This review is submitted for W.O.W.’s (Women on Writing) blog tour!
A five star review! A roller coaster of a read!
As the ancient Greek poet Homer gave us his Odyssey, we now have Larry Kilham’s novel – an odyssey of another sort – in which he explores what many in the scientific community have been addressing for some time: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual reality (VR). Also, with the current epidemic of opioid addiction, FREE WILL ODYYSEY is timely and addresses through well-crafted story telling what readers will understand in profound and new ways.
Kilham’s roller coaster of a read in FREE WILL ODYSSEY is one of the few novels which has successfully woven AI and VR into a work of fiction, totally capturing our imagination and challenging our beliefs.
His story is theme driven, using the main protagonist, Peter Tesla, to take us on an intricate journey in his search to find a way for AI to offer us free will as a choice for healing: “to unlock the mind from pleasure traps of excessive eating, drug addiction, and other health problems.”
The other characters in the story are supporting cast members who serve to move the narrative and make Tesla’s explorations all the more relevant.
We know from the start what motivates Tesla: his sister had died from an overdose of illegal drugs, “succumbing to some homemade killer concoction.” Interestingly, Kilham hasn’t chosen an extraordinary scientist nor a dramatic hero for this role. Peter is a young man who grew up on a farm building ham radios, eventually studying electrical engineering and computer programming. His interest in the concept of free will began, Kilham tells us, “when he wandered fields and woods with an open and inquiring mind . . . thinking that curiosity in everything and openness to the world is key to a full, useful, and happy life.”
To have curiosity and to feel a wide range of emotions, however, one must have clarity of thought and not be a victim of an addiction of any sort.
Determined to find a way for the ordinary citizen or even the President of the U.S. to have the free will that can enable them to control their lives and avoid succumbing to addictions, we find ourselves wondering whether Kilham is indeed prescient in his ability to envision and create many of the pitfalls throughout Peter’s odyssey to find a way to “help a person get his or her mind out of automated thinking and into wide horizons and creativity.”
What propels him forward on his journey to design Electra (an intelligent virtual companion) is his determination to prove that a computer program will be able to allow users “to be released from previous unavoidable stale thoughts in order to anticipate the future and plan within a complex social environment.”
As in his other books, Kilham’s wealth of knowledge seems endless but not intrusive. He has so much information to share and finds ways to enlighten the reader. One would be foolish not to take heed or not to appreciate this story.
FREE WILL ODYSSEY is an elegant novel in which the interface between Artificial Intelligence and Free Will is explored in depth, hoping to prove that both our physical health and mental abilities are changed and may be shaped by our interactions with technology.
When Peter’s assistant and dear friend Tanya wishes to commit suicide rather than to live in excruciating pain, she seeks redemption from a priest who –much to this reader’s surprise –grants it to her. Yet, to prepare her, the priest suggests she read the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas who studied free will eight centuries ago and is still considered the authority by the Church. He then reassures her that she will “find him to be flexible in the interpretation of free will.”
While authors, artists, and even scientists often believe that their discoveries are new to the world, the old adage seems to be true. There is hardly anything that hasn’t been explored before. We only do so with the eyes of the times in which we live.
With AI, Tesla faces an accusation of murder at one extreme through Tanya’s use of Electra in choosing to end her life. At the other extreme he’s invited to work secretly in the White House to help detox the President. Believable? I’d say YES!
At Tesla’s trial, his defense attorney succeeds in convincing the jury of Tesla’s innocence and he is then free to pursue his work.
He uses the science of AI to “link Electra’s perception of a user’s needs with search engines such as Google or IBM’s Watson,” while most important to him is “maximizing the impact Electra could have in eliminating the use of hard drugs. . . . . immersing users in a fantasy world to help keep them focused, “to move people away from the need for immediate gratification to deliberate thinking.”
He defends his creation saying: “The brain is not simply a detached computer making an instantaneous decision and Electra is using a free-will machine to help people think for themselves and make better decisions.”
Coincidentally, the virtual world he creates inside Electra is no different from what psychotherapists and hypnotherapists do when patients are guided into altered states of relaxation. In such states they imagine peaceful places and become aware of their body and their breathing, which in turn affects the sympathetic nervous system. It slows their thoughts and impulses and gives them a greater ability to use such altered states to help them in a myriad of ways including their decision-making abilities. Similarly, mindfulness training and bio-feedback, are among the best treatments for chronic pain sufferers.
Only when the President himself becomes addicted is Tesla brought into the White House to save him by “getting his mind off his addiction,” and helping him to “regain his self-control with an increased self-will.”
We learn that in past administrations, Presidents had found ways to keep their populations happy and under control. Kilham references Aldous Huxley who made Soma famous in Brave New World where people “immersed themselves in comfort and happiness but lost their individuality.”
In bringing Tesla into the government’s rationale “that Americans have lost hope in an ever- sinking economy, the public had been offered a “fun drug” that kept them voting for the party in power. They started with Opa, “a blend of marijuana and meth. But while friendly, it destroyed the free will of the people.” Big pharmaceuticals partnered with politicians and they controlled and profited from it all. At this point, the reader is left to reflect on the parallels to today’s world.
The President is told that “Electra is a smart virtual person, a combination of AI with VR. She will learn more about you as you converse with her. She will carry you into another world where your mind will be set free from the grip of your addiction.”
Ultimately, he develops a VR treatment technology for drug addiction. His software is “computer coding with video imagery of scenes that are needed for treatment.” This “drug detox package uses AI to enhance the patient-Electra dialogue.”
Not surprisingly, “advocates of traditional treatment methods, such as methadone and even marijuana, see his methods as competing with their own. In the end, he realizes that his Corporation “was becoming an institution just like the others and change was not in its DNA.” Although he then had money and control, he “could not force new thinking.” What he does do is extend Electra’s use to include the treatment of PTSD and eating disorders, while entering his products into China’s foreign market.
Then, after his successes with AI and VR he feels inspired to teach, write, and influence generations to come. We leave him at book’s end with the freedom to respond to the retired President’s invitation to move to a north Atlantic area, “a new destination for people fleeing global warming. The coastal cities were disappearing under water.”
When interviewed, the President refers to Tesla’s teachings (without mentioning him by name) and states: “We’ll be welcoming lifestyles of traditional home and family values, individual initiative, and we’ll be free of drugs and alternate news.”
A fitting ending and one which leaves us eager to read Kilham’s next book. Will his same creative talent tackle global warming?
About the Author
Larry Kilham has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. He received a B.S. in engineering from the University of Colorado and an M.S. in management from MIT. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and three novels with an AI theme. His book website is www.larrykilham.net and he looks forward to hearing from readers at [email protected]
Find Larry On-line: