Nearly sixty years ago, a psychologist and computer scientist named J. C. R. Licklider published a landmark paper under the title “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” He is best known today as the Pentagon official who funded the predecessor to the Internet, the ARPANET. But Licklider’s writing has gained him the reputation as a pioneer in artificial intelligence as well. His 1960 paper foresaw a time when machines would surpass the human capacity to reason and usher in what we have come to call the post-human future. However, he did not envision machines replacing human beings. Instead, Licklider’s vision was built around the concept of symbiosis. Unlike some of our contemporaries (most prominently, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk), he was hopeful that machines would free us from drudgery and open up vast new possibilities for the human race.
Nexus (Nexus Trilogy #1) by Ramez Naam (2013) 404 pages ★★★★★
Today, more than half a century later, advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience suggest the real possibility that Licklider’s vision may be realized. The most prominent of latter-day visionaries in the field, Ray Kurzweil, famously predicts that computer intelligence will overtake humans’ by 2045. He calls this event the singularity. Hawking, Gates, Musk, and others are alarmed by this possibility—which AI researchers almost universally appear to assume is inevitable. The skeptics fear that advanced artificial intelligences will not just surpass humans but supersede us, eventually leading to the extinction of the human race. By contrast, Kurzweil and his adherents insist that humans will gradually gain powerful new abilities by incorporating machine-based intelligence and enhanced sensory perception, advancing the human race into a bionic, transhuman future.
A brilliant novel about a post-human future
But will the transformation of humanity by artificial intelligence stop there? Is there a step far beyond into post-human abilities so far superior to those of human beings today that a new species will result? This is the premise of Ramez Naam‘s brilliant science fiction trilogy. In Nexus, the first of the three novels, Naam explores the circumstances in which the conflict between humans and post-humans emerges into the open. Although the book is unquestionably imaginative, it is far from fantasy. Naam is a computer scientist and is intimately familiar with contemporary neurological research into using computer interface technology to enhance human cognitive abilities.
Accurate science in this speculative novel of a post-human future
Nexus is skillfully written and a page-turner. It’s undoubtedly a work of fiction. However, as Naam writes in a postscript to the novel, “to the best of my abilities, the science described in the science fiction is fully accurate. While the idea of a technology like Nexus that allows people to communicate mind-to-mind may seem far-fetched, precursors of that technology are here today.”
Naam is the author of an earlier, nonfiction book, More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement. As Naam notes in his postscript, “That book goes in depth into brain computer interfaces and also into the genetic enhancements that might make humans stronger, faster, smarter, and longer lived than ever. As a bonus, it dives into the politics, economics, and morality of human enhancement—other topics that Nexus touches on.”
For further reading
I’ve also reviewed the author’s nonfiction book, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (How to make humans smarter, stronger, and healthier). Another author, H. C. H. Ritz, explored a similar theme in Absence of Mind, which I reviewed at In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience.
This book is included in 20 good nonfiction books about the future (plus lots of science fiction), 10 great medical and biological thrillers, and Two dozen good books about artificial intelligence reviewed here.
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.