Sunday, April 1, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Artificial Intelligence

"Artificial Intelligence," as a term, was not invented until 1956, but, as a concept, it goes back much further. As a term, it means the science and engineering of making intelligent machines; as a concept, it means man, through science, creating intelligence where there was none.

Generally speaking, when we think of artificial intelligence, which I will just call AI, we think of computers. Past that, we think of robots. Computers, games in particular, have gotten sophisticated enough that the term AI is already being applied to them even if it's not precisely correct. The thing is is that computers are capable of learning. Adapting. The only real issue is that we're not quite sure, yet, how to determine at what point something becomes capable of thought. Independent thought. Pondering. And how does something become self-aware, which is a component we seem to believe is necessary for intelligence.

At any rate, the idea that computers will achieve the ability to think and become self-aware has been a huge focus of science fiction since before computers were actually a thing. Let's just pretend that that part where humans are trying to build machines that have legitimate intelligence isn't really happening. Or has happened?


Although, Isaac Asimov was not the first person to write about robots, he was the first person to write about them extensively, and his robot stories and novels laid the foundation for all future robot literature. His work is so fundamental, in fact, that people sometimes refer to his Three Laws of Robotics as if they were an actual, real thing, not something from a short story.

I remember the first time I heard of the three laws. It was an episode of Buck Rogers. I was 10 or so. The robot Twiki had had some sort of problem and was being re-booted. He quoted the laws, and the doctor/scientist guy got all excited and commented in awe about how they were hearing (for what sounded like the first time ever) Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

All of that to say, that Asimov has been instrumental in our cultural understanding of what artificial intelligence is even though he was first writing his robots stories at least 70 years before artificial intelligence would exist. His ability to see the possibilities of what could be were extraordinary.

Why has Asimov become such a central figure in the foundation of literature involving artificial intelligence? Well, I think I have an explanation for this. Robots, machine men, were commonly being used as the symbol for how technology and the pursuit of knowledge would destroy mankind. Yes, this is in the 1930s. But, then, if you look at what was going on in Germany and what would happen in World War II, this is somewhat understandable. Basically, robots were only used as an example of the Frankenstein complex: the creation rising up and destroying the creator. Asimov wanted to change this. He felt it was a tired cliche and supported the view that knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge is bad or wrong. First and foremost a scientist, Asimov believed in  the pursuit of knowledge, so he sought to make robots into something more realistic in his writing, not just a symbol of technology leading to our downfall. Not that that is not still a common symbol and fear, but he broadened our horizons on the subject and set the foundation for modern artificial intelligence in fiction.

Just as an aside, the character Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz is probably the first significant use of a robot with its own intelligence in fiction. The term "robot" hadn't even been invented yet. There are a couple of other earlier mechanical men in fiction, but those works have mostly faded with time, while Baum's Oz books are still read and enjoyed today. That makes Tik-Tok the first (significant) artificially intelligent machine in literature.

But speaking of the Frankenstein complex...

I'm going to make a leap here and say that Frankenstein is really the first source of artificial intelligence in literature and fiction. There are often earlier sources cited, but they involve the use of magic, and I want to confine this to intelligence created through scientific means. Of course, the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein was a human machine, but the intelligence created, the mind created, was new and unique. Shelley's novel may be the first example of technology, of man's creation, rising up against him. As mentioned, it is the name that has come to be applied to those types of stories.

I'm not going to say that we, as a race, are striving toward the creation of artificial intelligence because of fiction, but fiction writers certainly saw it coming long before science did. Because our cultural awareness is so influenced by what has gone before, I would find it difficult to believe that whatever is coming in the realms of artificial intelligence will not have fantasy and science fiction at its roots. It will not surprise me at all to find one day that Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics have, indeed, become reality.


  1. Interesting stuff, visiting via A to Z challenge and your friend who sketched you with a long beard:-)
    thanks for sharing

  2. So, in other words, writers are smarter than scientists. I like it! Very interesting post, Andrew. I seriously didn't know the background of AI, and love the fact that it was likely born into fiction through Frankenstein. ;)

  3. very interesting post

    Happy A to Z

  4. I like what Alyssia wrote... Maybe the writers gave the scientists the inspiration they needed.

  5. Thanks for enlightening me to the background of AI. It's a concept that scares me ... perhaps I've seen Terminator one too many times.

  6. I hope we see the three laws become a reality - I don't want my robot overlords to not have any rules governing how they interact with me.

  7. I'd say Frankenstein's monster was the first use of artificial intelligence, in a very broad sense.
    I remember that episode of Buck Rogers. Sadly I was older than ten at the time. Damn.
    So now you want the five hundred points? Think it's hilarious there is a bounty on my comment.

  8. Frankenstein's monster was artificially created but his parts were all entirely biological.

  9. Being long on imagination and short on scientific know-how, I am thoroughly convinced that one day there will be a robot revolution, and they will win.

  10. I use an artificial intelligence in my upcoming book. Great post, Andy!

  11. Ah, Frankenstein as artificial intelligence. I could buy that concept, if only because he was brought to life by an external power source. :)

  12. Great topic!

  13. What an interesting "A" topic! Glad to see you doing the challenge again this year. :-)

  14. It will not surprise me, either. They're good laws. It has always fascinated me how Asimov's ideas can be seen throughout the rest of sci-fi media. He was quite the visionary.

    My physics teacher let me write a story for my physics final (thank goodness) and it was about the machines fighting back and achieving their own A.I. I wish I had a copy of it.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  15. I remember reading an Asimov book when I was a kid and and enjoying it. I don't think it was the one you mentioned, although I was quite the science geek back the.

  16. Never thought about Frankenstein being the first source of AI. You're off to an awesome start on the A-Z challenge.

  17. Just came from an A-Z post on the ethics of robotic laws. Fun!

  18. martine: Thanks for the heads up about Rusty's post. I had no idea about it until I saw your comment. Thanks for stopping by!

    Alyssia: Well, some writers are certainly smarter than some scientists. And most writers are probably more capable of looking at things in new and different ways than scientists. Okay, well, maybe not.

    baygirl32: Thanks for stopping in!

    M.J.: There are certainly some things that exist because someone somewhere wanted to duplicate something from a book.

    Clare: It's probably that it's something that we should all be scared of but, I think, in the way that one should be scared of a wild animal. In other words, don't run away screaming. Treat it with respect and learn to approach it on its own terms.

    Rusty: Yeah, it would be cool if the Three Laws of Robotics were someday real. I mean really cool in that a writer would have come up with them long before the need. Not that Asimov wasn't also a brilliant scientist.

    Alex: Well, I was going for the broad sense. It's the source of all the earliest AI sci-fi.

    Grumpy: The intelligence was artificial in that it was not the intelligence of the previous brain. It had no memories from it's old life. It was completely new. Created.

    Sarah P: Well, I just have to hope that we're smart enough to build safeguards aagainst that.

    Michael: The one about to come out or the sequel you're working on?

    L.G.: Exactly!

    Sylvia: Thanks!

    Sarah A: Well, actually, it's my first year, but who's counting?

    Shannon: Yeah, Asimov was pretty amazing. At one time, he was considered the most prolific author ever, but Piers Anthony has been pretty determined to break his record. I'm not sure if he has done it or not.

    You should try to re-write that story!

    Pammy pam: Asimov is great. If you like sci-fi, it's hard to go wrong with him. His books are even still relevant almost 100 years after he first began writing.

    Wanda: Thank you! And thanks for stopping by!

    Melodie: Oh, what blog? I'd love to go read it.

  19. Never thought about Frankenstein as A.I. but I certainly see it.

  20. Angi: It wasn't a natural intelligence, that's all I can really say about it.

  21. In the field of science-fiction, there is also Iain M. Banks' Culture cycle, in which the galactic civilization called the Culture relies heavily on artificial intelligences. If such a civilization can be conceived as a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy, it seems to give an interesting view. For an analysis, see for example:
    Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, Februray 2012,
    (Free older version available at: )