Speculative Fiction Tropes: Artificial Intelligence




Today marks my first foray into the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on artificial intelligence.

As a child, 2001: A Space Odyssey introduced me to the concept of artificial intelligence (and the dangers therein). Written by Arthur C. Clarke and directed by Stanley Kubrik, it tells the story of a group of astronauts on a mission to Jupiter to investigate a mysterious anomaly. The mission is jeopardized when their ship's artificially intelligent computer system malfunctions and goes on a killing spree.

The HAL 9000 computer is one of the most compelling antagonists in the history of film, and served as a perfectly realized example of what might go wrong in a world where such technological wonders exist.

In the real world, we've yet to tread the deep waters explored by science fiction. I doubt Siri will be controlling the pod bay doors anytime soon. In fact, you're more likely to hear the term AI used in reference to the tactical abilities of a computer-controlled video game character than an actual personified intelligence. Real world AI research is highly technical, acutely divided into specialized subfields that tackle each aspect of the various boundaries that exist between current technology and the long-term goal of general machine intelligence that can think and problem solve the way we do.

In the meantime, science fiction writers have been exploring the concept in great depth, examining the potential benefits of such technology--as well as the deadly pitfalls. Many stories involving AI indulge the "Frankenstein Complex," a term coined by Isaac Asimov in his Robot series that refers to humanity's innate fear of mechanical men. These stories often take the premise of intelligent machines that turn on their creators to apocalyptic extremes. From The Matrix to The Terminator to Mass Effect, popular Science Fiction works in just about every form of media have explored this idea. We humans don't generally fair too well when the machines decide to rise.

Still, other works have presented a more optimistic view on AI. In the aforementioned Robot series, Asimov presents a world in which artificially intelligent automatons take on vital roles in human society, eventually going from subservient household appliances to a fully sentient race, becoming embroiled in a new civil rights debate along the way. In the Halo video game series, computer-based AIs serve as everything from instructors and advisers in educational facilities to systems administrators on interstellar starships (though it's worth noting that AI programs in this universe are given a limited lifespan à la Blade Runner to prevent them from contracting rampancy). And Star Trek fans will of course be familiar with Lt. Commander Data, an android who serves as an officer aboard the starship Enterprise. Interestingly enough, Star Trek also gave us The Borg, which could be seen as a transhuman take on the malevolent AI concept.

I've yet to write any stories that incorporate the AI trope, but I remain fascinated with it. What is it that's so intriguing (and menacing) about the idea that we may one day create an intelligence that rivals or eclipses our own from scratch? Is it the old "mankind shouldn't play God" paradigm that often permeates scientific discussion and debate? Perhaps it's a ready belief in our own inadequacy, that we can't be trusted to foresee the far-reaching consequences of our increasingly grand actions. And then there's Murphy's Law, which in this case states that if a super-intelligent AI can go rampant and orchestrate the end of humankind as we know it, it most certainly will at some point.

The examples I've mentioned here are only a few of my favorites. I don't know if we'll ever see a real world example of true artificial intelligence in our lifetimes, but it's an idea that continues to captivate. Though it's use in fiction certainly falls under trope status, I don't think it's reached cliche territory just yet (when handled well). There are still lots of intriguing angles to attack this idea from, and perhaps there's even some philosophical territory yet to be explored.

Recommended Reading
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Recommended Viewing:
The Terminator 
The Matrix 
Battlestar Galactica 

Recommended Gaming:
Portal series
Mass Effect series
Marathon/Halo series


Comments

  1. Great post on AI business, J.W.!
    Indeed, we're far away from building any AI that even remotely resembles the ones in science fiction. But maybe we'll build an entirely different type of AI than fiction has explored so far... hm...
    The most compelling aspect about artificial intelligence, in my opinion, is the definition of "intelligence" and the fascination with our own minds. In creating an intelligent being from scratch (albeit mechanical) we would come a whole lot closer to understanding ourselves, and I believe that to be an even greater incentive than playing God. After all, curiosity and the thirst for self-knowledge has always been a fundamental part of human existence, maybe an even greater part than the desire for power. Methinks. :P

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    1. I agree, Vero! I think the computer sciences in general can teach us a lot more about ourselves than most people probably realize, but especially artificial intelligence research. The closer we get to "the line" between artificial intelligence and actual intelligence, the more we will come to understand what and where that line is.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Artificial intelligence is definitely an interesting concept, both in sci-fi and in real life. One of my friends is actually involved in researching AI in real life, which is pretty awesome. I wrote a short story exploring the subject called "The Perfect Man(TM)," which I may have to re-visit (or re-publish, since I can't find a link to it online).

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    1. I'm envious of your friend; that must be an exciting field to work in! I'd love to read your story if you find a link or get it back out there. Let me know!

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  3. I think that many of the stories get it wrong. As fascinating as they are a true AI would probably work at a level we could not understand and simply put would act on their own compulsions with little regard to our needs. I want to see a story where a human bridges the gap with an AI without reducing the AI into some kind of child to the human creator.

    Pulling it off....

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    1. That's certainly possible, Rafael. The truth is, we have no idea what a real AI might be or what it might it do upon gaining sentience. I'm always a sucker for a good AI story, and the more different the author's take, the better!

      It's funny you should mention the "child AI" thing, as this entry actually inspired the idea for a story that I might be jumping into soon, and the AI the muse brought me is definitely not childlike! Can't wait to write it.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  4. Truly a cool subject to blog about! Hubby LOVES Speculative fiction, and has gotten me into it <3

    Stopping by from the A to Z challenge hop. Looking forward to reading more!

    *~* Julia *~* http://beautifullywhimsical.blogspot.com *~*

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    1. Thanks, Julia! I'll be sure to stop by yours as well.

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  5. You had me at the mention of Portal ;) My husband and I are huge sci-fi geeks. We actually had a companion cube on the top of our wedding cake (it was awesome).

    I actually came up with an idea for an AI based story (finally) set in 2042 (and titled as such). Though the focus is on the main human girl, there is a big part played by the robot (who learns emotions due to some hacking).

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    1. I absolutely love Portal! It's one of those games I always point to as an example of great writing in video games, since some folks out there seem to think such a thing is impossible.

      Your story sounds interesting, I'd love to read it one day.

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  6. Interesting reading and excellent writing. Thanks for sharing and for the recommended reading and viewing!

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    1. Thanks so much, Susan! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'll be doing the recommended lists on all of my entries in this series.

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  7. Interesting post, J.W.!

    My sig other is fascinated with AI. I *think* (don’t quote me, going from memory here), that he told me that the robot Osimo has been observed making decisions on what something is based upon what he has been taught in the past. (Specifically deciding which object is a chair.) Now, I don’t understand a lot about AI, but I think we’re going to witness some great leaps forward during our lifetime.

    Your reference to Star Trek’s Data reminded me of the episode in which Q gave Data a gift: unexplained laughter. I think, ultimately, we want to create/facilitate AI also share what we perceive as good. At least, I hope that’s the case. :)

    (I’m visiting past A-Z blogs!)

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    1. We very well may see some amazing advancements in AI in the foreseeable future. It's an exciting time to be alive!

      Thanks for reading!

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