“Nexus” by Ramez Naam — review by Ben Goertzel
Based on my totally unscientific observations, the number of science fiction novels with explicitly Singularitarian and transhumanist themes seems to be increasing exponentially. At very least, the number of such novels finding their way to my inbox or snail mail box is increasing exponentially. Due to my role here at H+ Magazine, I get sent way more such books than I have time to read.
When Ramez Naam offered to send me a copy of his first novel “Nexus”, though, I was genuinely excited. From his prior nonfiction book “More than Human” and his various talks, plus a couple brief F2F conversations, I knew Ramez to be a deep-thinking futurist. So I figured at very least, his book would have an interesting conceptual take on the future.
Nexus exceeded my (already pretty positive) expectations. I don’t want to make this review a spoiler, so I won’t say too much about the plot here. But I’ll outline the key themes. The book centers on brain modification technology, of a sort that not only increases intelligence along various dimensions, but also provides new ways for human minds to connect with one another. Even when these humans may come from rival countries; or when one is a law enforcement officer and another is a law violator, etc. This is not a “superhuman AIs take over the world” sort of Singularitarian novel; rather, it’s more in the vein of the Global Brain. The focus is on what human beings might be able to do if enhanced with technology to improve and link together their brains.
The setting is international and cross-cultural in a satisfying way. The action starts in the US, and then moves to Asia, which allows the author to emphasize the international nature of hi-tech progress, and also the potential for synergy between Eastern wisdom traditions and mind-improvement practices with advanced neurotechnologies.
The novel takes the form of a techno-thriller, with spies and gunfire and so forth. I’m generally not a fan of thrillers, but Naam handles the genre well; the action scenes never seem like overkill. As my knowledge of real-life spy-vs-spy situations is limited, I can’t assess the realism of this aspect of the novel. But I can tell you that the computer software and hardware and neuroscience aspects of the novel are worked out in a speculative yet impressively plausible way. The author’s background as a Microsoft technologist, working on products like Internet Explorer and Outlook, definitely shows.
This is not a Proust novel, it’s a techno-thriller — but given that, the characterizations are remarkably true-to-life and emotionally moving. The characters definitely feel like real people. The impact of mind-expansion and mind-interconnection technology on the characters’ interior lives, is explored in a generally humanly convincing way.
Naam’s characters react to radical mind-expanding technologies in various ways. Some resist them, or use them in shallow ways. Others get their minds opened and their psychic wounds healed, via the power of transhuman technology to create deep human connections. Reading Naam describe the latter cases, one realizes Nexus is a book coming from the heart as much as the intellect. Naam’s vision of the transhuman future is not principally about cool gadgetry; it’s more fundamentally about technology as a set of tools created and deployed by humans to help themselves grow beyond the limitations of evolved psychology and society. And the limitations of humanity, to Naam, are not just about deficient physical or cognitive properties that can be improved by engineering (low IQ, short lifespan, etc.) — they’re about isolation, cruelty and suffering. Transhuman technology is both conceptualized and felt as a way of fundamentally improving the human condition.
In general, I think the conceptual direction Naam pursues here is an important one. To ride my own personal hobbyhorse for a moment, I do think superhuman AIs are going to come, and in important senses will dramatically transcend humanity. Yet, that’s not the whole story of the Singularity, and it’s sometimes overemphasized by futurist pundits. The potential of advanced technologies to connect people and move us beyond the “individual versus society” dichotomy is dramatic and needs to be more fully explored; Nexus probes this area adeptly, but there’s a lot more exploration to be done. The links between Eastern spiritual methods of transcending the ego, and technological means of achieving related goals, deserve much more attention than they currently receive; and Nexus points in this direction also.
The kind of superhuman AI that we eventually get, may well depend on what kind of humanity we are, at the point when we create that superhuman AI. Nexus points out that by appropriately developing brain-enhancement technology, we could become a quite different kind of humanity — a less selfish, more loving, more openly creative, smarter and more reasonable kind of humanity. And it also points out that many social, political and economic forces exist, which are likely to find the transformation of humanity into something more open, selfless, loving, intelligent and creative a MAJOR THREAT.
In the world of Nexus, the friction between the natural inclination of humanity to expand and open up and grow with all the tools at its disposal, and the desire of certain institutions (like governments) to keep humanity more predictable and controllable, results in all sorts of classic espionage hijinks. This may well happen. Or we may see a world war focused on differences of opinion over technological advancement, as Hugo de Garis projects. Or things may progress more smoothly toward the next stage of intelligent life, more along the lines of Kurzweil’s views. What’s clear is that things will change a lot in the fairly near future, and it’s going to be interesting; and Ramez Naam’s book Nexus, as well as being a fun read, has something to contribute to the dialogue that humanity is now having with itself, as it creates the transhuman future.