"Gateway is a space station built into a hollow asteroid constructed by the Heechee, a long-vanished alien race. Humans have had limited success understanding Heechee technology found there and elsewhere in the solar system. The Gateway Corporation administers the asteroid on behalf of the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, New People's Asia, the Venusian Confederation, and the United States of Brazil.Sigfrid von Shrink is an astonishingly insightful chatbot-psychotherapist.
"There are nearly a thousand small, abandoned starships at Gateway. By extremely dangerous trial and error, humans learn how to operate the ships. The controls for selecting a destination have been identified, but nobody knows where a particular setting will take the ship or how long the trip will last; starvation is a danger. Attempts at reverse engineering to find out how they work have ended only in disaster, as has changing the settings in mid-flight. Most settings lead to useless or lethal places.
"A few, however, result in the discovery of Heechee artifacts and habitable planets, making the passengers (and the Gateway Corporation) wealthy. The vessels come in three standard sizes, which can hold a maximum of one, three, or five people, filled with equipment and hopefully enough food for the trip. Some "threes" and many "fives" are armored. Each ship includes a lander to visit a planet or other object if one is found.
"Despite the risks, many people on impoverished, overcrowded, starving Earth hope to go to Gateway. Robinette Stetley Broadhead—known as Robin, Rob, Robbie, or Bob, depending on circumstances and his state of mind—is a young food shale miner on Earth who wins a lottery, giving him just enough money to purchase a one-way ticket to Gateway. ...
" ... once back on Earth as a wealthy man he seeks therapy from an artificial intelligence Freudian therapist program which he names Sigfrid von Shrink."
In the spirit of 1977, Sigfrid is a timeshared program running on a mainframe.
|Sigfrid: when AI was programmed in Fortran .. or BASIC?!|
Robin, deeply traumatised and held on a floormat by restraining tapes, is instrumented to the gills for Sigfrid's benefit. The program fires (Freudian) model-based questions, trying to penetrate evasions and projections, forcing him to confront his unnameable terrors.
What a gulf between Sigfrid and Eliza!
What would we need, to build such a useful program in real life?
- General conversation capability anchored by a sense of shared aboutness
- Real-world knowledge and psychotherapeutic task competence
- Conversation-steering abilities.
If the world's AI companies can crack the long-duration contentful-conversation chatbot, Sigfrid is only a further small stretch. And given psychotherapeutic effectiveness in conditions as disparate as schizophrenia and PTSD, such an enormous social gain.
My guess? At least a decade, but not much more.
I first heard about Gateway in the early 1980s, when I was working at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, one of ITT's five worldwide labs. An ITT colleague working in HCI recommended the novel, saying it had the best description of an ideal human computer interface he had ever encountered.
"But is the story any good?" I asked.Actually, Gateway is excellent, as suggested by this review.
"It's not bad," came the answer, damning with faint praise.