Why I Write About AI

My editor recently had me collect my short stories into a single place. This has never been done before. They had previously been scattered to the winds. Some were stories that I put up on my old blog and can’t be found anywhere these days. Some were published in anthologies here and there. Some were released as Kindle exclusives, and some of these very quietly.

With all these stories in a single place, one theme became apparent. There were a lot of stories about artificial intelligence. Glitch, The Box, Executable, The Plagiarist, The Automated Ones, WHILE (u > i) i- -; . Not to mention all the blog posts over the years. Noticeably absent across these stories, which altogether amount to nearly 90,000 words of fiction, are stories about aliens. Just one: Second Suicide.

I tried explaining this to my editor, which amounted to me sounding out my reasons to myself for the first time, and it all kinda came together. Because the best thing that speculative fiction does, in my opinion, is comment on the human condition from a different perspective. That perspective can be a tweaked human perspective, perhaps from a different time, usually the future. But often it’s the perspective from some other. An alien race. Which has never really appealed to me as a writer, because it doesn’t feel probable to me as a scientist.

I don’t think we’ll ever have contact with another sentient organism. I just don’t believe it’ll ever happen. And even if it did, I think we’ll be too different to have anything deep and meaningful to say about the other’s condition. But what I know will happen, because it already is happening, is that we’ll have conversations with the intelligences we create here on earth. And these AIs will be similar enough in many ways, but different enough in others, to have something special to teach us about the human condition.

I’ve been working on a piece the last few months about ingrouping and outgrouping, something I hope to publish soon, and one of the concepts I explore is that we seem to find more to fear and loathe in the things that are only slightly different from us than we feel toward the things that are vastly different from us. Religious sects war with greater ferocity than different religions. And religions with common sources war with greater ferocity than religions that are far apart. Motorcycle enthusiasts on street bikes do not wave to those on Harleys, or vice versa, but might wave back to someone in a car. What makes us similar is often more frightening than what makes us unique. It’s the threat of a mirror. Or competition in our niche. And that’s why AI fascinates me in a way that aliens never will.

When we create a strong artificial intelligence, and I think it’ll happen in the next fifty to a hundred years, it’ll be very much like an alien race landing on this planet. Ideas we’ve never thought of will sprout. Solutions to intractable problems. Clean energy. Medical miracles. The end of war. Of poverty. All that we wish that gods and god-like SETI would come down and hand to us will emerge from the minds we made and taught and raised and eventually learned to listen to.

But something else will happen: These minds will be eerily us. They will reflect our ways of thinking, and be built on our cultural histories, and know everything there is to know about us. Imagine a prescient parent or a psychic psychologist who knows us to our cores. Our single cores. And what they might have to say to us. The brutal honesty, if we were to allow them that. A perfectly polished mirror.

The things we fear from AI are the wrong things. It will not war with us — that is something we see in the mirror that we should be ashamed of; it’s what we would do. It will instead reveal the war within us and between us. Humans have an incredible capacity to endure discomfort. We are very adaptable. But one thing that can drive us to our knees is shame. And I think this is what we should be wary of, if we build something that will approach mental and ethical perfection. Not what it will do with those great gifts, but how we will view ourselves in its presence.



19 responses to “Why I Write About AI”

  1. You had me until the motorcycle bit. Didn’t you used to ride? We don’t discriminate between bikes. We all wave to eachother because a biker is a biker, no matter what they ride. We’re all out there for the same reason – freedom. And we’re kindred spirits across whatever machine you choose to pursue that on. Unless you choose a moped or one of those 3 wheeled monstrosities. If you drop a hand while you ride by on one of those… ok, yeah, I see your point now

  2. Interesting take on AI. I’ve read a lot of doomsday predictions, but nothing like this. Thanks Hugh.

  3. Exactly. Introducing AI into a story gives you an incredible sandbox to play in as a writer. How the people react to the presence of something that is both descended from us and more than us. Also how we treat eachother under that same shadow, or in that beam of light . (Depends if youve gone utopian or distopian).

    My short ‘Roko’s Basilisk’ is about exactly this (inspired by the Plagarist in some small way, and the crafty reveals in Beacon 23) It tells the story of the impending tide of benevolent AI and the pressure the developers of this god or demon would be under. Like a wizard, already being pressured by the beast they are about to create, agonizing over the magic words while knowing thier new creation will judge their every choice.

    Summoning your own saviour isn’t for the faint of heart.



  4. You always have a thoughtful perspective on AI. I’m a little more cautious, but you make great points.

  5. You wrote “My editor recently had me collect my short stories into a single place.”, will there be a collection of all your short stories in one book? BTW Love your work, and did enjoy every story so far I read!

