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More Human Than Human : Is a brain-like computer the result of creation or programming? : GALATEA 2.2, <i> By Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $23; 329 pp.)</i>

Richard Powers’ people are ideas and his ideas are people; and so, right away, he sets himself apart from writers who sketch an engaging intellectual path but don’t find characters to tread it.

“Galatea 2.2" is about a man who programs an artificial intelligence system only to find it is more human than he is. Powers’ characters and ideas are all over the place. Their engagement is whole-hearted, the results are uncertain. Frequently a glittering insight will be thrown up from the dust and the skirmishing, or a shard of human sadness or wicked enjoyment. Other times the ideas submerge just as they are about to crystallize, or characters tire and blur.

At the end the reader may well be unsatisfied, but that is not the same as dissatisfied. It is closer to art to be left unfilled and wanting more than to be sated and wanting less, as tends to happen in our pile-on culture. I finished “Galatea” not totally sure of the destination but with a vivid memory of points along the way.

Galatea was the mythological statue who came to life because the sculptor, Pygmalion, fell in love with her; the result, in some versions, was poor. In Powers’ book, the results are melancholy but instructive. His Pygmalion, who has the same name as the author, as well as his ruminations and some of his biography, learns quite a bit. He ends up with a chastened idea of what it means to be a person, what it means to be a machine, what it means to use a person as a machine and, finally, how art teeters on a perpetual edge between using and being.

The narrator’s story consists of two sections told in alternating passages. One is retrospective; it recounts his life as a critically esteemed but not quite celebrated author, and the disintegration of his 12-year marriage to a woman identified only as C. All this has led to a mid-30s identity crisis. An offer to spend a year as “token humanist” in the scientific research center of a big university seems like a deliverance. The book’s second section, told in the present, relates what happened there and what he learned.

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The retrospective section--it is the weaker one--is substantially autobiographical, though technically a fiction. The present-day section is autobiographical in a different way: It is a speculation about the impasse reached by the author and the character, or the author-as-character. The year with an artificial brain project is a fictional journey that will end up illuminating a real one.

Son of a large-spirited father destroyed by disappointment and drink, Powers (from here on I refer to the character while thinking of the author) drifts. An inspiring English teacher--the evocation is more emotional than effective--moves him toward teaching and writing. He falls in love with C, his student; they live aimlessly in Boston, where he works as a computer programmer, until an old photograph gets him started on his acclaimed first novel. “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance” is the result (as it was for the author).

While Powers is being fulfilled, C wavers between celebrating his fulfillment and contemplating her own emptiness. He tries to come up with solutions. Each time she breaks down they move, ending up with a five-year stay in a rural part of Holland, where C’s parents live. There are some fine passages about a nervy, self-centered young American’s life among the Dutch. He finds them emotionally provident, slow to savor or to dismiss, and a people of the word.

“Things meant what their telling let them. The war, the mines, the backbreak harvest, legendary weather, natural disasters, hardship’s heraldry, comic comeuppance for village villains, names enshrined by their avoidance, five seconds’ silence for the dead: the mind came down to narration or nothing. Each vignette, repeated until shared. Until it became true.”

The marriage collapses; Powers tells us it is because he killed both passion and freedom by trying too hard to take care of C. He does all the telling; C is a figment of his self-regard. It sinks our sympathy--until the story of Powers’ effort to teach literature to an artificial intelligence begins to percolate. We see that his successful and infinitely sad project is precisely a commentary on his life as an artist and a man.

Blocked trying to start a new novel in his gleaming, computerized university office, Power is approached one day by Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist who works on trying to reproduce the human brain by building a series of computerized neural networks. Lentz wants a spectacular demonstration: He enlists Powers to feed his system so much literary information that it will be able to compete with a live subject in taking a master’s exam in English.

The account of their trials, errors and triumphs is fascinating. As Powers works to impart language, then literary knowledge and finally judgment and sensibility, the system keeps breaking down, overwhelmed. Each time, Lentz--a wonderfully acrid and finally astonishing personage--refines it. Even at a relatively sophisticated level, its circuits go under when Powers asks it a question--what do you want to talk about?--that calls for much more than symbol manipulation.

The author has a remarkable ability to find metaphors to illustrate the brain processes, even if some of the writing blurs. Lentz and Powers possess a burning desire that imparts adventure. But it turns out that their desires are different. Lentz’s passion is scientific: He wants to solve a specific problem, complex as it may be. Powers--the husband who wanted to shape his wife, the writer who wants to create characters--begins to believe that Lentz’s circuits are enabling him to create a real person.

Fed literature, and with cognitive and associative circuits progressively refined, the machine asks ever more searching questions. What is her sex? Powers decides it is feminine and baptizes her “Helen.” Where do I come from, she wants to know, and Powers answers ambiguously. When a bomb threat causes the building to be evacuated, Helen--whose physical existence is spread among linked computers all over the campus--contemplates the notion of death. “It could die?” she says calmly. “Extraordinary.”

In the early stages, the machine is clearly no more than that, and a reader’s sympathy may not be much engaged. By the end Helen fascinates and charms us, as well as her programmer. When she finally shuts herself down--having been let in on too big a share, not of the world’s knowledge but of the world’s evil--the farewell message is terse and heartbreaking. Before that, she vastly entertains us. What are the emperor’s new clothes (as in the story) made of? “Threads of ideas.”

The author does not mark the point at which “machine” becomes “human,” nor could we expect him to. He asserts neither, in fact. The body-mind problem remains just that, except that we have been shown it in a different and ingenious light. Powers--author and character--asks how we can distinguish between loving others and using them, between creating a work of art and programming it with our manipulations. Helen is a mirror in which Powers sees, not a way out of the impasse but a kind of deliverance. An impasse is something you don’t get out of, but why try? The impasse is yourself.


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