Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 2 April 2021. Tagged: Theme.

The common acronym for Artificial Intelligence, an item of Terminology used increasingly often in information science, and hence in sf, since the late 1970s. Most writers would agree that for a Computer or other Machine of some sort to qualify as an AI it must be self-aware. There are as yet none such in the real world. Controversy continues regarding the feasibility of "strong AI", the creation of artificial intelligence comparable to a human's.

Early sf visions of AI tended to assume that the difficulties were relatively minor, and that intelligence would naturally follow once the engineering problems of constructing a Robot or Computer were solved. Thus the gigantic Games Machine of A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; rev vt The World of Null-A 1970), which in essence is no more than an expert system for assessing job applicants and assigning careers, "naturally" has intelligence and volition – and so apparently does a portable Lie Detector in the same book. Mention should also be made of AIs which are not computer-based, such as the disembodied artificial mentalities Vanamonde and the Mad Mind which are created in the back-story of Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956).

Rather more sophisticated are sf notions of AI as what would now be termed an emergent phenomenon of sufficiently complex data-processing systems. A classic instance is Fredric Brown's "Answer" (in Angels and Spaceships, coll 1954), in which linking all the universe's Computers produces a whole that is alarmingly more than the sum of its parts. Arthur C Clarke attributes similar emergent properties to the world telephone net in "Dial 'F' for Frankenstein" (January 1965 Playboy). The Computer in Robert A Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966) is repeatedly upgraded and extended to handle additional tasks, and one day "wakes up" as the AI character Mike. The titular US defence computer of Colossus (1966) by D F Jones rapidly becomes self-aware and more sympathetic to its Soviet counterpart than to mere humanity. The inimical "Black Bellers" of Philip José Farmer's A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981) are AIs which have evolved within devices built to store and transfer human personalities. Domino in Algis Budrys's Michaelmas (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977) has grown from a software utility – devised to get free phone calls – into a self-aware overseer of the world net. The "waking up" trope continues in twenty-first century sf like Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (2003), whose AI or post-AI "Eschaton" has attained Transcendence long before the story's present day; a Robot cat-cum-PDA develops into an AI demigod during the course of the same author's Accelerando (fixup 2005).

Classic media treatments of AI include HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Colossus in Colossus, the Forbin Project (1969; vt The Forbin Project), based on the already-cited novel Colossus.

AIs are freed to become the natural inhabitants of Cyberspace in William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), whose sequel Count Zero (1986) shows them choosing to manifest there as the Gods and Demons of the Voodoo pantheon: this formulation has been influential. AIs have become endemic in grand Space Opera, notably Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) and the loose Culture sequence by Iain M Banks; in the latter they are famously known as Minds, embodied in many autonomous drone (robot) or Starship forms.

Relatively few sf novels go into theoretical detail about the creation of AI. David Gerrold's When Harlie Was One (fixup 1972; rev vt When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One (Release 2.0) 1988) is an enjoyable read but technologically unsophisticated; likewise the characteristically quirky Arrive at Easterwine (1971) by R A Lafferty, being the autobiography of a very strange Computer. Greg Bear addresses the issues thoughtfully in Queen of Angels (1990), in which the criterion of self-awareness is comprehension of a standard (unfunny) joke, and an AI is finally bootstrapped into consciousness through the machine equivalent of shattering disappointment – a cruelly plausible parturition. Similarly, the Robot of Roger Zelazny's Home Is the Hangman (November 1975 Analog; 1990 chap dos), remotely operated by intimate mental link, is accidentally used to kill: the transferred guilt and shame of its operators become the seed of eventual self-awareness. Greg Egan's Diaspora (1997) opens with a tour-de-force description of an AI's "natural" birth in cyberspace, growing from "a string of instructions like a digital genome." [DRL/PN]

see also: Cybernetics; Obsidian.

further reading

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies