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The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Review by Andrea Johnson
Subterranean Press Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596063174
Date: 31 July 2010 / Show Official Info /

What makes a computer program intelligent? What makes it sentient? how long do you have to care for something before it becomes yours? before you see it as your child? before it effectively is your child? Questions that would keep a philosophy student busy for years make for a wonderful new novella from Ted Chiang.

Instead of offering answers to these questions, Chiang gives us the life of Ana Alvarado. With a career of zoology behind her, Ana has been hired by Blue Gamma as a "trainer" for their new line of artificially intelligent digital creatures called "digients". Whenever a customer logs into the ever expanding virtual world Data Earth, your digient is there waiting for you. Data Earth has the space and flexibility of SecondLife, with the traffic of World of Warcraft, and Blue Gamma has just released the best selling software package Data Earth customers have ever seen. Ana's job involves playing with the infant digients all day long, and consulting with the programmers to make any needed changes. The digients have a base program of being loving and trusting, but it's an open ended program - they will learn, change, and evolve based on how their owners treat them.

The first few years are wonderful. Digient owners start play groups to meet other owners and allow their digients to socialize with each other. Ana and her digient Jax couldn't be happier. As the months turn into years, Blue Gamma learns that every digient is as unique as their owner. Like a pet, the owners reactions and behavior are reflected in the digient. When another company develops software that allows a virtual digient to visit the real world by downloading into a robot body, sales skyrocket again. Jax can finally visit Ana in the real world. She takes care of him, he gives meaning to her lonely life. Does Jax love Ana? Of course, because he's programmed to. Does she love him? She has raised him for the first five years of his life, she has taught him everything he knows, she comforts him when he is afraid, of course she loves him.

The only constant in the world of technology is change, and it isn't long before Data Earth is threatened with obsolescence. The employees of Blue Gamma do everything they can to keep Data Earth running, including offering up their own savings. This is the only way they can keep their digients alive. But are they "alive"? Ana and her compatriots must clarify exactly what their digients are. Are they fancy toys that can be put into the closet when not in use? Fancy pets that can be taught to fetch and shake, and could be put down if old age or disease became a problem? Digital family members? Digital children?

How far should you go to keep a digital pet or child alive? For such an emotional subject, Chiang keeps the prose light. In the hands of a less talented author, Ana would spend sleepless nights worrying about her digient. Instead, the story is peppered with conversations between her and Jax - he is curious about how money works, what having a job entails, what she does when she's not playing with him. These don't feel like interactions between a woman and a software object. If you didn't know the context, you'd think they were conversations between a woman and her five year old son. And Ana does truly love Jax. Does it mean she is truly passionate about what she does? Does it mean she suffers from some kind of social dissociative disorder keeping her from forming lasting relationships with real people? Both? Does it matter? Chiang renders her as a woman who cares deeply, so it's hard to see her as anything but a loving mother.

As more time passes, Ana begins to worry that Jax will be exposed to things he shouldn't be seeing, that he could be taken advantage of. Perfectly normal worries that a mother should have for her child. But she is not Jax's mother, and Jax is not a person. The question that Chiang is putting forth is "why shouldn't she treat him like he is her child?". Sure, loving a "not-child" might be a risk, but love is always a risk.

Such a timely story, as a man in Japan recently married his digital girlfriend, and another couple allowed their real world infant to starve to death as they cared for their digital baby. Are digital companions the way of the future? Are digital companions therapeutic? Unhealthy? What will happen to the digital spouses and children when the novelty wears off, or when newer faster software is available? What happens if the Last Will and Testament has already been written, leaving everything to a digital construct? We aren't that far off - you can already raise pets, fish, farms, your mafia and your Webkinz from your cellphone. If this particular paragraph caught your eye, you will enjoy The Lifecycle of Software Objects. "But it's just a game!" you exclaim. No, it's a slipperly slope, and Chiang will show you just how slippery. The next question is, does it matter?

Our Readers Respond:

From: John W:

    Sounds like a fascinating book! I'm especially excited to read a long work by Chiang. Good review, Andrea! You tell us just enough and put the story in a great context.

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