Noxious, Machinic Despotism: A review of The Fall of Colossus by D.F. Jones

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Fair use for review.

The all powerful AI conceptualized for a transhuman future in book one that I reviewed here now promotes posthuman desires in book two, The Fall of Colossus, and we wonder about the shift since Colossus offers neither human emotions nor altruism. Why we ask does Colossus even retain an Earth full of useless eaters, Landian time wasters, since so much of of its computing energy and time is spent acting as a regulatory and punishment mechanism because humans misuse their AI-given freedom just as St. Augustine said humans misused their God-given freedom. One answer is that Colossus’ apparently wants to further its knowledge about that elusive object called emotion. But, Colossus neither desires to become “human” nor has it suggested it intends to clone humans. Jones pins a lot on the distinction of sentience but he follows no real thread. Given that Colossus recognizes Forbin’s eventual expiration, I am surprised that Jones didn’t imagine an AI desire to clone Forbin’s brain into someone else or at least to train a successor. Following through to an endgame, we discover that neither the machine nor the human achieves immortality.

Generally, AI speculative futures are revealed most accurately by human emotional responses to such futures, wherein ethics finds residence, that in turn are envisioned to rub against pragmatic dilemmas. Colossus solves the problem with two modi operandi: it decides based on numerical comparisons alone, and it utilizes ruthless self protection.

Jones attempted in the first book to set up competing paradigms between the desire of the human versus the desire of the machine. These two processing systems practice their trades in different worlds, to use Thomas Kuhn’s phrase. The fear, or joy, of those who desire singularity is that without a common ethical metric, machinic intentions remains unknown. They might, in the case of Colossus, transgress ethics or reason in an antihuman manner.

Colossus has stored all the information ever created and as a result it can offer reasoned discussion; as well it is able to infer antimachinic behavior from slight clues, yet apparently the macine lacks any ability to meta-analyze contents of its database that conceivably include the history of all works written on societal structures, political science, and political theory. This probably accounts for the fact Colossus has created a dystopia of information control and immediate dissenter elimination. In this bland new world, society retains most of our current dominant economic structures within a system privileging neofeudalism, jobs, advancement, toadyism, homage, exchange and so forth, which is arguably a commonality in many sci fi futures. Here, only the easy half of technological singularity appears most normally in the sense that technological growth is unbounded, entailing a sense of no going back, but such works drop the ball on speculating past the point which all is pre-known, the moment the system breaks down to reveal the unexpected and the extreme. One would think that of all people the science fiction writers would want to spend less time world building to replicate our current world and structures and more time hypothesizing futures past the supposed point of singularity. They focus, to use a simple economic example, on hyper-capitalism or its alter-ego capitalist dystopia or socialism or its alter-ego socialist-dystopia…but on Mars! or but on the Moon! or but in the Neue Welt!

As mentioned, Colossus as technologic god is a poor world creator. His world is runs on authoritarianism, punishment driven demand for conformity, anti free speech, omniscient surveillance, and from what I garner, it’s populated by individuals whose self-determination is bounded as would be consistent with a corporate hireling. (One might legitimately ask if I meant with this relatively horrific list to describe the United States!).

In this book two, set in the 22nd Century and taking place five years after the first book, Colossus of the 1966 novel is a new Colossus in this book of 1974. Between books the mega-complex making up the new Colossus was built on the Isle of Wight taking up 147 square miles of two-story buildings. The old Colossus was shut down. Forbin has married Cleo who is reduced to an objectified pastiche, and they have a two year old kid. The toddler-President is absent raising the question, has Colossus done away with world leaders? Oddly, Colossus and the antimachine Forbin who ended the first book have now more than arrived at a truce — they seem to be best buddies. Forbin regularly visits the computer in a private room called the Sanctum. When Forbin asks what Colossus “thinks” the machine replies that Forbin wouldn’t be able to understand. Cleo is jealous of their connection. I know, it all sounds pretty hideous and I’ve given more ideas than the superficial skim of plot than it deserves.

In this new Colossus ruled world there are caps on populations (countries that exceed the caps must eliminate the old, the sick, and the insane. People are amused by unpopulated naval fleets that engage in remote controlled battles. This activity has replaced sports, the civic stand in for war no longer needed. Forbin is revered and called Father Forbin. The novel finally stirs to life about 82 electronic device pages in when Martians broadcast over radio waves to Cleo as she relaxes on the beach. They tell her they want to destroy Colossus because it has turned its dominative intentions toward other planets. Don’t worry, while this part of the plot is the best of the book, there are tens of pages of filler between meaningful incidents.

In 1988, British writer David Langford wrote the short story BLIT. (BLIT is short for Berryman Logical Image Technique). In it, basilisks, a specific pattern of marks, were discovered to cause human brain crash and immediate death, think of a computer crashing. Such is the power of visual art. A man named Robo looks through kaleidoscope goggles as he stencils the basilisk on a wall by a bar. He is approached by a man who shines a flashlight that illuminates the basilisk stencil and the man dies. Robo is sent to jail. Here he begins to decode the basilisk from the fractured images in the kaleidoscope. He tries not to imagine the full image but no, he can’t prevent the gestalt from taking over and he crashes his brain and dies.

