Posted on

How do we connect a child to technology?

The informal TechCrunch book club continues with Ted Chiang’s Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

We are now onto the fifth short story of nine in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalations. This one is a very short one at only a couple of pages, but despite its brief length, it explores some of the most fundamental issues facing us as a society today: technology, children, love, and the meaning of connection as all these elements fuse together. It was not my favorite story so far, but it is certainly interesting, especially in light of the previous short story Lifecycle of Software Objects (which in case you missed it, you can read more analysis here).

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

Chiang has constructed a creative framing device here: we observe a peculiar machine — Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny — in historical retrospective within the context of an exhibit entitled “Little Defective Adults — Attitudes Toward Children 1700 to 1950.” The entire story is essentially the museum placard next to the mechanical artifact describing its background and how it was designed to raise an infant without the need for a human nanny.

Much like in the last short story we read in the collection, the question of human connection mediated by technology is at the core of the story. Can we raise a child purely through a piece of technology? Chiang seems to take a definitive stand against such a notion, showing that the child’s psychosocial development is hindered by its nearly exclusive interaction with a non-human being. The author even plays a bit of a legerdemain right from the beginning: the exhibit’s title of “Little Defective Adults” could be applied to robots just as much as Victorian-era children.

But like the digients in the last story, we later learn that the child at the center of the story actually has fine interaction skills, but with robots instead of humans. As the automatic nanny is removed from service after two years of raising Lionel’s child Edmund, the child experiences stunted development. His development is rekindled once he has access to robots and other electronics again. Per the story:

Within a few weeks, it was apparent that Edmund was not cognitively delayed in the manner previously believed; the staff had merely lacked the appropriate means of communicating with him.

And so we are left with a continuation of the major questions from the last story: should human-robot interactions be considered equal to human-to-human interactions? If a child is more comfortable interacting with an electronic device instead of a human, is that just a sign that we privilege and value certain interactions over others?

It’s a question that is expounded on much more comprehensively in Lifecycle of Software Objects, but remains just as interesting a question here in our increasingly digital world. We are about to launch a multi-part series on virtual worlds tomorrow (stay tuned), but ultimately all of these questions boil down to a fundamental one: what is real?

Outside of that theme (which veers into philosophy and isn’t deeply meditated on in the couple of pages of story here), I think there are two other threads worth pulling on. The first has to do with the variability of human experience. This whole experiment begins when Lionel’s own father Reginald decides to replace a human nanny with a machine to provide a more consistent environment for his child (“It will not expose your child to disreputable influences”). Indeed, he doesn’t just want that consistency for his own child, but wants to clone the automatic nanny for all children.

Yet while Reginald feels that human nannies are defective, it is really the automatic nannies themselves that are impoverished. They lack the spontaneity and complexity of human beings, preventing the children in their care from handling a wider variety of situations and instead pushing them inward. Indeed, women (aka mothers) intuitively understand this dynamic: “The inventor [Reginald] framed his proposal as an invitation to partake in a grand scientific undertaking and was baffled that none of the women he courted found this an appealing prospect.”

And yet, human contact is precisely what drives the continued pursuit of these robots in the first place. The nanny’s original inventor, Reginald, uses it on his own son Lionel, who wants to prove their utility to the world by using it on his son Edmund. So we see a multi-generational pursuit of this dream, but that pursuit is driven by the human passion to defend the work of one’s parents and the legacy they leave behind. Human-to-human contact then becomes the key driver to prove human-to-robot contact is just as effective, debunking the very claim under consideration in the process. It’s a beautiful bit of irony.

The other thread to untangle a bit is the scientific method and how far astray it can lead us. Reginald’s creation and marketing of the device is undermined by the fact that he never really performed any real experiments on his own child to evaluate the quality of different nannies. He just makes assumptions, based on his Victorian values, and pursues them relentlessly before heading back to pure mathematics, a field where he can be at ease with his models of the universe.

In the middle of this little pattern is a common lesson: sometimes the things that are least measurable have the greatest influence on our lives. This story — like the exhibit it’s a depiction of — is a warning, about hubris and failing to listen and love.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

Some questions to think about as you read the next short story, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling:

  • What is truth? What is honesty?
  • How do the two frames — an historical one about the Tiv and the “contemporary” one about the remem technology — work together to interrogate what truth means?
  • How important is it to get the details right about a memory? Does a compelling narrative override the need for accuracy?
  • Do different cultures have different approaches to storytelling, narration, and universal truth?
  • Does constantly recording photos and videos change our perception of the world? Are they adequate representations of the truth?
  • How important is it to forget? Memories are supposed to fade with time — is this fundamentally conducive to humanity or harmful?
  • Will we fact check each other’s behavior more and more in the future? What consequences would such a future bring?

Source: TechCrunch

Posted on

Can we debate free will versus destiny in four pages?

