Re: Failure of AI a prediction of Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age"

Michael E. Smith (
Sat, 3 Oct 1998 09:27:05 -0500

Anders Sandberg wrote:
"I wouldn't call that unextropian. After all, extropianism
is about other things than believing in specific technologies."

Actually, I agree with you about it not being "unextropian", which is why I put the word in quotes. However, I have noticed that not all "extropians" are as open-minded as you about some things. If you imply that it is okay for an extropian to believe that AI is impossible, I find that extraordinary and atypical, especially if you follow that belief to its logical conclusions.

Hara Ra wrote:
"Limitation is a necessity in art, otherwise you get random
junk. Think of the limits imposed by Vinge in "A Fire Upon the Deep". Carefully chosen to make the ideas work, utter nonsense in terms of contemporary physics."

and Mark wrote:
"I still haven't read this book yet...",

(I highly recommend it.)

"...but it seems to me that it may well be a prerequisite for
a story of human life in a nanotech society, rather than a prediction. Widespread SI changes so many things that a society like this may be impossible; he could be laboring the point a little to justify not including SIs because he wants to write about a more normal human society, not because he doesn't think they could exist."

Both of these statements seem to imply that Stephenson's reasons for excluding AI from the world of "The Diamond Age" were artistically-neccessary limitations he had to follow to be able to tell his story about nanotechnology. This may be exactly right; only Stephenson could say.

However, the impression I get is somewhat the reverse. That is, it seems to me that nanotech is not really central to the novel's theme, but is just superficial flash. Nanotech is part of the setting for a tale about the continuation of essential truths about human nature, societies, etc. Nanotech exists, but people are still people.

And, Stephenson keeps returning, over and over, to the impossibility of AI.

I include three examples. The first is the conversation that ensues when Hackworth first meets Lord Finkle-McGraw:

<begin excerp>
"I'm an engineer. Just promoted to Bespoke recently. Did some
work on this project, as it happens."

"What sort of work?"

"Oh, P.I. stuff, mostly," Hackworth said. Supposedly
Finkle-McGraw still kept up with things and would recognize the abbreviation for pseudo-intelligence, and perhaps even appreciate that Hackworth had made this assumption.

Finkle-McGraw brightened a bit. "You know, when I was a lad they called it A.I. Artificial intelligence."

Hackworth allowed himself a tight, narrow, and brief smile. "Well, there's something to be said for cheekiness, I suppose."

"In what way was pseudo-intelligence used here?"

"Strictly on MPS's side of the project, sir." Imperial Tectonics had
done the island, building, and vegetation. Machine-Phase System - Hackworth's employer - did anything that moved. "Stereotyped behaviors were fine for the birds, dinosaurs, and so on, but for the centaurs and fauns we wanted more interactivity, something that would provide an illusion of sentience."
<end excerp>

Comment: An illusion of sentience?? These are nanotechnological experts from the most technically-advanced phyle in the world, and off-handedly dismiss the possibility of AI.

A later conversation between Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw goes even farther in indicating the extent of the failure of AI. When explaining to Finkle-McGraw the need to employ humans ("ractors") to supply the voices of the Primer, Hackworth says:

<begin excerp>
"After all of our technology, the pseudo-intelligence algorithms, the
vast exception matrices, the portent and content monitors, and everything else, we still can't come close to generating a human voice that sounds as good as what a real, live ractor can give us." <end excerp>

To which Finkle-McGraw replies:

<begin excerp>
"Can't say that I'm surprised, really."

<end excerp>

Comment: Not surprised? We certainly are! From what one hears nowadays, you'd think this technology is already in beta!

Lastly, a passage which actually uses the dreaded s-word. This passage concerns the conclusions that Princess Nell arrives at after her investigations of all of the bizarre Turing machines she finds in the Land Beyond:

<begin excerp>
Her study of the Ciperers' Market, and particularly of the rule-books used by the cipherers to respond to messages, had taught her that for all its complexity, it too was nothing more than another Turing machine. She had come to the castle of King Coyote to see whether the King answered his messages according to Turing-like rules. For if he did, than the entire system - the entire kingdom - the entire Land Beyond - was nothing more than a vast Turing machine. And as she had established when she'd been locked up in the dungeon at Castle Turing, communicating with the mysterious Duke by sending messages on a chain, a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did.
<end excerp>

Comment: Now who would argue that this in some sense conflicts with extropianism?

Nell goes on to seek out the only sentient part of her Primer, the ractor Miranda who almost single-handedly racted all the parts of her Primer, essentially raising her and becoming her mother. The novel practically comes right out and says that Nell somehow sensed that there was SOMETHING sentient behind her Primer, that it wasn't "just a Turing machine".

I'm sorry about the length of this post. I'm thinking about perhaps writing an essay about this interpretation of the novel, and if I do, I will not post it to this list, but will rather post a URL to it.