Sci-Fi Writer or Prophet? The Hyperreal Life of Chen Qiufan

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Chen turns 40 this 12 months, however at first look—lithe and sleek, sporting candy-­coloured Adidas high-tops—he might simply go as a person in his twenties. He’s cerebral, wry, and soft-spoken. Chen lives in Shanghai however got here to Beijing for 2 weeks in October, the place I meet him at a café. He switches seamlessly between languages (English and Mandarin), dialects (Teochew and Cantonese), and names (Chen Qiufan and Stanley Chan). He strikes with ease between dialog subjects, from autonomous terrorism to his journey to Burning Man, and halfway by means of our dialogue of Taoist philosophy, he excuses himself to take a fast name from his funding adviser. He additionally reads voraciously—citing Aldous Huxley, the Chinese language novelist Lao She, and a ten,000-word tutorial paper on asteroid mining.

After I see him subsequent, he’s standing on a neon-lit stage within the banquet corridor of the Grand Millennium Resort, a slab of glass and metal in Beijing’s central enterprise district, giving a speech titled “Thoughts Reset and Embracing the Unknown: The Manner of Science Fiction” to an viewers of suited-up professionals. The Monetary Occasions organized the convention, inviting a lineup of modern-day oracles—the CEO of a well being care startup, a professor of economics, a machine-learning skilled, and Chen—to prognosticate concerning the close to future. To decorate up for the event, Chen placed on a blazer however saved the high-tops.

His go to to Beijing in October was filled with comparable engagements. Tencent, the tech monolith behind China’s tremendous app WeChat, had invited Chen—once more, a literature main—to foretell developments in genetic engineering alongside a panel of world-class biophysicists, as a result of he as soon as wrote a narrative about genetically modified Neo Rats. Kai-Fu Lee summoned him to the glassy workplaces of his firm, Sinovation Ventures, to hitch a panel on AI-human cooperation within the artistic arts and to exhibit the algorithm that writes fiction like Chen.

It’s no shock that Lee tapped Chen to take part within the panel. The 2 are collaborating on a ebook, AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, to be revealed this fall. Pairing Chen’s speculative fiction with Lee’s real-life technical perspective, the ebook explores how synthetic intelligence will rework humankind and the worldwide order within the subsequent 20 years, in areas starting from contactless relationship to ­pure language processing to job displacement. “Pc scientists and science fiction writers don’t communicate the identical language. If I describe how speech recognition works, it’ll go proper over individuals’s heads,” Lee tells me in a glass-walled convention room referred to as Again to the Future (all of the rooms at Sinovation are named after science fiction movies: Whole Recall, Cloud Atlas, Star Trek). “I wanted a writing accomplice who understands the know-how however may inform a superb story.”

“I have a tendency towards darker endings, and Kai-Fu towards the constructive,” Chen says. “He thinks of the narrative as a step-by-step course of, like a guide, and I choose to protect a narrative’s ambiguity.”

Given on a regular basis he spent at tech firms, Chen is each insider and outsider in an surroundings like Lee’s; he’s fluent within the language of knowledge and metrics and KPIs. Nevertheless it’s not simply that he’s at house in tech. I’ve seen that in any new surroundings, Chen is observant and open-minded, cautious to soak up its guidelines and rituals earlier than synthesizing them as his personal. Zipping from one engagement to the following, I watched him make a straight-laced professor really feel comfortable, allure a hippie Mongolian shaman over lunch, then pen an op-ed for a state-run newspaper at evening.

This skill to maneuver between disparate worlds has proved helpful for navigating extra perilous waters: Chinese language politics. In China, writers need to be delicate not solely to industrial pressures but additionally to shifting political winds, evading the ever watchful eyes of the censors. They need to gauge what the federal government is pondering, take note of developments on the worldwide stage, and discern what to play up and play down, what’s OK to write down, what just isn’t, and when. Along with capturing the eye of revenue seekers, science fiction’s recognition has piqued the curiosity of the authorities, who’re keen to make use of its skyrocketing profile to spice up their very own agendas. “If I’m chatting with the federal government, I emphasize the significance of sci-fi as a software to strengthen innovation and promote creativity. I fill my message with zheng neng liang,” Chen says wryly, quoting a hackneyed catchphrase of officialdom. “How do you say that in English?”

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