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

Michael E. Smith (
Thu, 1 Oct 1998 20:11:34 -0500

I recently re-read Neal Stephenson's novel "The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer", and this time I really noticed elements of the novel which I had glossed over the first time.

I know that the novel has been mentioned favorably on this list before, but has anyone else noticed how "UNextropian" the novel is? I'm referring to the novel's apparent prediction of the failure of artificial intelligence. As I've re-read certain passages, it doesn't seem like an oversight to me; it appears to be a central theme of the novel.

I could quote many passages in the novel which indicate that in the fictional future of the novel, the following is true:

(1) Even by the late 21st century, and even with the benefits of nanotechnology, computer science will have failed to produce cybernetic systems that are truly intelligent in the same sense that humans are,

(2) The standard opinion among scientists at that time will have become that it is impossible to produce true intelligence through cybernetic means, and the term "artificial intelligence" (implying actual intelligence produced through artificial means) will be replaced with the term "pseudo-intelligence" (meaning "mock intelligence" or "fake intelligence"), and,

(3) Given enough time, even children will be able to distinguish the best pseudo-intelligence systems from real intelligence (that is, even the best pseudo-intelligence systems will fail the Turing test.)

I find it fascinating that this aspect of the novel could have escaped attention for so long. Once you notice it, you notice that it is a theme running through the whole novel.