The Similarities Between William Gibson’s Groundbreaking Cyberpunk Novel and The 2020 Dumpster Fire
This year there’s been a lot of hype around the cyberpunk genre, mainly because of the highly anticipated release of CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077. With all the time in the world thanks to the pandemic lockdown, I thought it was a good time to jump into one of the cyberpunk’s earliest and most beloved novels, Neuromancer by William Gibson.
The first thing I noticed, aside from Gibson’s shockingly vivid language, was the many connections I was drawing to the current 2020 climate. Even though it was published in 1984, the book remains relevant with thoughtful approaches to artificial intelligence, autonomy and even a few unsettling characters reflected in 2020’s political/social cast.
Tessier-Ashpool is Elon Musk
One of the earliest links I made was how the mysterious tech-mogul family of Tessier-Ashpool reminded me Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk. The obvious comparison is that T-A names like 3Jane and 8Jean with Musk and Grime’s child, X Æ A-12, which set Twitter alight mid-2020.
But the similarities go deeper than that. While the T-A’s lack Musk’s inherent eccentric nature and public stage-taking, they make up for with tech. The AI puppet master of Gibson’s novel, Wintermute, resides deep in the vaults of the T-A fortress and manipulates the protagonists Case, Molly and Armitage into freeing it.
Originally, Wintermute was created by the Tessier-Ashpool matriarch to act as a partner for “corporate decisions”. It’s an immortalization of T-A power. But “all direction was lost” upon the matriarch’s death and Wintermute was locked away, left to its own devices as it sought control over the whole T-A family.
The partnership 3Jane’s mother pictured with Wintermute is the hope unrealized that Musk warns against.
Elon Musk has long been wary of artificial intelligences that are smarter than humans, and reasonably so. Speaking about DeepMind, the AI designed to beat humans at all sorts of games, Musk said it’s a “top concern” for the future of human intelligence.
Wintermute is the representation of everything that Musk feared and what the Tessier-Ashpools should have feared more. The whole plot of the novel is a game for Wintermute and its sibling AI, Neuromancer. Jacking into hotel screens and weaseling into Case’s consciousness while he’s in cyberspace, Wintermute and Neuromancer haunt him with visions of his girlfriend’s death. The programs manipulate him until he’s almost driven mad like Corto/Armitage, who meets his death at the hands of Wintermute.
While Case’s story is one of survival, Corto’s story is one of a life shattered by PTSD. His very neural structure was kidnapped for the sole purpose of freeing Wintermute from its prison. In this vast matrix chess match, Corto is a disposable knight, his movement angular and hard to control.
William Gibson’s Grim Prediction in Neuromancer
I came to the end of the novel in a dour mood. The pandemic had just reached new heights and my community was facing another lockdown. I sought out the end of Neuromancer for an escape from our broken reality, only to be presented with a grim outlook.
Musk’s trepidation toward hyper-intelligent AI becomes realized in Neuromancer’s final pages. After Wintermute joins with Neuromancer, it becomes “the sum total of the works, the whole show”, describing itself to Case as the matrix itself.
In modern science fiction literature, this eventual and all-encompassing super-AI is to be feared. We see it in Ex Machina, where Ava becomes the evil lurking among us. We see it in Blake Crouch’s Summer Frost, where an AI made by game developers consumes the protagonist’s world.
But these comparisons don’t just appear in fiction. Artificial intelligences are quickly taking the center stage in our day-to-day. Some AI are seemingly benign, like the system SEMRush uses to analyze webpage content and provide valuable insight for marketers.
Others are for pure fun, like interactive chat bots. However, other intelligences like OpenAI’s GPT-2 present a bit more of an issue. The site TalkToTransformer.com allows users to input questions or prompts and the AI will spit out text that is generated by analyzing patterns in its vast database of literature, media and journalism.
I played around with TalkToTransformer, inputting the prompt “An AI supercomputer takes control of human consciousness.” This is what came back:
AI technology that would one day control human consciousness.
This may be a result of a negative or biased input. A user error, if you will. However, considering that much of AI literature has been centered on constructs-turned-evil or, in the case of Neuromancer, an AI that is all things at once. It leads the question: are we actively conditioning our AI to believe there is one course of action, and that action is to control humanity?
Final Consideration for Neuromancer 2020
Elon Musk was one of the founders of OpenAI. His vocal resistance to unrestrained AI sits a bit differently knowing that he helped fund GPT-2, the same construct that tells us OpenAI makes technology that will one day rule us.
GPT-2 writes like a human would. As a writer, I want to deny the validity of this. But the haunting realization I came to was that there might come a time when artificial intelligences will replace the very thing that makes us human: our written expression.
Wintermute took Corto’s fractured past and rewrote it into the puppet Armitage. While Corto’s consciousness eventually rebelled, his rebellion ended in his death.
Wintermute failed to write Corto’s story. But given the chance, would it fail again? If AI like GPT-2 have the potential to scour a vast network of human writing, what’s to say that it won’t start writing new materialone day. What if this material that becomes indistinguishable from our own?
Despite Musk’s reservations, he’s walking down the path of the Tessier-Ashpools. 3Jane and the others couldn’t control Wintermute and leaving it unattended begot their downfall.
I’m not an expert when it comes to AI, but the science fiction I’ve read indicates that humanity sacrifices its autonomy as soon as they underestimate the power AI have.
All I can say is that Gibson’s Neuromancer raises important questions. Forty years later, is still so relevant. In a way, it makes me long for the simple ROM constructs like Dixie instead of the new breed like GPT-2 and Wintermute.