Here Comes My Big Brother: Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder

This week sees the release of Wonder, the concluding volume of Robert J. Sawyer’s trilogy that follows the formerly blind, sixteen-year-old math genius Caitlin Decter who, using her Internet-connected experimental post-retinal implant, discovers, nurtures and befriends a consciousness that spontaneously emerges in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web. In the first book, Wake (2009), this artificial intelligence decides to call itself Webmind. In the second, Watch (2010), Caitlin initiates the recognition of Webmind’s personhood by arbitrarily declaring “it” is a he. Wonder reveals how Webmind and the world react to one another. The trilogy tells a single story in three volumes with no time elapsing between books, so despite the author’s periodic recaps of background information, you’ll want to read the first two before the third.

This week sees the release of Wonder, the concluding volume of Robert J. Sawyer’s trilogy that follows the formerly blind, sixteen-year-old math genius Caitlin Decter who, using her Internet-connected experimental post-retinal implant, discovers, nurtures and befriends a consciousness that spontaneously emerges in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web. In the first book, Wake (2009), this artificial intelligence decides to call itself Webmind. In the second, Watch (2010), Caitlin initiates the recognition of Webmind’s personhood by arbitrarily declaring “it” is a he. Wonder reveals how Webmind and the world react to one another. The trilogy tells a single story in three volumes with no time elapsing between books, so despite the author’s periodic recaps of background information, you’ll want to read the first two before the third.

Sawyer has called himself “an optimist at heart” and yet, speaking by phone from his Mississauga home, he points to other novels he’s written which take a pessimistic stance. “I’m not an evangelist saying ‘the singularity [the emergence of AI which surpasses human intelligence] is going to be the best thing ever.’ My job is to be, as William Gibson famously said, ‘profoundly ambivalent’ about changes in science and technology.” In his first novel, Golden Fleece (1990), Sawyer was responding to Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative by writing about AI gone wrong as shipboard computer JASON decides what’s best for humanity. “I am not wedded to a specific scenario,” Sawyer explains. “That’s why my books have alternative points of view on many issues.”

Depictions of the singularity are often unsettling, yet Sawyer’s trilogy features no villains at all, neither synthetic nor biological. What Sawyer would have us fear is not the technology but the abuse of it, whether by overzealous governments or individuals like the online predator from Minnesota who was just convicted of coaxing a depressed eighteen-year-old student in Ottawa to kill herself.

Sawyer is not alone in asserting that privacy is a thing of the past, but he bucks the trend by suggesting that rather than ruing that reality we should embrace the benefits our less private world can provide. In Wonder, Sawyer turns Orwell’s Big Brother upside down when his heroine Caitlin refers to her protective cyber-buddy Webmind as “my Big Brother.” The character Sinanthropus, a freedom blogger, says he’d rather be watched over by the omnipresent but transparent and nonpartisan Webmind than by the Chinese government. That statement doesn’t consider the third option, that of not being watched. Sawyer says that option is unrealistic, noting that the conversation is being recorded not only by this journalist but also, he speculates after cheerfully uttering the phrase, “How about we blow up the White House,” by the National Security Agency. He elaborates, “are we going to get rid of our iPhones … take the security cameras out of our underground garages … get rid of cameras that give automatic tickets when you rush through a red light … get rid of Google Earth … and Google Street View?” He’s right; those aren’t going away. “So we are going to be watched.” And since resistance is futile, we should put our efforts into making sure that “whatever oversight we have is in the service of public safety and security rather than in the service of curtailing freedom and dissent toward whatever government happens to be in power at the moment.”

Sawyer describes himself as “very much a writer driven by the research.” Like all his books, the story of Wake, Watch and Wonder is built upon the latest understanding of the sciences it considers. He spent most of a year doing intense research into the Internet, the emergence of consciousness, networking structures, “and out of that came the plot … I had no preconceived notion about what I wanted the plot to be or what I wanted to say before I did the research.” Ours is an age in which technology can become obsolete faster than you can write a trilogy about it. During the six years it took for him to research and write this trilogy (and that’s no slacker’s pace), Sawyer had a brush with the law. “Moore’s Law says computing power doubles every eighteen months. Well guess what, there are four eighteen-month periods in six years … By the time I’d finished the trilogy, computers were sixteen times more powerful than when I started … so it changed a lot of what I wanted to do and what I think audience perceptions of what I did turned out to be.” Caitlin’s story takes place over a few weeks, not six years. Her blogging platform LiveJournal, now fairly marginal, was a going concern when Sawyer started Wake. “Now, I think, Caitlin would simply be tweeting, for instance … or updating her Facebook status,” Sawyer says. “When I started writing this trilogy, nobody had heard of the iPhone, let alone the iPad. There was no such thing as the Kindle eBook reading device or the Wii gaming platform.” Even so, the non-fictional technology he has written into the story isn’t stale or dated yet and will still be in use by the time of the next US election, when the books are set.

Typical of Sawyer, these books are as much about morality as they are about science. Sawyer uses a phrase in Wonder, the “moral arrow through time,” which he encountered in the writings of another positive thinker, philosopher and journalist Robert Wright, author of Nonzero: the Logic of Human Destiny. “There is more survival value, in a Darwinian sense that everyone is better off, to be cooperative rather than competitive,” Sawyer says. An argument Sawyer makes in WWW and other novels is that “there are moral structures that make sense internally, that do not have to be handed down from God or through some kind of holy book … If you actually look at the world, it is there to be seen that those who cooperate do better than those who compete, in the long run.”

