Brain-eating AIs revolt against Asimov’s laws (4 stars)
Originally released in 1982, Software mainly follows Cobb, a retired scientist that created a race of sentient robots that took over the moon after a 2001 revolt, the boppers. Decades later, and old and alcoholic Cobb is contacted by the boppers with the promise of receiving eternal life. The catch is that the robots want to eat his brain to do it.
Like many other works of cyberpunk, Software deals with themes like the nature of identity, free will, how technology changes society and the basis of intelligence. The setting is an intriguing one, set not in sprawling cities, but in places like an anarchic Florida turned – even further – into a senior citizen utopia where the old ones endlessly relive the 1960’s. It is an interesting reminder that a world of advanced medicine also brings an older population, and Social Security woes.
‘To stop the rioting, the Gimmie had turned the whole state of Florida over to the pheezers. There was no rent there, and free weekly food drops. The pheezers flocked there in droves, and “did their own thing.” Living in abandoned motels, listening to their crummy old music, and holding dances like it was 1963, for God’s sake.’
There is a curious symbiosis between human and bopper society, that with it’s superior technology sells back to mankind human organs grown in vat farms. Bopper society is also very intriguing by itself in Software. It is undergoing a tense friction between small boppers – mostly human-sized robots – with the big boppers, who are the size of entire buildings and may be the next AI evolutionary step. The big boppers are bent on “absorbing” – actually eating – the brains of small boppers and humans alike in their search of knowleadge and power.
I liked the combination of a tongue-in-cheek and humorous tone with big ideas in Software. The bopper society is an intriguing one, fast-paced and based on competition, as the success of sentience in boppers is attributed not only to the fact that they were created to learn, but that they were created to compete.
‘That was my big idea, Sta-Hi. To make the robots evolve. They were designed to build copies of themselves, but they had to fight over the parts. Natural selection.’
It is also interesting to see how oppressive Asimov’s robot laws sound to an intelligent machine, as they put human needs and protection above the machines’. I liked how this struggle even mirrors the ones from real minorities. The machines go as far as calling Asimov’s Laws “human-chauvinist”.
Another big theme is if consciousness can be transfered. A robot can of course replicate it’s mind and software, but is the new robot the same being or just a perfect copy? And the same goes to humans. If a computer maps and backups your entire mind, is it still you in there?
I found that the characters were one of the strong points of the book, and they really kept me interested in the narrative, like the junkie Sta-High and the primordial sentient bopper Ralph Numbers. I liked how the book got into each character’s perspectives.
Software is just the first book in the “Ware Tetralogy”, comprised of Software, Wetware, Freeware and Realware. I am looking forward for the next books in the series.