When Angry Robot contacted bloggers about a blog tour for Madeline Ashby’s latest novel, iD, I immediately replied. I thought her first novel, vN, was pretty awesome. I jumped at the chance to read iD, the second book in The Machine Dynasty series, adn that review will go up next week.
In the meantime, I asked Madeline to write a guest post about the relationship between humanity and AI, as this is the core of The Machine Dynasty. The vN are self-replicating humanoid robots who were initially created to be servants and sexbots to the poor souls who would be left on Earth after the Rapture (which obviously never happened). Now they’re trying to integrate with human society, but are hampered by their failsafes, which not only prevent them from harming humans but force them to love humans and try to make them happy. And what kind of relationship can you have with someone to whom you can never say no? Someone who could do anything they wanted to you, because you’re not a ‘real’ person? And as a human, what possibilities does a vN represent to you?
Thank you very much Madeline, for writing on this topic for Violin in a Void. She offers ideas that not only shed light on her books, but on our potential relationships with any AI we might create, and the way we often treat each other like machines.
One thing I’ve always tried to maintain consistently is the fact that the humans who choose to have relationships with the vN — the self-replicating humanoid machines who populate my stories — are at the end of the line, romantically and personally dysfunctional. They’ve been betrayed, or they’ve betrayed others. They’re assholes who everybody steers clear of, or their proclivities are so specific that they can’t find anybody else in their niche. Or they’re just lazy. I mean, relationships with other human beings are a lot of work. Much of that work can feel pretty tedious. I, for one, suck at sending cards. I don’t believe in them. I think they’re an environmental disaster in the form of a cash-grab masquerading as meaningful sentiment. But people really appreciate those things. Even I do, when I receive them.
So I guess my point is that I can understand the moment when somebody throws his or her hands up and says, “You know what? Fuck it. And fuck them.” And then goes and fucks a bunch of vN because it’s easy, in the same way that finding porn is easy, and the same way that paying for sex is easy, if you know where to find it and you’re willing to go there.
The other thing I tried to do, pretty consistently, was to talk about how past depictions of humanoid robots in popular culture would impact the individual, personal relationships between humans and robots. If you’d only ever seen robots as godless killing machines, or creatures lacking the right “emotion chip,” or whatever, it’s bound to impact your relationship with a robot. Moreover, it’s bound to impact the wider treatment of robots in society. This, by the way, is the exact same problem that people have with limited, stereotypical depictions of women and minorities in pop culture. Those depictions create an expectation of behaviour. They create the culture, and that culture informs our decisions on personal and political levels. (You want to know why we don’t have a sustainable nuclear energy infrastructure across the planet? Go watch The China Syndrome.
With that said, I’m pretty sure that meaningful relationships between humans and robots are possible. A lot of science fiction has dwelt on this. The most moving example is probably a film called Robot & Frank about an elderly man whose care is overseen by a robot. Frank manipulates the robot into committing a burglary with him, and it’s the closest, deepest relationship that Frank has had in years.
What makes me believe that is the way that people already try to program their relationships. Take the recent Kickstarter debacle over a “pick-up artist” manual. Glenn Fleishman summarizes the PUA mindset beautifully:
The PUA world applies algorithms, testing and feedback, and gamification to human interaction, turning women into not just sexual objects but essentially treating that cisgendered biological configuration as a Turing-complete machine in which specifying the right sequence of inputs results in access to specific ports and protocols.
And that’s one thing that’s wrong with a lot of human interaction — the idea that if we just input the right information, we’ll get the access we want, the relationship we want. It’s related to the Nice Guy (™) phenomenon wherein some guys think that feeding enough “niceness” tickets to the female machine will make sex come out. It’s the application of a deterministic, mechanistic model to relationships. Applying that logic to human relationships is reassuring, because it means there are rules to follow and a game to win, but it’s ultimately a limited understanding of humanity’s total potential. We’re bigger than rules. We’re bigger than games. And that’s both terrifying and wonderful at the same time.