Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

Neill Bassett Jr has a very unusual job. His employer is trying to beat the Turing Test by building a computer program that can exhibit intelligent behavior.  The aim is to convince one third of a panel of judges chatting with it online that it is a human and not a computer program.

Neill, however, is not a computer programmer, or even a linguist. He is the son of the doctor who kept the twenty-year diary that has been used to build the foundation of the computer program. Neill’s job is to chat with his “father” – or rather, the computer program based on his father’s diaries – and refine the program’s answers so that it sounds more human.

To complicate Neill’s life, his father committed suicide at the age of 48. Neill’s feelings toward and about his father are conflicted and unresolved, and now he spends his days typing questions and being rewarded with answers that are actual lines from his father’s own writings. Sometimes what Neill gets back is nonsense; sometimes he is jolted by how real the conversation feels.

I thoroughly enjoyed Neill’s conversations with the program, called Dr. Bassett (drbas in chat). Intellectually I’m sure no computer program could carry on a conversation to the extent that drbas does, but the author had me convinced that it could. The conversations feel genuine and poignant. Neill has trouble separating his feelings for his father from his feelings for drbas. Also, Neill (“frnd1” in chat) keeps forgetting that the program doesn’t know Dr. Bassett is dead.

frnd1: do you think i expected too much of you?
drbas: why are you using the past tense?
frnd1: it would have been nice if you had expressed your love for us more often
drbas: why are you using the past tense? you no longer want me to express my love for you?

I am very intrigued by the Turing Test, so I liked that aspect of this book a lot. I enjoyed Neill’s corrections of the computer program, corrections designed to make it sound more human.

frnd1: what was your first memory of meeting your wife?
drbas: my memories all exist at the same time
[“first memory of meeting” = “memory of first meeting”; repeat]

Neill also interacts with his mother, who is excited about her husband’s chance at immortality through the program, his ex-wife, and two women he dates. His thoughts about his ex and the other two women get a little dizzying at times, but I understand all the emphasis on Neill’s search for love (the title of the book is after all A Working Theory of Love).

A Working Theory of Love came close to being a five star book but just didn’t quite make it. What prevents me from giving this book five stars is the sex cult that wends its way through the narrative. It seemed pointless and a drag on the story. The cult and its members quite irritated me. Also, there was a long stretch, too long, where the computer program was down and Neill was unable to chat with it. Since Neill’s relationship with drbas is the best and most intriguing part of the book, that stretch really slowed things down.

However, A Working Theory of Love has a mostly successful narrative and a strong ending. It is thoughtful and thought provoking. If you are a fan of computer science and the Turing Test, or if you like an intelligent book that makes you think, you might like this book. I read an advance reader’s copy; the book is scheduled to be for sale in October 2012.

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