If they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting
A novella by Ted Chiang from the anthology “Stories of Your Life and Others” the story follows two characters Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks as they raise AI “pets” from their digital presence to a more human-like existence. Perhaps the central message of the story, as noted by the author too, is that artificial intelligence industry needs to include the process of nurturing in order to bring robotic products more in line with human beings. Akin to raising a child, robots require similar affections and surroundings if we are to increase AI productivity in the world.
The story begins with Ana, an unemployed zookeeper, hired by a software company to train their virtual pets. Derek works as an animator for the same corporation and both develop an affinity with their select digients. After the company goes into liquidation, they adopt the virtual pets who live in two worlds: the virtual online space and in real world in physical robotic bodies. As the software industry undergoes rapid changes, many online worlds created for the pets to inhabit start becoming obsolete. Many more companies crop up with various purposes to use these virtual pets as either sex objects or household appliances.
Digients will be given use of bodies at a facility outside of Osaka and taken on a field trip into the real world, while the owners watch via cameras
For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds. That cultivation is what he’s trying to provide for Marco and Polo.
These digients are remarkably child-like but the human world has willingly not attributed them with any humanness, they have anthropomorphic animal avatars to seem more welcoming to human nature. Ana is lovingly attached to Jax and so is Derek with his two pets Marco and Polo, which is why they decline many offers from others to make up copies of them to be used for sexual gratification or rendering the pets capable to perform household chores. Through all these years, they have encouraged their pets to learn and create in their virtual world, enabling them with recognition of their ability to cognize for themselves. They are able to substantiate on their multi-world existence and provide warm companionship to their owners.
The digients inhabit simple bodies, so their voyage to maturity is free from the riptides and sudden squalls driven by an organic body’s hormones, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t experience moods or that their personalities never change; their minds are continuously edging into new regions of the phase space
But since the evolutionary nature of robotics must lead to necessary questions such as that of their existence as a person, their ability to make decisions for themselves and so on, complications arise in a world which must cater to AI and its consumers alike. Technology self-perpetuates its own obsolescence so much so that it becomes difficult to keep up with its ever-changing trends. Ana and Derek find it difficult to sponsor another virtual world in which their pets can live in. Since virtual spaces are shared, any decision taken to keep them working must be beneficial to everyone involved.
Jax is losing most of his social life in the virtual world, and he can’t find one in the real one: his robot body is categorized as an unpiloted free-roaming vehicle, so he’s restricted from public spaces unless Ana or Kyle is there to accompany him. Confined to their apartment, he becomes bored and restless.
The story is conceptually dense but at times the sentences offer either too little or too technical information. But the mastery of Ted Chiang’s prose style was not lost as he evokes our empathies for the child-like and trusting virtual pets. Derek’s romantic but discreet fondness for Ana threads throughout the novella, giving it a more human aspect and in extension rendering their pets as children who are in need of constant care and supervision.
Derek had feared that the digients might be distressed to learn the boundaries of their physicality, but instead they just find it funny.
Whilst I enjoyed the story as a whole, I was critical of some points in regards to the nature of human interaction and relationship with AI objects. In an increasingly computerised world, we need less reliance on technology as means to symbiotic and reciprocal functioning of society. Since we are only human, our inherent emotions and sympathies are designed to be limited in nature; one can’t love or care for an entire human race in tangible terms, even though our thoughts manifest in larger proportions than our physical bodies.
My point being that we can think of goodness for the entire humankind but our material, emotional and physical resources restrict us one way or another, and this is only natural. Add to this complex equation affection for AI and we may further limit ourselves from human bonds which is the very essence of human life. Proliferation of social media and easily accessible technology has already crippled our empathies, and the last thing human beings need is to extend our already depleting goodness to a bulk of codes.
For the first time, Ted Chiang makes a point which I do not entirely acquiesce to; that of extending emotional relationship to an AI and balancing one’s own desires and needs to that of some heap of computer code. This is analogous to my belief of space travel, that humans must venture forth to discover vast beauties of our universe, to discover the grandeur of our Creator through His resplendent creations, but to settle or make a new home on a planet other than Earth is simply selfish and arrogant – two traits humans can do without in our present circumstances.