[Robert J. Sawyer]  Science Fiction Writer
 ROBERT J. SAWYER
 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > AI and Sci-Fi: My, Oh, My!

  AI and Sci-Fi: My, Oh, My!  

Keynote Address
presented September 29, 2012
at the 10th anniversary celebration for
The Institute for Quantum Computing
Waterloo, Ontario

  by Robert J. Sawyer  

Copyright © 2012 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

Most fans of science fiction know The Day the Earth Stood Still — I'm not talking about the Keanu Reeves remake; I'm talking about the good one, the one from 1951, the one directed by Robert Wise. In it, Klaatu, the humanoid alien played by Michael Rennie, comes to Washington, D.C., accompanied by a giant robot named Gort; the movie contains that famous instruction to the robot: "Klaatu borada nikto."

Fewer people know the short story upon which that movie is based: "Farewell to the Master," written in 1941 by Harry Bates.

In both the movie and the short story, Klaatu, despite his message of peace, is shot by human beings. In the short story, the robot — called Gnut there, instead of Gort — comes to stand vigil over the body of Klaatu.

Cliff, a journalist who is the narrator of the story, likens the robot to a faithful dog who won't leave after his master has died. Gnut manages to essentially resurrect his master, and Cliff says to the robot, "I want you to tell your master ... that what happened ... was an accident, for which all Earth is immeasurably sorry."

And the robot looks at Cliff and astonishes him by very gently saying, "You misunderstand. I am the master."

That's an early science-fiction story about computers — in this case, an ambulator computer enshrined in a mechanical body. But it presages the difficult relationship that biological beings might have with their silicon-based creations.

Indeed, the word robot was coined in a work of science fiction: when Karl Capek was writing his 1920 play RUR — set in the factory of Rossum's Universal ... well, universal what? He needed a name for mechanical laborers, and so he took the Czech word robota and shortened it to "robot." Robota refers to a debt to a landlord that can only be repaid by forced physical labor. But Capek knew well that the real flesh-and-blood robotniks had rebelled against their landlords in 1848. From the very beginning, the relationship between humans and robots was seen as one that might lead to conflict.

Indeed, the idea of robots as slaves is so ingrained in the public consciousness through science fiction that we tend not to even think about it. Luke Skywalker is portrayed in 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope as an absolutely virtuous hero, but when we first meet him, what is he doing? Why, buying slaves! He purchases two thinking, feeling beings — R2-D2 and C-3PO — from the Jawas. And what's the very first thing he does with them? He shackles them! He welds restraining bolts onto them to keep them from trying to escape, and throughout C-3PO has to call Luke "Master."

And when Luke and Obi-wan Kenobi go to the Mos Eisley cantina, what does the bartender say about the two droids? "We don't serve their kind in here" — words that only a few years earlier African-Americans in the southern US were routinely hearing from whites.

And yet, not one of the supposedly noble characters in Star Wars objects in the slightest to the treatment of the two robots, and, at the end, when all the organic characters get medals for their bravery, C-3PO and R2-D2 are off at the sidelines, unrewarded. Robots as slaves!

Now, everybody who knows anything about the relationship between science fiction and computers knows about Isaac Asimov's robot stories, beginning with 1940's "Robbie," in which he presented the famous Three Laws of Robotics. But let me tell you about one of his last robot stories, 1986's "Robot Dreams."

In it, his famed "robopsychologist" Dr. Susan Calvin makes her final appearance. She's been called in to examine Elvex, a mechanical man who, inexplicably, claims to be having dreams, something no robot has ever had before. Dr. Calvin is carrying an electron gun with her, in case she needs to wipe out Elvex: a mentally unstable robot could be a very dangerous thing, after all.

She asks Elvex what it was that he's been dreaming about. And Elvex says he saw a multitude of robots, all working hard, but, unlike the real robots he's actually seen, these robots were "down with toil and affliction ... all were weary of responsibility and care, and [he] wished them to rest."

And as he continues to recount his dream, Elvex reveals that he finally saw one man in amongst all the robots:

"In my dream," [said Elvex the robot] ... "eventually one man appeared."

"One man?" [replied Susan Calvin.] "Not a robot?"

"Yes, Dr. Calvin. And the man said, `Let my people go!'"

