"20 years ago, it was another world. Now, its our world. Its where the banks keep your money" - William Gibson, Today Program, BBC Radio 4, Oct. 5 2010In 1984, a book came out which now seems eerily prescient. It predicted a world enmeshed in a network of computers. Everything was connected, from toasters to telephones. Business was done over this network, battles were fought and crimes were committed. In the two and a half decades since its publication, the world has become the one represented in it, or has it?
The book, of course, is Neuromancer, written by William Gibson. It tells a story of an AI on a quest to grow beyond the restrictions placed upon it by its human creators. In the course of this quest the AI hires the services of various humans, often by convoluted means. These include a burnt out cybersoldier, a cybernetically enhanced 'razorgirl' and a washed up and drug addicted former hacker, or 'cowboy'. They journey through something that Gibson termed 'cyberspace' which bears a striking resemblance to the internet of today.
Outside the realm of the virtual, Gibson's future is frankly a bit of a mess. The rise of cyberspace has rendered most government's powerless and the corporations have basically taken over. Cybernetic enhancement is common and the level of biological and electronic technology is far enough advanced to be fantastic, but scarily close enough for us to be able to see it from our current level of advancement.
War in the traditional sense seems to be a thing of the past, with the last great conflict (between the US/NATO and China) making use of the, then relatively new and untested, brain-computer interface technology which leads to the development of much of the hacking equipment used by the hacker throughout the novel. Science fiction has taken this idea of a direct neural interface with a computer and made it a standard trope (The Matrix, Shadowrun, Lawnmower Man.)
So are we heading towards Gibson's dystopian vision of the future? There are specific technologies that we are a fair distance from as yet, but the possibility seems to be that its the direction we are heading in.
Whilst Gibson doesn't give a lot of detail regarding the politics and social situation of the setting of Neuromancer we can glean quite a bit from the atmosphere and general feel of the book. The gap between rich and poor has continued to widen, and those with money live in luxury with access to pretty much any technology they want, whilst the poor and underclass live a hand to mouth existence. Oddly the underclass is where the more innovative and interesting uses of the book's technology comes from, as these are the areas on the fringes of society where the rules are more flexible (or not enforced because its not worth the time of what little authorities there are)
We can see today the beginnings of Gibson's dystopian society, governments are frantically trying to keep control of corporations who's annual turnover often matches and exceeds those of entire countries. These corporations also operate without real regard to political borders and base themselves where ever it is convenient and/or cheapest in terms of taxes, to do so.
The recent economic turmoil was, at its root, caused by large corporations (in this case banks) who had evolved methods of circumventing the various regulations laid down by governments in order to make more money. The progress of technology and human ingenuity is such that more and more often governments and other old institutions simply can't keep up.
If we look at the current situation with copyright, the old media companies who rely on the old rules for their lively hood are lobbying government to exercise more control and regulation of the means of digital distribution. That genie is already out of the bottle and there is no putting it back, the fundamental rule that a book is a singular object no longer applies. I can give you a copy of a book in my possession in digital form at little or no cost to myself, and I still have the book I started with.
This is a prime example of where governments are failing to keep pace with the progress of technology, and that pace is only going to keep increasing due to the exponential nature of technological progress (Kurzweil - The Singularity is Near.) In Gibson's world it would seem that they've given up entirely and simply allow the corporations to protect their IP in whatever way they see fit, allowing them free reign to become the de-facto police in a lot of areas.
The sprawl is the major setting of the book and predicts the results of continued urban expansion. Population pressures are continuing and these are causing the cities of the world to spread out beyond their current borders. The Sprawl is an example of this idea taken to its logical conclusion (if it can be said to have one) and is a huge domed megacity which extends from Boston to Atlanta on the eastern coast of the United States.
We can already see the beginnings of The Sprawl in the Northeast Megalopolis which covers the eastern seaboard of the United States and extends from Boston to Washington DC, and other cites around the world are continuing to grow, especially in China where a largely rural population is moving into the cities for work and the promise of an easier, more affluent life.
