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Watch by Robert J. Sawyer

1/04/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Watch The WWW Trilogy book 2 in the USA - or Buy Watch The WWW Trilogy book 2 in the UK

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Watch (The WWW Trilogy book 2) by Robert J. Sawyer. pub: Gollancz. 350 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-09505-2) .

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In the previous book, ‘Wake’, sixteen year-old blind American but resident Canadian Caitlin Decter is given sight by linking through a computer interface retina implant prototype by Dr. Masayuki Kuroda. A bi-product of this allows her to see energy patterns on the Internet which reveals a nascent artificial intelligence taking the name Webmind. This also comes to the attention of WATCH, an American security organisation keeping an eye on the Net with a Pandora protocol to destroy any AIs that are discovered. However, they are told by the White House not to take any action just yet. When they do give permission...well, you’ll have to read what happens next.

Webmind does have some limitations. It might have absorbed all the knowledge off of Wikipedia and the Gutenberg book library but without the necessary algorithms can’t make any sense of picture and video files, something that Kuroda’s expertise helps out although not much is made of it overall. Then again, in a book of words that might have been a problem.

I did find it odd that the first choice of the film ‘Wargames’ to watch with Webmind an unusual choice, more so that it could end up teaching Webmind how to create nuclear chaos. To be fair, Sawyer does point out some of the other films like ‘2001’ and ‘The Forbin Project’ might be introduced to it later. It’s a good thing that Webmind could tell the difference between reality and fiction or it might have thought that that humans had a thing against rampant AIs that is up there with alien xenophobia.

One disadvantage of AIs is that humans are incredibly slow typists and when Webmind tries going multi-tasking discovers its own limitations from how it was created, not by a human hand I should hasten to add. It is also a fast learner, especially when it comes to hacking passwords although I wish Sawyer had explained a bit more on how it could understand what it read and if so, why wasn’t it more literate with its quotes. With Watch interrogating it’s human friends, Webmind reveals itself to people over the Net and as a good will gesture removes all spam from email servers. Let’s not even go over where it points out people lying over their qualifications but it’s a hilarious scene of embarrassment.

There are some useful benefits with having an AI on-line as apart from removing spam, it also counters all the sites, like those dealing with child porn, that people wish weren’t there. Apart from some hi-cups with revealing private information, Webmind also becomes friendly and answers questions when asked by anyone once it’s been revealed. You’d almost wish that it would create a website about itself but stops short of that.

The story thread with Hobo, a sign-speaking cross-breed chimpanzee-bonobo, seems at cross-purposes to the rest of the story until communication is done over the Net to Virgil, a sign-speaking orang utan, and then it becomes perfectly clear if not as exploited as it could be. No doubt, there has to be something left for the third volume.

Middle novels are notorious for treading ground but this one does some nice progression and just feels more like the middle part of a long story, the third part of which is out this May. Sawyer has a good knack for bringing characters and their foibles to life. A lot of my criticisms above, particularly for Webmind, is perhaps he hasn’t gone far enough in his implications but that might be because there is only so much ground that can be covered in a novel. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

GF Willmetts

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