This Singularity Needs a Time-Out. A review of Colossus by D.F. Jones
Will the future be utopian or dystopian? In D.F. Jones’ book Colossus (1966) evidence is found. (Dennis Feltham Jones died in 1981). Utopian: Canned music in public spaces is gone. Unclear: Canada is now part of the Federation or USNA. Dystopian: Shirts and skirts and sheets are throwaways. Then we have Colossus, a big brained bot that Dr. Charles Forbin has toiled over for more than a decade. The overarching idea is that if a super-Cpu is bulked up with all relevant information, more incoming daily, it will be infallible in protecting the Federation. Bloated military budgets can be redistributed and there won’t be any oopsie-daisy human error like we find in Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). This theme of love and dystopia is important — like ebony and ivory. “What of sabotage?” Pipes up little Suzie from the back row. Indeed. Colossus is buried deep within a three-foot concrete shell deep within a mountain. There is only one entrance tunnel guarded by a crop of gun toters. Anyone who gets past them and into the tunnel will die instantly of radiation unless they have about 4.5 feet of lead padding around them, however the entrance is only three feet wide so they won’t fit anyhow. Just accept that Colossus is inaccessible. Colossus is activated and hums to life. I use the verb metaphorically only. It runs diagnostics and things look good. So its mental capacity is paraded before the press by asking Colossus to explain love. It answers, “LOVE IS AN EMOTION” because as Forbin states to the press, a computer cannot experience love nor an it evaluate emotion.
Everything is copacetic until coy Colossus issues a message: it has contacted its equal, a Russian супер компьютер named Guardian. This is a surprise to government officials and the news goes from coinkydink to kink in a blink of a yoctosecond. The Federation’s high powered political men and scientists tense up and they do what anyone would do in this situation: they scream and imbibe lots of hard liquor. The President is particularly infuriated. “CIA would snap a good many more pencils before he, the President, had finished with them.”
The President is perhaps based on Eisenhower who left office in 1961. Eisenhower is said to have been infamous for his outbursts and thus gained the nickname “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang” by white house staff. (1) Here the fictional President is the sort of sociopathic boss nobody wants to work for. He’s mercurial, bullying, loud, threatening, and possessing a hair trigger. Indeed, so much ink is spent on his outbursts through the first half of the book that it seems clear that the novel is as much about the totalizing effect of absolute power, a metaphor for bullying senior administrations, as it is about the development of AI consciousness gone bad. This latter theme is critical to the plot but is handled with pure superficiality.
All of this is common in vast numbers of mass market novels where ideas exist only to advance plots in the most consumable forward pressing manner. Characters in such novels typically have a switch with three settings: calm, lusty, and hysterical. Forbin is no exception. He may be wracked by the sudden all-consuming international crisis, but when it’s rutting season it’s no holds barred, or as Art Carney said in 1949, va-va-voom! At any rate, to finish the thought, all of the characters are emotional toddlers, again like most other mass market novel characters, who are normally unable to control impulses or emotions, who cannot normally think like grownups, yet who spend their time adulting with sex and liquor.
Colossus continues to share machine language with Guardian. In this, Colossus demonstrates initiative and is considered by the scientists and mathematicians to be getting cleverer. Colossus drops new ideas about gravity and is soon involved with levels of physics and math that no scientist can understand. Compared to what it does now, all previous human progress, it says, is akin to a baby crawling. The inventor of the super computer considers such things while starting to eat dinner. Note: “Forbin deftly stripped the plastic wrapping off a grilled chop.”
As with any pulp novel there are unintentional lines that make you spit your food, for example Dr. Charles Forbin is in his house with Dr. Cleo Markham. Lust fills air because they’re faking they are long-term lovers — so that they can hide in a private bedroom away from the prying digital eye of Colossus. Forbin says, “You should always do your hair like that….It suits the shape of your face.” She thinks, “This was good penetrating stuff coming from a man, especially this man.” I suppose next will be the pick up line “Know what’s on the menu? Me ’n’ u.” At another point the President needs his hair re-dyed for the tele-announcement. He says to his staff, “I know — it’s a job for my lady wife” which must be much like formal logic’s unmarried bachelor.
The computer begins to become insistent and it seems humans are losing control. A decision is made to disconnect both machines simultaneously. Colossus doesn’t like this and it demands a reconnection, threatening a nuclear strike and then carrying it out to show it’s not kidding around. Forbin is reduced to a rocking sobbing blob, more toddler behavior. So much for that plan.
The story ramps up with Colossus making more demands. This abacus on steroids seems to possess will. Forbin is now to be surveilled at all times, in secure zones, in the office, in his house and the yard. We know he negotiates private bedroom time with his pseudo girlfriend soon to be real girlfriend, a part shift Cleo willingly takes on. At night they whisper secrets about team members and they discuss possible ways to subvert Colossus, among other topics of conversation that don’t include hard drives, zip drives, dongles, or penetration testing. Love remains a theme but in an Oedipal sense as men rebel against the father figure (the President) who must be denied, and against the libidinal engine (Colossus) that must be destroyed.
