Whether we and our artificially intelligent offspring end up with a utopia (say boldly exploring space with Data on the Enterprise) or a dystopia (running from murderous robots from the future who look like Arnold Schwarzenegger), this new frontier of human and human-like existence is riddled with moral questions. Will humans abuse their power over beings whose humanity they may not acknowledge? Will AI understand concepts like compassion, self-sacrifice, or love? It is all a vast, new, unmapped frontier.
Moral Code, the first novel by author Lois Melbourne and her collaborator/husband Ross Melbourne, imagines the beginnings of a society where humans and AI work together to achieve the greatest possible good. Both of the Melbournes know their subject matter very well. Lois is a former CEO in the software industry and the founder of the non-profit, My Future Story, in which she works to inspire kids to explore career possibilities. Ross is also an entrepreneur and patent holder in the software and technology fields. He is also active in supporting start-up companies through angel investments.
It is not surprising, then, that Moral Code takes on both the topics of technological development and social welfare. Set in the near future, we follow Kiera, the creator of MoralOS, an operating system she has developed and tested on her AI assistant, Elly. Her work has gained the attention of some people with a lot of money and a lot of ideas for using MoralOS … some good and some, inevitably, not so good. Kiera and, by extension, Elly are focused on “helping children in distress” in whatever form that distress might be. Of course, the road to achieving that goal is going to be a treacherous one.
Along the way, every possible aspect of creating a moral AI is explored. How do you define morality? How can AI be protected from people who would use it immorally? Can AI be trusted to reach their own moral judgments? Can they be permitted to then take action based on their own judgment? What restrictions on self-improvement by AI are necessary? And there are so many more questions that we haven’t even thought of yet.
It is a pleasure to spend time with characters actively engaging with these questions in a sincere and selfless way. That may sound simple, but rarely have I encountered a fictional narrative that allows its protagonists to take the time they need to come to thoughtful, well-researched, and tested conclusions. These are characters who are immersed in the scientific process, of course, but it’s surprising to see them carrying that process over into the way they interact with each other. Not all of this healthy debate results in total agreement, but that is handled professionally and compassionately, as well.
Of course, a story about science and technology that features more than one central female character is always a delight. Moral Code feels very feminine in a way that doesn’t shame male characters for their participation and, at the same time, holds no quarter for toxic masculinity.
In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Lois Melbourne describes herself as an “author-needing-training-wheels.” This is most apparent in the overly expository nature of the dialogue which creates too much distance between her characters and the readers. Nearly all of the character interactions are carried out in a business-like manner with formal tones and meticulously orchestrated discussions. While that works very well in creating the healthy space for discussion I was talking about earlier, I want to feel more connected to these people on a personal level. Even just a few interjected sections giving us a first-person narrative from Keira (and Elly even!) would close that gap nicely.
In the first half of the book, I was beginning to fear there wasn’t going to be any critical conflict or suspense. The latter half of the book cured me of that fear. The looming threat of greed and politics was handled nicely, and, as things became truly dire, I was swept swiftly along with the story to the very last page.
If you like a rigorous exploration of humanity’s potential, Moral Code is a thought-provoking and uplifting story. I would especially recommend it for fans of YA (who may have had their fill of dystopia) and of authors like Becky Chambers, John Scalzi, and Martha Wells. While the overall tone of the book is a bit too “dramatized TedTalk,” this is a very solid story that gives the reader something that is much too rare in the world of fiction: the diligent search for a moral foundation to scientific exploration and society’s relationship with what we gain from it. Moral Code reminds us that people can work together in the face of internal conflict and external sabotage and that achieving utopian goals is not impossible.
Creative Team: Lois and Ross Melbourne (co-authors)
Publisher: Nonlinear Publishing LLC
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