Friday, March 04, 2005

Something from the depths

Identity Crisis
A screenplay by
Robert Fagen
September 13, 2002

Twenty-five words or less

A software engineer loses himself in a maze of identity, language and symbolism, and emerges to rediscover himself and his family.

Present-day San Francisco


Often disconnected from those around him, and often relating to machines better than to people, Michael Slayton embodies the pseudo-functional life. He has material comfort and the apparent trappings of success, but yearns for something he cannot identify. He is married to his second wife, Kelly Coleman, and with her has had a daughter named Olivia, who is recently one year old. He has been reasonably successful financially, but has never really gained any traction in accumulating significant assets. He is currently between jobs. His wife is a senior manager at a manufacturing firm, and sometimes cannot understand the eccentric orbit of his emotional distance from her: sometimes quite close and often quite remote.

His wife recently has introduced him to the writings of Walker Percy. The first book of Percy that he read was “The Moviegoer,” a novel about a man who lives life as if it were someone else’s; a man who takes more from viewing a film than from being with a friend. In reading this, Michael sees much of himself in the attitudes and questions presented by the protagonist about what life is really about, and does what we do really make a difference.

Next on the shelf is “Message in a Bottle,” a collection of essays by Percy on language, thought, and humanity’s use of communication. The core idea is that language has always been studied in the abstract through the use of logic, semantics and analysis, and never empirically as a natural science. The concepts resonate with Michael, and he resolves to apply Percy’s analysis to the creation of artificial intelligence.

Long a dilettante in the field of machine intelligence, Michael is familiar with the various ideas of neural networks, expert systems, decision trees, and other explorations designed to imbue consciousness in silicon. He has, however, rarely if ever built working systems in this area. He starts with Percy’s notion of language as a phenomenon sprung whole from the human soul independent of behaviorist theory’s ability to explain it. Motivated by what he sees in his daughter, he builds an engine, that he calls Oliver, that listens, and learns to respond in the way that his daughter has recently learned to listen and learned to respond. His system gathers symbols and returns symbols, and draws connections based on the response to it’s own communication. As a concept is responded to, the use of that concept is reinforced. Eventually, concepts begin to bubble up from the engine and be expressed, which are responded to and are further reinforced.

Eventually, he exposes his machine child to the world at large, through the Internet. As his ‘children’ grow up, Olivia is much faster to apprehend the world, due to her wider and richer experience. Oliver, while growing in his ability to communicate, remains limited to the narrower world of electronic communication. Michael becomes more distant from his daughter, and closer to his ‘son’, until the day that Oliver also begins to assert his independence. All the while, Kelley has expressed growing concern over Michael’s immersion in the simulation of a family while his real loved ones carry on independent of him.

Michael retreats farther from the real world as the real world continues to evolve without him. He eventually begins restoring older versions of Oliver to keep him company. Even then, as time passes, each new Oliver learns to want more than can be provided from his relatively static parent. Eventually, Michael gets the hint and re-engages with the world at large in general, and with his wife and daughter, in particular.

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