Ted Chiang’s 2008 “Exhalation” is simply one of the greatest science fiction short stories ever written. Human to the core, it probes the meaning of life in profound, yet relevant terms. Taking two years to recharge his creative batteries, 2010’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the author’s return to publishing, and it is in fine form. A look at AI 1.0 in a virtual environment, and eventually the real world, Chiang once again injects humanity into a story that is fully sci-fi.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the story of Ana and Derek and the digients—virtual AI pets—they come to raise. Both employed at a start up called Blue Gamma, at first everything goes well for the company. The digient product is a huge success. Many consumers buy one of the impressionable pets to have in Data Earth, the virtual environment in which most everyone has a second life. The digients a product of both ‘nature’ and nurture, each turns out with a different personality and learns at varying rates, depending on how they are cared for. Adding to the success, accessories are produced, including battery operated automatons into which the digients can upload for periods of time to experience the real world. But, like all commercial products, there eventually comes a decline in the market. Platforms are enhanced, newer, more advanced products by other firms are marketed, and the technological environment evolves, leaving Jax, Lolly, Marco, and Polo and the other digients in a fight for virtual place. What ultimately becomes of their burgeoning intelligences is as moving as the real world.
Though starting out by detailing the technical aspects of Ana and Derek’s jobs and the potentials of virtual life, The Lifecycle of Software Objects eventually becomes an interesting discussion on the morality associated with AI. The digients not fully sentient, they nevertheless grow into independent thought, as well as their own desires for independence. Existing in true form in the virtual world, yet also able to experience the real world, increasing questions regarding their autonomy come to the forefront as technology evolves around them. At this precise intersection Chiang makes his point: AI will be more than an evil to be disposed or the answers to all humanity’s technical problems. If it is truly AI, it will possess a moral dimension like the humans around us, and if indeed it is to exist, humanity should account for this from the beginning lest we slip into and antiquated beliefs regarding subservience, or even slavery.
Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is often cited as a novel that explores the idea of second lives in a virtual world to notable detail. Published almost twenty years later, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is more in dialogue with the idea thanks to advances since. Chiang investing his knowledge of technology, commerce, human behavior, and the effect of father time on each, the story’s reality takes on a strong dimension of plausibility—an idea limited in potential by the mere entertainment of Stephenson’s post-cyberpunk vision. The novella is thus a more focused, thought-provoking presentation of what living in and out of a virtual world may mean for humanity and the things they create inside.
In the end, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, like “Exhalation”, is a story that opens on abstract terms, but by the time the last page has been turned, a number of important issues and questions pertinent to the ongoing development of technology in the real world are raised. Autonomy, the unstoppable evolution of technology, and the responsibility we as humans have for what we create all come into the picture—in reality and virtually. Though elements of Stephenson’s novel, Zelazny’s Home is the Hangman, Chwedyk’s Bronte’s Egg, and William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties come into play, it is predominantly Greg Egan’s Permutation City which seems to have had the greatest influence, or at least is a text the novella parallels the greatest. Not bad company.