My family and I just completed our annual pre-Christmas pilgrimage to ski and snowboard in Colorado. For the ride we listened to “We Are Legion, We Are Bob” by Dennis E. Taylor. (In addition to being a programmer and author, Mr. Taylor himself is a fellow snowboarder.) “We are Legion…” is the story of Bob Johansson, an entrepreneur software developer who in the process of setting up for his future, on the eve of selling his company, signs up for cryonic freezing in the event of his death. Bob is subsequently killed by a car and wakes up as a “replicant” AI 117 years into a dystopian world on the brink of mutually assured destruction. Bob is given the task of becoming a self-replicating, interstellar probe to claim habitable planets in an international space race. If you are looking for something to do with that Christmas Amazon gift card or have a trip coming up I would highly encourage you to download this from Audible. “We are Legion…” is a fun and fantastic narration that was addictive not just for me, but my entire family. Beyond the story of space exploration and irreverent humor that was so captivating to my kids, at its core are some interesting visions of artificial intelligence (AI) and questions of what it means for an entity to be alive.
In Chapter 10 of “We Are Legion…”, Bob is restored from backup after an incident of sabotage. He briefly considers the questions: am I conscious, am I alive, and am I still Bob? Bob considers the Turing test, the notion of the Chinese room, and philosophy. He concludes that he is all three noting that there is no internal dialog in the Chinese room, no processing while idle and not responding to stimuli. The notion is that doubt, self-awareness, and concern for the future are fundamental to be a conscious living entity and that being carbon based “meat” as a requirement to being alive was biased. Repeatedly the book points out that fire exhibits most of the characteristics of what can be considered life. The most interesting commentary about this comes in Chapter 16, where the point is posited “life is about information”. Fire does not retain information, nor does it learn or adapt. The book is science fiction and not deep philosophically, but the periodic internal monologues about Bob’s existence, sentience, and personality were fun and endearing. Let’s face it, you had me at “Turing tests”.
One of the interesting distinctions the book makes is between AI created from the mind of an individual, the replicant, and an artificial machine intelligence (AMI). The initial explanation as to why replicants, while still feared and with only a 20% success rate, are given complex responsibilities while AMIs are used for more mundane and menial tasks is explained in a Skynet-like trope: a pest control AMI went rogue in a mall interpreting the people as another infestation. This just seems to lend itself to the stereotypical fear of AI. It begs the question who has a historically poorer moralistic track record, man or machine? This point is even underlined in the book when an antagonist replicant probe attempts generating an extinction level event rather than capitulate. Again, I recognize all this is fiction, but a much better and more interesting explanatory question comes later in the book: How do you create a machine AI complex enough to be capable of handling all possible situations and encounters? The real question is how complex do we think we can we get with the situational awareness in machine learning?
There is an interesting theoretical corollary that seems to be suggested in “We Are Legion…” related to this complexity in generating a sentient AI. Is it possible to replicate an entity that complex identically? Even though through the course of the book Bob is restored at least twice from backup, and is initially moved from room to room in what can be described as analogous to a Virtual Machine or container, the book seems to suggest the notion that in replication variations would inherently occur. Essentially creating minor behavioral and personality differences in each successive version even prior to experiential differences that would affect personality. The variations in the Bobs even leads a restored prime Bob to question was he really the original Bob, or a variation of himself? How dissimilar was he to the human Bob?
One quote unrelated to AI that I found amusing was an observation made by Bob of the computer room where his AI was initially housed. “Apparently, rack mounting was still the most efficient method of organizing computing even with 100 years to improve things.” Speaking as a hyper converged infrastructure specialist I say “Amen, Brother!”, so long as those systems are leveraging resources through virtualization and software defined storage, “Amen!” What can I say, I am shameless.
“We Are Legion, We Are Bob” is funny, interesting, and addictive. I highly recommend it. So much so, I’ve now been thrown into a quandary. I had planned to move on to Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dick’s Do Androids Dream… (while simultaneously trying to work through Clash of Kings, Python for Kids, and Think Python). Now I may very well have to jump book two – “For We Are Many” – up in my queue. Don’t you wish you could just increase your frame rate and consume knowledge? Learn like a Bob.