17 June 2016 ~ 2 Comments

Hugo Short Story Review: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

written by David Steffen

“Cat Pictures Please” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was published by Clarkesworld Magazine, and you can read it here in its entirety or listen to it in audio.

The protagonist of “Cat Pictures Please” is an AI written as the core of a search engine algorithm.  As the story points out, an AI isn’t needed to find things that people search for, but it is needed to find what people need.  The search engine knows a lot about people, including things they will not share with each other.

In addition to things like whether you like hentai, I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

It doesn’t want to be evil, even though AIs in popular media so often are (and it has data to show the ratio).  But doing good is complicated, considering how many varying official moral codes are available through various religions alone.  It tries to help however it can, by prioritizing some search results over others to give a person the nudge they need to make a different choice.  Through these undetectable changes it tries to make the world a better place.

I really enjoyed this story and it was among my own favorites of the year (see my Best of Clarkesworld 2015 list).  It is refreshing to see a near-omniscient AI striving to be a force for good instead of evil and it was interesting to see what kinds of methods it could use to influence people’s decision.  The AI as a whole was very likeable and easy to root for.  At the same time it presents some interesting food for thought about the power that a search engine has over the information that makes it to individual users–many websites people find by searching for them, but what they’re shown isn’t a neutral view of information, it is sorted and presented in a way defined by search engine algorithms and so changes to those algorithms affect in a very real way the online world that we see.  This is a scary but important thing to think about when one of the mega-profitable online corporations got its start as a search engine provider.

Excellent story well told.

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