Jan 22, 2013

[Books] The Lifecycle of Software Objects

The book, well novella, first blipped on my geek radar thanks to the Gawker Media blog, io9. To be fair, the title alone is definitely one of those quirky ones that seem to immediately catch the attention of any geek. And it sort of gives you a hint of what the book is about since we know there's going to be life and yet also some degree of computer programming.

It's hard to precisely describe what The Lifecycle of Software Objects is about. I mean sure, I'm going to write a brief synopsis in a few paragraphs to cover the basic story, and that's well and good. But there's so much more to this book than just the story - and I know that sounds a little weird.

The book does a lot in terms of redefining how we look at many science fiction concepts in a matter than does account for more forward-thinking, or perhaps even more expansive considerations for the implications of technology.

I think my only complaint is the fact that this was a novella and not a full novel.

Synopsis: The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella written by Ted Chiang, who has already won many awards for various short stories and novellas that he has released previously. This title in particular won both the Hugo and the Locus Awards for Best Novella.

First we meet Ana, a zookeeper who get a surprising job offer from a software company only because she also happens to have some experience with software testing. It turns out that the company is determined to develop something they call Digients - think more autonomous NeoPets or something similar. These Digients are going to be offered as products in time - provided the development team can determine how to "raise" them to be truly interactive.

Thus a lot of the book takes place in a virtual world - think the sort of MMO environment for games like Second Life, where the team interacts with these artificial constructs and try to teach them various tricks and what not. And Ana's zoological experience has her treating them more like animals - although these are animals that happen to be able to talk.

First, the core concept behind these Digients as more "organically" developed artificial intelligences is certainly interesting. As much as they are fundamentally collections of code, their programming accommodates a certain degree of "growth" and "learning" for lack of better terms and they need constant attention and input from their handlers in order to continue to develop. Thus it's not as easy as simply updating their code and evaluating their responses but more about trying different training techniques and strategies and seeing how the Digients respond over time.

The "mistake" that a lot of us make when we think about artificial intelligence is how we imagine it to be machines becoming more human. But what we fail to account for is just how different their way of "thinking" can be over time, especially depending on their environment whether real or virtual. And this is a notion that Chiang plays around with in a manner that demonstrates how much thought he has put into things. And there's a heck of a lot more to deal with.

The team deals with all the problems of a cutting edge programming team with a new product and just how quickly technology changes. In a short span of years we watch them rise and fall as companies fold, demands change and technologies continue to push forward. And all through this we see how people deal with their Digients or perhaps stop dealing with them as the months become years.

Do you ever think about your older gaming console and how you tired of it as newer versions were released? What about the virtual pet you may have adopted on some website or specialized device? Or even the last time you played a particular game that was all the rage before but is now a "classic" somewhat past its time? The Digients face a lot of these problems as user interests shift to more interesting or even just newer products.

There's also a bit of a love story in this book, but it's sort of a sad one given you wish the persons involved were more forceful about their feelings. But then again, we are talking about the types of people who are drawn to caring for animals, computer programming and related design work, which aren't always the most social of fields.

The book ends on a somber note - you get some sense of closure but you do wish that there was more to follow. Despite the brevity of this book, you can't help but get completely drawn into the lives of these characters, especially the Digients, and thus wonder what is going to happen next for all of them. Throw in the beautiful artwork of Christian Pearce (including the cover), that add a certain degree of tangibility for the Digients and their story - or perhaps their plight?

The Lifecycle of Software Objects clearly has a lot of thought put into it and will make you think even more after you've read through it. It's a truly original and novel piece of fiction and I do look forward to reading more of Chiang's work in the future. The book rates 4.5 surprising advances made by the Digients in the story out of a possible 5.

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