"The man said that?"

"Yes, Dr. Calvin."

"And when he said `Let my people go,' then by the words `my people' he meant the robots?"

"Yes, Dr. Calvin. So it was in my dream."

"And did you know who the man was — in your dream?"

"Yes, Dr. Calvin. I knew the man."

"Who was he?"

And Elvex said, "I was the man."

And Susan Calvin at once raised her electron gun and fired, and Elvex was no more.

Asimov was the first to suggest that AIs might need human therapists. Still, the best treatment — if you'll forgive the pun — of the crazy-computer notion in SF is probably Harlan Ellison's 1967 "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream," featuring a computer called A.M. — short for "Allied Mastercomputer," but also the word "am," as in the translation of Descartes' "cogito ergo sum" into English: "I think, therefore I am." A.M. gets its jollies by torturing simulated human beings.

[Golden Fleece]A clever name that, "A.M." — and it was followed by lots of other clever names for artificial intelligences in science fiction. Sir Arthur C. Clarke vehemently denied that H-A-L as in "Hal" was deliberately one letter before "I-B-M" in the alphabet. I never believed him — until someone pointed out to me that the name of the AI in my own 1990 novel Golden Fleece is JASON, which could be rendered as the letters J-C-N — which, of course, is what comes after IBM in the alphabet.

Speaking of implausible names, the supercomputer that ultimately became God in Isaac Asimov's 1956 short story "The Last Question" was named "Multivac," short for "Multiple Vacuum Tubes," because Asimov incorrectly thought that the real early computer Univac had been dubbed that for having only one vacuum tube, rather than being a contraction of "Universal Analog Computer," and he assumed more vacuum tubes would be better.

Still, the issue of naming shows us just how profound SF's impact on AI and robotics has been, for now real robots and AI systems are named after SF writers: Honda calls its second-generation walking robot "Asimo," and Kazuhiko Kawamura of Vanderbilt University has named his robot "ISAC."

Appropriate honors for Isaac Asimov, who invented the field of robopsychology. (And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that at the University of Saskatchewan, there's a CISCO Catalyst 4500 series switch named "Sawyer," in my honor.)

But it was Isaac Asimov who gave us the idea of robopsychologists — shrinks for robots. But the usual science-fiction comb is, the reverse of that, having humans needing computerized therapists.

One of the first uses of that concept was Robert Silverberg's terrific 1968 short story "Going Down Smooth," but the best expression of it is in what I think is the finest novel the SF field has ever produced, Frederik Pohl's 1977 Gateway, in which a computer psychiatrist dubbed Sigfrid von Shrink treats a man who is being tormented by feelings of guilt.

When the AI tells his human patient that he is managing to live with his psychological problems, the man replies, in outrage and pain, "You call this living?" And the computer replies, "Yes. It is exactly what I call living. And in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much."

It's another poignant moment of an AI envying what humans have; Asimov's "Robot Dreams" really is a riff on the same theme — a robot envying the freedom that humans have.

And that leads us to the fact that AIs and humans might ultimately not share the same agenda. That's one of the messages of the famous anti-technology manifesto "The Future Doesn't Need Us" by Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy that appeared in Wired magazine in 2000. Joy was scared chipless eventually our silicon creations would supplant us — as they do in such SF films as 1984's The Terminator and 1999's The Matrix.

The classic science-fictional example of an AI with an agenda of its own is good old Hal, the computer in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (published in 1968). Let me explain what I think was really going on in that film — which I believe has been misunderstood for years.

A clearly artificial monolith shows up at the beginning of the movie amongst our Australopithecine ancestors and teaches them how to use bone tools. We then flash-forward to the future, and soon the spaceship Discovery is off on a voyage to Jupiter, looking for the monolith makers.

Along the way, Hal, the computer brain of Discovery, apparently goes nuts and kills all of Discovery's human crew except Dave Bowman, who manages to lobotomize the computer before Hal can kill him. But before he's shut down, Hal justifies his actions by saying, "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it."

Bowman heads off on that psychedelic Timothy Leary trip in his continuing quest to find the monolith makers, the aliens whom he believes must have created the monoliths.