The informal TechCrunch book club (which is now a whole week off schedule thanks to the news cycle — let’s see if we can catch up here shortly!) is now venturing into the very, very short story What’s Expected of Us, the third piece in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. If you’re one of those people that fall behind in book clubs, don’t fret: you’ve had two weeks to read four pages. You can probably read the short story before finishing this post.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous editions of this book club which explores the first two (larger) short stories in the collection, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a beautiful story exploring predestination and fate, and Exhalation, a vital yet subtle story about climate change, the connections between people and society, and so, so much more.

Next, we will read the lengthier story The Lifecycle of Software Objects — some reading questions are posted at the bottom of this article.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

What’s Expected of Us

We are only three stories into Exhalation, but already there are threads that are starting to connect these disparate stories, none more important than the meaning of fate in lives increasingly filled with technological determinism.

Chiang loves to presuppose these novel technologies that prove that our fates are fixed. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, he imagines these teleporting gates that allows users to move forward and backwards in time, while in this story, it is the Predictor that sends a light signal back in time by one second after the button is clicked, forcing the device’s user to confront the fact that the future is already predetermined when the light burns bright.

While these two stories have certain symmetries, what’s interesting to me is how different their conclusions are from each other. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Chiang notes that while our destinies may be fixed, and even if we had a time machine, we couldn’t change the past to affect our futures, he essentially argues that the journey itself is often its own reward. The past may indeed be immutable, but our understanding of the past is in fact quite malleable, and learning the context of our previous actions and those of others is in many ways the whole point of existence.

In What’s Expected of Us though, the Predictor creates a dystopic world where lethargy among people runs supreme. Here’s a simple device that transmits a basic signal across a short period of time, but provides overwhelming evidence that free will is essentially a myth. For many, that’s enough for at least some people to become catatonic and just stop eating entirely.

Our occasional fiction review contributor on Extra Crunch Eliot Peper wrote in with his favorite passage and a thought, which gets at one of Chiang’s solutions:

“Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”

As science reveals a clockwork determinism behind reality’s veil, it becomes ever more important for us to believe the opposite in order to build a better future. A belief in free will is enfranchising. It is the spark of hope that inspires us to push back against the invisible systems that shape our lives — creating a chance for change.

Peper gets at the core message of this story, but frankly, self-deception isn’t easy (as any less-than-perfectly-confident startup founder who has attempted to persuade investors about their product can tell you). It’s one thing to say “pretend it all doesn’t matter,” but of course it does matter, and you intrinsically acknowledge and comprehend the deception. It’s like that self-help dreck about setting artificial deadlines to get stuff done — yet their very artificiality is precisely why they are ineffective. As Chiang writes about the Predictor, “The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means; over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in.” Fate locks into our very souls.

Chiang notes though that people respond differently to this realization. Some become catatonic, but it is implied in the story that others find a different path. Of course, those paths are all laid out before the Predictor even arrived — no one can choose their destiny, even about how they will confront the knowledge of fate and destiny itself.

Yet, even without that choice, we must move on. Structurally, the story (similar again to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate) is told retrospectively, with a future agent sending a note back in time warning about the consequences of the Predictor. Rhetorically asking whether anything would change by this note, the future agent says no, but then says that “Why did I do it? Because I had no choice.”

In other words, maybe everything is indeed predetermined. Maybe everything in our lives can’t be changed. And yet, we are still going to move forward in time, and we are still going to take the actions we are predetermined to make. Maybe that requires self-deception to muddle through it. Or maybe, we just need to vigorously commit to the actions in front of us — regardless of whether we had the ability to choose them in the first place.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

The next short story in the collection is a bit more sprawling, touching on a huge numbers of topics around virtual worlds, the entities we raise in them, and what that means for us as humans. Here are some questions to think about as you read the story:

  • What’s it mean to love something? We understand love in the context of (human) children, but can you love an AI? Can you love an inanimate object like a statue? Is there a line when our ability to love stops?
  • What makes an entity sentient? Does it take experience delivered from others, or can sentience be constructed out of thin air?
  • Chiang sometimes fast-forwards time in a variety of different circumstances: hothouses to accelerate AI learning, and for the human characters themselves in the plot. What is the meaning of time in the context of the story? How do the concepts of time and experience interact?
  • The author touches on but doesn’t deeply explore the legal questions around “human rights” in the context of sentient AI beings. How should we think about what rights these entities have? Which characters’ views best represented your own?
  • How can we define concepts like consciousness, sentience, and independence? What elements of the story seem to indicate where Chiang defines the boundaries between those definitions?
  • One of the central under-tones of the plot is the challenge of money and the profitability of AI. Should AI be judged in terms of the utility it provides humans, or the ability of AI to create their own worlds and cultures? How do we think about “success” (very broadly conceived) in the context of what these computer programs can do?
  • How will human empathy change in the coming years as we surpass the uncanny valley and more and more technologies connect with our emotional heartstrings? Is this ultimately an evolution for humanity or just another challenge to overcome in the years ahead?

