The Lifecycle of Software Objects
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang is the first of the works nominated for a 2011 Hugo that I will be reviewing. It is nominated in the Best Novella category. It is first because I happened to start reading it before I got my Hugo packet.
In The Lifecycle of Software Objects we start following Ana sometime in the not too distant future. Ana has just been hired as by software company. The mildly odd thing is that previous to this, Ana was an animal handler for a zoo. The reason behind this is that the company is producing digients–digitally evolved beings. Rather than attempting to program in intelligence, the concept is that a “genome” of sorts is created and the minds of the digients are allowed to grow over time and through interaction and learning–much like human children. Ana is hired as it is thought that her experience as an animal handler will be useful in handling the digients.
We also follow Derek–a graphic designer at the same company.
It is fairly quickly apparent (at least to me outside the story) that the digients aren’t really just pets. They develop personalities and communication skills much like human children.
The story continues to follow Ana and Derek across a number of years. Between chapters there is often a cut forward of a year or two. We see their own digients grow and develop and the feelings of Derek and Ana towards their digients grow also. They engage in debates with other digient “owners” on the proper handling of their digients and whether they should be given a pseudo legal status as corporations.
As a meta aside:I’ve never particularly understood why people have difficulty accepting the idea of artificial intelligences as deserving of the full set of rights to which humans are accorded. I’m a fairly straightforward behaviorist on this–if something acts like a person then you should treat it like a person. This treatment should include the granting of rights like, for instance, the right to not be enslaved. I suspect part of the problems stems from the same reason that some people have a difficult time even recognizing that other people are people. AI prejudice is just another kind of racism.
So, as we proceed in the book I found myself perturbed by the actions of some of the people/companies Ana and Derek dealt with and sometimes with Ana and Derek themselves. There is some good discussion comparing Ana and Derek to parents and when their digients are formed enough to go off on their own. There is also good discussion on rolling back the digients. Since digients are fully digital with snapshots, they can be rolled back, copied, suspended or abused in virtual space.
In this book, Chiang has done a good job at a close up and non technical look at some of the issues AI brings to the human world. It is well written and (if you haven’t thought about AI) may provide some insights. It flows along at a pretty good pace.