Saturday, September 29, 2007

The one and the many (e pluribus unum)

Another transatlantic flight and a really good novel, "Self-discovery" by Ukrainian writer Vladimir Savchenko. Academgorod, Siberia; a research institute encompassing a large number of laboratories and scientific personnel; a mysterious incident in the nighttime; a corpse that dissolves into a skeleton within minutes of discovery; a worried police investigator suspecting a possible case of espionage. The case really gets weird when the alleged victim of the crime turns up alive and well, working as a naval engineer in Vladivostok, and as a graduate student in biology at Moscow University, and as the lab assistant who is the prime suspect in the investigation. One slowly learns in bits and pieces what really happened. The main character in the story, Valentin Vasilyevich Krivoshein, electronic engineer like the author of the novel, was put in charge of an experimental lab, on a daring project aimed at constructing a machine that will construct itself. The result is much more than the scientist intended. Feeding his own mind to the machine to help it grow its neural network of connections, Krivoshein unintentionally generates a machine capable of reproducing a human being, by directly assembly the chemical constituents into a human body and downloading the information into the mind. The machine produces an exact replica of its creator, Krivoshein. The two identical humans, one "real" and one "artificial" share the same ambitions, the same work, the same human feelings. They begin to differentiate when the original Krivoshein decides to stay on and continue his experiments, while his double decides to approach the same problem from a different angle and study biology instead of continuing with the computer science viewpoint. One sees behind the discussions between the two "twins" a mirror of the contemporary developments of Soviet science, especially cybernetics, oscillating between its complex systems and engineering side and its biology side. One sees a similar interplay nowadays in neural and cognitive science. In Moscow, Krovoshein number 2 discovers that his artificially generated body has astonishng capacity for self-healing. His biology supervisor, Academician Vano Alexandrovich Androsiashvili, who sponsored Krovoshein as a student despite his evident lack of previous experience with biology, is intrigued by these findings, but Krivoshein does not yet dare to reveal his true origin and the full extent of his discoveries to anybody. Meanwhile, back in Academgorod, Krivoshein number 1 creates another double of himself, on which he performs various "improvements" of physical appearance, only to find out that this happened at the expenses of serious psychological trauma caused by a series of runs with the machine that generated intermediate defective copies whose memory remains stored in the final one, along with the memory of their destruction. Krivoshein number 3, who also calls himself Adam, sets off to the Far East, to heal his trauma in the heavy and dangerous work of blowing up underwater reefs in the Vladivostok harbor. He finally sets on his journey back to Academgorod, having overcome his fears and ready to rejoin his other self in continuing the experiments and the shared dream of perfecting the nature of humankind through information technology. One more Krivoshein has been created in the meantime, perfecting on the technique that generated number 3, this time without undesired psychological effects. Number 4, who takes on the identity of young lab assistant Victor Kravets, is an improved version of the original Krivoshein, younger, more intelligent, more attractive. They continue their joint work until the original Krivoshein dies in attempting to change his own body via a full immersion into the "womb" of the machine, of which he loses control. The machine dissolves his body into pure information (the skeleton being all that remains) in that fateful night accident the story begins with. Summoned by Kravets back to Academgorod, Krivoshein number 2 tries to sort out the mess with the police, the isntitute director and the authorities, until the three remaining copies can join their efforts in continuing their research. Besides the incurable Socialist optimist about the perfectibility of humankind, and in science as the way to achieve this ultimate goal, which transpires everywhere through the novel, what is quite beautiful about it is the description of the academic institution and the scientists, given with an obvious insider view. The other characters in the story portray the whole spectrum of people one normally find in research institutes and academic institutions. The institute director, Academician Arkady Arkadievich Azarov, represents the kind of scientist who is at the height of a very successful career, a bit too full of himself and with an understandable tendency to surround himself with mediocrities, by whom he does not fear being challenged, but who still has not lost his real taste for good science. He knows the good stuff when he sees it and is ready to support a good scientist against a bad one, even if the latter has better official titles than the first. A similarly positive character is Academician Androsiashvili, who is ready to accept and support Krivoshein number 2, even though he fails his exams, because of the hunch that he is onto some real stuff and the fact that he himself, while directing a biology institute, doubles at night as a graduate student in computer science, not to fall behind with the other side of the emerging field of cybernetics. At the same time the novel portrays the opportunists of research, the assistant professor who acts as chief administrator of the Academgorod institute, a bureaucrat who does mediocre science and who uses the excuse of classified work to escape peer review on a mediocre thesis largely based on plagiarizing existing results. The tensions, hopes, social constraints of academic life are fully exposed and beautifully displayed. There are long discussions on the role of science and its moral responsibilities. It is a deep and dense novel, with a lot of insight on the world of research that we all share and which deserves to be better known and understood outside of the profession. Great novel!