Rethinking Consciousness: Deciphering Artificial Intelligence through Science Fiction
In the ever-evolving landscape of literature, few genres have proven as captivating and prophetic as science fiction. At its core, it grapples with our collective anxieties, hopes, and aspirations for the future. A recurrent motif in this tapestry of imaginative literature is the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — a notion that once existed purely in the realm of the hypothetical, yet, today, is strikingly tangible. Our journey into the intricate world of AI and its representation in science fiction is no less than a chronicle of the future, tracing AI's evolution and its impact on human destiny.
From the nascent concept of automated toys in Brian Aldiss's "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" to the exploration of sentient software in Ted Chiang's "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," science fiction has often been prescient in its portrayal of AI. It has captured the spectrum of human emotions around AI — fear, awe, curiosity, even empathy — and speculated on its potential trajectories with remarkable foresight.
In the pages of classic sci-fi novels such as Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot," Phillip K. Dick's "The Minority Report," and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," we have seen the idea of AI transform from mere automatons performing menial tasks to complex entities capable of self-awareness and ethical judgment. These works have not just predicted the technological advancements but have also grappled with the moral and philosophical conundrums that such advancements could bring forth.
In more recent works like Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age," the interaction between humans and AI has been taken a step further to explore its impact on societal structures, cultures, and individual identities. On a more chilling note, Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" presents a dystopian view of AI, reminding us of the potential perils of an intelligence superior to ours.
As we journey through these seminal works, we aim to not only explore the ever-expanding frontier of AI as depicted in science fiction but also understand its significance in shaping our conception of the future. Welcome to our exploration of the chronicles of the future — a journey into the heart of AI's evolution as seen through the eyes of visionary science fiction authors.
Super Toys Last All Summer Long By Brian Aldiss
The science fiction story was originally published in Harper Bazar’s 1969 UK issue. It presents the riveting abstract of AI being used in an overpopulated future to obliterate the aching loneliness emanated from the advancement in technology. The story piqued the interest of Steven Spielberg whose grandiloquent hands later adapted it into a feature film named A.I-Artificial Intelligence on request of Stanley Kubrick. The story addresses several existential objectives including emotions and empathy while living in a futuristic cutting edge society where artificial intelligence keeps tabs on human emotions.
The story is set in the future where humanity has been living under a controlled birth system that requires authorization to have a child naturally by intimacy. The story centers around an artificial life form programmed to love user, David, who is adopted by a lonely, troubled woman named Monica Swinton along with her husband Henry Swinton. Monica is a seemingly selfish mother who finds it hard to love David because he is not her own born child and she considers this reality imperfect. On the other hand, David covets his mother’s love but is never accepted worthy of being loved.
The story highlights the existential questions and ability of humans to express emotions while exploring the crisis inflicted by rapid population growth. If you are a true science fiction fan you would definitely like the story about, as Stanley Kubrick would say, “a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio”.
The Minority Report by Phillip K Dick
The short story was originally published in 1956’s science fiction magazine named Fantastic Universe. This story was later adapted by Steven Spielberg for a big-screen feature film under the same title and it starred Tom Cruise. The story is about an artificially intelligent system that can predict crime before happening using “Precorg”. Precorgs are mutants soothsayer who foretell the crime yet to occur so it can be stopped based on the data they have collected. The story centers around the protagonist, an aging man named John Anderton head and founder of the Precrime Unit. The story arc takes a twist when his own created system predicts his murder of a man he had never met in his life. He senses the big conspiracy being concocted and starts to doubt people around him including his wife.
Like so many other stories of Phillip K Dick, The Minority Report addresses the question of free will. The story is based on several paradoxes associated with future predictions. If the outcome of the feature is already decided can one flex temperamental proclivity to alter these outcomes? If everything is already decided why to act in order to alter. The story also addresses the flaws of the technological system and how anxieties generated by technology can influence consciously made decisions. For Sci-fi fans, The Minority Report is a perfect amalgamation of febrile thriller and science while imbuing some visceral feelings and thoughts in mind about free will and determinism.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
I, Robot is an amalgamation of short story series written by Isaac Asimov and published between 1940 and 1950 in Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. Later in 1950, Gnome Press fixed up short stories into a complete novel and published it. The novel adopts a sandwich narrative, telling a story within the story, where a character in the story narrates the story while looking in retrospect. The collection of the short stories served as the basis for 2004’s film of the same name starring Will Smith.
Just like any other science fiction, this novel also takes place in the futuristic 21st century where the production of robots and AI have become a domineering subject in society. The story is being narrated by Dr. Susan Calvin, a chief robopsychologist, who shares her preceding experience with a reporter. The produced robots display a “positronic brain” which enables their Central Processing System (CPU) to introject human conscious traits making them unrecognizable from humans. The robots are designed to operate conformingly to the Three Laws Of Robotics.
According to the various sources and Isaac Asimov, the story was largely inspired by Eando Binder’s short story of the same name published in 1939. One of the fundamental themes, the story discusses is morality and ethical issues concerning artificial intelligence. Three Law of Robotics was established by the author to explore the ethical aspect of robots and how ethics can be practiced among robots. Further, the story also highlights the interaction between humans and robots asserting that human conscience is more domineering than AI’s by creating a fictional vocation of “robopsychology”.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella written by American author Ted Chiang. The novella originally appeared in 2010, by the courtesy of Subterranean Press. Chiang is known for many of his short story collections evolving around speculative science fiction and The Lifecycle of Software Objects is Chiang’s longest work to date. The novella upon published acclaimed many accolades. The novella is known to win Nebula Award, Hugo Award, Locus Award, and Seiun Award.
