Our next contributor to our #scifi #AI series is a long-time advocate of The Central Blue, Wing Commander Travis Hallen with his review of The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. The series underscores the imperative to understand the relationship between ‘superior’ humans and the ‘dim bulbs’ – those who understand and exploit AI, and those who either cannot or chose not to adopt the technology and subsequent advantage.
The Long Earth series, initially set in 2015, begins with Wallis Linsay uploading the designs for a simple, inexpensive device called a ‘Stepper’. The Stepper, a box-shaped device powered by a potato, allows the user to move, or ‘step’, between an infinite number of parallel Earths. On the day the Stepper design is uploaded people all over the world start stepping, moving away from the ‘Datum Earth’ which has been humanity’s home for millennia, and into the infinitely varied ‘Stepwise Worlds’. The existence of these alternate Earths is described as a string of pearls that are connected but individually distinct creating a phenomenon called the ‘Long Earth’.
As humanity expands into the Long Earth, the nature and character of society changes. Governments situated on the Datum Earth struggle to extend their control over their ‘stepwise territory’. Tensions arise between those who can step naturally (without a Stepper), those who use the box to start new frontier societies across the Long Earth, and those who are physically unable to step (called Phobics). Humans also meet other species of sapient humanoids, whose evolutionary path diverges with homo habilis, and who have been stepping across the Long Earth for millions of years—gorilla-like trolls, mole-like kobolds, and dog-like beagles. As the series progresses, homo sapiens itself undergoes an evolutionary split with the emergence of new species of super-intelligent humans who refer to themselves as The Next, homo superior.
Throughout the five books in the series, humanity expands across the ‘Long Earth’ and even into the ‘Long Mars’. The series, which covers over 60+ years highlights the struggles within humanity to adapt to the societal disruption caused by the opening up of the ‘Long Earth’.
AI and Speciation
The series deals with Artificial intelligence both explicitly and metaphorically. Lobsang, a Tibetan motorcycle mechanic ‘reincarnated’ as an AI is one of the main characters. Throughout the series, Lobsang evolves, suffers ‘mental’ breakdowns, and demonstrates many human-like traits. Though ‘eccentric’ he is more relatable than The Next humanoids.
The most insightful treatment of AI was in its non-artificial form: the speciation of the homo genus. Each humanoid species has a comparative advantage, but it is in the level of intelligence that determines relative power and the species hierarchy. As one species of homo gains a vastly superior intellect, one that is off the human intelligence scale, they begin to treat humanity as a curiosity and a useful annoyance. Humanity is therefore left mostly in the power of a race that developed from them, but which they can neither understand fully nor out think.
The Long Earth series offers a useful way to explore Yuval Noah Hariri’s concept of homo deus. What happens when we give some humans a massive increase in intelligence? Intelligence is the key differentiator between homo sapiens and the other humanoid species that appear in the series. As we invest in artificially improving human intelligence, how do we ensure that we do not create a new species of humans upon whose benevolence we will rely on for survival? How will this change the relationship between the ‘superior’ humans and the ‘dim bulbs’. We already see a digital divide between those with digital access and those without. It is highly likely we will soon see a coding-divide between those who understand machine intelligence and those who do not. We have to be careful that this does not evolve into an intelligence divide.
Wing Commander Hallen is a serving RAAF officer with a background in maritime patrol operations. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He is currently based in Washington DC.The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.