“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted ChiangNovember 29, 2010 at 12:28 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
Tags: Ted Chiang
Today, most science fiction authors are known for their novels or not at all. Ted Chiang is one of the very few exceptions. His reputation has reached the point that when one of his stories appears on the Hugo ballot, he’s the favorite to win, but unlike authors of similar gravitas he achieved this without a popular novel, without a blog, and without saturating every available market with dozens of short stories a year. In his twenty year career he’s published twelve stories. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers who have more published stories to their name, but few have written as many great stories. Recently SF Signal asked a variety of people to contribute lists of stories for their idea of the “perfect short fiction anthology” and while it wasn’t surprising that Chiang was frequently mentioned, what impressed me was how each person mentioning him picked a different story.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is Chiang’s twelfth and most recent story. At just over 30,000 words (about one third as long as a typical novel) it’s also his longest by a fair margin. It was originally published as a book by Subterranean Press, but it was reprinted in their online magazine after selling out and so can be read online.
Most of Chiang’s work has struggled with the question of humanity’s role in the universe. Sometimes, as in “Tower of Babylon”, “Seventy-Two Letters”, and “Hell Is the Absence of God” he has explored this by writing stories about the ramifications of religious ideas. He has also considered what the implications of a cold and deterministic universe are in stories like “Understand”, “Story of Your Life”, “What’s Expected of Us”, and “Exhalation”. One of the reasons I consider “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” Chiang’s best work is that in that story he manages to consider the question from those two angles at the same time.
In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” Chiang turns to consider the place of artificial intelligence in a human world. The struggle of something other to integrate into society has a very long history in science fiction, going back at least to A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, but in that work as well as more recent examples like Daniel Keys Moran’s Emerald Eyes and Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain it’s assumed that society will be frightened and hostile. Chiang is one of a comparative few (M.A. Foster’s Gameplayers of Zan is the only other example that’s coming to mind, and it’s not a perfect fit either) to predict a different response: apathy.
Chiang’s AIs, to which his applies the unlikely term “digient” (a word both unsightly on the page and difficult to say), are created by a tech startup to make money, and when the money dries up so does people’s interest. The idea of AIs as virtual pets is a pretty simple step from precents like Tamagotchi and The Sims, but in terms of sophistication digients represent a difference of many orders of magnitude. They learn from their experiences and can even acquire speech.
True to the title, the story charts a particular brand of digients from their creation as a product through a burst of faddish popularity into decline and obsolescence. Two employees of the company that created them, Ana and Derek, theoretically serve as main characters, but in fact most events are simply related directly in the third person narration. Although there’s a very low intensity kind-of romance between Ana and Derek, this is a science fiction story very much of the old mode. The reader is expected to be primarily interested in it as a meditation on AI and society’s attempts to integrate it and the story is balanced accordingly.
Though I appreciated most of Chiang’s extrapolation, I didn’t quite buy one technical aspect that unfortunately was extremely important to the plot. The story’s digients were created as programs that run on Data Earth, a virtual reality environment along the lines of today’s Second Life. When the Data Earth platform becomes obsolete, it’s an existential crisis, because although the digients can continue to live on a private instance of Data Earth they are cut off from wider Internet society, which has moved on to a different platform called Real Space. Unless their code is ported to run on Real Space, we are told, they can’t use it. This is, I’m sorry to say, pretty unbelievable. Why not just connect to it from their private instance of Data Earth and use avatars like everyone else? They can’t, the story says, because “the keyboard and screen are a miserable substitute for being there, as unsatisfying as a jungle videogame would be to a chimpanzee taken from the Congo.” It’s been four years since the release of the Nintendo Wii. By the time we have consumer AIs that can talk, are we going to be interacting with virtual environments with keyboards? And while something a little more immersive than a screen hasn’t quite made it to the market yet, a decent head mounted display or at least display wall seems also likely to beat AI to the hands of consumers.
More broadly, I wasn’t very convinced with Chiang’s speculations about how society would conceive of digient rights. In the story, digients have the same rights that people in The Sims do today. That is, zero.
Artificial-life hobbyists all agree on the impossibility of digients ever getting legal protection as a class, citing dogs as an example: human compassion for dogs is both deep and wide, but the euthanasia of dogs in pet shelters amounts to an ongoing canine holocaust, and if the courts haven’t put a stop to that, they certainly aren’t going to grant protection to entities that lack a heartbeat.
First of all, dogs actually have certain legal protections from cruelty which digients would apparently benefit from, since in the story depraved people broadcast records of them being tortured. Second, digient intelligence is farther above dogs than ours is above that of the digients. For most of the story, digients as intellects are compared with apes: capable of using tools and basic communication, but categorically below that of humans. This is initially persuasive but falls apart on even basic examination, for digients are in fact dramatically more intelligent than apes.
How much more intelligent? You’d expect some quantitative assessment. IQ goes unmentioned, presumably because of its increasingly bad reputation as a measure, but even more accepted metrics like vocabulary size, mathematical achievement, and reading level are not discussed. However, from the story the facts are: digients can speak, they can make logical inferences, they can read, and they can write well enough that on forums they can pass for adolescents.
Ultimately it’s a judgment call as to how society would react to AI capable of these feats. For me, I can accept a future in which they have no rights, but not one in which this wouldn’t at least cause an enormous controversy. There’s a religious argument against them, but even there I would expect to see religious people on each side. Meanwhile, if a near-future story expects me to believe the developed world would horribly persecute a minority, I demand that it pass what I think of as the Oprah test. I originally up with this in relation to the short story “The Cage”, and while I didn’t mention it in my comments on that story, it goes like this: would someone from this minority be able to go on Oprah and effectively plead their case? In “The Cage” I felt the werewolf baby’s sobbing mother would make a great Oprah episode, and here we have cute, childlike AIs that aren’t in the slightest bit dangerous. It’s not that everyone around the world would be convinced by this kind of appeal, just that more than enough would be to fight a long and powerful battle in the court of public opinion, regardless of the final verdict.
Although I don’t agree with some of Chiang’s vision, there’s no question it’s a novella that’s more thought provoking than most science fiction novels. As a story, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” with its told-not-shown narrative and its half-hearted characterization isn’t really that impressive. As a meditation on AI and society, however, it’s definitely worth your time to read.