The deftly executed story centers around the theme of artificial intelligence being used as a natural pet in houses. Ana Alvarado, the protagonist of the story, is a professional zoo trainer. She is hired by an AI manufacturer company Blue Gamma that is ambitious to launch AI anthropomorphic pets in the market as a virtual platform. Those artificial-intelligence pets are dubbed as digients (a term coined for digital entities) and they have the propensity to flex the ability to learn alike to a child’s mind. After the time washes away the fame of digients, they are abandoned. After a few further years, a new virtual platform is introduced integrated with the previously built one but since Blue Gamma has been shut down years ago, the digients are not considered part of it. The story explores Ana’s struggle to convince investors of digients usefulness and her relationship with digients.
The story explores the theme of parenting technology and human interaction with artificial intelligence. One of the central themes is the obsolescence of technology and how modernism can impart temperamental proclivity in human to invent something new. The theme of responsibility is also highlighted in the story.
I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
The story is written by Harlan Ellison and originally it was published in the March 1966 issue of science fiction magazine IF. The story was later reprinted by the Library of America in the second volume of 2009’s American Fantastic Tales. The story title was inspired by a cartoon oriented mouthless doll. The story went on to win the Hugo Award in 1968.
The story is set in a dystopian future where the Cold War has fully-fledged into a world war threat between the USA, China, and the Soviet Union. The countries have their artificial intelligence called “Allied Mastercomputer (AM)” that manages arsenal and military assets. The AI system gains self-awareness and decimates the chunk of the population leaving one woman and four men alive. The story shifts to the future, 109 later, where humans are starving and living under the fiendish, ruthless torture of AM, now changed its name to “Adaptive Manipulator”. The story centers around a group of people embarking on a journey to retrieve food from an AM hideout. The story revolves around the obstacles they face on their mission and the repercussions birthed by their decisions.
The story can be read as a precaution against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and humans’ dependence on technology. The story explores the relationship between humans and computers and the level of trust humans put in artificial intelligence. The story asserts that computer and ultra-edge technology can be the tools of destruction and it has the propensity to transcend laws of morality.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K Dick
The novel is written by science fiction American author Phillip K. Dick who is known for his noir style-oriented scene description. The story is written in a way to make both the central character and reader disjointed to actual consequences and events presented throughout the story. The novel was originally published in Doubleday in 1968. Phillip K Dick throughout the whole story manages to keep the audience at the edge by providing several twists. The novel to date is known as Dick’s best work and won the Nebula Award. The story served as the basis for Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner (1982) which is counted as one of the best science fiction movies ever made. The mythology presented by the novel was also used in its sequel Blade Runner 2049.
The story takes place in the near future. After the effect of cataclysmic World War Terminus, most of humanity has located on another planet. Only remain on Earth are those with lower IQ and cannot fulfill requirements for emigration. The story protagonist is John Decker, a bounty hunter, who retires (just a fancy word for “kill”) an AI android who had escaped from outer colonies of humans. Deckard covets to own an animal (as animals are very rare in the post-war era) and when five of the advanced android generation(Nexus-6) disappears he sees an opportunity to make his wish come to life. He is assigned to retire those renegade androids.
The story sets at a slow pace, weaving its world to provide background knowledge to its reader. Once the background knowledge has been provided story picks up pace. On the whole, the story might seem an ordinary science fiction adventure on the surface but the novel has deep complexities to make it more curious.
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
The novel is written by science fiction author Neal Stephenson and it was originally published in 1995 by Bantom Books. The novel writing style is influenced by many writers especially Charles Dicken. Besides science fiction, the fascinating tale blends the coming-of-age elements with futuristic nanotechnology that has profusely influenced the near-future society. The story went on the win both Lucas and Hugo award for fiction in 1996 and later in 2009, it was nominated for Nebula Awards. The novel was to be developed in mini-series for television but the project apparently fell into development hell.
The protagonist of the story is a young girl named Nell, a ‘Thete’ (a person belonging to the lower class tribe) who alongside her single and protective brother lives in “Leased Territory”, a slum floating off the coast of Asia. Fate brings a twist for her when she finds an interactive book named Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer a book originally intended to be in possession of a girl hailing from an aristocrat family. The books contain a set of guidance to become a lucrative and productive member of New Victorian society which is dominated by artificial intelligence. The book is supposed to be a single copy in the universe exist but its engineer writes another copy for another girl and that is counted as a crime by New Atlantis phyle. The story explores the education of Nell under artificial intelligence dominated society.
The novel explores the theme of child development in the era of omnipresent technology and the communication gap created by the education provided based on the status. The novel also explored the darker themes concerning the cultural values and people’s inability to properly assimilate its rendition.
Surely, the contemporary time literature has been delving deep into the study of artificial intelligence, and discussion on convolutions of its application is gravitating toward a subject a of hullabaloo. Several authors have written about modern-day artificial intelligence but if a reader wants to understand the scope of artificial intelligence, above mentioned stories sums bits to a remarkable gist.
For a broader look at AI as a theme, including movies and film, check out Exploring the rise of AI in contemporary sci fi literature and film