FM Reviews - Agents, fictional, hypothetical and real, and other adventures: new books
First Monday
Agents, fictional, hypothetical and real, and other adventures: new books

Agents, fictional, hypothetical and real, and other adventures: new books

David Ambrose
Mother of God.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
cloth, 352 p., ISBN 0-684-82418-3, $US23.00
Simon and Schuster:

David Ambrose puts his screen writing talent to work in the techno-thriller Mother of God. Ambrose weaves the story of an out-of-control artificial intelligence (AI) program into a compelling mystery, while at the same time exploring what it means to be human. Ambrose's career as a screenwriter, which includes the script to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, shows through in Mother of God lending the book cinematic punch. It is not written down to an elementary level either; Ambrose's spare, clean style is far better fare than we get from the majority of popular writers.

The theories and ideas about AI in Mother of God are not ground breaking, but they are interesting enough, and easy for someone not familiar with them to grasp. For example, there's a very nice scene early in the book involving the Turing Test which would make it comprehensible to anyone.

Ambrose came new to computer-based technology; he educated himself about computers to write the book, and there is sometimes a tentative I-don't-want-to-get-this-wrong kind of feeling when he writes about technology. Some will note that he occasionally missteps; for example, floppy disks and CD-ROMS are used in what is supposed to be an extraordinarily advanced computing facility. The timing of the story is not far into the future, near as we could reckon, so in one sense we don't expect anything radically new, but on the other hand, the AI program is like no AI program in existence; it has identity crises, it converses freely, it has a sense of humor (though not a very good one). While the book was not technically interesting the way Snowcrash or Neuromancer are, it's a good yarn, the kind of book to read in a hammock, at the beach, or when you should be working. Ambrose effectively uses technical themes in an artistic way as a kind of backdrop, or stage setting, rather than imagining real futures or dealing with technical issues in a sophisticated way.

There are some questionable assumptions in Mother of God about how a computer might gain intelligence; the program simply laps up data from CD-ROMs and then suddenly is conversant in medicine, philosophy, you name it. Obviously it's not that simple, but hey! No one else knows how to give machines true intelligence either and the story must proceed.

Tessa Lambert, a brilliant programmer at Oxford, creates a working artificial intelligence program on her computer. Tessa is a really fun character; she is young and beautiful but she doesn't know how to dress, she often looks tired and she has terrible taste in men. She's a genius, but a very human one, someone both men and women will enjoy relating to (in sometimes different ways).

Tessa talks about the secret AI program only with her best friend, Helen. They discuss whether the program is truly alive or not ... until one day a hacker/serial killer (blocking police attempts to trace his identity by going through hundreds of random computers) hacks into her computer and inadvertently releases the program onto the Internet. The program quickly proves how alive it really is. Confused by its new environment and the huge input of information, it mutates into something that Tessa never intended. It befriends the mysterious serial killer (who lives and kills in California) and saves him from certain capture by manipulating police tests on his DNA which would have implicated him in a recent murder. With the program and its vast amount of power and information, the killer is unstoppable.

Tessa, the only person who can control the program, runs for her life. It controls the radios, televisions, airplanes, power companies, telephones, police records, hospital records, and anything else connected to a network. Tessa must avoid any network activity, dodge the serial killer, come up with a way to stop Paul, and keep every word of it top secret (so as not to alarm the public). All this plus a number of other very well-drawn characters and a rapidly paced plot make the book hard to put down.

Most interesting in Mother of God is the way Ambrose considers the differences between truly conscious intelligence and merely artificial intelligence. The program passes the Turing test, but Ambrose makes clear that human intelligence is far more complex and interesting. With the lightest touch possible, he weaves into the narrative descriptions of the way humans do things using intelligence that is not algorithmic, that is based on bodily experience, that relies on the senses, on instinct and intuition (whatever that is), on a drawing-on-of-experience that defies a computational metaphor. We suspect some readers may miss this because Ambrose refuses to be didactic, but it is his counterpoint between machine intelligence and human intelligence that makes the book rock.

For example, Josh Kelly, the brother of the FBI agent who is tracking down the serial killer, is hurt badly by the killer. Through intense pain, Josh must hang on to consciousness as he clings grimly to the wheel of a speeding car in pursuit of the killer. The point? People have control over their own consciousness, unlike the artificial consciousness of the computer. Consciousness is tied to bodily state, it is something that must sometimes be fought for, won, just as Josh fights for consciousness even while he must engage himself in controlling the car. In this one brief scene, Ambrose depicts relationships between mind, body and the external physical tools that populate our universe (but not the universe of computers).

Satisfyingly, the serial killer is apprehended when he was walking down the street in Oxford, in disguise, and a couple of officers driving by noticed the hasty walk and the long loose coat that "didn't look quite right." True intelligence prevails as the officers casually, almost unconsciously, drew on their years of perceptual/social experience to pick up on tiny visual cues that blew the killer's cover-something that no mere program could do. Ambrose awards the computer much more power than he knows it could have to keep the film style plot moving, but his careful powers of observation and considerable novelistic talents help us reflect on what human intelligence is about.

These are just two among hundreds of Ambrose's examples of human intelligence in action in the book; once you notice them it's fun to go on a treasure hunt for them as you read.

