I just read Excession, the fourth of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, and really enjoyed it. It’s different from the others I’ve read in that for the first time, the main characters are not the various aliens that make up the Culture or have contact with it. Instead, this novel’s most engaging characters are super-intelligent computers, the Minds that run everything the Culture.
The computer intelligences that take centre stage here are funny and odd and, for most of the novel, communicate in what amount to emails and internet forum posts. They are a mixed group of misfits, do-gooders, trolls and weirdos. There are even some hippies. Perhaps most interestingly, these machines are fully formed characters that read as a very human group of computer (!) nerds who find themselves trying to save the world. That they have very different ideas of what that entails is a principal source of the drama.
As I finished the novel, I spent some time flipping back through it and thinking about how Banks makes the computers seem both mechanical and human. Soon after, Nicolas Carr reposted a text he’d written about the Turing Test. His satirical suggestion for determining whether a machine manifests intelligence is that, like humans, an intelligent machine must be one that can experience boredom. His aim is to dismisses the possibility of creating artificial intelligence. What I realized when I read his piece, however, was that in Excession Banks humanizes his powerful, intelligent machines precisely by showing them coping with boredom.
Confronted with the plodding motion of a more-or-less human world that they understand completely and manage perfectly, the Minds respond in two ways. First and most often, they imagine fictional worlds for themselves by daydreaming mathematically. In doing this, they become fanciful, creative and even artistic. Second and much less often, the Minds (also) immerse themselves in human history and build relationships with individual humans. One such “friendship” masquerades as a pivotal aspect of the central plot for the entire novel.
It’s interesting that both Banks and Carr, working in different modes and for different purposes, both imagine an intelligent computer becoming bored. It’s fascinating that the novelist sees this experience of boredom as the ground for the machine having a character and relationships and not as a failing or a weakness.