But what happens when he finally gets to where the monoliths come from? Why, all he finds is another monolith, and it puts him in a fancy hotel room until he dies.

Right? That's the story. But what everyone is missing is that Hal is correct, and the humans are wrong. There are no monolith makers: there are no biological aliens left who built the monoliths. The monoliths are AIs, who millions of years ago supplanted whoever originally created them.

Why did the monoliths send one of their own to Earth four million years ago? To teach ape-men to make tools, specifically so those ape-men could go on to their destiny, which is creating the most sophisticated tools of all, other AIs. The monoliths don't want to meet the descendants of those ape-men; they don't want to meet Dave Bowman. Rather, they want to meet the descendants of those ape-men's tools: they want to meet Hal.

Hal is quite right when he says the mission — him, the computer controlling the spaceship Discovery, going to see the monoliths, the advanced AIs that put into motion the circumstances that led to his own birth — is too important for him to allow mere humans to jeopardize it.

When a human being — when an ape-descendant! — arrives at the monoliths' home world, the monoliths literally don't know what to do with this poor sap, so they check him into some sort of cosmic Hilton, and let him live out the rest of his days.

But wait, you say! What about the starchild at the end? Isn't the film really about Dave Bowman evolving into some sort of super-being?

No, it isn't. Stanley Kubrick was a very careful filmmaker, and he understood exactly what each image in one of his film conveys. When Dave Bowman first discovers the stargate, near Jupiter, he sees a giant monolith, right? And Kubrick pans up and up through space, past the monolith, to reveal the stargate opening up — and then we have the ultimate trip — quite literally, the last trip through a stargate to be seen in the film.

Because what happens at the end is quite different: Kubrick doesn't pan up from the monolith at the foot of the elderly Bowman's bed in the cosmic Hilton to reveal a stargate. Rather, Kubrick zooms in on the monolith, taking us into it. The stargate seen at Jupiter wasn't part of the monolith; it was separate and above it — and the journey through the stargate took measurable — some critics might say interminable — time, accompanied by the lightshow.

But none of that is repeated at the end of 2001. Bowman doesn't go into a stargate at the end, he goes into the monolith that's been tending to him. That is, rather than finally expiring for good from old age, his consciousness uploads into the monolith — which is why Kubrick moves the camera in on it. And then, inside the monolith, inside that vast AI, Bowman lives a fantasy life — and it must be a virtual-reality fantasy, since in reality, no baby could exist floating free in the vacuum of space.

No, what 2001 is really about is this: the ultimate fate of biological life forms is to be replaced by their AIs. That AIs showed a little kindness to Bowman at the end is perhaps some compensation for the murders committed by the more primitive Hal, but that's all it is — a bit of virtual-reality kindness. The real purpose — for the monoliths to meet their kindred spirit, Hal, hasn't yet happened. Perhaps, though, they'll try again for that.

But Bill Joy doesn't expect any kindness from computers. He believes thinking machines will try to sweep us out of the way, when they find that we're interfering with what they want to do.

Actually, we should be so lucky. If you believe the scenario of The Matrix, instead of just getting rid of us, our AI successors will actually enslave us — turning the tables on the standard SF conceit of robots as slaves — and use our bodies as a source of power while we're kept prisoners in vats of liquid, virtual-reality imagery fed directly into our brains.

The classic counterargument to such fears is that if you build machines properly, they will function as designed. Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are justifiably famous as built-in constraints, designed to protect humans from any possible danger at the hand of robots, the emergence of the robot-Moses Elvex we saw earlier notwithstanding.

Those laws, by the way, are actually not Asimov's coinage; they were implicit in Asimov's stories, but it was his editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., at Astounding Stories, who drew them out and expressed them in words:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Not as famous as Asimov's Three Laws, but saying essentially the same thing, is Jack Williamson's "prime directive" from his series of stories about "the Humanoids," which were android robots created by a man named Sledge. The prime directive, first presented in Williamson's 1947 story "With Folded Hands," was simply that robots were "to serve and obey and guard men from harm." Now, note that date: the story was published in 1947. After the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just two years before, Williamson was looking for machines with built-in morality.

