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We Think, Therefore We Are by Peter Crowther, editor

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Mechanical people are as old as storytelling, but their earliest manifestations are more magical than scientific in nature. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century did science fiction writers begin to imagine robots built upon mechanical principles of science and technology. Yet as Paul McAuley notes in his Introduction, even into the 1950's writers still made no real connection between robots and the growing science of cybernetics. Computers were still abstract numerical devices, while robot brains were regarded as some kind of technological reproduction of the human brain. Furthermore, robots were almost invariably portrayed as humanoids.

He has omitted a few exceptions -- for instance the factory robots in H Beam Piper's Junkyard Planet, which proved surprisingly prescient of the actual development of robots in industrial applications. But the first popular image of a non-humanoid robot communicating with a purely electronic language and networking with a space station's computer systems was R2-D2 in the 1977 movie Star Wars. And by that point Primary World robotics was already developing with the PUMA robotic arm and similar devices on assembly lines. As Moore's Law has led to the steady increase in power and shrinking prices of microprocessors and microcontrollers, robots have become capable of a wide range of complex activities. However, true artificial intelligence has eluded easy development, and most apparent AI is actually an expert system.

Still, the concept of the self-aware mechanical entity continues to possess a powerful attraction on the minds of science fiction writers. Sometimes it's a straight-up extrapolation of the technology and its social and ethical implications, but in the hands of other writers it becomes a meditation on the Other, and particularly how we are willing to define groups as objectionable in ways that allow us to benefit from their labors without having to welcome them to the table as equals.

In "Tempest 43" Stephen Baxter manages to combine the two. In the Heroic Age humanity sought technological solutions to its problems, including the creation of artificial intelligences to handle processes and situations too complex for ordinary computers. But in the subsequent social upheavals the creators of those AI's were banished to tend the orbiting weather stations while ordinary humanity has turned its back on space and pursues quiet lives in narrower horizons. All has gone well, and the Earth enjoys peace and prosperity.

At least until a hurricane slips through the system of weather control satellites to wreak havoc on the Florida coast. Now a team of investigators must ride an ancient spacecraft from a long idle spaceport to visit the erring satellite and determine what went wrong. There they discover the bitter fruits of both those daring experiments and the banishments which often punished children for wrong-being instead of parents for wrong-doing.

Brian Stableford's "The Highway Code" is the story of Tom Haste, an artificially intelligent long-range road hauler. The titular Code is easily recognizable as a narrower form of Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics, adapted for a road vehicle. And Tom's proud to live by it and traumatized by even accidental breaches of it. And then comes the day when he has to break the Highway Code in order to keep it. In the end it's a wonderful meditation on the nature of Law and of self-sacrifice.

In "Salvage Rites" Eric Brown gives us a darker look at artificial intelligence as siren call. Ages ago a cloister of monks took a starship to investigate a distant world from which came signals promising mechanical transcendence. Now they have returned at last, claiming to have encountered the Ultimate. But what the protagonists find within is a nightmare so terrible as to beggar the imagination. Some Hells may masquerade as Heaven for the unwary.

James Lovegrove's "The Kamikaze Code" is the story of several writers who are involved in a super-secret project somewhere in England. Although they're happy to have such a good market for their short stories, they're curious about what those stories are being used for. It turns out to be a mind-killing AI reminiscent of David Langford's Basilisk stories or the old Monty Python sketch about the killer joke. However, this story ends with a poignant act of self-sacrifice by the two principals.

In "Adam Robots" author Adam Roberts offers not only a play upon his name, but also a playful retelling of the Adam and Eve story that actually works as a story. What constitutes a good robot, and by what means do we discover it? Might robots be susceptible to their own Fall, and what form would it take?

Tony Ballantyne's "Seeds" is the story of a man obsessed with the regreening of the Earth, to the point he risks criminal charges to scatter his seed balls around the countryside. But he has dreams to big to be confined to his narrow little job, dreams that require the assistance of an AI -- but how can a man of his limited means acquire one, when the corporate interests have them all locked up?

His solution is to put out an advertisement for an AI seed on the fora frequented by AI's. It works and he's soon raising an AI from a seed of code. An AI with whom he has a strange quasi-paternal relationship, all the while maintaining his obsession with growth, with living greenery in an increasingly cold, sterile world. An obsession which has the power to destroy him, or to create transcendental beauty in the hidden places of another world.