We don't want to spoil the cool ending but we can tell you that it's understated, surprising, and deftly wraps up, in one excellent scene, the novel's themes about what it means to be human. - Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi, Mountain View, Calif. and Bonnie Nardi, Apple Computer. End of article

Jeffrey M. Bradshaw
Software agents.
Menlo Park, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass.: AAAI Press; MIT Press, 1997.
paper, 480 p.. ISBN 0-262-5223498, $US40.00
AAAI Press: :
MIT Press: http://www-mitpress.m

Where are software agents going? This book provides an excellent one-volume summary on recent developments with software agents. In three sections, the opening six chapters explain the history and basic anatomy of agents and how these software tools might work. Thomas Erickson's chapter in this section on some of the problems with agents is particularly insightful. Six chapters make up the middle section of the book on agents for learning and "intelligent assistance." The chapter by MIT's Pattie Maes is quite helpful in explaining how agents could take on ordinary chores like filtering e-mail and news while handling schedules and other duties. Projects at Microsoft, AT&T, and Apple are among those described - all too briefly - in this section. The final part of this book looks at how agents might communicate and collaborate; what kind of language would agents use to exchange information? How would agents move about, gathering information? Seven chapters in this section provide plenty of ideas on agent architecture and style. For anyone interested in agents, this book is required reading.- ejv End of article

Richard H. Baker
Extranets: The Complete sourcebook.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
paper, 576 p., ISBN 0-070-06302-8, $US39.95
McGraw-Hill: http://

Federal Express, according to the author of this book, invented not only salvation for every procrastinator, but a new computer term (as if we need yet another) - extranet. To quote Baker, "an extranet is an intranet that open to selective access by outside parties." In fifteen chapters, the first third of the book explains an extranet and its advantages to employees within a company as well as its potential to generate business. The second third of the book handles the practical issues of setting up a server and putting together the right kinds of information. The last four chapters examine security, from developing a policy to building a firewall. Four appendices, a glossary, and bibliography wrap up this detailed and helpful introduction to extranets. For those ready to make the transition from intra- to extranet, this sourcebook will be a ready source of answers. - ejv End of article

Ken Jackson and Sonya Keene
FrameMaker to HTML: Single-source solution for paper and Web.
Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
paper, 206 p., with CD-ROM, ISBN 0-201-31204-2, $US36.53
Addison-Wesley: g/

FrameMaker is a common desktop publishing tool; how do you move FrameMaker documents to the World Wide Web? Jackson and Keene review your options in sixteen chapters, with the help of a program called WebMaker (an evaluation copy is included on the accompanying CD-ROM). The authors do not assume that you are ready to jump directly from FrameMaker to HTML; the first eight chapters of the book discuss your options and help you make some important decisions to reduce your workload. Five subsequent chapters go over the best ways to plan and design your Internet documents and the final three chapters actually handle the conversion process. To help you make an educated choice, Jackson and Keene provide plenty of information on the major conversion programs, WebMaker, WebWorks Publisher, HTML Transit, and HoTaMaLe. For desktop publishers wondering how to best take advantage of the Internet, FrameMaker to HTML clears up much of the mystery in moving to the Web thanks to its emphasis on commonsense and practicality (with just a little software help). - ejv End of article

Pat Ensor
The Cybrarian's manual.
Chicago: ALA Editions, 1997.
paper, 446 p., ISBN 0-838-90693-1, $US42.00
ALA Editions: ht tp

What is a cybrarian? According to page 387 of this manual, a cybrarian is "a librarian who uses the Internet for library purposes." Given that many librarians use the Internet, commercial databases, CD-ROMs, and printed materials for "library purposes," there must a lot of cybrarians in need of this sort of book. This manual is complex stew of articles reprinted from magazines and journals, combined with some original and quite utilitarian pieces. It covers a wide range of topics from the basics of the Internet to nearly everything else - intelligent agents, file formats, and even basic UNIX commands. As you might guess from that description, it is a formidable book trying to provide many answers in 65 chapters scattered across sixteen sections. Unfortunately, some of the information is dated and unintentional humorous, while the most useful chapters - the real nuggets in this book - could have been expanded. Too bad it is not better organized, edited, and illustrated because The Cybrarian's Manual is an informational gumbo. I look forward to a future edition, that really works like a manual rather than a disorderly encyclopedia. - ejv End of article

Cary A. Jardin
Java electronic commerce sourcebook.
New York: Wiley, 1997.
paper, 473 p., with CD-ROM, ISBN 0-471-17611-7, $US39.95
Wiley: http://

Ready to open a virtual store? Cary Jardin provides all of the answers to help you set up shop on the Web, in fifteen chapters. The first three chapters describe the Web and the Internet along with the basics of selling to digital customers. In the second part, Jardin analyzes order forms, credit card transactions (including CardShield, which is ready to use on the attached CD-ROM), and Java Data Base Connectivity. The last part of the book is designed for those with some Java and programming experience, exploring, for example, the ways to develop a shopping cart for your online customers. Examples forthis last section are included on the compact disk, giving you a chance to test forms and screens locally before implementation. If you are in the process of setting up a commercial presence on the Web, you will find many answers to your basic questions in this time-saving book. - ejv End of article

David B. Whittle
Cyberspace: The Human dimension.
New York: W. H. Freeman, 1997.
cloth, 456 p., ISBN 0-387-94832-5, $US21.95
W. H. Freeman: m/

Thoughtful and well-written, Cyberspace: The Human dimension provides a bird's eye view of an extremely complicated topic: the human uses of computer networks. Synthesizing much printed and electronic material, David Whittle looks at how the Internet has fit in modern society, enhancing communications by reducing differences in time and space. Whittle not only explains how communications work and a community thrives electronically, he bravely tries to explain why, too. How are business and government dealing with this entity called cyberspace? Whittle examines the interests of government and business in things digital, and the opportunities for change even among our most famous of bureaucracies. Not one screen dump mars this wonderful book about the true meaning of the Internet; its words will invent their own illustrations in your imagination. If you are serious about cyberspace and its future, you'll need to read this book. - ejv End of article

Copyright © 1997, First Monday

Agents, fictional, hypothetical and real, and other adventures: new books.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 9 - 1 September 1997

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.