A little break from my usual format for my summer reads. I was just so taken with this little book…
Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again, I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried.”
We’ve all seen science experiment with the chess playing computer, but what about this second approach—to raise an artificial intelligence (AI) as you would a human child?
The book is the story of Blue Gamma software employees Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks, and their digients (AI programs represented by avatars) named Jax, Marco and Polo. We “watch” as Ana and Derek help their digients develop motor skills, explore their emerging curiosity, learn human language, recognize themselves versus others, and socialize with other digients and humans. New hardware even allows the digients to “port” to physical robots to experience the real world versus the dataspace.
As the digients advance—and Ana and Derek develop parental affections for Jax, Marco and Polo—the standard upgrades inevitable in the world of software brings newer versions of digients to life. The discontinuation of a virtual world platform, and lack of support for Blue Gamma AIs in other platforms, threatens the very existence of Jax and his friends. To save Jax and other digients like him, Ana and Derek join with other Blue Gamma parents to create a private dataspace to protect the developing cyber life.
But the parents must solve a problem: how to upgrade the Blue Gamma AIs so they can rejoin other digient friends and continue their development. This quest for solutions ends up posing some interesting questions for the characters and the reader:
• At what point can an AI make a decision for itself?
• Are AIs on their way to being persons with similar rights as human beings?
• Should AIs follow traditional child development with the implementation of an adolescence and sexual awakening to reach their full potential?
• Should humans make the same sacrifices for digients as they often do for human children?
As the story progresses toward its conclusion, Derek and Ana find their paths diverging in the name of love: love for a fellow human in one case, and love for a digient in another.
I’m a fan of Chiang’s work. He’s not a prolific Sci-Fi writer, but his short stories are some of the best in the genre right now, and the critics and readers agree, as his long list of awards indicate.
Read what Ted Chiang has to say in this Locus Online interview about his motivation for writing The Lifecycle of Sofware Objects.