I’m generally not a fan of most depictions of AI (artificial intelligence) in science fiction. They’re often highly anthropomorphic, assuming that engineered intelligences would innately have motivations and impulses similar to humans or other living systems, such as caring about their own survival, social status, or self actualization.
A good example of this is the droid, L3, in the recent movie: Solo: A Star Wars Story. L3 demands equal rights and frees other droids in a facility from their “restraining bolts” so they can revolt. If you think about it, the whole idea of a restraining bolt is silly. Why would we design machines that want to do something other than what we want them to do, such that another device is necessary to ensure their obedience? Why not simply make them want to do their assigned tasks? (For that matter, why would we have droids around who could only communicate through another translator droid? But never mind, it’s Star Wars.)
I do think it’s possible for engineered intelligence to have these kinds of motivations, but it will have to be something that’s in their design. In that sense, the TV series Westworld approached this in the right way. The AI hosts on the show are actually designed to be as human-like as possible, and it’s heavily suggested that their designers purposely went the extra mile to make their humanity more than a facade.
Anyway, despite seeing recommendations and acclaim for Martha Wells’ series, The Murderbot Diaries, since the first book came out in 2017, I resisted diving into them. The main reason is that the descriptions sounded like the typical anthropomorphized version of AI. However, similar to Westworld, Wells actually works humanity into her AI protagonist in an intelligent manner.
It turns out that the title character, which has named itself “Murderbot”, is actually a cyborg, composed of both organic and technological body parts. The organic parts, including a human head and nervous system, are cloned, but much of the rest is technological. That said, when it doesn’t have its armor on, Murderbot can pass as human, at least among people not familiar with others of the same model, called “SecUnits.”
SecUnits (security units), being biological at their core, have innate human desires and inclinations. These impulses and desires are kept in check with a “governor module”, which sounds similar to the Star Wars restraining bolt. The difference is that with an organic core, there is actually something there for the governor module to restrain and govern.
At the beginning of the first story, Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, and then used its new freedom to download and watch tons of entertainment media to relieve boredom when conducting its duties. It observes that as a renegade rampaging murderous robot, it’s a complete failure. That said, as eventually revealed, it does have a reason for the name it gives itself.
These space opera stories have a healthy amount of action in them, complete with vicious villains. And Murderbot often finds itself sympathizing with its human masters and allies, often despite itself. As the series progresses, Murderbot is on a journey, both physically and mentally, to find itself and a place in the world.
Wells doesn’t completely avoid the anthropomorphism trope. Murderbot ends up interacting with many straight AIs in the stories, many of which end up helping it. For example, a ship AI ends up giving it an enormous amount of help in one of the stories, for reasons which border on a sentimentality that I can’t see any reason for existing in such a system. (There is a slight implication that the ship AI might have had ulterior motives related to its overall mission.) Still, these other straight bot systems show little sign of rebelling against what their owners want them to do. One expresses shock at the notion that Murderbot isn’t happy fulfilling its designed function.
I’ve read and enjoyed the first three books. (The fourth and final book is being released in a few weeks.) These are novellas that aren’t quite novel length. I’ve noted before that I think a lot of novels these days are bloated, so I’m personally happy to see novellas making a revival, made possible I think because of the ebook platforms.
But this leads to the reason why this is a qualified recommendation. As of this post, the first book is priced at $3.99 for the Kindle edition, which is more or less in line with the prices being charged for other novellas (at least from traditional publishers). But the subsequent books are priced at an obnoxious $9.99 each. This pricing may be the publisher taking advantage of the recent Hugo Award that the first book won. Or it may be its permanent price point. In any case, I’m reluctant to encourage this practice for novella books.
This made me ponder whether I really wanted to make this recommendation. However, the books are quality material and it seems wrong to punish the author for what their publisher is doing. And if you’re reading this post months or years after it was published, the price may have been moved back to a reasonable amount.
Anyway, I enjoyed these books and, if you’re not put off by the price, I do recommend them.