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Interview: “The Regression Test” by Wole Talabi

Wole TalabiTell us a bit about “The Regression Test.”

“The Regression Test” is set in a future Lagos, Nigeria where there’s been a sort of technology revolution led by a handful of visionary companies. In the story, a grumpy 116-year-old woman has been asked by her grandson who runs the family technology business to help test an artificial intelligence that was made from the brain of her genius mother—Olusola Ajimobi—who founded the company. The test is performed to try to establish if the A.I. remains recognizable as Olusola, both to previous versions of itself and to the humans who knew her, even as the A.I. continuously improves. But of course, nothing is ever simple and things don’t go as expected. There are other agendas that come into play, since the company’s future depends on the results of the test.


In the header notes to this story, it’s mentioned that the Sorites Paradox is an inspiration for your story.  Can you explain the Sorites Paradox and how it relates to “The Regression Test”?

The Sorites Paradox, sometimes called a “little-by-little” paradoxical argument, is a series of statements that highlights how difficult it is to determine when a thing changes its nature when there is no sharp boundary between one state and the other. It can also highlight the vagueness inherent in the language used to describe the identity of a thing. Many scholars say the paradox originated from the logician Eubulides of Miletus who used to present puzzles which go something like this:

Given that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it follows that two do not, and three do not, and so on. But continuing like this, it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. This is a paradox since we know there will be a heap eventually. And even if so, when does the change happen? From an apparently true premise we arrive at a false conclusion.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great chapter on the Sorites paradox, its variants and the many mathematical, linguistic and philosophical responses to it. The Sorites Paradox is also very similar to the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox in that they both describe the possible vagueness associated with identity and change, and I personally think of The Sorites Paradox as a more ‘quantized’ version of that paradox.

So how is the Sorites Paradox related to my story? Well, in the story, the brain of the protagonist’s mother has been recorded and used to make an A.I. Let’s call this is ‘Her.’ But the A.I. will be constantly presented with new information and updated. So it will also be changing. At some point it will stop being ‘Her.’ As with the paradox, the central question becomes, at what point does that happen? When does ‘Her’ become something else?


Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Not really. It was just one of those ideas that got stuck in my head until I had to exorcise it.

Come to think of it, maybe it is, a bit. The protagonist is a sort of syncretized version of many older Yoruba women I’ve met including some of my aunts: clever, sometimes harsh, tough, honest and always willing to help family members – even the ones they don’t like.


What are you working on now?

Well, I have several short stories in the pipeline now.  Two of them have been sold and will be published in 2017, and there are five others in different states of submission and revision so I’m not sure when or where they will make an appearance, if ever. But I keep a list of what I’ve written, along with links to read, on my blog for anyone interested. It is updated as new stuff is published.


“The Regression Test” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on Mr. Talabi’s picture at the top of the interview will also take you to his website.


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