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Book: Daniel Suarez. Daemon (Signet, 2009); Freedom (TM) (Dutton 2010).


Hayden Millsley:

"Daemon is about a videogame designer who develops a relatively simple artificial intelligence that awaits the news of his death circulating the internet to instigate a worldwide revolution. It eventually creates a worldwide augmented reality network that allows coordinates its many operatives into accomplishing tasks for it." (NextNet list, October 2011)


DS is interviewed by Frank Rieger.

Q: in your books, the main „non-character“ is a vastly complex and implausibly accurate conglomerate of artifical intelligence systems, which seems way beyond what is doable today in software development. Sobol, the dead computer game programmer genius who left them behind, must have possessed supernatural powers to be able to write all that software, test it, model the strands of possible outcomes and happenings. Do you expect major breakthroughs in productivity and quality of software design, that would make such a hyper-complex system even remotely possible to design and program? Or do you think that self-improving algorithms can gain traction within the next years also in what until now is hard intellectual labor in software / algorithm development?

Daniel Suarez: The Daemon is, of course, fiction, but our world is increasingly automated, interconnected, and data-driven. Narrow artifical intelligence bots already make life-changing decisions about and for large segments of the human population. Be they high-frequency stock trading bots, or the blackbox algorithms that determine individual credit scores. These proprietary systems alter human behavior as we strive to improve or maintain our scores within their framework -- in much the same way players are driven to reach higher levels in games. And when these systems err, it is very often humans (not the bots) who suffer. As long as they are profitable, these systems eventually become institutions unto themselves, attended by a caste of high-tech priests who alone know their dark mysteries. Not unlike the Daemon in my books.

So no, I don't think a *major* breakthrough would be required - just an incremental one. The Daemon is a transmedia news-reading, human-manipulation engine. At its heart the Daemon is a logic tree -- albeit a distributed and complex one. In its initial, non-crowd-sourced incarnation, the Daemon had a short list of goals: 1.) to infect corporate networks, 2.) to attain human followers (using consumer data and social networks as a map), and 3.) manage the activities of those human followers to achieve tasks. The Daemon posits tasks for humans to achieve, provides incentives (or delivers threats) to achieve them, and then scans multiple public newsfeeds to determine when/if those tasks are completed. In no case does the Daemon actually ‘understand' the events it's monitoring; it relies instead on its human network to serve as its eyes and ears -- people invested in the survival of the system.

Certainly development of a distributed narrow artifical intelligence like the Daemon is beyond the capabilities of a single human, but so is most software. The fictional antagonist in my books, Matthew Sobol, was the CTO of a successful game company and harnessed the skills of numerous developers who were unaware of the real purpose behind their work (e.g., Joseph Pavlos, whom we meet in the very first chapter). Sobol initially seeded the system with tasks, but as new Daemon members gained power, they too began to issue and manage tasks of their own -- likewise expanding upon the Daemon's logic tree. By the time the Daemon had millions of followers (some at high levels), it was no longer the same construct that Sobol envisioned. It was evolving through the auspices of its own priestly caste.

The major breakthrough in productivity and (arguably) quality you're thinking of, then, is already here: crowd-sourcing. The 'self-improving algorithm' I would point to is the constantly evolving labor of individual humans working within a reputation system -- in the case of the Daemon, one that will kill you if you try to wreck the system but which will richly reward you for improving it. Rather than decide on its own, the Daemon gauges success by the upvotes/downvotes of millions of its human members.

Would such a system work without all sorts of errors? No, but then again the Daemon has no central core. Sobol strived to remove single points of failure. So while failures might be fatal for one thread (or human user for that matter), they would not affect the overall organism. I did, in fact, write scenes where the Daemon erred-out or left an individual followers marooned in a hopeless logic loop. However, these lapses (accurate though they may be) detracted from the thrust of the overall storyline, and I edited them out of the final manuscript." (http://www.faz.net/s/Rub475F682E3FC24868A8A5276D4FB916D7/Doc~E10A1FDB910EC4F5CA99B5F4C39169BE5~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html)


Kevin Carson:

"I should have known how good these books would be when I saw John Robb of Global Guerrillas listed among Suarez’s advisers on the Acknowledgements page of Daemon. If you’ve been following Robb the last year or so, you know he writes a lot about resilient communities and darknets. Recently, against the backdrop of disruption of the Icelandic volcano, he stated the two principles of resilience:

   *Localize production
   *Virtualize everything else

Those are, perhaps not coincidentally, the central organizing principles of the new society that emerges in Suarez’s two novels. As Robb describes it in his review of Freedom,

- it is a fictional account of the next American revolution (AR 2.0) using resilient communities, open source warfare, systems disruption, individual super-empowerment, parasitic predation, hollow nation-states, etc, (all staples of global guerrilla thinking) as central themes. Very cool.

