Sci-fi writer experiments with the effects of AI

Yao Minji
Chen Qiufan discusses futuristic technology across a number of subjects, from coffee and tea to electronic waste to the effects of algorithms and AI.
Yao Minji

Tea or coffee?

This routine question carries more weight for sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan, a native of Chaoshan, southern Guangdong Province, who is now based in Shanghai.

Chaoshan, in east of Guangdong Province, and its residents are well noted for keeping with many centuries-old traditions, including the intricate tea etiquette.

Chen's debut novel "Waste Tide," translated into English by Ken Liu, was set in Chaoshan, on a fictional island that processes electronic waste recycling. Chinese myths and traditions, as well as future tech, are intertwined in the cautionary tale.

Chen, a Peking University graduate, has worked for many tech companies, including Google and Baidu, based mostly in Beijing or Shanghai. It wasn't until "Waste Tide" that many realized that one of China's sci-fi rising stars is from the area most famous for its cuisines and traditions.

"When I go back home to Chaoshan, I rarely drink coffee. Everyone there has tea sets at home, and of course, the same is true for my grandparents," Chen said.

"Then in Shanghai, there are so many coffee shops where you meet friends, hold book events or just go for the coffee. Like many young Chinese, coffee is also a must for me, but yet I also keep a full tea set in my office."

It was in between his traditional Chaoshan tea etiquette and the large modern selection of coffee in Shanghai that Chen finished "AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future," a combination of scientific analysis and predictions and fiction.

Co-written with Kai-Fu Lee, a guru of artificial intelligence and former head of Google in China, Chen was in charge of the fiction part, turning Lee's visions into 10 alarming tales across the global landscape. They include an Indian teenager's fight against a discriminatory algorithm, a German scientist's evil quest for a "slaughter bot," a smart toilet that analyzes human excrement or food recommendations based on purchase records and risk preference.

"AI 2041" has been selected as sci-fi or AI book of the year by various media including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

"It was a very intriguing first for me and for readers, too, I hope," Chen said. "As a sci-fi writer, I usually let my imagination run wild based on my research, and this time, the research comes from those working with the most advanced, updated and cutting-edge AI technologies and visions."

The sci-fi writer is no stranger to artificial intelligence. In 2018, he had already tried co-writing with AI. It was included in Chen's collection of short stories "Algorithm for Life."

The program was trained on all of Chen's past writings with predictive keyboards imitating his use of words and combinations. Chen gave it some keywords and let the algorithm run free for a few paragraphs before he realized it made no sense or didn't have a cohesive plot.

"It was more like essays instead of storytelling. It can't produce a cohesive plot," he said as he explained how he began with the paragraphs generated by AI and imagined from there.

The AI part comprised about 10 percent of the story, but intriguingly, it was selected as the best Chinese short story of 2018, followed in second by Nobel laureate Mo Yan. The ranking, organized by a Shanghai literary magazine, experimented with AI for the list's selection.

Did AI recognize its only peer, even though the AI wrote just 10 percent of the story?

Creative writing using algorithms has further developed since Chen tried it in 2018. Last year, he joined 10 other Chinese sci-fi writers in a writing experiment with a new AI writing program to create science fiction.

When Chen tried the new algorithm, it wrote the following sentence: "Einstein from Beijing told us it was once a black hole, a black hole still in operation ..."

Chen's vision for AI has also expanded far beyond creative writing.

"'AI 2041' is basically us imagining in 2021 what AI will look like 20 years later," he explained. "Twenty years in the future, we will collaborate and coexist with robots on multiple levels. You can see such experiments today in China, where there are quite a lot of test zones where artificial intelligence co-manages a place."

He added: "Isn't it intriguing to have AI in our daily life, from tailor-making your favorite coffee to planning your career? That brings convenience and efficiency, but it also comes with risks of data leaks, discriminatory algorithms and information bubbles, among others. Solving such challenges requires more than just tech companies."

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