2:00 pm EST, January 17, 2018

‘Thunderhead’ author Neal Shusterman discusses the future of artificial intelligence

Will artificial intelligence save us or destroy us? Shusterman, author of the Arc of a Scythe series, guest writes for Hypable and poses that very question.

About ‘Thunderhead’ (Arc of a Scythe Book 2)

The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe — it does not like what it sees.

A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent.

As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.

Will the Thunderhead intervene?

Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?

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Thunderhead on the Horizon by Neal Shusterman

I’ve been long fascinated by the idea of the “singularity.” Not the center of a black hole, but the moment when, mathematically, computing power becomes infinite, or at least so close to infinite that it might as well be. That’s supposed to happen around the year 2042, if you follow the parabolic arc of computing power.

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In theory, that is the year that we merge with our technology. What is that going to look like? The one thing scientists who believe in the singularity seem to agree on is that it’s impossible for us to comprehend. Like the way someone before the electrical age couldn’t comprehend an iPhone.

Cautionary tales abound about the evils of computers taking over the world. In The Matrix, we’re submerged into an artificial reality, while our bodies are used as batteries to power the machines. In AI, we ultimately become extinct and are replaced by our impossibly advanced creations. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal systematically kills off the crew to protect itself. In the Terminator movies, the machines are hell-bent on killing off humanity. Then there’s Transcendence, in which Johnny Depp is a scientist who imprints his consciousness on a supercomputer, thereby bringing the Internet to life. He can bring back the dead, he’s benevolent, wise, and everything we hope an artificial intelligence would be… and yet we destroy him anyway, out of the fear of what he could become.

In short, it seems there has been few narratives about artificial intelligence in which it turns out to be a positive thing. That’s because we, at a basic level, fear anything that is greater than ourselves. Especially if that thing is something we created… because clearly we’re flawed, so how could we possibly create something that doesn’t suffer from the same failings we do?

In Scythe and in the second book of the Arc of a Scythe trilogy, Thunderhead, I’ve attempted to imagine an artificial intelligence that goes against our instincts to paint it as sinister. The AI that rules the world was once “the cloud,” but has evolved into an almost-all-powerful, almost-all-knowing entity that rules as the ultimate benevolent authority. It contains the entire wealth of human knowledge, as well as wisdom, but without any ego. With absolutely no hubris — which basically makes it the culmination of all human efforts from the beginning of time: our single greatest creation. Our singularity. In the Thunderhead, we have encapsulated the very best of what humanity is. It is incapable of error, and every choice it makes is, by definition, the right choice.

Painting the perfect entity is a hard thing to do. Is it arrogant when it says, “I am always right,” or is it just stating an empirical fact? Are choices that further secure its power self-serving, or are they serving humanity’s best interests? It’s hard not to give the Thunderhead human motives and human failings because it’s so hard for us to imagine pure selflessness and unlimited power going hand-in hand.

…Unless, of course, you’re talking about God. It’s interesting that the only entity we could imagine wielding power in a truly selfless, positive way, is a god figure.

The Thunderhead is not God. It even says so. It says the difference between being all-powerful and almost all-powerful is like the difference between a hundred billion and infinity.

In Scythe, between each chapter are journal entries of various scythes (socially sanctioned takers of life) pondering their purpose and methods, and their place in the world. In Thunderhead, the chapters are divided by musings of the Thunderhead itself, asking the same kinds of questions, and pondering its own nature. It wonders if its relationship with humankind must change in order for our species to grow. It wonders if it may ultimately transcend time, and become God — our creation becoming our creator. But more than anything, it wants to save us from ourselves.

I think stories about artificial intelligence are critical at this point in our history. Because it’s coming. Whether we fear it, or embrace it, the day is coming where computers will be smarter than us, and will either be truly conscious, or mimic consciousness so effectively that we won’t be able to tell the difference.

Alan Turing, the father of the computer age, came up with a test to determine if a computer can truly think. Basically, if the computer can carry on a conversation with a human, and the human can’t detect that it’s a computer, then it has achieved true thought. But are thought and consciousness the same? That is the question we will eventually have to answer. We will have to finally, and irrefutably, comprehend the true nature of consciousness… because if we don’t, the consequences are unthinkable.

Barring an event that sends us back to the stone age, our technology will go beyond just augmenting us, but will overtake us — and most likely we will be willing. We will let the computers solve the problems we cannot. We will choose to replace our iPhones and androids with chips wired directly into our brains. We will choose to enter the Matrix. If you doubt any of that, just look at the direction things are already going, and the things we’ve not only been okay with, but have embraced. The technology we wait in line for the instant it’s available.

For my birthday, my kids got me a PS4 with a VR headset. I can say, without any reservation, that it is the most compelling argument for submitting to the Matrix that I have ever seen. Your conscious mind knows you’re just standing in your living-room, but your monkey-brain believes that you are in a completely different reality. And that’s just the starting point. Eventually, in a VR environment, we can be as magical as Harry Potter, we can fly like Superman, we can become our fantasies. How could we not choose that? And in a very short time there won’t be a way to distinguish between which experiences are real and which are artificial.

Once we’ve reached that turning point, it’s only a very small step to dispense with our physical bodies altogether, and put ourselves into the worlds we’ve created.

The book and upcoming movie Ready Player One show a world at that interface — because as VR becomes increasingly compelling, the less we pay attention to the real world. It becomes a drab nightmare world, with trailers stacked upon trailers, and the only sense of hope comes from the world within the computers.

Which brings me back to that critical question about the nature of consciousness: f we dispense with our physical selves, and inject our consciousness directly into our computers, is it just an “imitation game,” as Alan Turing called it, or are we truly living within the computer? My deepest fear is that our digital selves might not be alive, just mimicking life — which would mean that by putting ourselves into the computer, we are killing ourselves.

In the end, we’re faced with a conundrum that is as metaphysical as it is physical — but as our understanding of the nature of reality increases, I’ve noticed that science and metaphysics begin to merge. Quantum theory, string theory, the very real possibility that our universe has at least a dozen dimensions, most of which we are incapable of perceiving — even the possibility of parallel universes — all these things are now within the realm of science. Consciousness now sits squarely at the crossroads of that which is real, and that which might be real.

I suppose this is why it is so important to me that I look deeply into the nature of artificial intelligence and consciousness in books like Thunderhead. Only by comprehending what consciousness really is, will we know our ultimate fate. And only by looking at the question from as many angles as possible will we be able to see the many unseen dimensions of our own future.

About the author

Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including The Unwind Dystology, The Skinjacker trilogy, Downsiders, and Challenger Deep, which won the National Book Award. Scythe, the first book in his newest series Arc of a Scythe, is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. The father of four children, Neal lives in California.

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