posted Friday 27 August 2010 @ 8:52 am PDT
One of the factors that makes Ted Chiang an important SF writer even when he’s not writing SF is that he always works things out. He’s never quite satisfied with ideas solely as metaphors, and even when he casts us into an entirely alternative cosmology – Babylonian myth (‘‘Tower of Babylon’’), fundamentalist dogma (‘‘Hell is the Absence of God’’), kabbalistic legend (‘‘Seventy-Two Letters’’), or an invented nonhuman world with a different physics (‘‘Exhalation’’) – he explores that setting with the same sort of extrapolative rigor that hard-SF writers bring to neutron stars or Dyson spheres. (In a way, Heinlein or Campbell would have understood exactly what he’s doing, though they might have been slightly taken aback at the equal attention he devotes to stylistic elegance and nuance of character.) So when he turns his attention to artificial intelligence, a topic a bit more directly congruent with his education and his day job – his degree is in computer science – we might well expect that he would find an angle of approach which invites us to rethink entirely the implications of this much-trampled field. And in The Lifecycle of Software Objects, his longest story so far, he does exactly that.
There have been a number of excellent stories that explore the sad fates of software intelligences when their platforms grow outdated – two of the best are Walter Jon Williams’s ‘‘Daddy’s World’’ and David Marusek’s ‘‘The Wedding Album’’ – but for the most part they adopt the point of view of the software objects themselves, with the passage of external time treated as a reveal. Chiang, however, takes some pains to avoid romanticizing his software objects, which he calls digients and defines as ‘‘digital organisms that live in environments like Data Earth,’’ the latter a popular kind of Second Life or Entropia platform. Rather than replications of specific human personalities, though, the digients are marketed as interactive virtual pets, taking the form of animals or robots which can be trained and educated by their owners. Thanks to a ‘‘genomic engine’’ called Neuroblast, they have the potential to develop as true artificial intelligences – which also means they may grow a bit unpredictable, as individual digients begin to go through phases that look a lot like child development – petulance, impulsiveness, selfishness, dissimulation, etc. This level of parent-like responsibility, of course, is not what many digient owners thought they signed up for, and it’s not long before problems arise. (If Chiang avoids sentimentalizing the digients, he is downright dark in his view of human nature in this story, especially in terms of what some owners are willing to do with their digients.)
Partly in anticipation of these issues, the corporation promoting these new genomic digients, Blue Gamma, hires a former zookeeper named Ana Alvarado to bring her expertise in animal behavior to their product development plans. She soon meets a fellow employee, animator Derek Brooks, and their warily romantic relationship is one of the three principal narrative strands that pull the novel through more than a decade of shifting fortunes, not only for their relationship, but for the lives of the digients themselves (they each have favorites who become personal projects) and for the competitive and mercurial corporate world which views the digients not as sentient beings, but as marketable products (in a sense, Chiang might as easily have titled the story ‘‘The Lifecycle of Software Products’’, so central are the vagaries of commerce and consumer behavior to the development of his plot). Shifting between short dramatic episodes and a kind of synoptic reportorial voice that often takes on the aspect of a corporate timeline, Chiang explores not only the central question of how a genomic AI might actually develop, but the more teleological and ethical issues that arise concerning the creation of sentient beings whose entire universe is a market commodity. Conceptually, The Lifecycle of Software Objects may seem understated compared to the intellectual bottle rocket of a story like ‘‘Exhalation’’, but it joins ‘‘Story of Your Life’’ and a handful of other tales which remind us that Chiang can write as movingly about characters as about ideas.