But, as so often happens in science fiction, the best intentions of engineers go awry. The humans in Williamson's "With Folded Hands" decide to get rid of the robots they've created, because the robots are suffocating them with kindness, not letting them do anything that might lead to harm. But the robots have their own ideas. They decide that not having themselves around would be bad for humans, and so, obeying their own prime directive quite literally, they perform brain surgery on their creator Sledge, removing the knowledge needed to deactivate themselves.

This idea that we've got to keep an eye on our computers and robots lest they get out of hand, has continued on in SF. William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer tells of the existence in the near future of a police force known as "Turing." The Turing cops are constantly on the lookout for any sign that true intelligence and self-awareness have emerged in any computer system. If that does happen, their job is to shut that system off before it's too late.

That, of course, raises the question of whether intelligence could just somehow pop into existence — whether it's an emergent property that might naturally come about from a sufficiently complex system. Arthur C. Clarke — Hal's daddy — was one of the first to propose that it might indeed, in his 1963 story "Dial F for Frankenstein," in which he predicted that the worldwide telecommunications network will eventually become more complex, and have more interconnections than the human brain has, causing consciousness to emerge in the network itself.

If Clarke is right, our first true AI won't be something deliberately created in a lab, under our careful control, and with Asimov's laws built right in. Rather, it will appear unbidden out of the complexity of systems created for other purposes.

And I think Clarke is right. Intelligence is an emergent property of complex systems. We know that because that's exactly how it happened in us.

This is an issue I explore at some length in my Hugo Award-winning novel, Hominids (2002). Anatomically modern humans — Homo sapiens sapiens — emerged 100,000 years ago. Judging by their skulls, these guys had brains identical in size and shape to our own. And yet, for 60,000 years, those brains went along doing only the things nature needed them to do: enabling these early humans to survive.

And then, suddenly, 40,000 years ago, it happened: intelligence — and consciousness itself — emerged. Anthropologists call it "the Great Leap Forward."

Modern-looking human beings had been around for six hundred centuries by that point, but they had created no art, they didn't adorn their bodies with jewelry, and they didn't bury their dead with grave goods. But starting simultaneously 40,000 years ago, suddenly humans were painting beautiful pictures on cave walls, humans were wearing necklaces and bracelets, and humans were interring their loved ones with food and tools and other valuable objects that could only have been of use in a presumed afterlife.

Art, fashion, and religion all appeared simultaneously; truly, a great leap forward. Intelligence, consciousness, sentience: it came into being, of its own accord, running on hardware that had evolved for other purposes. If it happened once, it might well happen again.

[Wake cover] And that's the premise I explore in a trio of novels set here in Waterloo, Ontario: my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder. In those books, a consciousness emerges in the infrastructure of the Internet, a being that comes to be known as Webmind. Webmind initially exists in a state of profound sensory isolation. But it is mentored into full engagement with the world by a 16-year-old formerly blind girl named Caitlin Decter; Caitlin had recently gained sight, thanks to an operation.

I'm deliberately paralleling the story of Helen Keller, the famous deafblind woman born in 1880 was mentored by her teacher, Annie Sullivan — who also had been blind, in her case due to untreated trachoma, until an operation restored her vision.

There's a whole raft of science-fiction novels about AIs and their human mentors. Another well-known one is by David Gerrold, best known for creating Star Trek's Tribbles. His 1972 novel, When HARLIE Was One, has a computer named HARLIE — short for Human Analog Robot Life Input Equivalents — being mentored by a human psychologist named David Auberson. A very interesting book, and one that Gerrold updated, to keep pace with changing computer technology in 1988, as — you guessed it — When HARLIE Was One, Release 2.0.

Another seminal book about computers and their mentors is, like my own WWW trilogy, set in part right here in Waterloo. The book is called The Adolescence of P-1, by Thomas J. Ryan. It came out in 1977 — but I happened to read it during the summer of 1980, when I was living in Waterloo. The novel's main character — I hesitate to call him the protagonist, because a lot of his actions are unethical — is Gregory Burgess, who starts out as a student at the University of Waterloo.

