You Are Being Watched: Books about Artificial Intelligences

July 28, 2016 | Andrea

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Earlier this week, a cherubic spiky-haired robot named Ludwig made his debut at a Toronto retirement home. Designed by a team of U of T researchers, he can carry conversations and analyze speech patterns to help detect Alzheimer's disease. Ludwig's creators are hopeful that after a trial period, the artificial intelligence can be fine-tuned for eventual mass production.

Whether this is a stepping stone into a Jetsons-esque future filled with robots to cook and clean and care for us, who can say for sure? It is certainly fun to speculate, though. We often imagine AIs (artificial intelligences) as villainous in fiction, perhaps reflecting how humans strive to create technology to improve our lives, but also struggle with a deep-seated anxiety about machines supplanting us. In Neil Gaiman's new book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats, there's a thought-provoking piece in which he discusses three questions at the heart of speculative storytelling: the ones that begin with what if, if only, and if this goes on. Last month, an AI called ALPHA defeated an experienced pilot in an air combat simulator. If this goes on… well, we've seen the movies.

"Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history," Stephen Hawking and a group of fellow scientists told us. "Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks." Fiction allows us to explore "cautionary worlds" and consider real life implications and consequences. For example, "You are being watched" is the unsettling warning that opens each episode of Person of Interest, a cerebral sci-fi drama about all-seeing machines that index, order and control our lives. Over the course of its five-season run, the show masqueraded as a standard procedural while digging deep into themes of surveillance and sentience, slowly escalating into a war between two artificial superintelligences and their human agents.

In the June series finale, our ragtag team of protagonists made one last effort to destroy Samaritan, the ruthless ASI bent on razing civilization to protect it. But saving the world requires sacrifice, and not all heroes emerge unscathed from the battle. Here are more stories where you can get emotionally invested in AIs and the characters who fight for or against them:

Alex and Ada Vol 1 by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna  Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson  Speak by Louisa Hall  Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

Alex + Ada, Volume 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn  

Want to read about sweet and supportive robots instead of sinister ones? This graphic novel is the unlikely love story of a lonely human and an android.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson  

"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon," tech mogul Elon Musk warned us. Both he and Hawking have signed an open letter calling for responsible oversight to maximize the societal benefits of AI. But as readers snug in the safety of our imagination, we don't want to avert the scenario in the title of this novel — we want the action and thrills of a machine takeover. (Steven Spielberg was previously attached to a film adaptation, but the project was delayed, possibly because Skynet put a stop to it.)

Speak by Louisa Hall

Embark on a literary voyage similar to Cloud Atlas, spanning centuries and featuring a cast that ranges from a 17th century Puritan to Alan Turing to a "babybot."

Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

Five hackers find more than they bargained for in the depths of cyberspace when they are recruited by the government to work on an off-the-books project. 


Classic novels: 

2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke  I, Robot by Isaac Asimov  The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick  Neuromancer by William Gibson

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Astronauts aboard the Discovery One begin to suspect that something is amiss with HAL 9000, the AI running the spaceship's systems.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

This collection of short stories examines the relationship between humans and robots, and the applications (and loopholes!) of the Three Laws of Robotics. 

The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick

Person of Interest is based on the same premise as this short story: what if a machine were able to predict and prevent crimes before they occur?

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Hailed by many as the definitive cyberpunk novel, this dystopic conspiracy thriller inspired and informed a great deal of modern science fiction, including The Matrix.