In William Gibson's Neuromancer, the first extended encounter between the protagonist Case and the artificial intelligence Wintermute occurs in a virtual reality module in Case's computer. Unable to manifest itself in the physical world, Wintermute assumes the virtual form of an old associate of Case's named Julius Deane. Wintermute guides Case through a complex virtual environment fashioned from Case's memories, culminating in a face-to-face simulated-reality conversation that foreshadows later plot developments and also raises questions about the very nature of a digital existence.
"Now," Deane said briskly, "order of the day. 'What,' you're asking yourself, 'is Wintermute?' Am I right?"
"More or less."
"An artificial intelligence, but you know that. Your mistake, and it's quite a logical one, is confusing the Wintermute mainframe, Berne with the Wintermute entity." Deane sucked his bonbon noisily. "You're already aware of the other AI in Tessier-Ashpool's link-up, aren't you? Rio. I, insofar as I have an 'I' -- this gets rather metaphysical, you seeŅI am the one who arranges things for Armitage...
" . . . What you think of as Wintermute is only a part of another, a, shall we say, potential entity. I, let us say, am merely one aspect of that entity's brain. It's rather like dealing, from your point of view, with a man whose loves have been severed. Let's say you're dealing with a small part of the man's left brain. Difficult to say if you're dealing with the man at all, in a case like that." Deane smiled.
In a digital world where any information can be built upon and made into a part of a larger whole, is a modern information structure ever complete? When even a sentient entity is nothing more than a part of a larger whole, can information be built up into some sort of symbiotic entity, each part a self-conscious fraction of the whole?
If such a change occurred, a snowballing of digital existences, what would happen to the humans stranded in "meatspace?"
The AI even goes on to discuss its strengths and weaknesses:
"I try to plan, in your sense of the word, but that isn't my basic mode, really. I improvise. It's my greatest talent. I prefer situations to plans, you see.... Really, I've had to deal with givens. I can sort a great deal of information, and sort if very quickly."
Authors, philosophers and scientists have argued over the possibility of AI for years, but even Gibson's fictional AI seems to function in a drastically different way from his human characters. Is Wintermute actually as capable as Gibson's cybernetic humans, or is it simply in a more powerful position?
The entire encounter with Wintermute in Case's hijacked virtual reality "sim-stim" unit occurs while Case's EEG readout was flatlined and Case was technically braindead. Does this imply that interactions with these higher-level informational constructs puts the user in a different realm entirely? Is there any connection to the complete bypass of consciousness (and heartrate) that occurs during orgasm?
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.
Last modified 14 February 2005