The topic and the accompanying discussion surrounding artificial intelligence has in recent years become a lot more prevalent. This has been accompanied by major discussions about the ethics of these machines, if they are able to pass the Turing test, should they be considered human. The ethics of AI and the machines that exhibit it is discussed the Ted Chiangs novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects.
The novella focusses on Ana and Derek who both work for a company that starts a project to make artificially intelligent pets called digients, for the digital platform called Data Earth. Data Earth is a mirror of our planet and it is possible to interact with other people from all over the world through it. The company called Blue Gamma creates these digients that the consumer is able to raise, and eventually they learn to speak, and they get their own life experiences.
The novella takes place over the course of 20 years, and it follows Ana and Derek as they raise their digients. It explores many different sides of the ethics surrounding AI and one of the main issues it focusses on is whether digients can ever really be human.
Chiang is a very talented writer, who has makes the reader feel bad for the digients:
So the digients lose three days of experience. Including the first time they rolled down a hill.
This is further instated by the way the digients never learn how to speak properly and they spend their whole life speaking baby language. This makes the reader a lot more emphatic towards the digients. Which means the reader is a lot more likely to agree that the digients should have rights.
In that way the novella is highly uncritical towards AI, it is a story written that sides with the AI and that portrays these digients as human beings.
And even though it’s possible to take a snapshot of all that experience and duplicate it ad infinitum, even though it’s possible to sell copies cheaply or give them away for free, each of the resulting digients would still have lived a lifetime. Each one would have once seen the world with new eyes, have had hopes fulfilled and hopes dashed, have learned how it felt to tell a lie and how it felt to be told one.
I have never been a huge fan of science fiction so when i had to read this book for a school project i was both excited and dreadful. Excited because this meant that i didn’t have to analyze articles about AI and dreadful because i had to read 150 pages of science fiction.
What i never expected was to read the whole story over the course of one weekend, and doing so happily. You really do fall in love with the digients when you read the novella, the best response did not come from me though. It came from one of my groupmates, who does not enjoy reading, still she came back monday with a huge smile on her face, and that smile continued to come back every single time she talked about the book or the digients. She really fell in love with them and the whole idea of AI pets.
Overall i would say that this novella, because it is such a short story is great for anyone who, like myself, do not enjoy reading science fiction. It discusses the ethics of AI in way that makes the reader think as well as makes them sympathetic towards the digients.