book: “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

You know the college-party’s at-first-cool but then scary question: “If you could know details of your future…would you?” And then would you live differently? Would you better use the time you’ll have, or would expectations paralyze you? Listen–if you would answer No, you may have a very hard time with Ted Chiang’s novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects, a highly perceptive elaboration of what’s coming, and believe me we are none of us emotionally equipped for it.

Which won’t stop it. Duck.

Just beneath the sober techno-talk, this is not only a tightly written book of ideas, but also a gnawing, worrisome tale of obsession, greed, devotion, guilt, and nearly-parental love. The story will be clearer for readers with experience in object-oriented programming. (…And I’m guessing that’s the first appearance ever of that sentence.

Long ago, Descartes’s mind-body dualism succumbed to mounting physical and medical evidence that we are, essentially, our bodies and physical brains. To stabilize mental health, we no longer wave chickens or speculate on one’s vital humours–we use computers to design molecules that will bind to known chemical receptors in the nervous system. If we activate an electrode just here in your brain, you suddenly see a zebra and might suddenly love or hate it, which would be very hard to blame on your soul. So for human minds and bodies, Descartes largely got it wrong. But Chiang’s book suggests a huge comeback for dualism from a direction Descartes and his detractors could never anticipate: from constructed minds and bodies. One of the very points of organizing software as objects is to separate logic from presentation, mind from appearance. And here, this story gets extremely specific about separating a created personality (program) from its presentation (avatar or physical robot) and convincingly describes how easily people will get used to it. Until they find themselves attached.

Because “user-friendly” may turn out to have no bounds, and when we consider that humans are already outnumbered worldwide by hidden embedded logic systems (think cell phones and vehicle computers), and when we witness the innocence with which people admit outright love for iPhones, imagine what will happen when created programs can speak, ask for treats, teach each other on their own (happening now on the web), play with other creatures for their own amusement, and pout like a pet or like a child. Chiang’s coup is to sketch how this might turn out, and after reading we must admit he has a point. Chiang explores what happens when before too long this love and devotion to software objects becomes literally true. I covered my eyes but looked through my fingers.

Chiang has tended to explore the more emotional consequences of taking “user-friendly” to an extreme: playfulness, love of children and pets, even sex (if durable sexual response requires thinking and feeling, then should sexual software objects that appear to think and feel hurt be considered slaves, and should that slavery be legal?). One other consequence is almost glossed over, though: what happens when a digient (software personality) pleads like an irresistible child to be incorporated? This may be within the law right now–remember that a corporation is already defined as a “fictitious person”. This epiphany should make your heart skip a beat. Forget fighting over mere patent status for software, skip straight to granting corporate status to self-aware software. Once in a while a corporation makes a mess even with human oversight; what will happen when software objects can legally borrow money, hire and fire, and lobby for legislation (binding on humans) presumably toward their own corporate purposes? What sorts of software objects and physical presentations could they manufacture, and could those become corporations? Could they build a variety of incorporated daughter objects, turn them loose on the economy, and accept the failure rate to ensure winners which will beget better objects over time–and is that essentially evolution, at a rate we can’t compete with? So the path to power isn’t science-fiction’s rather tired path of warfare on humans, rather corporate influences trump even wars’ influence–the real-world trend for 50 years, already. Yes OK, this all seems a distant extrapolation from that iPhone you just dropped in your latte…except that Chiang has brilliantly shown that when the first object passes a Turing test, it will be awfully late to consider what we’ll do about it.

Despite myself, I couldn’t help marveling at this story as a virtual manual for the emotional roller-coaster ride that we’re probably going to let AI and Turing tests put us on. This book succeeds in its aims no matter what quibbles about its premise or presentation. So: Five stars. I don’t care how trendy Ted Chiang and this book are at the moment. This is a book I will read again after a time. Of course, it may be scarier then.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, Ted Chiang, 2010, Subterranean Press.

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