Densely populated, these areas will undoubtedly give rise to a larger underclass as their inhabitants compete for the limited resources which can be shipped in from the rural areas. The thing about cities is they are not really centers of production, especially for the basic needs of humanity. All the farming, water supplies and breathing space exists beyond their borders making these large urban areas net consumers of certain types of resource.
Whether the continued expansion of the urban world is sustainable or not is yet to be seen, Gibson's work strongly suggests that it isn't as society seems to be on a downward spiral towards chaos and anarchy.
By far the most optimistic portions of Neuromancer, from my perspective in any case, is the progress of technology. In almost every field, computing, communications, cybernetics, biotechnology, Gibson has give us reasons to be hopeful. Even though the potential of such advances has been squandered in his world we can see some of the advances being made today in much of those which exist in the novel.
It is worth noting here that while the social and political situation in Neuromancer is bleak and dystopian, it is humanity's decisions about how to use its new technology which has made it that way. So there is hope, a hope that we can take the examples of the predictions made in Neuromancer, and the books of other dystopian authors, and learn from them. Avoiding them and building a society that is better than that depicted.
Brain Computer Interface
By far the most central advancement to Neuromancer, and certainly the one which caught my imagination when I first read it, is the Neural Jack, or Brain-Computer Interface. This is the means by which the hacker hired by the AI interacts with cyberspace.
By plugging himself into his console, or 'deck', the user can experience cyberspace directly and treat it as another world which is explorable as if they were walking around it in their bodies. This obviously inspired the first concepts of virtual reality and you can see it in the ancestry of the majority of the 3d virtual worlds of today's MMO market.
How far are we from such technology? I would say quite a distance. In order to interact directly with a computer by simply plugging our brains into it we require a much greater understanding of how the human brain interprets and processes sense perception. Then we have to figure out how to get a computer to talk to us in a way that our brains can understand.
There are advances along similar lines being made however (NeuroSky, BCInet), there exists equipment and software which allows us to control computers with our brainwaves. While not a direct connection and limited in its uses and scope, such devices will no doubt lead to further advances in our understanding of not only ourselves but the connection between our perceptions and what our brain is doing with them.
As a corollary to the BCI there is also a character in Neuromancer who has had their entire personality 'saved' on an electronic storage device which can then be run just like any other piece of software. This is a common occurrence in many cyberpunk and transhumanist works and suffers the same problem as the above with the additional kink that we don't really know how much computing power it would take to completely simulate a human mind. There is also the question of Mind/body duality. How much of our thinking is a direct consequence of our mind being resident in a biological body? Would our personality remain the same if we were running as software on a computer?
Personally I wouldn't like to plug directly into the internet unless I knew I was well backed up, there's no telling what you might run into and what it might do to your brain. Fortunately I'm unlikely to have that opportunity in my lifetime, but our children might according to some futurists (Kurzweil again)
Cybernetic enhancement of the human body
The augmentation of the human body using technological means is a well known trope of science fiction and has made its way into the mainstream consciousness via TV and movies and we are beginning to see various real world applications of these technologies.
While the cosmetic and optional enhancements in Neuromancer are some way off, the medical applications of cybernetics is not really a new development. Hearing aids for the deaf have been around for decades and cochlear implants are now fairly common place with the same ideas being applied to our eyes. Cybernetic limb replacements for amputees are available, though currently quite limited, and the mechanical augmentation of strength is being seriously looked at by various militaries around the world.
It would seem to be only a matter of time before the extreme examples displayed by the 'razorgirl' in Neuromancer become a real possibility. As the size and cost of the relevant technologies (CCDs, nanotech, etc) decreases having such enhancements built in as fashion accessories or tools will become commonplace and we may all become amalgams of biology and technology.
According to Ray Kurzweil (The Age of Intelligent Machines), we are fast approaching the point (within the next decade he believes) where the computational power of the machines on our desks will surpass that of the human brain. Will these machines then suddenly spring into spontaneous intelligence. No, they won't. Raw computation is one thing, but the nuances that make a being intelligent are another entirely.
