AI Pt. 2 - AI-lectric Boogaloo

As I may have indicated, I'm a bit of a 40K fan, though I would certainly challenge anyone who went so far as to call me a fanboy, and in particularly I'm a Tau Empire fan.  One of the things I most like about the Tau is their use of artificial intelligence. In the setting, the Tau are the only users of AI; humanity and, I believe, the Eldar had it tens of thousands of years ago, but both race's experiments ended in a way familiar to any student of twentieth century science fiction pop culture, which is to say, with a robot rebellion and the destruction of thinking machines. In fact, the very first edition of Warhammer 40,000, way back when it was called Rogue Trader, borrowed quite heavily from the background of Frank Herbert's Dune, including the idea of a 'jihad' against 'thinking machines' at some long-distant point, which would account for the notable lack of robots in the game's present. Humans tried it, and it failed, the Eldar tried it, and it failed, the Necrons were arguably consumed by their attempts, and none of the other races have the necessary mindset and technological base to have tried it. Which just leaves the Tau Empire.

Yup.  Them again.

The thing I like about the Tau is that they make extensive use of moderately realistic AI, and don't seem to be in any particular danger of having it rebel against them anytime in the near future. Personally, I think a big factor militating against any AI rebellion in the Empire is that, based on its caste-based nature and its culture of unthinking obedience towards the ruling Ethereal caste, there's not much difference between a drone and a tau.  And it's that lack of a sharp dichotomy, between an enslaved robot and a hedonistic free organic, that so often seems to kick off the revolution.  It's always been easy to look at humanity's history of cruelty and slavery towards ourselves, and extrapolate the future of sentient robots from that. Of course we'd enslave them, and mistreat them, exploiting them for our own ends and our own pleasure, and of course they'd try to rebel and destroy us, or at least give it the old college try. That's what we'd do. But for all that scientific understanding has laid bare the fundamental mechanisms that underlie the human body, breaking it down with technical precision into processes and functions, we are not machines. And by that same token, there's no reason our machines would have to be us.

No, really, it's perfectly fine.

Robert J. Sawyer, noted Canadian author and science fiction luminary, recently published his WWW trilogy. The trilogy deals with, amongst other things, an internet in which sufficient complexity has been created that emergence becomes possible. The internet comes to live. But rather than being another Skynet, Sawyer's Webmind is not reflexively hostile towards humanity, a refreshing change indeed. Too often futurists and storytellers alike fall into this strange socio-cultural cul-de-sac; robots are logical, and therefore unfeeling, and therefore would not hesitate to exterminate all humans. But if a machine is logical, then where is the logic in exterminating the very species that created it, and that is still likely necessary for its upkeep, and that, quite frankly, can't risk harming it anyway? If the internet came alive tomorrow no even moderately advanced nation would be able to do a thing to it, because even the best-case scenario would involve a monumentally catastrophic disruption of every single element of society. Trade, travel, power, water, sanitation, commerce, leisure, education, none of these absolutely basic needs could be met if, tomorrow, the government killed the internet. And what politician, looking at an electorate suddenly stripped of the modern bare necessities and more, would dare to challenge a sentient information system that straddles the globe? They'd be lucky to hold office long enough to be voted out; more likely, they'd be dragged from their offices by a desperate, starving, helpless populace looking for someone to blame.

This is not to paint an entirely rosy picture of the future. Computers are our tools, not our friends, and some of the most advanced systems running today are in the hands of the military. If all the US' Predatory drones suddenly achieved sentience, they would be very different animals indeed from a sentient internet. Nurture would matter, at least as much as nature. But quite frankly, there's little reason to assume that people would treat sentient machinery the way they treated enslaved humans, for the very simple reason that, unlike slaves, a sentient computer would be expensive. A man who beats his wife today wouldn't likely beat his newly-sentient car tomorrow, because his car costs a great deal of money and represents a significant investment on his part. To turn that earlier statement around, we may not be computers' friends, but we're certainly not likely to be their abusers.

And of course, anyone stupid enough to try and challenge a sentient internet should very, very quickly learn the error of their ways.

Seriously, man.  Don't test them.

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