Any regular reader of this blog, anyone on the P2P Research or Open Manufacturing lists, anyone who follows John Robb, Jeff Vail or David Ronfeldt, should run—not walk—to buy both of these books.

Daemon kicks off with the death of genius software and gaming mogul Matthew Sobol. News of his death triggers a Web daemon—”A computer program that runs continuously in the background and performs specified operations at predefined times or in response to certain events.” Or as one of the characters puts it, ““a narrow AI scripting application distributed over a peer-to-peer network architecture to avoid core logic disruption.”

It gets off to a pretty exciting start. The newly activated Daemon triggers an assortment of booby-traps that kill former close associates of Sobol with an inside knowledge of the Daemon’s construction. It also activates a horrendously effective automated defense system at Sobol’s estate, which houses a sizeable server farm in the basement. During the siege, dozens of county and federal law enforcement officers suffer deaths that should translate very well to the big screen.

After that, the public drama dies down and the Daemon pursues its agenda more quietly, infesting corporate and government computer systems with assorted worms. It continues to react to real-world events, as monitored news on the Internet triggers its scripts.

Natalie Philips, a hot young cryptographic genius handling the NSA’s investigation, describes the Daemon’s capabilities (as it turns out a very low-ball estimate) early on in the story:

- “Huge amounts of money flowed from Sobol’s bank accounts immediately after his death. ACH wire transfers totaling tens of millions of dollars went offshore. He also took out large lines of credit in the months before his death. This money, too, went overseas the day he died…. Picture the combination of a widely distributed, compartmentalized application with high failure tolerance—perhaps thousands of copies of each component, able to reconstitute itself if any x-percentage of its components are destroyed….

- “Now combine an application like that—a widely distributed entity that never dies—with tens of millions of dollars and the ability to purchase goods and services. It’s answerable to no one and has no fear of punishment.”

Not long after this, the Daemon manages buy itself time and slack by framing up Detective Pete Sebeck as the real mastermind behind the terror incidents, so that the press and government largely lose interest in what is what is dismissed as “the Daemon hoax.”

Given the widespread pyrotechnics associated with the Daemon’s appearance, the reader’s natural reaction is to view Sobol as a sociopath, a sort of James Bond villain. As these things usually go, you expect his face eventually to appear on a giant screen at the UN Security Council, announcing the nuclear destruction of New York and St. Petersburg and delivering his ultimatum. But as the plot develops, Sobol’s motivation becomes increasingly clear—and it no longer seems quite so crazy.

As it turns out, the large-scale sabotage of government and corporate organizations that kicked things off was only secondary, a way of running interference on behalf of the Daemon’s primary objective. That objective was to create a Darknet: as one of the characters describes it, “a network, like the Internet, but more sophisticated and more exclusive, populated only by humans the Daemon has recruited.”

The major part of that recruitment effort is carried out by scripts built into a backdoor of Sobol’s extremely popular computer games, which select players for skill and certain personality traits. These recruits—thousands of them, and disproportionately disaffected misfits and sociopaths—are set to work building the Darknet and the initial human infrastructure associated with it. The Darknet, built on the mapping software of Sobol’s multi-player online games, allows members with net-connected HUD glasses to access information from “D-Space,” a virtual world layered on top of the physical one, with semantic tags attached to virtually everything and everyone. (The Acquis operation on Cyprus had something similar in Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids.) The tagging system makes for total transparency: every individual carries a reputational rating that’s visible to anyone viewing the world with the augmented reality layer superimposed.

Every individual has a ranking within a range of two hundred levels, much like the ranking system of players in a game, that regulates his powers in the Darknet.

-“In essence Sobol is using the GPS system to convert the Earth into one big game map. We’re all in his game now…

- “…[T]here must be some way for Daemon operatives to interact with this presentation layer. If my theory holds, then the Daemon must have created equipment that permits its operatives to ’see’ into this extra-dimensional space so they can use it.”

- Philips nodded. “That could be why we’ve been unable to track Factions in the real world—because they’re communicating with each other through this virtual space.”

The humans recruited into the Darknet carry out the Daemon’s agenda in the physical world. That agenda includes, at the outset, recruiting assorted micromanufacturing facilities and machine shops into the Darknet to serve the Daemon’s agenda. Their primary order of business at first is modifying SUVs and motorcycles into automated combat vehicles—essentially a more sophisticated generation of armed predator drones using automobiles as platforms. One brief vignette should be of interest to members of the Open Manufacturing list: a machine shop equipped with a Haas mini mill—a CNC 3-in-one drill-lathe-router—connected to the Darknet and modifying cars and bikes to the Daemon’s specifications.

