Thursday, January 17, 2019

Quality Time, by Ken Liu

★★★★☆ Remarkably accurate and interesting on several levels

(SF Robot) The narrator joins a big Silicon Valley company to work on home robots, and she’s excited when her ideas seem to work out—at first. (8,360 words; Time: 27m)

Recommended By: πŸ“™JStrahan+2 πŸ‘RSR+1 (Q&A)

"Quality Time," by (edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe), appeared in (RSR review), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2018.137 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: I spent about 35 years of my life working on “impossible” projects like the ones described in the story, the last half of it at Microsoft and then Amazon, so I’m familiar with the big-company dynamics too. There are some errors (see below), but the author has definitely nailed the atmosphere.

The narrator’s personal journey is about as important as the details of her rise and fall. She starts as a complete outsider who gets mentored by Amy, a veteran of other big Silicon Valley firms. At her peak, she thinks she’s too important to listen to people like Amy, but by the end, she’s listening again. Her projects may have failed, but she’s a veteran herself now.

As for the technology, the pipe-cleaning robot almost seems within reach of today’s technology, although perhaps not in such a small form factor. The nanny robot scares me just thinking about it.

The corporate names are cute: “Centillion” (Google), “Bazaar” (Amazon), and “weRobot,” which reflects both Asimov’s collection, “I, Robot” as well as sounding like “wee robot.”

Finally, I agree entirely that anyone writing in Perl who starts by reading a whole file into memory is clearly not much of a programmer.

Con: The biggest drawback is that the narrator isn’t a very sympathetic character at any point in the story. She’s unfriendly to Amy at the start. She neglects her family and then uses them. She deceives her team and wastes company money. Etc. Nothing really redeems her.

Some minor nits, first the technical ones: it’s rather silly to imagine we’ll get much useful from downloading brain patterns of living animals and then modifying them. Or (in the case of the nanny bot) combining the patterns from multiple animals.

On the corporate side, given the amount of authority Amy has, she’d have to either be a VP or have a VP who strongly supported her. When problems arose, she’d have to account to the VP, not to the company founders. Given the success of the rat-based robot, I was surprised they gave up so quickly. In the real world, I’d expect them to try hard to salvage that work somehow.

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