Asimov’s I, Robot and Hertling’s The Turing Exception

William Hertling is one of my top five favorite contemporary sci-fi writers. Last night, I finished the beta (pre-copyedited) version of his newest book, The Turing Exception. It’s not out yet, so you can bide you time by reading his three previous books, which will be a quadrilogy when The Turing Exception ships. The books are:

  1. Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears
  2. A.I. Apocalypse
  3. The Last Firewall

William has fun naming his characters – I appear as a minor character early in The Last Firewall – and he doesn’t disappoint with clever easter eggs throughout The Turing Exception, which takes place in the mid-2040s.

I read Asimov’s classic I, Robot in Bora Bora as part of my sci-fi regimen. The book bears no resemblance to the mediocre Will Smith movie of the same name. Written in 1950, Asimov’s main character, Susan Calvin, has just turned 75 after being born in 1982 which puts his projection into the future ending around 2057, a little later than Hertling’s, but in the same general arena.

As I read The Turing Exception, I kept flashing back to bits and pieces of I, Robot. It’s incredible to see where Asimov’s arc went, based in the technology of the 1950s. Hertling has got almost 65 more years of science, technology, innovation, and human creativity on his side, so he gets a lot more that feels right, but it’s still a 30 year projection into the future.

The challenges between the human race and computers (whether machines powered by positronic brains or just pure AIs) are similar, although Asimov’s machines are ruled by his three laws of robotics while Hertling’s AIs behaviors are governed by a complex reputational system. And yes, each of these constructs break, evolve, or are difficult to predict indefinitely.

While reading I, Robot I often felt like I was in a campy, fun, Vonnegut like world until I realized how absolutely amazing it was for Asimov to come up with this stuff in 1950. Near the middle, I lost my detached view of things, where I was observing myself reading and thinking about I, Robot and Asimov, and ended up totally immersed in the second half. After I finished, I went back and reread the intro and the first story and imagined how excited I must have been when I first discovered I, Robot, probably around the age of 10.

While reading The Turing Exception, I just got more and more anxious. The political backdrop is a delicious caricature of our current state of the planet. Hertling spends little time on character background since this is book four and just launches into it. He covers a few years at the beginning very quickly to set up the main action, which, if you’ve read this far, I expect you’ll infer is a massive life and death conflict between humans and AIs. Well – some humans, and some AIs – which define the nature of the conflict that impacts all humans and AIs. Yes, lots of EMPs, nuclear weapons, and nanobots are used in the very short conflict.

Asimov painted a controlled and calm view of the future of the 2040s, on where humans were still solidly in control, even when there is conflict. Hertling deals with reality more harshly since he understands recursion and extrapolates where AIs can quickly go. This got me to thinking about another set of AIs I’ve spent time with recently, which are Dan Simmons AIs from the Hyperion series. Simmons AIs are hanging out in the 2800s so, unlike Hertling’s, which are (mostly) confined to earth, Simmons have traversed the galaxy and actually become the void that binds. I expect that Hertling’s AIs will close the gap a little faster, but the trajectory is similar.

I, Robot reminded me that as brilliant as some are, we have no fucking idea where things are heading. Some of Asimov’s long arcs landed in the general neighborhood, but much of it missed. Hertling’s arcs aren’t as long and we’ll have no idea how accurate they were until we get to 2045. Regardless, each book provides incredible food for thought about how humanity is evolving alongside our potentially future computer overlords.

William – well done on #4! And Cat totally rules, but you knew that.

  • I just finished the first book in the Foundation series from Asimov and thought it was incredible. Once I finish the series, I’ll have to get some of the books you mentioned. I, Robot sounds especially interesting considering the progress being made in that field.

    • I read all three of the original Foundation trilogy one summer at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, Texas. I remember trying to skip out of all the events and activities I didn’t want to do in order to lie in my bunk and devour it. I was around age 10. Between 10 and 13 I probably read all the classic sci-fi books – I just couldn’t get enough.

      • Definitely in the same boat (minus the age!). I read the first in 2 sittings and couldn’t believe what I’ve been missing out on.

        I found the whole series for really cheap down at the Harvard book store so I’m going to have to go back and see what other classics I can scoop up.

    • A fun read.

      • williamhertling

        I loved the Dune series as a teen. I haven’t reread them recently. Do they hold up?

        • Definitely. Although I would stick to the ones actually written by the original author.

  • The stories (Myths) as art form are there to inspire science. Art’s objectivity holds in the mind, but science’s objectivity has to hold in cosmos! As you said the provoked thought will seek to realize the science of the future.

    • Can’t agree with this, if I am understanding your point correctly.

      Myths and stories are prescientific attempts to interpret the world. There is little objectivity in art (fortunately) and if anything there needs to be still less. Astute observers of the human condition haven’t advanced much since Shakespeare. So the information density of science is enormously richer than that of fiction today. I don’t know what a ‘provoked thought’ is but I doubt that fiction inspires much scientific progress.