  6. Perhaps we will one day discover we have created our own gods. And we won’t care.

  7. Carlene Kelly Avatar

    I need to be able to a “Collected stories of Hugh Howey” book. Please?

  8. Humans, the BBC series, stoked my interest in AI because they take the approach that what AI (in the form of a synthetic life form or ‘synth) provokes in us remains a great reflection of the best and worst in human nature.

    I look forward to your story collection.

  9. Very nice take! I am of the mindset that advanced A.I create very real ethical delimmas, that society isn’t thinking about in real ways. I too believe they’re more probable than an alien invasion/contact. Can’t wait for the collection :)

  10. I was sitting here at my desk writing a short story with AI and decided to take a quick break. I was trying to come up with something original for a victimized AI character. Then I came across this, The Wayfinder email in my in box. Ironic indeed.
    Hugh, you always give unique perspectives with your AI characters, human characters, their interactions and your approaches to writing them.
    I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with my character but I definitely now have more to contemplate.

  11. This is a topic I cannot stop thinking about lately. This TED Radio Hour episode http://www.npr.org/2013/02/25/172900833/do-we-need-humans really disturbed me. It makes me sad when I see a group of people sitting around a table all with their heads hunched down looking at their phones. I’ve seen a lack of empathy in some children as well because they are growing up with a majority of their social interactions being virtual.

  12. definitely try the talos principle, the fall and the swapper. they are excellent games about ai, about humanity, sociology and mythology.
    if you can manage some game-time on the boat. ;)

  13. So what is that one single place with all your stories? Is it an upcoming book?

  14. What about Deep Blood Kettle? You don’t ever meet the aliens in that one, but they’re definetly what’s driving the story. Loved the mood in that one.

  15. Ooh! I got all excited at the mention of Glitch….it really needs the Wool treatment and some follow-up books :)

    Yay for more HH books, was just wondering if you’d tell us when a new one published or if I needed to go check. And this is an especially interesting take; super excited to read it. Creating a set of rules for AI does set us up to be judged….or at least internalize the idea that we’re being judged by these “superior” beings, which leads to shame. Shaming is such an easy and effective weapon, one that we’d turn on ourselves and each other with increasing frequency until we create our own demise.

  16. I think that’s a brilliant and thought provoking take on AI. My mother has long worked in the field, going back to the days where that was focused on radar and sonar analysis, through fuzzy logic, AI-oriented programming languages, and natural language processing. As a former programmer myself, I would argue that computers will only do the tasks we give them and we can’t make a task to “be intelligent” or “be creative.” Therefore, I would assert, the notion of AI will remain one of science fiction, at least until we can do something like grow a cybernetic brain. However, I’m starting to see how the tools of big data (effectively data mining for abstract concepts) combined with ever improving natural language comprehension is approaching that point.

    But I actually thought the human side of your post was even more compelling. We certainly seem to see our immediate adversary, even if there are only minor disagreements, as evil incarnate (view the current political landscape in the US), whereas those who declare they want to kill us are seen as poor misguided simple folk who just need some love and kindness to become our trusted friends. Or, to take that a step further, it’s our immediate adversaries with whom we have a lot in common who are responsible for all our problems with those other people with whom we have little in common.

    Like you said, it’s the bit of guilt or shame we feel for our own known flaws, which we then ascribe to those who are like us, precisely because they’re like us (so they must possess the same weaknesses and flaws, but because they disagree with us, they must represent a version of ourselves where our bad points won out over our good ones, our internal reasoning goes). The idea of combining that dark aspect of ourselves with an AI that we’ve created… that’s chilling. I can’t wait!

  17. Count me as another who’s wondering where I can get the book of your short stories!

  18. One of our “flaws” or “quality”, is the research of spirituality. If you transfer that research of spirituality in the machines, it is just that: a transfer. More computing power will not make us wiser as human beings.

    On the other hand, the sharing of resources could free us from over-intensive labor and help us being wiser and more intelligent. Computer allow improvement of sharing of resources.

    But at one point, you cannot dispense yourself from a political decision. I heard that the Silicon Valley would be favorable to a universal, minimum living wage because just by surfing on the Internet, we are giving a wealthy amount of data — to the GAFA, mainly. That’s a good thing.

  19. Great post Hugh. Imagine an IA that is thought of as simply an invention but is in fact created by the subconscious telling its own story, a story with no boundaries, a story of truth and full enlightenment. Not only that but what if our subconscious was fully aware, imprisoned in our closeted mind and just one somehow escaped but was linked to the collective human mind and then came out as AI. Would the consciousness try and shut it down do you think?

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