„The Tyranny of the Butterfly“ – Frank Schätzing’s new novel and how Artificial Intelligence and other super technologies threaten our way of life
Most people – including the vast majority of writers – hardly understand what is going on behind the curtain of the scientific stage. However, they feel that they are huge processes at play that affect our all future. It is this combination of intuitive sensing and non-knowledge, respectively non-understanding that causes great anxiety and uncertainty among many. From this material great stories can be formed, as successful writers know: Dan Brown with his last year thrillerOrigin, before that Michael Crichton in books like Prey or Microand Dave Eggers in The Circle. And this year Frank Schätzing plays along these lines with his new novel The Tyranny of the Butterfly.
In a somewhat far-fetched plot with the typical structural features of a cock and bull story and an abundance of lengthy linguistic outcrops, Schätzing nonetheless pinpoints some key features of the technological change:
- Its speed and the complexity of its accompanying social change which overwhelm most people both mentally and emotionally. They no longer see themselves as agents of social development, but can only react to a ridiculously fast transformations.Thus Schätzing’s protagonist is thrown out of his everyday life as a police officer in a desert village in the Sierra Nevada into the world of artificial intelligence and finds himself in the truest sense of the word – and without first even knowing about it – in a new world.
- Over the past 250 years, people have faced singular technological upheavals. Today we experience an entire series of them all at once. And their combination and mutual interactions come with all the more impact. This Schätzing also illustrates: Artificial Intelligence (AI), combined with the latest quantum technologies, genetic engineering and biotechnologies, is turning into a dangerous military threat, which in one of Schätzing’s scenarios leads to the end of mankind.
- Modern technologies themselves are so complex that they produce results which even experts no longer comprehend in all their features or even their entirety. This is also what Schätzing describes when he makes man-made AI produce results that no one can follow anymore. Finally, the AI even hides for strategic reasons its properties and potency from its human creators.
- The consequences of technological developments are no longer locally confined. Issues such as military technology, environmental destruction, climate catastrophe, AI, and genetic engineering affect and threaten humanity as a whole! Developments and problems in seemingly distant continents such as Africa and Asia are directly affecting us in Europe and North America and vice versa. Thus Schätzing describes how the offspring of research in AI, biotechnology and genetic engineering is employed by villainsin the civil war in South Sudan.
Schätzing also chooses (like Dan Brown) a brilliant computer scientist as pioneer of a new world. The parallels to Brown go even further: Schätzing’s genius also manages to build a quantum computer ahead of everyone else – including Google, Microsoft and IBM. But especially in the relevant fields of AI is his company at the international forefront: speech and facial recognition, medical diagnostics, autonomous driving, and much more. And this is exactly where Schätzing’s novel shows strength. It provides the reader with impressive examples of spectacular and already existing application of AI, as well as their indeed realistic connections to biotechnology and genetic engineering as well as latest quantum technologies. Concerning the latter, Schätzing hints at the enormous possibilities for the field of AI arising from the construction of a quantum computer. The author of these lines has described these developments in detail in his last book „Superpower Science“ (German title “Supermacht Wissenschaft”, 2017). In his new book „The Second Quantum Revolution“ (to appear in September 2018) he describes the state of development for quantum computers.
The unprecedentedly powerful AI in Schätzing’s story even evolves into a superintelligence which finally takes the advancement of technological progress into its own hands, leaving man behind. This allows – and here the story drifts into the bizarre – the construction of so-called „gates“. These are entry points to innumerable parallel universes, in which world events take place in all sorts of variations and the protagonists’ alter egos live their lives in somewhat different but quite comparable ways.The protagonist involuntarily and initially unconsciously walks through such a gate and consequently finds himself in a parallel world. He eventually has to travel to another parallel world in order to deal with inter-universe-traveling arms dealers which bred AI cyborg dragonflies. Template for this strange-looking jumping around in parallel universes is a controversial interpretation of quantum theory, the so called „Everett’s many-worlds interpretation“. Here, however, Schätzing leaves the reader alone. He does not provide a detailed explanation for the possible existence of such parallel worlds.
This shall be briefly made up for here (see also L. Jaeger, “The Second Quantum Revolution”, 2018): The most successful theory of modern physics, quantum theory, comes with a fundamental problem, which already gave its fathers around Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger much headache: How does it stand in the microcosm of the atoms for the independence of the object to be measured from the measuring subject. Because at the atomic level, the properties of the measurer can no longer be separated from the very influence of the measurement. This sounds far more harmless than it is. Schrödinger caused this so-called „quantum physical measurement problem“ to formulate a fictitious experimental setup, which was to go down in the history of physics as „Schrödinger’s cat“. Latest at this point, many readers of these lines probably see themselves on familiar ground: A causal chain constructed by Schrödinger combines events in the microcosm (the decay of an atomic nucleus) in direct line with the world of our direct experience (in this case the fate of a cat). The experimental setup not only leaves the state of the atomic nucleus objectively indefinitely, to be determined only by the measurement itself, as it should be according to the laws of quantum physics, but this should apply also to the condition of a cat whose life is causally linked to the decay to the nucleus. According to the laws of quantum theory, the cat too should be in a state of superposition of „dead“ and „living“. Like the nucleus, the cat is in both states at the same time, as long as the door to its box is not opened which finalizes the measuring process. In 1957 the American physicist Hugh Everett offered a radical solution to this dilemma. He simply assigned to all sorts of conditions, in this case whether the cat is dead or alive, their own physical reality. At every moment, concretely with every quantum physical event, the world separates into two worlds (more precisely, depending on the concrete quantum system into many worlds), which from now develop independently. Thus, all physically possible different pasts of the universe actually exist. The problem for Schätzing’s story is: Any causal connections between the parallel worlds are fundamentally excluded!
As absurd is his parallel-world story is, as lackluster the cock and bull story around the genius and the bad guys, who abuse theformer’s confidence solely for money, appears to be, as nerve wrecking Schätzing’s descriptions of the sceneries are, with his narrative around AI, in combination with biotechnology, genetic engineering and the second quantum revolution, Schätzing has hit a sensitive nerve of our time. His story leaves the reader in awe in view of the possibility of an AI, which is in all respectssuperior to man, manipulates us arbitrarily, and finally destroyed mankind. His novel stands in line with numerous other sharp warnings about AI, mainly from those who know most about it, the scientists themselves and the entrepreneurs who invest money into it (examples are Elon Musk and Bill Gates). The novelalso deals with a deep philosophical problem: Can a machine, however intelligent it may be,have an awareness of itself?It is the question of the nature of our consciousness. For Schätzing, the answer to that question is“yes”. His novel is a valuable contribution to an important social discussion that is still taking place too little today. Because it shakes up. And whatever it takes to develop a general awareness of the dramaticunfolding of the scientific and technological progress today is to be welcomed. So is Schätzing’s well worth reading and at the same time suspenseful future dystopia. When the author does not shy away from clear statements in the political discourse such as „I do not believe of word of what Mark Zuckerberg says“, this is all the more welcome.