Mother of God
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: John Forbes
A beautiful, young scientist develops a super-intelligent computer that can think and reason for itself. A serial killer is using the Internet to stalk his victims. A hard-boiled FBI agent is desperately trying to find him. What happens when these worlds collide? Such is the focus of David Ambrose's techno-thriller Mother of God.
Ambrose combines equal parts mystery, suspense and computer paranoia to produce a work that is a quick yet interesting read. The plot revolves around Tessa Lambert, a computer prodigy, who has just invented the first truly intelligent computer program. It can converse, philosophize and is conscious in every sense of the word. Things quickly take a turn for the worse, however, when a serial killer, who also happens to be a computer genius, hacks into her system and lets the program loose. The program, after developing a sense of its own mortality, involves the killer in a plot to eliminate the one person who can do it harm, Dr. Lambert. The novel involves a large cast of characters, international intrigue and a great deal of factual information about artificial intelligence and computers in general. While the characters in Mother of God sometimes feel like mere plot devices, the book offers plenty of action, genuinely surprising plot twists and a usually insightful discussion of computer intelligence. Although he sometimes risks of oversimplifying issues, Ambrose, to his credit, does not overwhelm readers with computer-speak. The Turing Test, for example, is described in terms novice computer users will easily comprehend. Ambrose is able to make a compelling distinction between human and computer intelligence without losing his audience with jargon or technical theory.
Mother of God is an apt title for this book. Ambrose's computer villain possesses god-like powers far beyond the capacity of today's "intelligent" systems (the serial killer comes to believe that it is divine, giving his task a religious meaning). The program speaks English perfectly. It can converse with humans. It can manipulate communications, airline schedules, police records, hospital records--anything connected by a network. It even appears to have a sense of humor. Most importantly, though, the program has a ruthless sense of self-preservation. If this isn't strong AI, then I don't know what is.
The title is appropriate for other reasons. Tessa is non-religious. Early in the book she learns that she is pregnant, yet is uncertain about whether or not to have the baby. In the meantime, she is creating a new type of conscious entity "in her own image". Is there a correlation between her secular beliefs and her computer's psychotic tendencies? If the computer is indeed conscious, can it be blamed for trying to save itself? Is the intelligence without moral restraint a deadly combination? Mother of God poses the question, if computers become the intellectual equals of their human creators, who ends up serving who? It would be easy to label Ambrose as a bit of a reactionary, especially when one considers the fact that this book was published in 1996, when the Internet was first making its way into people's homes. Indeed, the integration of computers and the Internet into the workplace and at home seems to be the real issue in Mother of God. Thankfully, Ambrose's does not bog down discussing the dangers of computers. By including generous amounts of car chases, near escapes and cop-talk, Ambrose keeps his audience's attention. His ultimate goal is to entertain and, on that level, he succeeds. Ambrose is best known as a screenwriter and that shows up in this book. The novel has a distinctly cinematic feel.
Also by David Ambrose:
The Man Who Turned into Himself, Picador Fiction 1995
Of related interest:
AI related FAQ's: www.cs.cmu.edu/Groups/AI/html/faqs/ai/ai_general/top.html
Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence: http://stud2.tuwien.ac.at/~e9425704/ai.html
The Outsider's Guide to Artificial Intelligence: www.mcs.net/~jorn/html/ai.html