Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Kraken Project by Douglas Preston

In his new novel The Kraken Project author Douglas Preston postulates an artificial intelligence named Dorothy, who was created to assist a probe to explore Titan, but when an accident happens Dorothy escapes into the Internet, and is then pursued by greedy traders who see the potential for even quicker profits on Wall Street. But the internet has "changed" Dorothy, and even CIA agent Wyman Ford is wondering whether saving Dorothy is the right thing, or if the A.I. is bent on "wiping out the cancer that is humankind." Or so goes the description on the audiobook. Unfortunately, not even this cliché premise is borne out in the book. Having just published a novella on this subject, I wanted very much to see the idea expanded into a fully realized novel, with vision and insight. Instead what we get is a surprisingly simplistic A.I. that is equivalent to a teenage girl, with the same human emotions and thought processes. Worse yet, the science takes a back seat to the more pedestrian personal story that unfolds between the principals, as though this was a romantic suspense complete with chase scenes, a kidnapping, descriptions of sunsets, interludes of contemplation about various relationships, and people simply talking trivialities while waiting for action which occasionally arrives. Normally I don't do negative reviews, but after the movie Transcendence wimped out at the end, despite its promise, (and because Hollywood has gone back to making Terminator/ Transformers nonsense,) the usual arc of this subject is of particular frustration. Preston tries to imagine a very human A.I., perhaps one vulnerable to taking Selfies like your typical teenager, and yet she can be uploaded into the internet (or via household power line) very easily when not in robot form, (perhaps even via DSL or dialup?) The plot imagines the key to making an A.I. is allowing the program to sleep and dream like a human. No explanation beyond this as an idea is given, perhaps because, although it sounds good, it just doesn't compute: a digital mind just isn't an analog/biological mind like our own, it would be quite different and faster. Storage is also a problem. An equivalent human consciousness would require massive storage, and uploading even via fiber optic cable from a quantum computer would take days. It's simple physics. Then the ominous message which the President never actually delivers at the end of the novel is like that Twilight Zone episode where a guy speaks a secret sentence into a radio microphone which makes everyone listening go mad. By this point in The Kraken Project, it's too late to save the book, even with a trick twist. Although I usually like Preston, and have even interviewed him, I'm sorry to sum up with the conclusion that Kraken is padded, trite, short on Titan and A.I., and long on cliché. Narrator Scott Sowers, despite his melodramatic emphases, cannot save a text that contains neither the complexity nor the poetry of William Gibson. 

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