Featuring the author as the main character, Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 is an exploration of the potentials of both artificial intelligence and humans to adapt. The lines defining intelligence and consciousness are challenged and blurred, as are the lines defining the main character’s life.
Essentially, two storylines unfold in this novel. The first is the development of a series of artificially intelligent computers, using bottom-up, connectionist techniques, for the purpose of passing the Master’s Comprehensive Exam, an exam given to those going for Master’s degrees in literature. Each implementation is more capable of adapting and learning than the previous, and culminates in the creation of Implementation H, or Helen. Whether she is conscious, whether she is truly intelligent, as well as what is means to be “truly intelligent”, are questioned again and again. Richard trains each implementation in understanding literature, becoming more and more involved emotionally with each implementation.
The second storyline is the progression of Richard’s relationship from post-college to middle-age with a woman, C., who is an undergrad at the time Richard meets her. They fall in love, live together tumultuously for a while in several different places, and fall out of love.
Upon reading the first several pages (as well as at several times towards the end of the book), I must admit I was reminded of Palahniuk’s writing style. Not so much out of any of Palahniuk’s customary negativity, but rather the tendency to blur the lines between what is stated between characters and what is merely thought by characters. Powers has his own flavor in doing this, of course, and proceeds to confuse the reader royally on the subject of the answers to the questions about Helen and the possibilities of A.I.. With Richard characterized early on as a rather sappy, emotional, English-major type going through a mid-life crisis, and his partner in developing Helen characterized as a hard-core, nerdy, scientific type, it becomes extremely difficult to determine what Powers himself might think about the subjects at hand; how much of Powers is shown in Richard, and how much in the scientific character of Lentz?
The book is a fascinating read, and although I wouldn’t classify it as an emotional rollercoaster, it does make one think.