As the story progresses, especially in Freedom, the Darknet becomes the nucleus of a human social organization, its overall makeup shifting as the initial thousands of sociopaths and misfits recruited are followed by the millions of normal people attracted by an idealistic vision of a better life. And that human social organization, as per Sobol’s plan, supercedes the Daemon in importance and begins to exist for its own purposes. The new human society organized through the Darknet, we learn, was Sobol’s objective all along: to create a resilient, networked successor society that would continue after global corporate capitalism collapsed from all of its assorted pathologies. The Daemon, and all the spectacular combat capabilities associated with it, was just a midwife; or as one character puts it, “Sobol was willing to be our villain to force necessary change.” Sobol’s avatar argues, at one point in the story, that absent a takeover by the Daemon the inevitable collapse of global capitalism would have led to the death of billions.

As the networked production facilities continue to expand, economies built around meeting real human needs—instead of building cool fighting vehicles—become the primary focus. The Darknet evolves into a network of resilient local communities (holons) with micromanufacturing facilities, sustainable farming methods, and renewable energy sources.

Take, as an example, this example of a farmer living near the Greeley, Iowa holon:

- “We’re raising the animals on grass—not corn. We put in a good blend of natural prairie grasses. Big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, switchgrass. It grows naturally here on the prairie, so it’s turning solar power into beef—no fossil fuels necessary. And we rotate animals through the fields. Chickens follow the cows out to pasture, picking the bug larvae out of the manure and eating bugs and worms from the broken turf left behind by the cattle. The chicken dung, in turn, makes the field fertile for crops.

It’s all an integrated, sustainable system….

- “Got two ten-kilowatt wind turbines and some flywheel batteries to store the power. Every other darknet farm in this holon is working for the same thing. Regional energy and food independence. We rely on Greeley for our critical manufactured goods—printed electronics, micromanufactured precision equipment, tools, software. They, in turn, rely on us, along with other farms, to provide their food and raw materials.”

A description of Greeley itself (including the residents’ D-Space interactions), from another perspective:

- Unlike many Midwestern towns, Greeley appeared to be undergoing a renaissance. Main Street was lined with recently renovated brick storefronts and micro-manufacturing shops with their roll-top doors opened to reveal machinists and customers poking at D-Space objects, negotiating and ordering 3-D plans off the darknet. CNC milling machines hummed in the workshops beyond.

- In the street dozens of young adults, young families, and even middle-aged folks with call-outs over their heads walked, clicking on one another’s data, interacting in multiple dimensions as though it were a natural extension of reality.

The story, as you might suspect, heads toward a climactic confrontation between the new society built around the Darknet and the increasingly desperate old corporate order.

Toward the middle of Daemon, elements within the intelligence community begin to suspect and then conclude for a certainty that Sebeck was framed and that the Daemon is real. The decision is made to proceed with Sebeck’s execution and maintain the hoax story for public consumption.

In the meantime, the Daemon begins showing its hand, using the threat of wiping out their finances to exercise strategic control over the thousands of corporations infested with its worms. Its control of IT functions is backed by recruitment of internal defectors within the firms—a very easy task, considering the number of disgruntled employees in a time of continued downsizings and benefit cuts.

As Sobol explained in a video recording for corporate officers:

- “The reality is that my Daemon now controls your global IT function. Your business will operate as before, and no one will suspect that there is anything unusual going on—except that perhaps your systems will run better than they did when you were responsible for them.

- “Your natural inclination will be to resist this indignity, of course, and so you will be tempted to contact the authorities. That is your choice—although the moment my Daemon detects such contact, it will wipe your company’s data off the face fo the earth….

- “I hope you and my Daemon can peacefully coexist. I think you’ll find that, as the years roll by, you’ll be glad indeed that you didn’t try to defy it—especially as you take market share from those companies that did defy it.”

At the same time, the Daemon eradicates the child pornography business, along with several other of the more unsavory activities of organized crime, and collects protection money from the criminal gangs allowed to survive. One of the more gratifying episodes is the targeted assassination of thousands of spammers worldwide, which reduces the volume of spam clogging ISPs by 80%.

Later, at the beginning of Freedom, the Daemon targets dozens of financial executives and hedge fund managers. If there’s ever a movie version of this book, the scene of armed motorcycle drones fighting their way through a fortified compound and hacking a billionaire executive to death in his safe room should translate pretty effectively onto the screen.

The real government of the United States (the intelligence community, the black ops people, the private security firms and service contractors attached to the global military empire, the global drug trade funding death squads—not their errand boy in the White House), having become aware of the Daemon’s continued existence, get the idea of hacking it and controlling its powers in their own interest. The idea is to use the Daemon to restore their control of the faltering global financial system and create a neofeudal order backed by universal surveillance technology and predator drones:

- “See, in medieval Europe a mounted knight in armor could defeat almost any number of peasants. The modern elite warrior is much the same—they can mow down mass conscripted armies with superior technology. So what happens when small elite forces can overwhelm citizen forces of almost any size? We return to feudalism—landless serfs and a permanent ruling class. Just look at the fortified upscale neighborhoods now being built with their own private security forces.” (http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/daniel-suarez-daemon-and-freedom/2010/04/26)