Thursday, 21 January 2021

The Actuality by Paul Braddon

Evie is a near-perfect bio-engineered human. She's the pinnacle of artificial intelligence, what scientists call "true AI'. This is the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence - the ability to exhibit behaviour as skilful and flexible as humans, artificial consciousness, awareness of external objects, of ideas and self. Some believe such a thing is impossible, other's that it's closer than we think.

In The Actuality, Evie's "husband", Matthew, hides her away from prying eyes, and we learn this is because the government has banned her kind. AI bio-engineered beings were rolled out, but several disasters caused widespread panic and people came to fear they might be a danger to humankind. Now all but the most basic of service model is illegal. 

Evie and Matthew live in an apartment with Matthew's servant, Daniels. She's closer to Daniels and has a better relationship with him than she does with Matthew. She has memories based on those of Matthew's wife, who passed away years before, and she has consciousness which Daniels acknowledges. Matthew disagrees and denies she is true AI, which she finds hurtful. As the novel progresses we learn she wasn’t truly conscious when she came to the household. She was as close to it as possible, but not fully conscious. 

While only mentioned in passing in the text, this is a key debate in AI research: how to tell when something is truly conscious and not a clever imitation. The Turing Test, named after the mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing, is used to debate when something should be considered conscious. Because it's easy for an algorithm to appear conscious when it isn’t; bots on social media show this all the time, and many accounts are nothing more than clever code. Matthews believes Evie is nothing more than a clever bot, but Daniels knows the truth, which is somewhere along the line she developed consciousness, and is true AI.

When disaster strikes and Evie has to leave the sanctuary of the apartment, we learn Britain is an impoverished country, battered by economic decline and the ecological disaster threatening the globe. It's become an insular and bitter nation, and suspicious of outsiders and strangers.

The Actuality is a great novel, it's a speculative sci-fi story of Evie's search for a home and a sense of belonging, but it also grapples with some big ideas, and ones which have a real urgency. The environmental crisis and Britain's place in the world is often discussed - and the author's portrayal of a country turning in on itself reflects many people's fears over Brexit. But it's his consideration of AI which is to the forefront. This isn’t as far off in the future as we might think, indeed it's likely society will need to discuss the issues the author raises about autonomy sooner rather than later.

At heart The Actuality is about unforeseen consequences. Because humans are terrible at predicting the future. The climate crisis has crept up on us, and so will the consequences of AI if we're not careful. Indeed, they already are. Not too long ago I worked on a documentary about the war in Afghanistan. I was researching the drone programme. Drones, and to a lesser extent night raids by special forces, are a central plank to the US counterinsurgency strategy. Sophisticated computer algorithms are used to select targets. But in a guerrilla insurgency, how might US forces choose targets? It appalled me to learn one method was meta-data. Simply put, US forces harvest the phone contacts of insurgents. If an Afghan has called the phone of an insurgent, or the insurgent called their phone, the algorithm might well list them as a legitimate target. So "efficient" is this system, US forces kill people whose names they don't even know. Sometimes they know nothing more than a phone linkage.

The algorithms the Americans use are a form of dumb AI, but AI they are. Already the US and others are working on more autonomous killing machines. AI is also being developed for civilian life. To be clear, AI is not intrinsically a bad thing, far from it, it has many positive applications; to believe otherwise would be Luddite. But as the drone programme shows, the consequences, if not considered, can be disastrous. The Actuality grapples with this, and Evie is the personification of an unintended consequence. Invented as the plaything for the rich, she is now conscious and therefore surely has rights. But in a world where human life is devalued, what chance does she have?

5 out of 5 stars

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