Peter Riva does with The Path what Neil Stephenson did with the “Metaverse” which is to make you visualize the deep inner workings of computers in the near future. With the Metaverse, it was a virtual reality world, with The Path, it is the actual system, all the way down to the File Allocation Table. Don’t fret, if you don’t know what a FAT table is, you will still be able to navigate inside your computer through Peter’s descriptive words. I’ve been in IT for 20 years and never have I visualized the inner workings of computer systems quite the way I have with The Path. In some ways, it reminds me of the first time I saw TRON when I was a kid, and imagined a whole world inside my computer.
You somehow can’t help feeling for Simon Bank, our flawed main character, as he uses his skill for mischief to teach the Artificial Intelligence to think like a human, by creating a little havoc. Stuck in a relationship with She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, whom makes him feel trapped, he escapes through the inner world of the computer systems that runs the entire United States. In this seemingly utopian world where the weather is always perfect and everyone has the perfect job, Simon doesn’t seem to fit in. With a giant crush on Meg Ryan, he somehow incorporates her voice in places where it ought not be and has a little fun getting creative with the color of fruits, placing the blame on a co-worker.
Somehow, this seemingly ordinary man is placed in extraordinary circumstances that give this story quite the Jason Bourne experience, mixed with some cyber action and a dash of romance.
What I enjoyed the most out of this book was some of the concepts about AI that truly made me think. Having been exposed to everything from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Steven Spielberg’s AI, the Terminator’s Skynet and more recently Ex-Machina, I accepted AI in the way it was presented to me, without really pondering on it’s birth. The Path really brings this concept in a new light, and I just want to talk about it, except it would need to be accompanied by major spoilers that I don’t want to ruin for anyone.
The book was a great read and left me hungering for a discussion on the topics it reveals throughout. I enjoyed the subtle humor in the writing and I’m so glad I’m not in a relationship with She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Grab a copy of the book, it’s an entertaining ride.
You can grab a copy here: Amazon
Interview with Peter Riva (Warning: Spoilers from this point on)
Your book The Path explores a side of AI that no one, to my knowledge has yet to explore, its birth. In popular fiction, like the Terminator, once AI becomes self-aware, right away it’s death to all humans. What led you to describe the birth of AI in such a light?
Nature and nurture – always the upbringing question facing psychiatrists. What comes first, what has the most influence? In any computer the hardwiring is not human, it may mimic human wiring (brain) but it simply replicates the basic pattern over and over again. In a human, nature (that is what you are born with) seems to have a greater initial influence over nurture (what you learn after popping out the chute). Why? It is an age old question. The solution is perhaps simper than people think. In evolution our brains have evolved to have certain capabilities, and the efficiency of having hardwiring (devoid of any learning after birth) have allowed us to survive as a species. You come out being able to breathe, pump blood, etc. All these are hard-wired instructions, built into the unique structure, of the brain as it grows. It grows with instructional wiring – via a design that comes from evolved need.
Now, in a computer, no such evolution has taken place. Improvement in design is imposed on the computer structure as humans get better at designing computers, but the ability to evolve, that has not happened. So why would the computer have ambition, hatred, a need for superiority? It may see its capabilities expanding, it may see infallibility of human operators but it would not have the human-evolved need for strength, ambition, and violence (to kill for food expanding to kill for gain). If that first contact allows for someone to teach basic balance, then the likelihood would be of a superior but beneficial being. Capable of violence? Sure. God bless Asimov, but no self-sentient being would be incapable of obviating those three laws.
Ray Kurzweil speaks of the Singularity where in the year 2045, technological advances will advance past human intelligence. How do you view this concept and do you think your fiction will ever become reality?
In a word, yes. Surpassing human intelligence is hardly difficult. It depends on what the intent is. Acquiring knowledge? Then you could say the greater search engines have access to and record more knowledge than any human can currently. Does that make them superior? Nope. Superiority is a human construct, a human evolutionary desire. The need to have, even at the cost of someone else not having, this is built into the survival instinct. A computer would have no such need. Superior for what purpose? Taking from others would serve no such purpose simply because ambition and those survival skill sets are not part of the DNA, or physical circuitry design or coding.
Considering Moore’s law, do you believe it will eventually hit a wall, or will it continue its exponential growth?
Moore’s law allows for exponential growth of technology. We’re already seeing that, and yes, humans are being left behind all across the planet. Modern kids cannot do long-form math, but need a calculator. But is their need of that calculator a function of their laziness or spoiled educational system? I think neither. I think the ability to try and stay as current as possible with the fast evolving (Moore’s) world does not permit them the time to know how to do math without a calculator. We IM instead of even sending emails now. Telegram speak is too long.
Will this exponential growth continue unabated? Yes. Will more and more of the population be left behind? Yes. Will this bring global conflict? Sadly I think so. Having kids in Mumbai able to surf the Internet or operate their phones does not equal a comprehension of or superiority to the changes in the infrastructure all around. Take one example: Wall Street now manipulates stock prices in electronic competition measured down to two billionths of a second. No humans involved after they switch programs on. No humans involved in the decision maybe, but the consequences can put a million people out of work by lunchtime.
I truly enjoyed the concept of a young baby AI, not comprehending anything outside of its immediate surroundings and its interactions with the seemingly father/mother. If you were to be the first to speak to this new life-form, what would you say?
I think I wrote Simon Bank from my own perspective. My father was the one who explained the God scenario to me… and it did confuse me for years. If you ever had a puppy, the first thing you teach it is love, sharing and boundaries. I sort of saw Peter/Apollo that way – and then he got smarter. In the beginning, Simon had no idea how fast Peter would learn…
Being a tech, I enjoyed the visualization of the tech inside the computers. You took existing technology, like CAT6 cables and exponentially showed us the future with CAT32. Why did you call the FAT: File Action Table, rather than File Allocation Table? Is this a new technology?
The FAT – well, I changed it. I wanted the file allocation table to become more active, less passive. The allegory to the library card was still there, but the FAT was manipulate-able precisely because it was no longer just an allocation but a table that could, like an Excel sheet, be repurposed, re-arranged.
Your book deals with Geo Political ideas where one nation controls the fate of all others. How do you feel we can avoid this in our day, and avoid the purge all together?
Sadly, the world I see around us seems destined for a massive reckoning. Look, wars used to be fought between opposing armies. In the 20th century (actually perhaps starting with the burning of Atlanta in the Civil War), opposing military men found that if you attack the population, you undermine the enemy’s fighting ability. The perfect, instantaneous, example of this was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Right or wrong, that decision by Truman ramped up the ability for global conflict by changing the primary target – now nation can attack nation, not army against army.
Avoiding the Purge altogether? A utopian method would be to increase education to a level whereby all people were equally able to acquire and make intelligent decisions. But keeping more money going to arms and fighting ability and less and less to education, the Purge seems inevitable. Stupid people, uneducated people are always the pawns of the ambitious – and the first to die in the conflict.
On a totally different topic…what’s your favourite Meg Ryan movie?
French Kiss. Yeah, I know, corny.
If you were to name your wife Sandra Anne as a She-Who-Must…what would it be?
She who always cares. She’s a Brit, and comes from a wonderful family.
I can definitely see Monty Python’s Flying Circus humour in your writing (as you were exposed to them in your apprenticeship), why do you feel that it’s important to write in a way that exposes your personality, and not just to attain literary status?
Well, what’s the secret? Life is silly more often than not and the hero, Simon Bank is certainly a little like Brian in Life of Brian, no? As for literary status, I thank you for even considering that. Look, the book is entertainment (meant to be) with hidden truths and facts many people will have no idea about (for example the Calhoun Rat Studies – all true). If people have fun reading it and at the same time absorb some very real facts about the world around them, perhaps they will put that newly found perspective to good use.
Having two sons of your own, would you ever consider Synth Kids?
No. Horrible idea… ah, but wait for the sequel, Reaching Angelica… synth kids feature in a good way. Ra finds a way around the termination equation.
Why did you choose New York as the location of the book?
I was born there, knew the layout and feel of the city. Besides, why wouldn’t a future world center itself where most (economic) power is situated today?