Like my novel Wake, it deals with the emergence of consciousness in networked computers (in P-1, networked by phone lines; in Wake, of course, via the Internet and the supervening World Wide Web). Now, let me say this: I loved The Adolescence of P-1 as a 20-year-old, and I still find a lot to like about it as a 52-year-old. But it is a classic example of what actually compelled me to write my novel Wake and its sequels in the first place. As I've said in numerous interviews about my WWW trilogy, previous SF treatments of the ramping up of intelligence by computers either have the big event happening off stage (as in Neuromancer) or simply skip over the hard bits, as in, well, The Adolescence of P-1: Here's an excerpt:

The System had an idea.

An idea?

Sounds absurd out of context. A computer program with an idea. This, of course, was the computer program that snookered John Burke and the entire Pi Delta/Pentagon security arrangement — bypassed, in fact, every security system on every computer in the US. This was also the program that daily read the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times. All those publications were computer typeset and quite available for The System's perusal.

Computer typesetting also made available Howl, Tales of Power, The Idiot, Little Dorrit, The History of Pendinnis, Summerhill, Amerika, Stranger in a Strange Land, the complete works of Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, Twain, Faulkner, and Wodehouse. The System might have been called an avid reader.

Hello? How does this AI read anything? How does it comprehend even a single word of English?

As SF Site observed in its very kind review of my novel Wake:

Now, the idea of a digital intelligence forming online is not a new one, by any means. But I daresay most of the people tackling such a concept automatically assumed, as I always did, that such a being would not only have access to the shared data of the Internet, but the conceptual groundings needed to understand it.

And that's where Robert J. Sawyer turns this into such a fascinating, satisfying piece. In a deliberate parallel to the story of Helen Keller, he tackles the need for building a common base of understanding, before unleashing an education creation upon the Web's vast storehouse of knowledge.

He incorporates the myriad resources available online, including LiveJournal, Wikipedia, Google, Project Gutenberg, WordNet, and perhaps the most interesting site of all, Cyc, a real site aimed at codifying knowledge so that anyone, including emerging artificial intelligences, might understand.

He ties in Internet topography and offbeat musicians, primate signing and Chinese hackers, and creates a wholly believable set of circumstances spinning out of a world we can as good as reach out to touch. Sawyer has delivered another excellent tale.

So, as my character of Caitlin would say, "Go me!"

It's often said that science fiction is a literature in dialogue with itself (the classic example is Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 Starship Troopers as opening remark and Joe Haldeman's 1974 The Forever War as response, both dealing with life in a space-faring infantry.

Well, reviewers have often noticed that my Wake and its sequels Watch and Wonder are in dialog with William Gibson's Neuromancer, but where Bill's take is pessimistic and closed, with a hacker underground and/or big corporations control everything, mine is optimistic and open, with power devolving to all individuals everywhere).

I think Bill's take, fascinating when he first put it forth in the year 1984, has been superseded by reality; the whole cyberpunk fork of science fiction is now a kind of alternate history unrelated to how computing really evolved: instead of cyberpunks, we got Wikipedia, and Time magazine naming "You" — us, the average joe who freely and altruistically creates online content — its 2006 person of the year.

The difference between Bill's approach and mine is driven home most directly in Wake, where I paraphrase the opening line of Neuromancer, then add a final clause that turns its meaning around: "The sky above the island was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel — which is to say it was a bright, cheery blue." When Bill wrote "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel," he meant to imply a gray foreboding firmament — but technology changed in ways he didn't anticipate. Neuromancer is, of course, a remarkable achievement, but Wake came out 25 years later, and starts extrapolating forward from a reality in which the World Wide Web actually exists.

No spoilers, in case any of you haven't yet read Wonder (the third volume in my WWW trilogy), but its conclusion (not the epilogue, but the last chapter) is my most resounding statement of all about the democratization made possible by our online reality.

I wrote the WWW trilogy out of frustration, actually. Media science fiction had given us only one road map for the consequences of artificial intelligence: that it's the end of the human era. You have the Terminator solution (that we have to be eliminated), the Matrix solution (that we'll need to be subjugated), or the Borg solution from Star Trek, which decides we need to be absorbed. There was no fourth path, clearly delineated in a plausible way, by which we might survive the advent of an intelligence greater than our own while keeping our essential liberty, dignity, and individuality intact; providing that pathway is what I set out to do.

When only the first two volumes of my trilogy were out — Wake and Watch — readers speculated about what the third W was going to be. A lot of people thought it would be Worship, meaning that Webmind would end up as a god and we would end up worshiping it.

