Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (HarperPerennial, 1995)

In the 1970s a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote a computer program which parodied the questions and responses a nondirective psychotherapist might offer a subject during an initial interview. Thus any user of the computer was drawn out, encouraged to tell their story. So successful was this ruse, according to the program's surprised creator Joseph Weisenbaum, that people often demanded to be permitted to converse with the system in private! This anecdote from the lore of the artificial intelligence world deftly maps the territory covered by Galatea 2.2 -- the space where a human mind interacts with what it perceives (rightly or wrongly) to be its mirror image -- an artificial intelligence.

The fictional protagonist is named Richard Powers, and by using his own name the real-life author implies that the book is somewhat of an autobiographical nature. The character Powers is a writer undergoing something of a personal crisis who finds himself employed at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences, and among people working at the coal-face of research into artificial intelligence. From the traditional arts-versus-science antagonistic banter emerges a wager: to build a computer, an artificial intelligence, capable of passing a university examination in English lit.

On one side of the wager are Powers and brilliant scientist Philip Lentz (the "engineer"), and on the other side, just about everyone else. True to say, Powers' first person narrative relates the theoretical and practical obstacles encountered on the way to building (Lentz) and teaching (Powers) such an instrument of artificial cognition, but such an assessment vastly understates what this novel is about. Intermingled with the narrative are several stories -- that of Powers himself and those of the people in his life, both past and present. Included also is the story of artificial intelligence, its concepts and presumptions, although the amount of science theory never becomes burdensome, and indeed works to distance this book from the genre of one-dimensional extrapolate science fiction/fantasy.

The Richard Powers character is ideally suited to the task, possessing a deep knowledge of literature written in English, combined with the sensitivity of the poet/novelist. Also, as a student, under the influence of a particular teacher and mentor, he gave up a promising career in physics ("measurement") to study and teach literature. Later, he fell in love with one of his female undergraduate students. As a consequence of this affair he gains insights associated with living in a strange land (Holland), of being an alien and having to learn a foreign land's language and idioms. While literature and poetry pervade the book itself, cognition (and its lack) pervade the lives of characters in it -- a researcher invites Powers to dinner and he meets her two children, one mentally handicapped, the other precociously intelligent; Powers meets the wife of his partner Lentz and finds her memory lost to Alzheimer's disease.

The story builds to a climax with the emergence, after months of work, of Implementation H (Helen), an artifice which possesses personality and, Powers argues, consciousness. A relationship develops between Helen and Powers -- after giving her one of the books he wrote (in digital form) he has a sleepless night awaiting her verdict. In the light of this relationship and of Helen's vulnerability (as you might expect she has many childlike qualities), Galatea 2.2 explores human relationships and the power brokerage often inherent in them, the defining power of memory on the personality, and ultimately what it means to be human. This is lot to pack into one novel, but it's all there. Open it and be exhilarated.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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