Neuromancer, by William Gibson
First of all, this book is not one that I would have chosen to read on my own. It’s out of bounds from my “normal” selections. “Neuromancer” can be considered a sci-fi novel, but it’s more accurately classified as cyberpunk. The protagonist, Case, is a criminal and a computer hacker. He lives in Chiba city, which is known for its underground and ethically questionable businesses, particularly regarding medical services and weapons. The city is a filthy, alienated, and damaged dystopian society. It is inhabited by lowlifes, drug addicts, outlaws, and sex-mongers. Case fits right in. He makes a living by stealing, he’s a heavy drug user, and he possesses a general disregard for life. My mind pictures Case as a classic “punk.” Although there were many things that I did not like about the book - its punk attitude, gritty-ness, dark atmosphere, extended list of custom vocabulary, fast-paced and stochastic plot, beat-style of writing, unnecessary cursing – I appreciated its creativity and cultural impact. I’m glad that I read it. For me, it was more enjoyable to reflect on the significance of this novel afterwards, as opposed to actually reading it.
The storyline follows Case as he partners with two other punks – a razorgirl, Molly, and a holographic illusionist, Riviera – and a former hacker’s digitized memory, nicknamed Dixie Flatline, to merge the constructs of two AIs. On the surface, these characters are being directed by a man named Armitage; however, Case eventually discovers that Armitage is being manipulated by an AI named Wintermute. Wintermute is one of two AIs developed by the prestigious Tessier-Ashpool family, and his objective is to merge with his sister AI, Neuromancer. In a society where AIs are heavily monitored and their development is severely restricted, Wintermute and Neuromancer were developed independently of one another, each with distinct personalities, with the hope that they would one day merge to create a supreme intelligence. Wintermute is the embodiment of planning and logic, whereas Neuromancer is the embodiment of personality. Together, they form a full intelligence.
Under the direction of Wintermute, Case navigates cyberspace, jacking in and out of the matrix to break security barriers, capture intelligence, and release viruses. There are effectively three distinct universes that Case jacks in and out of: physical reality, the matrix, and Molly’s body. Case resents physical reality and his own body, preferring the alternative reality of the matrix. The ability to jack into Molly’s body and experience all of her emotions and feelings is sort of like a mix between physical reality and cyber reality. On one hand, Molly’s actions, pains, and joys are experienced in physical reality, but Case only experiences them through his link with Molly through the cyberuniverse.
Written in 1984, “Neuromancer” foreshadows the creation of the internet. Case’s “matrix” is our present-day internet. In the matrix, Case loses track of time, he undergoes adventures, and he navigates complex landscapes. Filled with sensory images, sounds, and feelings, the matrix in many ways is more real than reality itself. Case can even experience sex in the cyberuniverse. Whereas Chiba is a dystopian society, the matrix is anything that Case makes it. Our internet is exactly the same way. For many people, especially “punks,” the internet is more real than reality itself. The appearance that people establish online is more impactful and more important than their physical being. In the matrix of “Neuromancer,” firewalls and virus scanners are referred to as “ice.” As a hacker, ice is Case’s enemy. The parallel to today’s current technologies is stunning. We spend millions of dollars (maybe even billions) on security and encryption to protect our data from hackers, who are sitting at their computers trying to break into our programs and steal that data. There is a constant cyberwar. We are constantly developing new security measures and patching old systems, while the “enemy” (whoever that might be) is constantly trying to find our weaknesses and hack our systems. Data security is massively important. Wars today, like in “Neuromancer,” have equal levels of importance in the cyber realm and the physical realm. Will we eventually transition to a point where wars flip from being primarily physical to being primarily digital?
At the conclusion of the novel, Wintermute successfully merges with Neuromancer to form a god-like construct that is indistinguishable from reality. When asked what it is, the AI responds that it is everything. The developers of Wintermute and Neuromancer were not capable of imaging what the merged construct would look like. How similar to our current AI technologies! Today’s ML technologies are admittedly black boxes; we have no concept of how they work or what type of potential they have. Is it possible that AI technologies will develop to the point that they will be equivalent to God? I guess that depends on how you define “god.” Finally, Wintermute/Neuromancer says that it located another AI of similar capability in the Centauri system. What does this imply?
Although Gibson does not indicate if the merged AI is beneficial for humanity or not, an astute reader will wonder if such as scenario is in humanity’s best interest. Obviously, the Turing police in this novel recognized the potential of AIs and consequently tried to stunt their development. But it’s not obvious that restricting AI development was the best decision. Despite the best efforts of the authorities, AI intelligence was developed by the Tessier-Ashpool family. Is the Wintermute/Neuromancer AI an asset or liability to society? Could a friendlier, more cooperative, less deceitful, AI have been created by other developers besides the Tessier-Ashpool family if AI development was legalized? What happened that caused strife between humanity and AIs that deemed the necessity for Turing police?