THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS
by Ted Chiang
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest story Ted Chiang has published to date. It looks at the rise of artificial intelligence in a virtual world and how flesh and blood people will react to such constructs when they are linked to lovable avatars called digients. Chiang focuses on Ana Alvarado, a one time zookeeper whose rapport with animals has landed her in a job helping to model the constructs' personalities.
While Isaac Asimov did something similar in "The Bicentennial Man" in 1976, Chiang has not only the additional 35 years of progress to draw on in writing his response, but the actual growth of AI within the computer as an interactive paradigm. Chiang has looked at how people interact on-line and with simple artificial intelligences and extrapolated
Following many of the chapters, there is a jump of several months to several years, allowing Chiang to show the different phases of the avatars' lives and the changes in the way they react to each other and their owners, and vice versa. Unfortunately, these jumps mean that the reader doesn't have the opportunity to see the natural growth of these relationships, instead seeing different phases. While not entirely satisfying, this technique does allow Chiang to explore the long term ramifications of growing attached to a construct, even as that construct continuously takes on greater reality, at least in the minds of their owners.
The outside world's reaction to the relatively small group of owners who insist on continuing to interact with their constructs is shown, although mostly at second hand as offers are fielded from outsiders. Perhaps the most direct indication Chiang gives is in relating the marital woes of Derek Brooks, who begins the story as Ana's co-worker (and designer of the digients) and ends up the "father" of twin digients and Ana's friend.
Chiang also looks at the issue from the point of view of the digients, notably Dax, who belongs to Ana, and Marco and Polo, the twin digients belonging to Derek. Chiang shows these digients maturing from simple constructs who essentially have play dates with each other, to individuals with their own cares and concerns, not least of which is the knowledge that digients frequently disappear when their owners lose interest or the fact that they can be rolled back and lose some of their experiences.
The digients become even more interesting when Chiang allows them to develop their own personalities and interests. Twins Marco and Polo move in different directions despite their common upbringing, and even show signs of maturing at different rates. Dax has his own interests and works with Ana to figure out a way to allow the digients to expand their horizons into the non-virtual world.
Chiang uses the longer length of The Lifecycle of Software Objects to more fully explore the societal and moral issues surrounding the creation of self-aware artificial intelligences. Ana, Derek, Dax, Marco, Polo, the characters he focuses on, all have their own individual quirks and personalities (part of the point of the book) and this provides the reader with a variety of sympathetic viewpoints, even if a character takes action the reader, or the other characters, may disagree with.
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