Monday, 2 May 2011

Book Review | The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

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What's the best way to create artificial intelligence? In 1950, Alan Turing wrote, '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.'

The first approach has been tried many times in both science fiction and reality. In this new novella, at over 30,000 words, his longest work to date, Ted Chiang offers a detailed imagining of how the second approach might work within the contemporary landscape of startup companies, massively-multiplayer online gaming, and open-source software. It's a story of two people and the artificial intelligences they helped create, following them for more than a decade as they deal with the upgrades and obsolescence that are inevitable in the world of software. At the same time, it's an examination of the difference between processing power and intelligence, and of what it means to have a real relationship with an artificial entity.


Ted Chiang has made quite the name for himself by doing a great deal with very little. More than 20 years he's been a part of the speculative scene, such as it is - such as it ever was - yet in that time he's never published a novel; only twelve of the short stories he's composed have seen the light of day; and just the one novelette, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, which nevertheless took home both the Hugo and the Nebula for its category in 2008. That's in addition to a treasure trove of other equally prestigious awards, lavished upon the author's previous work.

A bone fide novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest thing Ted Chiang  has ever put out there. Published as an exquisite trade edition by the Subterranean Press elves last Summer, it comes as little surprise that - as a physical thing as well as a deeply touching tale of companionship, sacrifice, and obligation, and so many other subjects the mind practically boggles - on both counts The Lifecycle of Software Objects is truly a beautiful book.

We've gotten pretty blasé about artificial intelligence in recent years, haven't we? Certainly the misappropriation of the term by programmers in the video game industry and elsewhere to describe what are at heart smarter sub-routines hasn't helped, but I would argue there's more to our nonchalance than that. Perhaps one too many cautionary tales has been the final nail in the coffin of that avenue of imagination; it seems Asimov's rules only exist to be broken, after all. Or perhaps we merely fear the competition, and the notion of another intelligence, our equal or our better, is too grave a threat to our egos for us to simply square away.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is in no small part so refreshing because it offers a more optimistic perspective on where the artificial intelligence software solutions of today might likely lead. Chiang introduces us to once and former zookeeper Ana, and Derek, an animator, both of whom come to work for Blue Gamma, a start-up with designs on the market for artificial pets. Blue Gamma's business is digients: postmodern Tamagotchis of a sort. Says the headhunter who hires Ana on, "We're going to pitch them as pets you can talk to, teach to do really cool tricks. There's an unofficial slogan we use in-house: 'All the fun of monkeys, with none of the poop-throwing.'" (p.4) Hence the need for an animal trainer like Ana. She is to rear the digients as she would a shrewdness of baby apes. Derek, meanwhile, designs their expressions, and so their personalities in part.

Too soon Blue Gamma let loose the digients on the world without, and to begin with, people embrace their Marcos and their Polos. Hundreds of thousands of Lolly models and Rex derivatives are adopted by adoring owners, and Blue Gamma's fortunes seem on the rise. However, unto every rise, a fall, and indeed the start-up comes a-cropper of the rocky road before it, for the digients are only loving pseudo-pets when their pseudo-parents treat them with care, and respect. Like Tamagotchis in their time, the zeitgeist shortly moves on to the next thing, and the next next thing, leaving their digients behind as they go, in suspension or worse.

Ana and Derek each opt to keep the digients they have become so attached to, and in The Lifecycle of Software Objects Chiang poignantly chronicles the development of these forgotten AIs, as well as the people who come to care for them so - though to a lesser extent. Chiang's focus herein is primarily on the digients; thus, some readers might find themselves turned off by a perceived lack of sympathetic characters. 

But rubbish on that excuse. Marco and Polo and Rex are fleshed out fabulously over the course of the decade during which Chiang follows the three: The Lifecycle of Software Objects is their journey, and their story, and I am frankly baffled that so many critics have taken issue with the seeming superfluousness of Ana and Derek as if they, and not the digients, were Chiang's protagonists. A nonsense. That this outcast couple are but a secondary concern is exactly as it should be. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is superb, and made so by the breathtakingly intimate tale of what amounts to a few forgotten toys, striving to thrive, or just to survive, in a world which has long since moved on.

If Chiang's latest is not quite his greatest, it speaks only to the tremendous strength of his all-too occasional work, and to the larger question this lovingly honed narrative leaves hanging: what next? For though there is closure of a sort, come the quiet climax, and a resonance of emotion in its wake, still one wishes The Lifecycle of Software Objects would go on a little longer. Or perhaps a lot longer; certainly there is potential aplenty to.

You know, I feel greedy just saying that. I'll take whatever Ted Chiang I can get, in truth - that there is as much to his latest as there is is a treat. However much I might like another. And another.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a desperately sad story in the main, yet uplifting for all that, such that I spent the last chapters with a leaden lump in my throat which hadn't a clue what it was about. For its part, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is about love, and loss; friendship, and responsibility; nature - and nurture - and artifice. It is heartbreaking. It is profound. It is tremendously powerful, a tour de force, and so very, very sweet.

Why, it's Ted Chiang!


The Lifecycle of Software Objects
by Ted Chiang

US Publication: July 2010, Subterranean Press

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  1. It was probably the best 2010 release I read. I want Chiang to expand into even longer works. The sense of humanity he brought to AI was extraordinary.

  2. And that artwork. Oh, that artwork!

    When I am King, all books will come with copious illustrations, a la the wonderful work through The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Just... stunning.