Sci-Fi Author or Prophet? The Hyperreal Lifetime of Chen Qiufan
However for the individuals working within the style, the sudden crush of consideration and esteem has been vertiginous. “None of us had the aim of taking up the world,” says Emily Jin, a translator and protégé of Ken Liu who has labored intently with Chen. “We’re only a bunch of nerds having enjoyable collectively.” In China, the place speedy technological change retains transfiguring the world past recognition, “probably the most necessary qualities in a author is sensitivity—the power to seize the strangeness in on a regular basis life,” Chen says. And it may be onerous to take care of that sensitivity once you’re squinting underneath the spotlights.
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 matters, 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 Method 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 knowledgeable, and Chen—to prognosticate in regards to the close to future. To decorate up for the event, Chen placed on a blazer however stored the high-tops.
His go to to Beijing in October was full of related 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 places of work of his firm, Sinovation Ventures, to hitch a panel on AI-human cooperation within the artistic arts and to reveal 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 guide, AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, to be printed this fall. Pairing Chen’s speculative fiction with Lee’s real-life technical perspective, the guide explores how synthetic intelligence will remodel humankind and the worldwide order within the subsequent 20 years, in areas starting from contactless relationship to pure language processing to job displacement. “Laptop 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 associate who understands the expertise however also can inform a great story.”
“I have a tendency towards darker endings, and Kai-Fu towards the optimistic,” Chen says. “He thinks of the narrative as a step-by-step course of, like a guide, and I want to protect a narrative’s ambiguity.”
Given on a regular basis he spent at tech corporations, Chen is each insider and outsider in an setting like Lee’s; he’s fluent within the language of information and metrics and KPIs. However it’s not simply that he’s at house in tech. I’ve observed that in any new setting, 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 subsequent, I watched him make a straight-laced professor really feel relaxed, appeal a hippie Mongolian shaman over lunch, then pen an op-ed for a state-run newspaper at evening.