beware, there be spoilers: Player Piano

OK, so perhaps I’m being a bit overly cautious, warning of the possibility of spoilers for a book first published in 1952.  But I don’t know whether you’re planning on reading it, and it’s quite an enjoyable read.  My reading plan for the year 2018 is to read (among other things, it’s an extensive plan) the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut, and Player Piano is his first novel.  I should say, this is not intended as a book review but rather, I would like to use Player Piano as a bit of a stepping off point.

Interestingly enough, it’s not hard to view Player Piano as smack in the middle of science fiction genre-land.  A brief summary for those who haven’t read it (yet): After a war following World War II, much production in the US has been automated, and the machines and their decisions are beginning to take over in ways that many people find uncomfortable.

People lose their jobs if they are found unworthy by the machines, and are then become part of the great unwashed, provided with the necessities of life except for value.  Their skills are recorded on tape and punch cards, and then the people are cast aside.  And this is the foundation of the rebellion, into which the not entirely intrepid Dr Paul Proteus gets drawn.

What I found most interesting is how this book fits into a growing body of work on the dangers of the machine world.  I would have loved to spend an evening in a bar with Mr Vonnegut, discussing the basic thesis of his book and its relationship to what’s happening now, though now much more quickly and much more extensively.

There is a fundamental difference between what is happening now and what happened in Player Piano.  There, the machines were not aware and they were operating under the rules we gave them, and we still had an understanding of these rules.  At no point did the machines make a decision that was incomprehensible to the characters in the novel, however much they might have disagreed with that decision.

Now, though, expert systems and deep machine learning allow computers to develop their own algorithms, and we sometimes don’t have any idea of what is going on inside these algorithms.  In fact, we will at some point come to a point where the level of complexity and information required for those algorithms will be beyond the capability of the human brain to handle full stop.  And this is beginning to worry some people.

Our stories are becoming full of machines that run amok or otherwise behave in ways we don’t understand, following an internal logic that’s foreign to us their creators.  And this I think is going to make for a very interesting future indeed.

~ by Jim Anderson on 25 February 2018.

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