The future is unknown. Even from day to day, there’s no telling what will happen and what our society will look like, whether it be calamity or comfort. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that in one way or another, artificial intelligence will play a role in the world of tomorrow, whether it be something as simple as finding our way to our destination or being driven there independently. The question is almost more what the world would be like with AI everywhere in our lives.
Viral Spark by Martin McConnell, a fantastic guy I met through the Monthly Writing Challenge on Twitter, explores a world set in a not too distant future that deals with this very issue. It is a world where our needs are all met under one roof, where we sleep, eat, work and have fun without ever having to experience the outside world. We live in a bubble and for the most part, we’re if not happy, content. After all, if everything you need to survive and live a comfortable life can be found inside, why go outside?
The world that Martin introduces us to is also one that is highly connected. Humans are implanted with small devices that not only connects to the outside world but is also able to read and react to the thoughts and requests of the subject. Want to watch the news? Just think it and the headline news appears on the closest interactive surface, whether it be your apartment wall or dining room table. Need to know what the weather is going to be? You don’t even need to open your mouth. Just look out the kitchen window for a simulation of what it’ll look like. Information is available instantly, almost as quickly as we think it.
It is against this backdrop we meet Robert. Robert, employed as a robot service tech, finds himself at the lower end of his career ladder. Close to finishing school, he’s dreaming of moving out of his apartment next to the cargo elevator and ascend not only his career but also the building. A better job equals a better career which equals a better life.
His days are fairly routine. Wake up, have breakfast. Tinker with the robots at the store where he works for a bit, then go have a lunch sandwich and dream of a future with Amanda, the girl that makes the sandwiches. Then, go back to work and attend school before heading to bed. In reality, his life isn’t so different from yours or mine.
Then, the glitches begin. The perfectly connected world that never fails or has problems suddenly exhibits random glitches that interfere with music that plays, video streams and more. Suddenly, people around him that for the most part are content, start fighting for no apparent reason. One minute, they’re having a regular conversation over lunch, the next moment fists and chairs are flying through the air.
To Robert and everyone around him, these glitches, both on the tech side and on the human side, are disturbing. Why are they happening? What is causing them? As Robert tries to minimize the damage to the robots he controls, he accidentally stumbles on a clue. As the glitches spread and his research deepens, he suddenly finds himself facing the potential that he unwittingly has discovered the emergence of something new. The tablet that he uses over time begins to respond to his actions, it appears to be emotional and desire attention. It’s something that’s maturing by itself through the complex data networks his society depends on, through all the information and inputs available to it. It’s exploring, reaching out, learning. Even as he joins the team hunting for the source of the glitch, he starts to realize that the glitch is not a glitch, it’s something more. He is soon faced with a decision. Will he be able to pull the plug when the military so demands? Will he betray his newfound discovery or will he do what’s best for humanity?
Viral Spark is actually my second encounter with this story, although this time in a slightly different format (one book instead of three separate stories). You can read my original review here. However, the core of the story remains the same. As before, what’s striking about Viral Spark is Martin’s treatment of artificial intelligence. Much of the other Sci-fi out there deal with AI as either an established entity, often out to either kill us (Terminator) or help us (Hal 9000). Very rarely do we encounter the birth of AI on its own, almost along the lines of evolution, and it brings a totally different perspective to AI and what it is, what it can be. While we’re used to seeing the all-knowing, all-powerful systems that can do anything, here we encounter AI is it develops literally from infancy, from binary bits programmed long ago that evolves into something more intangible, something conscious, something alive. In essence, in Viral Spark, we witnessing the birth of AI…and it’s totally awesome!
The flip side of this is, of course, the relationship of this infant AI with its father-figure, Robert. Robert has to struggle with many of the things a parent would. Not only does he have to understand that this AI is actually alive but he has to learn how to communicate with it. He has to figure out what it’s doing and why. Then, in the end, he has to make a decision no parent should ever have to. So, in a sense, it’s a very emotional story as well from the perspective of a parent. Combine that with the ethics involved with something artificial that’s alive and what our responsibilities are towards such an entity and you’re reading a story full of difficult moral and ethical choices.
Martin also spins a society that’s very realistic. Although today we can’t see what the future holds, the innovations we see in our world today could easily evolve into the world that Robert lives in. It feels like, “yeah, this could happen” and to me, that makes it so much easier to be pulled into the world Martin is describing. Add to that detailed descriptions regarding much of the technology, the troubleshooting Robert goes through, the methodology he uses to track down the glitches and discover his new baby, the political situations and what society is and overall, you have a book that’s interesting, engaging and thought-provoking.
Is there anything about this book that I don’t like? No, not really. If there’s anything I’d point out is that for those that are not technologically inclined, some of the details and methodology described in the book as it relates to the work Robert does could be overwhelming. I can’t say that for sure, since I have no issue with it, but as I was reading the book, that was the only thing that stood out. Beyond that, Viral Spark is a book I warmly recommend, especially if you’re at all interested in what could go wrong in a perfect society and what AI might look like if it emerges on its own.
Viral Spark is available through a variety of outlets, including Amazon.com (Viral Spark page), Barnes and Noble and through Martin’s website (https://writefarmlive.com/store/). I would also recommend following him on Twitter (https://www.twitter.com/spottedgeckgo), as he’s got some other fantastic stories he’s working on that you wouldn’t want to miss.