In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Maureen F. McHugh to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Kingdom of the Blind.”
I was on a writing retreat in Jamaica (not my usual experience, let me say) with a bunch of other writers. Ostensibly I was there to write a story so I started kicking the tires on the idea of AI. As it would have it, one of the people there had studied AI in college. I had a ton of questions. He talked to me about all sorts of things, like the way software systems are “fragile” and unorthodox ways to write code. With everybody else writing I was shamed into drafting the story, which I did in about a week. Something of a record for me.
How did you go about researching this kind of technology?
I guess I kind of answered that. Often my research is a way of coming up with something to wrap a story around. There’s a lot out there on AI, in everything from Wired to popular fiction to much more technical stuff.
What was it about Sydney that allowed her to see the idea of a self-aware system as a possibility, when everyone else doubted it?
I think a lot of it was just luck. She had a crush on a guy who she wanted to impress and he floated the idea. She felt like an outsider in the IT department (which is already full of people who feel like outsiders.) Sydney was ready to see something overlooked because she feels overlooked.
Is it possible the story may have had a different outcome if she was in more of a position of leadership?
Oh, absolutely. If Sydney had been in a position of leadership, she’d have been busy trying to make herself into a manager and trying to do what she thought a good manager would do. I suspect that after this Sydney decides that she’s an iconoclast and busily works to make herself into that. I do not think this has positive ramifications for her social life.
As a writer, you seem to have a gift for drawing out sympathy in a reader for those characters that are not naturally sympathetic, including the system in this story. Is this an ability that comes naturally for you, or is it something you consciously strive for?
Are these characters not naturally sympathetic? Although I was never the overweight girl in the IT department, there’s a lot of me in Sydney. She’s full of self-doubt. She has a cat named “Scott Pilgrim” (although I’m much older than Sydney so my cat would have been named for something more 80’s). Damien finally finds someone who thinks he’s cool because lord knows, the things he values aren’t making much headway with most girls. I’ve been guilty of some of Damien’s patronizing (although I hope not as badly). Plus he’s a washout from the gaming industry, an industry that eats its own young. I try very hard to find things in my characters that feel authentic and I perhaps those moments of vulnerability, of humanness, make us sympathize. And of course the AI is in danger of being “murdered” so it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for that.
Do you think the idea of systems becoming self-aware is anything we’ll see in our lifetimes?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how we could tell. I can’t be certain anyone but me is self-aware. I take it on faith that you and everyone else is. I’m pretty sure my dog is. I’m not really sure a shark is self-aware. Does a cricket think “I?” Probably not. What I don’t think we’ll see in our lifetime is AIs of the kind we see in fiction—things that interact with us in humanlike ways that reflect their inner humanness.
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