The system doesn’t care. This is a lesson some of us learn sooner than others—and a few don’t ever have to learn it at all. In this timely novelette, Ai Jiang looks down the uncaring maw of capitalism in the form of the exploitation of workers “competing” with artificial intelligence. I AM AI rides the echoes of cyberpunk decades past into a future that is not far off, in many ways, from our distinctly dystopian present. I received an eARC from the author in exchange for a review.
The eponymous Ai lives ten minutes into the future (though some exposition in the story might place it about a thousand years hence). Her city exists under the monopolistic thumb of a megacorp, and she ekes out a living posing as an AI writing program. She is also a cyborg. Her enhancements allow her to interface more efficiently with the terminals at the cyber cafe where she fulfills her commissions; she can also power the entire block of housing units where she lives with her aunt. But Ai’s battery is faulty and needs an upgrade that means replacing her entire heart. And money is, as ever, tight.
Jiang uses Ai’s battery level as a ticking clock to keep the tension high. This combines with the shorter novella form to create a pressure cooker of a plot. As her battery ticks down closer and closer to zero, Ai rushes—to work, to her mechanic, away from the aunt who is so obsessed with plugging her alarm clock into Ai. Her distress might be manifesting in science fictional ways, yet it will feel familiar to many readers: it is the palpable sensation of slipping further down the slope into abject destitution. Ai is desperate, and desperate people do things they might later regret.
Her obsession with dismantling her humanity makes sense when you look at what she is up against. She is posing as an AI and competes against actual AI writing companies because her scripts turn out better (no shit). Nevertheless, she can’t beat the speed of these other companies, and it turns out she can’t compete on price either. These pressures mean Ai must make the age-old choice between quality and alacrity. Capitalism moves hand in hand with enshittification: you can’t get it good, but you can get it fast, and you can get it cheap, so isn’t that better?
Despite being a shorter work, I AM AI casts a sprawling network of tendrils back through science fiction and history. Its most obvious antecedents to me are classic cyberpunk, from which a lot of our ideas of dystopian cyborgs originated. Ai would be right at home in Chiba City with Case from Neuromancer. But Jiang’s writing also looks at the history of labour and the precariousness of the working class. Ai’s steps away from humanity, her drumbeat decisions to replace more and more of herself with machinery, are born from good intentions—the road to hell and all that. She needs to earn more money to live, not just for herself, but for her family and friends. This reminds me of the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, solidifying now in the gig economy and the sprawling human labour forces around the world, of workers leaving their families to put in lengthy days only to send money home so their families could live. In the stories that spiral throughout human history, those in power always find a way to create coercive structures that make the working class feel like they have “no choice” but to do what is most expedient, to take on the labour that will earn them the most money in the last time, even if it is ultimately dehumanizing and destructive.
I felt uncomfortable reading this book. I didn’t want to like it, for I was uncomfortable with how comfortable Ai seemed to be with her decisions. I love when science fiction does that! But as I sat with it, read over Jiang’s careful monologues from Ai and read in between the lines of dialogue between her and those close to her, I shifted my perspective. I started to see Ai’s cybernetic nature as a metaphor for what we are doing with digital tech, if not in our own bodies than in the extensions we put in our pockets and increasingly invite into our homes. How many of us answer emails late at night, pick up calls from work after hours, constantly check our phones and say, “Just one more task, just one more thing … well I really need to do this or else it will look bad at my next review….” Whether or not we ever reach the level of integration Ai experiences in this book, the ideology that drives such integration exists here and now. That is the chilling mirror I AM AI holds up to our reality.
What we are currently calling artificial intelligence is overhyped, of course. Yet it still poses a threat to creative endeavours, such as writing. Jiang’s clever use of genre and history, along with her powerfully descriptive writing, allows her to pack a lot into this novella. I AM AI is deceptive and multilayered. It might make you feel uncomfortable. It will certainly make you think about the cost of competing, and whether or not maybe the answer is—to borrow from a classic—not to play the game at all.