That Miraculous Josephson Junction

Matt Pillsbury

As we stumble through the anarchic narative Rudy Rucker presents in Software, we come across his vision of the future of computing. Like Isaac Asimov's "positronic brains" in the Robot novels, or William Gibson's "biocomputers" in Count Zero, Rucker thinks that the semiconductors that have served us so well for half a century will not be good enough to create true artificial intelligence. His solution to the problem is a throwaway, a plot device. But it is a nifty plot device, and one that shows off Rucker's knowledge of computing and physics nicely.

First, the heat would cause his switching circuits... super-conducting Josephson junctions... to malfunction. And then, as the heat kept up, the droplets of frozen mercury which soldered his circuit cards together would melt. In six minutes he would be a cabinet of spare parts with a puddle of mercury in the bottom.

Josephson junctions and mercury solder aren't a bad solution for the cold of the moon's surface. Semiconductors become insulators at cryogenic temperatures, and mercury is not only a solid at 4 Kelvin, it is also a superconductor. Keeping computers from overheating is a pain. My PC seems to be little more than a glorified space-heater at times, and the really big machines, Crays and the like, need their own supplies of liquid nitrogen to keep from melting.

The Josephson junction itself produces a constant current for a range of voltages, and then acts more like an ordinary conductor outside that range. This sharply non-linear behavior is the kind of thing you look for in a switching mechanism, and is also an important bit of physics. Invoking it is a good way for Rucker to gather some (much-needed) credibility for his lunatic future of anarchist robots and pheezer-ruled Florida. With people eating brains and taking drugs that make them melt for the sheer fun of it, it's reassuring to know that the laws of physics are still the same.

Unfortunately, once Rucker lays out the way his boppers work, he decides it's a settled issue and only invokes it again at the very end, as a convenient way to kill off Mr. Frostee and put Cobb in stasis until his next novel rolls around. Since he uses his boppers to play with some fairly serious issues, this is unfortunate.

Ralph let all the inputs merge together, and savored the collective purposeful activity of the bopper race. Each of the machines lived only ten months--ten months of struggling to build a scion, a copy of itself. If you had a scion there was a sense in which you survived your ten-month disassembly. Ralph had managed it thirty-six times.

Building a new bopper with the same circuits, and the same memories, is apparantly not the same thing as the old one continuing on. Except that's exactly what happens, a couple chapters later, when Ralph is brought back after melting. He lost a few hours of unrecorded memory, but that's all. Even more surprising, though, is that after Cobb's brain is disected and he's transmitted to Mr. Frostee, there is no percievable difference between the new and the old, beyond the fact that his old body was organic, and his new body is mechanical.

Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software. The mind... memories, habits, opinions, skills... is all software.

This statement blatantly contradicts what Rucker had to say about the ten-month reconstruction that the boppers go through.

This instance of self-contradiction is also not the only time Rucker gets confused. For example, he offers a fairly detailed explanation of how the brain works and then ignores it. If a bopper literally eats bits of someone's brain, that's every bit as good as the intracite procedure necessary for converting Cobb's messy neurology into a program capable of running on one of the super-conducting computers of which Rucker is so enamored. Despite the fact that it is a digital model of a very analog system, despite the fact that it is running on a remote computer instead of inside a skull, Cobb is Cobb is Cobb. The question of whether the boppers could edit his personality for their own purposes is dismissed with little more than the wave of a hand.

"The human mind is all of a piece, Cobb. If we try to start picking and choosing, all that's left is a boring bundle of reflexes. When a big bopper builds in some human's personality, he's got to learn to live with the subsystem's free will. I could cut you off entirely, in an emergency, but short of..."

Software has a wide set of philosophical issues that it could engage, and in the end it really doesn't do much with any of them. For all the sophistication that Rucker lavishes on the neuroscience and computation that goes on in his book, he brings nothing but a neglectful naivete to the issues of the mind, and the soul. Even Gibson's work, notorious for technical illiteracy, handles these themes with a fair degree of sophistication. Because Rucker does not, I was left with some scattershot satire, some variable humor, and a feeling that I had read a (thankfully short) novel about nothing much at all.

[To other discussions of Rudy Rucker's - Ware trilogy (Software, Wetware, and Freeware) by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]