Tool or Terror? Looking to Literature to Better Understand Artificial Intelligence

From The Literary Hub:

“The Algorithm knew the timing of our periods. It knew when and if we’d marry,” begins “The Future Is a Click Away,” a curious short story in Allegra Hyde’s new collection, The Last Catastrophe. “It knew how we’d die… It knew what seemed unknowable: the hidden chambers of our hearts. When it sent us tampons in the mail, we took them. We paid.”

In an arrestingly quirky first paragraph, Hyde sets up the central conceit of the story: that in an unspecified future, humans live in a world where something only known as “the Algorithm” sends them packages—often twice daily—that they have not ordered, unlike, say, on Amazon, but that seem to uncannily reflect their needs (as well as their budgets, for the Algorithm usually only sends packages that each person can afford). It’s a playful satire of artificial intelligence and corporate surveillance into our lives—one that seems funny until it isn’t, for it hits all too close to home.

The way the packages appear to reflect people’s needs truly is uncanny, to the point that the Algorithm begins to seem like a soothsayer, an omniscient presence that knows the destinies of everyone in its seemingly infinite delivery radius. If an item it sends isn’t immediately necessary, most people still keep it, believing it will become just that—and it often does.

One character receives a set of scouring sponges, which she scoffs at—already having regular sponges in abundance—until she burns the lasagna that night and realizes the scouring was necessary. Another, Anastasia, receives an ankle brace, despite having no immediate injury—until she goes on a hike that week and sprains her ankle. “Was the prediction predicated on a kink in Anastasia’s posture—the reality of weakening cartilage embedded in a lifetime cross-section of bathroom selfies?” the narrators wonder. “Or was there an air of recklessness in her email signs-offs that week (ttyl, Anna)?”

The questions are humorous, but they reflect the all-encompassing gaze of the story’s algorithm, combing through all aspects of people’s lives—and the justifications people invent. Is it digital divination, the futures determined by remarkably powerful artificial intelligence? Are the items just random, and the characters subconsciously fulfill their package prophecies by doing things to likely make the items fit their lives? “In the end,” the narrators say, “the Algorithm’s methods didn’t matter so long as she got what she needed.”

The characters must choose to accept and pay for the items, as the majority of people do, or they can return them—though the latter is so culturally rare as to seem gauche, even a touch blasphemous. I use the term “blasphemous” because accepting the Algorithm’s packages quickly takes on the quality of a religion.Artificial intelligence is already deeply embedded in our culture, yet all too many of us seem to think of it as something new.

“The Algorithm works in mysterious ways,” Hyde writes, parodying a common theistic catchphrase—but it’s also true, for no one seems to know how the Algorithm really works. “Unbelievers,” the chorus of narrators deems the odd few who return their packages, like Inez, a woman in Denver who prefers doing things on her own and who functions as the story’s central apostate, rejecting every package she receives.

Like God, the Algorithm’s origins are never really explained; the believers just accept that it’s there, deeply attuned to their personal needs, offering them a capitalistic heaven on Earth if they accept the simple dogma of its clairvoyant deliveries. (And if they pay four annual installments of $39.99.)

The charmingly strange 19th-century Russian philosopher and early transhumanist, Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, imagined that advances in technology would not only allow but necessitate that humans literally transform the profane Earth into a Christian Heaven, complete with resurrections of the dead through science; the Algorithm, far more simply, creates heaven by doing all the thinking and anticipating for people, rendering them happy, zealous zombies—sans resurrection—with well-stocked homes.

To repudiate the packages, as Inez does, is to risk judgment and wrath, as well as the puritanical outrage and genuine confusion of its followers. The latter is because, as the narrators note, they’ve known the Algorithm since birth—or, perhaps more accurately, it’s known them. “We did not understand [Inez’s] resistance to the Algorithm,” they say.

All we knew for sure was that the Algorithm understood us. After all, we’d been inside its system since before we knew how to type—back when our parents first posted photos documenting our infant-bodies, swaddled and squishy in hospital beds. Although we had no proof, we suspected that the Algorithm might have known, even then, the fates that lay before us: not only what items we’d need, but who we would become… From our first uploaded image, the Algorithm had been invested in our futures. It had analyzed the texture of our baby blankets, the micro-musculature on our crying faces, the awkward cradle of our parents’ arms. Then again, perhaps the Algorithm had known us before we even officially existed—extrapolating likely outcomes from our parents’ data points, and our parents’ parents’ data points—a long legacy of information digested and decoded, translated into the deliveries that appeared outside our doors.

The passage is at once charming and alarming, and it is here that Hyde reveals the true extent of the Algorithm’s control and reach. It isn’t new; these narrators have never known a world where it didn’t exist. If Gen-Z’s population is by and large digital natives, the population of “The Future Is a Click Away” consists of Algorithm natives, which may partially explain their naive trust in this unseen artificial intelligence.

It is a world of capitalist and almost Calvinist predestination, a world they have inherited from their ancestors’ ever-increasing desires to document huge swathes of their life online. The sad revelation is that these characters haven’t abdicated control of their lives to the Algorithm, exactly; they simply were raised in its technological church, and unlearning these lessons or living without them, as Inez does, takes tremendous effort, just as it does to leave the community you were raised in.

Still, the Algorithm’s gifts come at costs beyond what you pay per package. Sometimes, Hyde writes, the packages aren’t actually within the receivers’ financial means—but rather than returning them, people go to extremes to pay for them, blindly trusting the Algorithm’s reasoning even if it means bankruptcy. If they start losing sleep over it all, they are sent sleeping pills, and other products to address whatever problems being in the system has engendered; this seems reasonable at first, but it is really just a way for the Algorithm to keep them under its control.

And then there are the darker, stranger gifts. The narrative’s turn comes when a character named Lacy receives three large, inexplicable packages: a scuba suit too big for her, a lifetime supply of mayo despite her not liking the condiment, and a coffin. In a world of Algorithmic destiny, the implication seems clear, if cruel: eat enough mayo to fit into the bigger suit, and then die, perhaps from a heart attack. Lacy and the narrators are bewildered, but they reassure themselves that the Algorithm must not be questioned, that “[i]f Lacy was meant to have these items, then it was only a matter of time before she understood their purpose.” She doesn’t use them, and, in time, the Algorithm begins sending everyone more and more items, until it seems to constantly rain unrequested, enigmatic products.

Then there are the frightening eventual outcomes for those who say no to the Algorithm. When Inez needs some sugar, a box of it appears on her lawn; she refuses it, and because she doesn’t return it within a prescribed period of time, she is arrested. Chillingly, we never see where Inez ends up, or if she’s even still alive—all because she wanted to remain independent, wanted to stay off the proverbial algorithmic grid. Don’t buy into the system, Hyde suggests, and you become a sinner in the hands of an angry digital megacorporate god—a statement that sounds paranoid, silly, overly far-reaching until it isn’t.Fears of jobs being lost to automation aren’t new, but they’ve increased dramatically since this recent rise in A.I.’s visibility.

The story, after all, briefly references “riots [that] broke out in some cities,” which may well be in response to the crushing, financially devastating system of the Algorithm—but rather than the narrators exploring what is going on, they are shielded from the violence by the Algorithm, which sends them “bottles of milk… predicting that tear gas would be carried on the wind and irritate our eyes.” Stay back, look away, the message seems to be, and I shall protect you—the very message of the police in general, at least if they are talking to the wealthier whiter citizens they are more likely to exercise restraint towards.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub