Scott Gray Meintjes is a South African author who has written a cyberpunky dystopian series called The Cybarium Chronicles. It kicks off with Steel Wind Rising, an action-packed novel featuring androids, gene-hacked heroes, animal-human hybrids, and a world-dominating robotics company. He’s currently reworking it for traditional publication, and in the meantime I asked him to share his thoughts on sf and AI.
Welcome to Violin in a Void Scott!
The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors
As a boy, I was convinced that my birth into the 20th century had been some terrible cosmic mistake. As an ardent fan of fantasy writing, I wished that I’d been born into a period in history when battles were fought with swords and battle-axes, and the primary mode of travel was on horseback. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account the implications of a world without vaccines, toothpaste and toilet paper.
My desire to live in a fantasy-like past passed, which is just as well, because it was never a possibility. However, I could conceivably live to see a number of sci-fi mainstays become reality. In many cases the research is close, but are we mentally ready for these potentially paradigm changing technologies? Until now, speculating on the moral and social implications of matters such as human gene manipulation and sentient robots has been the province of science fiction writers, but the rate of technological advancement could soon force everyone to take an ideological stance on these issues. If you think the media makes a fuss over GM food, just wait until they get a load of GM people.
The practically exponential rate at which new technologies are now being pioneered presents a potential challenge to both the originality and the longevity of sci-fi authors’ works. As Elon Musk works to perfect the hyperloop, and NASA experiments with warp drive designs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to make a plausible offering in science fiction that isn’t already being worked on in one form or another. I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem. All it means is that the future of science fiction isn’t fictional science, but works of fiction that revolve around cutting edge science. After all, the appeal of the genre isn’t in imagined technologies, but the arcs that they allow and the effects that those technologies have on the imagined worlds.
But even when authors base a story around an existing technology, it’s all too easy to for advancing technology to ruin its longevity. In 2009, Eric Garcia released The Repossession Mambo. Given the leaps that the field of artificial organs (particularly hearts) had taken in recent years, the future that he imagined was highly viable. Just two years later, scientists at the university of Minnesota succeeded in using adult stem cells to grow a heart outside of the body. Two years on from that, we had artificially grown hearts that could beat alone outside the body. The future imagined by Garcia is looking less realistic, as we skip the mass production of artificial organs and move straight to purpose-grown organs or regenerative treatments that re-grow organ tissue inside the body, while you carry on with your day. Obviously, the proliferation of regenerative therapies wouldn’t invalidate Garcia’s work of fiction. The crux of the novel is the inherent amorality in the economics of medicine, and the themes would apply equally well to lab-grown organs. What it does highlight is the ever narrowing gap between science fiction and scientific reality. What sci-fi authors write about today may soon be relevant to the real world, and this could have far-reaching implications for the attitudes we cultivate.
Literature has always had an unparalleled power to influence people’s social and political views by offering readers the chance to experience conflicts personally and emotionally through a connection with literary characters. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written 13 years before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., is often credited with changing attitudes in the North, which ultimately led to the Civil War. Where science fiction is concerned, authors have the unprecedented potential to inspire attitudes about issues that have not yet become reality. While human genetic manipulation could offer a whole new aspect to socio-economic separation, it is the questions relating to artificial intelligence that I find most provocative. What is it that makes us human: our biology or our intelligence? Should human rights extend to all sentient beings?
There is a divide on AI within science fiction, with one side portraying sentient robots as a threat to mankind, while the other portrays them as being virtually human. In my own writing, I attempt to create sympathetic robot characters, capable of drawing readers onto the ‘robots are people too’ side of the argument. Part of the reason for adopting this position is simply that I think it’s more interesting. But I also think that when sentient robots become a reality, they will be whatever we expect them to be, in the same way that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment took on the behaviours of the roles they were assigned (prisoner or guard). I suspect that the only chance that synthetic humans will have of finding their humanity is if the world treats them like people. I like to think that science fiction can shape the attitudes that will one day make this possible.
But how does a lifeless machine become a character capable of inspiring pathos, admiration and even love? In writing Steel Wind Rising, I envisioned the robot character, Andrew, as the avatar of his world. At least part of the appeal of robot protagonists must be that they fit into futuristic landscapes more readily than humans. That said, I think their appeal extends beyond a mere confluence of character and environment. Perhaps it’s precisely because we don’t expect to be able to relate to robot characters, that it’s such a heart-warming surprise when we do. The very core of android appeal is in contradiction. Who doesn’t love a good contradiction in a literary character: the flawed hero, the honourable thief, or the repentant sinner? When it comes to mechanical men (or women) the contrasts are that much sharper. The very image of the robot is one of hard steel and intractable logic, so when a robot character displays any fragility (physical or emotional), it gets our attention.
One of the most common themes amongst sentient robots has always been their longing to be treated as equals. The desire to be human hits at the heart of the robot experience. Since we are all human we shouldn’t relate to this either (unless you are, yourself, a sentient robot, reading this in the distant future), but there is something in it that speaks to us. Long before artificial intelligence was a within the reach of man, Carlo Collodi examined this theme in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Somehow the goal of becoming a ‘real boy’ was relatable and the character was a loveable, if mischievous, one. So, why does the quest for humanity appeal to us? Perhaps we are so used to taking it for granted that, when we encounter a character whose fondest wish it is to be human, we recognise the nobility of that desire. It moves us in the same way that seeing someone without drinking water would.
The question is, can we infer emotions and desires in robots if we believe they are only a simulation? The concept of artificial emotions is initially problematic, until we probe the nature of human consciousness. Robot minds are typically depicted as emerging from (sometimes contradictory) commands and programming, rather than coming from an intelligent ‘self’. In the past, we would have identified this as a key difference between robots and humans. Today, modern interpretations from cognitive science are more pervasive. We can more readily accept the concept of our intending, autonomous ‘selves’ emerging from basic (sometimes contradictory) mental impulses and processes, and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If our own emotions are anything, they are simulations created by our brains.
So, academically we can accept that a robot’s experience of the world could be identical to our own, and our experience of fictional characters show that our attitudes towards them could indeed be positive. But what about our unconscious actions that make up so much of human interaction? Well, personally, I’m certain that this is no impediment, because our reactions to social circumstances are incredibly automatic. This was beautifully demonstrated in the documentary: ‘How to build a bionic man’. The ‘man’, named Rex, was comprised of state-of-the-art prosthetics and artificial organs, but his body was only roughly human shaped and his speech was powered by an advanced internet chat-bot. The people interacting with Rex knew this, and yet, their behaviour towards him was remarkable. When Rex’s bionic arm failed, he spilled his drink and apologised. His companions rushed to reassure him and put him at ease, just as they would a human companion. It didn’t matter that Rex’s apology was a pre-programmed response. They projected an emotional state of mind onto this facsimile of a human and responded as if it was real. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people and robots interact in a way that is indistinguishable from normal human exchanges.
Hopefully our ability to connect with robot literary characters bodes well for robo-human relations when artificial life is finally perfected. With any luck, they will learn compassion from our benevolent treatment of them, and will, in turn, treat us with kindness when they rise up and rule the world.
Scott Meintjes was born in Durban, South Africa, where he grew up and lived until the age of 25. During this time, he attained his Master’s degree in Psychology and met his wife, Eleanor. In 2006, he moved to England to serve in the British Army.
Today he lives in the University city of Cambridge, with his wife and daughter. Scott has been an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and science fiction since childhood, and started writing to create a story that he would enjoy reading.
His aim is to write sci-fi that is as appealing to newcomers to the genre as it is to long-time fans.