Friday 30 December 2022

Ted Chiang, Exhalation

He’s not necessarily interested in how human beings interact with one another (a few of his stories contain romantic subplots, and they are noticeably less compelling than anything else he writes). Instead, he focuses on how human beings interact with and are shaped by their technologies ...

Constance Grady, Vox

I remember being thunderstruck by the two major stories in Ted Chiang's first collection, Tower of Babylon and Story of Your Life (later made into the film Arrival). Looking back on my review from the time, I noted that I found the rest of the stories in the book 'interesting as exercises' but that they didn't seize my imagination or leave my brain more open, as the top two did.

Reading through Exhalation, I really wanted to love it as much as I did that first book. I kept embarking on each story, hoping it would be "that one" - the Story of Your Life of this collection. None of these stories however come near its level of intricacy of content and form.

The strongest story in the book, for me, is the longest - like Story of Your Life, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella-length story, given plenty of room to develop. It centres on Ana and Derek, two employees at Blue Gamma, a software start-up making "digients" (digital organisms) for people to take into virtual worlds. Derek is an animator; Ana is a very new coder, but she's actually brought onboard at Blue Gamma for her earlier job experience, as a zoo-keeper. Blue Gamma's digients take the form of baby animals - pandas, tigers, chimpanzees - and the company is trying to tune them perfectly for the market. The older-tech equivalent would be Tamagotchis, those needy little devices that required the owner's regular attention or they "died". The digients however are AI and therefore can build a different kind of relationship:
[Derek] subscribes to Blue Gamma's philosophy of AI design: experience is the best teacher, so rather than trying to program an AI with what you want it to know, sell ones capable of learning and have your customers teach them. To get customers, to put in that kind of effort, everything about the digient has to be appealing: their personalities need to be charming, which the developers were working on, and their avatars need to be cute, which is where Derek comes in. But he can't simply give the digients enormous eyes and short noses. if they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting. It's a delicate balancing act, and he has spent countless hours watching reference footage of baby animals, but he's managed to design hybrid faces that are endearing but not exaggeratedly so.
The digients are created then "hothoused" - run 24 hours in simulators to see how they develop and to winnow out the best products - then Ana's role is to work with them, teaching them and learning alongside them, so that Blue Gamma understands thoroughly the product they're taking to market, and future customers can be supported:
... this is not what she envisioned for herself when she went to college, and for a moment she wonders how it has come to this. As a girl she dreamed of following Fossey and Goodall to Africa; by the time she got out of grad school, there were so few apes her best option was to work in a zoo; now she's looking at a job as a trainer of virtual pets. In her career trajectory you can see  the diminution of the natural world, writ large.
Blue Gamma does well for a time, and establishes a steady business model (a razors & blades model: the purchase of the digient isn't the big outlay, it's through the regular purchase of food treats where the company make their money). Customers are entranced, and user forums spring up with owners comparing notes and sorting issues. But after a couple of years, people start to lose interest. The pets become too demanding, or other life matters take over. Accounts (and digients) are suspended, or digients are dropped off at "shelters" for re-adoption. Competitors spring up. Eventually, Blue Gamma winds up:
Many of the other employees have been through company collapses before, so while they're unhappy, for them this is just another episode of life in the software industry. For Ana, however, Blue Gamma's folding reminds her of the closure of the zoo, which was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life. Her eyes still tear up when she thinks about the last time she saw her apes, wishing she could explain to them why they wouldn't see her again, hoping they could adapt to their new homes. When she decided to retrain for the software industry, she was glad he'd never have to face another such farewell in her new line of work. Now here she is, against all expectation, confronted with a strangely reminiscent situation.
However, Blue Gamma makes an offer: the dozen "mascots" (first-generation digients) are available for the outgoing employees to take with them, and both Ana and Derek take up this offer.

The rest of the story plays out as an examination of both what it takes to keep aging software alive, and what it takes to keep relationships alive: the answer seems to be constant maintenance. While The Lifecycle of Software Objects is ostensibly about the parameters of the rights of AI entities (and is the most interesting examination of that question I've encountered) its also a very, very good story about software products and companies: how they work, how they fail, how users are left behind.

Chiang feels like a tech optimist, or maybe a humanist. The stories in Exhalation examine some of the long-standing tropes of "technology" and the human mind: the possibility of time travel and our  ability to influence our past or future; the relationship between intrinsic human memory and technological aids that let us externalise memories; the Sliding Doors paradox of what it would be like to see the branching multiverses that roll out from our life decisions. Some are duds, IMHO (the steampunk story, the parrot story). One - Omphalos, the story of a women's faith being fundamentally challenged - is surprisingly tender and affirming. 

Overall, I leave Exhalation wanting to move back into the world of action, not contemplation. Reading this book in one sitting is probably not advisable. If you pick it up, I suggest you spool it out, take your time, mix it up with other things, and let Chiang work his skills on you more slowly and perhaps more effectively than I did.

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