Feeling a little like a set of thrillers coauthored by Tom Clancy and Greg Egan, Ramez Naam’s “Nexus” trilogy follows a scattered group of hackers, ex-soldiers, government officials, and artificial intelligences as they struggle to cope with the implications of a world changed by a powerful new technology.
Nexus is a drug comprised of nano-scale robots that bind with the nervous system, allowing individual people to interact with their brains via a command line interface and groups of humans to share thoughts and emotions.
Naam does a good job of painting a realistic portrait of the secondary and tertiary ripples of having such a drug in play: Near the beginning of the trilogy we observe genetically enhanced supersoldiers becoming vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors. In between, autistic children are healed by being able to feel the minds of other people, mothers connect with the budding consciousness of their unborn children, and sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.
I found this seriousness refreshing, because too often science fiction is confined to riffing on one or two implications of a new technology while leaving almost everything else unchanged.
The 2014 film “Her”, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a writer who falls in love with an advanced AI operating system, is a good example. While it may seem far fetched that a human could form a romantic connection with a disembodied intelligence, if such a being were advanced enough to be capable of passing the Turing test, would being in love with one be that different from being in love with a person living on the other side of an ocean?
The problem, though, is that other than this we don’t see much change as a result of extremely advanced AIs being turned loose. A few people become attached to them and complications arise which serve to move the plot forward. But where is the vastly accelerated research in mathematics and computer science, where are the internecine struggles between AIs competing for resources, where are the panicked reactionary governments trying desperately to cling to power?
I realize the film wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive meditation on the changes human-level AIs will usher in, but I still found it’s extremely limited scope unsatisfying.
The “Nexus” trilogy explores these questions and much more besides. It doesn’t convey the vast, smoldering existential horror of Peter Watts’s “Blindsight”, nor does it quite live up to the narrative majesty of a Vernor Vinge book, to whose “Rainbow’s End” it is comparable, but it is an ably-crafted, fast-paced international spy story filled to the brim with plausible near-future technology centered around advances in neuroscience and nanotechnology.
There is a decent chance I’ll reread the whole trilogy at some point in the future, which is a high recommendation indeed.