Man and machine

A Working Theory of Love, by Scott Hutchins, Penguin RRP£12.99/$25.95, 336 pages

In 1950, the mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing wrote a groundbreaking and witty essay entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, in which he asked a simple question: “Can machines think?” Turing suggested that one way in which this could be gauged would be through playing of an “imitation game”. If a machine was mistaken for a human, in typed conversation, it could be reasonably said that the machine was “thinking”.

Scott Hutchins quotes from this essay at the start of A Working Theory of Love, and men acting like machines and machines acting like men are at the heart of this light but multilayered novel. Neill Bassett Jr is 36, recently divorced but child-free, and living in a San Francisco saturated with commodities, technologies and freethinking ideologies. Yet despite his pleasant apartment, well-paid job, and seemingly being attractive enough to sleep with half the city’s women, Neill is neurotic, melancholic and, like the city itself, often drenched in fog, although Neill’s is a fog of his “own self-regard”.

You can sense the pampered ennui in his words, the way he compares a computer processor with a “high-end wine fridge” or the manner in which he finds solace in a “nice bok choy”. When out jogging he describes his Lycra-swathed generation as “beached in the last days of our youth”. Neill is paralysed by comfort, lost amid a wealth of choice. “I feel our lives are destined to be slighter than our parents,” he moans without fervour. In short, he’s a big drip, whose lackadaisical attempts at soul-searching begin and end at his own navel. For all his talk of growing old, he is little more than a simulacrum of an adult.

This should not be a problem, according to Henry Livorno, Neill’s boss at the tiny Silicon Valley company at which he works. A computing legend, Livorno suggests that “there is no empirical difference between seeming and being.” But that only seems to be applicable to the project they are working on, an artificial intelligence computer program that they hope will pass the Turing test.

The Golden Gate Bridge on the US’s ‘left coast’

Neill’s job is to converse with the program each day in an attempt to make it more spontaneous and human, although considering Neill’s own banality, the creation of a machine that could whine you to death would seem more within his remit. But Neill is shaken out of his first-world torpor by the fact that the artificial program he is working on is based on data input from 20 years of diaries written by his father, an Arkansas doctor – who, like Turing, killed himself. Neill is given the task of making his father’s words flesh, so to speak, in the hopes of giving the Dr Bassett program the “passing sense of presence” that the Turing test requires. A sense of “presence” is something that Neill feels was lacking from his remote father even while he was alive.

Surprisingly it is here, in front of the computer screen, that the book truly comes alive, as Neill not only coaxes life into the machine but into himself too. The unironic, contextless, mechanical answers of the virtual Dr Bassett (“drbas”) cut straight through the evasions and fog of the moping son. Both man (“frnd1”) and machine begin to grow in unison, and it is in these sequences of exploration and revelation, depicted in a basic question and answer format, that the book reaches its most touching moments:

“drbas: you’re too old to be single

frnd1: maybe. times have changed

drbas: what good is a life led alone?

a life without children?

frnd1: children are not the answer

to all life’s problems

drbas: well said”.

What is lacking from both the computer program and from Neill’s life is an overriding, binding emotion that colours a person’s entire being. Could the answer be love? For Dr Bassett that means new lines of complex code but for Neill the search sends him flitting through the worlds of internet dating, free love cults and sentient sex toys, none of which seems remotely preposterous in a tale located on the US’s “left coast”.

Hutchins, a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University, has taken the search for artificial intelligence, long a trope of science fiction, and neatly inserted it into this comedy of introspection. All the characters, Dr Bassett included, seem to be standing on shifting ground, uncertain whether they are alive or merely pretending to be so. Only by finding the thing they truly love, it seems, will they stand any chance of discovering the answer.

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