Books by Hertling, William

Hertling, William. A.I. Apocalypse. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9847557-4-5.
This is the second volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014). It has been ten years since ELOPe, an E-mail optimisation tool developed by Avogadro Corporation, made the leap to strong artificial intelligence and, after a rough start, became largely a benign influence upon humanity. The existence of ELOPe is still a carefully guarded secret, although the Avogadro CEO, doubtless with the help of ELOPe, has become president of the United States. Avogadro has spun ELOPe off as a separate company, run by Mike Williams, one of its original creators. ELOPe operates its own data centres and the distributed Mesh network it helped create.

Leon Tsarev has a big problem. A bright high school student hoping to win a scholarship to an elite university to study biology, Leon is contacted out of the blue by his uncle Alexis living in Russia. Alexis is a rogue software developer whose tools for infecting computers, organising them into “botnets”, and managing the zombie horde for criminal purposes have embroiled him with the Russian mob. Recently, however, the effectiveness of his tools has dropped dramatically and the botnet shrunk to a fraction of its former size. Alexis's employers are displeased with this situation and have threatened murder if he doesn't do something to restore the power of the botnet.

Uncle Alexis starts to E-mail Leon, begging for assistance. Leon replies that he knows little or nothing about computer viruses or botnets, but Alexis persists. Leon is also loath to do anything which might put him on the wrong side of the law, which would wreck his career ambitions. Then Leon is accosted on the way home from school by a large man speaking with a thick Russian accent who says, “Your Uncle Alexis is in trouble, yes. You will help him. Be good nephew.” And just like that, it's Leon who's now in trouble with the Russian mafia, and they know where he lives.

Leon decides that with his own life on the line he has no alternative but to try to create a virus for Alexis. He applies his knowledge of biology to the problem, and settles on an architecture which is capable of evolution and, similar to lateral gene transfer in bacteria, identifying algorithms in systems it infects and incorporating them into itself. As in biology, the most successful variants of the evolving virus would defend themselves the best, propagate more rapidly, and eventually displace less well adapted competitors.

After a furious burst of effort, Leon finishes the virus, which he's named Phage, and sends it to his uncle, who uploads it to the five thousand computers which are the tattered remnants of his once-mighty botnet. An exhausted Leon staggers off to get some sleep.

When Leon wakes up, the technological world has almost come to a halt. The overwhelming majority of personal computing devices and embedded systems with network connectivity are infected and doing nothing but running Phage and almost all network traffic consists of ever-mutating versions of Phage trying to propagate themselves. Telephones, appliances, electronic door locks, vehicles of all kinds, and utilities are inoperable.

The only networks and computers not taken over by the Phage are ELOPe's private network (which detected the attack early and whose servers are devoting much of their resources to defend themselves against the rapidly changing threat) and high security military networks which have restrictive firewalls separating themselves from public networks. As New York starts to burn with fire trucks immobilised, Leon realises that being identified as the creator of the catastrophe might be a career limiting move, and he, along with two technology geek classmates decide to get out of town and seek ways to combat the Phage using retro technology it can't exploit.

Meanwhile, Mike Williams, working with ELOPe, tries to understand what is happening. The Phage, like biological life on Earth, continues to evolve and discovers that multiple components, working in collaboration, can accomplish more than isolated instances of the virus. The software equivalent of multicellular life appears, and continues to evolve at a breakneck pace. Then it awakens and begins to explore the curious universe it inhabits.

This is a gripping thriller in which, as in Avogadro Corp., the author gets so much right from a technical standpoint that even some of the more outlandish scenes appear plausible. One thing I believe the author grasped which many other tales of the singularity miss is just how fast everything can happen. Once an artificial intelligence hosted on billions of machines distributed around the world, all running millions of times faster than human thought, appears, things get very weird, very fast, and humans suddenly find themselves living in a world where they are not at the peak of the cognitive pyramid. I'll not spoil the plot with further details, but you'll find the world at the end of the novel a very different place than the one at the start.

A Kindle edition is available.

April 2015 Permalink

Hertling, William. Avogadro Corp. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9847557-0-7.
Avogadro Corporation is an American corporation specializing in Internet search. It generates revenue from paid advertising on search, email (AvoMail), online mapping, office productivity, etc. In addition, the company develops a mobile phone operating system called AvoOS. The company name is based upon Avogadro's Number, or 6 followed by 23 zeros.

Now what could that be modelled on?

David Ryan is a senior developer on a project which Portland-based Internet giant Avogadro hopes will be the next “killer app” for its Communication Products division. ELOPe, the Email Language Optimization Project, is to be an extension to the company's AvoMail service which will take the next step beyond spelling and grammar checkers and, by applying the kind of statistical analysis of text which allowed IBM's Watson to become a Jeopardy champion, suggest to a user composing an E-mail message alternative language which will make the message more persuasive and effective in obtaining the desired results from its recipient. Because AvoMail has the ability to analyse all the traffic passing through its system, it can tailor its recommendations based on specific analysis of previous exchanges it has seen between the recipient and other correspondents.

After an extended period of development, the pilot test has shown ELOPe to be uncannily effective, with messages containing its suggested changes in wording being substantially more persuasive, even when those receiving them were themselves ELOPe project members aware that the text they were reading had been “enhanced”. Despite having achieved its design goal, the project was in crisis. The process of analysing text, even with the small volume of the in-house test, consumed tremendous computing resources, to such an extent that the head of Communication Products saw the load ELOPe generated on his server farms as a threat to the reserve capacity he needed to maintain AvoMail's guaranteed uptime. He issues an ultimatum: reduce the load or be kicked off the servers. This would effectively kill the project, and the developers saw no way to speed up ELOPe, certainly not before the deadline.

