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Will the machines take control?

Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

April 30, 2019   4 mins

Iain M Banks wrote nine novels set in the Culture universe. Were they prescient? Did they predict the future? In one sense, unambiguously not. They are not set in Earth’s future. The series is spread across a millennium – from Earth’s middle ages to the 20th century – but our planet is rarely mentioned. The galaxy is full of humans and humanoids, but the children of Earth are not among them. You can’t predict the future if you don’t show the future.

In another sense, though, they do. Banks died in 2013 – tragically young, at just 59. But he lived to see a technological world that was wildly different from that of the mid-1980s, when the Culture was first set down on paper (and wildly different from that of the 1960s, when he first had the idea). Most sci-fi, a few decades after it’s released, starts to look distinctly ropy. The 1983 vision of a super-hi-tech computer with green text on a screen and a blinking cursor would have been laughably dated by 2005. Watch any old Star Trek episode and you’ll see.

But Banks’s science fiction – even his earliest – rarely falls into this trap. Read the first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, back to back with the most recent, and you’ll notice how little the technology has changed. In Phlebas, Banks is a bit more willing to use the word “computer” – it probably seemed quite futuristic, back in 1987 – but even in The Player of Games (published the following year), the word seems passé. An intelligent drone wails that the primitive aliens they’re visiting are “calling me a computer!” (The AI and drones are always characters in Banks’s fiction, never objects or tools.)

In some specific ways, too, Banks foresaw the changes that technology would bring. In Player, Banks says in an aside that when Culture citizens tell stories “in which Things Went Wrong” (the standard opening), “the equivalent of straying off the path in the wild woods in one age, or a car breaking down at night on a lonely road in another”, was humans “losing or forgetting or deliberately leaving behind their terminal”.

A terminal – usually a ring, button, pen or similar small jewellery-like item – is a person’s link to the super-powerful AI “Mind” that runs each artificial Culture world (and to everybody else in the Culture.) It’s a communication tool, an information source, a personal organiser; it can form a screen when required and answer any question. It’s always passively listening and a shout or a word can activate it. The titular character in Player uses his to take photographs. Imagine getting used to having all that to hand! No wonder it’s Culture citizens’ worst nightmare to lose it.

Player was published in 1988, when mobile phones were brick-sized things employed solely by awful City traders in those stupid blue shirts with white collars. But by the early 2000s, when my Nokia phone started to gain a few extra functionalities – a colour screen and the capacity to play music; then a camera; and at last a link, of sorts, to the internet – I remember having a conversation with a friend. “They’re becoming terminals,” I said. “They’re becoming the one thing you use for everything.” I used the Banks term because it seemed so clearly to be the Banks concept.

The iPhone wasn’t released until 2007, and smartphones didn’t become widespread until a few years later. But to a Banks fan like me they very obviously fit the framework of the terminal: small, jewel-beautiful objects that could be your communicator, your computer, your link to a global datasphere containing the majority of human knowledge. They could play videos or music, be a book or magazine.

As Siri and Alexa came into being a few years later, the parallels became ever more stark. I could say “Hey Siri” right now and, in my pocket, my phone would do whatever I wanted it to. (Or, more likely, because it’s in my pocket and my voice would be muffled and anyway they’re not quite perfect yet, it would phone my mum and I’d have to scramble to switch it off. But it’s getting there.)

The only functional difference between a smartphone and a terminal is that the latter links you to a godlike Mind that controls the entire world as though it were a theme park. And that, of course, is only because there is no such Mind in our world.

We may build one though, in the not too distant future. Most AI researchers think that a superintelligent machine will be built in the lifetimes of children alive today. And Banks, unlike many science fiction writers, understood just how transformative that will be. The humans in the Culture have rich lives, full of adventure and sex and drugs, but they are bit-players. The civilisation is run by the Minds, because they are vastly more intelligent than the citizens.

Citizens’ lives are protected by the Minds, while the economy is entirely run by them; most humans just live lives of uninterrupted leisure. Whether that’s a utopia or a dystopia is a question of perspective.

The superintelligent machines will not, Banks saw, be like computers that we use. If they come to exist, they will be sovereign. We need to ensure that they, like the Minds, are on our side. After all, they’re quite likely to connect to us all via the possession most of us have to hand at this very moment: our terminals – I mean – smartphones.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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