by Robert J. Sawyer
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441018185
Date: 06 April 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
WWW:Watch returns us to Caitlin Dector's world...a world she can now see, thanks to the experimental device (they called it an "eyePod") cooked up by a Japanese researcher, that intercepts the information going to her optic nerve and translates it for her brain, which is unable to do so itself, courtesy of a rare condition she's had since birth. Along the way to working out the kinks in the eyePod, Caitlin discovered that the device could also help her "see" web connections in the internet, a new take on the classic cyberpunk VR experience.
What she "saw" in the web also echoes something of William Gibson's Neuromancer, a fledgling artificial intelligence struggling to make sense of the web and the mysterious world outside it just as she was. By the end of the first book (WWW: Wake) Caitlin and Webmind were helping each other cope with the world, and the world is a big place when you're seeing it for the first time, regardless of whether you're a teenage girl or an emergent artificial intelligence.
Emergent artificial intelligence stories have been around for a long time, but the protagonist has typically been a more or less adult, male computer scientist who has been shocking the beastie to life. Sawyer's choice of a teenager offers an excellent opportunity for us to compare the relative maturation of the scientist and her monster as they go through the usual cycle. Scientist creates/discovers monster, monster gets out in the real world, villagers show up at the castle with torches.
The villagers in this case are a collection of spy agencies charged with keeping the world on this side of the singularity, because there's no telling if humankind will have a place on the other side at all. Though we have an emotional connection with both girl and monster, the author gives due credence to their concern. Caitlin's friends and family rally round, but not without their doubts. For Caitlin's part, she's determined to teach enough positive values to Webmind that it will prove to be a force for good, but even she has her moments of doubt.
This business of infecting AIs with the better parts of ourselves is deeply rooted in the genre, from Asimov's Three Laws stories, to the climax of The Fifth Element where Bruce Willis has to convince a culture shocked artificial being that humanity's horrors are outweighed by its better qualities. Computer scientists, like Anne Foerst (God In the Machine : What Robots Teach Us About Humanity and God, 2004,Dutton Adult), point out that as we create intelligences we will inevitably shape their development to be a reflection of ourselves, and even though Webmind emerged spontaneously, Caitlin is there during its formative processor cycles to steer it towards an adulthood as a responsible part of the world community. If the combined efforts for the US, Japanese, and Canadian (yes, even the Canadian government has it in for Webmind) doesn't kill it off first.
The alternate danger, of course, is that by trying to shut it down those agencies will only make it mad.
There's another storyline that the author has been moving along since the first book, about Hobo, a crossbred bonobo-chimpanzee that's learned to sign and likes to make paintings. Though there's been a lot of drama around a zoo that wants the animal back, the real conflict turns out to be an echo of Webmind's dilemma. Genetically the ape comes from two different temperament stocks, one violent the other peaceful. As Hobo enters adolescence, his sex drive feeds the violent side of his nature, and like Webmind, he has to decide who he is going to be. With a little help from his friends.
WWW: Watch is a great piece of YA, written by an author that mixes together teen angst, spy/hacker drama, pop culture, computer science, world history, game theory, and a fair amount of philosophy...and makes the entire thing fun to read besides. Please note that I'm not pegging this as YA because it's wouldn't be a good read for anyone, but because the plucky, math smart, courageous, and offbeat heroine is the sort of person that I expect you'd like kids to be friends with, or to take after.
And it turns out she's a good influence on computers too.