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Crucible by James Rollins reunites the Sigma Force team in this thrilling story. Released just after the holidays, this plot is anything but merry. But readers of Rollins are used to a roller coaster ride where they get plenty of action blended with cutting edge science, historical mystery, and the latest technologies.
It is Christmas Eve where the Sigma Force friends are gathering to have a joyous holiday. But Monk Kokkalis and Gray Pierce find their holiday spirits quickly dampened after returning to Monk’s house in Maryland. The Christmas Tree is toppled, Kat, the computer expert of the group, is lying unconscious on the kitchen floor, and Monk’s two young girls have been kidnapped, along with Gray’s pregnant wife, Seichan. This happened shortly after a massacre in Portugal where five women scientists have been brutally massacred. Also missing is Mara Silviera who was making advances in artificial intelligence research. She is on the run, protecting herself and her computer’s life. Gray, Monk, and company set out to find Mara after realizing that she is the key to finding their loved ones and also to saving humanity,.
The action keeps moving at a brisk pace in this latest novel that is crafted around plausible scientific data. Rollins has a knack for weaving together new and old as well as warning readers what can happen in the not too distant future.
Elise Cooper: Artificial intelligence stories are as believable as alien stories?
James Rollins: I made sure to read the contrary view that question if AI is a threat. There are certain hurdles that will need to be crossed to bring about a self-aware human-like AI. Their position is that this technology will happen. Of those two dozen experts I interviewed the consensus is that it will happen in five to ten years because of the rapid advances. Two of the researchers thought we have already gone there. It is not an if, but a when.
EC: What about the non-believers who think this is pure science fiction?
JR: I use as an example, the story of AlphaGo, the first computer program to defeat a human. It played the board game, Go. The next generation self-taught itself in three days and also beat his big brother, the original version of the program. I think this book is written for the non-believers, and I did not write it like the movie “Terminator.”
EC: How did you get the idea for the story?
JR: I have an idea box. If I see an interesting article I put it in my box. Over the years I have collected more and more articles about AI. After reading the book, The Final Invention, the story idea popped into my head.
EC: You seem to have a good track record predicting what can happen?
JR: I would remind people that in my book, The Bone Labyrinth, which came out a few years ago, I warned how the Chinese researchers genetically altered the human gene at the sperm level. We just read last month: they did just that. What sounded like science fiction when this book came out has come true today. I think we will see that with Crucible, and readers will understand I raised the red flag. We need to make sure we produce a friendly AI.
EC: Are humans being taken over or helped by technology?
JR: I show this with the prosthetic arm of Monk that is controlled by his brain implants. This technology is out there. Currently they are working on prosthetic skin that can determine the difference between soft/hard, and cold/hot. The concern is that the brain controlled prosthetics can be hacked into and someone’s limbs can be controlled by another person. It is not much different than hacking into and controlling someone’s car.
EC: This is not a very happy Christmas story?
JR: I put the line in the book by one of Monk’s young daughters, “We’re we bad…Did Santa take us instead of giving us presents?” It is as much a Christmas story as “Die Hard.” The heroes of the book are put through a very brutal Christmas before they get a happy ending.
EC: Why compare the witch trials to AI scientists?
JR: The witch trials were the persecution of women who questioned the natural world so they had to be killed. Women in the sciences today are also questioning the natural world and although they are not killed they face a form of persecution. Many are listed at the bottom of research projects and this year a woman finally won the Nobel Prize in Physics, the first women to do it in 113 years.
EC: Locked-in syndrome is really scary?
JR: Yes, when a person is basically awake, aware at times, but can’t move their body. This is the most terrifying thing in the world. Many who have this can hear but cannot move. They are fully aware of what is going on but cannot respond. It is like being locked in a prison. What is hopeful are the new functional MRIs that can map the way people think and picture things. It is a form of mind reading and a way to communicate with people in a coma.
EC: How would you describe the AI, Eve?
JR: She matured from a narrow AI to AFI then eventually to ASI. I based her on the book Flowers for Algernon that was made into the movie “Charley.” Over the course of time his vocabulary increases multifold. He surpasses intellectually the average person’s language. There is math on one of the pages of my book to show how Eve goes beyond scientifically the human understanding, just as Charley had done in the movie. I gave her a double personality where she is split between dark and light. The one cared for by Mara nurtures and protects humans, while the other one, which was stolen, mirrors the torture done to her.
EC: There are three types of AI?
JR: We are in narrow AI currently, such as Siri or self-driving cars. What everyone is pursuing is AGI that have computers self-aware of themselves with some human level of intelligence that can differentiate. ASI will advance far beyond our intelligence and accelerates rapidly. I wanted Eve to start with a cold and calculating intelligence and then mature as she is trained in different types of environments.
EC: You refer to Valya as the Snow Queen. Did you ever read that book?
JR: It was written by Hans Christian Anderson and is a very disturbing story. It is about a brutal woman who tortures children. The early Fairy Tales told to children are pretty darn gruesome. We forget that because Disney cleaned up a lot of these stories. In my story, the Snow Queen is not based on the Disney character in “Frozen.”
EC: You also use the story as a warning?
JR: Remember when the Internet came out it was supposed to create a rosy world where we are all connected and can come together. Instead, we are more isolated and hide behind screens that allow the worst of ourselves to shine. What sounded like a great boon to humanity is actually the direct opposite. The same is true for AI. I hope people are not wearing rosy glasses.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of this novel?
JR: The whole point of the book is to make sure there are boundaries and that any AI has empathy. Just like Putin said, whoever controls it will control the world. It is probably true that whoever is the first will have a huge economic advantage. Government and corporations want to be the first and are not worrying about the consequences.
EC: Why no reference to Sigma on the cover?
JR: There was a lot of debate. I thought it should have been put on it. Some thought by putting it on there, new readers may be stopped from picking up the book; even though I write a book that can stand on its own. Just FYI: Amazon and Barnes & Noble have different editions, each with different endings and do refer to it as a Sigma team novel.
EC: Your next book?
JR: It will be an anthology of all my short stories. I also include a 110-page Tucker and Kane novella. It will be out in the summer. The next Sigma will be out in January 2020.
Crucible by James Rollins
In the race to save one of their own, Sigma Force must wrestle with the deepest spiritual mysteries of mankind in this mind-expanding adventure from the #1 New York Times bestselling author, told with his trademark blend of cutting edge science, historical mystery, and pulse-pounding action.
Arriving home on Christmas Eve, Commander Gray Pierce discovers his house ransacked, his pregnant lover missing, and his best friend’s wife, Kat, unconscious on the kitchen floor. With no shred of evidence to follow, his one hope to find the woman he loves and his unborn child is Kat, the only witness to what happened. But the injured woman is in a semi-comatose state and cannot speak—until a brilliant neurologist offers a radical approach to “unlock” her mind long enough to ask a few questions.
What Pierce learns from Kat sets Sigma Force on a frantic quest for answers that are connected to mysteries reaching back to the Spanish Inquisition and to one of the most reviled and blood-soaked books in human history—a Medieval text known as the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches. What they uncover hidden deep in the past will reveal a frightening truth in the present and a future on the brink of annihilation, and force them to confront the ultimate question: What does it mean to have a soul?
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