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On the education of digients
on 3 October 2010
Ted Chiang doesn't write a lot, but what he does is always worth reading. You know you're in good hands. You get the feeling he's toyed with, examined and explored every avenue and implication of the idea he's chosen to work with. And not just from a purely ideational perspective: Chiang's fiction is rooted in the human world, and is as much about the impact ideas have on people as that which people have on ideas. And here, in his longest piece of fiction to date (which is still only of novella length), Chiang turns his hand to an area that walks the boundary between the technological -- the purely ideational -- and the human: that of artificial intelligence.
The story starts when Ana Alvarez is hired by software startup Blue Gamma. She's surprised to learn that it's not her recent qualifications in computing that got her the job so much as her previous experience working in a zoo. That's because Blue Gamma is creating digients -- digital entities which are in effect "born" as blank canvases, and which learn, and develop, through experience. These are not HAL-like artificial super-beings, but digital creatures closer, at first, to animals, and then to children. Only conscientious handling and education are going to make them into full-blown AIs.
From the start, there's a moral (and emotional) tension inherent in the situation. The digients are childlike, and require constant attention and nurturing in order to develop. But they are also commercial products, technological experiments that, however sensitively they're handled by Blue Gamma, have the ultimate purpose of making money for their developers. They are also in an environment as hostile as the real world, if not more: "Data Earth" (Chiang's version of Second Life), where there's the constant threat that they (or illicitly-acquired digital copies of them) might be stolen and abused by the sort of predators that children are protected from by law, but digients (not being human) aren't.
Chiang charts a course through a choppy sea of ethical dilemmas and torn loyalties in his human characters, plus threats to the digients such as the dangers of commercial exploitation, and the impending obsolescence of their software environment. The story necessarily takes leaps of several months or even a year at a time, moving the digients from one developmental stage to the next, but I didn't find this dislocating, it was just the right pace to move the story along. But, perhaps because of this idea-led pace, I never developed a real interest in the human characters, or in the digients as personalities. The ending, when it came, seemed abrupt, as there was no overall story-arc leading up to it -- no up-swelling bass line of the emotional to counterpoint, and meet with, that of the ideas.
I don't mean to say it left me cold -- there's plenty of humanity in The Lifecycle of Software Objects, and Chiang is never-failing in his quiet compassion for the situation he's treating -- just maybe not enough character, in the conventional literary sense. So, read this one for the ideas. Oh, and for the writing -- which is elegant, quiet and, like the rest of Chiang's fiction, always coolly competent. I'm still giving it five stars.