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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard


I cannot stop thinking about a short story/novelette that I read earlier this week, Understand by Ted Chiang.

The week before last I was on a long walk and needed a podcast. I dropped into the recent episodes of the ever reliable Ezra Klein Show to see what what dope new interviews with deeply interesting people happened to be available, and came across this one with Ted Chiang, the much lauded sci-fi author who I'd not only never read but had never even heard of. My bad there because I've found his work to pretty incredible in the time since (he wrote the short story that 2016 Hollywood movie Arrival is based on btw). The interview covered how far away humans are from developing AI, what outr inital iterations of it might look like, how bad we're likely to treat sentient artificial intelligence if we ever do develop it (based on our less than compassionate treatment of animals), how actual superheroes would almost have to be tyrants, and why our fears of AI takeover are actually rooted in our fears of capitalism. It was a great conversation in its own right and I absolutely recommend checking it out. No prior knowledge of Chiang's work is necessary but you'll probably be intrigued. I for one made an immediate detour on that very walk to head to a bookstore and picked up his 2002 short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others. I'm not finished it with it yet but it's batting a thousand so far and like I said one piece in the collection has already blown my mind.

I won't link to the Wikipedia page for Understand here because if you're interested in it I wouldn't want you to know much about it at all before reading it. Instead if you're inclined just enjoy the discovery. But to give an extremely basic overview it calls to mind both Flowers For Algernon and Limitless in that it's a story about a man who through experimental medical intervention suddenly develops super intelligence making him more or less the smartest person on the planet. The government wants him as a lab rat, he doesn't want that, conflict ensues.

The story is told entirely in his mind and what the writing does so well (aside from teasing out the realistic implications of what would happen if you suddenly became so smart as to regard the thought of Aristotle and Einstein as limited and juvenile) is to change subtly in style as the character's mental capability starts to outstrip the limits of the human, becoming more compact, making greater/ faster leaps between ideas, and giving you a very real sense of just how far and fast he's evolving.

It's hard to describe but the story is interesting as all hell and the writing is perfect for it, and I've been thinking about it every day and this was like the 2nd story in the book so I'm pretty damned excited about what's next.

I haven't been able to find copy of the story in print online, but def grab the book if you're interested. Alternatively there's a dramatic audiobook style reading of it available in four parts here which I think will work just as well (especially since the story consists entirely of one person's thoughts).

Of course, I actually experience for fewer emotions that I could; my development is limited by the intelligence of those around me, and the scant intercourse I permit myself with them. I'm reminded of the Confucian concept of ren: inadequately conveyed by ""benevolence," that quality which is quintessentially human, which can only be cultivated to interaction with others, and which a solitary person cannot manifest. It's one of many such qualities. And here am I, with people, people everywhere, yet not a one to interact with. I'm only a fraction of what a complete individual with my intelligence could be. I don't delude myself with either self-pity or conceit: I can evaluate my own psychological state with the utmost objectivity and consistency. I know precisely which emotional resources I have and which I lack, and how much value I place on each. I have no regrets.

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