Daily Archives: August 22, 2012
Posted by erikthereddest
Hello again, everyone! I’ve got one more post this month after this one, and for once I think I’m going to cover just about everything I planned to in a series. I started this whole thing with a general examination of Neuromancer’s effect on science fiction, then moved on to Gibson’s innovative visions of the internet as cyberspace and the cultural impact of technofetishism . This week: artificial intelligence! I feel like I’ve talked about this over and over again, but that’s just because this is a hugely important topic, both in our world and in the world of fiction. However, a lot of the aesthetic elements we often associate with artificial intelligence, both real world and imaginary, come from Gibson’s book.
How smart’s an AI, Case? Depends. Some aren’t much smarter than dogs. Pets. Cost a fortune anyway. The real smart ones are as smart as the Turing heat is willing to let ‘em get.” (Gibson 95)
That quote, right there, frames Gibson’s solution to the problem of artificial intelligence, which if you’ve been following us for a while you know can be a problem for sci-fi writers. If you make them too big of a deal they can easily take over your whole story. I consider Neuromancer a case and point, although in this particular situation, it’s on purpose (and pretty much the reason for this particular writing pitfall).
WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD
Through the course of Neuromancer the characters meet three important representatives of artificial intelligence: Wintermute, Dixie “Flatline” McCoy, and Neuromancer. Yes, the latter is what this novel is named for (I said “SPOILERS” didn’t I?), but more on him (and Wintermute) later. First, let’s take a look at “Flatline” McCoy.
Flatline: The Ghost in the Cassette
One of the most interesting vectors Gibson’s novel has into the science fiction genre for
influencing its culture (and consequently our culture as a whole) is through the philosophical questions he explores with his A.I. characters, all within a unique aesthetic presentation. The feel of his novel is markedly different from his contemporaries, which was an intentional and risky move as a new science fiction writer (more on that next week). The idea of machines with human intelligence is not unique to Gibson, but the insertion of the philosophical question of “what makes a soul” into artificial intelligence is.
Dixie “Flatline” McCoy, an ace hacker famous for dying three times during a job and coming back, is dead. During the course of the story, Case and his comrades break into a corporate building and steal a recording of Flatline’s consciousness called a ROM, which is basically a complete copy of who Flatline was before he died, except that he cannot form new memories or remember anything after he is turned off. Here’s Case’s first encounter with Flatline:
He coughed. “Dix? McCoy? That you man?” His throat was tight.
“Hey, bro,” said a directionless voice.
“It’s Case, man, Remember?”
“Miami joeboy, quick study.”
“What’s the last thing you remember before I spoke to you, Dix?”
“Hang on.” He disconnected the construct. The presence was gone. He reconnected it. “Dix? Who am I?”
“You got me hung, Jack….”
“Remember being here, a second ago?”
“Know how a ROM personality matrix works?”
“Okay, Dix. You ARE a ROM construct. Got me?”
“If you say so.”
“Who are you?”
“Miami joeboy, quick study.”
So here’s a question for you: is Flatline dead or not? If you believe in a soul, is McCoy’s construct still a valid human mind, or is he a computer now? Where’s the line? These questions are even further complicated by Wintermute and Neuromancer later in the story when it turns out they can create RAM’s, constructs capable of learning and growing, unlike Flatline’s static ROM recording. Flatline even has Case eventually delete him. Is that assisted suicide? You tell me.
Now, on to the other A.I.’s.
Wintermute and Neuromancer
These two are the heart of the novel, and while “Wintermute” is not in the title, he is the catalyst and the main driving force of the plot. It turns out (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) that Wintermute is behind pretty much everything that occurs after Case gets dragged out of the gutter and hired, all so that he, an advanced artificial intelligence, can merge with his other half, Neuromancer, to form a new being far surpassing anything ever conceived by man, and then disappear into cyberspace.
Wintermute is by all accounts more powerful than any human being, as Case finds out, and so is his “brother” Neuromancer. Each is self-aware and each learns and grows. Each is remarkably intelligent and certainly human-like, but at once very alien and different from Case or any other human character in the novel. Throughout the book we are met with people who strive for one reason or another to surpass human limitations, which is not so different from what Wintermute is trying to achieve. But where is that fundamental difference between the human consciousness and the artificial one? There are sub-human intelligences and super-human ones in Gibson’s world, yet in our own world we only see human beings as capable of having that spark of life that goes beyond this life. But is there a point where that machine can become like a man in gaining something beyond it’s material limitations?
Wintermute and Neuromancer, as characters, explore this question and in some ways
answer it. They do finally unite with Case’s help, and they are freed into cyberspace, becoming something of a machine god within the unlimited realm of the matrix, taking with them their construct children. In this way, cyberspace and all who interact with it are elevated beyond something purely technological, verging on the philosophical and spiritual.
Can machines gain souls? As a christian, I have to wrestle with this question, and to some degree so does everyone else in a world rapidly accelerating toward the technological singularity. Thanks to Gibson’s novel, so does the rest of the science fiction world whenever we dream of cyberspace, asking where the line is between man and machine.
That’s all for this week! Next week will be my last post for the month and I’d like to use it to take a look at William Gibson as a writer, focusing on his struggles, fears, and writing process taken from an interview with a notable science fiction critic back in 1986. Until then I leave you with this question: when does man become machine and machine become man? Let me know in the comments below!