Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 373 pages, ISBN 978-1-250-02134-2
Ever heard about something called the Singularity? It’s an interesting noun with a couple of different meanings. First, according to my Oxford English Language Dictionary, there’s the general definition: The state or condition of being singular. Then there’s the math & physics usage: The point at which something becomes infinite. The third, and for our purposes the most interesting definition, is capitalized. The Singularity: A point in the future, estimated to be around 2030, beyond which overwhelming technical changes . . . especially the development of superhuman intelligence . . . make reliable predictions impossible. In other words, that’s the point in time when computers will become self-aware, or able to think for themselves. And once that happens, the question becomes: Will artificial intelligence see the human race as friend or foe? That’s the gut-wrenching dilemma author Mark Alpert hands us in his outstanding new techno-thriller, Extinction. In it, a clandestine unit of the Chinese secret police have developed a unique and ultimate form of artificial intelligence using licensed American technology implanted in human brains. Unfortunately for the human subjects, they’re lobotomized first. Their brains are then networked together using some of the hardware from America, thus creating an ever-larger group of linked minds whose knowledge and intelligence increase exponentially with the addition of each new “module” as the lobotomized humans are now called. When the group is plugged into the Chinese security system and the World Wide Web . . . it becomes self-aware . . . and the first thing it decides to do is eliminate all of the human race.
At the same time, we meet Jim Pierce, a former Army Special Forces soldier and CIA spy. He’s an amputee and bio-engineer whose occupation is building artificial arms and legs for wounded soldiers. He’s drawn into the conflict when an agent for the network tries to kill him. That’s because his estranged daughter, a world-class computer hacker, is a target of Supreme Harmony, the network’s name for itself, because she has stolen computer files exposing them. Supreme Harmony incorporates any and all into the network, where their knowledge becomes shared by all . . . giving each module the abilities formerly possessed by that individual. The action is non-stop and it’s anyone’s guess which side will prevail. This one is downright scary. And it’s made all the more so because it’s grounded in believable science and technology that’s available right now or is in the process of development. Mr. Alpert is being hailed by some as the “heir to Michael Crichton,” the one who has his finger on the pulse of whatever is coming next and making it seem as though it’s already here. Extinction is one helluva thrill ride using cutting edge science. I loved it.