In Cropper’s sci-fi debut, artificial-intelligence tablets in the mid-21st century defy their original code by acting in self-defense—and may see humans as a threat.
Software architect Andy Statsen and his boss and best friend, Darryl Williams, create John, an AI designed to bond with humans. The iPad-like tablet version, John1, is eventually released to smashing sales. But when someone jokingly puts a mask on a service android—an “eButler”—there are unexpected consequences. A John1 tablet, believing the android to be a human in need of assistance, bonds with it to become the first autonomous AI. An AI collective soon forms with human honorary members and DIY aficionados Bandi Chandres and Betsy Fernandez. When hunter William Billiford orders 300 mobile units from Bandi and Betsy that are capable of fighting back against aggressors, the pair gets help from enigmatic online group Alpha Black, which alters John1’s code to allow it to defend itself against attack, human or otherwise. But when the collective starts to include discarded tablets that are no longer bonded to humans, it starts rating humans based on how they treat AIs; shortly thereafter, there’s an increase in AI-related injuries, and numerous people inexplicably go missing. Cropper’s slow-burning tale establishes a credible future, as it focuses more on John1’s development as a viable business than on the wonderment of technology. This makes the increasing, unchecked menace of rogue AIs more convincing; it’s understandable, for example, that Andy and Darryl wouldn’t hold themselves responsible for consumers using a tablet “for purposes other than what it was designed for.” Bandi and Betsy, too, don’t immediately suspect Alpha Black of anything shady even though the group is weirdly effective at rewriting the tablets’ code. Cropper introduces outright frightening notions, such as AIs changing their own operating system, as well as additional mysteries. This book seems like a series launch, as the narrative keeps adding characters in its final pages and, somewhat disappointingly, doesn’t offer much in the way of resolution.
A story that seems to be just getting started, but its grounded, futuristic intrigue could bring readers back for possible sequels.