Initial Impressions: Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

"A curling meditation on thought, memory, and language"

Galatea 2.2 is an intimate fiction about a writer’s experience training an AI on literature and classics, with vignettes of a past lover woven in. It explores themes of the human condition, loneliness, love, the nature of artificial intelligence, the relationship between humans and machines, the relationships between humans and their past, memory, and meaning.

I was compelled to read Galatea 2.2 based on a cast from Shawn (@payperclypse) in the Warpcast Books channel:

"If you want to think deeper about AI, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers is a curling meditation on thought, memory, and language."

My burgeoning AI exploration, love for fiction, and deep-thinking disposition made me particularly primed to give Galatea 2.2 a go. And I'm glad I did. As Shawn aptly alludes to, Powers' meditation on AI strikes chords whose tones resonate on contemplative, introspective fibers woven into the foundational fabric of the human experience.

If I take away only one thing from this book, it's that humans (especially those of a creative bent) are, in a way, sense-making machines who perceive and shape their environments based on lived experiences and an innate drive to find and construct meaning. Technology is one expression of this drive and the ways in which it manifests are imbued with projections of the inherited and dynamic value systems that live in the individual and collective alike, both consciously and subconsciously.

Listening to Galatea 2.2 and the protagonist's experience training Helen (the AI) surfaced questions about my relationship to technology and the AI rabbit hole I find myself in:

  • What's driving my AI fascination and exploration? Innate curiosity and tinkering proclivities? A sense of urgency to harness this technology and use it to express my values? Fear of "falling behind"?

  • What are the biases and value systems baked into the AIs that I'm interacting with? To what extent are these permeating my subconscious and shaping my world perceptions?

  • How is my own existential loneliness (what Viktor Frankl calls the existential vacuum) influencing my desire to learn and build this tech?

  • In 30 years, when I reflect on the role AI played in my life, will I feel it was an enriching one? Will I feel at peace how I used it to shape the world around me? That it was good and valuable?

I'm reminded of a quote from Nest Founder Tony Faddell as he reflected on the "self-absorbing" Silicon Valley cultural values baked into the product's design:

“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?”

I find Faddell's anecdote to be a salient one that points to a deep and important questions around the ways in which technology acts as a memetic filter that influences the spread of cultural ideas and values. Such a view is especially important in an AI age where lines between what is human and what is machine are increasingly blurred.

In this respect, Galetea 2.2 sparked a moment of reckoning for me to face these questions with curiosity, compassion, and a sense of responsibility as I dive deeper into the AI rabbit hole.


Miscellaneous Notes

  • I listened to the Audible version of Galatea 2.2, narrated by David Aaron Baker

  • Galatea 2.2 is a contemporary take on Pygmalion, a Greek myth in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he created.

  • Galatea 2.2 gave me similar, less dystopic vibes to the film Ex Machina and the short story The Veldt by Ray Bradbury.

    • Fun fact: Bradbury's short story inspired the deadmau5 feat. Chris James song with the same name.

    • Also fun fact: Chris James sent the song's lyrics real-time during a deadmau5 live stream in 2012. Pretty cool.

Book Details

  • Name: Galatea 2.2

  • Author: Richard Powers

  • Pages: 329

  • First published: January 1, 1995

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