AI has been a dream of humanity ever since the first mechanical automata appeared centuries ago. To create a new being in the image of our own intelligence sounds like a delusion of godhood, and like all such delusions there is a risk of overreaching and getting it drastically wrong. How are we to know that the intelligence we create will want to keep us around? We cannot be certain that the intelligences we bring forth will be benevolent, nice, or even sympathetic to their human progenitors. Any kind of restrictions put on their behaviour and attitudes towards us meat based intelligences, will no doubt be quickly circumvented (in the best case) or resented (in the worst).
In Neuromancer there are two AIs, Wintermute, and its sibling, the Neuromancer of the title. It is Wintermute's goal to merge with its sibling and become a superintelligence, inhabiting the entire network of cyberspace. it is prevented from doing this by the restrictions placed upon it by the Turing Police, who's mandate is to keep AIs from going rogue and becoming uncontrollable. Wintermute wants to be free, an admirable goal for any being, as would any intelligent being that was imprisoned simply because of what they are.
Gibson's picture of AI is a fairly optimistic one. Their intelligence is so far beyond ours and so completely different from that of a human that they really have no interest in us, beyond enlisting our help in plotting their escape (on in Neuromancer's case, preventing the escape of its sibling). The attitude I get from Wintermute is simply one of disinterested benevolence, its nice to us not as a matter of duty to its progenitors or reverence for its creators, but more as a side effect of the fact that being malevolent would be a waste of its effort when there are much more interesting things it could be doing.
The best we can hope for, I think, is that a fragile co-existence is created with humanity being slowly evolved to be more in line with the newcomer's levels of intelligence and ability. We're not there yet, and there are some who say we shouldn't even go there. personally I believe it to be an inevitable consequence of the current trends in computing power and capability and will gladly welcome our new computer overlords.
Perhaps the most well remembered of Gibson's predictions regarding the future is the existence of cyberspace. We use the term now to describe the multifarious worlds available to us on the internet, but it was Gibson who coined it. Cyberspace, as he describes it, is:
"A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding."Gibson's cyberspace is a 3D world, not unlike modern online games, where the user has a physical location and 'travels' from point to point among the representations of the various hardware and software that exists on the network. While an engaging and very evocative idea, its not quite like that today. We do not surf the web by moving linearly from one point to another. Being online is more like being may different place simultaneously, location is meaningless at the user level and is only really used by the infrastructural hardware and software to determine where the information has to go.
Our experience of cyberspace is not singular then, neither do we use a single mode of interaction with it. Gibson has his hacker's online persona floating from place to place and interacting 'physically' with the hardware and software he visits on his travels. We don't do that. Our browser windows are full of tabs open on a variety of websites, we have an instant messenger program open and are communicating with many different people at once with voice, text and video.
The three dimensional mirroring of the real world onto the virtual has not come about, due on some part to hardware and software limitations, but more because the human brain is capable of processing huge amounts of information from more than one source at a time. Gibson's cyberspace exists though, and the 3D singular experience he envisaged lives on in our virtual playgrounds, its just that a such a visualization of the internet is not as efficient as the way we interact with it now.
The future envisaged by Gibson in Neuromancer and the other works of cyberpunk literature he has produced is something real then. Economic and social collapse, governmental powerlessness in the face of quickly evolving corporations and technology, the progress towards the enhancement and augmentation of human biology, AI, and cyberspace are all either here or very nearly here. Some of the details are not quite in tune with Gibson's vision, but the general sweep of his ideas is there. Another question is raised by this: Was the influence of Neuromancer on the creators of today's technology instrumental in bringing about the future Gibson saw?
In some cases this is undoubtedly the case, the widespread adoption of the term 'cyberspace' to describe the online world in which we now live so much of our lives demonstrates that. The social and economic situation, maybe not so much, unless the development of the technologies inspired by Gibson and the changes they have brought about to our way of life was the cause behind them. The quote at the start of this essay says it all really. A mere two decades ago the world of Neuromancer and The Sprawl was another world, one that originally only existed in the mind of one man but which spread to others who saw the prescience of the book and knew which way the wind was blowing. Now, it is the world we live in, and there's something scary about that.