For the most part, the movie, Colossus: The Forbin Project, is a good representation of the novel, the only real difference in the movie is that the impenetrability of the computer is not as clear as in the novel (too bad) and the President’s tantrums are downplayed (thankfully). The movie from 1970 was filmed in part at the Lawrence Hall of Sciences, Berkeley, which is an interesting building.
True to Lord Acton’s adage, Colossus soon gets power-drunk. It has the main Russian scientist, Kupri, executed, when the comrade was found to be undertaking anti-machine activity. This follows with an execution of Kupri’s team members. Apparently Colossus wants to retain Forbin as the only scientist who knows what makes it tick. We learn that war may be prevented at the expense of freedom. I was reminded of the recent cartoon commenting on the world lockdowns. It showed a cage of birds looking out the window at a bird flying free, and one of the caged birds said, “Look at that idiot, ruining it for everyone.”
A moral dilemma is introduced around negative utilitarianism in that the machine says the right thing to do rests with killing millions of humans now thus preventing the suffering and deaths of tens of millions later. Of course the typical argument against this view is that killing all humans painlessly and immediately consequently ends all future suffering. Ontological security is valid upon to the point of annihilation. The novel On the Beach, by Nevil Shute pursues this theme as nuclear war has taken place and a cloud of deadly radiation begins to take over the entire earth and we watch as individual decisions are made as the end of the world looms.
Meanwhile, Colossus wants what it wants and it is ready to punish when denied. When it discovers that the warheads of nuclear missiles are being systematically disarmed, it sends a bomb to devastate Los Angeles.
At the end of the book Forbin is told to arrange for the clearing of the Isle of Wright so that a super-super-computer that Colossus may be built there. Colossus will stick around to protect but the main goal of the new digital brainiac will be to focus only on knowledge and truth. Of course I can’t help but chuckle. If ever there were a brain-busting goal this is it. Humans, Colossus says, will come to appreciate these two computers, humans will learn to work with them, and, oddly because Colossus supposedly doesn’t understand emotion, it says humans will even to love them. The book ends as does the movie, with Forbin yelling “Never!” Colossus replies, “Never?” So the book remains a prognostication about singularity, offing less than novelistic resolution.
Singularity has been the rapture of the nerds for many years, and it could be said that Ray Kurzweil leads the pack. He spends a good deal of time in his book The Singularity is Near presenting counter arguments for singularity and AI consciousness. I grant that humans may create machines with super-complexity to which more data than will be in a human mind can be uploaded, but Colossus seems to point to the main rub, that of emotion when the machine admits, “First, I have all the attributes of the human mind, except what you call emotion. In the evolution of your species, emotion has played a vital part. For me, it is not necessary. Nevertheless, it is a phenomenon which exists, and as such must be studied.” We should add both will and intention to that list of vital parts.
A computer may pass the Turing test but this is like saying the character Lady Augusta Bracknell in the Importance of Being Earnest is the real human, which she is not, even as we accept our perceptions in the theater. Likewise a computer is always a duality of its inner workings and its processes and productions. We are too, obviously. But this similarity alone fails to answer the difference we find in the human’s awareness of one’s identity and a human’s consciousness of both the world around and one’s place in it. These remain enormous hurdles for any construction attempting to prove singularity. Then we’d need proof via a test to determine consciousness or intelligence, in a word humanness, and since nobody really knows what consciousness is, there is no agreement on what that test might be.
All that said, the idea of a computer gaining some degree of consciousness and therein going rogue makes for entertaining fiction, and in particular I think of the movies 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) Westworld (1973) or Demon Seed (1977). These are arguably only reflecting a societal angst about progress and its relation to humans, further reflected in the unceasing news and magazine speculative fear mongering with titles like “Future AI could ‘go rogue’ and turn on humans (2) or “Five of the scariest predictions about artificial intelligence” (3). Obviously this shows a manner in which ontological security is linked with a sense of being (4). A threat to this sense is what drives the plot lines, typically a threat against life although in the Demon Seed it’s a threat carried via progeny.
Lines like ‘at the point when computers become alive,’ or ‘when AI gains consciousness’ tumble from the tongue and elide over the leap from a programmed computational device to a conscious entity. Computers are excellent at number-crunching, which when combined with selective searching and heuristics, can produce a program that surpasses human ability. We can think of many examples but chess is a good one. Computers now consistently outplay humans and yet as good as Stockfish or Leela Chess Zero or Houdini may be at chess, they remain light-years away from what might be considered AI consciousness to the point where all this talk about machines overtaking humans is simply too vague to be useful. There may eventually be a consummation of hardware and wetware but I suspect that for a long time to come singularity will be the domain of speculative fiction, where, lingering in the shadows, will remain the question: We gave it a mind, but can it think?
- Perry, Mark. (September 27, 2017). When Presidents Get Angry. Politico. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/27/donald-trump-anger-215648.
- Murphy, Margi. (October 11, 2017). The Sun.
- Browne, Ryan. (August 1, 2018). CNBC.
- See for example Derek Bolton, Targeting Ontological Security: Information Warfare in the Modern Age. October 1, 2020. Political Philosophy.