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Wonder explores the moral complications of artificial intelligence

By in Culture

In his latest novel, Wonder, Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer explores the possible ramifications of the awakening of artificial intelligence.

Wonder, the third installment in Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, asks what exactly is a human, and moreover, a life. Sawyer moves away from the typical preconceptions that A.I. will be a threat instead of an asset to humanity and explores prejudices against A.I. that movies like Terminator have taught us.

Sawyer is a multiple-award winner; his achievements include the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction and the Canadian Aurora Award, which he won on Aug. 11 for Wonder and which he won in both 2010 and 2011 for the two other books in the WWW trilogy, Wake and Watch, respectively.

Wonder has two protagonists: Webmind, the A.I., and Caitlin, a blind 16-year-old girl who is able to see out of her left eye with the use of a device called an “eyePod.” Webmind and Caitlin communicate through this device; Webmind learns about the physical world and about humanity through Caitlin.

The government is afraid of the threat Webmind might pose to humanity. Webmind and Caitlin attempt to convince the government and the world that he wants to do nothing but benefit the human race.

Webmind is voiced in the first-person perspective while other characters are voiced from a third-person perspective. This can be confusing as Sawyer doesn’t clearly separate the various speakers’ perspectives. Instead, we are given multiple short looks into the lives of the various characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, in sections that often seem disjointed.

Sawyer’s greatest strength in this novel is his ability to incorporate scientific and psychological truths in his writing without alienating his audience. While much of the plot in Wonder revolves around hackers, firewalls and the possible threat of A.I. to humanity, Sawyer is able to breakdown his many hard-hitting ideas in order to relate to an audience that varies in their understanding of the subject.

Many of Sawyers characters are easily relatable and well executed, such as Caitlin’s autistic father Malcolm or government agent Hume, who is responsible for the original attack on Webmind.

However, in his portrayal of the younger generation, Sawyer seems to rely heavily on simple archetypes. One character, Caitlin’s friend Bashira, addresses Caitlin as “babe” in every other sentence. Another character, aptly named Sunshine, is a stereotypical, oversexed blonde high school student with an IQ that leaves much to be desired.

Wonder’s side-plot involving the young protagonist Caitlin is out of touch. Genius, passionate, strong, outspoken and full of teenage hormones, Caitlin is too much at once to be believable as Sawyer often simplifies or brushes over her internal dialog. Caitlin is hard to relate to as his protagonist.

It is very easy to get into Wonder as it follows a fast-paced plot and throws the reader directly into the action. However, with so much going on at once as the government decides what threat Webmind poses, with Webmind carrying on various conversations with people around the globe, with the main character travelling across Canada and the U.S. for various television appearances while still maintaining her active social and love life, and as Webmind tries to defend itself against allegations of corruption, the novel could benefit from more focus.

Wonder is a wonderfully executed and thought-out genre novel. Despite its weaknesses, it is an enjoyable read that addresses many questions about A.I. that have become increasingly prevalent in modern entertainment.


Photo: Supplied

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