Source: TechCrunch

Posted on

Can a time machine offer us the meaning of life?

We are continuing our discussion of Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. Today (and one day late thanks to the MLK holiday), I give some thoughts on the first short story of the collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and kick off the discussion for the second short story of the collection, the eponymous “Exhalation.”

Previous editions of this “book club”:

Some quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter.
  • Follow these informal book club articles here. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

I was electrified reading this short story. It’s one of the most obvious examples I can give on the power of re-reading the same work multiple times: what begins as a fairly open-ended and fractal plot finally comes all together in its final lines, beautifully inviting the reader to come back around a second time to understand how the various puzzle pieces fit together even better.

Structurally, Chiang has done something marvelous in such a short number of pages. He has taken the familiar trope of the time machine and has managed to create a multi-layered and non-linear narrative about fate and destiny, while also maintaining a sense of progressive plotting. There is the overarching story of the main character talking to His Majesty, but then this story is also a retrospective of multiple tales, all of which interrelate with each other directly and through their messages. Like the Gate itself, this structure is truly a masterwork of craftsmanship.

A bit aggressively, Chiang has laid on his primary theme quite thickly, with the main message of the story bottled up and exhorted in its closing pages. As Eliot Peper pulled out in the reading guide for this story, the primary passage is this:

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

What Chiang is exploring is the definition of a “lived” existence. It’s one thing to go through the motions and do our work every day, connecting with friends along the way. It is quite something else to understand how our actions affect the world around us, and to viscerally begin to comprehend exactly what our actions mean to us and to others.

In this way, the theme reminds me a bit of the arch-plot of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which the actions of a character in one era have reverberations down through the years. Notes taken by an explorer get read by someone decades later and changes their life, and so we have these chaos/butterfly effect moments where even slight intentions can have long-term historical ramifications.

Chiang is saying something more taut: we aren’t just performing for a future audience — we are actually performing for ourselves, and sometimes for ourselves in the past. We are in fact sending a message back in time. I thought that the Gate, and the fact that it allows people to both travel to the future and to the past, creates this interesting connection. While it is a linear time impossibility that our future destinies are performing for us today, the message behind the theme I think has deep resonance.

At multiple times throughout the story, characters withhold crucial details from themselves in order to heighten the experience of living. Chiang writes, “In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he’d succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not in many weeks.” Knowing the actual surprises of daily life comes with it its own reward, even as further rewards are acquired as we understand the meaning and lessons of how we react in such moments.

Within the TechCrunch world, we talk about startups and the future all the time. There is incredible ambiguity in the work that founders and venture capitalists do every day. Will this decision lead to the right outcome? Am I investing in the right company in the space? Why won’t someone just give me the right answer?

But Chiang is getting to something insightful, which is that the ambiguity in many ways is the definition of living. If we already knew the answer, then what is the point? It’s the satisfaction of acting a certain way at a certain time — even if it may well be fixed in advance — that ultimately provides meaning to our lives. Half the “fun” (and it isn’t fun, is it?) of being an entrepreneur is simply not knowing the answers in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out something that Chiang does better than almost any startup founder, and that is his introduction of the Gate itself. Chiang brilliantly enthralls the reader with this new technology, without ever having to explain in minute detail how the thing works or its patterns.

By having Bashaarat wave his hands through the gate, he visually demonstrates the technology for both the narrator and for us as readers, even while the complexity of the device becomes more apparent over the coming pages. The device (both plot and technology) is explained so naturally and progressively that we never have to stop to think — it’s purpose just comes organically. If only more startup pitches were like this!

All together then, the short story manages to weave a discussion of fate, destiny, truth, ambiguity, and the meaning of existence into a handful of pages based around a small tech device that really is just a backdrop to a deeper human tale. If this isn’t science fiction at its finest, I don’t know what is.

Thank you to Gio, Eliot, Joanna, Justin, Veronica, Bruce, Damion, and Scott who sent me emails related to this short story. Will try to include more reader comments in future editions.

Reading guide to Exhalations

We will read the next short story in the collection, Exhalations, for next week (targeting Tuesday January 28th). Here are some questions to think about as you read and enjoy the story:

  • How does Chiang think about connections, both between individuals, and also between civilizations?
  • What do the various metaphors in the story (air, copper, gold, etc.) mean? Why did he choose these specific metaphors?
  • Chiang chooses this extensive metaphor of the body as machine. Why? What purpose does considering our bodies this way have for the story?
  • The story dwells on memory and death. What message is the author sending about what it means to experience something?
  • This story would seemingly connect with several major global issues today. What are those connections, and how does Chiang try to navigate the controversies of them in this short story?
  • Is the story ultimately hopeful or sad? What emotions resonate for you in this story?

If you have feedback or thoughts you would like me to include, please feel free to email me at danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com.

Source: TechCrunch