Book review

Summer Frost

by Blake Crouch

Summer Frost by Blake Crouch

I’ve very much enjoyed other Blake Crouch books, so I was eager to see what he made of the situation set up in Summer Frost: in it, we find Riley, a video game developer, who has – accidentally – coded up a non-player character who has apparently started acting outside of the parameters of their code. The character, Max, had a minor role in the game, but has started to explore much further, and indeed to push the limits of the game itself. It becomes clear that Max has developed some kind of artificial intelligence, which Riley and his boss agree is sufficiently interesting that it should be explored, and fed more computing power, and more information about the world to digest.

Soon, Max emerges as a true AI – they decide, for example, that they want to be referred to as “they” – human concepts of gender clearly don’t apply to them, Max decides.

Now the storyline is set, and we ourselves begin to explore it, and through it, many of the themes that people are starting to take seriously about AI in general. There’s the “alignment problem” – as an AI becomes increasingly powerful, how can we make sure their objectives remain aligned with those of a human. We don’t want an AI that’s flying an airplane deciding that saving itself is more important than saving the passengers. There’s the “AI box” problem – how to keep an AI inside whatever boundaries you’ve set for it. A smart AI might easily use social engineering to trick people to let it out of its “box” – then it’s free to talk to anyone. We even hear about Roko’s basilisk, which is a scary thought experiment about how an AI might treat people who didn’t actively help in its creation, and what that implies when taken to the ultimate degree.

“Roko’s basilisk. Have you heard of it?” I shake my head. “It’s an arcane info hazard first posed sixty-four years ago.” “What’s an info hazard?” “A thought so insidious that merely thinking it could psychologically destroy you.”

Lots of interesting stuff here, much of which is often treated entirely dryly as a philosophical thought experiment. Here it is embodied in realistic characters, and explored by an author who understands the issues, and is prepared to run with them wherever they leave. Other books have touched on some of these issues, of course, but I felt this was a really clear exposition. I enjoyed it, and the novella length was just right – long enough to take the plot to its conclusion, not so long we get distracted.