William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I’m starting to think this is the case with the Singularity as well. By its very definition this would seem to belie the idea of a Singularity at all, but bear with me.
Singularity generally deals in two closely related concepts: artificial intelligence and posthumanism. Once we get an AI that no longer relies on humans to improve its own processing capability, we’ve hit Singularity: the AI is god and we are its primate crash-test dummies. Beyond the point of the AI’s emergence, we can’t really predict what the future will hold for us. Similarly, any attempt to guess at what will happen to the human species once it shares the universe with a posthuman species (other than, you know, extinction) is largely futile.
A great deal of Singularity fiction embraces a “hard” Singularity, where the AI or the posthuman threat outpaces humanity in a very short period of time. But perhaps a softer Singularity is more realistic: posthuman technologies emerge not all at once but gradually. Computers that you wear like glasses. Computers that you stick to your skin like bandages. Computers that you swallow, like a drug.
The first two are real (if only prototypical). The third is Nexus.
Nexus is part techno-thriller, part spy novel, and entirely dystopian in its outlook on the near future. Ramez Naam explores how governments will attempt to control the dissemination and use of technologies that fundamentally alter the capability of human bodies and minds. His conclusions, that such technologies will force redefinitions of what it means to be “human”, to be a “person”, to have rights and liberties as recognized by documents like the Constitution, are both predictable and terrifying. The slider setting with “security” on one end and “freedom” on the right has been tilted entirely too far in the former’s direction. Yet—and this is the kicker when it comes to posthumanism—the alternative could well be chaos on an extinction level.
Kade Lane, the protagonist, is one of the primary innovators of a new version of Nexus. Arrested by the ERD, Homeland Security’s posthuman division, Kade agrees to a dangerous mission in return for the freedom of his friends. He’s sent to a neuroscience conference to infiltrate the circle of Su-Yong Shu, a Chinese scientist who turns out to be far more posthuman than even the ERD suspect. Shu is on to Kade from the start, and she tries to recruit him as a double double agent. But the ERD has another target on its radar at the same time, and in attempting to apprehend him—using Kade and his handler as bait—everything spirals out of control. Kade, who at this point has been contemplating how he can avoid being used by both the ERD and by Shu, finds himself struggling for his survival.
The titular technology, Nexus, is a network of nanomachines. Imbibed like a drug, Nexus sets up shop in the brain and provides direct, programmable access to a human’s cortex. Through Nexus, it’s possible to take control of someone else’s body, to program them or even adjust the emotions they experience. A group of people running Nexus can link and network their thoughts and feelings into a gestalt, conjuring up the terrifying images of a cyborg collective or a hive mind. Naturally, governments have banned the technology. Naturally, it’s flourishing in the underground.
The plot of Nexus is nothing special. However, it immediately grabbed my attention by giving all the characters three-dimensional motivations. Watson Cole is not a flat, megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur. Kade is not the one-note hacker hippie who wants information to be free. Sam is not the mindless government agent who only turns because she falls in love with the hero. Even Director Becker’s motives are understandable: he genuinely believes what he does is necessary to safeguard the United States and keep the world safe so that his daughters can grow up and flourish. By avoiding straw men and creating genuine actors, Naam illustrates the difficulty of deciding how to regulate, restrict, and use technologies like Nexus: sometimes, there are no "right" answers, no good answers.
This is not a story of the evil government attempting to quash a new technology (though the government certainly tries to do this). Kade is trapped between two unappealing alternatives: the ERD wants to control Nexus; Shu would use it to kick off a brand new generation of posthumans and launch a pre-emptive strike against humanity to "minimize" the loss of life. Both sides are committed to an us-or-them mentality when it comes to the future of humans and posthumans. Kade desperately wants to find middle ground, but he is having trouble doing so.
This is the reality of emergent technology. While nothing like Nexus exists today, there are plenty of examples of governments trying to come to terms with new technology. We’re still playing catch-up with copyright in the Internet era. And as exciting as these technologies are, they are nothing compared to what might be coming in the decades ahead. That’s what Naam portrays in Nexus: technology that alters us, biologically and psychologically. It might not be real yet, but it’s a possibility. When this technology appears, you can bet that governments will react as they do in this book: with extreme prejudice. While the individual players will insist they are doing it to safeguard citizens, the system as a whole will be working to do what it always does: preserve its own power in the face of inherently disruptive developments.
Nexus ends ambiguously, which is as it should be. Though its timeline is quite rushed, it is not so much extrapolative as descriptive: Naam describes the questions we are beginning to ask now and will be asking in decades to come. There aren’t easy answers for these questions. We’ll have to draw new lines in the sand, decide on new definitions for what it means to be human. There will be some messy mistakes along the way. Ultimately, I hope we stumble less and make fewer pitfalls than we see so far in the Nexus timeline. I’m not sure there’s reason for such optimism though.
Nexus reminds me of Postsingular, which also depicts a global crisis of nanotechnology. Whereas the latter ultimately succumbs to Singularity absurdism, this book remains relatively grounded (as much as thrillers can be). Like much good science fiction, it wraps a cautionary tale into an entertaining story. Naam packages action with moral dilemmas, producing a book that makes you think about big issues even as it keeps you extremely entertained.