10 June, 2007

The Tin Men

Birthdays are great. People give you things. And if there's one thing I like, it's things. If there's another thing I like, it's ideas. So a thing full of ideas is the perfect gift for me. Something like a book, for example.

Among the haul this year, I got a book I've been vaguely searching for for years and years; The Tin Men by Michael Frayn. This is Michael Frayn's first novel and was published in 1965. As you may know, Frayn is one of my favourite authors. As Wikipedia so dryly puts it, 'His works often raise philosophical questions in a humorous context.' Well what a start he made with this one. I first read it when I was 11 or 12 and it had me in stitches. I couldn't put it down and read it from cover to cover in a single sitting, laughing aloud for most of that time.

For many years now, I've had a hankering to re-read it, curious as to whether I'd still find it funny. One of the reasons I might not is that The Tin Men is set in a computer automation research institution (what we might now call an Artificial Intelligence Lab) and I spent a lot of my own career in AI Labs. So what seemed a fascinating comic premise at the age of 12 might, 40 years on, just seem silly and ill-informed. So I settled down with feelings of excitement and trepidation to re-live my boyhood experience.

Of course, the writing was excellent – even in his first novel – and the fast-paced, farcical plot, was just as much fun as I remembered. Sadly, the book had dated but, strangely, not in relation to artificial intelligence (which is still stumbling about in the same sort of fields as Frayn's hapless researchers) but in the extent to which attitudes and language have changed since the sixties. Thankfully, this didn't detract from the pleasure of reading this great little book again. And, despite being so much older and so much more jaded than I was then, I still laughed out loud in places. Perhaps what I have lost in freshness and naïveté, I have gained in experience and sophistication. I may not have been rolling on the floor but I greatly appreciated the wit and cleverness of the book.

The AI thing was curious though. While I don't know of any real life stories quite like Frayn's ethical robots wrestling together as they each try to throw the other out of a sinking boat (with a crowd of research assistants making bets as they watched) much of what has gone on over the years has been quite silly. Also, I was astonished to find that the newspaper-headline generating program I wrote in the mid 1980s was straight out of The Tin Men. I had thought I was being original, yet must have had Frayn's idea lodged in my subconscious all along. Similarly, there is Douglas Adams' electric monk from the first of the Dirk Gently novels, which was built to believe all the improbable things an over-automated society could no longer make the effort to believe. There it was, also described by Frayn more than twenty years before Adams re-invented it!

Nice to be in such good company.

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