Artificial Intelligence in Science Fiction
Artificial intelligence is many things in many stories. It’s hand-waved magic, a fancy literary device, and, more rarely than you might expect, a depiction of technology’s very real steps forward in the fields of machine learning.
I thought about this a lot when I started writing my Colony of Edge series. Even more as I delved into the third book, On a Forsaken Land Found. The AI Traverse plays a significant part of Edge’s heritage, and the way it uses colonists and is used by colonists puts together situations that keep me up at night.
AI in science fiction is rarely an accurate depiction of the modern understanding of technology. Even stories that claim to be HARD science fiction still tend to play fast and loose with artificial intelligence.
And that’s FINE. It really is.
There a lot of ways artificial intelligence shows up in fiction, and they’re all doing cool and interesting things. Here are some that rear their robotic heads ALL THE TIME.
AI as Just This Weird Guy
This is probably the most common. AI is just a guy with weird affectations and a poor grasp of dynamic grammar and dialects. This is Data from Star Trek or Mother from Raised by Wolves. This depiction of artificial intelligence is almost always a humanoid robot trying to do human things.
It’s not at all realistic given the current state of AI, but it isn’t really meant to be.
The Weird Guy AI is a literary tool. This is the guy the writer uses to explore the human condition. It’s the role we often see filled by certain aliens, sarcastic teenagers, and, sometimes problematically, people on the autism spectrum. They give us the outsider’s look at the characters in our stories.
I mean, when did Data ever STOP talking about what it means to be human?
The Dark Menace of Technology
Look, you know we need to talk about Skynet, right? If there’s one thing we know about artificial intelligence it’s that someday we’re going to hook it up to a bunch of nukes and it’ll kill us all. It’s the machines behind the Matrix or our good friend HAL. We see them as living things, autonomous identities that exist in the network, unkillable and distributed amongst its many machines.
These malevolent monsters represent our fear of technology, or, more importantly, a fear of what technology does TO US. They’re in our science fiction to represent our vices, whether it’s laziness (the ship in Wall-E) or aggression (Joshua in War Games).
This type of AI is sometimes still personified because we like our antagonists to have faces. GLADOS is very much a person, even though she represents our tendency to abandon ethics in the name of science, which is SCARY ENOUGH, ISN’T IT? Even Agent Smith gives the machines of The Matrix a face, though he’s separate instance of a program.
Artificial Intelligence: A Tool We Use
I’m not saying technology won’t advance, but right now AI’s real presence is not a guy we talk to or an all-powerful force we battle. It’s in the tools we use every day and it filters every single piece of data that crosses our screens.
Well, maybe that’s starting to sound a little malevolent.
The point is, realistic uses of AI and machine learning look nothing like the weird guys or evil robots we are used to seeing in fiction. For one thing, machine learning and robotics are totally different things. I tend to classify them as a totally different thing, in fact, because they have a very different use from a storyteller’s perspective.
Realistic depictions of advances on the tools we use every day are part of why I love science fiction. In my old job we worked on tools that better diagnosed cancer and found patterns in vast, vast piles of research. I use FaceID on my phone, read about self-driving cars, and I have even started using Facebook Ads. In fact, if a Facebook Ad brought you to this blog post, guess what, AI drove the decision to show you that Ad. That’s great! Welcome! Technology works!
The displays in The Expanse show a use of machine learning only a few steps beyond our current technology. Gestures move data seamlessly from one device to the next. It’s AMAZING. It also is definitely something that would need machine learning to implement. We see this from Minority Report to Iron Man. Nobody cares about the eyestrain inherent in transparent displays, as long as they can interact with data in cool and exciting ways.
Giving humans ways to manage enormous amounts of information is a real thing in AI and sci-fi’s depiction of it is both a prediction and an inspiration. It’s also kinda rare, compared to other depictions of AI.
But I like it because it makes me excited for our future. That’s why it’s there. It comes with a heavy dose of the hopeful, and even if everything else is falling apart, at least we have that.
Artificial Intelligence: The Tool that Uses Us
And then there’s this other side of that coin.
Remember those Facebook Ads? Really, you would not BELIEVE the amount of data Facebook has collected on you. Take that to the next step and watch Minority Report or Altered Carbon. Ads assault people on the street, following them relentlessly. Those cool, hopeful tools represent the future of our technology and can also be used to show the very real dangers of that same AI tech.
This isn’t the malevolent Ultron who just wants to squash humanity. This is humanity squashing itself. Weapons of Math Destruction gives a wonderful view of how large, opaque data systems can be harmful to human life. Are already harmful.
It’s fascinating to me when a piece of science fiction shows a tool we use using us back.
Even something as simple as the language laws in Demolition Man, demonstrate this. Demolition Man is a brilliant piece of science fiction wrapped in absolute absurdity and I love it right down to its ridiculous core, by the way. If you haven’t rewatched it recently, you should.
This kind of relationship with technology is nuanced as hell and that’s why I love it. If you give me a choice between an openly malevolent monster of an AI and the logical progression of Natural Language Processing’s affects on society, I will be more terrified of where we’re really going every single time.
There’s a reason many companies stopped working on facial recognition technology. The reason is that science fiction COVERED this. We KNOW that road is not a good one.
The Tool that Uses Us is a literary tool that futurists use to warn us about the path we’re choosing as a society. It’s the less hopeful side of the realistic depiction of artificial intelligence. The best depictions, are nuanced and complicated in my mind.
On a Forsaken Land Found
This brings us to the book coming out March 10, On a Forsaken Land Found, the third book in the Colony of Edge series. Underneath everything that happens in the Colony of Edge is the idea that people are shape the tools they use and are shaped by the tools that use them.
But they’re the same tools.
There are some mysteries best left unearthed on the planet of Sky.
A secret is hidden in a dead city at the center of a faraway desert. Lost technology might save the colony of Edge and finally bring sustainable life to a world that has been so close for so long.
…But what dangers slumber in that forsaken land?
Ash Morgan leads a team of explorers to find clues that will save her people and bring on a new era of prosperity. She battles the elements and hazards of the city, but can she hold together her team when the dangers prove too much? Can she prepare them for the very real possibility of failure?
And what if something follows them back to Edge?
Maybe that city’s not so dead after all.
AI in Sci-fi
What are your favorite AIs in science fiction? This article isn’t meant to be comprehensive, and I know I’ve left a good many out. Many AIs fit in several categories, but I’d love to hear your ideas on how your favorite machine people tell us more about who we are and how we live.