Sourdough: Nibbling around the edges of AI

A spoiler-filled book review of Robin Sloan’s latest novel

Spoiler alert — many major plot points revealed below!

“The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.” — Barack Obama, Farewell Address

The Bay Area of California is simultaneously the most wonderful and most infuriating place on earth. Having lived there for many years, I saw the strong mixture of creativity and pretentiousness that seems to pervade everything. It’s hard to find anywhere else with so much disruptive energy focused on profoundly changing the world, and so much smug arrogance about picayune points of specialized lifestyle choices. (What, you’re still gluten-free? That’s so 2017.)

From this ecosystem of extremes come ideas that have actually changed the world, which is why, like it or not, you can’t ignore it. Those ideas have most prominently been related to technology — we all carry mini-computers in our pockets that owe much of their existence to Bay Area entities — but they have also revolved around food, literature, politics, and many other areas.

These two catechisms — that work is suffering and humans must be liberated from it through technology, and that work making food is deliverance and humans must pursue it to find redemption — are deeply in conflict.

They’re also at the heart of Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which by its title may tip the reader off to his leanings on the issue. The protagonist, a Midwestern transplant named Lois, is an engineer working for a top Bay Area robotics company, whose explicit goal is to end human labor as we know it. To do this, the company’s employees put in enormous amounts of the stuff, meaning that Lois doesn’t have much free time for things like cooking dinner. She orders delivery from a mysterious pair of brothers of unclear ethnicity and sort of befriends them. When they suddenly need to leave the country, they gift her with a sourdough starter. As she quickly finds out, it’s highly unusual.

This is where the plot takes on a magical realist tone, something Sloan also embraced in his earlier Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The starter is magical, with a nod to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law (there’s an unconvincing, quasi-scientific discussion of its properties later in the book). It makes amazing bread, but only if it’s exposed to certain kinds of music. Lois is told this by the brothers, and winds up making sourdough that is so good she impresses the robotic company’s semi-famous chef, who offers to buy some. With that nudge, she gets drawn into the world of baking, DIY backyard ovens, competitive farmers’ markets, and a mysterious, cult-like netherworld market funded by an unseen “Mr. Marrow”.

The real issue is what the company is working so hard to do, namely build robots that will end all human labor. From a certain viewpoint — a privileged, deeply ignorant one — that sounds great. After all, work sucks, right?

But eliminating jobs has a very dark side, as we are learning with the relentless rise of factory automation, driverless cars, and artificial intelligence. What can seem like a noble quest to techno-utopianists means real and immediate economic pain to the many people displaced from their jobs. Sloan has Lois muse on this, and she even encounters it directly in one passing moment when a bearded chef is “rendered obsolete” by code she writes to teach the robots to crack eggs.

General Dexterity is obviously a stand-in for real-world companies like Boston Dynamics and Tesla, who are pursuing technological visions to bring autonomous systems to life and will probably put a lot of people out of a job. But Sloan seems relatively sanguine about this, choosing to make Lois’ central epiphany in the story about a technological achievement (the egg-cracking code), and not about what happens to the non-coders when the robots get really good. That’s very disappointing — I’d like to see Sloan revisit this question in a future book, and really confront it.

Eliminating work doesn’t really free people to pursue some long-deferred dream; in many cases it destroys one of the central ways that they connect with others and disrupts their entire community.

Sloan cares a lot about this issue, and he responds by pointing to food. Lois finds her real community in the inhabitants/employees of Mr. Marrow’s subterranean farmer’s market. They’re all near-fanatic devotees of their craft, growing crickets to grind into flour and making radioactive cheese. They work just as hard as the roboticists at General Dexterity, but they represent something profoundly different in their obsessive attention to work — the idea that work can be truly meaningful if it relates to food. Unlike the pathetic scenes from the General Dexterity lunchroom (where code phantoms scarf down complication-free Slurry™ to fuel their corporal needs), the Marrow Fair celebrates the product of intense labor with rich community interaction eating around the table.

The roboticists, in their pursuit of relieving humanity of what they perceive as the burden of work, have deeply misunderstood the human spirit — or are simply cynically presenting their pathway to enormous profit as socially positive. The point is the same: don’t try to take work away from people; help them find more meaningful, fulfilling work that brings them closer together in community.

That said, Sloan can’t quite make this point stick. Lois’ ticket to the Marrow Fair is Lily Belasco’s idea that she could create a robot to bake bread, thereby adding pizazz to the market, which is full of techno-gimmicks. This winds up feeling like a kludge to find some halfway house between advanced technology and manual labor. Sloan is trying to assert that there’s a role for the incredibly advanced technology Bay Area companies are developing, just not an all-encompassing one. This sadly falls flat. The robot arm helps Lois bake, but it isn’t really clear why or how, or whether she couldn’t just hire someone to help, thereby creating a job, instead of programming the device for hours on end. It’s a good gimmick — customers think it’s cool — but it’s neither necessary nor all that helpful for people like the obsolete bearded chef.

The point is the same: don’t try to take work away from people; help them find more meaningful, fulfilling work that brings them closer together in community.

Sourdough gets into some deliciously chewy issues, which most serious fiction has so far ignored. It’s great that Sloan is carving out new territory with this writing, and I can’t wait for what he does next. I just hope he looks a little more closely at the prep cooks, dishwashers, and other little people at the back of the kitchen. After all, they might not be there for much longer.

Technologist, physicist, energy policy expert. Carbon Direct, Georgetown University, Valence Strategic, Conservation X Labs.