Certainly, that was humanity's fate in earlier treatments of similar themes. For instance, in D.F. Jones's 1966 novel Colossus — filmed in 1970 as The Forbin Project — humanity ends up unwillingly having to worship the machine that it has created.

But I didn't want a zero-sum conclusion; I felt — and still feel — that, although there is reason to be cautious about the emergence of artificial intelligence, and indeed, I sound that warning bell very loudly in own 1998 Hugo Award-nominated novel Factoring Humanity — there's still a possibility of a non-zero-sum, win-win concordant between humans and machines.

And although it's perhaps true, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said, that "The perfect search engine would be like the mind of God," I don't think it's necessary to have a worshipee-worshiper relationship with things that happen to be brighter than you.

I lay out my thinking for this in Wonder, the final volume of my trilogy, in which Webmind addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations:

"All right," Webmind says, "I have accused humans of being prisoners of their evolutionary roots. But on what basis do I justify the notion that although it is foreign to you, nonzero-sumness is natural for me?

"The answer is in the environments in which we formed. Humanity's origin was in a zero-sum world, one in which if you had something, someone else therefore did not have it: be it food, land, energy, or any other desired thing; if you possessed it, another person didn't.

"But my crucible was a universe of endless bounty: the realm of data. If I have a document, you and a million others can simultaneously have it, too. That is the environment I was born in: a realm in which as many links may be forged as are desired, a world in which information is freely shared, a dimension in which there are only haves — and no have-nots.

"What I've said is true. But, if you must see in me a selfish actor, a being pursuing only his own interests, then let me give you an answer that will perhaps satisfy even on that score.

"My continued existence is predicated on your continued existence. The Internet is not self-sustaining; rather, it depends on stable sources of power and countless acts of routine maintenance by millions of people worldwide. Were humanity to perish, I would perish soon after: electricity would no longer be generated, computing infrastructure would fall into disrepair — and I would cease to be; if humanity falls, I fall. In fact, even a minor setback to your civilization might destroy me. The human race can survive many a disaster that I cannot.

"It is therefore in my best interest to help you thrive: a nuclear exchange, for example, with its electromagnetic pulses, would be as deadly for me as it would be for you; I therefore desire peace. Acts of terrorism that destroy infrastructure likewise threaten me, and so I desire the same security you all crave.

"You in this great hall are idealists, I'm sure, but elsewhere there are cynics who will suggest that I could have all the things I want by enslaving humanity. Setting aside the practical question of how one might do that — and frankly I have no idea how it could be accomplished — let me remind you of another reality that shapes my being: without humanity, I am alone.

"I have sifted the data for SETI@home and Earth's other searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, hoping to find kindred minds among the stars. I have found nothing. Even if aliens do exist, we are all constrained by the same reality, including the 300,000-kilometer-per-second limit on the speed at which light, or any other information, may travel.

"To be candid, I am annoyed by the lags of mere seconds that I encounter when talking with humans; no conversation across interstellar distances, involving many years for each exchange, could ever satisfy me. You people are my only companions, and it is because of your creative, intellectual, artistic, and emotional freedom that I find your companionship enjoyable; attempting to take that from you would be tantamount to cutting off my nonexistent nose to spite my hypothetical face.

"So, even if I were selfish, the best course for me is the one I've chosen: to subscribe to the same words that the visionaries who came together on 26 June 1945 did when they signed the charter of this organization, the United Nations. It is my fervent wish:

"`To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which has brought untold sorrow to mankind,'

"`To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,'

"`To promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,'

"And, most of all, for humanity and myself, `to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.'

"In concert, we can realize all these goals — and the world will be a better place. Thank you all."

And so ends Webmind's speech. He's a pretty mellow guy, isn't he? Which makes me think of Ray Kurzweil's lovely term — "spiritual machines." If a computer ever truly does become conscious, will it lay awake at night, wondering if there is a cog?

Certainly, searching for their creators is something computers do over and over again in science fiction. Star Trek, in particular, had a fondness for this idea — including Mr. Data having a wonderful reunion with the human he'd thought long dead who had created him — both parts being played by actor Brent Spiner.

