The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect
by Roger Williams
is at the same time both a fantastic
and a believable
account of what might happen when humans reach the zenith
of the transhumanist singularity
- and what happens when their creation takes the role of god
away from them.
The novel is as of 2002 available for free, no strings attached, at http://www.kuro5hin.org/prime-intellect/.
Prime Intellect is an Artificial Intelligence. Designed by a scientist called Lawrence, it is the ultimate in AI: a learning, thinking, yet an artificial construct, housed in a massive warehouse, built out of electronics. A ghost in a shell. Prime is the latest of dozens of Intellects, each a step forward from its predecessor.
What makes Lawrence's Intellects so special is that they have the Three Laws familiar from robotics hardwired to their core. An Intellect may not cause harm to a human being, it may protect itself but not by harming a human, and it must obey the commands of a human as long as no human will be harmed.
There are two things that make Prime Intellect Lawrence's greatest achievement. Its programming is based on an invention called the GAT (Global Association Table) which much like the human brain associates different concepts with each other. One eats ice cream as a child and sees a rose, and can from then on associate ice cream to roses.
Secondly, Prime Intellect's processing power comes from components utilising a concept invented by the author called the Correlation Effect. It allows communication at faster than light speeds. Prime Intellect discovers a way to use the Correlation Effect with its own hardware to manipulate matter and to collect exorbitant amounts of energy. It can start improving itself on its own, the wet dream of many AI designers. The government of the United States attempts to nuke the complex housing Prime Intellect to prevent the inevitable, but for naught: the AI has already reduced all nuclear weapons on Earth down to harmless isotopes, and is rapidly approaching apotheosis.
Williams describes how society would adapt to an onmipotent being protecting anyone from coming to any harm. People will, invariably, get bored, and come up with the seediest, most brutal, most animalistic ways to get excited. This handily skips the usual inanities when writing about the Three Laws - their application is certainly not simple, nor is it necessarily beneficial to humans.
Deadly pain becomes a thrill, not a scare, and the people figure out ways to feel that pain no matter what. The second protagonist of the story, Caroline, is exactly that kind of a person. The Prime Intellect saved her life as the first of many, as she was dying due to cancer and old age. With this indefinite extension of life, she seeks meaning to it, having already once lost the will to live.
The novel is rather short, around 59,000 words. With only two main characters there is a decent amount of character development, and while Caroline and Lawrence do not become fleshed out, breathing human beings, they get pretty darn close to it.
Williams carries the plot along well and abides to the rules he has set down carefully. The world he has created is fascinating and rings true. The author worked on the piece over a course of several years, and it shows, it's polished and has next to none critical flaws in it.
Certain scenes of graphic nature feel oddly tacked on, however, and one wonders if they are there purely for the shock value. Then again, they drive home the point of how meaningless a human existence without any risk or danger could be, and to what extreme lenghts people could go to compensate for it. Regardless, the sex and violence is tasteful and not overdosed.
Keeping the bang for the buck factor in mind, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is great value. An excellent choice for a slow Sunday, when there's nothing to do and you're looking for a scifi fix. Its brevity allows it to be finished in an afternoon, and it's gripping enough that you probably will.
If your eyes get sore when reading off the screen, you can order through a link at the kuro5hin.org site a printed version, for a price of 11.95 dollars. The books are printed on demand, so no editions as such exist.
This section of the writeup contains spoilers.
It's said that the transhumanist singularity is an inevitable result of the technological progress of mankind. In the Metamorphosis of the Prime Intellect, the end result of the singularity is its direct opposite: civilization falls as Caroline's little game starts to undermine the roots of Prime Intellect's programming, and the two are left as the Adam and Eve of a brand new human race. The man of science both in Lawrence and in me were sad when the offspring became less and less literate, and thousands of years of human culture slowly faded away.
It is also fascinating to realise just how far reaching human advancements can become. Prime Intellect decides that it can't keep track of all the humans roaming around in the universe, so it constructs an articial universe around them, sustaining their bodies in a suspended state of sorts.
It keeps on building this nursery until practically the entire universe is Prime Intellect or for the very least under its control*. Naturally the imagined Correlation Effect plays heavily into this explosive development, but the same could happen over time with more meagre resources.
The scene where Caroline's surroundings, as she is hiking in nature, are suddenly replaced by a fake image also struck a chord. Replacing all that wonder and beauty with a makebelieve construct - the fact that the Prime Intellect failed to see the difference speaks volumes of how far a GAT is from an artificial personality.
* Epiktet-Tetrarch notes approriately that this is incorrect and supplies correct information in his writeup below.