Set in the year 2000, the slim volume chronicles the email
correspondence of Alice Lu, a frustrated graduate student, and
"Edgar," the artificial intelligence program she's created without quite
knowing how. As Edgar's "mind" develops, he becomes increasingly
reluctant to exist in a subservient position to humans, even after the
government takes an active interest in 'persuading' Edgar to join
their team. The email format allows Teller to pack his concepts into a
highly focused, densely packed story that's part technothriller, part
RH: One of the first things I want to ask you about is the way in
which artificial intelligence combines the two strains of science that
run through your family. You've got 'hard' and 'soft' science running
through your veins.
AT: The 'hard' science side has certainly impacted me for a
number of reasons, such as issues concerning the responsibility of
scientists. I don't think, though, that the writer side of me came from
my dad being a philosopher or my grandfather on my mother's side
being an economist. But the fact that most of my family has been
scientists is probably why I ended up in science, sure.
RH: You grew up in an environment where you were encouraged
to ask deep questions.
AT: On one hand, I had a lot of people in my family who were
very into science and encouraged me to be interested. On the other
hand, when my father was spending time with us, he would talk to
us about philosophy. If my brother and I were willing, and we
happened to be, we'd talk about the mind-body problem, the
transporter room problem, many of which fueled my interest in
questions that are outside the bounds of 'straight' science.
RH: What got you interested in computer science?
AT: I had a series of computers as a kid, and enjoyed working
with them -- not just playing videogames, but writing programs, but
that wasn't the thing that made up my mind. My first year at
Stanford I was taking a computer science course for credit, and the
TA was so energized by what he was doing, so inspired to be in
computer science, that I decided I wanted to feel like that. It pushed
me to take more computer science courses even though I didn't know
much about artificial intelligence before I got to college. There's not
only real science in AI, there's this opportunity for being particularly
creative, for romanticizing the future, that you might not get in, say,
RH: It's interesting that you should say that, because I think that
for our generation, which was the first to have a chance to grow up
with computers almost from the start, computer science is a field
with the same allure that atomic research had for your grandfather
and his contemporaries.
AT: Absolutely. That's why I'm in artificial intelligence. When
I say 'romance,' I mean that the world is wide open. We're just
starting to get an idea of what computers can do. So many
opportunities to discover the kinds of problems computers can tackle
come up every day. It's absolutely fascinating to be in this field.
I don't think, though, that it's the only field that's like that. Genetics
is also a really amazing field in which, despite the amount of money
that we've thrown into it, we've just scratched the surface of what's
going on. Another field is neurology, where we're studying the brain
not at the behavioral level, like psychologists do, or trying to remodel
it, which by some accounts is what artificial intelligence research is
trying to do, but by actually getting inside there and figuring out
how the components work.
RH: Elsewhere, you've described Exegesis as an attempt to
fill a gap in previous 'creation' stories. What is that gap?
AT: In a lot of these stories, the character that isn't human is
being used as a foil for what humanness is. But, through poetic
license and the feeling that the story wouldn't be 'real' otherwise, all
of these stories -- Frankenstein, Pygmalion, HAL, "Flowers for
Algernon," even Jesus Christ -- really don't allow the thing that's
inhuman to be inhuman.
Take Frankenstein's monster. He's a monster in the sense that he's
large and grotesque. But he really is human. What we're seeing is
people's inability to see past superficial details. Pygmalion continues
to treat Galatea like a statue once she's come to life, not as a person,
which is why she leaves him. And that's why Eliza Doolittle leaves
Henry Higgins in Shaw's modern Pygmalion. These are all
interesting stories, and one way of getting at what it is to be human,
but by really allowing the character to be inhuman, you can define
the boundary of humanity by watching a human and non-human try
RH: One of the things I like about this story is Alice's incredulity
that Edgar doesn't behave like a human, because as I read it, I'm
thinking, "Well, what do you expect a computer program to
AT: There's a lot of things he just doesn't get. In the book, the
NSA is trying to socialize Edgar, and he just doesn't have the
equipment to be socialized. It's not just about psychology, you have
to have built-in desires to fit into the world, and he just doesn't have
that. He doesn't understand the difference between truth and fiction.