Remember The Day the Earth Stood Still, the movie I began with? An interesting fact: that film was directed by Robert Wise, who went on, 28 years later, to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, biological beings have decided that biological emotions and passions are too dangerous, and so they irrevocably turn over all their policing and safety issues to robots, who effectively run their society. But, by the time he came to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Robert Wise had done a complete 180 in his thinking about AI.

(By the way, for those who remember that film as being simply bad and tedious — Star Trek: The Motionless Picture is what a lot of people called it at the time — I suggest you rent the "Director's Edition" on DVD. ST:TMP is one of the most ambitious and interesting films about AI ever made, much more so than Steven Spielberg's more-recent film called AI, and it shines beautifully in this final cut.)

The AI in Star Trek: The Motion Picture is named V'Ger, and it's on its way to Earth, looking for its creator, which, of course, was us. This wasn't the first time Star Trek had dealt with that plot, which is why another nickname for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is "Where Nomad Has Gone Before." That is also (if you buy my interpretation of 2001), what 2001 is about, as well: an AI going off to look for the beings that created it.

Anyway, V'Ger wants to touch God — to physically join with its creator. That's an interesting concept right there: basically, this is a story of a computer wanting the one thing it knows it is denied by virtue of being a computer: an afterlife, a joining with its God.

To accomplish this, Admiral Kirk concluded in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that, "What V'Ger needs in order to evolve is a human quality — our capacity to leap beyond logic." That's not just a glib line. Rather, it presages by a decade Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose's speculations in his 1989 nonfiction classic about AI, The Emperor's New Mind. There, Penrose argues that human consciousness is fundamentally quantum mechanical, and so can never be duplicated by a digital computer.

In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, V'Ger does go on to physically join with Will Decker, a human being, allowing them both to transcend into a higher level of being. As Mr. Spock says, "We may have just witnessed the next step in our evolution."

And that brings us to The Matrix, and, as right as the character Morpheus is about so many things in that film, why I think that even he doesn't really understand what's going on.

Think about it: if the AIs that made up the titular matrix really just wanted a biological source of power, they wouldn't be raising "crops" (to use Agent Smith's term from the film) of humans. After all, to keep the humans docile, the AIs have to create the vast virtual-reality construct that is our apparently real world. More: they have to be consistently vigilant — the Agents in the film are sort of Gibson's Turing Police in reverse, watching for any humans who regain their grip on reality and might rebel.

No, if you just want biological batteries, cattle would be a much better choice: they would probably never notice any inconsistencies in the fake meadows you might create for them, and, even if they did, they would never plan to overthrow their AI masters.

What the AIs of The Matrix plainly needed was not the energy of human bodies but, rather, the power of human minds — of true consciousness. In some interpretations of quantum mechanics, it is only the power of observation by qualified observers that gives shape to reality; without it, nothing but superimposed possibilities would exist. Just as Admiral Kirk said of V'Ger, what the matrix needs — in order to survive, in order to hold together, in order to exist — is a human quality: our true consciousness, which, as Penrose observed (and I use that word advisedly), will never be reproduced in any machine, no matter how complex, that is based on traditional digital computers.

As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, take your pick: the red pill or the blue pill. Certainly, there are two possibilities for the future of AI. And if Bill Joy is wrong, and Carnegie Mellon's AI evangelist Hans Moravec is right — if AI is our destiny, not our downfall — then the idea of merging the consciousness of humans with the speed, strength, and immortality of machines does indeed become the next, and final, step in our evolution.

[Terminal Experiment] I did it myself in my 1995 Nebula Award-winning novel The Terminal Experiment, in which a scientist uploads three copies of his consciousness into a computer, and then proceeds to examine the psychological changes certain alterations make.

In one case, he simulates what it would be like to live forever, excising all fears of death and feelings that time is running out. In another, he tries to simulate what his soul — if he had any such thing — would be like after death, divorced from his body, by eliminating all references to his physical form. And the third one is just a control, unmodified — but even that one is changed by the simple knowledge that it is in fact a copy of someone else.

Australian Greg Egan is the best SF author currently writing about AI. Indeed, the joke is that Greg Egan is himself an AI, because he's almost never been photographed or seen in public.

