In her graphic memoir, Artificial: A Love Story, Amy Kurzweil tackles many existential questions, framed around her father’s quest to resurrect his father using artificial intelligence. Kurzweil participates in the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival Feb. 12.
The purpose of life, of art, what it means to be human, to love and be loved, the value of relationships, our mortality. In a very personal story, cartoonist and writer Amy Kurzweil explores not just universal questions but the biggest of questions in her new book, Artificial: A Love Story.
Kurzweil participates in the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival Feb. 12 in two separate sessions: one about the choice of the comic form to tell a story, the other titled Art & Artificial Intelligence.
In Artificial, readers are invited into another part of Kurzweil’s world. Her debut graphic memoir, Flying Couch, was also family-focused, centring around her maternal grandmother’s story. As she writes on her website, “At 13 years old, Bubbe (as I call her) escaped the Warsaw Ghetto alone, by disguising herself as a gentile. My mother taught me: our memories and our families shape who we become. What does it mean to be part of a family, and how does each generation bear the imprint of the past, its traumas and its gifts? Flying Couch is my answer to these questions, the documentation of my quest for identity and understanding.”
Kurzweil continues to grapple with these questions in Artificial, this time from the paternal side. Her father, Ray, an inventor and futurist, is building an AI tool that will allow him, basically, to resurrect his father, who died of a heart attack in 1970, at the age of 57. Ray has saved letters, articles, music and other material relating to his father, Frederic, a pianist and conductor, who fled Austria in 1938, a month before Kristallnacht, to the United States, saved by a chance encounter. Amy is helping her father sort through boxes upon boxes of material and computerize the information. She even chats with “her grandfather,” as the AI program is being developed.
“My father taught me … that, someday, robots would be made of memory,” writes Kurzweil. Of course, the creation of a Fredbot has functional, ethical, emotional and other challenges, and Kurzweil – in words and images – presents them with sensitivity, intelligence and creativity. Each page of Artificial is attention-grabbing and the level of detail on some pages is remarkable. Kurzweil meticulously re-creates correspondence, typed and handwritten, newspaper articles and other documents, emails and texts, but she also captures, for example, the doubt on her father’s face during a conversation and the concern she has for her partner when he’s undergoing some medical tests. Readers learn about the people asking the questions, not just the questions themselves.
As for the answers? There are multiple ones. Of her father’s project, his quest to conquer mortality using technology, Kurzweil writes that her father’s definition of infinity is, “Computers become so small and dense that they become intelligence itself. Humans who do not grow up or grow old and seal our stories. Our stories wake up and keep writing themselves. This future sounds like liberation from the sadness of a story’s end. But it also sounds terrifying.”
That Kurzweil isn’t completely convinced of the merits of her father’s project, even though she loves him dearly and is helping him try and accomplish it, makes Artificial a satisfyingly complex and relatable story. It is a love story on many levels, and one well worth reading.
The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival runs Feb. 10-15. For the program guide and to purchase event tickets, visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.