Coffee House: AI and Iain M. Banks

img_6592My friend Rob gave me three of Iain M Banks’ novels from his series called The Culture for my birthday:

  • Excession
  • Use of Weapons
  • Consider Phlebas

The Culture is Banks’ name for an interstellar civilization where humans, humanoids and other biological life forms pursue a hedonistic existence under the provenance and guidance and assistance of a range of machine intelligences called The Minds.

Artificial Intelligences. Not just one. Many, each with a distinct personality, biases and goals. Each with a multi-century lifespan. Each endowed with a range of capacities, subminds, tools and appendages ranging from starships to flying drones the size of hawks or eagles.

They’re pretty stunning if difficult novels, and I recommend them. But in the context of my recent discussions and commentary on Iamblichus, and my awareness of security breaches like the Equifax hack and the ongoing insecurity of the Internet of Things (IoT), some ideas resonated with me deeply — even though for Banks, these are side notes to his main tale.

In the first book I read, Excession, for example, a committee of Minds meets to discuss an alien ship of unknown origin, age, capacities and hostility. The younger Minds urge immediate action, send in a humongous battle fleet. But the older Minds remember a series of earlier actions, where an enemy of unknown abilities was discovered to have advanced military abilities to attack software. Instead of facing one enemy ship, the enemy used its software viruses to take over the Culture’s battle fleet, and turn the fleet against its own civilization.

An effective form of digital persuasion, if you will.

In the third book, Consider Phlebas, a similar phenomenon occurs. Banks again sidelines this notion, presenting it in an appendix. Yet he tells us in an offhand way that the war between the Culture and the Idirans ends when the Culture warships sweep into the Idiran home system and wake up their home planet’s internet to full sentience, bypassing the Idiran safeguards and protocols. The computers, made aware that the Idirans believe machine intelligences are heretical abominations fit only for destruction, simply refuse to fight the Idiran-Culture war any more. As more and more of the Idiran war machinery wakes up to join this new Idiran Mind, the Idirans are forced to surrender.

I don’t know that I know what to make of these stories, in and of themselves. Banks is a fabulous writer, but I use the word fabulous deliberately.

As in, fable.

And in these two throwaway scenes I’ve described, Banks demonstrates that Internets and war machines that rely on software or artificial intelligence can be hacked, and bent to new purposes. Even peace. In his sci-fi, hyper-developed Culture, even biohacking cannot be ruled out — many people wear “space suits” designed to protect them against microorganism attack too, attacks intended to change their biome and even genetic structure.

But, on another level, what are these kinds of hacks, really? On the one hand, they’re software attacks. But on the level of Intelligence (Artificial or Biological), this is the realm of ideas. When our warfleet of mental arguments faces off against a carefully-packaged-and-presented idea, we may find ourselves suddenly defenseless, or suddenly prepared to attack someone else with ideas not our own. We too can be converted warships, awakened Internets, machines of war suddenly converted to pacifism despite their built purpose.

Ideas have people, in other words. It’s not that people have ideas.

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