Review: The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl by Bryce Anderson

by phildini on May 22, 2015


If you look at the people who are trying to predict Strong AI, Artificial Intelligence that's equal to or better than a human's intelligence, there's two pieces of consensus among them: 1) That there's a real good chance we'll have that kind of human-or-better AI by 2040, and 2) that the reality of such an AI will change our world and our existence in ways that we almost can't comprehend. If you dig into that second piece a bit, you find two camps of people. One camp thinks "the future is so bright we're going to need shades." The other camp thinks "Yeah. Shades to shield our eyes from the nuclear fallout when a bunch of AIs decide humans aren't worth keeping around anymore." (I'm mischaracterizing the pessimist group, but not by much)

Caught between these two extremes, it's pretty easy to gain anxiety about the future, especially if you work in tech and know how fragile things currently are. (If you want to join me, and a lot of other really smart people, in celebrating/fearing the future, read these two blog posts from Wait But Why.) Both camps agree on one thing though: Humanity basically won't be able to keep up, at all, with our new technological Gods.

But there's an idea that's not explored in the blog posts above, a third option that could be far better or far worse than a benevolent machine God or destructive robotic despot (but ultimately more relatable than either): What if we could upload a human brain, upload all human brains, and beef up their processing power to beyond any intelligence level we can think of today? What if the next superintelligence was actually a human?

This is the idea that's explored in Bryce Anderson's The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl. A young woman, Helen, the titular character of Anderson's novel, donates her body, and most specifically her frozen brain, to science, on the condition that they try to rebuild her, neuron by neuron, in a computer. Or, more realistically, a vast network of computers. As time progresses, Moore's Law marches on, the computers powering Helen get faster and faster, she gets smarter and smarter, and eventually reaches a level of intelligence and power that can only be described to us real-time, single-brained humans through some very clever literary devices.

The road to super-intelligence is not easy for Helen, as she must navigate the landscape of human interactions while at the same time being a brand new type of human. Not to mention having to make political arguments to fund her survival through grants, and keeping an eye on a true Strong AI that may not have humanity's best interests at heart.

All of this is set against the backdrop of a technological near-future that I had no trouble believing in. With the blog posts above fresh in my mind, I was prepared to dismiss any fictional representation of AI as Science Fantasy, but Anderson has done his homework, and knows his subject material well. (The dates he includes at the start of the book's chapters help build a timeline that will seem fairly plausible after reading Wait But Why). The most impressive part of the book, from a literary standpoint, is the way Anderson can construct the worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds required for a story that happens in an increasingly digital space, and not leave the reader confused as to where they are. There were only a few moments in the book where I felt lost as to what environment the characters were really in, and even then my confusion didn't distract from the action.

The thing that drew me in deep, however, the thing that made me sit up and take notice and plow through Singularity Girl, was that core idea, the idea that maybe we can prevent the technological apocalypse by making ourselves better, rather than making the machines better than us. I'm sure there are many that consider the idea wishful thinking, that would point out there's nothing inherently great about humans at a galactic scale, and that I shouldn't make our species out to be any better than it is. To me, it seems like theres a very thin line between a machine that has our best interests at heart and a machine that wants to turn us all into power sources. One line of code may be all it takes, and it may be the only thing that can fight a super-intelligent robot, is a super-intelligent human.

You should absolutely go read The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl. The book has good characters, incredible worlds, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, and is almost guaranteed to expand your mind.