A Working Theory of Love shows innate and wholly human intelligence

Scott Hutchins’ A Working Theory of Love is all about artificial intelligence, but virtually everything in this novel rings true. The characters are rich and fully drawn, the premise feels timely and plausible, and the plot is layered and emotionally satisfying. This first novel (Penguin Press, $26) manages to be smart and funny while asking serious questions—“What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it take to maintain a loving relationship?”—and challenging readers to consider the emotional weight of words and the repercussions of silence.

Neill Bassett Jr. is a thirty-something bachelor who works at Amiante Systems, a three-man tech company in Silicon Valley devoted to perfecting a computer program capable of simulating intelligent conversation. To that end, Neill works alongside Henry Livorno, the company’s brilliant founder, and Laham, an Indonesian programmer. Neill has no background in science or computers, though he is an integral part of the team. Much of the program’s “human” personality is based on two decades of detailed diaries written by Neill’s late father, a Southern physician. Ironically, the real Dr. Bassett was emotionally distant; the conversations Neill conducts with the “Dr. Bassett” computer program are much more involved than any he experienced while his father was alive.

The team’s goal is to have their “Dr. Bassett” program pass the Turing test, long considered the litmus test of artificial intelligence. During the test, humans and computers “talk” to each other while judges identify which speaker is human. Any computer program that can fool the judges 30 percent of the time passes the test.

When Neill isn’t working on “Dr. Bassett,” he’s juggling women: a 20-year-old high school student named Rachel; his ex-wife, Erin; and Jenn, an attractive programmer who works for Neill’s competition. One of the subplots focuses on Rachel’s involvement with “Pure Encounters,” a cult-like group devoted to “sexual reprogramming.” Another subplot revolves around the real Dr. Bassett’s clinical depression, his relationship with Neill’s mother and a rumored infidelity. Passing the Turing test is all about fooling judges and saying the right things. In his quest to make “Dr. Bassett” more human, Neill is obsessed with getting the program—a digital version of his father—to say all the right things. Neill uses a similar strategy on his girlfriends, with mixed results.

I approached A Working Theory of Love with zero expectations and got so engrossed in the book I was sorry when it ended. This is an enormously promising debut, and Hutchins is most definitely a writer to watch. ★★★★☆

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