Steven Utley's "Lost Places of the Earth" takes us into deep time with an AI that can use quantum probing to reconstruct the most ancient form of the Earth's continents. However, it seems to have an agenda of its own.

In "The Chinese Room" Marly Voumans gives us a take on the old argument against AI, the room where a person who doesn't know Chinese uses a system of rules to translate Chinese characters into English. Except people aren't machines, and even a person who's been raised almost entirely within the Chinese Room, cut off from chance exposure to information that could invalidate the experiment, will still have feelings of curiosity that can produce results very different from what the experimenter intended. Yet another proof of the notion that you can't constrain a living system.

Robert Reed's "Three Princesses" takes us to a theme park reminiscent of Disneyland where young girls can meet with a beautiful princess who is in fact an artificial construct, the product of intricate AI simulation combined with an artificially grown body. It's a happy escape for people in their crapsack world, which seems to be the present's terrorism and environmental woes dialed up to 11. But there's also hints of experiments in cyber-immortality -- the very sort of thing that's apt to set off fanatics who believe that violence is the proper response to that which offends their sensibilities.

In "The New Cyberiad" Paul di Filippo gives us a darkly humorous tale of Trurl and Klapaucius, two rather inept spacefarers battling time parasites known as Chronovores. In the process they plunder deep time, disassembling the future of the solar system in hopes of repairing their present.

Patrick O'Leary's "That Laugh" is the story of an interview with an entity that may be a human being or some kind of artificial creation. The references to the War on Terror gives it an immediacy that's particularly chilling.

In "Alles in Ordnung" Garry Kilworth gives us a story of a farm that's a little too neat, a little too regular. Might the new owners be something Other, some alien entities of a somewhat artificial nature infiltrating humanity for its own unknown purposes?

Keith Brooke's "Sweats" takes us to a cyberpunk world where people can rent their bodies out to people who want to experience things impossible in their own bodies. However, it seems that someone is abusing this system, borrowing other peoples bodies to carry out murders, the leaving the unwitting sweats holding the bag for crimes done by their bodies but not willed by them. Except there's evidence the entity that was driving those bodies is in fact an artificial composite, built from bits and fragments of minds all over the world. The protagonist is now facing criminal charges because his mind was used as a major part of this system, and as a result he matches the profile of this ghost in the machine. It's an interesting look at the legal ramifications of artificial intelligence in a world where legal personhood is still tied to physical embodiment.

In "Some Fast Thinking Required" Ian Watson takes us to the far future, where a person can clone their mind as an artificial entity in a computer in order to explore dangerous environments, in this case a black hole. However, they are up against an even more interesting intelligence known as a Matrioshka, for the Russian nesting dolls their structure resembles. These entities are so many orders of magnitude beyond humans as to be effectively incomprehensible. And this one seems to be set up to complete some system of calculations in the process of its own destruction.

The final story, "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea," by Chris Roberson, takes us to an alternate world where China became paramount, spreading Confucian teaching and classics throughout the world and ultimately the Solar System. Now a treasure fleet is speeding on its way to the stars, but its flagship is in trouble. One of its critical AI's has gone mad, responding in riddles. The protagonist must debug it and restore its function, a process that requires sorting through ancient historical commentaries.

The volume is concluded with biographies of the contributing authors. On the whole it's a fascinating volume.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Paul McAuley
  • "Tempest 43" by Stephen Baxter
  • "The Highway Code" by Brian Stableford
  • "Salvage Rites" by Eric Brown
  • "The Kamikaze Code" by James Lovegrove
  • "Adam Robots" by Adam Roberts
  • "Seeds" by Tony Ballantyne
  • "Lost Places of the Earth" by Steven Utley
  • "The Chinese Room" by Marly Youmans
  • "Three Princesses" by Robert Reed
  • "The New Cyberiad" by Paul Di Filippo
  • "That Laugh" by Patrick O'Leary
  • "Alles in Ordnung" by Garry Kilworth
  • "Sweats" by Keith Brooke
  • "Some Fast Thinking Needed" by Ian Watson
  • "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea" by Chris Roberson

Review posted July 24, 2012

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