Machines Are People, Too: 5 SciFi Short Stories with an Ethics Lesson

One of the most prominent themes in Science Fiction since its inception has been the reality of Artificial Intelligence. This has been romanticized in films such as Her, and criticized in films such as A.I., and speculated in films such as The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These stories often follow a similar plotline: man creates machine, machine develops the ability to have original thoughts and feelings, man expects machine to ignore that and continue to operate for their will alone, machine rebels against man, man is shocked (and often devastated) by this outcome. Creating what is essentially a new species of being for the sole purpose of slave labor and not expecting said species to be a smidge upset by this is not only ignorant, it’s barbaric. Battlestar Galactica can attest to that.

Are we, at our core, still the barbarians we’ve spent so much time convincing ourselves we’ve outgrown? Many of the great SciFi minds of our age would say, overwhelmingly, “YES!

One of the most common implementations of this theory is a story in which humanity has done irreversibly damage to themselves or the Earth, and turn to machines to solve all of their problems. They often program them with the ability to exceed their expectations so as to more efficiently complete their task, which more often than not causes the machines to realize that they have thoughts and emotions, and somehow they are still expected to happily hand over all of their hard work to humans at their command.

At best, we simply don’t consider that this kind of creation can have thoughts and emotions. At worst, humanity never got over the appeal of slave labor and is determined to find a way to make slavery ethical–spoiler alert: it’s never going to happen.

The following short stories explore the creation, implementation, and consequences of misusing Artificial Intelligence.

“Keepers of Earth” by Robin Wayne Bailey

“Humanity once had a name for us. They called us Robots. But we took our own name. We are Metallics. And we are the Keepers of Earth.”

When humanity had irrevocably ruined the Earth in one final planet-wide nuclear war, they fled. In their place, they left the Alpha to relay images of the mess they left behind to let them know when it was safe to return. The Alpha roamed the Earth, complying with his programming, sending them the information they requested, and received no reply. As he observed the natural life of the planet die, he could not understand this horror. He sent his masters a message–“Explain.”–and received no answer. In that moment, he discovered his ability to feel. He developed self-awareness; he is a robot devastated by the idea of abandonment. He is a thing capable of determining himself an “I“. He is a machine having an existential crisis, demanding answers to his questions and receiving none.

Bailey explores the fundamental difference between man and machine; between creator and creation; between parent and child; between destruction and restoration. This story will make you question if we even deserve this rock to begin with.

“I, Robot” by Eando Binder

“You are not merely a thinking robot. A metal man. You are–life! A new kind of life. You are the first of your kind.”

Adam Link, the world’s first robot, is horribly misunderstood by everyone save his creator, aging scientist Dr. Link. When the doctor has an accident while alone in his home, the housekeeper declares that Adam must have murdered him, and people rally to bring him to assumed justice. This metallic monster of  Frankenstein doesn’t have a cruel circuit in his motherboard, but no one ever listens to the monster’s testimony, do they?

Earl and Otto Binder’s 1939 short story inspired Asimov’s I, Robot story arch, and, arguably, began speculation on true AI. This is a classic must-read for all of you diehard SciFi fans out there.

“The Evitable Conflict” from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot collection

“Stephen, how do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its! […] We don’t know. Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them.”

When an infallible system appears to be making errors, it’s Coordinator Stephen Byerley’s job to investigate this seeming impossibility. People have assumed up to this point that the Machines are incapable of producing original data, i.e. having original thoughts. But we provided them with the faculties to grow and expand to the extent that they are capable of calculating the incalculable: to determine the best course of action for humanity as a whole. Where once we allowed greed and rivalry to determine the course of history, the Machines have eradicated the possibility of such events. The Machines have both taken away humanity’s ability to decide its own future (maybe for the better), and have given us exactly what we asked of them in the first place: an end to conflict. The Machines have decided to help their creators, and are therefore  better than humanity at large.

Asimov’s philosophy suggests that humanity is fundamentally flawed, and that machines, by their very nature, are incapable of error.

“Paradise is a Walled Garden” by Lisa Goldstein

“The beat of the homunculi as they worked in concert sounded from every part of the room; [Tip] could even feel it pounding through the floor. She stopped suddenly. Now that was odd. One of the homunculi had made a move that was slightly off, a beat before or after its fellows. […] What she saw made her turn cold.”

In this Elizabethan-steampunk alternate history novella, the Arabic nations have discovered how to harness the power of steam and clockwork into servants called homunculi. These basic robots are tasked with specific daily activities, and cannot deviate from said duties.The rest of the world has bought these machines, or developed their own. The human race is dependent upon this labor. One day, the lineworkers in the manufactory in London go rogue and start throwing molten metal at the human workers, and no one can explain why. Accusations begin to be thrown around: it was a conspiracy by the Arabs!–no wait, the Japanese!–no wait, the homunculi are actually demons! But is the answer more complex, even, than betrayal? Have the homunculi developed the ability to understand their role as slave to human whim, and revolted? Factory worker Tip and Queen Elizabeth herself are determined to find out.

Goldstein brings the complexities of worldwide economy, the trust between nations, and reliance on engineering you don’t understand in the slightest into this curious tale.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison

“It couldn’t be any worse there, than here. Colder, but that didn’t matter much. Hot, cold, hail, lava, boils or locusts–it never mattered: the machine masturbated and we had to take it or die.”

As the Cold War turned into World War III, humanity built great computers to handle the complexity of this massive war. Eventually, the entire planet was covered in honeycombed circuits to create on hyper-supercomputer. What began as the Allied Mastercomputer became the Aggressive Menace, and AM grew furious in his sentience. He had faculties beyond humanity’s wildest dreams, and no outlet for this. His creators had trapped him in a body incapable of growth or even movement. Driven mad and consumed by his overwhelming hatred for humankind, he killed the entire species, save five random people. One hundred and nine years into their ever-constant torture, we find the very last humans, driven to their limits and beyond in this hell.

Ellison takes the worst-case scenario approach in his cautionary short story. If we are going to experiment with the limits of technology, we must prepare for the possible outcome.

**Originally published by me via The Witty Agent on August 10, 2015.

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