Why Sci-Fi Legend Ted Chiang Fears Capitalism, Not A.I.

03.30.2021 - By The Ezra Klein Show

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For years, I’ve kept a list of dream guests for this show. And as long as that list has existed, Ted Chiang has been atop it.

Chiang is a science fiction writer. But that undersells him. He has released two short story collections over 20 years — 2002’s “Stories of Your Life and Others” and 2019’s “Exhalation.” Those stories have won more awards than I can list, and one of them was turned into the film “Arrival.” They are remarkable pieces of work: Each is built around a profound scientific, philosophical or religious idea, and then the story or the story structure is shaped to represent that idea. They are wonders of precision and craft. But unlike a lot of science fiction, they are never cold. Chiang’s work is deeply, irrepressibly humane.

I’ve always wondered about the mind that would create Chiang’s stories. And in this conversation I got to watch it in action. Chiang doesn’t like to talk about himself. But he does like to talk about ideas. And so we do: We discuss the difference between magic and technology, why superheroes fight crime but ignore injustice, what it would do to the human psyche if we knew the future is fixed, whether free will exists, whether we’d want to know the exact date of our deaths, why Chiang fears what humans will do to artificial intelligence more than what A.I. will do to humans, the way capitalism turns people against technology, and much more.

The ideas Chiang offered in this conversation are still ringing in my head, and changing the way I see the world. It’s worth taking your time with this one.

Recommendations:

Creation by Steve Grand
"On the Measure of Intelligence" by Francois Chollet
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise
On Fragile Waves by Lily Yu
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Control (video game)
Return of the Obra Dinn (video game)

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of "The Ezra Klein Show" at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein.

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