Holy Mother of God, it's not human

A thriller out this week shows a monstrous artificial intelligence escape on to the Internet. Plausible?
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D avid Ambrose's second book is a well-paced and eminently readable work of fiction. It is at heart a retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with the role of the doctor taken by a woman academic and that of the monster by a computer program that escapes into the chaotic confines of the Internet - thereby becoming more monstrous for not being human.

As in the original, the monster is not intrinsically evil, but becomes alienated through its inexperience and imagined attempts to suppress it - as the text puts it, it is an "angry baby", but rather less confinable. Not being human, the nature of the beast needs to be described. The author uses the device of dialogues between a clone of the program and humans on subjects ranging from phenomenology to the Turing Test - which proves that an outsider cannot tell the difference between a real person and the program. A human monster is also introduced by way of contrast - a serial killer.

The artificial intelligence entities of William Gibson's cult science fiction novels prowl the future. This one prowls the present. Could it happen? Of course it does not have to in a work of fiction, but as in Jurassic Park, it is always interesting to speculate whether this is pure fantasy or a near miss. The best answer is that most of what is described can be made to happen at a smaller scale and at a time scale that would not lend itself to the treatment given in the book - probably by several orders of magnitude.

First the hacking. It is inevitable that there will always be an arms race between the hacker and the designer of computer security systems, with a balance being struck which is a compromise between ease of access and security. The effectiveness of the hacker could be measured as a combination of time delay and success factor in accessing protected data. For the plot to work, these figures would need to be, respectively, near- instantaneous and 100 per cent. Currently, security is rather better than this and is getting better.

Time scale will also make the evolution of the intellect of the program entity somewhat longer than the plot could tolerate. Evolution through genetic mutation, even if speeded up several million fold, would still not meet the plot's deadlines. The adverse time factor is also compounded by the amount of knowledge the program would need to master to mutate into the God-like entity it becomes, particularly as it has to acquire the art of learning - the "experience of experience" in the text. The reader is not told how it learns - perhaps just as well, as learning on the scale implied would be impossible to describe without going into intolerable detail. Also, as anybody who has tried knows, access to Internet resources is far from being an instantaneous process. In conclusion, it would seem that the Internet is not quite ready for such a creature.

The creator survives at the conclusion of the book, so it is possible that the author has a sequel in mind. Could one outcome be that the entity starts to mutate by cloning genetic variants each bent on survival at the expense of the rest? Do they all eliminate each other or will a super- being emerge, as in the field of warriors sown by Cadmus? Is humanity saved or not?

The writer is chief scientist of ICL. `Mother of God' is published by Macmillan on Friday at pounds 9.99.

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