Monday, October 8, 2012

Two Hot Authors: San Francisco Style

Via SFGate

The year 2012 marks the centennial of the birth of Alan Turing, famed for helping crack the German Enigma code in World War II, and for developing the litmus test for artificial intelligence: the computer must make a human believe it is human. "A Working Theory of Love," Scott Hutchins' inventive, intelligent and sometimes hilarious first novel, features a chatbot poised to beat the test. Along the way, Hutchins probes the nexus of philosophy, engineering and the machinery of consciousness.

Neill Bassett Jr., a recently divorced 36-year-old suffering a bad case of anomie, works at Amiante Systems, a Silicon Valley tech company, on a "grandiose linguistic computer project." The chatbot is flatfooted and literal, yet it's "at the absolute forefront of talking computers, way out in front of the competition."

What makes this machine special is that its language comes directly from a specific, integrated human consciousness and sensibility - a doctor and compulsive diarist named Dr. Bassett from Arkansas, known as "the Samuel Pepys of the South." The diarist also is - or was - Neill's rather remote and now-dead father. (Like the creator of the Turing test, Dr. Bassett committed suicide.)

Neill spends his days preparing Dr. Bassett for the Turing contest. Nights he spends trolling San Francisco for love, or sex, or at least learning what he calls "bachelor logic" - useful structures for navigating loneliness, lust and the loss of juju.

Neill's torn between three women: his ex-wife, a 20-year-old high school student and a slightly older programmer working on a competing chatbot for the Turing event. The serious, sad thread of the novel concerns Neill's parallel efforts to create the illusion of presence and connection between Dr. Bassett and his interlocutors, and between himself and women.

One of the pleasures here is Hutchins' terrific grasp of the zeitgeist - the intellectual energies, cultural landscapes and characters of the Bay Area. Menlo Park has "outsourced poverty."

Neill's boss, the CEO of Amiante Systems who "basically founded the field of AI," makes his own Zinfandel, dresses like a Rotarian and keeps a golf glove in his back pocket. "If Science is the religion of our time," Neill muses, "then it can be disconcerting to find your high priest so determinedly mundane, head to toe in wicking fabrics."

There's also a wacky - but realistic - cultlike group called "Pure Encounters," which offers sexual reprogramming through a spiritual-carnal practice called the VAM Method. VAM promotes not intercourse but an "inner course" and seems to Neill like "a cross between a Lamaze class and an orgy." Pure Encounters is shiny, corporate, money-driven and messianic - like a tech company.

Technology in these pages functions almost as a form of sexuality, libidinal and generative. Reading "A Working Theory of Love" often feels like sitting in the crosshairs of a couple of different dialogues in coffee houses where tech people hang out - the Creamery in SOMA or Cafe Venetia in Palo Alto. Phrases like "emotional heuristics" and "affective frameworks" apply equally to any topic of the day, whether reprogramming a depressed metrosexual or creating a sense of "being" in a machine.

Hutchins wonderfully captures the ways in which techno-libertarians can be both the smartest and the most boring people in the room - transcendently visionary and strangely affectless.

Like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose great dream for humanity is to radically extend our individual lifespans, Neill's boss dares to hope that Dr. Bassett will be the first step toward The Singularity, "when we will transition our personalities from aging, decomposing bodies over to timeless, never-changing computer chips, and thereby live forever - in what form no one says."

Another visionary CEO extrapolates from social bonding with computers (robots caring for the elderly, for example) to "romantic relationships with robots. Your desires and needs being met by them."

The sublime and the ridiculous are locked in a passionate embrace. It's exciting to watch a computer develop subjectivity, but Neill reminds himself that this madly ambitious and idealistic quest "will aim at consciousness and result in a new answering system for United Airlines."

"A Working History of Love" revels in these big questions: Are humans more like computers than we think? Is the experience of love all chemicals and projection? Is human connection an illusion - a kind of cosmic Turing test in which it's only necessary to fool a few people some of the time?

By the end of this novel, one feels empathically engaged with the plight of the machine. Our minds too "are all 0s and 1s, the neurons either on or off. There's no center for a soul. Just pattern upon pattern upon pattern through which the rough-shaped thing we call ourselves emerges into view."

Also via SFGate

When Clay Jannon, an underemployed denizen of San Francisco's tech sector, finds a job on the graveyard shift of a mysteriously located and oddly persistent 24-hour bookstore, it doesn't take him long to discover that not all is as it should be. For one thing, what independent bookstore these days can stay open that long? For another, why doesn't anyone who comes to the store actually buy any books? When Jannon sets out to find out, high jinks and mystery ensue.

In "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," set in a quirky quasi-real but also semi-surreal version of the Bay Area, the magical, the technological, the absurd and the imaginary all fuse. The result is a jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet.

The new ways are, of course, the ones that have revolutionized our lives in the past decade - Google, especially, but all of the computer-driven functions by which we now chart and locate ourselves. The old ways of accessing knowledge involve the humble, somehow pleasurably persistent world of text, printed matter - those quaint objects known as books.

In Robin Sloan's fantasy, books hold a lot of power, and the books in Penumbra's bookstore seem to encode secrets that even their most studious readers can't fathom. They may even hold secrets that Google's biggest data-mining guns may not able to unravel.

Indeed, when Jannon sets out to uncover the mystery of what is happening at the bookstore, he ends up enlisting a cute data specialist from Google, as well as his childhood best friend, now turned startup wizard. The three set out to crack an intriguing code - and soon they are off on a hunt that none of them could have imagined.

Or could they? At this point the plot becomes quite familiar, as if lifted from a template we would all recognize. At times, unfortunately, this template itself seems to flirt with cliche. Although this book cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy, a great deal of what is written here hasn't really upgraded its own narrative operating system.

In fact, at times, the sorts of mysteries that are uncovered feel a tad rote - a totally pleasant cartoon, but not a particularly new one. And given that this book is actually speaking to a rather urgent current question about the battle between old and new forms of knowledge, at times not quite enough complexity is at stake.

Still, it's a fun book. San Franciscans will enjoy seeing their familiar landmarks recast as sort of techno-fantasy meets postmodern fantasy meets Lemony Snicket story. Our foggy, Victorian-specked hillscape really does morph quite nicely into a misty imaginary city in which a 24-hour bookstore could have slid (however improbably) under every hipster's radar. Other takes like the "Gourmet Grotto," beneath San Francisco's gleaming six-story shopping mall, offer cute (or occasionally cutesy) local riffs.

Even Penumbra's, which is hunkered next to some strip clubs, reminds one rather directly of a sort of City Lights, albeit a City Lights decked out with much more elaborate ladders and many towering bookcases.

Ultimately, Sloan's strongest point is narrating the world from a point of view of a protagonist who isn't sure anymore what should be made by hand or read on paper or why; who ends up at the bookstore in the bleakly post-technological phase when his own job as a Web designer for a company that built bagels via an algorithm had fallen apart. He admires books as relics of a so-called real-world, almost wistfully. "Mat is part of the dwindling tribe of special-effects artists who still make things with knives and glue," says Jannon, admiringly of his roommate.

And it is this wistfulness that makes the book most winsome. In a universe where special effects are made on computers and knowledge is scanned and decoded by Google, and even the body can be mapped by an app, what role does the human act of puzzling over text on paper still offer? "We'll be fine," says Jannon, defending his new trade to Google. "People still like the smell of books."

The smell maybe, and perhaps more than that. Even though this book is familiar in ways, it is pleasurable, too. Sloan's ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra's puzzle is worth turning pages to find out.

No comments: