Creating a Virtual Frankenstein

Astro Teller's techno-thriller is a fable for the age of e-mail.

January/February 1998

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Creating a Virtual Frankenstein

Photo: Chris Kasabach/Courtesy Vintage Contemporaries

It all begins on January 16, 2000, with an innocuous e-mail.

"Hello, Alice."

It ends four months later -- after the National Security Agency and the FBI get involved -- with a tragic, "Goodbye, Alice."

Astro Teller's first novel, Exegesis (Vintage Contemporaries, 1997; $11), is set both at Stanford and in cyberspace. One of the two main characters, Alice Lu, is a graduate student in computer science who lives on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto and hangs out at Gordon Biersch, a trendy downtown brewery. The other is a computer program she created named Edgar, short for Eager Discovery Gather and Retrieval.

The story of Edgar and Alice is told almost exclusively in computer messages between them -- from edgar@cyprus.stanford.edu to alice@cs.stanford.edu.

It's a fable for the e-mail age, a technological updating of the Frankenstein or Pygmalion tales that hinge on the relationship between creators and their creations.

Teller, '92, MS '93, says he followed the classic advice: Write about what you know. As a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, one of the leading centers on artificial intelligence, Teller knows computers and their potential. In the overcrowded cinder-block office he shares with three other graduate students, he works on programs designed to solve problems as deceptively simple as recognizing differences between a hat and a shoe. "The goal is to get computers to do the complicated visual processing that humans do without even thinking about it," he says. "It's a process that's not well understood, as much an art as a science."

Despite his background as a techie (he recently published an article called "Program Evolution for Data Mining" in the International Journal of Expert Systems), Teller is a "play-reading junkie" who admires the screenplays of Quentin Tarantino and hopes to make movies himself someday. In fact, on his website, which includes book and film recommendations, he defines artificial intelligence as "the science of how to get machines to do the things they do in the movies." Brimming with energy, he implores a visitor: "Please slow me down. I get so excited about my work."

It was that excitement that led him to try fiction. An inexperienced writer, he admits he was more interested in dialogue than description. His editor had to gently advise him that the reader needed some background information about Alice, the ambitious and vulnerable graduate student who unleashes Edgar.

But Teller needed no guidance on the plot, which mixes religion and technology in a fast-paced narrative. "I'd sell my soul," Alice e-mails Edgar at one point, "if there were any buyers." Edgar replies: "Can I buy a soul? What is the market price for a soul? Is your soul in mint condition?" By the end of the novel, the FBI is pursuing Alice and Edgar, whose hunger for information leads it to infiltrate top-secret government computers.

Published last fall, the book was praised as a "techno thriller thankfully written with heart" by the St. Petersburg Times. But the San Jose Mercury News found Alice "melodramatic" and Edgar "a rather dull stylist, tending toward Latinate prolixity in an effort to sound smart."

The novel's title (pronounced ek'suh-JEE'sis) means the critical examination of a text. This is what Edgar, a disembodied computer with no sensory perception, does. "He has to take texts and interpret them," says Teller. "It's all he gets." Students of mythology may notice that the "cyprus" in Edgar's e-mail address is the island where Pygmalion was king.

Teller, 26, even suggests that the novel can be read as an allegory for the second coming of Christ. (Exegesis, he notes, sounds like "Exit Jesus.") He argues that the story of Mary and Jesus can be read as a tale of artificial intelligence if you see artificial intelligence as "creating things that are like us in some respects but not in others."

Teller grew up in the world of ideas. His father is a philosopher of science at the University of California-Davis. His mother is a hypnotherapist. (They named him Eric; he adopted Astro after soccer teammates joked about his astroturflike buzzcut, a style he abandoned long ago.) His mother's father, Gerard Debreu, won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1983. And his father's father, former Hoover Institution fellow Edward Teller, is best-known as the brains behind the hydrogen bomb.

Astro credits Edward Teller with giving him guidance on an issue that is central to the novel: the duty a scientist has to his invention. "To say that someone who invents a piece of technology is responsible for all future uses is ridiculous. It doesn't have to be that binary." He thinks of it as a parent-child relationship, with the parent's responsibility dwindling as the child grows up. "In science, your responsibility is to educate the world about what this thing is and how it can be interacted with responsibly."

Alice, he notes, fails at just that task.

Bob Minzesheimer, a 1993-94 Knight journalism fellow, is a New York-based book critic for USA Today.

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