From religious intrigue to interstate car chases, Greg Iles’ The Footprints of God has all the well-paced trappings of a bestselling page-turner, but, in the end, offers an underdeveloped and formulaic approach to the conception of artificial intelligence.
Told through the eyes of physicist and medical ethics advisor David Tennant, Footprints details the work of the “Trinity” program and their goal of creating a sentient computer. Like the Manhattan Project of the early 50s, Trinity is conducted in total secrecy and helmed by a brilliant group of scientists… but in North Carolina. Using a super MRI machine, the Trinity scientists have been able to take scans of the brain at the molecular level, resulting in information models that can electronically duplicate the actions of the human mind.
All is well in the Trinity group until Andrew Fielding, the lead scientist, and Tennant, the President’s ethical watchdog, halt the project because of some pesky super MRI-related side effects. After being scanned by the imaging machine Tennant develops induced narcolepsy, which provides an interesting vehicle for a religious subplot (insofar as the doctor experiencing flashbacks of the birth of creation and life through the eyes of Jesus whenever he goes under).
While Tennant waits for an audience with the President (so he and Fielding can share their concerns about the AI venture and the danger of connecting such a program to the internet) Fielding is murdered by Peter Godin, an ancient guru of the supercomputer industry and Trinity project lead.
Overnight Tennant goes from respected doctor to national security threat when he considers blowing the lid off of the ultra secretive Trinity project. Hunted by a crack surveillance team and the full force of the NSA, Tennant goes on the run to Jerusalem and back with his psychiatrist Rachel, who happened to be caught up in the fray. And though the Trinity project should have been stopped in its tracks weeks ago, we find out that Godin’s been developing his own AI computer so he can load his brain scan and cheat impending death.
One of Footprints’ most innovative concepts is its approach to creating true AI. Like a good Michael Crichton novel Iles spins a very believable twist on developing far-fetched technology, one that in this case underlines the hubris of human ambition. Yet beyond its inventive method for developing artificial intelligence, Footprints’ sci-fi switch is turned off and the rest of the book devolves into just another New York Times-bestselling thriller.
And I guess that’s my main problem with this novel. Though the religious subtext is interesting, it’s by no means earth-shattering or groundbreaking like Dan Brown’s stuff. The threat of a nearly unstoppable alien entity is pretty scary, yet even when Trinity goes live its impact doesn’t match its hype.
In the end Greg Iles’ spiritual jaunt into the near future of artificial intelligence just simply lacks the gravitas for the subject it’s tackling. But if you want a single serving of page-turning fun, well, I suppose that’s what this book was made for.