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[Comments] (2) Hundred Dollar Brain: I just finished Len Deighton's 1966 computer-age thriller Billion Dollar Brain and unfortunately must report that it's much less computery than I'd hoped. Deighton wrote an excellent alt-history, SS-GB, so I'd been hoping for some retro SF or at least sciency fiction, but in this novel the titular Brain is naught but a minor piece of set dressing, to the extent that I kind of want to write the spy novel that seemed to be taking shape and which would have been really groundbreaking had Deighton gone there.

Basically, if you're using a computer with a telephonic voice interface to run a privately-funded spy ring in 1966, there's no guarantee the individual actions of your agents add up to what you're trying to do. You're incredibly vulnerable to the ELIZA effect. Someone else could be using your computer and your agents to run their own spy ring! (Again, this is not what happens in Billion Dollar Brain.)

I will reproduce the most technically sophisticated paragraph in the book, since it's clear Deighton at least talked to someone who knows computers and I like to see that rewarded:

"I don't want to bore you," Harvey said, "but you should understand that these heaps of wire can practically think — linear programming — which means that instead of going through all the alternatives they have a hunch which is the right one. What's more, almost none of them work by binary notation — the normal method for computers — because that's just yes/no stuff. (If you can only store yeses and noes it takes seven punch holes to record the number ninety-nine.) These machines use tiny chips of ceramic which store electricity. They store any amount from one to nine. That's why — for what it does — this whole set-up is so small.

No, please, bore me!


Posted by Tikitu de Jager at Wed Aug 26 2020 07:01

I enjoyed a riff on this idea in the Fractured Europe sequence by Dave Hutchinson, you might find it fun. Several plot swerves (across four books iirc) as we unpick layers of who is actually controlling the distributed-and-deniable network of agents who get their instructions by anonymised drops.

Posted by Leonard at Wed Aug 26 2020 16:40

I read the first three books of the Fractured Europe series (this was before the fourth one came out) and have vivid memories of the Community, which I thought was some great worldbuilding, but only now do I remember all the dead-drop stuff!


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