I’ve started putting together some thoughts on my next short story, The Check. As I wrote in my first thoughts on The Game, I’m hoping to use the kishōtenketsu format to tie my first three stories together. As with the others, it will also live somewhere in the genre I’ve been calling techno-magical realism - a machine with impossibly fanciful intelligence, materialized out of nowhere as if by magic, will satirize the notion of artificial intelligence.

The particular critique of AI which I want to explore is its rather slavish devotion to data and its tendency to overfit its training set. Or as Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell put it, AI efforts are not producing intelligence, but rather stochastic parrots.

Since so much of this series has revolved around food, and since this story will be the close of the series, and since I never turned away from a corny pun, the data set I’ll be working with is a stack of receipts. Or, as customers in a diner might say, of checks.

In broad strokes, my story will focus on a diner owner who keeps very good track of her receipts. She figures that she can do something useful with all that data - or perhaps her hand is forced by an impending audit, I haven’t decided - but in any case she digitizes it. Some kind of data model emerges, and at first it’s great - she figures out how to maximize tips, perhaps, or to offer just the right desserts on just the right days. Eventually the thing spins out of control, perhaps with the arrival of a well-meaning but over-eager young cousin/accountant who shows up to help.

This last little twist I picked up from a recent newsletter. Among a great many other things, Collin Lysford wrote that the problem with big data all started when we started to decouple data gathering from data analysis:

Things that were externally recorded were often simple representations that were maintained by the same person who used them to make decisions, like a merchant’s inventory and receipts. Data couldn’t help but be interactive and indexical, because it was bound up inextricably with human beings.

For a long time now I’ve been thinking that a story about data as an obstacle to the growth of AI - a check on its power, if you will - would be an interesting idea, and that a set of diner receipts would be a nice data set to play with. This piece really tied it together for me, and helped put some structure into the critique. I’m really looking forward to seeing it play out!