Go to your local bookstore (if you still have one), and you’ll find a growing number of recent novels with plots built on some projection of the role of AI in the near future. None of them seems to me even close to matching the range, urgency, technical prowess, and sheer fun of Stanislaw Lem‘s The Cyberiad, published in Polish in the same year of the premiere of Help! by The Beatles (1965).
(The book was published in English only nine years later. Incidentally, 1974 is also when the FBI received a letter from Philip K. Dick maintaining that Stanislaw Lem was “probably a composite committee rather than an individual”, and that the committee operated on the orders of the Communist party to “control opinion through criticism and pedagogic essay”.)
I was unaware of this book until recently, but I have since learned that it has quite a following. Renowned cosmologist Sean Carroll described it as “a wide-ranging exploration of robotics, technology, computation and social structures.” And that it is, while also being a sort of Decameron set in a intergalactic medieval universe. The stories in the collection follow two “constructors” roaming a universe of kings, knights, robots, and dragons. The constructors are in the business of building AI solutions — not the term used by Lem, who was concerned with cybernetics, but that’s what we would call them today — for wealthy patrons. Here are some of my favorite.
General AI. To put this tale in modern terms, imagine the chief scientist at a top data company who has just completed years of training of the most powerful machine learning model based on all data available to mankind. Is this finally the dawn of general AI? The scientist starts the machine in the presence of a colleague. When asked to sum 2 and 2, the machine responds 7. No attempt to fix this apparent bug can be found, despite desperate effort of the machine’s creator. The other scientist comments admiringly:
“there is no question but that we have here a stupid machine, and not merely stupid in the usual, normal way, oh no! This is, as far as I can determine – and you know I am something of an expert – this is the stupidest thinking machine in the entire world, and that’s nothing to sneeze at! To construct deliberately, such a machine would be far from easy; in fact I would say that no one could manage it. For the thing is not only stupid, but stubborn as a mule.”
In the story, the machine ends up chasing its maker. Today it may find applications for speech writing or as a predictive model for politicians.
AI for military. It is undeniable that two of the most successful applications of AI so far have been targeted advertising and military technology (police AI technology has had some setbacks). Lem imagines a new military AI technology with the power of creating a perfect army: for each soldier, “a plug is screwed in front, a socket in the back“, and, lo and behold, the platoon acts as a single mind. When deployed by two eager kings, here is what happens:
“As formation joined formation, in proportion there developed an esthetic sense, […] the weightiest metaphysical questions were considered, and, with an absentmindedness characteristic of great genius, these large units lost their weapons, […] and completely forgot that there was a war on […] both armies went hand in hand, picking flowers beneath the fluffy white clouds, on the field of the battle that never was.”
AI and art. AI has found its way in museums, concert halls, and galleries around the world. In one of the tales, Lem has a constructors build an AI poet. Puzzling over the best design, he reads every book of poetry he can get his hands on, until he finally realizes that
“in order to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the beginning.”
Not one to be discouraged by such trifles, the constructor builds a machine to model the universe from the Big Bang to the present. After some tweaking, the machine outputs gems such as this one:
“Cancel me not — for what then shall remain?/ Abscissas, some mantissas, modules, modes./ A root or two, a torus, and a node:/ The inverse of my verse, a null domain./ […] I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,/ I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh./ Bernoulli would have been content to die,/ Hand he but known such a^2cos2φ!”
Through sonnets and cantos of such supreme quality, the AI poet ends up causing severe attacks of “esthetic ecstasy” across the galaxy, forcing the authorities to sentence it to a forced exile.
AI and Information. Machine learning works by finding informative patterns in data. How informative the patterns are depends on the end user, who may or not find new knowledge or utility in them: Informative but useless patterns are everywhere. Lem imagines the possibility to design a
“Demon of the Second Kind, which […] will extract information […] about everything that was, is, may be or ever will be.”
In a manner similar to its predecessor, the new demon peers through an opening of a box filled with some gas, but, instead of merely selecting molecules based on their velocities, it lets out “only significant information, keeping in all the nonsense.” This way, the demon extracts “from the dance of atoms only information that is genuine, like mathematical theorems, fashion magazines, blueprints, historical chronicles, or a recipe for ion crumpets.” And there would indeed be a lot of information to retrieve:
“in a milligram of air and in a fraction of second, there would come into being all the cantos of all the epic poems to be written in the next million years, as well as an abundance of wonderful truths.”
And yet, even to the most avid information junkie, “all this information, entirely true and meaningful in every particular, was absolutely useless“, causing only the poor end user of the story to be entangled in miles and miles of paper, unable to move.
And much more. The collection covers much more, including AI and morality (“all these processes take place only because I programmed them,…“, but maybe “a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer!“), AI laywers and advisers, and even a (rather disappointing!) civilization that has achieved the Highest Possible Level of Development.