Asimov’s I, Robot and Hertling’s The Turing Exception

William Hertling is one of my top five favorite contemporary sci-fi writers. Last night, I finished the beta (pre-copyedited) version of his newest book, The Turing Exception. It’s not out yet, so you can bide you time by reading his three previous books, which will be a quadrilogy when The Turing Exception ships. The books are:

  1. Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears
  2. A.I. Apocalypse
  3. The Last Firewall

William has fun naming his characters – I appear as a minor character early in The Last Firewall – and he doesn’t disappoint with clever easter eggs throughout The Turing Exception, which takes place in the mid-2040s.

I read Asimov’s classic I, Robot in Bora Bora as part of my sci-fi regimen. The book bears no resemblance to the mediocre Will Smith movie of the same name. Written in 1950, Asimov’s main character, Susan Calvin, has just turned 75 after being born in 1982 which puts his projection into the future ending around 2057, a little later than Hertling’s, but in the same general arena.

As I read The Turing Exception, I kept flashing back to bits and pieces of I, Robot. It’s incredible to see where Asimov’s arc went, based in the technology of the 1950s. Hertling has got almost 65 more years of science, technology, innovation, and human creativity on his side, so he gets a lot more that feels right, but it’s still a 30 year projection into the future.

The challenges between the human race and computers (whether machines powered by positronic brains or just pure AIs) are similar, although Asimov’s machines are ruled by his three laws of robotics while Hertling’s AIs behaviors are governed by a complex reputational system. And yes, each of these constructs break, evolve, or are difficult to predict indefinitely.

While reading I, Robot I often felt like I was in a campy, fun, Vonnegut like world until I realized how absolutely amazing it was for Asimov to come up with this stuff in 1950. Near the middle, I lost my detached view of things, where I was observing myself reading and thinking about I, Robot and Asimov, and ended up totally immersed in the second half. After I finished, I went back and reread the intro and the first story and imagined how excited I must have been when I first discovered I, Robot, probably around the age of 10.

While reading The Turing Exception, I just got more and more anxious. The political backdrop is a delicious caricature of our current state of the planet. Hertling spends little time on character background since this is book four and just launches into it. He covers a few years at the beginning very quickly to set up the main action, which, if you’ve read this far, I expect you’ll infer is a massive life and death conflict between humans and AIs. Well – some humans, and some AIs – which define the nature of the conflict that impacts all humans and AIs. Yes, lots of EMPs, nuclear weapons, and nanobots are used in the very short conflict.

Asimov painted a controlled and calm view of the future of the 2040s, on where humans were still solidly in control, even when there is conflict. Hertling deals with reality more harshly since he understands recursion and extrapolates where AIs can quickly go. This got me to thinking about another set of AIs I’ve spent time with recently, which are Dan Simmons AIs from the Hyperion series. Simmons AIs are hanging out in the 2800s so, unlike Hertling’s, which are (mostly) confined to earth, Simmons have traversed the galaxy and actually become the void that binds. I expect that Hertling’s AIs will close the gap a little faster, but the trajectory is similar.

I, Robot reminded me that as brilliant as some are, we have no fucking idea where things are heading. Some of Asimov’s long arcs landed in the general neighborhood, but much of it missed. Hertling’s arcs aren’t as long and we’ll have no idea how accurate they were until we get to 2045. Regardless, each book provides incredible food for thought about how humanity is evolving alongside our potentially future computer overlords.

William – well done on #4! And Cat totally rules, but you knew that.