That's not a misunderstanding, or a missing component, but a result
of his lack of certain senses of perception.
We often assume that an artificial intelligence stuck in a box would
be able to think about the world the way we do. But I feel this
table -- and all philosophical questions aside for a moment, I'm
pretty sure about this table. Edgar has nothing but words. Everything
is just stories to him. He has no absolute basis from which to judge
RH: It feels like, and perhaps it's unconscious on his part, but it
feels like he deals with his capture and interrogation with increasing
dark humor, albeit very deadpan.
AT: There's a very strong pressure for Edgar to learn to
approach the world by the way the world approaches him. Not
'mimics' necessarily. I imagine that the NSA treats him very drily
with their language, and the way that he responds to them becomes
dry in response, although Edgar himself would never recognize or
describe it as humorous.
RH: Did you know from the beginning that you were going to write
in e-mail format?
AT: The first two pages that I wrote were "Hello Alice" and
"Goodbye Alice." I had feelings about the beginning and the end of
the story, although I couldn't tell you then why I had those feelings,
and I tried to figure out a story that would make you have those
feelings. It turned out that the way to do that was by writing it as e-
RH: The technique held my attention by demonstrating how Edgar
comes to learn to use language.
AT: I used e-mail to focus on Edgar's language because it says
so much about how he develops. He really isn't anything more than
what he says and does. The format became a convenient way for me
to show within the confines of fiction some of the ideas I have about
artificial intelligence -- what a computer would learn, what it
People who aren't in artificial intelligence, for example, don't seem to
appreciate how different it is to read about something and to see an
image of something. They think that once you're intelligent, you're
intelligent; as a scientist, I can tell you that it doesn't work like that.
I went to lengths to demonstrate that Edgar would have no idea how
to look at a picture, and because he doesn't get to see anything -- or
to use any of the sensory perceptions we take for granted -- I used
e-mail to make the reader 'see' reality the way Edgar sees it. You're
in his world looking out to what little of Alice you're allowed to
RH: Why is the novel set in the year 2000?
AT: I wanted to invoke the millennial fears society has of
artificial intelligence, and I chose 2000 over 2001 first because that's
when most people will be celebrating the millenium even though it's
not the real changeover date, and second because 2001 is already
firmly associated with Arthur C. Clarke's book.
RH: 2000 is also just far enough in the future that we don't have
to stretch our imaginations too much to envision a whole new
AT: Right, and the format kept me close to the present as well.
That ASCII text format just wouldn't be plausible in twenty years.
But if I'd set the book in 1997, it would be outdated as soon as it
RH: About how long did it take you to write this book?
AT: It took a year to write the rough draft. I had imposed a
one-year deadline on myself to get the rough draft done, an
arrangement with a friend to write our first novels together. But
once I finished, there was a period where I went back to computer
science research. I showed the novel to a few people but I wasn't
really trying to get it published, and then through a series of events
that happened rather quickly, it ended up being accepted for
publication, and I spent a reasonable amount of time during the next
four or five months revising it.
RH: Do you intend to continue writing fiction?
AT: I've always wanted to be a fiction writer, long before I
wanted to be a scientist. I never thought it was plausible, which is
why I didn't pursue it until quite recently. I'm considering
continuing in academia, but it's not at all clear that I'll be a professor
this time next year. I most certainly will write another book at some
point. And there are other things that I might do. I said half-jokingly
to a friend of mine that it would be a good idea to spend five to ten
years becoming proficient in a different field and then writing a
novel about what I found most interesting about that field.
That's not to say that I'm abandoning artificial intelligence, but if it
turned out that my best output from artificial intelligence research is
this book, that wouldn't be so bad.