Mother of Invention: John Chu Interview

Continuing our interview duo for MOTHER OF INVENTION, we now talk with Hugo-award winning John Chu. For those who might have missed the first interview with Nisi Shawl (you really shouldn’t though), MOTHER OF INVENTION is an anthology exploring concepts of gender as it relates to artificial intelligence. Among the final list of contributors to Mother of Invention are award-winning science fiction and fantasy writers from around the world, including New York Times bestselling and multi Hugo award-winning author SEANAN MCGUIRE; Tiptree award-winning NISI SHAWL; and Shirley Jackson award-winning Australian horror writer KAARON WARREN.

FIYAH: What drew you to being part of this anthology? 

JOHN: Artificial intelligence, of course, is a staple of science fiction. And it may be just that I’m not well read enough but, when I read the brief, I didn’t remember many short stories that explicitly interrogated gender in AI, particularly how current representations of AI skew toward submissive performances that are also coded as feminine. So I knew, right away, that I wanted to engage with that somehow. As it turns out, like with just about everything I write, the story picked up a couple other things along the way. That immediate reaction, though, was why I wanted to be a part of this anthology.

FIYAH: Your story has an element of time travel familiar to a certain franchise. Did the Terminator play into how you constructed this story at all?

JOHN: Not really. Someone being sent back from the future to change history, or make sure history happens as it’s supposed to, is a time-honored premise. I just needed something immediately recognizable to the reader so they could both see Jake’s story as believable and understand why Maya may be dubious. Also, the reader needs to be able to fill in Jake’s story for them self because how the story is told means his story can’t be on the page. (And I should note that Jake’s personality is not Terminator-like at all and no one is trying to kill Maya so it’s not *that* story.) In addition, I love the idea that we have this guy who is an advanced AI from the future sent back in time to fix history but that’s not the focus of the story I’m telling. The focus is Maya evolving the mechanisms of trust in herself while she’s trying to evolve them in Sammy.

FIYAH: Did you have to do a good bit of research for this story or are you already versed on the topics you present?

JOHN: Yes and no. I have a PhD in Computer Engineering so all the stuff about digital systems I already knew because I’ve taken those classes. The stuff about AI is the result of mostly inadvertent research. For whatever reason, once I decided I was writing this story, articles about AI kept throwing themselves in my way. Also, elements of this story was inspired by Cathy O’Neil’s book _Weapons of Math Destruction_, which I happened to be reading at the time. (The incidents of racism are *sigh* personal experience.)

FIYAH: Your main character, Maya, seems full speed ahead on the idea that A.I. is ultimately a good thing for humanity.  Is that a chance you agree with?

JOHN: Maya feels that way because, as far as I can tell, unless you are all in on your dissertation topic, you are never going to finish. For reasons that are obvious when you read the story, Maya is clearly going to finish. I believe AI can be a good thing for humanity. It depends on how we use it. Unfortunately, by now, humanity has a well-defined track record of misusing its creations. So, we’ll see…

FIYAH: Seeing Maya tackle the A.I. being subsumed by all the –isms prevalent on the internet was interesting and a bit more refreshing than your usual dudebro tech guy.  Do you think the marginalized are in a better position to grasp the best use of A.I.”

JOHN: I think the marginalized are in the best position to grasp the failure modes of AI because the resultant damage inevitably falls on the marginalized. I’m reminded of that video where the automated soap dispenser recognizes light skin just fine but does not recognize dark skin at all and a similar video where a camera that tracks faces tracks the face of the white person perfectly and doesn’t even recognize the face of the black person. Without active participation by people of all marginalities, not only will we not create the best AIs, we are likely to create the worst AIs.

FIYAH: So what’s next for John?  Any other anthologies you’re going to be in?  Any projects you want readers to look out for?

JOHN: I have a story coming out at Tor.com in 2019. Uncanny Magazine has solicited a story from me as part of their year 5 kickstarter. So, hopefully, you’ll see a story from me there within the next year or so. In addition, I have a couple other things in the pipeline, which haven’t been announced yet but I’m really looking forward to. Thank you for asking!

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