The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press, Burton, MI, 2010
Read for the Sci-Fi Experience, borrowed from the library.
Ted Chiang is one of my favorite speculative fiction authors. I first heard of him on a science fiction blog, I can’t remember which one. Someone was raving about a novelette called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and luckily my library had a copy. I loved it and went on to find more of his short stories including Exhalation, the 2009 Hugo Award winner. You can listen to Exhalation at StarShipSofa, or download a PDF at Night Shade Books. It is amazing piece.
At 150 pages I believe The Lifecycle of Software Objects is Chiang’s longest work and much of our culture and technology is packed into this small book.
In 1950 Alan Turing asked the question “Can machines think?”, opening up the idea of artificial intelligence. Ted Chiang explores this possibility, by having IT companies create beings using “genetic programming” and giving them lots of training. These creations, called digients, are first brought to “life” in an online game space like Second Life, then given the ability to jump into anthropomorphic animal robot bodies.
Lifecycle follows two people who work in computing as they “adopt” and raise digients, much like Tamagotchi pets or characters in an online game. The story follows Ana and Derek over ten years as the technologies and economics of digients and virtual game space shift around them. The final question, are these beings truly alive and what is a person’s responsibility, if any, towards them?
I found this story fascinating, perhaps because I have played online games with avatars, but none of my creations “learned” new skills on their own. I’m sure there are companies out there using feedback training in robotics, maybe even using robots to train other robots. I think Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects are a glance into our future.