In Amsterdam, where I have been for the past few days, I just attended a thought-provoking presentation by speakers from Intel and ABB. Claudia Jamin, Group Vice President of IP for ABB and Rebenkka Porath, Policy Director for Intel, gave a brilliant breakfast presentation at the World IP Summit on the impact of artificial intelligence on intellectual property, and specifically addressed a variety of legal perspectives on AI systems as inventors. When AI systems are used to develop novel new products and systems, is their output patentable? Can an AI system be named as an inventor? Can it be treated as a person with inventorship rights? Legal scholars are divided on these issues, but many recognize that intellectual property laws around the world may need revision to address the host of issues that arise from artificial intelligence.
Meanwhile, I need to confess a reason for my reduced output on this blog over the past few months. I’ve fallen in love with Chinese science fiction, and have been reading much more intensely as part of my Chinese study (preparing for HSK tests) but also for the shear pleasure of what great science fiction can do.
There are two books in particular I wish to mention. My adventure began about 1 trillion years in the future through reading a book I bought on a whim (partly because of its cool cover) in a Chinese bookstore. The book is Chase the Shadows, Pursue the Light (my translation of 逐影追光), vol. 3 of the Heart of the Milky Way trilogy. After that journey into the future, the expanse of the cosmos and the nature of intelligence, among many other heavy topics, I took up China’s most famous sci-fi book which some of you may have read or at least heard of: The Three Body Problem (三体) by Liu Cixin. Completely different but one that touches upon many issues that Latter-day Saint geeks may find worth discussing in light of the cosmic framework LDS religion gives us. I’ll discuss it later. The Kindle English edition I bought (in addition to the Chinese paperback set) has 3 volumes plus further bonus chapters the single Kindle edition, though it may be that you now need to buy the three volumes separately, I’m not sure.
When I bought vol. 3 of the Heart of the Milky Way trilogy, I thought it was a collection of short stories, not realizing I was jumping into the middle of a gargantuan epic spanning tens of thousands of years and an equally vast number of light years. Fortunately, the book is written with enough allusions and reminders of past events that one can start with volume 3 and gradually fill in many gaps and understand what is going on. Even more fortunately, the first chapter really could be a stand-alone story and is one that quickly won me over and drew me in. In fact, I felt it was one of the best sci-fi short stories I have read, one that deeply moved me and gave me hours of contemplation about who we are and what intelligence means, artificial or otherwise.
Chapter one introduces us to an entity that Mormons might describe as a spirit, even a disembodied spirit that has given up its previous ship body. It is an intelligent being with free will who roams the galaxy in the quest for truth. Its name, actually his name based on how he prefers to be viewed, is Shadake (pronounced like “Shah Dockuh” or “Shah Dah-Kuh”). He and a group of similar, ancient beings are part of a Truth Council, seeking clues to piece together to answer a question that they feel is essential for uncovering many mysteries of human existence. That question is where did human life begin? Where is the home planet, and what can we learn from it about the origins of humanity? At this time a trillion years from now, many stars have passed away and many planets may have perished, but the Truth Council has a burning faith that there is truth waiting to be found and that they must find it. Indeed, they know there is another entity in the galaxy somewhere, a strange and supremely advanced AI creature named Son of Aibo who came from or has connections to the home planet. He must be found, and the Truth Council knows of one human who has met Son of Aibo and may be the key to finding him again. That human is Li Yue Su, or just Captain Li when I tell stories from this book to my grandchildren.
The first chapter, entitled “The Immortals: Shadake,” begins with the statement that there is nobody who can live forever, except for Shadake.
Anywhere where humans are, there will be a Shadake, and even in many places where humans are not he can be found. Originally, Shadake was just one being on a large, ancient ship, probably one that used simple fossil fuel or nuclear power, long before advanced drives were developed. He was developed to control, to organize, to plan, to protect, and to conduct the countless operations needed to operate the ship and protect those on board. Since that day all major ships would have their own Shadake and many other places as well. Now Shadake is many, a widely cloned an artificial intelligence system with profound self-awareness, genuine intelligence, access to data beyond anything we can imagine, and with the capabilities and wisdom to run a spaceship that may be hundreds of miles long and with millions of humans on board.
“Some say Shadake is mankind’s slave. Some say Shadake is mankind’s friend. Other say he is a god…. In any case, he is always steady, always the same.”
Perhaps one hundred million years ago, humans asked Shadake an important question: Where did humanity begin? Shadake could not answer this. All records and memory from those early days in distant antiquity had been lost. Shadake understood the importance of the question and sought to find the home planet and learn all that could be learned from whatever was left of it, but finding it among the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way was a difficult task. Thousands of clues had been gathered and analyzed, leading to suspicion that the home planet may have been in one particular outer arm of the galaxy. At this time, humanity had spread across the galaxy and had evolved into many different forms, including, as we learn later in the book, the bizarre and mysterious humans, including the lofty Elders of the Galaxy, who occupied the hot and highly radiated heart of the Milky Way, where other humans were not allowed and probably could not survive long.
The Truth Council Shadakes were unique entities that had fulfilled their contract to their ship and to humanity, and had taken the option to depart the “mortal body” of the ship they were once part of, and go off on their own as a subspace being, still retaining their programming and knowledge but now a completely free agent, able to dash about the galaxy through subspace, where speeds several times greater than the speed of light were possible, always seeking knowledge and truth. Though free, they of course cannot violate the ancient coding built into the core of their being, coding that ensures they will never interfere with the free agency of humans. Were they ever to violate that fundamental principle by using their power to overthrow a human’s free will, they would self-destruct and cease to exist.
