For a little while now, I’ve found all the popular press stories about artificial intelligence rather exhausting. They’re so hyped-up, frantic, and just plain ill-informed. Eventually I got fed up enough to write a short story about the whole mess! It’s called The Menu, and is available on Kindle Direct Publishing.
The concept is straightforward but absurd: there’s a mom-and-pop diner struggling to make ends meet, and so the diner injects a little artificial intelligence into its menus. Business starts booming pretty quickly, but not all is well: one of the menus falls into the wrong hands, and our plucky heroine must save the day, together with her frumpy but loving husband.
The idea, of course, is reductio ad absurdum: what happens if we put AI in the unlikeliest of places, give that AI nearly unlimited power, and let it do its worst? It’s not dystopia, exactly - I like to think of it as near-future satire. I’ve heard it compared to Black Mirror, though it’s not nearly as dark or as elaborate as the Netflix original.
I would not call this story a work of science fiction, in part because I’m not much of a sci-fi fan. Moreover, I didn’t go to any lengths at all to explain the technology that I’ve summoned out of thin air; there’s barely three lines of world-building in the whole piece. Indeed, I’ve plainly misused the scant bits of technical jargon that I did include: in the real world, facial recognition is more about the problem of matching facial features in an image to a database of individuals, than it is about translating a real-time video feed into categorized emotions.
The category I’ve heard which strikes me as most appropriate is “techno magical realism”. The term comes from a friend of mine, Lee Baugh. That’s a genre I had never heard of when I started writing this work, but I love the term for a variety of reasons. First because I’m such a fan of the original magical realism movement, the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende in particular. Secondly, because I think there is something deeply satisfying about thinking of technology as magic. Doing so allows us to abstract away all the tricky issues around debugging code and soldering chips (or what have you), so that we may focus on our anxieties about all that magical code, and the magical chips it runs on. Third, perhaps, because I am just such a sucker for reductio ad absurdum reasoning, and this genre is particularly well-suited to it.
This project was also an excuse for me to try out a tool that I’ve been itching to use for a while now, Penflip. Penflip is built on the marvelous insight that literature is a lot like code: it’s a communication medium which requires social interaction and careful version control. As such, the Penflip system provides authors with user-friendly tools to track their changes using all of the powerful features of Git and Markdown. Moreover, Penflip makes it easy to socialize works in progress, whether via comments and branches, a la Github, or by exporting native Markdown text into a variety of popular formats ranging from Word to ePub. As a programmer who loves prose, I had a wonderful time using and playing around with Penflip. Readers who are so inclined may, I hope, benefit from the source control trail that resulted - I endeavored to make the comments reasonably descriptive and the changes nicely atomic, though I wasn’t as fully consistent as I’d like. In any case, I think it’s easy to see how the story evolved over time.
Finally, I want to clarify the satirical intent with this story. As I said, I’m frustrated with the press coverage of artificial intelligence largely because it is over-dramatized and (as is typical for popular press articles about specialized fields) generally ill-informed. Moreover, I think the press wrongly blames artificial intelligence, rather than the larger social forces which use that technology. One of the key points, which I hope has come across, is that ultimately, we are in control of the technology we’ve made. That also means we as a society are responsible for its use, its benefits and drawbacks, regulation and licensing, and so forth.
At heart I sympathize with a lot of the anxieties that feed into all of the craziness in the popular press. Job loss due to artificial intelligence (or really, any advancement in technology) is a serious social problem, not the least because it tends to disproportionately affect those who already are so disempowered. Much of the data that feeds the development of AI can be (and has) readily leaked, and the resulting privacy violations can be tremendously harmful to huge swaths of people. Weapons enhanced with AI can destroy targets both intended and unintended. And I’ve only listed a handful of the potential problems that the proliferation of AI entails. But the key is that it’s just a tool, like a hammer or a saw: in the right hands, it can be tremendously useful, in the wrong hands, very dangerous.
I’ve enjoyed the process of writing this story immensely, and I’m hoping to explore this newfound genre more in the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts!