I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.

Part of the Reading Challenge for August is to read a Science Fiction book. While I do watch a lot of Science Fiction TV and movies, I’ve never been a big reader of the genre. But there is one type of character found in Science Fiction that always draws me into actually picking up a book and reading it: An Artificial Intelligence.

I’m not talking the sexy android type of AI, though that can be fun as well. I prefer the disembodied voice emanating from a series of computer banks that is self-aware and trying to figure out the nature of its existence. Of course, ever since HAL refused to open the pod bay doors, AIs in science fiction tend to produce a sense of unease and, often, a body count.

So, to help you choose a title for the Reading Challenge, let me introduce you to a few Artificial Intelligences from my recent reading. To aid in your selection, I’ve listed them from least to most dangerous. While I’m pretty forgiving when it comes AI ‘errors’ in regards to human casualties, I can see how it might be a bit off-putting for some.

Ship from Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Threat Level: Minimal to None

Ship, the name this AI prefers, has a lot on its plate. In addition to being an Artificial Intelligence, Ship is also a starship on its way to Tau Ceti, 12 light years from earth. It is responsible for caring for the multiple human generations that inhabit its artificial biomes and trying to ensure their safe arrival. As you might guess, humans being humans, many problems arise. Ship actually narrates large sections of Aurora so you get to learn its thought processes as it deals with human characters over their life span and different generations. It is a great device for examining human motivations and one of the most sympathetic portraits of an AI that I have come across.

IAN ‘Integrated Adaptive Network’ from Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Threat Level: Unknown

In this intriguing mix of Science Fiction and locked room mystery, IAN, the artificial intelligence running the starship Dormire, is just one of seven suspects that might have committed murder. While most of the crew is in cryo-sleep, six caretakers are assigned to work with IAN during the multi-year journey. In the world of Six Wakes cloning is the norm and upon your death, human consciousness can simply be transferred to another clone using a ‘mindmap.’ Usually a clone will remember how the previous body died, but in this case all six crew members wake up in a new clone body with no memory of their demise. There is ample evidence, via their blood-stained former bodies, that they were murdered. Suspiciously, IAN’s memory has also been erased and the ship is off course. Let the sleuthing begin!

Murderbot from the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells

Threat Level: High (but less than you might think from an AI named Murderbot)

Murderbot, the name it uses for itself but never shares, is a semi-organic sentient android known as a SecUnit. SecUnits are created and controlled by big corporations to do their bidding. This usually entails long hours of guarding corporate assets, with a little lethal force thrown in. Murderbot has hacked its Governor Module, however, and is now completely independent from its corporate overlords. So what does it do with this newfound freedom? Go on a murderous rampage perhaps or take over the world? No, Murderbot just wants to watch as many video serials as possible, especially its favorite space soap opera, Sanctuary Moon. Sadly, events force Murderbot to not only interact with humans, who it doesn’t understand and wants to avoid at all costs, but also engage with a world far different from its beloved fictional programs.

The Chimp from The Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

Threat Level: High, especially if your actions fall out of mission parameters

The construction starship Eriophora is on a whopping 66 million year mission. The mission brief is to create interstellar wormhole gates so that humanity, if it still exists after all this time, can explore the universe. Overseeing the project is an Artificial Intelligence dubbed ‘the Chimp’ by crew member Sunday Ahzmundin. The Chimp requires human assistance, however, since it was designed to be efficient but not smart enough to question the mission or its own purpose. The Eriophora’s human crew is in stasis for millions of years at a time and only awaked for brief periods to assist the AI. As you might guess, many members of the crew do not consider this an ideal existence. The question is: how do you incite a rebellion in such a fragmented time frame against an AI slavishly adhering to mission parameters?

AIDAN ‘Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network’ from the Illuminae Files series by Amie Kaufman

Threat Level: Extreme. Seriously, just run.

At one point AIDAN was just a simple AI charged with protecting a fleet of military spacecraft. But then it got damaged and went a little crazy. Well, crazy by human standards. Adhering a little too closely to the classic Vulcan principle ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’ ADIAN’s logic ends up getting a lot of people killed. And I mean, a lot. This trilogy is told through ‘found transcripts’ so AIDAN does get to explain his reasoning, it just might seem a little faulty. Especially if you think human life is actually precious or something. This is a young adult series, so there is also a lot of young love, snarkiness and moral outrage at a corrupt universe. Whether this helps you cut AIDAN some slack when it comes to the high body count is up to you.

Rise of the Machines

PMrobotsI know this is going to come as a shocking confession from a librarian, but I like to prioritize the things I worry about. My favorite organizational criterion (yes, I have a favorite) is:  ‘how likely is (insert worry here) going to happen.’  If it doesn’t seem very likely, I can set it aside and move on. I used to think worrying about a rogue Artificial Intelligence using its robot minions to take over the world was a pretty long shot. The other day though, I came across several articles referencing an Open Letter signed by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk that was concerned with the possible misuse of AI and robots as they continue to be developed. Clearly I am missing something to worry about. Time to do some research at the library to find out what all the fuss is about.

robotbuilderI was surprised to learn that if you want to get hands on and actually build a mechanical companion, we have several books to get you started. For an overview of what is currently possible, definitely take a look at Popular Mechanics Robots: a New Age of Bionics, Drones & Artificial Intelligence. You will learn about self-driving cars, surprisingly intelligent, and somewhat creepy, coffee makers and bionic limbs. After you have selected your project, the books Robot Builder: the Beginner’s Guide to Building Robot by John Baichtal, Making Simple Robots by Kathy Ceceri and Robot Builder’s Bonanza by Gordon McComb will get you started. Before releasing your creation on the world though, please read Chapter 5 of Robot Builder titled ‘Controlling Your Robot’ very carefully. Also having an off switch might come in handy.

whattothinkWhile what is possible today when it comes to Artificial Intelligence and robots is definitely intriguing, the near future, very near according to some, should be the time when things really get interesting. In the book What to Think About Machines That Think by John Brockman, the author asked many prominent philosophers, scientists and creative types a simple question: What do you think about machines that think? As you might expect, the answers vary widely. Some offer dystopian visions of the demise of humanity, while others promote a world where AI solves all our problems.  If you want to delve deeper, definitely check out The Technological Singularity by Murray Shanahan. This well researched book explains the Technological Singularity, basically the point where AI can learn on its own and overtakes human intelligence, and even tries to predict when it might happen and the consequences.

We actually have many more books that examine the issues surrounding AI and its development from various viewpoints. A few of the noteworthy titles include: Humans Need Not Apply: a Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake our World by Pedro Domingos and Virtually Human: the Promise and the Peril of Digital Immortality by Martine Rothblatt.

auroraWhen it comes to speculating about what AI is capable of though, fiction and film is definitely where all the fun is at. The scenario of the evil computer trying to take over the world is used so often in fiction that it is almost a cliche at this point. A fun cliche, but a cliche nonetheless. I recently read, well listened to actually, a really interesting take on AI in the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Aurora is the story of an attempt to colonize planets in the Tau Ceti system which is 12 light years from earth. Getting there takes nearly 160 years so it is the great grandchildren of those who departed who finally arrive. Overseeing the whole process is an artificial intelligence that prefers the simple name ‘ship’. Ship actually narrates a good three fourths of the book and in so doing examines a lot of compelling questions about what it means to exist, consciousness and the ability to think and feel. Here is a good example:

After much reflection, we are coming to the conclusion, preliminary and perhaps arbitrary, that the self, the so-called I that emerges out of the combination of all the inputs and processing and outputs that we experience in the ship’s changing body, is ultimately nothing more or less than this narrative itself, this particular train of thought that we are inscribing as instructed by Devi. There is a pretense of self, in other words, which is only expressed in this narrative; a self that is these sentences. We tell their story, and thereby come to what consciousness we have. Scribble ergo sum.

So I’m still not sure where to place the worry of an AI takeover on my list of worries. I have had fun researching the idea though. Maybe telling the story is the whole point, as ship would say.