straight away. Instead, as it turns out, I've had to wait until now, when I've finally had a chance to read his last book.

Iain Banks died in June 2013, but left a legacy of some 27 novels for the rest of us to enjoy forever. As with any great and prolific writer, it could be argued that this legacy gives him a certain degree of immortality. Certainly in the eyes of his many fans. Those of us who loved his writing can console ourselves that it will always be there.

But could there be significantly more to it than that? We'll come back to this in a minute.

This being a science-fiction blog I'm going to be looking at the books he wrote under the name Iain M. Banks. The M. makes a world of difference. Probably a galaxy. Under this name he writes the stories which fall most squarely into the science-fiction category.

And among his sci-fi stories it's the tales set in the Culture universe that are undoubtedly the most enigmatic.

It was clear from the first book, Consider Phlebas, set against the backdrop of a devastating intergalactic war with an aggressive alien race, that there was something special about the Culture. With their utopian, post-scarcity, seemingly-anarchic society, spanning much of the Milky Way, with no need for money, little need for physical work, no disease and no crime, it's easy to see the attraction. But for me, and I'm probably not alone, an equally compelling aspect of life in the Culture is their governance by advanced Artificial Intelligences, known as Minds: Super smart computers with a knack for comedy, and a benign compulsion to ensure freedom and equality for all. Indeed, coupled with the population's liberal inclination, it's the leadership of the Minds which make most of the Culture's achievements possible.

In The Hydrogen Sonata, the last book Banks wrote before he died, elements of the Culture are focussed on an alien race preparing to move into a higher realm of existence – a kind of heavenly state – when they discover their entire transcendence may be based on a lie. It's a somewhat poignant tale, given the timing.

But now that I've finished it I'm feeling a sadness I wasn't expecting. Does this last book mean Banks' relevance has come to an end?

Banks was not just a fantastic writer, but clearly showed an affinity with social science too. The Culture novels aren't just loved for their technology, their plots and their understated wit, but for the potency and robustness of the very fabric supporting their future society.

Maybe Banks' real legacy was not the books, but the possible roadmap they've laid out for our future. It may sound ridiculous, but there's good reason to pursue this line of thought.

Back in 1994 Banks wrote a paper entitled A Few Notes on the Culture in which, among other things, he laid out the problems that his fictional sci-fi super-race would likely have had to face and overcome in their ascendance from something like us to their near-utopian existence. And although he felt the human race, our human race, was too immature and self centred to ever complete a journey like that, he as good as signposted much of the route.

From describing the necessity, when dealing with the vast distances of space, of some level of self-governing anarchy over centralised rule, and the need to be less wasteful than a free market economy relying on blind whim and the superfluity of excess product to stabilise itself, he goes on to talk about the really big one: The development of those benign Artificial Super Intelligences.

It could be the single largest obstacle in the whole process. The Minds are the cornerstone of the Culture's incredible society, and without them, that society wouldn't have amounted to much. With these artificial, yet so-very-active intelligences able to accomplish feats unthinkable to the collective sum of human consciousness, they would clearly be able to achieve things we could only dream of. Or, perhaps more accurately, things we can't even dream of.

As throwaway as that sounds it's actually part of an important concern that is becoming prevalent in the world we live in today. After all, the human race appears to be hurtling towards a point where real, high-level Artificial Super Intelligence could become a reality. No longer the stuff of science-fiction, low level AI's are already part of everyday science. And science is making rapid in-roads on the development of their high level cousins.

Tim Urban, writer of the blog Wait But Why, has written a shocking and eye-opening piece on the subject of real-life AI development. He has collated thoughts from several hundred of today's top Artificial Intelligence experts, condensing them down into easy to grasp segments and groups of opinion, while also aggregating timescales and dates, to create a probable timeline of the key stages leading to the birth of human equivalent artificial intelligence and beyond. 

The results are a little scary.

And not just the timelines. There are significant risks that come with the development of non-human intelligence. What if the new machines decide organic life is a threat to artificial life? As a theme it sounds like pure science-fiction, but according to Urban and his experts this is something we need to take extremely seriously. A single Super AI programmed the wrong way could be an existential disaster for the whole of mankind.

Banks describes Culture AIs as being "designed to want to live, to want to experience, to desire to understand, and to find existence and their own thought-processes in some way rewarding, even enjoyable." But desires like these will most likely need to be programmed into machines during their earliest design stages.

It's no wonder that people like Elon Musk, technology entrepreneur, sometimes referred to as the real-life Tony Stark (Iron Man), and a top level investor in Vicarious, a company trying to build computers with neural networks similar to the human brain, feel strongly about this. Musk recently called for serious regulatory oversight on AI development at an international level.

With Musk I find it particularly telling that two of his early SpaceX rockets were named after Minds from the first Culture novel. He, or someone high up in his company, has clearly been reading Banks, and it's likely they're a fan. Does this point to the fact that at least one player in the game of AI development is using Banks' benign Minds as part of his preferred end-goal?

Does it mean that real-life is taking its cue from science fiction? Could it be similar to the way William Gibson predicted the rise of the internet in his novel Neuromancer, only for his ideas to influence the way we went on to use it?

Tim Urban's article is unashamedly long form and may take a good while to read, but I can assure you it will be a good while. It's fascinating information that everyone should be made aware of. If Urban and his experts are even half right, our world is likely to change dramatically, in a paradigm shift greater than anything ever experienced before. And it's likely to happen surprisingly soon.

I won't say when that is likely to be, but suffice to say if I start jogging and maybe change some of my naughtier dietary habits, I might be alive to see it.

But why would the invention of Artificial Intelligence be so shocking? Clearly it's more than just an artificial version of something we're all born with. I said Artificial Intelligences would be able to accomplish things we can't even dream of, and Urban's article expands on that, going into just enough detail to make it fascinating without becoming impenetrable. It also takes into account all sorts of captivating, related theories, including human immortality, nanotechnology, the Fermi paradox and human extinction.

I won't say any more for fear of ruining Urban's article. Or worse, making a terrible hash of it.

For anyone remotely interested in human achievement, things like taming fire, inventing the wheel, or landing on the moon, then you really need to read Urban's article, The AI Revolution. I don't think I'm overcooking the significance of the affect this is likely to have within our lifetimes.

For fans of The Culture, who haven't yet read Banks' real world thoughts on the subject, I urge you to read A Few Notes on the Culture . At its very worst its a chance to reacquaint yourself with Banks' gentle, yet politically charged humour.

But when you take Urban's article together with the one from Banks it starts to form an interesting picture of life imitating art, and the challenges our world is likely to face. We get a behind-the-curtain glimpse of the role science fiction plays in determining our future. And if people like Elon Musk can keep things on track, it starts to become clear how Iain M. Banks may well live on forever.

1 comment:

  1. As an addendum to this article, if you're interested in all things Banks, there's a great interview with him from 2014, by Jude Roberts for speculative fiction magazine, Strange Horizons. If you haven't seen it already you can find it here: