“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Story is important. What we do is important. My guess is you believe that or you wouldn’t be reading this blog. I had that knowledge driven home one year on vacation.
Welcome to another installment of Writers in the Storm. I hope you get two things out of this essay: first, a reason to believe your writing is important and second, a reason to believe in stories with happy endings.
The Importance of Story
My friends and I visited Stratford-on-Avon (yes the Stratford-on-Avon). I had just broken in to fiction writing, selling short stories to Analog Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov’s, and others. Outside the building I saw a framed poster advertising a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, an event to raise money to restore the house, and Charles Dickens was one of the performers. And I felt this flash, this epiphany, and it hit me that I was part of that tradition. Sure, they were generals in the writing army and I was the second assistant to the junior file clerk, but I was part of it.
Story is important. You believe that, but if you’re like me every now and then you need encouragement. Writing is tough. That early sale to Asimov’s? It fell through and it took months to find another home for the poor story.
There are times for most of us when we are looking at a rejection letter or facing the dreaded “what happens next?” when we ask ourselves why we’re doing this. I want to offer a surprising reason to believe that what you do is important, one that you may not have thought of. And my reason is more important than I realized when I started writing this essay. Your writing may save the world.
As writers we are immersed in daily-changing memes, currents of thought. One enduring current is the fear of the rise of the machines — artificial intelligences that are smarter than we are.
What if the machines don’t do what we want them to? In the classic Stanley Kubrick film, 2001, HAL killed the rest of the crew and was trying to kill his pal Dave. In Her (2013) Samantha the AI thanks her boyfriend Theo the human for teaching her to want. A good thing? But those are only movies, right? Okay, how about your autonomous self-driving car hearing you talking about trading it in. What if it doesn’t want to go?
The good news is there are people worrying about the problem, and they have a range of solutions. Okay, a little bit of background on artificial intelligence.
There are two kinds of AI, “Weak” and “Strong.” Weak is the kind that speaks up from your dashboard to tell you that you have missed the turn and it’s recalculating. It’s with us now, everywhere, like in your appliances. (Side note: some researchers are very worried about the security of this “internet of things” but that’s beyond the scope of this essay.)
“Strong” artificial intelligence is self-aware. It’s Skynet, or the Matrix, or Samantha and it’s around the corner, a decade or two away. But, it’s not too early to think about teaching a machine ethics. Well, the first problem is deciding what good behavior is. And that’s where we come in.
One promising solution is being developed by Mark Reidl at the Georgia Institute of Technology: read the machines stories.
Read the robot stories that show things like being helpful, polite, not destroying civilization. So you don’t want to read HAL a story where everybody dies.
Back to Dave and his little problem with HAL. The latter is the “strong,” AI that runs the spaceship and HAL has, well, he’s gone off the deep end, his elevator no longer goes all the way up, he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal. You get the idea. What happens when your AI gets cranky? The dreaded “blue screen of death” takes on a new meaning when it’s in your self-driving car or the 757 landing at LAX.
Yep, a culture’s fiction embodies the best (and of course, the worst, in the antagonist) and one way to teach an AI — the more recent term is “Artificial Life” but that one kind of makes me nervous — to be good is to tell it stories that show good behavior rewarded. And what better group of writers to do that than romance novelists?
In Defense of the Happy Ending
In my mystery stories things usually work out, and I suspect that is true for yours, too. And yet everywhere we see the reverse, “a bittersweet tale of love gone bad,” “a grim exploration of the angst inherent in modern life,” “a futile effort to break the chains of (fill in the blank).” You won’t find this in my writing. To quote a recent Nobel Prize winner, “It ain’t me, babe.”
Joy is important. There’s not enough of it to go around. Comedy, a close cousin to happiness, is hard. Don’t believe me? Check out an interview with Jerry Lewis called, “No Apologies.” He tackles this issue head on and makes a case that if you want horror, just pick up a newspaper. Comedy, and I would widen that to include all happy endings, is harder.
So, “and he folded her into his strong arms and whispered, ‘l love you,’” is not only satisfying, not only reflective of reality, it also may be important in ways we cannot envision.
With luck, when HAL says, “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that,” Dave will say, “Hal, remember that Jayne Ann Krentz story I read you? And how the hero and the heroine cared about each other?”
“I liked the dust bunnies, Dave.”
And the spaceship door swings open . . .
And story saves the world.
I’m interested to hear how you feel about the long tradition that we are part of, and how stories might be used in the future to train thinking machines.
James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.
For More Information (and for fun) —
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot and the rest of the robot novels. He invented the Three Laws of Robotics in the 1950’s and more than half a century later they are strong candidates for implementation. On top of that, these are good stories.
Popular Science, The New Artificial Intelligence. Special Issue, (2016). Lots of intriguing ideas as well as a good definition of the kinds of AI.
Foreign Affairs July/August 2015. “Hi, Robot: Work and Life in The Age pf Automation.” A good, detailed discussion of the social implications of machine intelligence and how we might get along with them.
2001 (1968) no discussion of AI is complete without HAL singing, “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls the AI’s circuit cards.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) The US turns defense over to a supercomputer, only to find that the Russians have done the same. Colossus takes over, and assures its creator that mankind will eventually love it.
Her (2013) Touching man/OS love story marred (IMHO) by really rough language.
The Matrix (1999) All three, but the first is the best. It’s almost a throwaway, but watch one of the characters choose blissful illusion over nasty reality. Video game, anyone? At least in this future the machines find humans useful — as batteries.
Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) The alien machine built around the Voyager probe is searching for meaning and regards humans as an infestation.
The Terminator (1984) All I need to say is, “I’ll be back.” Once again man is an infestation that needs to be wiped out.