      • Myths stir the imagination. All experience is internalized and registered as symbols of the mind. In other words we make meaning out of experience and that meaning is always objective to us.
        The objectivity of art-forms is super natural and prismatic. All art forms are objective because now they exist. Universities are called a place of Arts and Sciences, therefore by definition it is objective.
        The process of art is personal experience and imagination and the process of science is history and experiment. These are the 0’s and 1’s of reality.
        Jules Verne is a great example of a science fiction writer whose art lead to science.
        All science needs art as a precursor. Architects, industrial designers create art that is then using science realized!
        I had the privilege of studying with an astute observer of human condition for over a decade. Only because they are not known, doesn’t mean they don’t exist! –

        • OK. We completely disagree. And this is where: “All science needs art as a precursor.’

          In the past this may have been true because a good deal of scientific explanation was suggested by metaphors that were indeed drawn from real world experience, whether that experience had been mediated by art or not. But that is no longer true. We are now living in a time in which scientists are operating in worlds in which the reality has no metaphors in everyday life and in which the reality is literally unimaginable. Scientists have to gradually reprogram their minds, a step at a time, to accept the bizarre reality that forces itself upon them. A ready example is the strange world of the quantum which has no parallels at the scale at which people operate, and that of course includes artists. Artists, in consequence did not anticipate the bizarre reality that we were forced to face at quantum scale. Even scientists who confronted the quantum found it so alien that many at first refused to accept it. The world of the quantum however is but one example. As science continues to probe ever more deeply into reality at all scales we are discovering that reality is far stranger than our tiny everyday perspective could ever imagine. It is far far more varied, beautiful and bizarre than any artist could anticipate. The reason scientists are able to probe reality in this way to uncover the unimaginable is superior tools. The tools of science have advanced at a breakneck pace. The tools of artists have not.
          Art has its place, but it has not been leading the scientific imagination for decades.

          • I think we are just speaking a slightly different language. Let’s consider this:

            The definition of art says: The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colours,forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty…

            The definition of Science says: A particular discipline or branch of learning, especially one dealing with measurable or systematic principles rather than intuition or natural ability..

            A scientist derives at their conclusion through experiments, but prior to the experiments they need the conscious arrangement coming out of a vision.

            Scientist need to approach their research with an open mind, with the understanding that reality is a complete mystery. Their attempt is to observe the mystery of nature and fish out repeatable and measurable principles in order to enhance the human endeavor in understanding its reality .

            Our reality is made up of mystery: things that are not explainable and existentials: Things that can be measured and understood. These two are complements and occur together. Lau Tze says that of what can be said pairedness (2) is the deepest level and beyond that nobody knows.

            Zero represents openness and mystery of nature and one (1) is the objectivity of existential that always has a paired form (plus and minus). We use the same principle to make computers!

            We are continuously striving to progress by visioning and experimenting to create new forms and enhance our understanding of our mystery.

          • I don’t understand some of this. It sounds like some form of obscure mysticism to me. But if it works for you…good on you 🙂

          • Its not obscure, but requires contemplation 🙂

  • I feel bad for the director of ‘I Robot’, Alex Proyas.
    This Australian director had previously made the groundbreaking ‘Dark City’ to which ‘The Matrix’ owes a huge unacknowledged debt. Check it out.

  • alimoeeny

    I read quite a bit of Asimov as a kid and I loved most of it (remember Caves of steel which I’ve read a couple of times, both in English and the Farsi translation). But I find it hard to read them know, specially iRobot feels out of date (I’ve never got passed the first few chapters).
    I personally find Hyperion’s view of AI, more on the money.

  • Rick

    BTW… I called your publishing company but they haven’t called back.

    • What did you call them about? Why not just send an email.

      • Rick

        You asked about reading my book. I thought you were wondering about publishing it. So I called to find out what “We treat authors like partners…” means etc.
        I don’t use email. You know that. That’s why I stopped emailing you. I don’t dislike you. I just don’t use email now. I get more actual work done without email.

        • Then FG Press won’t be a good partner for you as they are very deeply email centric.

          • Rick

            Right. I figured out they aren’t author centered they are technology centered. That’s cool. Some of the new technology is fun. I was just letting you know. Just in case there was some kind of communications issues.
            No biggie! Most people do the email thing so you’ll be good to go. I like it when people take the time to go the extra mile to build great relationships with other people. As I’ve said before building a relationship with my computer is not for me!
            BTW… You said you’ve been lifting weights. How much you benching?

          • I haven’t touched a bench press. Just using machines. Still very small numbers.

          • Rick

            I’m just starting back from a long layoff. Here is something to keep in mind. If you build up to heavy weights on machines don’t convert that 1:1 directly to free weights. That’s a good way to get an injury. When you move to free weights, which are superior for progress, start out with poundages much lower than what you used on the machines.

  • Love the Asimov/Hertling comparison. Can’t wait to get my hands on The Turing Exception.

  • DL Thomas

    I just read Asimov’s Naked Sun yesterday and was again amazed at his ability to project the future for example how sexting might be acceptable to a society that differentiated digital “viewing” from in person “seeing” but missing instant network connectivity, search technology and the persistence of “book-films” …a remarkable intellect and futurist

    • I’ve never read Naked Sun. Just added it to my list!

      • Tilie

        me too

      • williamhertling

        Me, too.