Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book Review: The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

One of the great challenges faced in computer sciences is developing artificial intelligence. Is it possible? Is it inevitable? Is it even a worthwhile goal? Ted Chiang's Lifecycle of Software Objects goes one step further and looks at artificial life. What if practical science delivers digital beings who can learn and grow? How should they be treated by the people raising them?

In the story, Ana Alvarado is a former zoo keeper who takes a job with a software company, Blue Gamma. The company is designing intelligent software objects to be pets in Data Earth, a sort of Second Life digital reality where people interact through avatars on various continents. These pets are called digients (digital entities) and they are designed to be cute and fun. But more, they are able to learn and grow, so the owner is able to experience the satisfaction of caring for something that will provide lots of positive feedback.

Ana develops a friendship with Derek, an animator who designs the animal-based bodies of the digients. They both adopt digients and become quite attached to their software entities. The digients are more than mere pets (they can talk fairly quickly) but less than real children (they are not biological), which brings up many of the dilemmas and conundrums that the owners have to face. As with many start-up companies, the initial successful years lead to decline and dissolution. The company's last act is to make the "food creating" software available to the few owners who want to continue running their digients (most people have just turned theirs off). The owners face a new challenge when Data Earth also becomes obsolete and the digients have no other people to interact with in the virtual reality. The need to port the digients to the new system becomes more critical as the digients become more aware of their own environment and their own desires for a fulfilling life.

The story is full of many wonderful and interesting ideas. The exact nature of the digients is ambiguous. Are they persons in their own right or merely self-developing software? How important should they be in a person's life? Having gone through a cycle of attachment and abandonment with primates at the zoo, Ana is reluctant to give up her digient and wants to do what's best for him and the other digients. Which means she may have to make sacrifices for him. But should she?

Her on-going relationship with Derek is also a source of interesting ideas. They seem "made for each other" but he's married at the beginning of the story. Can they just be friends? Will their friendship over the digients hurt their significant others? When conflicts arise, should they support each other (and their digients) at the cost of their real world relationships? Chiang develops these ideas without providing pat answers or obvious conclusions. Like in real life, situations become difficult and the need for compromise and understanding becomes paramount.

I really enjoyed this book and will probably re-read it after having some time to process the ideas. I did read it on my Android phone's Kindle app, which worked well except for the occasional maps which were too small to read on the three-inch phone screen. I have loaned the book to my wife on her Kindle and the maps are just as small and hard to read on a regular Kindle. The other art is fine.

For more insightful commentary on the book, check out Julie and Scott's A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

If you want some suggestions for good, free books for you Kindle, check out this blog post at Sherry's Semicolon blog.

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