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SH Flashback: "Algorithms for Love," by Ken Liu

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A new (still belated) entry in my nominally weekly Strange Horizons retrospective:

Algorithms for Love,” by Ken Liu
An exploration of artificial intelligence, free will, and predictability, focused on a woman in the near future who programs interactive AI dolls. Arguably kind of a horror story, I suppose. (And potentially triggery in various ways.) (Published in 2004.) (5,600 words.)

Every interview followed the same pattern. The moment when Clever Laura™ first turned to the interviewer and answered a question, there was always some awkwardness and unease. Seeing an inanimate object display intelligent behavior had that effect on people. Then I would explain how Laura worked and everyone would be delighted. I memorized the non-technical, warm-and-fuzzy answers to all the questions until I could recite them even without my morning coffee. I got so good at it that I sometimes coasted through entire interviews on autopilot, not even paying attention to the questions and letting the same words I heard over and over again spark off my responses.

(See also the full list of Flashback stories.)

(I'm still behind on posting Flashback stories. Working on catching up.)




This is not, of course, the first story to suggest that humans might be in some way robotic and/or deterministic, but I like the way this one handles its themes.

I also like that it's a computational linguistics story (that was one of my majors in college), and that its computer stuff is firmly grounded in reality. The description of Clever Laura's speech algorithm, for example, sounds very plausible to me, and the Chinese Room gedankenexperiment is nicely summarized and nicely relevant. (Perhaps that kind of thing isn't as pleasing or impressive to everyone, but I saw a lot of submissions that included computer stuff but that appeared to have been written by people unfamiliar with real-world computers.) There are a couple of less-plausible bits—the line about understanding the neural nets is kind of unlikely, for example (though that can be read as an indication that Elena is misperceiving the situation), and robotics hasn't advanced as fast as the story speculates—but even so, I read this with confidence that the author knows what he's talking about with regard to the computer aspects. Of course, the story isn't really about plausible tech extrapolation; I just like having plausible tech as part of the infrastructure of a story that's about ideas or characters.

I guess I don't have a lot else to say about the content of this story. So instead I'll add a few metanotes:

  • This was one of the few stories we published that the author gave a Creative Commons license to. You can freely copy the story, as long as you give attribution and don't use it for commercial purposes without permission.
  • If I'm interpreting Ken's bibliography correctly, this was his third published story. (...On a side note, he sure is prolific: over 75 stories published in a three-year period. He also has a list, on his short stories page, of his stories that he particularly likes but that didn't get much attention.)
  • Here are a couple of reviews/discussions that I think engage interestingly with what the story's doing:

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