System recognition

Ray Nayler's novel The Mountain in the Sea is a powerful exploration of intelligence, and communication

System recognition
Image: Andrew Lipta

How do you recognize an intelligent mind? This is a question that's long been at the heart of speculative fiction literature, with authors such as Mary Shelley, Olaf Stapledon, Isaac Asimov, Murray Leinster, Philip K. Dick, Carl Sagan, Linda Nagata, Annalee Newitz, Becky Chambers, and many, many others exploring what intelligent life might look like when you look beyond humanity. It's a thought experiment that spans the breadth of topics such as alien civilizations, spirituality, and computer technology, yielding a pantheon of talking robots and fantastical aliens to keep the question going. Generations of scientific exploration and research have only deepened the complexity of the question, unlocking plenty of possibilities of understanding what life might look like in distant solar systems, but also at what might be watching us from other corners of the Earth.  

Author (and foreign service officer) Ray Nayler takes on this topic in his debut novel The Mountain in the Sea, exploring not only at the complexities embedded in the development of artificial intelligence and the possibility that we're sharing the planet with other sentient beings, but how the political, social, and economic systems that we've set up can easily spell our doom.

Nayler sets his novel in a not-too-distant future. An international tech company called DIANIMA has acquired an archipelago off the shores of Vietnam called Con Dao, sealing it off from the outside world to set up a research station. It's a company that's consumed with studying the nature of intelligence as it attempts to replicate it. Under the guidance of its founder, Arnkatla Minervudóttir-Chan, it's created the world's first truly artificial intelligence, an android named Evrim, and it's acquired the land to study a species of octopus that lives there who seem to be highly intelligent.

To further their research, DIANIMA entices a marine biologist named Dr. Ha Nguyen to continue her work there. All the while, the facility is guarded by a former soldier and drone operator named Altantsetseg, who communicates through an outdated translation device.

Along the way, Nayler introduces a pair of other characters: a hacker named Rustem from Turkey who's hired by a mysterious woman to figure out what's causing a series of fatal accidents involving some automated systems, while a programmer named Eiko is kidnapped and enslaved aboard an AI-powered fishing vessel operating in the Ho Chi Minh Autonomous Trade Zone.

As Ha and Evrim go about their research into the octopuses of Con Dao, they're confronted with an underlying challenge: how do you communicate with a species for which you really have no common ground? As these various groups collide and encounter one another, they're forced to reexamine their assumptions and motives in order to even begin to try to figure out how to communicate. Ha and Evrim tackle the problem of trying to understand and figure out how the octopuses are communicating, while nearby at sea, Eiko and his fellow slaves at one point have to talk with their own AI overseer to ensure that they aren't worked to death.

Talking to strangers
Musing about first contact stories

Nayler's future is a bleak one: people interact with advanced chatbots that mimic romantic partners, the aforementioned fishing vessels trawl the seas already depleted by mass fishing, armies utilize deadly swarms of drones, and it looks very much like DIANIMA is intent on exploiting Ha's research at Con Dao for their own ends. Running under the discussion of intelligence and translation and motives is a look at something a little more fundamental: a blistering critique of the capitalistic economics that underpins the world as we know it. It's a system that's designed for resource extraction, whether it's protein from the ocean, privacy of citizens, or the nature of an unfamiliar intelligence. By the end of the book, I feel like it's not even clear that the characters in charge of corporations like DIANIMA are able to fully comprehend its complexity or even control it, as though the corporation and the systems that make it up are able to operate to their own ends, much like an octopus doesn't fully operate its own arms with a centralized brain.

What's constantly been on my mind in the months since I read it is that it's a story about how we truly don't fully comprehend ourselves and the complexity of the world that surrounds us. We're creatures who've risen in the world because of the tools and languages we've used, only to be shaped by those very instruments of our ascension. At the heart of Nayler's book is less a question of "can we recognize intelligence beyond ourselves," and more "how can we be sure that we can recognize it in ourselves in the first place?"

It's a powerful, thought-provoking story that feels more and more important in an age where "artificial intelligence" holds ever more way on our lives and world. As DIANIMA uses Ha and Evrim's efforts and discoveries to improve its own, it's building upon and expanding those artificial systems that trap us in superficial digital relationships or as slaves in industries that are quickly extracting what few resources remain before everything collapses. It's a self-inflicted demise, one that The Mountain In the Sea says isn't inevitable, but that we're running out of time to avoid it.