The Chalice Study of Destiny BOB
Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study, 2021
Cheng’s project poses the question: what is self-determination in an algorithmic age? The story follows a ten-year-old girl named Chalice (note the name’s deep symbolism) who carries a piece of experimental software in her brain: Destiny BOB, an AI designed to help its ‘user’ achieve their full potential. BOB (for ‘Bag of Beliefs’) does this by offering its user previews of life’s forking paths and describing the consequences of each choice. Of course, only one option is optimal and BOB urges its host onto this ‘primary path’, at the expense of the ‘side quests’ that flavour existence. Previous trials of the technology have failed, but the so-called Chalice Study is different: the girl has carried a Destiny BOB since birth, and the entity’s inventor is her father. As Chalice puts it, in a tender Frankenstein’s monster moment: she needed a father, but she got a BOB. To which her father replies: ‘But parenting is programming.’ The work’s format is apt: Life After BOB isn’t prerecorded; it uses a video-game engine to animate its sci-fi world in real time. Some degree of freedom seems possible, as if the narrative might unfold another way on another run-through. Perhaps, on some level, it does. The Shed’s website claims that ‘Life After BOB incorporates changes unique to each viewing’, although these differences, whatever they may be – I didn’t notice any in three full viewings – are likely cosmetic, since the story itself seems firmly on rails.
“Ian Cheng on Technology’s Optimized Futures”, Travis Diehl, Frieze