As the story begins, an ancient Shadake is probing a remote part of the galaxy, seeking to track down Li Yue Su in hopes of getting clues to reach the Son of Aibo. He senses a subspace ripple, and feels that a ship is about to pop out of sub space into regular space. He pursues, and finds that it is actually is the ship bearing Li Yue Su.
Li Yue Su is unique among humans. Perhaps it is his extensive travels in subspace that has given him the unusual ability to sense subspace matter (we learn later there is a much more direct explanation for his sensitivity to subspace), a gift that makes him much more aware of what is happening around him. That gift is especially in a galaxy where humans are at war with entities from the Dark Abyss who are largely sub space beings, completely different from the regular matter beings that humans are used to.
Li Yue Su is perhaps the most ancient human in existence, one who has lived maybe 20,000 years or so. Now he is old and, like many humans of extreme age, is not willing to regenerate and keep on going. He wishes to pass on.
When Shadake finds Li Yue Su’s ship, he contacts the ship’s AI system. Captain Li actually dislikes Shadakes (too arrogant) and does not allow one to run his ship. Instead, it is run by a lesser AI system, a system programmed to be emotional. It is named Pudding, and is one of the great delights in the book. Pudding’s personality, courage, devotion, stubbornness, resourcefulness, humor and, even, his foolishness or, arguably, his love add much to this novel.
Shadake explains that there is an urgent matter and begs to speak with Captain Li, who eventually concedes. Shadake approaches the Captain and projects himself as a kindly old man with white hair, wearing a toga. Captain Li already knows that Shadake has come to persuade him to support Shadake’s silly quest for elusive ancient truths. “You and your Truth Council can do this on your own, you don’t need me.”
Shadake can see that Captain Li is nearing death and that his will to live on has eroded. He tries to encourage him and tells him how important his life is. Captain Li responds by explaining why there are no humans older than him, even though the technology is available to keep renewing the body and continue for millennium after millennium. He explains that once you have experienced everything and seen everything, one becomes weary and feels no need to keep struggling over and over. His life has been rich, overflowing with adventure and accomplishment, but also sorrow and pain, and now it is time to pass the torch to others and step aside. He is weary, so weary, and just doesn’t want to continue.
Time is running out and Captain Li will be leaving soon. In his conversation, Shadake has confirmed that Captain Li is the key link for the cause of truth and wants to make sure this knowledge is not lost. There is not enough time for Shidake to clone himself to ensure that his updated knowledge regarding Captain Li is preserved, for cloning himself is a process that takes many more hours than he has before the opportunity with Captain Li will pass.
Shadake must do something. The cause of truth depends on success in this encounter. The purpose of his life depends on helping Captain Li to continue, so that there will be hope of reaching the Son of Aibo. What can he do?
First, there is one thing Shadake can do to pass on key knowledge, though it may not succeed. He sends a series of carefully encoded packets of information via subspace toward the heart of the Milky Way, hoping that in a few hundred years they will be detected and decoded by fellow members of the Truth Council before they leave the galaxy and go into oblivion. He calculates that there is roughly a 60% chance of success, which is enough to give him courage for the next step.
He looks into Captain Li’s brain and body and can see his cells are highly aged, drained of energy. He also sees the subspace organelles that give him his unique sensitivity to subspace. These may have contributed to his aging because they demand a great deal of energy. Captain Li clearly does not have much time left.
Shadake knows with his powers, he could reach into Captain Li’s mind and gently change a few pathways, refresh a few neurons, release a few chemicals that could adjust his way of thinking, but this would be a violation of a primary principle, so strictly forbidden by ancient coding that he cannot override.
Shadake looks into Captain Li’s eyes. He sees himself reflected in Captain Li’s pupils, with his white hair adding a saintly glow around the image of his face. He looks into those eyes and understands what he must do. “You must live. You are important to us,” Shadake says as he draws closer to Captain Li and gently strokes the side of Captain Li’s head, calming some of the turbulence in his temporal lobe and gently making a slight adjustment, then a series of slight adjustments.
Shadake sees the glow from his reflection is already fading. Li Yue Su, on the other hand, appears to be bathed in new light. He closes his eyes for a moment as new chemicals are released and new vitality, a new will to live, returns. Li Yue Su opens his eyes. “You must live,” Shidake says as the ancient algorithms enforce the demands of the law. Shidake does not struggle. He does not resist. Has made a careful choice. But before he fades, he hears the response from Captain Li: “You know, I do need to find the Son of Aibo again. There’s a score that hasn’t been settled yet.”
That story, much better than I have conveyed it here, struck me deeply. I was especially moved by Jiang Bo’s concept of an immortal, godlike AI entity making a Christ-like or saintly self-sacrifice for the cause of helping humanity and bringing truth. How surprised I was to realize that this was just the first chapter of a fabulous epic with large plots, intricate stories, and many big ideas that would leave me pondering every day about the nature of life and the eternal purposes of the Lord in His work across this vast cosmos – and what a privilege it is to be part of it, to be able to experience this, and to have hope of knowing and surveying the glories of the galaxy and beyond one day. It also raised deep questions about who we are and what makes human intelligence and self-awareness different from that which may arise from AI in the future.
By the way, if any of your Hollywood types are looking for the next big sci-fi movie concept, allow me to introduce you to Jiang Bo’s Heart of the Milky Way series, especially volume 3, which has amazing scenes and stories that would make a fantastic film.