Jan 22, 2020

In William Gibson’s new novel, AI is actually the good guy

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"Agency" flips a sci-fi cliche on its head. "Why not?" the author says.

This week, Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai argued that we need to regulate artificial intelligence and also suggested a temporary ban on facial recognition technology. Microsoft President Brad Smith, speaking at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, also said we need to create ethical guidelines and rules for how AI should be used.  

In a new novel out this week by legendary sci-fi author William Gibson, the tech is good enough to decide for itself. The book is called “Agency,” and it’s a sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel “The Peripheral.” In that book a super technologically advanced future society can create new alternate histories called stubs for fun or influence the timeline leading to their own present.  

Both books are about control over your own destiny, and in “Agency,” that applies even if you’re not human. The character Eunice is an advanced AI that exists in our present, created by a San Francisco tech firm. I spoke with William Gibson and asked him how much of that tech might actually exist. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

William Gibson: I don’t know how close we are to that artificial intelligence, I just try to posit a naturalistic version of what that might be like if we had it and how we might react to it. I’ve been doing that one way or another since 1981, I think.

Molly Wood: One other hopeful element of this is that although there are a lot of nightmare scenarios for artificial intelligence and bots and virtual assistants, the one that you’ve invented assumes her own agency and essentially is, at least in my reading so far, an agent for good maybe despite her designer’s original intent. What made you decide that an intelligence like this, should it become self- aware, would choose to act for humanity?

Gibson: For me, it was more a matter of why not? The opposite scenario is cliched. We’re used to it becoming Skynet. We’re not used to it becoming the good guy. Actually, there is some thought that the hot stuff will be hybrid human AI — that’ll be the really smart one, because it will be able to understand us.

Wood: When you look at it that way, there’s a great deal of empathy in this book: If you can understand the challenges of humanity, in a human way, you’ll want the best for it.

Gibson: Yes, I think that’s there just because taking the temperature of the zeitgeist, it seemed to me that that was an ingredient that we could do with a lot more of.

Wood: There are a lot of threads in this book, in some ways. Some of it’s pretty straightforward, but there’s also just a lot going on — really cool drone tech, and Boston Dynamics, and artificial intelligence, and alternate timelines. What do you want people to take away from this?

Gibson: At this point, I haven’t yet discovered what it is. There may be something there. You mentioned empathy before. There may be something there about the importance of empathy. I seem to be trying to tell myself something with the title and that the characters keep using agency in that sense that we so seldom use it. We’re all perhaps feeling a relative lack of personal agency at this point. I was very influenced by that part of E. M. Forster’s aspects of the novel, in which he argued that a novelist who is in control of her characters isn’t really doing the work.

Wood: I know you’re about to tour with this book and possibly in the process discover what it’s about to you, but what is next for you? Anything else we should know about?

Gibson: One thing that’s looming for me is that there’s an Amazon series based on “The Peripheral,” that has been greenlit. That’s going to be strange for me, because those things are open ended. I don’t know if the series will ever get to “Agency,” but now I’m thinking I don’t want to find myself in position my friend George R. R. Martin found himself in of not being able to write the closing book because there was too much going on on streaming television. I feel it’ll be a fun experience, and I really like the people.

Wood: In theory, you have created a universe in which there are potentially infinite numbers of seasons.

Gibson: That’s true. That was one of the reasons that caused me initially to be very reluctant to go to a multi-universe structure. I’ve done everything I could in that text to both books to limit that and not go full 40 volume multiverse, which is a thing. I think there’ll be one more and that will be it, and then I’ll try to figure out what science fiction would look like in the 20s, our new 20s coming up.

Wood: How involved will you be with that series as it goes forward? Will you write episodes?

Gibson: I don’t think so. It’s not my forte, the screenplay. I know from experience. But I’ll be in touch with its creators. I find the best way to think of it is its own stub of “The Peripheral.” The show is like an alternate universe of it. It won’t and shouldn’t be exactly what the book is. I’m curious to see what that becomes.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Here’s some reading about that Amazon Prime series, which I was worried about for a minute. Gibson’s style is so specific, minimalist and stylized, but then I found out that it’s going to be produced by the creators of “Westworld,” and I agree with their look. This is gonna be fine. 

And here is more reading about Alphabet and Microsoft’s positions on AI and facial recognition. The European Union is actually considering a five-year ban on facial recognition. Google won’t currently sell it to customers over fears of misuse or mass surveillance. Microsoft does develop and sell facial recognition software, as does Amazon. Brad Smith said that the EU’s complete ban might be overkill, and while he thinks tech companies should be transparent about how their tech works, future regulations should be done with a scalpel and not “a meat cleaver.”

I should note that facial recognition tech is used liberally, often via remote-controlled drone throughout Gibson’s new novel. And it is, like almost everything he writes, just as awesome as it is terrifying.

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