“Begin with a function of arbitrary complexity. Feed it values, ‘sense data’. Then, take your result, square it, and feed it back into your original function, adding a new set of sense data. Continue to feed your results back into the original function ad infinitum. What do you have? The fundamental principle of human consciousness.”
— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “The Feedback Principle”
The most striking thing about Pre-Sentient Algorithms is the name of the technology itself. Unlike most of the other technologies, which at best merely hint to the first time player as to what may come next on the tree, this one defines itself precisely by what it precedes: artificial sentience. So now we know that what we’d think of as AI is eventually possible in SMAC.
Looking more closely at the tree, some more hints can be drawn out as to the nature of AI on Planet. Pre-Sentient Algorithms is a fifth-tier tech that relies on Cyberethics and Advanced Military Algorithms. Both of these are computer-related technologies that, themselves, rely on previous computer techs like Optical Computers and Planetary Networks. But, crucially, neither of them rely on the Secrets of the Human Brain–Centauri Empathy–Neural Grafting lines. This means that even a breakthrough in neurology that was so complete that it led to enabled psionic powers, telepathic influence, and human-computer integration was not sufficient to unlock AI – even through naïve emulation on futuristic super-powered computers.
A decent analogy for the situation in SMAC is the history of the development of heavier-than-air powered flight. Historically, lots of people tried to come up with more and more exact copies of existing, evolved flying creatures in the hopes that that would unlock the secret. But none of those research paths panned out. The key breakthroughs turned out to be in aerodynamic theory and more powerful engine technology. And the resulting successful flying machines looked very little like their naturally evolved counterparts.
So, in this context, Zakharov’s quote is crucial. He’s telling us that boiling down the fundamental principle of human consciousness to the correct mathematical feedback models – not copying the well-understood human brain – is how you get to something resembling the correct artificial construct in software. This technology therefore represents the discovering faction making the first major strides forward on the path to true AI.
In game terms, the technology enables the construction of the Hunter-Seeker Algorithm secret project and the ability to put the Polymorphic Encryption ability on units. Both of these are spying defense mechanisms: the first makes the faction essentially immune to hostile probe activity, while the second makes the equipped unit twice as expensive to subvert. This fits in with the existing pattern Reynolds has established throughout the tree. Computer technologies in SMAC generally make their impact first and foremost on the spy game before they revolutionize other applications throughout the broader economy in subsequent dependent technologies.