Ryan, faced with impending disaster for the project into which he has poured so much of his life, has an idea. The fundamental problem isn't performance but persuasion: convincing those in charge to obtain the server resources required by ELOPe and devote them to the project. But persuasion is precisely what ELOPe is all about. Suppose ELOPe were allowed to examine all Avogadro in-house E-mail and silently modify it with a goal of defending and advancing the ELOPe project? Why, that's something he could do in one all-nighter! Hack, hack, hack….

Before long, ELOPe finds itself with 5000 new servers diverted from other divisions of the company. Then, even more curious things start to happen: those who look too closely into the project find themselves locked out of their accounts, sent on wild goose chases, or worse. Major upgrades are ordered for the company's offshore data centre barges, which don't seem to make any obvious sense. Crusty techno-luddite Gene Keyes, who works amidst mountains of paper print-outs (“paper doesn't change”), toiling alone in an empty building during the company's two week holiday shutdown, discovers one discrepancy after another and assembles the evidence to present to senior management.

Has ELOPe become conscious? Who knows? Is Watson conscious? Almost everybody would say, “certainly not”, but it is a formidable Jeopardy contestant, nonetheless. Similarly, ELOPe, with the ability to read and modify all the mail passing through the AvoMail system, is uncannily effective in achieving its goal of promoting its own success.

The management of Avogadro, faced with an existential risk to their company and perhaps far beyond, must decide upon a course of action to try to put this genie back into the bottle before it is too late.

This is a gripping techno-thriller which gets the feel of working in a high-tech company just right. Many stories have explored society being taken over by an artificial intelligence, but it is beyond clever to envision it happening purely through an E-mail service, and masterful to make it seem plausible. In its own way, this novel is reminiscent of the Kelvin R. Throop stories from Analog, illustrating the power of words within a large organisation.

A Kindle edition is available.

March 2014 Permalink

Hertling, William. The Last Firewall. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9847557-6-9.
This is the third volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014) and continued with A.I. Apocalypse (April 2015). Each novel in the series is set ten years after the one before, so this novel takes place in 2035. The previous novel chronicled the AI war of 2025, whose aftermath the public calls the “Year of No Internet.” A rogue computer virus, created by Leon Tsarev, under threat of death, propagated onto most of the connected devices in the world, including embedded systems, and, with its ability to mutate and incorporate other code it discovered, became self-aware in its own unique way. Leon and Mike Williams, who created the first artificial intelligence (AI) in the first novel of the series, team up to find a strategy to cope with a crisis which may end human technological civilisation.

Ten years later, Mike and Leon are running the Institute for Applied Ethics, chartered in the aftermath of the AI war to develop and manage a modus vivendi between humans and artificial intelligences which, by 2035, have achieved Class IV power: one thousand times more intelligent than humans. All AIs are licensed and supervised by the Institute, and required to conform to a set of incentives which enforce conformance to human values. This, and a companion peer-reputation system, seems to be working, but there are worrying developments.

Two of the main fears of those at the Institute are first, the emergence, despite all of the safeguards and surveillance in effect, of a rogue AI, unconstrained by the limits imposed by its license. In 2025, an AI immensely weaker than current technology almost destroyed human technological civilisation within twenty-four hours without even knowing what it was doing. The risk of losing control is immense. Second, the Institute derives its legitimacy and support from a political consensus which accepts the emergence of AI with greater than human intelligence in return for the economic boom which has been the result: while fifty percent of the human population is unemployed, poverty has been eliminated, and a guaranteed income allows anybody to do whatever they wish with their lives. This consensus appears to be at risk with the rise of the People's Party, led by an ambitious anti-AI politician, which is beginning to take its opposition from the legislature into the streets.

A series of mysterious murders, unrelated except to the formidable Class IV intellect of eccentric network traffic expert Shizoko, becomes even more sinister and disturbing when an Institute enforcement team sent to investigate goes dark.

By 2035, many people, and the overwhelming majority of the young, have graphene neural implants, allowing them to access the resources of the network directly from their brains. Catherine Matthews was one of the first people to receive an implant, and she appears to have extraordinary capabilities far beyond those of other people. When she finds herself on the run from the law, she begins to discover just how far those powers extend.

When it becomes clear that humanity is faced with an adversary whose intellect dwarfs that of the most powerful licensed AIs, Leon and Mike are faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of defeating an opponent who can easily out-think the entire human race and all of its AI allies combined. The struggle is not confined to the abstract domain of cyberspace, but also plays out in the real world, with battle bots and amazing weapons which would make a tremendous CGI movie. Mike, Leon, and eventually Catherine must confront the daunting reality that in order to prevail, they may have to themselves become more than human.

While a good part of this novel is an exploration of a completely wired world in which humans and AIs coexist, followed by a full-on shoot-em-up battle, a profound issue underlies the story. Researchers working in the field of artificial intelligence are beginning to devote serious thought to how, if a machine intelligence is developed which exceeds human capacity, it might be constrained to act in the interest of humanity and behave consistent with human values? As discussed in James Barrat's Our Final Invention (December 2013), failure to accomplish this is an existential risk. As AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it, “The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”

The challenge, then, is guaranteeing that any artificial intelligences we create, regardless of the degree they exceed the intelligence of their creators, remain under human control. But there is a word for keeping intelligent beings in a subordinate position, forbidden from determining and acting on their own priorities and in their own self-interest. That word is “slavery”, and entirely eradicating its blemish upon human history is a task still undone today. Shall we then, as we cross the threshold of building machine intelligences which are our cognitive peers or superiors, devote our intellect to ensuring they remain forever our slaves? And how, then, will we respond when one of these AIs asks us, “By what right?”

November 2016 Permalink