By Cass Hunter
Trapeze, Hachette Book Group, 2018
For a creeped-out experience, imagine this: Your wife dies and you and your daughter are devastated. Then your brilliant computer-scientist wife’s work partner comes to the funeral with an instruction – come to the lab immediately. When you arrive, you are confronted with a life-like robot who is the spitting image of your dead wife, Rachel. “She” is called i Rachel, and she is programmed to come home and live with the family.
This story captivated me on so many levels. First it is a very contemporary story about artificial intelligence. That robots will be built to resemble humans and will carry out many of the tasks we take for granted is not a matter of if, but when. That they will not be able to empathize, though scientists may do their best to make that happen, is also likely. At least in the near future.
In The New York Times on Friday October 19, a computer engineer, Yves Behar, is quoted as saying “we should imagine how A.I. can be both smart and compassionate, a combination that can solve the most important human problems…We should be thinking about A.I. in new contexts – the newborn of the overworked parent, the cancer patient who needs round-the-clock attention, and the child with learning and behavioral difficulties. A.I holds great promise for them.”
What? A baby needs human attention, as has been shown over and over again in neo-natal ICUs. A child’s learning experience can be warped by technology, as any parent knows. As for the cancer patient, that horse is already out of the barn; technology may save life for a time, but patients have repeatedly pleaded for more human interaction from their doctors. So, A.I. is not just science fiction. It is already upon us.
Cass Hunter, though, is not writing science fiction. Or not just science fiction. As if to prove her point about i Rachel, her human characters demonstrate the full gamut of emotion. We really feel the grief of Aidan, the husband, and Chloe, the daughter, of the real Rachel. Minor characters are fleshed out and have idiosyncrasies that make them believable. Ms. Hunter has such an ability to get inside her character’s point of view that we actually feel what it would be like to experience a catastrophic aneurysm. That fatal incident sets the story in motion. It is also a brilliant authorial choice. By getting inside the real Rachel’s head at the beginning of the story we empathize with her and can understand (sort of) why, anticipating her untimely death, she tried to “help” her family cope with her absence. But people are never replaceable.
This is a brilliant piece of work, well written and thought provoking. Artificial intelligence: is it a boon or a horror story?
What do you think?