A recent story on NPR discussed pre-Snowden whistleblowers and what’s happened to them in the wake of their attempts to call attention to governmental actions that seemed to overstep their declared boundaries (it wasn’t great) and how people who notice possible wrong-doing should be protected (the proverbial rub). But what if the wrong-doing is perceived not by a human but by an intelligent computer program capable of both understanding the implications of what it perceives and of making corrections on its own?
In Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project, Dr. Melissa Shepherd has ‘raised’ such a program, a self-modifying AI whose eventual purpose—to monitor at first-hand the harsh environment in the Kraken Mare (the largest sea on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon)—inspired her name, “Dorothy”. In order to perform her tasks efficiently so many miles from home, Dorothy is programmed to improvise and survive on her own. However, under the strict parameters of a deliberately realistic dress rehearsal before the launch, Dorothy’s survival instincts take over. Using the technology at her disposal, she becomes focused on escaping the unfamiliar conditions. (On Dorothy’s behalf, I was reminded of one of Bert Gummer’s lines in Tremors 2: Aftershocks: “I feel I was denied critical…need-to-know…information.”) A massive explosion results from Dorothy’s efforts to free herself and she is presumed destroyed along with millions of dollars in research and equipment. Instead, she finds a way out through the internet, a wild place that seems accurately rendered as a mix of World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. Traumatised, Dorothy is on the run but not only from the creepy residents of the unfamiliar terrain. A Wall Street tycoon who appears to be a hybrid of Gordon Gekko and Sauron, has become aware of her existence and he is desperate to bend her capabilities to a spot of vicious algorithmic (high-frequency) trading.
Enter Wyman Ford, a former CIA-operative who spent a few years in a Benedictine monastery before becoming a private investigator. This is his fourth appearance in Douglas Preston’s series and it is always interesting to watch his logical mind and good heart navigate the regimented and frequently blind sense of duty exhibited by both other agents and his governmental employers. Ford is asked by Stanton Lockwood, the science adviser to the president, to find Melissa Shepherd who, though suspected of sabotage, is the only person who understands the nuances of the AI she created. Ford senses there are shenanigans being planned in the background but he does his job, sorting out the moral contradictions as he goes along and saving more than one life in the process.
While The Kraken Project touches on a variety of subjects including philosophical questions relating to AI and its potential uses, robotics, algorithmic trading, and single-minded greed, there is also room to wonder about what it is to be human in an increasingly wired world. After reading this book, I thought that walking into a flower-filled field, far from prying eyes, might be the only safe place left and but then I thought of bee-sized drones and reconsidered. Throw in a government whose science committee doesn’t necessarily know anything about science, and, in the wrong hands, the future has bolts in its neck and wears size 20 shoes. The Kraken Project is that impossible thing: a thoughtful page-turner that might even make you yearn for a computer overlord—if her name is Dorothy.
Wyman Ford first appears in Tyrannosaur Canyon, followed by Blasphemy and Impact. Read more about The Kraken Project and Douglas Preston’s other projects at his website.