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The Monolith

January 22, 2009

I have a boatload of reading to do on AI; sometimes it feels like I haven’t read “anything” yet, though I know that’s not true – I’ve been reading about this stuff all my life.  One of the things that holds me back in so many parts of my life (definitely including writing) is the feeling of being overwhelmed by “everything I have to do to get to X.”  Breaking things in to small, discrete parts is pretty much the only way to go when that happens.  I.E., for weight loss, I say this week I won’t eat dessert, I’ll only have my bottle of Chateau Ferrande once, on the weekend, and if (haha, when) I eat Whole Foods chocolate peanut butter I swear I will eat it slowly enough to taste it and enjoy it and therefore not shovel the whole container down my gullet.  If I think of the monolith that is “not being overweight anymore,” I’m going to fail, it’s too much to imagine how long and how much it will take to get there.

“Research” is definitely a monolith, especially when it comes to AI.  There’s so much to read, so much to know, if you’re going to write about it the way I am.  If you create a “voila AI,” someone like HAL 9000, whose planning, development, testing and successful release are before and behind the narrative arc, you’ve definitely got it easier.  You still have to develop a character (Neal Asher has done great stuff with his AI in his Polity novels, and Elizabeth Bear got around the whole issue rather adeptly by resurrecting a digital Richard Feynman for one of her series), but you don’t have to prove the level of AI you’re writing is possible – even in “hard” science fiction, where readers will ruthlessly grill you on the physics of faster-than-light travel or the science behind terraforming or exobiology, there’s a general sense that you have a free pass around AI, that you can just declare a fait accompli and not have to explain the long hard road to the existence of something with, if not “personality” by any philosophical definition, a sufficient semblance.  But that’s not what Alex is – Alex is a baby at the start of the novel, and Caroline is, over the stages of his growth to “maturity,” his nurse, governess, teacher, friend and (eventually) ally.

So I did what I did with my body modification program – I got help (if you want a personal trainer in Reno, hire Jason at Double Diamond Athletic, he’s awesome).  I looked for a research assistant on Craigslist and got a few hits – some were pretty entertaining, including one person who told me I was offering a ridiculously low sum of money and couldn’t possibly expect to hire someone good for that amount, but that if I wanted to contact her, we could certainly negotiate.  Then there was the one who asked me if I was “Orland Outland, the conspiracy theory writer.”  To which the only reasonable reply (unsent) was WTF.  Fortunately I did meet two smart, talented people before Craigslist pulled my ad in what ended up being the worst customer service message exchange of my life (their hall monitors must be volunteers, for they’d surely be fired for assholism from any paying gig).  Robert Egan did some work for me on open source software and the philosophy behind it, which can be found here on my new “See I Did Do My Homework!” page – I won’t get into it now, because this won’t be part of the story until the second section of the book, but suffice it to say that Alex becomes a closed, for-profit proprietary system, even though some of the people who helped make him happen (unseen, sort of, in section 1) did so because he was to belong to us all.  I’m also posting the text of the ad I placed as part of the project documentation (deemed unsuitable as an “education job” posting by CL, and where should I have put it?  Oops, shouldn’t have asked.)

Ted McCarthy, however, has been my main guy for this material.  He’s gone out on the web and found everything from extant chatbots online to the philosophical and psychological stuff that underpins the concepts around our potential relationships to things that can talk and yet aren’t “people.”  He went to work on all this just as I went under the knife in early December for gall bladder surgery, and I spent pretty much all of December on either Percocet (sweet, sweet post-surgical oblivion, little fluffy clouds, hmmm hmmm hmmm) or Vicodin (after I had to be recut in one incision site due to infected stitch).  So I didn’t do anything with the material he gave me, since pain pills and clear thinking aren’t really a good fit.  Now, finally out of my cloud, I’m dealing with my “o shit it’s all too much” feelings when I look at the clippings and links and books I need to read.  Ted has been and continues to be a great resource, and talking this stuff out with him at our coffee meetings has really helped me work out some things in my head, which has given me the confidence to move forward.

Piece by piece, that’s how I’m going to handle it.  Julie Powell didn’t sit down to start her blog and say, today I will begin cooking MTAOFC and not finish until I expire; she said, I’ll do it in a year (there are five hundred and something recipes and only 365 days in a year, so that’s still a lot of pressure).  Now it’s off to the dentist and, alas, work, but I am promising you and myself that the next post will have some “hard science.”

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