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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Galatea 2.2

My fiction reading for the week was another novel by Richard Powers, this time his mid-90s work Galatea 2.2 - a novel about love, artificial intelligence, and the dark side of the human condition. As the title suggests, it is a modern-day Pygmalion novel: in this case, about training up an artificial neural network, which goes through several upgrades until the final version, christened "Helen" by the first-person narrator.

The narrator, called "Richard Powers" just like his real-world creator, interweaves the story of his own life with that of Helen's creation and training, and "her" aghast response at the everyday horrors of human existence that are gradually unfolded to her when the AI researchers prime her, step by step as she needs it, with information about the natural and social worlds. Powers (the author) appears to have taken to heart Turing's idea that the most promising way to create a real artificial intelligence would be to mould it from a sort of infancy through to adulthood, much as we've always educated and socialised human children. Powers (the narrator) is more naive about these things when a group of AI scientists recruit him to help, but he is definitely a version of the author, slightly younger, equipped with a past that looks all-too-much like the biography of the real-world Powers, and fascinated by his encounter with research on advanced AI.

Though Galatea 2.2 is a kind of science fiction novel, and Powers (author as well as narrator) is well-versed in science, it is more in the Wellsian than the Gernsback tradition, and more socially realist than either. It is focused on the experience of love and how we cope with tragedy and pain. The narrator's back story is one of romantic love and its loss, of living through an aftermath of despair, and learning to love again.

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