Thursday, November 27, 2008

Contemplations of the Machine

There is a general sense within the fan community of the Warhammer 40,000 background (henceforth to be known as the 40kverse) that the Adeptus Mechanicus is somehow inept or ignorant.

And it is, but not in the way that most people expect.

Exactly how things panned out in the Age of Technology, thousands of years before the Imperium was forged from mankind's ruins by the Emperor, is impossible to say for sure.  But there can be little doubt that technology reached a level of sophistication impossible to imagine today.

John C. Wright's "Golden Age" novels describe, with a level of artistry far beyond my maegre skill, the sort of technological state we can expect to achieve in ten millennia, even allowing for periods of ignorance, war, cataclysm and suchlike.  Coincidentally - or not: your choice - John's vision picks up on a theme first proposed by Isaac Asimov in "I, Robot" and echoed by Arthur C. Clarke in "3001: A Final Odyssey": the idea that human technology will reach a point where we need artificial intelligence to run it, because the interactions of its individual components exceed the ability of humans to comprehend.

This isn't so far fetched.  Even today, when a PC ceases to function, it is almost impossible to identify precisely where the fault has occurred.  Processes exist to rectify faults, but are applied in a "scattergun" fashion designed to fix a myriad of possible flaws, with no way of knowing which caused the fault.  More likely, by far, is that we simply dispose of the faulty technology and start afresh.  I, along with millions of others, sit down to work everyday with no more than the vaguest idea of how it operates.

Even my car is beyond my comprehension.  If my bicycle breaks down, I can identify the fault by eye, even though I'm not a bicycle mechanic.  I may not possess the tools, ability or experience to fix it as quickly as my local bicycle shop, but I can confidently walk in and point to whatever has broken, because its workings are well within the ability of a reasonably intelligent, spatial mind to understand (my wife, on the other hand, can't - despite being far smarter than I am, any problem that involves a spatial element is beyond her).  But whilst I understand the principles that underpin the operation of an internal-combustion engine and could probably take one apart and maybe - with lots of trial and error - put it back together, my car isn't just its engine.  It contains a baffling array of technology: gears, lights, suspension, air conditioning, anti-theft devices and more.  And being a pretty cheap car, built way back in 2001, it's nothing like as clever as the top-of-the-range Mercedes and Audis with their diagnotic computers, GPS and flappy-paddle gearboxes.  Even the mechanics don't understand them: they just plug in their computers and look at the pretty pictures!

So the idea of humans combining technologies of such sophistication that we need artificial intelligences to tell us how they work should not seem too strange at all.

If the Imperium is built upon the foundations of such a society (and there's no reason to think that it isn't), then it has an extra difficulty with which to contend: it has a ban on artificial intelligence or, at least, on artificial intelligence that's more intelligent than its human masters.  So we should not be surprised to discover that even the greatest of technological minds struggles to understand the interaction of technologies that previous relied upon the use of super-advanced AIs to operate.

The Cult Mechanicus has devised a highly-functional alternative to the artificial intelligences that are denied to them: ritual and tradition.  In my next post, I'll look at how these might serve to assist the Adeptus in maintaining its fragile hold upon the technology of the past.


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