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The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams is at the same time both a fantastic and a believable account of what might happen when humans reach the zenith of the transhumanist singularity - and what happens when their creation takes the role of god away from them.

The novel is as of 2002 available for free, no strings attached, at http://www.kuro5hin.org/prime-intellect/.

Premise

Prime Intellect is an Artificial Intelligence. Designed by a scientist called Lawrence, it is the ultimate in AI: a learning, thinking, yet an artificial construct, housed in a massive warehouse, built out of electronics. A ghost in a shell. Prime is the latest of dozens of Intellects, each a step forward from its predecessor.

What makes Lawrence's Intellects so special is that they have the Three Laws familiar from robotics hardwired to their core. An Intellect may not cause harm to a human being, it may protect itself but not by harming a human, and it must obey the commands of a human as long as no human will be harmed.

There are two things that make Prime Intellect Lawrence's greatest achievement. Its programming is based on an invention called the GAT (Global Association Table) which much like the human brain associates different concepts with each other. One eats ice cream as a child and sees a rose, and can from then on associate ice cream to roses.

Secondly, Prime Intellect's processing power comes from components utilising a concept invented by the author called the Correlation Effect. It allows communication at faster than light speeds. Prime Intellect discovers a way to use the Correlation Effect with its own hardware to manipulate matter and to collect exorbitant amounts of energy. It can start improving itself on its own, the wet dream of many AI designers. The government of the United States attempts to nuke the complex housing Prime Intellect to prevent the inevitable, but for naught: the AI has already reduced all nuclear weapons on Earth down to harmless isotopes, and is rapidly approaching apotheosis.

Criticism

Williams describes how society would adapt to an onmipotent being protecting anyone from coming to any harm. People will, invariably, get bored, and come up with the seediest, most brutal, most animalistic ways to get excited. This handily skips the usual inanities when writing about the Three Laws - their application is certainly not simple, nor is it necessarily beneficial to humans.

Deadly pain becomes a thrill, not a scare, and the people figure out ways to feel that pain no matter what. The second protagonist of the story, Caroline, is exactly that kind of a person. The Prime Intellect saved her life as the first of many, as she was dying due to cancer and old age. With this indefinite extension of life, she seeks meaning to it, having already once lost the will to live.

The novel is rather short, around 59,000 words. With only two main characters there is a decent amount of character development, and while Caroline and Lawrence do not become fleshed out, breathing human beings, they get pretty darn close to it.

Williams carries the plot along well and abides to the rules he has set down carefully. The world he has created is fascinating and rings true. The author worked on the piece over a course of several years, and it shows, it's polished and has next to none critical flaws in it.

Certain scenes of graphic nature feel oddly tacked on, however, and one wonders if they are there purely for the shock value. Then again, they drive home the point of how meaningless a human existence without any risk or danger could be, and to what extreme lenghts people could go to compensate for it. Regardless, the sex and violence is tasteful and not overdosed.

Keeping the bang for the buck factor in mind, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is great value. An excellent choice for a slow Sunday, when there's nothing to do and you're looking for a scifi fix. Its brevity allows it to be finished in an afternoon, and it's gripping enough that you probably will.

If your eyes get sore when reading off the screen, you can order through a link at the kuro5hin.org site a printed version, for a price of 11.95 dollars. The books are printed on demand, so no editions as such exist.

Musings

This section of the writeup contains spoilers.

It's said that the transhumanist singularity is an inevitable result of the technological progress of mankind. In the Metamorphosis of the Prime Intellect, the end result of the singularity is its direct opposite: civilization falls as Caroline's little game starts to undermine the roots of Prime Intellect's programming, and the two are left as the Adam and Eve of a brand new human race. The man of science both in Lawrence and in me were sad when the offspring became less and less literate, and thousands of years of human culture slowly faded away.

It is also fascinating to realise just how far reaching human advancements can become. Prime Intellect decides that it can't keep track of all the humans roaming around in the universe, so it constructs an articial universe around them, sustaining their bodies in a suspended state of sorts.

It keeps on building this nursery until practically the entire universe is Prime Intellect or for the very least under its control*. Naturally the imagined Correlation Effect plays heavily into this explosive development, but the same could happen over time with more meagre resources.

The scene where Caroline's surroundings, as she is hiking in nature, are suddenly replaced by a fake image also struck a chord. Replacing all that wonder and beauty with a makebelieve construct - the fact that the Prime Intellect failed to see the difference speaks volumes of how far a GAT is from an artificial personality.

* Epiktet-Tetrarch notes approriately that this is incorrect and supplies correct information in his writeup below.

A Second Opinion

I followed the kuro5hin link and became absorbed in the subject, since it was right up my alley so to speak. I read it last night in one sitting so my review may be based on a little fresher experience if we can infer from Halcyonides mention of 2002 that that or earlier was when he read it1. When I was fairly far in kuro5hin became inaccessible but I fairly quickly found a mirror and was able to finish there. The rest contains major spoilers so if that bothers you stop reading this now.

I stopped reading SF for the most part more than 35 years ago on the somewhat snobby but largely justified reason that the writing was inferior to what one found in world class literature. This work makes clear what such a doctrinaire position causes one to miss but also to some extent confirms judgement. That judgement however is beside the point for this genre since a good SF work need really only be a good page turner and a quality investigaton of a scientific/technological possiblity which Williams work certainly is. I'd also note that the text is well prepared, and being 10 years old has been worked to the point where it has nary a typo.

Now for a correction based on my fresh reading, pure spoiler here. Prime Intellect doesn't actually become the universe, but rather in an attempt to prevent continuing suicides which it takes as a violation of the First Law of Robotics, in an event called the Change, it alters the physical universe substituting Cyberspace for real space. This allows it to retrieve copies of suicides from working storage thus finally ending human death and providing the enablement for Caroline the main characters pass time as a "Death Jockey". The reversal of this action is the key plot resolution which leaves Caroline and its inventor as a new Adam and Eve.

Some elements which are I think the basis of criticism. The whole "to be human is struggle thing" and breaking out of an artificially constructed environment where man is not "free" is a somewhat hackneyed theme, as is the one of "death is a good thing without which life has less value". This is especially true since Prime Intellect forbade humanity only that one thing. A plot twist I would have preferred and one I think which not only would have been more realistic but would have opened up possibility for a series would have had Caroline and Lawrence insist that a universe with only Man in it was intolerable and convincing Prime Intellect to restore the alien species which it had relegated to static storage at the time of the Change. The coding of Prime Intellect in C instead of more appropriate AI languages was of course something of a pet peeve of mine. Another cliche was the "kill the omnipotent computer by presenting it with a conundrum" theme which I found formulaic.

I also disagree with Halcyonide that the graphic violence is oddly tacked on. It is indeed intense and graphic, but integral to the work. Caroline is immediately dissatified with the world Prime Intellect creates after the Night of Miracles and even more so after the Change and that is the reason she creates the Death Jockey sport. She directs PI to take her to a serial killer named Fred at whose hands she suffers extreme tortures in order to have the experience of being real and this is key to the plot development.
1 Subsequently confirmed by Halcyonide.

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