Data usage creates problems for administrators at all levels. The very nature of data means that the interaction between the user and the machine creates metadata that can lead to complicated problems. That said, the synthesis of facts can also lead to productive conclusions; sharing opinions can help people bond. Likewise, since memories and emotions can be converted into a form of data, even if gathered in a distorted state, even the ineffable can be recorded. In this world, data inequalities might occur between individuals, who routinely hide things from one another; but how much more unequal will these relationships become, and what new problems or challenges will be generated, when artificial intelligence is also introduced to the data equation?
Vee Tat Lam’s Anti-Life channels these issues and more. The novel builds its first instalment of a cyberpunk mystery around a city that takes constant data collection and archiving for granted. In Port Desha, humans and AIs dwell together, both physically and virtually, policed by the city’s Truth Bureau—whose scheming head, Chief Sim, has to pause his political machinations in order to catch a serial killer.
Data broker Claire finds herself and her business partner, Adrian Case, a private detective, thrown into Sim’s investigation when the serial killer targets Adrian’s comatose daughter. The murders—it will become clear they are being covered up by the very same chief of police—lead Adrian and Claire to face grim discoveries about the ramifications of the data humans leave behind, and the monsters created in the wake of human-machine interface. In the face of these realities, however, they find an optimistic sort of equilibrium that could either benefit their city or leave it vulnerable to corruption.
The relationship between human and machine could be trusting, of course—except when the AIs involved do not act like machines, but rather evolve towards making human decisions. Port Desha’s advanced AIs increasingly take on human-like personalities and decision-making capabilities, including the ability to lie or keep some associations clandestine. These hidden relationships prove fatal to Port Desha’s citizens. Initially, neither Adrian, Claire nor Chief Sim realize that the Bureau’s own memory-wipe technology serves as a common denominator for all the victims. Adrian’s daughter, Elizabeth, belongs to a group of AIs and humans who helped develop the Truth Bureau’s memory wipe tech. One of these AIs, Ken42, conducts a third investigation into the murders that eventually converges with both Sim’s and Adrian and Claire’s. Ken42 recognizes one of the victims on a rare leaked news report before the Truth Bureau can scrub it. While Ken42 doesn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, she recognizes that the killer’s physical appearance and methods resemble a robot from a web comic that had been published on the dark web. The comic was popular with Elizabeth’s friends, with whom Ken42 had lost touch, but as Ken42 searches for them and finds each one already murdered, she comes to believe that she could have saved them, had she paid more attention.
Ken42’s guilt is touching and humane. However, her negligence comes from the negative associations she had developed around her former friends. She, though a machine, developed a biased dislike of her former friends that left her under-informed about the circumstances of the murders. When the machines are robots running humanoid artificial intelligences—and are therefore more like people—these relationships generate memories and can be as lopsided as those between humans. Claire, whose actual job is providing digitally-born data to paying customers, spends a lot of time on the Internet in virtual reality interacting with AIs, and sometimes uses an AI for physical sexual pleasure. She views her dalliances with bots to be a grown woman’s decision to enjoy adult entertainment. However, one AI, the delightfully awkward MAIze, seems to get attached to her, even though Claire cannot clearly understand the way he signals his emotions. To Claire, MAIze appears to be just an object. However, MAIze views himself as one of a generation of up-and-coming robot entertainers known as AIdols. He performs on a kind of reality show where bots challenge each other to duels, which are in turn enjoyed by countless viewers over the Internet.
Claire assumes MAIze's career to be a specific program that takes up most of his mental capacity, but he nurses his crush on Claire simultaneously with numerous other tasks, hiding any signals that she might pick up on. MAIze has no chance with Claire because his brain processes information so much more quickly and differently than hers. However, this mutually misunderstood relationship still generates intimacy, if not the expected kind: Claire merely enjoys her experience, while MAIze begins studying Claire’s personality and tastes, including her love for cowboy films. Of course, MAIze learns about Claire’s tastes from snooping in logs of her Internet activity. This becomes especially complicated because Claire shares her Western interest with few people in the real world. To the androids, she has a well-documented cache of American Western-related searches; her human partner Adrian, meanwhile, knows nothing about her taste in movies.