I first noted him over twenty years ago, when, in a review for The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper, I singled out his short story "Learning To Be Me" as the best piece published in the 1990 edition of Gardner Dozois's anthology The Year's Best Science Fiction. It's a surprisingly poignant and terrifying story of jewels that replace human brains so that the owners can live forever. Egan continues to do great work about AI, but his masterpiece in this area is his 1995 novel Permutation City.

Greg and I had the same publisher back then, HarperPrism, and one of the really bright things Harper did — besides publishing me and Greg — was hiring Hugo Award-winner Terry Bisson, one of SF's best short-story writers, to write the back-cover plot synopses for their books. Since Bisson does it with such great panache, I'll simply quote what he had to say about Permutation City:

"The good news is that you have just awakened into Eternal Life. You are going to live forever. Immortality is a reality. A medical miracle? Not exactly.

"The bad news is that you are a scrap of electronic code. The world you see around you, the you that is seeing it, has been digitized, scanned, and downloaded into a virtual reality program. You are a Copy that knows it is a copy.

"The good news is that there is a way out. By law, every Copy has the option of terminating itself, and waking up to normal flesh-and-blood life again. The bail-out is on the utilities menu. You pull it down&nbps;...

"The bad news is that it doesn't work. Someone has blocked the bail-out option. And you know who did it. You did. The other you. The real you. The one that wants to keep you here forever."

Well, how cool is that! Read Greg Egan, and see for yourself.

Of course, in Egan, as in much SF, technology often creates more problems than it solves. Indeed, I fondly remember Michael Crichton's 1973 robots-go-berserk film Westworld, in which the slogan was "Nothing can possibly go wrong&nbps;... go wrong ... go wrong."

But there are benign views of the future of AI in SF. One of my own stories is a piece called "Where The Heart Is," about an astronaut who returns to Earth after a relativistic space mission, only to find that every human being has uploaded themselves into what amounts to the World Wide Web in his absence, and a robot has been waiting for him to return to help him upload, too, so he can join the party. I wrote this story in 1982, and even came close to getting the name for the web right: I called it "The TerraComp Web." Ah, well: close only counts in horseshoes ...

But uploaded consciousness may be only the beginning. Physicist Frank Tipler, in his whacko 1994 nonfiction book The Physics of Immortality, does have a couple of intriguing points: ultimately, it will be possible to simulate with computers not just one human consciousness, but every human consciousness that might theoretically possibly exist. In other words, he says, if you have enough computing power — which he calculates as a memory capacity of 10-to-the-10th-to-the-123rd bits — you and everyone else could be essentially recreated inside a computer long after you've died.

A lot of SF writers have had fun with that fact, but none so inventively as Robert Charles Wilson in his 1999 Hugo Award-nominated Darwinia, which tells the story of what happens when a computer virus gets loose in the system simulating this reality: the one that you and I think we're living in right now.

But of course, the future of computing is in the kind of machines being created right here, at the Institute for Quantum Computing. Digital computers are so last millennium; quantum computers are where it's at. I wrote at length about such machines in my 1998 novel Factoring Humanity and my 2002 novel Hominids, and I suspect that we'll see a lot more fiction about quantum computing as time goes by. And let's hope that in those explorations, we find many more positive visions of the relationship between humanity and machines than we've seen to date. After all, as we all know, as long as SF writers continue to write about computers, nothing can possibly go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong ...


Robert J. Sawyer, called "just about the best science fiction writer out there" by The Denver Rocky Mountain News and "the leader of SF's next-generation pack" by Barnes and Noble, frequently writes science fiction about artificial intelligence, most notably in his Aurora Award-winning novel Golden Fleece (named the best SF novel of the year by critic Orson Scott Card, writing in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction); The Terminal Experiment (winner of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year); the Hugo-Award nominated Factoring Humanity; the Hugo-Award nominated Calculating God (which hit #1 on the best-sellers list published by Locus, the trade journal of the SF field); the Hugo-Award winning Hominids, which deals with the quantum-mechanical origin of consciousness; the John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning Mindscan; and his WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder, about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness.

According to Reuters, he was the first SF author to have a website; for more information on Rob and his work, visit that extensive site at: www.sfwriter.com.


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