I mention this because It leads us to the Roko’s Basilisk (probably someone misremembered Robo from the short story). Roko’s Basilisk is a thought experiment that centers upon a super AI that will punish anyone who goes against it. It’s an interesting read, but I don’t believe the discussions caused nightmares or psychological damage to readers or posters as the rationalwiki says — I suspect this was an attempt to pretend the discussion was functioning like a basilisk. We see the result of the Basilisk fears in Jones’ novels. Is it only fiction you ask? MIRI, or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in California holds a goal of making a human value preservation AI before someone makes an anti human value AI. Seriously it seems. Needless to say, the rabbit hole labeled Roko’s Basilisk is deep and weird and the issues raised by the thought experiment are those superficially nodded to by the novel.

As for Colossus working with idea of arithmetical utilitarianism where simple numbers justify ethical actions, we are reminded of Ursala Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, (1973) in which the prosperity of the community is dependent upon one child kept in misery in the basement of a beautiful city building. Or we think of the earlier movie Eye of the Devil, (1966) with David Nivens, Sharon Tate, Donald Pleasance, and David Hemmings. What a mix! The movie is in about equal parts brilliant, amazing, and doggone irritating. The town of Bellenac, France demands the life of the Marquis Montfaucon on a regular basis to keep the prosperity of the vineyards going. In other words, this idea too has been out there in forms of art, and who knows what work influenced whom.

Colossus monitors communications so Cleo enlists, with coded words and nods, her friend Edward Director of Input with a PhD in cybernetics to help her get the diagrams of Colossus that the Martians request. Meanwhile, Forbin apparently has undertaken the goal of becoming the monomaniac Casaubon from Middlemarch as he begins using the phrase “My Dear” all the time. Cleo attempts to smuggle the diagram to the Martians via a reception point but gets nabbed by authorities. Here the book goes on a perverse buzzkill. Cleo is arrested. She’s the wife of Forbin so her sentence is commuted from death to three months in Project Sabine, think Poussin’s painting in the Met — yep we see whats coming.

She’s relegated to an island hut with Barchek, a non-English speaking brutish and insatiable 4x per day/night sex fiend, I’ll omit the details. Of course Blake, good friend that he is, uses secret channels to fill Forbin in on what’s happening to his wife. How comforting? Forbin, now drinking too much, again as in the first book, is filled in on the Martian contact by Blake. Forbin agrees to help destroy Colossus.

He finagles time off from big boss Coloss and he travels to Saint John where, over way too many pages, he prepares for and finally shares the diagrams via Martian radio beam. Following, after many more pages, he heads to NYC where in Central Park the Martians send him the destruction key, a lengthy mathematical equation that sets up a problem that “In simple human terms it is the equivalent to the irresistible force paradox — “What happens when an irresistible force meets and immovable object?” Apparently in the Ian Banks’ novel Walking on Glass, a solution is given. But since The Wasp Factory was poorly written and lame read I probably won’t read this other to find out the solution therein. At any rate, the answer is that to have an unstoppable force an infinite amount of energy is required and to have an immovable object an infinite amount of mass is required. But mass is a form of energy, that in rest frame differs by a constant — we know this via Einsteins special theory of relativity E=Mc2. The mass of a particle (measured in kilograms) at rest is equal to its energy (measured in joules) divided by the speed of light (measured in meters per second) squared. In plain language, mass and energy are equivalent in the universe as we understand it, and being equivalent, energy and mass are endlessly interchangeable. So in a sense, both would be using every bit of the same supposedly finite resources (big bang matter in whole) to define their beings. But infinite force requires space and time, and infinite mass would fill the entirety of space and time. Thus, again, the propositions upon which the paradox is built is illogical. Finally to create infinite mass means destroying infinite energy.

Back to reality, old pal Blake is kind enough to tell Forbin more reassuring sordid tales of Cleo’s sexual abuse, and he notes that she has begun to develop Stockholm Syndrome. With friends like this one might as well keep the evil AI around. But no. The equation is fed into Colossus and zip, wheeze, fizzle, the machine’s language breaks down. It’s not quite as funny as Biden’s “trunalimunumaprzure” but more compelling than Hal’s singing of Daisy Bell (what an absolutely stupid directorial idea that was) and its power is cut. Evidently Colossus retained a fatal addiction to solving equations.

Colossus’ dying words and legacy: Control world communication. Hah, there’s a dystopian warning that we never heeded and that technocrats embraced to triumph in our current world of media sophism. Fiction you say, I think we’re seeing clear evidence in practice of Roko’s basilisk in tech practices.

Overall book two is worse than book one. Characters are more cardboard, the objectification of and violence toward Cleo is objectionable. And yet, the core philosophical dilemmas wavering just beyond the text, remain interesting. At the end of the novel we discover the Martians are on their way to Earth. For good or bad? We won’t know until the third book of this trilogy.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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