OK, now I’m a solid Robert J. Sawyer fan. I started with his trilogy with Neanderthals, and now here I am with the waking to consciousness of the world wide web. Nothing, absolutely nothing like HAL 9000.
This is not the first time we’ve had stories of artificial intelligence that becomes self-aware — a prerequisite to being considered intelligent, in my opinion. But this is the first I’ve read that is completely believable, plausible, and perhaps even inevitable. Also profoundly appealing.
The trigger is Caitlin, a young blind woman who has a pretty rare form of blindness which is caused by scrambled messages to her brain rather than any defect in her eyes except, it turns out, myopia. A Japanese neurobiologist and computer designer figure a way for her signals to be set right, using a device she immediately dubs her eyePod. The signals depend on software that resides on the web (or is it in the cloud? I’m no nerd about this), and so the gestating self-awareness of the Web is awakened by the interaction. Of course it’s a great deal more complicated than that, but the net effect (Oh, cute pun there) is that this bright young teenager is the Web’s first teacher. She’s the first to get the fact that the web has become self-aware, but keeps it to herself. It’s not simple selfishness, although there is an element of that. More to the point, the Japanese scientist has given plenty of evidence that anything he discovers is going to find commercial application in no time at all, and Caitlin fears she would lose not only the contact with “the phantom” but all control over its development, as well.
The human characters are so very human, with all the good and bad that implies, but the Webmind, as it is eventually dubbed, seems eager to become as human-like as possible. Peeking ahead to the one-page preview of the next book (www:watch), I find myself rooting for him. Her? It?
Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.