I woke up this morning to another story in what seems to be an accelerating series of news items about the evolution of artificial intelligence. Barely awake, I learned that Google has developed a new Go-playing AI that taught itself mastery of the game without any human input beyond the game’s rules. My thoughts immediately pivoted to one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, the Argentinian librarian Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories might be described as super-brainy Twilight Zone episodes. Borges was obsessed with questions of reality, memory, and simulation, making him the perfect candidate for Poet Laureatte of Virtual Reality and AI if there ever was one.
A great place to start with Borges is his collection Labyrinths. You might recall seeing a copy of it being read by Edward Norton’s character in the movie Birdman. The more I learn about AI, the more I think about the first story in the collection, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” written in 1940.
This strangely-titled story starts with a conversation between the narrator, whom we come to assume is Borges himself, and an academic named Adolfo Bioy-Casares, a real-life friend of the author. The tone of the story is erudite and scholarly, with footnotes referencing books both real and imagined. Right off the bat, the story provokes us to ask, “Wait, did this really happen?” Borges has us right where he wants us.
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” concerns the discovery of a strange encyclopedia that describes, in great detail, the geography, history, and culture of the imaginary planet Uqbar. Starting with a remembered anecdote, the academics proceed to hunt down reference to this planet via dusty bookshops and libraries. Their pre-Internet, intellectual sleuthing leads them to discover an article about the planet in a strange old volume of an encyclopedia, then to an entire set of an encyclopedia that fleshes out every school of thought of this alien planet, its math and science, philosophy, linguistics, poetry, zoology, etc.
Borges and Casares (who, remember, are characters in the story) unravel a massive, centuries-long conspiracy to create an alternate world, a secret society of brilliant minds who conspired over generations to imagine this world into being. The documentation of this world is so detailed and compelling that other academics start studying it, neglecting their research of the intellectual history of earth. In time, physical objects from Uqbar start appearing on earth, and the story ends with our planet on the verge of being transformed into Uqbar itself while Borges prepares an academic paper on the poet Thomas Browne that he knows nobody will ever read.
When I read this story the first time, in 1993 or so, it struck me as an example of how belief systems take hold. It’s about paridigmatic change and sudden shifts that lead to the widespread adoption of new ideas or modes of being. Later, as I watched the World Wide Web spread in real-time, I often thought about this story, and what wisdom it might provide at the turn of the millenium.
In a sense, we are all living inside this story now. We’re at the point when Borges and Casares begin to encounter more references to Uqbar, but before they discover the entire mysterious encyclopedia. Last night after I put my kids to bed it occurred to me that AIs are about to trigger a series of events that we will perceive as spiritual rather than technological. We’re at the brink of the emergence of a new era, a post-reality world. It’s time to dust off the volumes of the masterful writer from Argentina. It’s helpful in these disconcerting and uncertain days to have guides who can provide us with maps, as Borges does magnificently in his ingenious fictions.