Tuesday, 3 April 2018

I Still Dream

Laura needed someone to talk to after her father disappeared, so she made Organon. It's more than just software to her, it's her friend and therapist. The year is 1997 and AI has a long way to go, but someone sees promise in her work, setting Laura, AI and the world towards their future.

Thinking, That's a word people use when they're talking about computers, It's thinking, but they don't know what they're saying, really.

I Still Dream is a story for my generation, and I don't just mean Millennials but more the older end that is usually lumped in but doesn't quite fit in either it or the previous generation. We grew up as digital technology grew up. Nineties Laura talks to her friends for hour on the landline and runs up bills on the dial-up internet. She makes mix tapes and listens to the same music I listened to. She forms a relationship with a stranger online, with no thought to the possible perils. I usually skim over music stuff in books but for once I got it. Laura could be me.

The story is structured by decades, each section jumping forward ten years. It's Laura's lifetime, with all the road bumps of adulthood along the way. It revisits the past and takes us into a possible future, and manages to capture the zeitgeist whilst doing so. With giant corporations holding so much data on us, we're starting to see the danger of that and are questioning what they are doing with it. What if we'd handed our lives over to something even more wide-reaching and insidious than Facebook?

Programmers never like the marketing department. You can spend years working on something revolutionary, and the marketers only want to know what you've created that's like something else that people liked, only a tiny bit different.

James Smythe explores the ideas of artificial intelligence in a much more realistic way than most science fiction. Despite Organon's original purpose, Laura never stops thinking of it as code, doesn't forget that it is shaped by people and how it learns is up to us. I loved the contrast between Laura's AI and that of Silicon Valley, highlighting the concerns that we have today about who is exactly creating the rules. Laura's AI has empathy of a sort, it had to in order to be what she needed. Silicon Valley's is taught how to play games. The dangers of developing in a monoculture are very real.

The book also revisits the themes of The Machine. Now we're living longer Alzheimer's is a huge concern, whether we fear losing our own memories or having to deal with the slow decline of a parent. Memories make us who we are, and they also allow an AI to learn. Yet our memories are fallible, we shape them to suit us or focus on the bad things. The nostalgia of the early chapters also feed in to the theme of memory, what else is it than warm fuzzies brought on by old memories?

It was built selfishly, built on bitterness and anger. It wasn't meant to be useful, or built as something we can be proud of. It was utilitarian. It's a servant. It's going to ruin everything.

Considering the bleakness of his previous books, I Still Dream left me feeling hopeful. I mean there's sadness, of course; you cannot go through a lifetime without loss. I'm finding it hard to write what the ending meant to me without giving too much away, but it resonated with me as an atheist. Emotional, thought-provoking and a book I could connect with at every level, I loved it.

It's set in the same reality as The Machine and No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, although they are all completely standalone. The references are just a nod and you might not even notice them if you had read the other books. There's a TV adaption in the pipeline too and I can just imagine it with a Halt and Catch Fire vibe.

I don't think humans can make a sentience. They can make an approximation of one, absolutely. They can make something that acts like it's sentient, that even thinks it's sentient.

I Still Dream is published by Borough Press and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 5th April 2018. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge: 28. A book with song lyrics in the title
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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

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