Hello, fellow travelers. There’s been a minor hiccup lately due to travel, but the lifestyles of two peripatetic writer-academics means slight scheduling adjustments. When this post goes live, Arkady should be somewhere in Istanbul, and Cat should be somewhere in the middle of the US, heading east. We’re back on schedule, though. The following piece is Cat’s review (of sorts) on Robert Reed’s “The Algorithms of Value”, published in the January 2016 issue of Clarkesworld, and found here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/reed_01_16/
I’ve found myself recommending “The Algorithms of Value” several times in the last week, in quite different contexts. This is perhaps not unsurprising. I knew of Robert Reed before this venture; if I say “I enjoyed this story by a Hugo-award winning novelist”, that is not exactly a groundbreaking assertion. But I keep coming back to it, not even primarily for the structure or the plot but for the world it creates, and what that vision might offer our own.
“The Algorithms of Value” depicts a world of sufficiency, in which each human’s basic drives are weighed and measured by artificial intelligence systems which assess and provide necessities. Safety, food, water, and shelter are accommodated for by these AI-controlled rooms; the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy are not the only provisions, however. The rooms can supply beauty, music, pleasure; the algorithms still have room for individuality and personal beliefs, and inequality is still a facet of the world. Equality without uniformity. All this is the work of a team of coders, lawyers, creative, and sentient AIs, in part led by the story’s protagonist, Parchment.
The story doesn’t detail the algorithms exactly, only their effects, but the effects are significant—enough to cause a shift which Parchment’s late husband claims will last ten million years. The backstory of Parchment’s complex marriage to her husband, the financier of the Algorithms, was compelling– a fascinating portrait of a facet of Parchment’s past, much in the way the room she wakes up in is. But it’s the Algorithms that draw me, again and again—the question Parchment and her colleagues ask—their attempt to answer “what will we make of our world?”
The question of what we’re doing to and with our AIs has been exceedingly relevant lately; we all remember Microsoft’s experiment with Tay, the bot who was supposed to mimic a teen girl and who the internet trained to spew racist, sexist, anti-Semitic remarks within twenty-four hours. There’s significant overlap between the IF and AI communities, especially with twitterbots and Kate Compton’s Tracery tool for procedurally generated fiction, and the overwhelming response in my communities was “…yeah, we could have told you this was going to happen” and “you didn’t do basic things we learned about years ago?”
It wasn’t as if Microsoft didn’t take some steps, which makes the matter more vexing. Tay was trained to respond to a specific incident, like the shooting of Eric Garner, with more nuance than some people on our Facebook feeds. Despite this, there were (seemingly) no checks against the user-submitted corpus of information which Tay was barraged with. This is, to put it mildly, a gross and offensive oversight for which the community of Twitter bot makers has been creating interesting solutions for some time; for instance, there’s Darius Kazemi’s solution to stopping his popular TwoHeadlines bot from telling transphobic jokes. In the end, the overwhelming feeling seemed to be confusion and frustration—how many more times will this happen before we learn that we can correct for sensitivity, that we can weigh input for greater or lesser import, and that transparency in our algorithms of what we value is always better than silence?
Reed’s story, to me, suggests that the solution to the gnawing need in us once all of our needs are satisfied is not exploration or trailblazing, not reaching out but reaching across. “The Algorithms of Value” poses empathy as the solution, that arriving at a nuanced understanding of ourselves and each other is perhaps of inestimable value. Perhaps that’s a lesson to take away as we—writers and developers, dreamers and programmers—ask ourselves, and each other, what we’ll make of our world.