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Fools' Experiments    by Edward M. Lerner order for
Fools' Experiments
by Edward M. Lerner
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2008 (2008)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Edward M. Lerner's Fools' Experiments - whose very clever and apt title is taken from a Charles Darwin quote, 'I love fools' experiments. I am always making them' - is a near-future near-apocalyptic thriller, in which a caged AI, maddened by Darwinian experiments on it, escapes, runs rampant on the Internet, and controls U.S. facilities and weapons. Why fools' experiments? Because a secret government agency, greedy for a badly needed edge against terrorists and unfriendly nations, doesn't learn from mistakes and assumes it can keep a genie inside the lamp.

Who are the key players? Computer scientist Doug Carey is the virtual superhero who's called on repeatedly to save the day in real-life action as well as in cyberspace. Doug - who has a prosthetic arm and personal demons relating to the accident in which he lost his real one - researches ways to make such devices more effective through giving them the ability to learn about their environment. Slender, attractive Cheryl Stern is the love interest, hired by Doug to work in neural interfacing - of course a relationship develops between them as the problems they face grow exponentially.

AJ Rosenberg is an affable university professor, whose kindness - and research growing an AI through a combination of natural selection and experimenters' godlike interventions - come close to destroying his country. Lazy layabout Jeff Ferris, hired by AJ for lab work because of his good impressions of Jeff's very different older brother - is a catalyst for loosing a wild - and vengeful - AI on the United States. And Colonel Glenn Adams, a military man working at the Inter-Agency Computer Network Security Forum, realizes he's on a road to hell paved with good intentions almost too late.

As the story opens we see potentially catastrophic collateral damage occurring after an eco-nut's computer virus scrambles the minds of experts in the area of neural interfacing. Bad as this is, it's only the beginning. When 'Frankenstein's cybermonster' gets loose, systems crash, and many people die, including cyberwarriors fighting in a virtual reality. But even when that beastie is destroyed, fools continue with their experiments, and this time unleash a much more powerful predator, one that knows what happened to its predecessor and is willing to do anything to survive.

Edward M. Lerner's Fools' Experiments is a very intelligent thriller. Not only does it show its human characters, but it also takes readers through the evolution of the AI itself, as it learns from the mistakes for which it is severely punished. My only qualm about the novel is that there seemed to be too much stuffed into one book. But it's a story I highly recommend to anyone interested in the evolution of computers and the possibility - and potential risks - of developing artificial intelligences.

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