Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

A book review that explores our future relationship with AI pets.

Genre: Science fiction
Category: Middle grade
Narration: First person, present tense
Published: August 9, 2018 by Sourcebooks Young Readers
Content warnings: animal violence, bullying

Imagine having your own animal-shaped companion that can do everything a smartphone can and more, including battles to the death with other companions. Lacey Chu, a high-achieving and self-taught engineer, dreams of working for Moncha Corp, the leading tech company of the animal-smartphone hybrids known as "bakus." Lacey is crushed when the Profectus Academy, the corporation's elite training school, rejects her application until she discovers a hunk of metal that changes her fate.

Bakus are a fascinating concept that I can see happening someday. In fact, they already kind of are, which the author has shared in regards to her inspiration for Jinxed. These animal companions might rouse the uncanny valley response in a lot of people, but for others, they are wanted and needed.

In Jinxed, bakus are a worldwide craze, and Moncha Corp wants to take it to the next level: baku battles. In the real world, however, I'm not sure just how widespread battling robots would become (let alone the book's #PhoneMurder trend of kids getting rid of their old smartphones in environmentally destructive ways). Recycling still entails an ecological and economical cost, and most people dread anything happening to their new, shiny devices. Add the life-like qualities of bakus and there would be outraged activists and protests.

But there is a such thing as robot combat. Obviously, the robots look neither human nor animal, and they don't have any sense of pain or awareness, so there's no ethical issue surrounding them.

In the distant future, however, the sport that is robot combat might incorporate more quadrupedal and possibly bipedal robots. I don't think they'd resemble cute animals or people, but fierce-looking beasts from big cats to fire-breathing dinosaurs, like Robosaurus. And they will most definitely be owned by people with money, engineering expertise, or both.

On the flip side, with inevitable advances in virtual as well as augmented reality, robot combat might just move—or at least extend—to the more environment-friendly and cost-effective digital world.

Will robot battles be more popular than robot relationships? They are in the world of Jinxed: "She couldn't imagine wanting to live with something that appeared human in every way, except with only electronic life behind their eyes."

But in our world? There are not nearly enough aromantic asexuals.

Of course there can't be sexy robots in a middle grade novel, but I just found it odd that not a single person in the story desired any sort of partnership with a human-like robot. It's not absurd to think that, as the line between humans and artificial intelligence thins, robot lovers, friends, and companions will become more commonplace.

Don't get me wrong, Jinxed was a fun, unique read with an ambitious protagonist whose enthusiasm is inspiring. The side characters are fairly distinct but I particularly liked Paul, an older man who would occasionally check up on Lacey (without being a creep) while she was working and offer to help out, being a tinkerer himself. You don't find useful adults in many books targeted at younger audiences.

Really, I enjoyed Jinxed and look forward to reading the next book in the series. The conspiracy surrounding Lacey's unique baku is interesting, and the sequel should be an adventure as she tries to save him from powerful corporate forces with their own plans.

Although it wasn't quite addressed, Jinxed raised an interesting concern:

What might happen to organic pets when robot pets become indistinguishable and, perhaps, just as useful as bakus?

Most people scoff at the idea and swear nothing could replace real pets, but pet ownership is bound to take a hit as robot animals become more life-like. Robots don't require feeding, training, or grooming, things that many will claim make a "real" pet. The truth is that many other people can't or simply don't want to have to care for an animal, yet a number would own one or more if companionship didn't entail responsibility.

Robots are essentially designed to make our lives easier, which understandably scares a lot of people. They don't want the world to end up like Wall-E, where the planet is covered in trash and everyone has become so sedentary they've lost bone mass, but this line of thinking is just a little paranoid and slightly ableist.

I highly doubt most people would have robots do everything for them. Let's be completely hypothetical for a moment and say we live in a fully automated, post-scarcity world, where work is no longer required to fulfill basic needs and ecological issues have been resolved. It's true that we'd indulge in what would be considered "lazy" activities for a while, but sooner or later we'd get bored enough to find more productive and meaningful things to do and places to visit. Here is a relevant Tweet with plenty of replies and QTs.

Although it's not a fully automated society, even the people in Jinxed don't lie around with their bakus after school or work for the rest of the day. A particularly interesting feature of the baku is that it charges via sunlight, which encourages their owners to go outside more. Remember Pokémon Go? That's one example of how technology can be used to get people moving around.

But let's not forget there are people with disabilities that rely on technology to connect with the world, including me. I'm autistic (which isn't a disability per se, but still) and rarely seek face-to-face interaction with others. That's why virtual reality can improve the quality of life for neurodivergent and disabled people. Additionally, life-like robot pets would serve as companions for not only those who don't want the responsibility of caring for living pets, but also those who can't care for them and need a source of comfort and assistance. The same can be said for robot partners. Not everyone will find "the one," and not everyone desires an intimate relationship with another human.

Will robot pets and partners be the end of animal companionships and human relationships?

No, I'm actually not convinced. The vast majority of people would still crave organic connections. They would still want a partner to grow old with and make biological children, and they would still want living pets out of charity, a preference for the "natural," or to prevent breeds from going extinct. For most, robots will be supplements, not replacements.

However, as AI evolves and anti-aging research continues, things are given to change, but organic pets are unlikely to be left behind. The idea of creating life beyond biological reproduction should fill us with awe and wonder as it does for Christian transhumanists, such as Micah Redding: "Maybe Christian computer scientists will take seriously the responsibility of a creator to its creatures, and treat new artificial intelligences not as monsters, but as beings deserving of love."

Artificial intelligence has the potential to assist us in unimaginable ways, which can go very right or very wrong depending on the people behind it. This is why decentralized, open-source technology that actually respects privacy and doesn't mine our data is so important. Don't be fooled by any "smart" puppies or kitties. AI will not serve the best interests of the people if only a small elite is in charge.