Sawyer argues not only that people can, and in their best interests should, learn to get along together; he maintains that “through time there has been an expanding of the definition of personhood.” In North America, for example, the legal standard for a person progressed from white male landowners to all white males, then all males, until it finally encompassed females as well. “A lot of my work has been dealing with the issue of what is personhood.” WWW explores this theme not only in regard to self-aware AI, but also self-aware non-human animals such as the fictitious-but-conceivable chimp-bonobo hybrid named Hobo. “We don’t accord any human rights or any status of personhood to anything else on the planet except human beings. At some point that will change … We’re ultimately going to have to redefine personhood to include all conscious entities, whether or not they are Homo sapiens.”

Diversity is another preoccupation of Sawyer’s. He populates his novels with characters of many nationalities and religious perspectives and devotes pages to discussions of such issues as recognition of same-sex marriage. Still, in considering a world of potentially universal connectivity with all human minds permanently linked to the WWW, one might envision so much shared experience tending toward assimilation and therefore less diversity. “There will be less isolation,” Sawyer offers, but that doesn’t mean less diversity. “According to that logic, the only meals I would get at a restaurant here in Toronto would be the ones that are blandly acceptable to everyone … I should not be able to find Punjabi food, Ethiopian food, and Estonian food and Japanese and Italian.” Sawyer mocks the idea that “the only option you have with interconnectivity is a melting pot where everyone ends up being the same.” Sawyer says the result is, on the contrary, “a mosaic in which you get even more excitement, you get fusion … infinite combinations of that diversity … that never would have existed otherwise.”

Sawyer asserts that with all the advances in computing and cognitive sciences in the two decades since his first novel, there has been “zero progress towards artificial consciousness … Deep Blue did not know it was playing chess against Garry Kasparov. And Watson did not know it was appearing on a syndicated television game show against human champions who were wagering not just point and dollar value but their dignity fighting against him. Had no idea. No awareness whatsoever.”

So why does Sawyer give AI the form of emergent (as opposed to designed) consciousness, and why embodied in the World Wide Web? “That intelligence is an emergent property of sufficient complexity is, I think, an intuitively obvious idea … Our brains had been getting larger over time, over the history of the development of primates. At some point they got sufficiently big and complex, with sufficient interconnections, that is sufficient synapses and neural nets, that consciousness emerged … All I did was say, ‘Is there some other substrate that seems to be heading towards sufficient complexity that the same phenomenon might occur there?’ And it doesn’t take a lot of looking around to say, well, it might be the World Wide Web … and the interesting thing about the Internet is that by design it is decentralized connectivity; it doesn’t all go through one central hub. There’s no one place where you can say here is the heart of the Internet … Consciousness is dispersed through the entirety of the brain, no central spot you can point to. And the Internet is this dispersed network that is very much analogous to the structure of the brain.”

In Sawyer’s view, science fiction books are more than isolated tales of fancy; they form a dialogue in which writers debate, based on contemporary trends, how our future might turn out. He claims to have entered this debate on the impact of the singularity with his WWW being a counterargument to familiar depictions of humanity being subjugated, assimilated or eliminated by the superior powers of a self-aware AI. What rebuttal does he expect to what he’s written in Wake, Watch, and Wonder? “The easy answer is to say I have so definitively had the coup de grâce in the dialogue that nobody can rebut!” he laughs, and then sums up two responses he anticipates. “There will be a pushback of course on the issue of surveillance. Not whether there we will be surveilled; we will. But whether or not any kind of benign surveillance is possible.” The second pushback will be against his AI hypothesis. “There will be those who will say, no matter how you try to contrive the notion that intelligence might emerge in the WWW or the infrastructure of the Internet that those things and the nervous system are sufficiently dissimilar that in fact the analogy is flawed … There will be those who will argue that the only way intelligence will ever be simulated is not through emergence but through somebody carefully contriving it by programming line after line after line of code for half a billion lines … I wanted to do something that was a response to what was already out there.”

Sawyer wanted to say, “Hey Bill Gibson, you know what? Cyberpunk, that actually didn’t turn out to be the case. It did not turn out that computing power was going to be in the hands of a savvy streetwise underground. It was going to be mainstream and in the hands of everybody, and be the most democratic, rather than the most elitist, thing in the history of humanity.” And “You know what, Charles Stross, we’re not going to have a fundamental phase change in the human condition simply because we cease to be the most intelligent thing on the planet, any more than we had a fundamental phase change in the human condition when we started to build machines … So I came in at a stage where I felt that the dialogue had stalled … I’m not sure there’s a lot of idea space left, but that will be for others to figure out … and hopefully the dialogue will continue.”

Sawyer isn’t taking time off now that his third trilogy is finished. On top of his busy schedule promoting Wonder, he’s already deep into his next novel. Not a trilogy, though. “I’m through writing trilogies … that art form no longer holds any appeal for me.” He prefers stand-alones, and the current one, Triggers, is about the nature of memory. But we’ll save that for the future.


Evan Andrew Mackay is a writer of drama and prose, and a journalist of culture and social justice. He is a regular contributor to Post City Magazine and the Nikkei Voice, national newspaper of Japanese Canadians. Raised in the Maritimes, he now lives in Toronto.

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