Neuroscience is a fascinating subject. Out of all the branches of science, perhaps even more than the much touted Artificial Intelligence, recent advances in human-brain interfacing have showcased a sneak-peek into the sci-fi-esque reality that humans can find themselves in within a few decades from today. It sounds weird, and at some levels kind of taboo, that concepts such as uploading the neurons and brain patterns on a supercomputer or controlling parts of another organism by the actions of the brain of another organism are excitedly discussed in several scientific circles, yet if recent discoveries in the field are anything to go by, these ideas shall see the light of the day pretty soon.
Nexus by Ramez Naam is the first book in a trilogy that has been receiving rave reviews since the past several years, and that which recently won the Philip K Dick Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the science fiction genre. The story is set in a future a few decades from now, where neuroscience reflects the realms of what constitutes futuristic sci-fi stories these days. The world in large is grappling with the very real and ethical issues regarding transhumans (genetically modified humans) and posthumans (beings that are much more advanced than humans in terms of their intellect and their physical abilities), with the United States leading a global effort to prevent any scientific advancements or spread of knowledge that would empower people to modify what is currently humanely possible. However, not all countries and cultures agree with this notion, with a lot of people believing that curtailing the spread of knowledge, even under the garb of protecting mankind, is akin to an elite group in society caving into the dangers of an “unknown unknown” without realising the fact that throughout history, the benefits from any invention or knowledge have eventually outweighed the negatives. Moreover, in this world, there is an illegal market in mind altering drugs that enable people to transcend physical boundaries and connect with the minds of other people. A group of rebellious and highly talented neuroscientists in the USA are able to reverse engineer one of the most potent of such drugs illegally available in the market called Nexus,and are able to hack it in a way that the effects of the drug never wear off from a person. Rather, a person is able to boot Nexus in their mind almost like a sentinel operating system and join their thoughts, feelings and ideas with other people. However, this group eventually finds themselves at the crossroads of a dangerous and deadly power game between opposite global factions, with the American government trying to subvert their discoveries for good, while powerful groups based in the Far East are trying to romp them into their mission of spreading this discovery as wide and far as possible, all the while being heavily supported by the Chinese government, which is not-so-secretly pushing for the creation of an entire army based on Nietzsche’s idea of the “Ubersmench”. What follows during the course of the 400 plus pages of Nexus is one exhilarating ride of espionage, counter espionage, violence and scheming at the highest level of the government, with foot soldiers in the opposing parties being played off as pawns in the bigger game.
The pace of the book is almost perfectly set. I found it extremely hard to put the book down, and was furtively reading it even at work. Naam has worked at Microsoft at the forefront of artificial intelligence and neuroscience, and it shows in the way he brilliantly explains what technology is theoretically capable of achieving .
The strength of Nexus is the way in which it handles the moral observations running through the story without sounding preachy. Although genetically modifying humans and eventually transcending mankind to a greater category of beings can sound unnerving, the world at large would sooner rather than later be forced to address these issues. It is true that the same technology that can possibly equip us to communicate with our fellow beings by transcending distance can lead to more empathy between us, yet it is also equally possible that this technology in the hands of a demagogue can be a scary thought. However, the progress of humanity ultimately lies in the collective decision that people take. No one person, not even a substantial minority of well-meaning individuals collectively decide what is best for mankind. The burden of making decisions that affect us on the whole lies with the majority. Although equipping people with knowledge or resources that they do not fully understand can be dangerous, yet it is this same danger that is ultimately what liberates individuals,and what has defined humanity’s progress throughout the ages. For better or for worse,it remains to be seen whether it will continue to benefit us collectively as a species, or whether our penchant for freedom and having the right to decide on our own fate eventually lead to our demise.