Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What a Bunch of Bots Might Do


by Leinad Zeraus (Daniel Suarez)

OK, I read this book almost two years ago in its first printing. You can tell by the author’s name that was on the front cover – Leinad Zeraus. The next printing in hardcover (following its success) has his proper name on the cover. I mentioned to Mr. Suarez that I planned to write review following a talk he gave at the Long Now Foundation in August, 2008. I had read the book several months previously after Peter Schwartz (GBN) recommended it to me. It was easy to become engrossed in the book and the story, particularly if you have been involved with the growth of the Internet, virtual worlds, software development, wireless technology, and, of course, video games. I could put a check mark by each of those so I naturally read the story with the skeptical eye of the ‘insider’ looking for both insights I hadn’t put together yet and the attempts to stretch the truth too far. After all, we are talking about software bots taking over a chunk of the world through the Internet. How real is this possibility, now or in, say, this century?

I’ll give you my short answer. Not Today, of course, but . . . it’s worth taking a look further out. After all, don’t we have a DOD Cyber (security) Command now?

First, I would say that Daemon is a technology tour de force in terms of the technologies that are nicely woven into the story. I took to making a list in a second reading of the book and here is a sampling –

Rootkit, Wireless Internet, Spread Spectrum RFI (radio frequency interference), Dark Net, Hack Test, Robot Humvees (think DARPA Grand Challenges as a real world – it works!), automated voice response (AVR), ULF (ultra low frequency) acoustical weapon, UHFA (ultra high frequency acoustical) pin-point sound, steganography, fuel-air bomb, fiber optic cameras, crystal door keys, SQL injection attack, UWB (ultra wideband) receiver, MRI mind mapping, multinational web crime groups, DDOS (direct denial of service) attacks, and my list goes on for another page and a half.

Second, as a technologist I found that most of the uses of technology are reasonably credible save towards the end when you must park the skeptical brain off to one side for a while. Early on, for example, you can imagine a fuel-air bomb created by forcing fuel through a lawn sprinkler system. And only a real fuel-air bomb designer could share the bits of ‘art’ that are essential to get the explosion described in the story. On the other hand, towards the end when bullet spitting robot cycles race through a control complex and attack protagonists in the open, well, maybe I’m skeptical today. But there are also numerous robot companies developing lethal autonomous-capable machines for military action, so much so, that a robot ethics code for such machines is a new topic of research. We are beyond Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws.

Third, there are parts I found intriguing like the infamous Heinrich Boerner in the video game virtual environment and how he leads our protagonist Jon Ross further into the conflict between the bots and humanity. As a casual gamer, the description of that was definitely in sync with how one might engage in a multiplayer online game. I did find some parts disturbing such as how our social media can be abused by propagating embarrassing events to a global audience. We can be cruel in our self-gratification but what is new there?

All-in-all I found Daemon to be a provoking novel about technology and mankind. If you follow Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity concept, this will give you another possible story line of how our distributed AI offspring might both bite the hand that created it and, hopefully, help us overcome our inherent bounded rationality. I recommend reading the novel and listening to Daniel Suarez’s talk on the Long Now Foundation website. And I hear there are plans for a movie. I’ll be among the first in line I suspect.

No comments: