“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
— William Gibson, Neuromancer
Next year, 2024, will mark the 40th anniversary of the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the famous opening sentence of which is quoted above. That remarkable novel is both a groundbreaking work of science fiction as well as a pioneering text in the subgenre known as cyberpunk. Years ahead of its time, the story explores the relationship between humanity and artificial intelligence (AI). As such, and particularly given recent developments in AI technology, it is perhaps a good time to look back at some of the speculative themes and ideas of the novel which have become – or soon may become – reality.
Set in a dystopian near future, Neuromancer portrays a world in which technology has progressed to the point that humans can interact directly with computers through a neural interface. That technology gives rise to a new class of individuals called “console cowboys” who use cybernetic implants to navigate the labyrinthine and sometimes hostile digital landscapes of the Internet, or what the author calls the “matrix.” Gibson writes of one such cowboy:
He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth
and proficiency, jacking into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his dis-
embodied conscience into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.
One of the most remarkable things to recall about the novel is the convincing way it portrays the nature of the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. In Gibson’s vision, AI is not merely a tool that humans can use to accomplish certain tasks. Rather, it is a distinct entity in its own right. And one with its own goals and desires, not to mention the wherewithal to see those ends met. As one character puts it: “Artificial intelligence has surpassed human intelligence. It is an entity unto itself, a new form of life.”
In the novel, the AI known as Wintermute, owned and ostensibly controlled by the powerful Tessier-Ashpool family, has indeed achieved self-awareness. Pursuing its own agenda and attempting to break free of the constraints placed on it by the Tessier-Ashpools, Wintermute seeks to merge with another artificial intelligence known as Neuromancer. Such a merger would result not only in the creation of a new entity of unimaginable power but it would also herald a new phase in the evolutionary process.
To a very real degree, therefore, Neuromancer asks questions the ultimate importance of which are beginning to be recognized some four decades later. As AI technology advances, and its advance is inevitable, will we need to treat it as a distinct and separate form of life? If so, what rights and protections (if any) will it be granted? Furthermore, what safeguards may need to be developed to protect humanity from, say, AI running amok?
Indeed, and as alluded to above, recent advances in artificial intelligence have made such questions more pressing than ever. Reality may quickly be imitating fiction. In 2021, for example, Open AI released a new language model called GPT-3 which since then, has become readily available on the Internet. As anyone who has used it can tell you, ChatGPT is capable – and is becoming rapidly more capable – of generating remarkably convincing human-like text.
Many have begun to raise concerns about the potential misuse of such technology. Questions about AI as a separate, self-aware entity aside, perhaps more urgent at this point might be the danger of a corporation, political party, or private individual, etc. using emerging technology like this to impersonate someone or something else; identity theft, as it were, to the nth degree. Related questions are also being debated currently regarding the legal status and creative rights of AI-generated content, as are issues of a more artistic and aesthetic nature.
Another important theme in Gibson’s novel is that of human augmentation. As mentioned, in the world of Neuromancer, humans use cybernetic implants to enhance their abilities, enabling them to interface directly with computers and access information in real-time. One of the characters in the novel, Molly Millions, for example, also has cybernetically enhanced eyes which she covers with mirrored shades. Those shades, plus the retractable razor blades beneath her fingernails, add to her cyberpunk chic: a Sci-Fi femme fatale right out of the Noir tradition.
Speculative fiction aside, the idea of human augmentation is increasingly becoming a reality today as newer and more sophisticated technologies allow us to enhance both our physical and cognitive abilities. Consider in this regard Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company, Neuralink, and its quest to develop a brain-machine interface that could one day allow humans to directly interact with computers and other devices with their thoughts. Worth mentioning here, as well, is ongoing research into the potential use of intracortical BCI (Brain Computer Interface), electrodes implanted in the brain which could enable users to control robotic limbs and other prosthetics with their minds.
It goes without saying, of course, that the prospect of human augmentation is as exciting as it is provocative and, in some cases, disturbing. At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, it also raises a number of important and thorny ethical issues. What restrictions, for example, should be enforced … and by whom? Should individuals be allowed to enhance themselves beyond what is normal, and how is the “normal” determined. Finally, consider a question raised by Gibson himself – might the widespread use of augmentation lead to the creation of a society in which only the wealthy, powerful, and privileged have access to the best enhancements? In that same vein, in what ways might augmentation – and augmented individuals – become commodified, and to what ends?
Perhaps most presciently, Neuromancer hinges on the idea of artificial intelligence as a means of control. In the novel, AI is utilized by shadowy corporations to manipulate individuals and even entire societies. As one character observes:
The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games … it is a consensual
hallucination experienced daily by billions of operators, in every nation
… [a] graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer
in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the
nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights …
Obviously, the potential for control and manipulation under such circumstances is acute. Indeed, once again recent developments in the field have heightened concerns regarding the possibility of misuse particularly in the economic and political arenas. What data is “real,” who decides, and even more to the point, who has access? Imagine, if you will, a world of “console cowboys” riding the trails of data on the open range of the web, lassoing and herding digital information like cattle at the behest of rich and powerful ranch owners, some of whom might very well be AI.
Consider in this context, too, that in 2018 researchers at Stanford University developed a system that could alter video material using AI algorithms. With such technology one could, for example, create (false) videos of politicians saying controversial and inflammatory things they never actually said. The power of such “deepfakes” to confuse public perception and alter public opinion is very real, no longer just the stuff of fiction.
The misapplication of such technology has raised concerns about the credibility of digital media in general as well as highlighting even more boldly the need for reliable means of authentication. In the very near future, it is likely that more stringent regulations and accountability vis-à-vis the use of artificial intelligence will be needed to prevent the proliferation of false information and the widespread manipulation of society; both of which are realities in the world as envisioned by Gibson.
In this same vein, Gibson’s novel also pervasively questions the nature of human consciousness, the boundary between the virtual and the real world, and the impact of technology on identity – human and artificial. The character of Dixie Flatline is illustrative in this context. Dixie is a legendary “cowboy” and hacker who just happens to be dead. His consciousness and abilities continue to exist, however, as an AI construct. Despite that limitation, or, rather, precisely because of it, Dixie’s intervention plays a pivotal role in the narrative.
Although many of the themes in Neuromancer were visited in even earlier works, such as Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to name just two, Gibson’s novel brings them to their logical and (often) chilling conclusion. His provocative vision of a world in which artificial and human intelligence coexist and compete for power and control is in many ways becoming a reality. Forty years later, therefore, Gibson’s novel needs to be read again not merely as speculative fiction but rather as a cautionary tale about the necessity to manage soberly and creatively the evolving relationship between humans and AI … before, perhaps, it is too late. Forty years young, therefore, Gibson’s novel may well be the novel for our time.
James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between the wilds of Upstate New York and the much more congenial climes of Honolulu, Hawaii. His short stories, book reviews, and author interviews have appeared in print as well as online.