Artificial system

5 books on the life of artificial objects

There are the little things that clutter up our lives, that clutter up the cities that hold us back; from things as intimate as the cup of coffee that meets your lips, to systems that move mountains and split atoms, that climb the skies with hundreds of tons in tow. In many ways, we are them and they are us, and neither would be the shape they are without the other. They are the world we have created; the literal construction of the world around us. Only, when we tell stories, they are often in the background. Both posed and dressed, but above all inert without anyone putting them into action.

They don’t have to be, however. They can transcend mere being things to become architects of their own destiny. Some of these characters are robots – familiar aliens wearing bodies very similar to ours, but who see the world(s) through very different eyes. Some are more fundamentally other, ranging from thinking furniture to sentient spaceships, digital entities that never leave the realm of code and signal; it seems so much closer to the thing side of the thing/person spectrum, but it can’t seem to escape the many hardships of being alive. Here are five stories about the life of man-made objects, finding their own way, making their own mistakes.

The life cycle of software objects by Ted Chiang

In Cycle of life, Chiang does what he always seems to do – takes a complex subject in an unexpected direction, while managing to keep it compelling. It’s also history that inspired this list, not only because it interrogates what it means for an artificial object to be alive (or not, depending on your point of view), but more precisely, what it would mean for the people around this object, the genesis of artificial life.

The story follows Ana, a former zoo trainer, hired by a software development company to help train digital entities in a virtual world called “Data Earth”. These digients are meant to be companions in an online experience, with personalities of their own. Artificial life emerges not by a purely abstract or mathematical process, but by someone giving an object (software) a set of meanings and the ability to learn, and nurturing it as you would a child. It’s an elegant solution, you don’t need to generate intelligence. Instead, you can let it form through experience. You can let him learn to be like you.

The side effect is that you become responsible for something that thinks and feels, like any parent would. And as Ana finds out, responsible for something that could one day make decisions you don’t agree with. It’s the relationship that matters and the upbringing that allows these artificial things to find a life of their own, but in the world of software development and startup culture, there’s not much room for the love.

All Red Systems by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot, and you will love Murderbot too. To promise.

In All Red Systems, we encounter something already smart, but not intentionally. Murderbot is a SecUnit, a combat android assigned to expeditions on the fringes of inhabited space. Owned by The Company, they are a rental security system, mail-cop to the stars. They are also an emerging intelligence. Murderbot has always had the wherewithal to be sentient, and all it took was one happy accident (or, in this case, a slightly annoyed accident) to go from something thoughtless to something annoyed.

The other artificial lives on this list are mostly quite different from ours; they have different shapes and bodies, or live through layers of experiences that we can only guess at. They tend not to waste CPU time rolling their eyes. Murderbot is different from these objects because they look so much like us, and that’s part of why I love Murderbot so much. This artificial life is cynical and sarcastic and often socially awkward, using its newfound intelligence to sulk through an unrewarding (if slightly murderous) nine-to-five.

Sure, there are the occasional violent incidents – which come with the job – but that’s also just one of many pressing issues. Murderbot must divide his time between battling vicious alien fauna, navigating a world that treats him like a thing, while trying to satisfy that most human desire: to blob on the couch and watch marathon TV.

Accessory justice by Ann Leckie

In Accessory justice, we slowly meet Breq. I say slowly, because the character is still taking shape when we first meet her. It is the singular form of what was once distributed consciousness; main warship AI Judge of Torrenthe master of one of thousands of human bodies at one point, suddenly confined to a single vantage point when the ship is destroyed, all of Torren now trapped in the last body she inhabited.

In these other stories, we have one or the other. An artificial life that most of the time resembles our own, in size, shape or perspective, or that does not really resemble it. What’s interesting about Torren/Breq is that we get a taste of what it would be like to go from one to the other; from the everyday unknown, from the vast and encompassing to the simple and momentary. What Leckie does so well is that Breq’s concerns focus on her; from an entity capable of occupying a planet, and all the concerns and logistics that go with it, to a form with more trivial problems. Like feelings, and where the next cup of tea is coming from.

Oh, there’s also a galactic conspiracy at work, threatening the fate of the empire, but who’s counting?

Ninefox bet by Yoon Ha Lee

The artificial lives I have mentioned so far have undergone some strain of the familiar, in whole or in part. The objects we have nurtured in the sensibility, or brought to it by accident; things built on bodily systems that could easily pass for our own. In Ninefox bet, we see lives very different from our own. In the background of this world we see servants, the social equivalent of your toaster. They are present in every part of daily life; startlingly complex machines that spend their lives cleaning up after human beings and doing the odd jobs that keep society running.

What we learn, as Ninefox bet is played out is that the servants are a society of artificial objects; their artificial lives take place behind partitions, in service tunnels and on network frequencies. All with their own motives and policies. Moreover, this society is everywhere humanity goes, and that is what makes it so powerful. They are part of everyday life; the powerful little things that share our lives, capable of changing the course of history.

Exemption by Iain M. Banks

The Culture’s sentient Spirits seem almost divine in comparison to ours; they are truly superintelligent, the essential systems of an interstellar utopia. In them we see another society of man-made objects, but rather than standing apart from humanity, they are both citizens and infrastructure. The bodies in which humanity lives, stations and spaceships, while also being companions and colleagues.

The Culture novels are pretty broadly about AI, from reluctant warships navigating interstellar conflict, oddballs tinkering with the fates of entire species at once, to sentient habitats whose sole purpose is the smooth running of everyday life. Exemption is interesting for pitting these superintelligences against something so strange that it makes them struggle with their place in the universe; a “problem out of context”, something older than the universe, defying all attempts at explanation. While Culture AIs seem above the kinds of problems plaguing our lives, Exemption has them uncertain and almost fearful, struggling with their place in the universe. Doubt is quite unusual in the way we normally see represented AI, but Banks goes further; we actually see them bickering with each other, playing politics, lying and cheating. At the same time, we see them struggling with things your average human will find equally familiar; love and cruelty.

Originally published October 2019.

Andrew Skinner grew up in the heart of South Africa’s coal mines, surrounded by orange dust and giant machinery. He now works as an archaeologist and anthropologist, focusing on folklore, rain arts and resistance; but the machines aren’t done with him yet. Steel frame is his first novel.