Daemon & Freedom

daemon-freedom-cover-smDaemon is a contemporary techno-thriller. It is a fast moving easy and entertaining read. However it is only half the story. The novel finishes without a conclusion and really cannot stand alone (similar to Hyperion). The sequel is Freedom.

The central antagonist in the story is Matthew Sobol a genius software developer who grew rich through his own computer game company Cyberstorm. By the time we pick up the story, Sobol has already died from cancer and his secret life’s work, the Daemon, which is a distributed rule-based narrow AI has already been let loose into the wild. Sobol’s will reaches from beyond the grave to act through the Daemon. The goal of the Daemon is to usher the extra-judicial redefinition of society worldwide. It accomplishes this by hiring sympathetic humans into its cause and implements a kind of gamified reward system while keeping individuals ignorant of the bigger picture while giving them just-in-time instructions (the firearm assembly scene is a great example of this). In a sense it is the manifestation of a perfect terrorist cell style organization. It funds itself by receiving protection money from organized cybercrime as well as being a parasitic host to legitimate businesses, threatening to shut them down (delete their digital corporate identity – much like in the first season of Mr Robot)  if a portion of their profits doesn’t go to feed the Daemon.

Detective Peter Sebeck is our first protagonist as he pieces together details of two related murders of programmers at Cyberstorm. Due to the scope of the investigation it is eventually taken over by the FBI, but the Daemon frames Sebeck which the authorities all too eagerly convict and put to death (within a year!) in an effort to assure the public that the Daemon was a hoax perpetrated by a lone actor (hmm, where have I heard that before?).  Jon Ross is our other protagonist. He is an adept hacker, gamer and identity thief. He is familiar with Sobol’s games and the psychology within them. He augments Sebeck’s complete lack of technical aptitude and provides useful insights into the Daemon for the government’s Anti-Daemon Task Force. This task force is run by Natalie Phillips, an NSA cryptographer and “The Major” a mysterious Department of Defense liaison. The Major represents the real enemy that the Daemon is fighting as he is the “unseen hand” of the one percent. The siege at Sobol’s estate introduces FBI Agent Roy Merritt. Merritt is  a SWAT team leader who gains fame for being the only person to have successfully breached Sobol’s estate.

The Daemon expects absolute loyalty and execution of its instructions. For that people are handsomely rewarded. The most powerful convert is a black hat named Brian Gragg (Loki). By the end of the novel he infiltrates the Anti-Daemon task force and destroys it, with Phillips, Ross and the Major narrowly escaping. During Loki’s escape Merritt puts up an impressive chase only to be killed by The Major working an alternative agenda. Charles Moseley, convicted of murder, also answered the Daemon’s call as it freed him from prison and took care of his son. Due to his background, the Daemon uses him for assassinations and other extreme work. Finally Anji Anderson is co-opted to push the Daemon’s propaganda and exert media influence. As a failed reporter, it resurrected and boosted her career for her service.

The Daemon is an interesting story. It gets the technology right and presents us with a chilling illustration of a machine intelligence while skirting the issue of sentience.  The Daemon is a narrow rule-based AI, entirely dependent upon Sobol’s expert ability to predict human behaviour. It can parse news stories looking for keywords and ask people yes/no questions, but not follow a conversation. There is no emotion. It simply executes directives. The Daemon begins “life” extremely ruthlessly, but as it’s power and influence grows this ruthlessness eases off somewhat. It has unprecedented power due to how interconnected our daily existences are with technology (like the ease of which it released Moseley from prison). The AutoM8 driverless cars controlled by the Daemon demonstrate the malevolence of automated plan. The only thing I would change is the mildly annoying tendency of the author to introduce characters by their full name. It seems a tad amateurish, though I do believe this is Suarez’s first book.

The mark of a good book is if it makes you think and Daemon does that. It left me wondering if it is possible to apply psychology and probability and machine learning to plan and respond to events as the Daemon does. It kind of reminds me of Asimov’s psychohistory in that regard.