Claire’s search-history data functions in the same way for a robot as details function in a human memory: it provides pieces of information that add up to a whole puzzle. As detectives, Adrian and Claire’s work involves synthesizing an idea of what happened in the past, often based on human bits of data given by clients and informants; in stark opposition, while the Truth Bureau does employ investigators, it uses memory-wipe technology to cover up crimes after the end of a case—and creates a deliberately false patina of lawfulness. After the Bureau’s officials erase a human memory, they scrub the data from machines, and merely tell the human that the crime never occurred. This method of gas-lighting, rather than policing, not only hides information from the general public—it also creates a rift in the internal politics of the Truth Bureau itself. Chief Sim constantly outmanoeuvres opponents just as corrupt as himself, who want to pressure him to do their bidding, but this cut-throat atmosphere means he must surround himself with sycophantic, incompetent officers. Their dishonest relationships, though legal, highlight the honesty involved in the relationships Adrian and Claire have with their own clients—despite them often involving legal gray areas.
Nevertheless, there are gaps in all human relationships where information is withheld, and machines can fill them with inference—or with harder data from another source. Humans use art for this purpose, of course—and, as the AIs become more human, they, too, develop a taste for creation. The digitally-born comic that proves so deadly expresses a kind of fear for the exact sort of obfuscating future that the Truth Bureau projects. The plot of the comic involves a dystopian city full of robots that is allegedly protected by a warrior who kills those who come looking for it; after surviving an attack from the killer, Ken42 reports to Adrian that his assailant seemed to be a robot that shares the appearance of this warrior from the web comic. The resemblance to the comic, and the authorities’ more general suppression of information, appear to have inspired the murderer—a neat perversion of the comic’s original message about bringing humans and AIs closer together. However, when Adrian, Ken42, and Claire shut the serial killer robot down before it gets to Elizabeth, and MAIze nobly sacrifices himself to save Claire during the events of the arrest, the survivors are left without a suspect or a means of understanding their motive. This cliffhanger assures a sequel, yet still wraps the mystery in a tidy loop—in which humans and AI struggle under an unequal relationship, realize the gaps in their knowledge of each other, assess the damage, and remove a problem by working together.
This cycle, though intricate, can easily be reflected in the mirror of the Truth Bureau’s scheming leader, Chief Sim. After MAIze’s death, one of the Aldol’s fans expresses dismay that he can’t entertain her any more; similarly, Chief Sim begins his day by listening to long-dead classic composers. Chief Sim, though concerned about the safety of a city that he needs to give him power, creates his own monster with the crisis. He cannot trust his subordinates or his colleagues, and frequently reads between the political lines to gather data. He uses informants within the bureaucracy to force department heads, and eventually the mayor, to do his will. He then refuses to cooperate with anyone, unless they can serve him. This concern with gaming the system actually prevents him from stopping the killer, because he refuses to prioritize that effort. And yet, after the killer’s dispatch, Chief Sim enjoys a position of greater power than he did before. That he chose a similar path—one that, without luck, would have ended in a nearly opposite result—could be viewed as incompetence were he an earnest official, but since his corruption stems from his love of authority, ultimately his position indicates a state dominated by a purposeful lack of data—Chief Sim thrives in an information vacuum.
Where this exciting series should go next remains to be seen, but, without an antagonizing killer, Adrian and Claire have little to keep them from slipping back into a habit where they view machines as tools. The thorny puzzle of the human-machine relationship inspires some mind-bending inquiries in this novel, but—even though the chief and the detectives end up completely opposed to one another—the intrigue involved keeps the reader turning pages. The most rewarding outcome of the sequel will definitely be to see how humans and machines further build a harmonious city together when its alleged protector turns on them.