Avogadro Corp is a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence.

You’ll recognize Google in the eponymous company, Avogadro Corp, which is at the center of this disturbing science fiction novel. The range of products is similar. The company’s cofounder is Sean Leonov and is the son of Russian immigrants. It’s an obvious reference to Google’s Moscow-born cofounder, Sergei Brin. To a considerable extent, then, the story is grounded in fact. And if you’re familiar with email and Google Search and are minimally tech-savvy, you’ll follow the frequent technical references in the geeky dialogue through which much of this story is told. Unsurprisingly, the author, William Hertling, was a tech entrepreneur as well as a web strategist and software developer. (He worked at Silicon Valley’s founding company, Hewlett-Packard, where he won a number of patents.) So, it’s safe to regard Avogadro Corp as a cautionary tale from an insider about the perils — and promise — of artificial intelligence.

Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than it Appears (Singularity #1) by William Hertling (2011) 302 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

Hertling’s narrator in Avogadro Corp is an omniscient observer who enters the thoughts of a large cast of characters. However, his focus remains largely on one of the company’s senior software developers, David Ryan. Sean Leonov had hired David two years ago to take Avogadro’s email service far beyond checking grammar and spelling. His charge was “to test an unproven concept: an email language optimization tool to help users craft more compelling, effective communications. . . His project was going to change the face of email — hell, all communications — forever.” However, David, and that roomful of executives, get a lot more than they bargained for from the new software. And therein lies the tale.

A cautionary tale about artificial intelligence

Will AI prove to be a boon to humanity — or our undoing? Or is neither extreme a likely outcome of the frenzied research now underway in corporate and university laboratories in China and the US? Take your pick. You’ll find advocates on every side of this debate, from the most wildly optimistic (Ray Kurzweil) to the balanced view (Bill Gates) to the gloomiest (Stephen Hawking). And where does the author of this novel stand? You’ll have to read it to find out.

For further reading

I’ve reviewed the sequel to this novel, A. I. Apocalypse, at Artificial general intelligence—by accident, as well as the third book in the series, The Last Firewall , at A grim view of life after the singularity.

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