 

Freedom is a direct continuation of Daemon and was likely only made into a separate book for publishing purposes. Reading only this novel would be like starting a random novel from the halfway point. As a result, Freedom introduces no new major characters and neglects to include others introduced in Daemon such as Anji Anderson and Moseley, both of which are only mentioned very briefly. Sebeck’s attitude towards the establishment and technology as well as the budding relationship between Jon and Natalie evolve but the real focus of this novel is the impending confrontation between the Daemon and citizens of the darknet with the ruling elite represented by The Major and his army of private security contractors.

Freedom developed the Daemon further by introducing a new type of real-world community called a Holon, populated by darknet citizens and built to be self sufficient within a hundred mile radius of its epicenter. This encompassed power generation, food supply and micro manufacturing. These communities  would use renewable energy because the Daemon required them to factor in the external costs of carbon pollution, making the use of fossil fuels far more expensive. Also, farms in these holons were abandoning crops that were simply used as feedstock into the processed food industry, such as corn. Instead they would focus on crops to feed the population of the holon and fallow fields to avoid dependency on petro chemical based fertilizers. The central tenant of the model was local self sufficiency. The novel provided other interesting ideas about the integration of network citizens with the darknet and the real world. One was how transparent the distribution of influence was in the darknet. As darknet citizens leveled up, they could make more resource requests from the Daemon, hence becoming more influential. Each darknet citizen could call up a meter that indicates whether power was concentrated in a few individuals (bad) or the other extreme where influence was evenly shared among the population (also bad) for the immediate area. Ideally there would be a slight focal point to provide leadership and the ability to overcome a stalemate, yet not be so overwhelming as to be corruptible. Additional MMORPG attributes were integrated into the darknet, like a reputation score as well as public forums (such as Reddit) for crowd-sourced problem solving (as when Jon recruited help analyzing large amounts of surveillance video or when Loki put the call out to locate The Major with all his known aliases).  Finally, tangible real-world objects could have special capabilities in the darknet (like Natalie’s bracelet of protection given to her by Jon via a 3D printer).

While these are all wonderful ideas, the story isn’t without its flaws. Despite widespread significant economic collapse and the inevitable corrosion of social order from high unemployment and lack of access to basic necessities, the US government does not mobilize even the National Guard. In fact the visible government plays no role whatsoever. Only corporate interests and their private security companies stand in for the antagonists, as if Suarez didn’t want to rail against the US government directly but instead focus on the corporate cancer infecting it.  It’s well known that there is a revolving door between corporate c-suites and the upper echelons of government and in my opinion the two cannot be easily separated.

While I understand the use of AutoM8s as weapons, the automated motorcycles known as Razorbacks seemed better tailored for psychological effect than actually being an effective weapon. I don’t see how twin swords mounted on a motorcycle can be more devastating than a projectile weapon, especially if they already have a targeting system capable of blinding opponents with a laser burst directly to their eyes. Admittedly they do produce a more terror induced scene, since they’re akin to an automated pack of wolves.

I cheered for the (virtual) return of Roy Merritt, the doggedly persistent FBI SWAT team leader killed in the previous book. He had been made a level 200 champion controlled by the Daemon but fleshed out by darknet citizens. He/It ultimately checked the power of Loki Stormbringer (Brian Gragg) who had grown too powerful in the darknet.  

The novel wrapped up with the conclusion of Sebeck’s quest. Since the Daemon wasn’t intelligent, its creator Sobol set a quest for Sebeck which ultimately had him decide whether or not the Daemon should continue with its reorganization of society. With a simple “no”, Sebeck had the power to finish the Daemon once and for all, and allow for society to revert back to the status quo. Since Sebeck was a convert, he directed the Daemon to continue. Daemon & Freedom take IFTTT to a new level and it leave you wondering that with enough simple rules you really could control the world.

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