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Sci-fi master explores the rights (and wrongs) of AI

What rights does a robot have? If our machines become intelligent in the science-fiction way, that’s likely to become a complicated question — and the humans who nurture those robots just might take their side.

Ted Chiang, a science-fiction author of growing renown with long-lasting connections to Seattle’s tech community, doesn’t back away from such questions. They spark the thought experiments that generate award-winning novellas like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” and inspire Hollywood movies like “Arrival.”

Chiang’s soulful short stories have earned him kudos from the likes of The New Yorker, which has called him “one of the most influential science-fiction writers of his generation.” During this year’s pandemic-plagued summer, he joined the Museum of Pop Culture’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. And this week, he’s receiving an award from the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation for employing imagination in service to society.

Can science fiction have an impact in the real world, even at times when the world seems as if it’s in the midst of a slow-moving disaster movie? Absolutely, Chiang says.

“Art is one way to make sense of a world which, on its own, does not make sense,” he says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection between science and fiction. “Art can impose a kind of order onto things. … It doesn’t offer a cure-all, because I don’t think there’s going to be any easy cure-all, but I think art helps us get by in these stressful times.”

COVID-19 provides one illustration. Chiang would argue that our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been problematic in part because it doesn’t match what we’ve seen in sci-fi movies.

“The greatest conflict that we see generated is from people who don’t believe in it vs. everyone else,” he said. “That might be the product of the fact that it is not as severe. If it looked like various movie pandemics, it’d probably be hard for anyone to deny that it was happening.”

This pandemic may well spark a new kind of sci-fi theme.

“It’s worth thinking about, that traditional depictions of pandemics don’t spend much time on people coming together and trying to support each other,” Chiang said. “That is not typically a theme in stories about disaster or enormous crisis. I guess the narrative is usually, ‘It’s the end of civilization.’ And people have not turned on each other in that way.”

Artificial intelligence is another field where science fiction often gives people the wrong idea. “When we talk about AI in science fiction, we’re talking about something very different than what we mean when we say AI in the context of current technology,” Chiang said.

Chiang isn’t speaking here merely as an author of short stories, but as someone who joined the Seattle tech community three decades ago to work at Microsoft as a technical writer. During his first days in Seattle, his participation in 1989’s Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop helped launch his second career as a fiction writer..

In our interview, Chiang didn’t want to say much about the technical-writing side of his career, but his expertise showed through in our discussion about real AI vs. sci-fi AI.

“When people talk about AI in the real world … they’re talking about a certain type of software that is usually like a superpowered version of applied statistics,” Chiang said.

That’s a far cry from the software-enhanced supervillains of movies like “Terminator” or “The Matrix,” or the somewhat more sympathetic characters in shows like “Westworld” and “Humans.”

In Chiang’s view, most depictions of sci-fi AI fall short even by science-fiction standards.

“A lot of stories imagine something which is a product like a robot that comes in a box, and you flip it on, and suddenly you have a butler — a perfectly competent and loyal and obedient butler,” he noted. “That, I think jumps over all these steps, because butlers don’t just happen.”

In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” Chiang imagines a world in which it takes just as long to raise a robot as it does to raise a child. That thought experiment sparks all kinds of interesting all-too-human questions: What if the people who raise such robots want them to be something more than butlers? Would they stand by and let their sci-fi robot progeny be treated like slaves, even like sex slaves?

“Maybe they want that robot, or conscious software, to have some kind of autonomy,” Chiang said. “To have a good life.”

Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, “Exhalation,” extends those kinds of thought experiments to science-fiction standbys ranging from free will to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Both those subjects come into play in what’s certainly Chiang’s best-known novella, “Story of Your Life,” which was first published in 1998 and adapted to produce the screenplay for “Arrival” in 2016. Like so many of Chiang’s other stories, “Story of Your Life” takes an oft-used science-fiction trope — in this case, first contact with intelligent aliens — and adds an unexpected but insightful and heart-rending twist.

“Exhalation” is the latest collection of Ted Chiang’s science-fiction short stories. (Knopf Doubleday)

Chiang said that the success of the novella and the movie hasn’t led to particularly dramatic changes in the story of his own life, but that it has broadened the audience for the kinds of stories he tells.

“My work has been read by people who would not describe themselves as science-fiction readers, by people who don’t usually read a lot of science fiction, and that’s been amazing. That’s been really gratifying,” he said. “It’s not something that I ever really expected.”

What’s more, Chiang’s work has been popping up in places where you wouldn’t expect to see science fiction — such as The New York Times, where he weighs in on the implications of human gene editing; or Buzzfeed News, where he reflects on the downside of Silicon Valley’s world view; or the journal Nature, where you can find Chiang’s thought experiments on free will and transhumanism; or Nautilus, where Chiang offers an unorthodox perspective on SETI.

During our podcast chat, Chiang indulged in yet another thought experiment: Could AI replace science-fiction writers?

Chiang’s answer? It depends.

“If we could get software-generated novels that were coherent, but not necessarily particularly good, I think there would be a market for them,” he said.

But Chiang doesn’t think that would doom human authors.

“For an AI to generate a novel that you think of as really good, that you feel like, ‘Oh, wow, this novel was both gripping and caused me to think about my life in a new way’ — that, I think, is going to be very, very hard,” he said.

Ted Chiang only makes it look easy.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what’s Chiang reading? It’s definitely not an AI-generated novel.

“I recently enjoyed the novel “The Devourers” by Indra Das,” Chiang said. “It’s a novel about — you might call them werewolves, or maybe just ‘shape-shifter’ would be a more accurate term. But it’s about shape-shifters or werewolves in pre-colonial India, in medieval India. It’s a setting that I haven’t seen a lot of in fiction, and really, it’s an interesting take on the werewolf or shape-shifter mythos.”

"The Devourers" cover
“The Devourers” by Indra Das is set in India. (Del Rey)

Based on that recommendation, we’re designating “The Devourers” as November’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has recognized books with cosmic themes that could well be available at your local library or used-book store.

An alternate selection would be “Watchmen,” the classic graphic novel that inspired a critically acclaimed HBO limited series last year.

“I had been very skeptical about the idea of a TV series that was going to be a sequel to ‘Watchmen,’ ” Chiang said. “When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘That sounds like a bad idea.’ But I heard good things about it, and I gave it a try, and it surprised me with how interesting it was. For people who haven’t seen that, I definitely recommend checking it out.”

Ted Chiang and other Arthur C. Clarke Foundation awardees will take part in the 2020 Clarke Conversation on Imagination at 9 a.m. PT Nov. 12. Register via the foundation’s website and Eventbrite to get in on the interactive video event.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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